Egypt and Libya 2010

So much has happened since the beginning of 2011 that it is difficult to believe I was sightseeing in both these countries less than a year ago. I think that the best way for me to address this post is to put current affairs out of my mind and look back at the things I experienced, trying to describe them as if I had written about them immediately upon my return. Basically this chapter consisted of two distinct trips: a guided tour of Egypt, Jordan and Syria with Peregrine Adventures during August/September on my own and a Mediterranean Cruise with my mother during October. At the age of eighty two my she had announced that she would like to see the pyramids and it was my job to get her there. If all this sounds extravagant, well so be it, but it was long in the planning and long in the saving for.

I went out to Cairo a couple of days early for my organised tour in order to be able to do some extra sightseeing. No, now that I think about it, the main reason for booking an earlier flight was that bloody unpronounceable Icelandic volcano. I had been looking forward to the “Ancient Empires” month long tour of the Middle East for so long that I wasn’t going to let any UK airport chaos prevent me from getting out there to meet the start of the trip. I stayed in a budget hotel, explored the Christian quarter, spent extra time in the Museum and took an excursion to Alexandria since it was not on the main itinerary.

These three days were probably the best part of the Egypt segment; Alexandria stands out in my memory from a childhood visit and so I didn’t want to miss it. The tour company through which I had booked in London sent a lovely language student to accompany me. She was so amused when I stipulated “no shopping and no restaurants but plenty of toilet stops” that we spent much of the day running through a few interesting snippets of basic Egyptology: jackal, falcon, baboon and human, equals stomach, intestines, lungs and liver. The heart goes back in the body and the brain is discarded. An girl really needs to know her canopics. I’m so glad that I had such an enjoyable experience to begin my Egyptian tour because once I met up with the Peregrine group things really started to go downhill. Let’s put it in the language of the day, shall we. This is from an e-mail that I sent later from Aqaba to a few friends

We’ve been down the Nile to Aswan (and on to Abu Simbel = 45+/-) and just crossed the Sinai desert into Jordan.

The Egyptian antiquities have exceded all my expectations and were worth all the study & the tribulations of getting to see them: the modern Egyptians are a bunch of backsheeshing bastards who don’t deserve to be the inheritors of one of the greatest civilisations to have ever existed. Thank god for the French, British, German & American archaeologists who prevented them from smashing and flogging off the lot.

There! I had to get that out of my system. Sorry but we’ve just parted with the worst (and probably most corrupt) tour leader it’s ever been my misfortune to be allocated. What a good fortune to be with a fantastic group of Aussies (+ 2 other Brits & 1 Canadian) all determined to have the the best possible time and not let our trip be spoiled. We helped each other with plenty of goodwill when we were left without luggage porters in the 40+ heat because someone was pocketing the tipping kitty. Some of our party are not as young or a fit as others but, between us, we made sure no-one got sick.

My money & digestive system are holding out OK…….now for a new experience.

And there was more in my feedback to Peregrine because the staff in the more upmarket hotels where they lodged us were just plain awful, if I hadn’t had the lovely experience to start my trip I don’t know what I would have thought about modern day Egyptians. It may have been the month of Ramadan and a very hot one at that but that didn’t excuse that amount of sheer mendacity going on. Besides, the very first thing most of the men did at sundown was light up a cigarette. At Abu Simbel one of the “dirty dhotis” tried to charge me the equivalent of £50 ($75) for a fridge magnet and he wasn’t joking, in fact he got quite nasty when I started to walk away in disgust.

During interminable waits for non-existent (but nonetheless expensive) service I found myself doing a little mental arithmetic: So many ships passing through Suez at such and such a ton, so many tourists at such and such tourist tax, so many barrels of oil at such and such a barrel equals corruption on a unimaginable scale going all the way to the top. And don’t let me get started on the paucity of knowledge displayed by the so-called official tourist guides. I sat at one monument for a while and heard these guides give three completely different explanations for the same temple carving.

How lucky I was, then, that when I returned to Egypt with my mother a few weeks later our tour bus was blessed with the sweetest of guides who took it upon herself to see that Mum’s outing was everything that it could be. At one stage Biga (and how could one forget a name like that) was marshalling five guys to carry the wheelchair down some steps so that we could enjoy the “Nile lunchtime cruise” that was part of our itinerary. Of course, Mum’s reaction to the pyramids was “they look just like the pictures” but it really was something of an achievement to have got her safely there and back.

I was more than a little concerned when she decided that she was not going to stay on board the cruise ship during the Leptis Magna visit as I knew that conditions in Libya were not exactly geared towards tourism and that much of the archaeological site was inaccessible to a wheelchair. Surprisingly, Mum was able to see quite a bit: the arch of Septimius Severus, the ancient port and the museum, although the driver who promised to keep an eye on her while I had an hour on the site proper was nowhere to be found on my return. Fortunately she suffered no ill effects and later, when we talked about the Romans in North Africa (a subject which she had studied in some detail) I realised that it had been worthwhile.

What we saw of pre-revolutionary Libya was pretty grim: huge posters of the Colonel in a variety of ridiculous costumes, shabby ill-kept housing and huge container ships taking massive quantities of who-knows-what out of the country. This is not a case of looking back with the wisdom of hindsight because I’ve checked the photographs and they confirm my recollections.

In summary, then, it is hard to see how either country will be worse off for the events that have been unfolding over the intervening months but there is no doubt that an awful lot of people had a great deal invested in the status quo. These supporters of the old regimes will not give up their petty perks so easily even if many of the top predators have already skipped the border. When listening to educated dissidents it is as well to remember that democracy is quantative rather than qualitative and that until it is established no one can be sure who will be voting for whom.

I only really went to see the ruins so I’ll have to write about those in a separate post.

Postscript: The pictures of Libya are on the 2010 Mediterranean Cruise post, as are the ones of the Alabaster Mosque in Cairo, the Sky Boat and the grossly extravagant “politicians house” in the outskirts of Cairo     

Categories: Africa, Middle East


  • Bea. says:

    What a pity greed has to spoil something so beautiful.

  • Hi Bea, let’s hope it’s more of a temporary setback and that things will start to improve soon. It was just such a shame for those people who won’t get the opportunity to return. I know I was really p***ed off about it at the time but, even so, I really do believe that we are all the inheritors of that incomparable ancient civilisation. Do please check back for the pictures.

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