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Walking in History: A Week in Egypt with Origin Travels

By Suzey Ingold


By the time we are adults, most of us will have some visual concept of what Ancient Egypt is. It may not be a true or historically accurate concept, it may be skewed heavily by Western media or pop culture, but we have an idea. We know the staggering mummies of supernatural horror films or kids’ cartoons, trailing bandages behind them; we know the silhouette of the Great Pyramids and the fractured nose of the Sphinx; we know the ornate structures of the pilfered sarcophagi that sit in many major Western museums across the world. And even if we inherently know these are exaggerations or fabrications, we accept them because we have nothing else with which to compare them.

 

It doesn’t take long, on arrival to Egypt, for your mind to begin to reconstruct the ideas you had. Or, in my case, to wipe the slate clean entirely, letting the fresh images come as though I had never seen anything like them before.


girl with sphinx

From the balcony of my hotel room in Giza, I can see two of the Great Pyramids, towering up behind a bustling street of rooftop restaurants and narrow souvenir shops. Here, the ancient meets the present day; the enduring history coming shoulder-to-shoulder with the blaring horns of motorbikes and cars that race through the maze of streets.

 

I’ve seen archaeological sites before, mostly across Europe where they are often little more than a pile of ruins; tiny stone fortresses that have crumbled in the elements, with a small sign declaring that it was once a great palace or a castle.


girl at Egyptian temple

Egypt seems to still breathe its history, despite the thousands of years that have passed since the pharaohs ruled this land. Despite the changes in borders, in climate, in the path of the Nile. Despite conflict and progress, the ancient history here is more accessible, and more visible, than anywhere I have ever been before. Where the best remaining relics are not, to my mind, in the museum, however fulsome it is, but still on the ground upon which they were placed.

 

The Great Pyramids and the Sphinx are one thing, but they are only the beginning. We journey south to Aswan, arriving to the station that sits in the mouth of the bustling medina. Our first stop is Philae Temple. Perhaps it’s the heat, or the broken night’s sleep, or the cultural adjustment, but for a moment, I can’t comprehend where I am standing to be real.


Philae temple in Egypt

 

This is a feeling I will encounter a lot over the coming days, not least as our tour guide casually mentions dates now thousands of years in the past. The sheer amount of time that has passed since these structures were first constructed to now. He is unfazed by them. I am struggling to make sense of it.

 

We are not just looking at history through the glass pane of a museum display but standing in it. My dusty Birkenstocks are treading the same pathways that were once walked by people who lived millennia ago.

 

It’s a longer amount of time than I think our brains are actually capable of processing. I try to think about what five thousand years ago actually means, and I can’t. It’s too much; it’s too far. It’s like trying to imagine what comes beyond our galaxy, too far of a stretch from what we know. 

 

To see in Egypt is almost to believe. Almost, because trying to take in the intricate hieroglyphics or the vibrancy of the paint left intact in relation to the time that has passed feels near-impossible. Maybe, these structures feel real in a way that the ruins of Europe that I am more used to don’t. Walking through the reconstruction of Knossos Palace in Crete, knowing that all of it is fabricated to resemble something that has long since been lost, feels as much like walking through Disneyland as it does a historical site.

 

But here, where nothing has been retouched or reformed, nothing rebuilt for the sake of those who come to visit it, but allowed to live and decay naturally, I can feel the history. The walls sing with it, from the original ornate stonework to the graffiti and defacement that has been done since by invading communities, from the Christians to the Greeks.

 

The more we explore the temples and tombs of Aswan and then Luxor, from Philae to Kom Ombo, and onward to Karnak and the Valley of the Kings, I start to think more and more of the people who lived during these times. We have a tendency to think only of the great figures of historical eras, without accounting much for the everyday folks. For those who lived under the rule of the pharaohs, but were not royalty themselves; who still had families to provide for and jobs to do in their community. Their stories too seemed to exist in the feeling of the places we visited, even if theirs are not the tales enduring on the temple walls.

 

No photo of Egypt could ever do it justice. No detailed description of a temple’s hieroglyphics in a book could adequately explain the importance of the history that stands on that ground, and no map of the Valley of the Kings could ever impress the sheer depth of those tombs and the work required to put them down there. Egypt is the kind of place that has to be seen to even begin to understand it; the kind of place that should be seen, even just as a reminder of the sheer progression of humankind and its civilisation.


Egyptian hieroglyphics

We returned to Cairo for the final day of our tour. After a week in the country, diving deep into its past, I could more clearly see the modern-day city before me; the pyramids and temples as a backdrop to the life that was happening all around in this moment.

 

A group of children dash across a rooftop nearby, their shouts echoing around the square as they try to launch their kite into the light breeze. A mother holds tight to her sleeping child with one arm and her husband with the other as they cut through the early evening traffic on a motorbike. An elderly man sits on the curb smoking a cigarette outside a convenience store, and offers a light to a younger man who passes by. 

 

And all the while, the Sphinx watches from the corner of her eye; an Ancient guardian over a 21st century country and its people.


Read more from Suzey here.

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