One Mo Time Down the Nile

By Mowlam, Majorie | The Mail on Sunday (London, England), March 31, 2002 | Go to article overview

One Mo Time Down the Nile


Mowlam, Majorie, The Mail on Sunday (London, England)


Byline: MO MOWLAM

Mo Mowlam is stunned by the sights on a grand tour of Egypt

AN INDICATION of Egypt's enduring appeal is that any traveller's book of quotations would probably have to devote its largest section to this enigmatic nation. Any great writer worth his salt who has visited has taken the trouble to record his impressions.

Herodotus observed: 'Egypt has more wonders in it than any other country in the world and provides more works that defy description than any other place.' More recently, the American author Herman Melville wrote - enticingly - that the climate of Egypt in winter is 'the reign of spring upon earth, and summer in the air, and tranquillity in the heat'.

We arrived, my husband Jon and I, on a Sunday night in February, and found it just as Melville observed. It is recommended to travel there in the winter months, November to March, as otherwise it gets too hot for the sightseeing which is an essential part of the Egyptian experience.

We arrived, however, not with a book of quotations but, much more usefully, a book of phrases. I always try to learn a few words of the language of countries I visit as it shows a willingness to communicate properly and not just assume that everyone will speak English.

I recommend the following (the version printed here is phonetic).

Shukran: Thank you.

Afwan: You're welcome.

Lauw sa maht: Please.

Salamou alaikum: Hello. Response: Wa alaikum el salam.

Ana mish fahma: I don't understand.

Mar salamma: Goodbye.

However, English is spoken widely, if not well spoken, and if you want to buy something there are many people around willing and eager to communicate.

The Four Seasons Hotel in Cairo, on the Nile, is new and sumptuous. I have stayed in a number of swish hotels in my time in Washington and New York and I have to say this is one of the most luxurious, with the best service I have ever experienced. When you travel in Egypt you have to sightsee. You can sit on the beach as we did at Sharm el Sheikh, you can sit on the verandahs and various terraces of the luxury hotels as we did, or you can laze on the sunbeds of your boat down the Nile as we did. But this life of pleasure must be balanced by seeing something of ancient Egypt.

Our first experience of the old civilisation was of the pyramids at Giza, a short drive from our Cairo hotel with our guide Sabra. However much you have read about the pyramids, they are more spectacular than you could imagine. The first thing that strikes you is their size. The height of one brick alone dwarfs the tourists that mill around the base, dodging the camel rides for hire and the drowsy tourist police (everywhere with large guns).

But as you get closer to the pyramids, the feat of engineering adds to the sense of wonder.

Sabra had told us that the limestone blocks which the pyramids are made out of weigh two-and-a-half tons each. This to

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me was just a number until I saw how big a two-and-a-half-ton block of limestone is. Then there is the precision of their cutting, so that each block fits snugly together with the others. How did they do this without copper, bronze or stone tools? And then how did they get them to the top of the pyramid and fit them together? No one really knows.

The rest of our first week was taken up with visits to a number of ancient Egyptian sites. The rest, dating from around 800BC, were not as old as the pyramids which date from before 2,500BC.

We saw the tombs of the pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings, the spectacular temples at Karnak, Luxor, Esna, Philae and Aswan and finally at Abu Simbel.

All memorable in their own ways, festooned in hieroglyphics, stylised Egyptian images of Gods, pharaohs and wars and all deliciously cool inside.

I think one of the visits I enjoyed the most was in Aswan, where we visited the granite quarry. …

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