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Egypt's well-trodden attractions can still stun the traveler

By David PurcellStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 28, 1984


As I contemplated my first trip to the Pyramids, I could see myself, if not exactly astride my faithful camel, at least getting my initial glimpse of the great monuments as the sun set, bathing them in a soft pink light.

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But reality presented a different picture. I had imagined the elegant repose of the disfigured sphinx, but not the chaotic traffic of Cairo, or the sheer noise of a Mideastern bazaar.

And I found that Giza, where the Pyramids are located, is not a lush oasis at all, but a suburb of Cairo. The broad boulevard leading out to the Pyramids is lined with hotels, nightclubs, and even a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. The Pyramids are surrounded by tour buses disgorging tourists and by Egyptians offering to sell one the country's very last, priceless, plastic scarab.

Under such conditions, it's hard for even the imposing Pyramids to live up to expectations. The tourist must arm himself with an appreciation for ancient history and forget the scarab hawkers, tour buses, and even Moses' souvenir shack down the hill.

The ascent into the Great Pyramid of Cheops pits tourist against tourist in the seemingly endless sauna generously called a tunnel. Less than four feet wide and four feet high, the passageway tests the mettle of even the most intrepid traveler.

The passage eventually opens, and at the end is an empty chamber - empty, that is, except for Cheops's vacant sarcophagus and dozens of milling tourists. This, too, could seem a disappointment.

Yet, here again, pause to consider the labor that went into constructing the chamber's stone walls and ceiling, the grand procession that must have accompanied the departed pharaoh to his final resting place, the thieves who robbed him centuries later. Realize that all this occurred thousands of years ago, and all those milling tourists can seem miles and ages away.

The Museum of Antiquities in Cairo boasts an extraordinary collection of ancient Egyptian art. Yet because of the sheer number of artifacts on hand, the museum is too small to present its treasures. Artifacts fill every available space. Some are nestled into corners; others are partially hidden behind larger treasures. But in spite of the haphazard display, the museum's treasures are stunning. There are rooms dedicated to papyrus, including marriage and property contracts. There are wonderful collections of statues and sarcophagi. And there is a small mummy exhibit. Out of respect for ancient beliefs, many of the mummies in Egypt's museums are being returned to their original tombs. Consequently, the Cairo museum contains few.

Another must for the visitor to Cairo is the Kahn Kalili bazaar. Young by Egyptian standards, the bazaar began around 1400. This jumble of shops and artisans is not nearly as chaotic as those in Morocco, nor are the shopkeepers as aggressive.

Yet here the liveliness of this dynamic city seems to unfold before your eyes. The market comes alive with the colors of fruits and vegetables, the bolts of bright cloth, the din of the metalworkers, the raised voices of the shopkeepers, and the smell of exotic spices.

Even the shortest trip to Egypt should include a stay in the city of Luxor - once known as Thebes. The area is filled with temples, monuments, and tombs. The greatest spectacle in Luxor is the great Temple of Karnak, once the holiest temple in Egypt. It was constructed over a period of years, and eventually covered more than 40 acres.