Egypt always held a sense of wonder for me with its pyramids, Pharaohs, and the mighty Nile. When I had a chance to visit this summer, not even the recent revolution and ongoing unrest could stop me. I discovered a land where time seems trapped somewhere between past and present and a world more different and colorful than anything I had imagined.
My visit was at such a unique time, following closely on the heels of the revolution. While I was in Egypt, there were still protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square, burned out buildings still stand as relics of the January 2011 riots, and the former president still sat in jail. People on the street wanted to talk about the revolution. They were eager to share their dreams for what they hope will be a better Egypt. It gave me a great opportunity to see the country in a way few have had the chance to experience it — without droves of tourists, with the ability to walk around the grounds of a 3000 year old temple without seeing more than a handful of other visitors.
I realized several things about Egypt during my trip. The wonders of ancient Egypt are indeed magnificent. To stand at the foot of the Great Pyramids in Giza and gaze up at over 2 million blocks, each weighing over 2 tons, and wonder how they were built is an amazing feeling. To walk into a tomb that was originally sealed over 3000 years ago and look at the vibrant blue hues still covering the walls made me realize how truly insignificant one lifetime really is. To watch the young men plowing fields behind a pair of bare-boned cows was a lesson in humility.
But I also realized that the Egypt of my imagination doesn't really exist. It's not the romantic place of the movies. It's a land torn apart by poverty, struggling to use any means possible to feed their people. It's a land where the great relics of ancient history have been exploited to help feed millions of hungry people. It's a land where even getting directions from the kid on the street means you have to tip him. It's a land of hope following the revolution, but a country of fear that the future is uncertain and that change will not come fast enough, or perhaps too fast and too haphazardly to make a lasting difference.
There was much I enjoyed about Egypt, in particular the food. I loved the fresh bread and the tahina and hummus. The yogurt dips and garlic sauces were incredible. I admired the passion the people showed for the changes in their country. The beauty of the Nile was breathtaking in places and the I never got tired of watching the white egrets perched along the shores in the trees. When I left Egypt, however, I was glad to return home. I was happy to be back in a place where I feel comfortable traveling as a woman, where chaos is at least more controlled. When I left, I wasn't sure I wanted to return to Egypt. Now, I think that perhaps a second time I might be able to dig deeper, to ask more questions, to perhaps look beyond the commercialization of the society to see the beauty beneath the surface.
It is a time of unrest in Egypt and likely will be for some time to come; however, if you travel wisely, it can be a fascinating time to visit this ancient culture. Will there be lasting change as a result of the revolution? I think it's too early to predict the outcome. I do think it will take a long time to move Egypt from the place it holds between the past and the present. The future is a long way off.
For a look at what to see in Cairo, be sure to read Exploring Revolutionary Cairo. For a trip up the Nile River through the great temples and tombs of ancient times, read A Nile River Cruise Through Egypt.