Our visit to Egypt was followed by a pandemic that caused havoc all over the world. It feels strange that we went through this life-changing event in the last two years. We have to be eternally grateful that we survived the pandemic relatively well, with no death and no serious illnesses in our extended families. It was a humbling experience to live through the pandemic and experience our vulnerabilities and our shortcomings. It is still unbelievable that we went through this wonderful experience. In this context, I am extremely grateful to have undertaken this journey to Egypt.
On 21 December 2022, we set out on our journey to Egypt and arrived there the next morning at one. To get to Egypt means travelling by aeroplane. The worst part of being a tourist is travelling. Sitting for 11 hours in an aeroplane is not nice. But to be a tourist, adventure seeker and explorer, you have to travel. To make memories and meet new people, you have to travel, which turns out to be the worst part. I think that is maybe just a general rule in life. To make life better in each level of society and in the economy, we have to make sacrifices, and these sacrifices are not easy to handle at the best of times. To make a good, fruitful and enjoyable trip, you have to go through the worst of that experience, which is to travel to these places.
Before I left, I read a bit about Egypt, but not very intensely. Maybe, I think, that is the better way to do the tourist thing. Observe what there is to offer, and come back and symbolically make sense of it or offer real meaning to it. Egypt offers a one-of-a-kind experience. I think it is better to have a holiday when there are fewer expectations about what will play out and about the places you will visit. The only thing that I was clear about was visiting the pyramids and places where the ancient Egyptian lifestyle would be depicted. I watched a few videos and read some stuff about the pyramids and other ancient stories about the Pharaohs, the ancient civilisation and the mummies, but could never contextualise them properly. I don’t think I ever contextualised them; I just knew from pictures that they were in Egypt. Now, I have seen the context and the story behind them, and they will make much more sense than before.
One or two people asked me questions as I shared my experience on social media, which was already beneficial to me in making sense of some of the stuff or just in analysing society from my perspective. The South African perspective I know as well as one can, but to look at the comparisons is very helpful, and that is experience. Experience is not doing the same thing for 20 years. That is one day’s experience that is repeated for 20 years. There should be comparisons to what you are doing or to what you think of something. Experience is about increasing your skills, and broadening and deepening your competencies.
The most outstanding places to visit were the pyramids, Islamic sacred places, the Karnak Temple and the Valley of the Kings. To increase the understanding of my skills and to broaden and deepen my competencies – I will use these visits just to do that.
On the first day, we had our first experience of the pyramids and the traffic of Cairo. We went for a night visit to the pyramids to watch a light show on the pyramids. It was truly something special to see the pyramids at night. We were sitting on the top level of a hotel about one kilometre from the pyramids. We were captured by the magnificence of the pyramids. The night was the appetiser for what the next day promised in visiting the pyramids up close.
The traffic is mad. People drive just how they want. They will go in front of others just with a hoot. Nobody seems to care if someone is driving in front of them. There is order in the chaos. No one is screaming at each other when they just drive in front of one another. It is madness, but there are rules in the traffic madness. When someone drives in front of another person, it is allowed. Every driver understands the rules in the traffic madness. This type of driving can cause chaos in the streets. But there is order in the chaos. The order is reflected in the remarkable patience that the people have on the roads. People can cross the street; the cars will stop or drive around the person.
This is just the opposite of what is happening in South Africa. People have no patience and are angry. The South African psyche is filled with anger. There is yelling and screaming on the roads here when people make the slightest of mistakes or drive like the people in Egypt. They will even threaten you with violence. This intolerance is not limited to certain cultures, races, religions or classes; a significant number of people are doing it. I don’t think there is a compelling reason to be angry on the roads.
The Giza pyramids
The next day, we went to visit the Giza pyramids during the day. In the pictures, it does not seem that there were many people there, but there were hundreds – even into the thousands, I would think. The Giza pyramids area is huge, with nine pyramids spread over a large area. In the pictures, only three pyramids are shown, but there are six smaller ones. The smaller ones have become a bit decayed over time, but the three big ones are enormous, and the tallest one is 146 metres high.
It is the first time in my life, I think, that I have told myself to suck in the atmosphere of any place. Just imagine that these structures were built thousands of years ago, and they are still standing there. It is a testament to the magnificence of the pyramids. Nobody knows the reason for the building of the pyramids. The Quran mentions that Pharaoh Ramses ll, during the time of Nabi Moosa (Prophet Moses), instructed his general, Hamaan, to build a structure to see whether he could see the God of Moosa. However, there is no clear evidence that the pyramids were built during the time of Ramses. There is no clear evidence for why they were built, but some pointers about how they were built are emerging.
We may never know how they were built, because every common explanation is problematic. A single, long ramp would have required an enormous amount of material to construct, and moving stones up shorter, wrap-around ramps would have been tricky – as would lifting and jacking up more than two million stones into position. But just because we do not know how they were erected does not mean that we cannot say with some confidence how many people were required to build them.
Lifting the stones would require about 5,5 million labour days (2,4 trillion divided by 440 000), or about 275 000 days a year during the 20 years, and about 900 people could deliver that by working 10 hours a day for 300 days a year. A similar number of workers might be needed to place the stones in the rising structure and then smooth the cladding blocks (in contrast, many interior blocks are just rough-cut). The total construction would then require some 3 300 workers. We could even double that to account for designers, organisers, overseers and the labour needed for transport, the repair of tools and the building.
During the time of the pyramids’ construction, the total population of Egypt was 1,5-1,6 million people, and hence the deployed force of fewer than 10 000 would not have amounted to any extraordinary imposition on the country’s economy. The challenge would have been to organise the labour; to plan an uninterrupted supply of building stones, including the granite for internal structures (particularly the central chamber and the massive, corbelled grand gallery), which had to be delivered by boat from southern Egypt, some 800 kilometres from Giza; and to provide housing, clothing and food for labour on-site. In the 1990s, archaeologists uncovered a cemetery for workers, as well as the foundations of a settlement used to house the builders of the two later pyramids at Giza; these indicated that no more than 20 000 people lived at the site.
The Egyptian Museum and Tahrir Square
The next stop was the Egyptian Museum and Tahrir Square. Tahrir Square was not as big as I expected it to be. It had become known to me when it was occupied for 18 days during the Egyptian Revolution in 2011 to get rid of Hosni Mubarak. There is not much to the square apart from those 18 days in 2011.
The Egyptian Museum is adjacent to Tahrir Square. It seems that most valuables have already been moved to the new Egyptian Museum. The most visited part of the museum is the Tutankhamun collection in the museum. It is a splendid collection of some of the stuff that has been retrieved from the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. It is not a very interesting place to visit – maybe like all museums. However, it will give some satisfaction to people who are interested in these types of places. A museum does not give context to the exhibitions that are displayed. Visiting open-air museums like Giza, the Karnak Temple and the Valley of the Kings is totally different in ambience and experience. The Egyptian Museum is also not maintained properly, and this is a theme for most of the tourist attractions in Cairo, as compared with the historical places in Luxor. The historical places lack maintenance all over Cairo, from the famous to the not-so-famous places.
The afterlife for the Egyptians
The ancient Egyptians were firm believers in living as a spirit after you passed on. Due to this, if anyone had a quarrel that had not been resolved before the deceased died, death letters were sent, apologising and begging the “spirit” not to cause them misfortune. Death letters were also sent if someone wanted something. It is believed that the tomb was opened to put the letters inside! The letters for fortune mostly had things in them to do with what the person had done for the deceased, such as: “I always looked after you and cared for you, and yet you won’t grant me this little thing?”
Also, the Egyptians believed that rituals were performed by the gods after they died. They believed that your heart would be weighed against the feather of Ma’at, the Egyptian goddess of justice. They thought that the process was watched by Anubis, god of the underworld (who appeared as a canine). The results were then recorded by Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing. If your heart weighed the same as the feather of Ma’at, you would be granted to go to the Field of Reeds, their heaven. If your heart weighed more, then your heart would be thrown to the demon beast Ammit, who would devour it. If this happened, it was believed that your soul would be lost, thus leading toward a “second death”, in a manner of speaking.
The weighing of the heart
The far left is Ammit, and the next one is Thoth, writing down the results. Anubis is the one with the canine body and jackal head. The one on the far right is Osiris, with the head of a falcon. I think he also watched, but Anubis was the main one.
Islamic places of interest
Tomb of Imam Shafi’i
We visited four places that have interest for Muslims in Egypt. They were the tomb of Imam Shafi’i; the tomb of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Mohammad ﷺ; Al-Azhar Masjid and the Citadel of Salahuddin Ayyubi.
Imam Shafi’i was one of the great scholars of Islam and the founder of the Shafi’i madhab, one of the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence. His tomb is in a very neglected part of Cairo. The masjid, where the tomb is, is also poorly maintained. This is a feature of the historical places in Cairo, but this site is even more neglected than other places. What I realised after speaking to one Uber driver, is that almost all Egyptians are Salaf, and they do not follow any madhab. This may be a contributing factor to the neglect of the tomb. Interestingly, there were many Indonesians, Malaysians and Thai people at the tomb – all followers of the Shafi’i madhab.
The items lying in the tomb are clothing, papers and money!
After the tomb of Imam Shafi’i, we went to the Al-Azhar Masjid. It is a masjid well known throughout the Muslim world. It is well known because Al-Azhar University is one of the great institutions in the world for Islamic scholarship. It is a serene place. We arrived at the masjid just after Asr Salaah, which made it a hive of activity. People read qiraat, and there is recitation of the Quran by individuals; children are taught to read the Quran, and different classes are conducted on various subjects. Men and women attend the classes in the masjid. On the one hand, it has a vibrancy with all the activities, but it is also a masjid filled with tranquillity.
The Imam Hussein Masjid
The next place to visit was opposite the Al Azhar; it was the Masjid of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Mohammad ﷺ. It is only his head that is in the tomb that is attached to the masjid. Imam Hussein was killed on the Karbala? plain just outside Kufa in modern-day Iraq. He was killed by Shimr on the orders of Obaidullah bin Ziyad. Yazid, the caliphate of the Umayyads in Damascus, approved of it when he heard about it later on. The head of Imam Hussein was presented to him on a platter, and he poked the eyes of Imam Hussein. We were at the masjid for the maghrib salaah, and the tomb was open after the salaah; scores of people go to the tomb after every salaah. The athaan (call to prayer) of the masjid is exceptionally beautiful.
The Citadel of Salahuddin Ayyubi
Salahuddin Ayyubi was famous for ending the reign of the Crusades in Jerusalem. He is one of the great heroes in Islamic history. The citadel is a fort on top of a hill in Cairo. Ayyubi was part of the Abbasid dynasty, the second dynasty that ruled Muslim lands after the Umayyad dynasty. Ayyubi’s uncle, Nur ad-Din Zangi, was the leader of the Abbasids before Ayyubi took over from him. Zangi had a great desire to conquer Jerusalem, but it did not happen in his lifetime. At one point, Ayyubi went to settle in Egypt and later became the leader of the Fatimids in Cairo. It is unknown how he became the leader of the Fatimids, and it is very strange that Ayyubi became the leader of the Fatimids, because they were Shia. Zangi was very unhappy with Ayyubi because he had become the leader of the Fatimids. Zangi planned to go to war with Ayyubi, but it did not happen. He died just before he went to war with Ayyubi and the Fatimids. Ayyubi followed Zangi as the leader of the Abbasids. It is also not very clear how he became the leader of the Abbasids. The Fatimids were integrated under the Abbasids. When he became the leader of the Abbasids, he married the wife of his uncle, Ismat Khatun. After that, he conquered Jerusalem in 1187. That is one of the most famous victories of a Muslim army in history.
The reason for giving this background of Salahuddin Ayyubi is to sketch a sequence of events that is not well known to Muslims. To be involved in politics is not very clean at any stage. There was a bigger plan, because they would not have conquered Jerusalem without the support of the Fatimids. This is not a licence to get involved in dirty politics or corruption, but politics has a life of its own. It cannot be compared with an Islamic scholar’s role; they were not scholars, but politicians running big dynasties.
The masjid in the pictures is the Mohammad Ali Masjid, built during the Mamluk dynasty’s era. This masjid also looks very beautiful from afar, but it is also very poorly maintained.
Khan Khalili Souk
The Khan Khalili market is next to the Imam Hussein Masjid. We went to a few markets, but this one is nice. It has a nice atmosphere to it. It is very big, but as in all the markets we visited, we went only as far as the second street of the market. It has small shops that are close together in a narrow street – or it can have aisles. To buy anything in the market, you have to bargain with the owners of the shop. It can be exhausting, but it is also some fun sometimes.
After three days in Cairo, we were off to Luxor on an overnight train ride. The train ride was mostly next to the Nile. During the morning ride, one can see that the Nile is the lifeblood of the country. All along the Nile is luscious vegetation till Luxor.
As opposed to Cairo, Luxor does not have that vibrancy and the hustle and bustle of a big city. Furthermore, the historical places are better maintained and managed in comparison to Cairo. The two major attractions in Luxor are the Valley of the Kings and the Karnak Temple.
The Karnak Temple
The Karnak Temple comprises a vast mix of temples, chapels and other buildings. The architecture of the place is spectacular. While standing there, I imagined the different temples with a roof in place. It must have been a magnificent place, with the building still preserved after thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians had gods that they worshipped, but this made me think that there has always been a desire to worship since the beginning of creation. It is part of our being that there is a desire to worship one God. In the Quran, it is referred to as the fitrah. It is the innate belief that we have to worship one God, and everybody is born with the fitrah. It made me think again about the debate about converts and reverts to Islam. In this context, the correct way is to say that the fitrah of a person has reverted, but the person converted, to Islam.
The Karnak area is seen as the place where creation started; however, this is not part of our beliefs as Muslims. We believe that when Adam and Gowwa descended from paradise, they settled on the Plain of Arafat near Makkah in Saudi Arabia. In this instance, the start of creation is linked to worship.
I have seen pictures of the Karnak Temple in books and digital media, but it could never do justice to seeing the temple in real life. It is inspiring to see these massive structures that were built thousands of years ago. I mentioned previously that the maintenance of historical sites in Cairo is poor, but in Luxor it is just the opposite. The places are well maintained and managed by the authorities. It seems there is a different mindset in managing these historical sites. At each of the sites in Luxor, there are more than a hundred tourist buses. These places are packed with foreign tourists. At the main attraction in Cairo, the Giza pyramids, there were more Egyptians than foreign tourists, which I found curious. However, I have no answers.
The Valley of the Kings
It is one of the places that you could never have imagined how it would look. It is truly marvellous to be inside the tombs, which are thousands of years old. The preservation of the paintings is remarkable, to say the least. It is about 40 kilometres out of the centre of Luxor, on the western side of the River Nile.
The Valley of the Kings is in the middle of nowhere. It was supposedly discovered by a certain Mr Carter. But this is as far from the truth as you can get. He must have been informed by the local people about the Valley of the Kings. He could have discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun. In the tomb of Tutankhamun, they found a lot of gold and other valuable pieces of that time. All the other tombs had been raided by robbers and were mostly empty. Therefore, Carter could be credited for finding Tutankhamun, but not the Valley of the Kings.
The biggest tragedy of the Valley of the Kings is the wholesale robbery of all the gold and valuables that were in the tombs. It must be sitting in private collections all over the world, and some of it is in the museums of the world. It was robbery of the highest order, and these colonialists will not even regard that as robbery. Those tombs were there for thousands of years, but when colonisation started, the robbery began. They had preserved these tombs in their way, and they had not been vandalised for thousands of years.
There are about 62 tombs, of which 32 have been identified. It is like walking into a wonderland with all the paintings on the wall. There is no discolouration of the walls, and that is remarkable in itself. The mixing of paints to get those colours required the best technology of those times.
Hurghada was the last stop of our trip to Egypt. It is on the western side of the Red Sea. It is a seaside resort almost exclusively for foreigners. It seems to be a place for the rich and famous from Egypt and parts of Europe, particularly Russians and Germans. Those two languages are very often heard in the streets. Another indication that there are many Russians is that in some restaurants the menus are in English, Arabic and Russian.
At night, the town is busy with its hundreds of restaurants and eateries. A large number of the shops are also catered to tourists. It was a good place to wind down after a hectic time at the historical places.
About 500 metres into the sea is a coral reef. It is not in a good state because parts of the reef are dead or bleached. That is because of the rise in the sea temperature. A slight rise in the sea temperature can cause havoc to the coral reef, as seen in Hurghada. However, it was still a good sight to see a coral reef. About 500 metres into the sea, suddenly the depth of the water is one metre. It was good for snorkelling, and the children enjoyed themselves. It is not something that they will do soon again in their lives.