Anand & Madhura Katti are mesmerised with the great Pyramids and Sphinx of Gaza.
Fascinating structures of pyramids were strongly etched in our memories from those lessons of history in school. Words of caution from family and friends on hearing of our plan to visit Egypt couldn’t dent the deep craving we had for the land of Pharaohs. Sights of Egypt in Amitabh Bachchan’s ‘The Great Gambler’ of the late seventies had been like a trailer to the historic country and we were excited with the thought of visit.
Egypt probably is one of the earliest tourist destinations for worldwide travellers and continues to do so, for its Pyramids have stood strong for 4666 years. So strong are these oldest manmade structures that efforts to move even an inch on one of those two and a half million hefty stones (on the biggest pyramid) will only go in vain. A smile on the immigration officer’s face as we arrived at the Cairo international airport after a five and half hour, night flight from Mumbai was a pleasant welcome gesture.
Life seemed to go on as usual at the popular Tahrir Square on the way to the hotel. Guide Hassanein mentioned that it is also known as the Martyr Square. Familiar scenes on the roads as we drove through streets exploring beautiful Cairo city after breakfast-like school buses ferrying kids to school, traffic snarls on some roads, owners upping the shutters of eateries and small shops made us feel at home. Couple of places looked like our own Princess street, Mohammed Ali road or even Bombay central area.
Egyptian Museum with repositories of more than 120,000 artefacts seemed like an essential pre-requisite to learn about the country’s historic civilisation before heading to its popular monuments. Precious exhibits like the Mummies, Sarcophagi, the famous Tutankhamun’s treasure and the boy king’s golden death mask, ancient jewellery and pottery made it easier to connect to the land.
Live culture was evident at The Saladin Citadel, a short uphill drive to Mokattam hill after our sumptuous Egyptian lunch. The Citadel of Saladin is a huge fortress visible from afar inside the city. It is a medieval Islamic fortification with a well maintained complex of monuments like Alabaster Mosque of Mohammed Ali, the Citadel outdoor theatre, Al Gawhara Palace and The Military Museum. Free literature available here presented Islam as any other religion that is laid down to refine human nature for wellbeing. Citadel was home of the Egyptian rulers for almost 700 years. Al Moqattam Hill is also a vantage point for a panoramic view of Cairo city.
Cairo is also home to a 4th century Orthodox Church in old Cairo was our next destination. Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church is also called the Hanging Church because of the way its nave hangs above the passages below, which is resting on the bastions of a Roman fortress gate house.
Though historic evidences have proven relationships between India and Egypt, two of the oldest civilisations, Bollywood links seemed to draw parallels with current generation. Most of the shop keepers at the popular Khan Al Khalili market in Cairo were keen to welcome us for discussing about films, Amitabh Bachchan, Kareena Kapoor, or Shah Rukh Khan. It’s interesting to note that the very first International passenger flight by Air India in 1948 was to Cairo. The 40-seater Lockheed L-749A Constellation ‘Malabar Princess’ with roll-down flat beds and gourmet food used to further connect to Geneva and London.
Ancient (since 1382) Khan Al Khalili bazaar itself is an attraction with many inner lanes leading to shops selling variety local produce like fine Egyptian cotton, spices, leather goods, and artefacts. At its entrance is the grand Saiyidna Hussain Mosque which became a landmark for our group to meet back after shopping in the busy market. It was time for a coffee and Hassanein took us through the maze-like lanes to El Fishawy, the famous coffee shop. Few men and women on the way were smoking Shisha. Some sellers followed us along, pursuing with their watches, bracelets and rings. Egyptian Pharaoh Designs seemed popular buys here. As in any local market in the East, bargaining is prevalent and trick is to ask for 30 percent of the quoted price and rise to a mutual agreement.
Mohamed Husain, from whom we picked a few Egyptian djellabas, went about mentioning Amitabh Bachchan’s film names like Sholay, Zanjeer, Deewar, Mard, Don and Dostana. We had to gently stop him and move further on our shopping. Hassanein reiterated Big B’s popularity in Egypt by mentioning an incident during the superstar’s visit two years ago. The news about his arrival had attracted thousands of people outside the airport, bringing the traffic to a standstill. The memorable day ended with our anticipation of visiting one of the wonders of the world next day.
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Pyramids of Giza and the popular face of Sphinx are just an hour’s drive away from Cairo. We left the main city and drove onto the west bank of the Nile and were awestruck as the three huge pyramids rose into our view from the Giza plateau. The entire area is surrounded by many mastabas or flat roofed ancient tombs. The Great Pyramid built by King Cheops (IV Dynasty) in around 2650 BC is spread on an area of 13 feddans (13.49 acres) and stands mighty at a height of 137m. Its 2.5 million blocks of huge stones have withstood nature’s fury because of the firm interlocking system created through groves. Our vocabulary ran blank in finding right words to express our admiration for the precision and astounding ability of those ancient architects who thought of erecting those permanent mega structures at their beloved pharaoh’s final resting place. It seemed to be touching the sky as we looked up at the tip. Two smaller pyramids are next to the great Pyramid. Two tourist’s buses arrived and one, as we learnt, was carrying Italian tourists. Some arrived by tongas too. As we aimed to click the colourful horse drawn Tonga carrying visitors against the backdrop, Tonga owner Ahmed was happy to show his knowledge of Bollywood by telling us that The Great Gambler was shot at the same spot.
We smiled at the thought of Big B’s popularity scaling along the Pyramids in the minds of local Egyptians and moved towards the huge lion’s body with a mighty man’s head. Believed to be that of a Pharaoh, The Sphinx facing the rising sun on a short hill towards the edge of town is one of the largest statues and definitely the oldest one. Estimated to be from the same period as that of the pyramids, it’s believed to be guarding the royal tombs. We left with a sense of gratitude for keeping these marvels intact for us and for many more future generations to admire and enjoy. The great Pyramids and Sphinx of Gaza continue to mesmerize visitors.
Fact file: Visa: Indian nationals have to obtain an Egyptian visa at the nearest Egypt Embassy or the Consulate before travelling to Egypt.
Getting there: Egypt Air operates four direct flights between Mumbai and Cairo
Stay: As a popular tourist destination, Egypt has many hotels suiting all budgets
Useful Websites: www.egypt.travel , www.egyptair.com/