Posts tagged ‘Sarwat Hegazy’

Five reasons to beat the Pope to Egypt

Pope Francis is heading to Egypt the end of April to visit President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and the Grand Imam of the Al-Azhar.

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taz horse pyramidHere are five reasons every savvy globe-trotter should try to get there first.

1. Egypt is a bargain right now. Last November, Egyptian Central Bank devalued its currency by 48 percent. So everything’s cheap, cheap, cheap. I visited four weeks later and couldn’t believe the prices: gorgeous scarves for $3, an hour-long horse and buggy ride in Luxor for $4, luxury hotels for $50.

2. You get Ramses IV and King Tut to yourself. Thanks to events I need not recount here, tourism to Egypt has been down the last few years. The lines to enter the Great Pyramid of Giza and Luxor’s Valley of the Kings are non-existent. My daughter and I enjoyed the guilty pleasure of standing alone in Ramses tomb, being able to ogle the hieroglyphics and gilded sarcophagus with no pressure to move along for the next ogler. It’s truly a magical time to be in a truly magical country. Yes, some of my news-addicted friends worried for our safety, but I felt completely at ease, never threatened in any way. The news media does all of us a great disservice in its nonstop reporting of anomalous events. To give some perspective, what tourist would now avoid Charleston because of one fanatic racist? Again, look up the definition of anomaly.

3. Ancient antiquities are still being found. Less than two weeks ago, a nearly 3000-year-old statue was found under mud in a Cairo slum. The 26-foot (that’s nearly three stories tall) yet-to-be-identified statue made international headlines, but according to Khaled al-Anani, Egypt’s antiquities minister, only 30 percent of Egypt’s glories have yet been unearthed. That means 70 percent of who knows what is still buried under the sand. A couple years ago, for example, in Saqqara, two dozen mummies turned up in a 36-foot shaft. The point is, the excavation is just beginning. It’s like being in Silicon Valley in the 90’s.

tomb24. Locals are warm and welcoming. Perish any notion you might have about Middle-Easterners not liking tourists. It’s a myth, kinda like the Easter Bunny. Upon arrival in Cairo, it took a grand total of 15 minutes for me to realize this stereotype is misguided and downright insulting. Hospitality is an art in the Muslim world, a cherished virtue that encourages practitioners to view every person who comes across their path as sent by Allah himself. After spending a couple weeks with Sarwat Hegazy, a long-time guide and co-creator of Egypt Unveiled, any crusty idea I might have had about being unwelcome were quickly dashed against the seven-story granite sides of the infamous Sphinx.

Sarwat’s partner, Jane Bolinowsky, an Australian flute player who bought a second home within sand-blowing distance of the Giza Pyramid, knows all kinds of fascinating folks. Each of their tours are custom-designed, but expect to meet belly dancers, costume makers, perfume purveyors and Egypt’s best koshari chefs.

5. You get a priceless chance to uplift the world. Pope Francis, of course, is going to Cairo to cement the “spirit of tolerance and dialog,” to continue thawing Catholic-Muslim relationships that began when he lovingly embraced the Imam during last May’s visit to the Vatican. Seems to me, there’s very little more important that any of us could do than to hug our foreign brothers and realize we are all the same.

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Egypt’s Siwa Oasis casts an enchanting spell

“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” – Aldous Huxley

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I love anything that smashes to bits a crusty, no-longer useful notion. The presumptions we make about other cultures, other countries are top of the crusty notion list. Which is why I so loved my recent trip to Egypt.

I will be writing a series of articles about this magical country and why I believe everyone should add it to (maybe move it to the top of?) their bucket list.

Even those lucky and ballsy enough to visit Egypt often miss one of the most unique destinations.

Pyramids? Check.

Cairo? Check.

Luxor, Valley of the Kings? Check. Check.

But unless you’re Alexander the Great, it’s doubtful you’ve made it Egypt’s Siwa Oasis. The chief reason being that it’s hard to get to. You have to really want to go. In fact, when the 55,000-man Persian Army tried to visit in 550 BC, they were swallowed by the immense desert, never to be seen again.

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Now at least, there’s a road. Even still, from Cairo, it’s a good six-hour drive and that’s if you didn’t have to stop every couple hours to produce your passport.

Even I, intrepid traveler that I am, started wondering after the fifth stop by armed guards: Why was it again I wanted to visit this remote outpost?

But within 15 minutes of arriving in this fertile Berber enclave on the edge of the Eastern Sahara’s Great Sand Sea, every concern, every bumpy mile evaporated into great gratitude.

oracle-distanceAccording to legend, Alexander the Great made it to Siwa in 332 BC by talking with snakes and following crows across the desert. He traversed the 150,000 square mile ocean of sand to consult with the Oracle of Amon, the great Sun God who is honored with a 3000-year old temple that stands yet today. Unlike Mr. Great, who was told by the ancient Oracle that he was the Divine Big Cheese and the rightful head of the gods and Egyptian pharaohs, I was told I should keep writing books.

I can’t complain. Standing on the edge of the limestone temple that sits like a floating white island above green palms, I was struck wordless as I looked out over the palm tops of date and olive trees and the Montana-sized white sand ocean that separates Egypt from Libya.

sarwat-oracle Even though it’s now possible to safari out into the Great Sand Sea, finding words to describe the experience is virtually impossible and, for my money, the genesis of the phrase, “You really have to be there.” The dictionary has yet to add words that can adequately describe the pure hugeness, the expanse, the colors, the sounds, the thrill of roller-coastering up and down the dunes as fast as your jeep will drive. Even photos, with their 1000-word value, can’t convey the experience, the immersion of silence found in this ocean of soft white sand.

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After finally managing to close our gaping mouths and rise from our knees where we knelt in awe, we spent our day in the Great Sand Sea lounging in hot springs (there are hundreds, many with medicinal properties) sand boarding down 70-foot dunes and sipping lemongrass tea as the sun spread its magnificent setting colors across the landscape.

Even though Siwa is located on the old date caravan route (sort of a no-brainer when you have 300,000 date palms), it wasn’t much explored by the west until World War II, when clandestine German and British desert patrols including Count Laszlo Almasy (you might know him as the English Patient) came to spy.

Because it’s so remote, Siwa is quite distinct from other parts of Egypt and has retained a mostly Berber culture for some 13 centuries. Girls tend to marry by age 14, so the winding dirt streets with more donkey carts than cars are mostly filled with young children, veiled women and hospitable men selling local produce, finely-embroidered woven crafts, Berber jewelry and salt lamps and candle holders.

siwa-marketSlouching mud and salt brick buildings provide storefronts (we were even able to buy a pair of fake Armani sunglasses), quaint restaurants and charming hotels and B&B’s.

After visiting the Temple of the Oracle, we headed out to Cleopatra’s Bath, Siwa’s most famous spring that, despite the rumor, never actually hosted the famous Egyptian Queen. The springside Tanta Waa (it basically means OMG in the local Siwian language) juice bar is owned by a delightful English-speaking Egyptian who attended the same prep school as Omar Sharif. He was playing Wanda Jackson hits and I sat there drinking a mango smoothie listening to her rockabilly version of Kansas City, I thought to myself, it certainly is a very small world.

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I’ll be forever grateful to Jane Bolinowsky and Sarwat Hegazy at Egypt Unveiled for introducing me to this amazing place.

To find out more, check out their website: www.egyptunveiled.com.