By Kitty Pilgrim
The opportunity to visit Egypt comes at a time of transition and turmoil. Kitty Pilgrim explores the ancient and modern threads that connect two very different societies.
Everyone fantasizes about at least one travel destination – a place where mystery and adventure blend with the touch of the exotic. Some people hope to visit the elaborate splendor of the Taj Mahal, or the soaring heights of Machu Picchu, the romantic lagoon of Venice, or the bohemian cafes of Montparnasse - all in the interest of experiencing a different culture, expanding horizons and leaning something new.
My fantasy destination has always been Egypt. I have always wanted to contemplate the pure symmetry of the pyramids of Giza, stand awestruck over the gilded coffins of pharos, and examine the ranks of carved figures walking sideways and stiff-legged across an ancient frieze in the Valley of Kings.
My obstacle to seeing these wonderful sights in situ has always been my busy schedule. Surely that kind of travel would require weeks of vacation and months of planning. More than I was willing to invest. So instead, I always filled my eyes with what was at hand – the superb Egyptian collection at the Metropolitan Museum and the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the British Museum in London or Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland.
In the winter of 2011, I finally decided to go to Egypt. The catalyst was a novel. I was in the middle of researching my book, The Stolen Chalice – a romantic thriller with an ancient Egyptian theme. As I started to write, I realized that I could not conjure up the proper images without putting myself on the scene. I needed the vibrancy of life, not the just glass cases in a museum. So tickets were bought, itineraries planned, hotels booked. I was finally going.
But not so fast. The so-called “Arab Spring” arrived with unexpected force - an event so sudden, it took even the foreign policy experts by surprise. As crowds were storming Tahrir Square, the U.S. State Department issued a “travel warning” urging all “non-essential travel” be postponed.
Thwarted by circumstances, I cancelled my bookings and watched the coverage on TV and the Internet. Egypt apparently was not in the cards. Yet, one year after the uprising, I reconsidered my trip. Cairo seemed quiet. The presidential elections were planned; the political scene was, if not stable, at least in hiatus until voting could take place. Travel companies had started advertising steep discounts on tours. Perhaps this was the time to go.
Accompanied by my professional cameraman, (and son) Will Croxton, we set off for Cairo in the spring of 2012 with the intention of photographing as much as possible and researching my book.
It proved to be a wonderful time to go. Hotels in Cairo were hard hit by the turmoil and vacancy rates were high. The lobbies of the five star hotels echoed with emptiness. In an entire week at the Four Seasons in Cairo, I did not encounter a single American and only a handful of Europeans. Service could not have been better and people were grateful for new business. I was repeatedly thanked for coming to visit. The entire hotel staff was at my disposal for any whim. Hiring a car and driver, as well as a guide for the duration of our trip, proved very simple, and we set off to see everything we could.
Was I concerned about unrest? Certainly. But the dynamic of the situation was in my favor. Egypt’s economy is dependent on tourism, an industry that provides more than 2 million jobs a year and produced more than 10% of economic output. Workers in the hotel services industry have a vested interest in keeping guests protected and as safe as possible. Walking around the streets, dressed conservatively, accompanied by my son, I had very little difficulty. Occasionally police or passers-by would ask our guide who we were. He’d reply, “They are special visitors, who have come to see our country and understand our culture.” At that suave and diplomatic reply, we were often politely invited into places that were normally closed to most tour groups.
Most astonishingly, at the highest panorama in Cairo, the Great Mosque of Mohammed Ali, we were invited to remain inside during the call to prayer – Will was urged to stand in the central portion of the towering space beside the ranks of men, myself invited to sit with other women behind the green curtain. As I entered, there were old and young, swathed in headscarves. They welcomed me with shy smiles and curious eyes as they sat cross-legged on the floor; their children nestled into the crooks of their bodies.
My journey also took be back several millennia. I traveled to the ancient city of Saqqara where the oldest pyramid still stands, shored up by scaffolding. We descended into subterranean tombs, the walls covered with beautiful carvings. We rode camels out into the desert, and understood the pace of ancient times, which has its own rhythm – that of the soft padding of a camel on shifting sand. We went to old markets and souks, and ate exotic foods, drank strong tea and sampled sweet puffy breads that were carried by bicyclists who rode through the streets balancing the trays on their heads. One leisurely afternoon we smoked fragrant tobacco from a hookah. The crowds were absent. At the Cairo Museum, we toured the elaborate King Tut exhibit in complete isolation. And in the royal mummy chamber, the recently discovered remains of a woman believed to be Queen Hatshepsut, once the most powerful female ruler in the world, lay silent and diminutive in death.
An interesting phenomenon occurred towards the end of my stay. As a music lover, I was keen to hear what the Cairo Opera House had to offer. A hotel messenger was sent to obtain a ticket, but no one at the concierge desk could tell me anything about the program for that evening. Dressed up and clutching the ridiculously cheap 15-dollar ticket, I took a taxi to the modern opera house of Cairo, and followed the well-dressed patrons into a central hall. There to my utter amazement was a screen and a live video feed from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. It was one of the Met simulcasts - Verdi’s Ernani! There was not a tourist in the place – The audience was all Egyptian. How interesting that the same real-time communication technology that brought me images of Tahrir square during revolution, was now showing a live opera performance at the Met to the citizens of Cairo. How little we anticipate the cross-cultural effects of our modern communications. During intermission the people sitting next to me introduced themselves and we had a satisfying exchange of ideas. They were curious about what was happening in New York and I took the opportunity to inquire about the changing political climate in Egypt.
Returning that night in the taxi I looked out at the sleeping city of Cairo. I was glad I had come. I had learned so much about the beauty of Egypt’s ancient culture. But the insights into its modern society were every bit as valuable.