Egypt: Surprising and Safe
Above: Spice Market, Nubian Village, Aswan. Photo by Colleen Mills
By Colleen Mills
In its latest 2017 poll Gallup Global Law and Order asked the citizens of 135 countries three questions:
Do you feel safe walking the streets where you live at night alone?
Have you ever been assaulted or mugged?
Do you have confidence in your local police to keep you safe?
Placing the answers on a scale from 1-100 the results were:
Egypt is on par with Denmark and China, and the only African country to score in the positive range.
In 2017 I made my first trip to Egypt, finally exploring for myself all the monuments, tombs, museums and temples I had only read about or seen on TV. I sampled its delicious street foods and bargained over locally-made rugs, jewelry, clothing, stonework and precious oils. But I was especially impressed with the people, whose lives hung on a thread at best. They always had a smile and a “Welcome to Egypt.” I never felt unsafe there for one minute and planned to go back again very soon. That turned out to be a year later when the tour agency I went with offered the carrot of a tour of Jordan beforehand. Another fascinating place I will always remember, but it was Egypt that pulled.
Deep in Islamic Cairo sits the rabbit warren of Khan al-Khalili market. From the 14th Century generations of shopkeepers have plied their wares under partly covered alleys, in hole-in-the-wall enterprises selling everything from Bedouin clothing, to perfumes, to precious metals to belly-dancing costumes. My new Facebook friend Hamal and I met when we toured through his carpet-making school in Tentmakers Street. His instructors, some working there for 20 years, teach students to design, colour, weave, cut and stitch each quilt and rug by hand. Both instructor and student entries win prizes at craft fairs worldwide, the latest in Berlin this June. In all sizes and multiple colours they make a most unique souvenir. Just beware the omnipresent speeding tuk-tuks as they race around the narrow, dark alleyways.
The ancient Southern neighbours of Nubia and Egypt have a shared history of war and assimilation. By the mid 20th century, swallowed up by the flooding created by the Aswan, then High dams, their villages, date crops and ancient monuments sat on the bottom of the Lake Nasser. In the 1960s 50,000 southern Nubian Egyptians were relocated to higher ground in government-built villages downriver from Aswan. From our hotel on Elephantine Island in the middle of the Nile we took a water taxi in the early evening to one such village. Though recent generations are more Egyptian than Nubian these villagers delight tourists with their traditional music, food and architecture. Buildings are still made of mud brick, flat-roofed with palm branches then whitewashed and painted in vibrant designs and colours easily seen from the river below. Before our Nubian dinner we meandered through the local market featuring Nubian clothing, jewelry, fresh vegetables, spices and more while villagers’ music and laughter filled the warm night air.
Inside one local house the women showed us their lucky charm. A full grown crocodile, raised from a hatchling to age 22, lay in a caged pool in the middle of the ‘living-room’. In months it would be sacrificed, its skin nailed to a wall to keep away evil spirits. I held its year-old successor while its yellow eyes glared at us, nearly motionless, teeth bared in expectation, not knowing its luck will soon be up.
My last day featured a 2 1/2 hour road trip from Cairo to El Alamein on the Mediterranean coast with my excellent guide and friend Waleed. Today the town is a heavily guarded oil port, but in 1942 it was the site of a decisive battle between German Field Marshal Rommel’s Afrika Korps and the victorious Allies under Field Marshall Montgomery. I wandered through row upon row of Allied graves in the deserted Commonwealth War Cemetery. After I visited the War Museum with displays of Canadian exhibits among the other Allies’ and enemies.’ Outside restored Canadian tanks, artillery and vehicles stand, symbolic of a mere second in Egypt’s vast warring history.
From Silk Road outpost to Suez Canal super route, ever- surprising Egypt is resurrecting itself yet again, with the safety of all a priority. I can’t wait to go back.