Egypt: Old and New

My “journal theory of life” states the following conditions:

  • If at the end of the day I have lots to write about, BUT I don’t have any time to write, then my life is too busy.
  • If at the end of the day I have nothing to write about, BUT I have lots of time to write, then my life is not busy enough.
  • Thus, if at the end of the day I have something worthwhile to write about AND I have sufficient time to write, then my life is in balance.

I’m sure that anybody who has taken the LSAT can rip the above logic to shreds but nevertheless I will extend this to a theory of blogging… which means that the past 6 months have been weighted too heavily on the busy side of things. But maybe a revision is needed, that is, maybe I should revise my timeframe from a day to a month. Or maybe 6 months (any words of wisdom)? Because now I think I have enough time to catch up on this blog!

The topic today is Egypt.

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Sometimes I wonder why civilizations can advance so far and then crumble to pieces. The world has seen 173 great empires rise to their zenith and then burn to ashes, to be reborn again. These include the Akkadian, Austro-Hungarian, Mongol, British Raj and others. Based on my calculation, the average empire lasted for 282 years. When Israel was taken captive by Assyria in 721 B.C., Assyria ruled most of the known world. Within a few decades, the Assyrian Empire had crumbled before the onslaught of the Babylonians. Under Nebuchadnezzar, Babylonia became a world empire, inheriting territories and peoples conquered by Assyria. Historians postulate various causes for the collapse of empires, including overstretch, man-made or natural disasters, and weak rulers. NASA even tried to build a statistical model to predict the phenomenon. One of the most intriguing theories is that empires fall when they have more institutions than instruments. Institutions are established as an “instrument” to fulfill a need in society. When they begin to neglect the need they were created for, and merely exist to exist, they become redundant. When an empire ceases to be about the welfare of the people and more about the ego of its rulers, it is on its own path to oblivion. In today’s modern map of sovereign states, America’s hegemonic military-industrial complex is often considered an empire, and is decades past that troublesome 200-year mark. As a people, we must tap into the anti-entropic powers of morality and civility to obviate the downward spiraling path of pride as suffered by the empires in the ancient Americas.

Egypt is an interesting case of this phenomenon. Really, the tourism industry exists there because low humidity has preserved human and animal mummies and delicate inlaid wood for more than four thousand years. I booked a last minute weeklong tour online and was subsequently instructed to pay with USD cash on arrival at the airport (understandable given that the EGP’s exchange rate to the greenback was slashed in half in a matter of weeks before my arrival due to economic reforms that necessitated the floating of the currency… it has since started to recover). Although my driver seemed like an ebullient guy I was vigilantly tracking our location via offline map— I didn’t even know which hotel I was supposed to stay in— after we drove through and past Cairo my initial fear that this was a classic “take the cash and dump the body” situation set in again. Dang! I slyly inquired as to the name of the hotel and then deduced that we were headed to Giza (actually Jiza to many Arabs but Egyptians pronounce their J as a G). Phew! Nevertheless, chaos greeted me in the busy streets and the dust-filled sky reminded me that beyond the lush greenery of the Nile River Basin lies the world’s largest desert: in fact Sahara simply means desert in Arabic! So I might as well call it deSSert because I was practically breathing it in for dessert every night.

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In my 2nd blog post, I alluded to Amun Ra. Hopefully when you go to Egypt you will have done your research (yay future perfect—my favorite of English’s 16 tenses!) and not just nod your head when your guide gives you the spiel. This blog post isn’t going to provide you with the historical background of Egypt’s many gods and pharaohs (you’d be bored to tears if I made an attempt), but it does invite you to seek solid sources of this knowledge and then soak in the remnants of Egypt’s past majesty with your own two eyes and trod the soil with your own two feet.

One thing (among many) to be prepared for when you visit: you will be raped of all of your spare change (that you don’t have) for everything from tipping the guy who watched you walk down the stairs in a tomb, to paying for a piece of toilet paper and usage of a key to open an outhouse near the Great Pyramids (unless you’re stubborn and covertly sneak in after the previous tourist exits). And you probably won’t leave the country without being conned into buying some papyrus which happens to have your brother’s name written on it in hieroglyphics by a recent Phd grad from AUC while you were distracted with a “free” welcome drink to the shop. For the first half of my trip, I was unprepared for the intensity of the tipping culture and my experience was shrouded with a mist of guilt overhanging me from not tipping each driver and guide properly… I felt much better about myself once I figured out the system and tipped everybody handsomely with that customary farewell handshake.

Some people might balk when I tell them I’m traveling alone. “Loser.” Well maybe. But I had to leave Jordan to renew my visa after having been here for 6 months, and so why not go to Egypt on a whim? Anyway, traveling alone has some serious benefits, ironically mostly social. Had I already been with friends I likely wouldn’t have been assigned to sit at a table with the two lovely couples of French engineers and British Indian doctors, with whom I struck up enlightening conversations about Emmanuel Macron and Narendra Modi (I cunningly shifted the topic to their countries when they inquired about the state of American politics). Also on the sun deck I was quickly invited to hang out with a group of Spanish singles and was reminded that my life goal to be able to communicate with half of the world’s population in their ~native tongue is unachievable if I don’t put any effort into Spanish.

As Rudyard Kipling described about his travels, “Going up the Nile is like running the gauntlet before Eternity. Till one has seen it, one does not realize the amazing thinness of that little damp trickle of life that steals along undefeated through the jaws of established death…” The Nile River Basin hints at the key of any civilization: water… so by extension what some may define as a clash of civilizations may at its root actually be a contest for water. Clearly without the Nile we wouldn’t be reading books about the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt in 3000 B.C., and we likely wouldn’t be able to trace a national identity in Egypt that has perpetuated through most of the known historical continuum of mankind, staying resilient during incursions from neighboring powers… at least until Nassar tried to Arabize Egypt’s identity in solidarity with its Arabic speaking sovereign brothers.

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So it is clear that Egypt was among the chief power foci of ancient times, yet it appears that it has waxed weak to the modern world.

Wrong.

Tahrir Square was the progenitor of the Arab Spring (thanks to which only 90 of 400 cruise ships are in operation on the Nile… yes, as a tourist it is your assumed responsibility to subsidize the fiscal recuperation of livelihoods from the aftermath of political protests). And Al-Azhar is the Vatican of Sunni Islam, i.e. the leadership that provides guidance and seeks the unification of more than a billion people. If you could visit 1500+ years ago (Before Muhammad) you would have been in the post-polytheistic Christian world founded by Saint Mark in Alexandria– its remnants the current 10% Copts that are marginalized and attacked repeatedly creating talking points for atmospheric UN and OSCE interfaith dialogue which seems to result in limited grassroots action. So, I digress with my stream of judgemental consciousness that ties back to the aforementioned theory of institutions and instruments, but we’ll save that as a number crunching policy analysis for another day.

In summary, my verdict is: Yes! Egypt is worth a visit for both the explosion of your mind as you absorb its past glory, and a tangible witness to the economic and social strife on the ground as you reflect on the comparatively trivial dilemmas your own country likely spends billions of dollars and millions of hours grappling with (sorry, more unfounded judgment with no data to support).

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Please, if you have an experience in Egypt or perspective about this amazing place that you would like to enlighten my bursting-at-the-seams readership with, feel free to add a comment below.

Otherwise, tune in next time (hopefully sooner than 6 months) and we’ll chat about Jerusalem!

One thought on “Egypt: Old and New

  1. It seems you have wonderful time in Egypt. About the raped, i remember when I was in Sakkara. I watched a donkey wore beautiful clothes. The owner came and offered me to take my photo with donkey. I said know, but he insisted and told me that it will be free. After taking my photo, he asked my money. When I complained, he said, “I told you, that would be free for me. But not for donkey. I don’t need your money, but donkey needs food and water to feed him”.. I lost my words, gave him some pounds and left the place afterwards…

    Like

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