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Living off the dead

Egypt offers moments of déjà vu once you get past the morbid fascination with the dead. Nilova Roy Chaudhury explores one of the greatancient civilizations of the world.

india Updated: Jun 28, 2008 00:03 IST
Nilova Roy Chaudhury
Nilova Roy Chaudhury
Hindustan Times

The famed pyramids were a disappointment. Somehow, they appeared worn out and much smaller than I had anticipated. However, enthusiastically going through the touristy motions (I put my foot down though at posing on a camel’s back) I entered the grand pyramid of Cheops. Once inside, I thought I would join the great pharaoh in his final rest. The interior is stuffy to the point of suffocation, and the stale smell of millennia gone by assails the nostrils. And the narrow, low climbing ramp you have to crawl along would do wonders for those with back problems.

Once inside and finally upright, however, the visit made me mull over the morbidity of the Egyptian civilization. Spectacular engineering and other skills (including the discovery of papyrus, the original newsprint) refined along the banks of the Nile many centuries ago have created a formidable legacy for the Egyptians, rightly placing it among the great ancient civilizations of the world.

But it all revolves around how to preserve their dead.

At the risk of sounding politically incorrect, there is something lurid about the morbid fascination with the afterlife and creating a civilization around how well preserved their kings were in death.

Give me the exploits of Emperor Ashoka or the tales of Haroun-al-Rashid any day.

The massive success of Egypt’s tourism industry is testimony to the skill with which modern Egypt has marketed its marvelous antiquities. But there is something weird when all the marketable memorabilia and souvenirs are made in China. The living heritage, in the form of local handicrafts or specialised skills, like those spawned along the Ganga, was not apparent along the Nile.

Even in far-off Alexandria, the only souvenirs to be got were pharaonic. With vultures gradually diminishing in numbers, at least in Delhi, at the pyramids in Giza I got a distinct feel of a country scavenging off the dead.

More surprising was the way houses have encroached almost on to the world heritage site. The spectacular sound and light show at the Giza pyramids, narrated imaginatively by the Sphinx, was completely marred by the lights of a house just a few yards away. It spoke volumes for the kind of attitude the common man has towards the grand heritage, reminiscent of the callous way many Indians routinely spit on or engrave their names on priceless heritage monuments.

Having understood the enormous potential of these grand antiquities to attract tourists, Egypt has actually raised a separate antiquities police force to guard their spectacular heritage, because the shadow of terror has crossed them. After Bamiyan, and given the threats many of our monuments face, this is an idea the authorities here could explore.

Nile Pharaohs

We were told we had to experience a cruise on the Nile. The most up-market cruise in Cairo was the ‘Nile Pharaohs’, essentially a set of ferries done up in gold and blue — with waiters dressed in pharaonic robes — designed to look like the inside of a pharaoh’s palace. The high point of this cruise was the belly dance. The tables were set around the central area of the upper deck where this dancer, who somehow looked Caucasian, gyrated rather modestly I thought. A particularly raucous bunch of whistling Egyptians at one table misbehaved with the dancer. Among them, we were told, was a petty politician, somehow giving me a sense of déjà vu. Few of the guests bothered to look at the Cairo skyline as the ferry went along the river.

Baba ghanoush, pita bread and Nile perch were among the delicacies served for dinner on board while a set of whirling dervish-like dancers twirled around the deck.

No sheesha or flavoured hookahs were, however, offered on board. For that piece of exotic decadence we went to the hip riverside restaurant where among the flavours on offer were cappuccino, apple and coffee. The point of the sheesha was to feel good, while blowing as much smoke as possible. After initial struggles and choking, we became experts at living through the haze, puffing away in regal splendour. The trick is not to inhale.

Shah Rukh’s shop

“Indian? You are welcome. This is Shah Rukh’s (Khan) shop. This is your shop,” was the constant refrain as we took a walk through the Khan-e-Khalili Market in downtown Cairo. I had heard Amitabh Bacchhan was the local heartthrob but, as one of the young shopkeepers told me, “Amitabh is also welcome... for the older people. We love Shah Rukh.”

While I went off in search of cotton goods and thoroughly enjoyed the bargaining, my colleague Nirmal was busy searching for local street food, so he hijacked our local guide/minder Makarram and went off in search of tahini. At 50 piastres each, this baked pita bread sandwich stuffed with vegetables and sauce is almost the staple diet, Makarram said. What disappointed me was the search for Egyptian cotton. Except for one shop, which we located after an hour of searching through the maze of lanes that make up this bustling, ancient market, most of the cotton is exported to the malls of the west. And as for the souvenirs, which were everywhere… made in China.