The late 1970s were a time of great hope and optimism in Israel. In 1977, Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat visited Israel, and 16 months later the peace treaty between our two countries was signed after intense negotiations in a ceremony at the White House on March 26, 1979 with Sadat, Prime Minister Menachem Begin and US President Jimmy Carter joining hands. This was the first Arab state to officially recognize Israel.
Soon after, the border with Egypt was opened, and advertisements began appearing that offered bus trips from Israel to Egypt, with enticing promises to visit the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still in existence – The Great Pyramid of Giza, as well as the Valley of the Kings on the west bank of the Nile.
Two things happened coincidentally in late May 1979. First, my older brother Phil and his wife Stella came to visit me from Australia ; and second, I was offered an assignment by the World Zionist Press Service, to cross the border and write some stories for them about my impressions of Egypt. After Phil and Stella had spent some time with me and my family and done all the usual tourist things in Israel, I persuaded them to come with me to Egypt. I first warned them not to drink the water there or eat uncooked fruit or vegetables (as I had been advised), but they laughed at me, and thought I was being ridiculous as I packed all manner of tinned food for both kashrut and hygiene concerns. I even took bottled water to clean my teeth, sure I would catch something there. Of course they ate and drank everything during our stay there, and who was the only one to get sick? Me, of course!
We left with a bus full of Israelis early one Sunday morning, and eventually arrived at the Taba Border Crossing, near Eilat . We arrived in the middle of a sand storm. It was nearly the end of the trip before it began. The border police took away our Australian passports (I decided not to use my Israeli one), and after two hours still hadn’t returned them. My brother, who had a short fuse and was not known for his political correctness, muttered that they were probably illiterate and couldn’t read. Finally, they were returned and we had permission to cross over, where an Egyptian bus was waiting for us.
We were booked at a hotel on the Nile called the Scheherezade in Cairo, and we were immediately overcome with wonder at its magnificence. It was like entering the lobby of a royal palace… all marble, crystal and gold. We were thrilled at such splendor, and reassured that we wouldn’t be undergoing any deprivations at all. There was only one thing wrong… nothing in the hotel worked!
As we stood waiting by the elevator with our luggage, it made the most awful groaning sounds as it descended, and I looked with horror at what seemed like frayed ropes supporting it. Although we were on the fifth floor, I insisted on using the stairs. Our rooms were also lavish, but when I turned on the light, I got a shock that sent me reeling across the room. By now I was miserable and grubby and longing for a hot bath. There were two problems – there was just a trickle of tepid water and no plug for the bath.
We went out to eat (I ate some tuna in my room at first) but my brother insisted I had to order something, so I opted for a plate of boiled rice. Just as I was about to eat it, my sister-in-law nudged me with a strange look on her face. “Your dinner’s moving” she whispered. With horror, we looked at the rice which was full of weevils, indeed moving across the plate.
The next day we did not have better luck. A famous coffee house my brother insisted that we visit did have the most delicious and elaborate pastries I had ever seen in the glass display case. We sat at a table and a friendly waiter approached with the dirtiest tea towel I have ever seen draped over his arm. He smiled at us as he carefully wiped out each of our cups with it, before pouring the coffee.
LUCKILY, WE WEREN’T in Egypt for the refreshments. The Great Pyramid of Giza didn’t disappoint. According to Napoleonic legend, the future emperor of France once emerged from there pale and shaken after spending time alone in the King’s Chamber. He never revealed the reason.
It is estimated to have been built between 2551–2528 BCE, standing 147 meters high (about 45 stories), but it is mostly just solid masses of limestone, and has more than two million blocks. Its neighbors are the Pyramids of Khafre and Menkaure. They were also used as royal tombs for pharaohs, part of a funerary complex that also held queens’ burial sites and temples for daily offerings. The pharaohs were buried in a subterranean chamber beneath the pyramid, but Khufu’s sarcophagus rests in the King’s Chamber, deep inside the Great Pyramid. We ascended through a tight passage, austere, as they only began decorating the chambers with hieroglyphics in later periods. We Jews all know who built these pyramids, and we relate the story every Passover.
On the bus en route to the Valley of the Kings (across the river from Luxor), a handsome Egyptian with perfect English came up to my brother. “Is that your wife?” he asked, pointing to Stella. He nodded that it was. “I would like to buy her for my father,” he said. “I will give you five camels for her.” When Phil was rendered speechless, he upped the offer to ten. Somewhat reluctantly it seemed to me he declined, saying he doubted that he would find any use for them back in Melbourne.
My memory of all the places we visited has faded over the last 40 years, but I remember we were disappointed that the 500-year-old Eliyahu HaNavi Synagogue could only be viewed from the outside since when we arrived it was permanently closed and guarded. We were told that there were may be only eight elderly Jews still living in the area.
We also visited the Cairo Geniza, housing thousands of Jewish manuscript fragments found in the storeroom of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat – in Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic on vellum, papyrus and cloth, dating from the 10th–13th centuries.
The one memory that hasn’t faded was an unintentional visit in Cairo to the City of the Dead. We thought that it was just a cemetery, but were horrified to discover that hundreds of poor people actually live and work among the dead! It is four miles long. Some reside here to be close to ancestors; others are forced to live here out of poverty. I had nightmares about it for weeks after returning home to Israel.
The trip was an adventure, and I am sure that much has changed and been modernized in the last four decades. Today I Googled the hotel where we stayed and wonderful pictures came up of a luxurious hotel with pictures of bedrooms nothing like I remember. (And, presumably now with hot water and light switches that won’t give you a shock.)
My fondest memory is coming home to my modest Jerusalem flat and feeling like the luckiest person in the world to be blessed with such comfort!
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