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(2011 - Winter Issue)

Writer: Ray Chatelin

In Egypt, you walk with ghosts.

I feel them around me as I roam through the majestic ruins of Karnak on the shores of the Nile. I can sense the presence of Ramses II, Nefertiti, Tutankhamun, Queen Hatshepsut and the countless men and women of power and influence who have walked the same stones on which my own feet pace.

In this arid country of blowing sand and vast cities, you can’t escape the past. It clings to you at every corner of its ancient temples, stares at you from every doorway of its tombs and monuments. It speaks to you from the obelisks, pyramids, along the Nile River and from the rolling desert hills that still conceal their timeless mysteries.

Egypt not only capitalizes on its culture and history, it revels in it. The old and the new live side by side here, a physical and spiritual combination of a culture of pharaohs and kings, and a contemporary population that knows its past, but isn’t willing to sacrifice its future—as uncertain as it might be. 

Sheer Grandeur

You have to experience this country at a certain leisurely pace or it can overwhelm the senses. For it remains a place where there’s a never-ending supply of the ancient living side by side with the present. And you, as I am, will find yourself mingling with the ghosts that still haunt us, that provide the modern world with the material of movies, novels and television documentaries.

It’s why I find myself absorbed by more than 7,000 years of history as I walk along the pathways and among the remnants of where great pharaohs once lived and constructed enormous structures that celebrated their own mortal existences in the hope they could escape to a luxurious world in the hereafter. 

The Great Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx, the great temples of Luxor and Karnak, the Valley of the Kings, where more than 60 pharaohs and nobles lie in tombs, are more than tourist destinations, names in a brochure. They echo centuries of art, literature, great architecture and the popular culture of that time.

And for me, rambling through these ancient monuments to wealth and power, I am both awed and humbled by the sheer grandeur of it all, as I have been at a select few places in the world.

Temples of History

Egypt is one of those tourist destinations that will remain forever locked in the mind of anyone who visits, seared into the subconscious. No matter how far removed I may be from these great temples of history I know I’ll never fully escape their impact on the way I view my own world.

In past travels, little prepared me for the grandeur and love story of India’s Taj Mahal. I have walked the Great Wall of China; searched the ruins of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat; tipped a pint or two in pubs in Vienna and Salzburg that had been frequented by Mozart and Franz Schubert. I’ve searched the ancient Nabataean city of Petra; experienced a Bedouin feast in the desert; walked among the giant statues of Easter Island; searched the ruins on the Greek Island of Delos where legends tell us that Apollo was born; and had my future pronounced by a Buddhist monk at a temple in Nara, Japan. 

Each of these places marked a compass point in my own travelling life. They had an impact on the way I think and relate to my surroundings far beyond the usual comfortable residue of a travel vacation. And now Egypt’s ancient icons will forever influence how I view this part of the world currently embroiled in political and social change.

Iconic Sites

Feeling insignificant among the giant pillars of the 5,000-year-old Luxor and the Temple of Karnak in ancient Thebes that took 1,300 years to complete, I ramble through them. I see the still brightly-painted symbols and figures on the underside of many arches and try to imagine the artists who painted them.

Earlier, standing before the great Pyramids that lie on the edge of Cairo, and having climbed deep down into several of the 62 tombs that line the Valley of the Kings, including that of Tutankhamun, I realize my time affords only a casual glimpse into a complex land that has had many ruling dynasties.

In Alexandria, where Cleopatra first met and charmed Julius Caesar, and later Mark Anthony, the Catacombs of Kom el-Shouqafa combine Greco-Roman and Egyptian motifs among the 300 entombed mummies, reflecting the days of Greek and Roman rule. Yet, those transitional empires are only blips in the Egyptian saga.

Most of Egypt is a spectacular land of sand and dunes as far as the eye can see interrupted only by lush irrigated strips of terrain inland along the Nile and in the north of the country. The great cities of Alexandria and Cairo seem like vast indecipherable labyrinths to the casual visitor, yet once introduced to them, you’ll want to stay and peel back their layers of time.

Pharaohs once stood where I would linger along the Nile sipping Egyptian beer and staring out over the water. The tomb of Ramses II lies nearby across that river and Queen Hatshepsut—one of the most prolific builders in ancient Egypt—sailed along these shores, which my hotel room overlooks.     

Those ghosts still linger. They have been there since the days of the pharaohs and will endure well beyond my own time.

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