Alone with the pharaohs

The first time we saw the pyramids close at hand we barely had to blur our focus to imagine we had them to ourselves. A chill wind was scudding across the Sahara to the west of them, whipping up the desert with the debris of the fringes of Cairo. The air was thick with dust and acrid to the taste. The pyramids looked sombre, forbidding, indeed totalitarian, possibly just as their sponsors intended nearly 5,000 years ago as they designed their tombs.

My wife Sophie and I were looking out at sunset from a balcony at Cairo’s legendary Mena House hotel. Field Marshal Montgomery had the very same view in 1941. Indeed, as we gazed out at the pyramids from his old suite, we sat at the desk at which he plotted the next stage of the desert war. On a normal evening we might have expected to see a melee of thousands thronging that most famous of outlines. Yet as we looked on from the Mena House, only a couple of dozen Arabs with disconsolate horses and camels remained of the usual frenetic fringe of tour buses and hawkers. Such is the price Egypt’s tourist trade is paying for the country’s unfinished revolution.

If you stay in the hotel, it is all too easy to imbibe a flavour of its glamorous past. Its heart is still decorated as it was in Edwardian times, when colonial travellers repaired there after ascending the pyramids, enjoying a breakfast of kidneys and game, or a stiff whisky. Dozens of other celebrated figures have stopped off there since Montgomery’s sojourn, from Winston Churchill, Chiang Kai-shek and FD Roosevelt, to Menahim Begin, Anwar Sadat and Jimmy Carter for the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace talks, and a host of film stars – and understandably given the skyline and the oasis that surround the hotel. But it was only when early one morning we headed up the small dusty road that winds up beside the hotel to the pyramids that I realised we were yet more privileged than those illustrious former guests.

Alec Russell’s sons Mungo and Ned on their morning temple-viewing

Usually there are hundreds of people queuing for the right to wriggle along the narrow passages inside the Great Pyramid to Pharaoh Cheops’ burial chamber – but not now in Egypt’s climate of post-revolutionary uncertainty. I remember from experience as a backpacker in 1988 that entering a pyramid is not for the claustrophobe. To reach the burial chamber you crawl hundreds of feet up a steep incline in semi-darkness, and you have to do this in a slow, stifling file, head-to-toe with others, shuffling every foot of the way. This time Ned, my 11-year-old son, and I had it to ourselves. We crawled and clambered our way to the chamber in silence. We could have been the designers inspecting our handicraft on its completion. Not even Egypt’s most famous visitor and chronicler had such a privilege: when Herodotus visited 2,500 years ago the pyramids were sealed.

We sat in Cheops’ last resting place for five minutes, awestruck, astonished, gazing at the empty stone sarcophagus. On the way down we passed a lone German family. Breathless, we saluted each other. Who said that the era of mass tourism has destroyed the wonder of travel for ever?

Just two weeks earlier my wife and our two sons and I had gone to the 50th birthday party of an old friend. He had just returned to London after the better part of a year reporting on the Arab uprisings. Much of this was in the Libyan port of Misurata, scene of bitter fighting between Gaddafi loyalists and the rebels. He had come back sombre about the outlook for the region. When he heard we were bound for Egypt, he was astounded.

“You are mad,” he said. “Libya is one thing but Egypt? There’s a revolution taking place. Are you really taking your children there? Shouldn’t you rethink this one?”

He was not alone. We were due to leave just two weeks after the football riot in Port Said in which more than 70 people were killed and hundreds wounded. Even as we reflected on our plans, a school trip to Sinai for some of my sons’ friends was cancelled over security concerns after two tourists and their guide were kidnapped there. Suddenly everyone seemed to be suggesting we were a little rash to be flying into Cairo on the anniversary of the ousting of Hosni Mubarak. I recalled how irritated we had been when living in the US to hear people wondering if they should visit London after the July 2005 bombings. We disdained the doubters. Besides, as I reassured our sons, even the Foreign Office, traditionally the most cautious of trip advisers, was insisting there was no reason to stay away, and rightly so too. Barely 24 hours after checking in at Heathrow on a cold February morning we were on our own in the tomb of Tutankhamun.

In time-honoured fashion we divided our Egyptian tour into two parts. After a comfortable one-night stop-off at the airport’s Fairmont Towers hotel, we headed south to the Upper Nile. The Lower Nile and Cairo – and of course the travails of Egypt’s latest pharaoh – would come at the end.

Onboard the Sanctuary Sun Boat IV

To explore the waters and temples of the Upper Nile we had the perfect conveyance: the cruise ship Sun Boat IV. For most of the year the stretch of the Nile between Luxor and Aswan usually hosts a flotilla of vessels heading each way. Some are floating gin palaces. Sun Boat IV is a sleeker craft. Designed for 80 passengers it is halfway in size between a felucca and one of the giant cruise boats. You have the intimacy of the former with the comfort and personalised attention impossible on the latter. (The chef prepared for our lactose-intolerant younger son his own special pancakes for breakfast and personalised puddings for lunch.) If you go now, you will have the Nile virtually to yourself. After our first night on board we rose just after dawn and sat under the linen awnings on the top deck watching the river float past against the low murmur of the ship’s engines. There was not another tourist boat in sight. Fisher boys waved from the west bank 100 yards away, as did young men giving cattle an early drink. Otherwise for mile after mile there was little to see but clay houses, palm trees and the fertile fields whose plump crops nourished so many empires in centuries past.

Normally you can only get a cabin in February by booking months in advance. For our four-day cruise about half the 80 berths were occupied. The ship’s captain and his ebullient staff were phlegmatic about the shortage of guests. They have seen such blights before: after the September 11 terror attacks tourism revenues plummeted for a year before recovering. Their hope is that the stand-off between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military will be resolved after May’s elections, that the perception of an existential threat to the state will subside, and the tourists will return en masse.

There was certainly no sign of revolutionary ferment in Luxor. The only time anyone raised the subject of the previous February was on our first afternoon at the magnificent 3,500-year-old Temple of Hatshepsut. We had clambered up to the top of this wonder of the ancient world and I was thumbing through my 24-year-old guide book when a tout looking over my shoulder saw a photograph of Mubarak.

“Bad man,” he shouted. “Bad man.” But there was no particular hostility. Otherwise the only insight into the prevailing uncertainty came from the rows of unchartered feluccas at Aswan, the unhired ponies and carts outside the temple complex at Kom Ombo, the frenetic trinket sellers desperate for at least one sale. For the visitor, the bazaaris’ intensity is a small price to pay for the privilege of seeing the wonders of ancient Egypt as if at a private view. On our first afternoon in the south, we headed to the Valley of the Kings. We were transfixed: at tomb after tomb we were among a handful of visitors: there were enough not to feel isolated but never a crowd. I dimly remembered Tutankhamun’s tomb from the late 1980s as a melee of guides, touts and travellers. This time we were as Lord Carnarvon; we could stay in the tomb as long as we liked – not that we wanted to, given the spectral sight of the blackened extremities of the pharaoh's remains.

Then there was the complex at Karnak, again, at sunset almost to ourselves. For four days we settled into a rhythm of temple-viewing in the morning, led by our polymathic guide Osama, before repairing to Sun Boat IV for an afternoon cruise. Then we relaxed on the upper deck, reading, playing cards and swimming in the plunge pool as rural Egypt floated past.

Cairo, the crucible of last year’s revolution, inevitably, is more rambunctious than Upper Egypt. But, outwardly at least, it seems little changed by the currents buffeting the old allies of the pharaonic Mubarak. Tahrir Square looks little different from the Occupy St Paul’s protest on a quiet day. Dozens of shabby tents were pitched in the centre, under a sea of banners billowing in the breeze. It remains a centre of argument and debate. But the fervour of last year has long since abated.

Inside the museum we marvelled at the sarcophagi, stood spellbound before Tut’s golden mask as our guide Ramez worked his magic, and shuffled uneasily past the unwrapped mummies. I stopped with Heba Saleh, the FT’s thoughtful Cairo correspondent, and Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, a Cairene novelist, to hear the latest from the salons on the revolution before heading back for a last look at the mesmerising pyramids and sphinx. Herodotus was never shy of indulging in hyperbole – but even he would not have needed to embellish this trip.

Alec Russell is the FT’s comment editor

Alec Russell was a guest of Abercrombie & Kent (, which offers a week’s trip to Egypt from £1,245 per person including three nights in Cairo and four on the Sanctuary Sun Boat IV, or from £1,625 including flights from London

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