Early in 2014 I made a trip with The Giving Lens to Jordan, on the way over I was invited to join 2 other photographers in Egypt for a few days. I decided to head there despite the travel warning by the Australian Government and the constant bad news reported by the Australian media. Flying in to Cairo was a fairly straight forward experience, I was able to get my visa on arrival and it was relatively cheap.
The hotel we stayed at (right across the road from the Pyramids) in Giza sent a taxi to collect me from the airport and away I went, the roads and drivers in Cairo are certainly an experience. The accommodation was comfortable and the people were super friendly, serving me tea as soon as I arrived, making sure I was welcome! As I had arrived late in the afternoon, I decided to get my stuff unpacked and chill at the hotel for the afternoon / evening and then head out the next day exploring. Dinner that evening was served on the rooftop deck of the hotel, which made for an awesome view of the nightly light and sound show over the Pyramids and Sphinx, I highly recommend booking the accommodation at the Pyramid View Inn just for that reason alone.
With my initial introduction to Egypt over I met up with 2 other photographer friends of mine we explored Cairo and Giza for a few days, it was absolutely incredible and probably one of my favourite trips of 2014. There are some pretty crazy stories and amazing experience from our trip, like the time we were invited to have tea and shisha with some old islamic men who spoke minimal English.. and then someone handed Kate an owl?! (seriously, a real life owl) or being at the top of the highest minaret in the oldest mosque in Cairo at sunset as the call to prayer went out across the city. It’s moments like this that are impossible to plan for in travel, but are exactly why I travel, making that connection with people in other cultures and realising that we’re all human and largely want the same things out of life, regardless of the difference in food, language, culture and religion.
The Pyramids of Egypt are one of the primary reasons most people visit Egypt in the first place, there are many conflicting stories around the building of the pyramids, some plausible, others are just plain flat weird (aliens.. really?!). The Egyptians insist that the story of Jewish slavery is just a story. It seems that most people who believe that think it is in the bible.. it isn’t, the bible just says that the Jews were slaves for a period of time in Egypt, it doesn’t specifically say what they were working on. I’m inclined to believe that the truth lies somewhere between the stories (minus the aliens) and that slavery/cheap labour was involved in some capacity though.
One of the strangest things about the area (in my mind) is that right across the road from the pyramids… sits a Pizza Hut and a Kentucky Fried Chicken… seriously! The incongruence of it is either funny or sad, maybe a touch of both. I didn’t eat at either place, choosing instead to find the places the locals were eating.
Regardless they are easily some of the most impressive human built structures in the world, the sheer scale of them just gets you asking all sorts of questions!
The one thing that did surprise me is that the sphinx is actually much smaller than what I thought, but very impressive none the less. We did some horse riding around the Pyramid complex, it was a heap of fun and one of those things you just have to do! One suggestion I have to make is to hire a guide before you go to the pyramids, they will help keep the touts away as well as head off any scammers.
Spent a few days wandering around, exploring and experiencing Cairo, the city itself is quite a strange mix of the ancient, the old and the modern. There are sections of Cairo that look brand new, such as the recently completed Ikea store we saw, right across the road from largely unfinished apartments. My favourite part of Cairo was what is called “Old Cairo”, it is mainly an Islamic area with many mosques and markets, some of the buildings and monuments date back to the 7th century. We were treated with respect, dignity and a touch of curiosity as we wandered through the streets, random people would greet us, say welcome to Egypt, invite us to join them for a meal, tea or shisha and generally wished us well. Here are some photos from around Cairo:
Sunset from the Minaret:
While wandering through Cairo we kind of stumbled upon the entrance of one of the mosques, intrigued by the design we stopped to have a look, immediately we were invited inside by one of the Imams and offered to be shown around. We removed our shoes and the female photographers with me covered their hair and then we followed the Imam through the mosque. We were given a tour and a bit of the history of the mosque and then asked if we wanted to go up to the top of the minaret to take photos… of course we said yes to this amazing invitation! Here are some of the photos:
We were led up the stairs to the top of the minaret, the Imam then excused himself as it was prayer time, the sun set and the call to prayer started to go out across the city. I’m not sure what it is, but I find the call to prayer quite appealing and really enjoyed just being there in that moment. It was one of many amazing experiences we had in Egypt and one I’ll never forget! We were treated with complete respect and dignity the entire time, one of the many things I love about the Arab and Muslim cultures is their hospitality, I’ve experienced it in Egypt, Jordan and Dubai now and it is always refreshing.
City of the Dead:
There is an area on the edge of Cairo called the city of the dead, also known as Cairo Necropolis. The city of the dead is an Islamic necropolis and cemetery, a mass of tombs and mausoleums that are also inhabited by the living. Estimates put the current population of this largely slum area to be over 500,000 people, some people live in this area to be close to their ancestors and family, others have been forced here due to the housing crisis in Cairo.
We took a wander through the area and were surprised to find cafes, shops and mosques operating right in the middle of the tombs and mausoleums. The main street that we walked down was quite busy with traders coming back and forth with their goods and shops that were full of people drinking tea. While walking we were invited to join a group of old Islamic men for tea, they pretty much insisted we join them, not wanting to offend them and always up for connecting with the locals we sat and had some sweet tea. The group of men didn’t really speak english and none of us were able to say anything more than hello in Arabic, but we somehow managed to communicate with sign language, miming and a load of laughs.
At one point during the conversation, The Giving Lens operations manger, Kate, was handed an owl by a young man. I joked that she was now married to the young man because she had accepted the owl. Nobody seemed to think it was all that unusual to hand someone an owl, it was one of things where you just kind of look at each other, shrug your shoulders and go “well that just happened” and have a good laugh about it.
While Kate and Meredith were talking further with some locals I went to check out some of the shops that were around us and came across this barber shop. I had a talk with the guy working there and he was quite proud to tell me that it was his shop and that he was the barber. I asked him if I could take his photo and he was more than happy to pose for me in his store.
Overall my short time in Egypt was a great experience, I would love to visit again in the future. At the time of the visit Egypt was going through some political unrest and there was a mixed reaction to that by the people, we saw that there was a definite military presence in many areas, particularly around the Coptic Christian area, near the airport and government buildings. At no point in my trip did I feel like I was in anyway unsafe or in any real danger with the only exception being any time we hopped in a taxi and experienced Cairo traffic. The roads could definitely do with some maintenance, some of them just need to be rebuilt from scratch, during the upheaval many government services simply stopped happening.
Everywhere we went we were welcomed with open arms and were extended invitations to join people for tea or whatever they were having, the hospitality was just incredible. Unfortunately as a result of the political unrest and a few very controversial court decisions, tourism was down by over 75%, this meant that the average person who’s business previously relied on tourists, was really hurting. Many of the vendors, taxi drivers and people we met expressed that they missed the tourists. It felt like it was the perfect time for us to visit as we didn’t have to fight huge crowds of people to see things and we were able to more readily connect with the local people.
Egypt is a country that is in the middle of some huge changes, as a result it can be quite chaotic at times but I absolutely loved my visit there and once things settle down a bit in the region, I look forward to visiting again!
All photos copyright Paul Pichugin, please seek permission before using the photos for any purpose.