The Ballards - Egypt Sharm and The Valley of the Kings


"Foreign types at the hookah pipe...."

Everyone knows the song, so so do they really "walk like an Egyptian"?
We went to Sharm el Sheikh over Easter 2007 to find out.

The Sinai desert is hot, barren and mountainous, not entirely unlike Oman. Sharm el Sheikh, at it's southern tip, was just barren desert until the Israelis invaded the peninsula in 1967 and established a military camp in this strategically important area.
Eventually, after a great deal of negotiation, it was handed back to the Egyptians in 1982.
Meanwhile, Off-duty Israeli soldiers had discovered that the diving in the area was absolutely fabulous and so following the peace treaty the Egyptians decided to develop the entire area for tourism.


Valley of the Kings: I kept expecting Eric Idle to appear over the hill: "he IS the Messiah!"

You do feel you're in a security bubble: the Tourist Police are all armed with sub-machine guns and pistols, and whilst you can see that they are not hugely well-trained a gun is a gun and no less lethal for that fact.
They are there in response to the 2005 bombings and earlier attacks; the area seems to a favoured target for religious and anti-Government nutcases of all descriptions.

A flash of colour in a monochrome setting but she did NOT want to be photographed!

The security services come in three flavours:
- Tourist Police
- Traffic Police
- Unmarked Police / Secret Service
and they are everywhere. If I was an Egyptian I'd be driven mad by it. I'm not convinced the security measures are actually doing any good; certainly I idly devised 1,001 different ways of circumventing the arrangements; it became something of a mental game.

Come this way.... I give you Asda price..

I'm sure I saw this bit in The English Patient

The Traffic Police were spectacularly uninterested in flagrant traffic violations such as speeding, driving without lights, overloading, unroadworthy vehicles or dangerous manoeuvres and were hugely more interested in stop and search, ogling the pretty girls and looking cool in mirror shades.

The fertile zone of the Nile valley is very sharply delineated and is best seen from the air

Alabaster workers, Luxor

The populace seem inured to all this unnecessary security, but the economic drag of keeping this many men trained and hanging around street corners is helping to keep Egypt a desperately poor country; probably not what the anti-Government forces had in mind.....

Alabaster tools, Luxor

The ancient and the Modern, Hatchetsup Temple

There is no history of Freedom of Expression in this Moslem country and women are absent from business life in all but a very few areas. Even the cleaners in the hotel were all blokes, and we saw no Egyptian women anywhere without headscarves (we saw very few Egyptian women).

Hatshetsup temple corridor

Narrow gauge sugar railway, built by the British 100 years or more ago....

But the Internet is changing all that. Western tourists are bringing the demand for free information, and broadband is available. So common Egyptians are discovering a different world and questioning why their Government has to be so unbending and autocratic.

Difficult times lie ahead for Egypt. All Egyptian life revolves around tips, bargaining and baksheesh. As someone brought up on Western values where the price is posted and you pay it; and tipping is reserved for extra special favours only (despite what Americans may think), this takes a little getting used to.
Having experienced it and even started quite to enjoy the bargaining buzz I can understand why the Serious Fraud Office was recently told to "back off" investigating corruption in the gaining of the latest UK/Saudi arms deal; of course they bribed people because that's the way business is done in the Middle East.
No amount of "Ethical Foreign Policy" (thanks, Tony Blair) will change that. So Live With It.

Feluca, Luxor

Column, Karnac

We did a day trip to Luxor by plane, which was interesting.
AMC's only Boeing 737-200 (manufactured in 1976) turned up bearing an uncanny resemblance to the aircraft at the start of the film Final Destination, where everything squeaks and things come off in your hand.
We forget how powerful modern airliners are: this relic took the entire Sharm el Sheikh runway to achieve take-off speed and only just finished it's landing roll at Luxor before we disappeared in to the papyrus fields at the end. I dread to think how many pressurisation/depressurisation cycles it has done.
Also at the airport were Domodedovo Airlines Tu-154s and other superannuated rubbish long since banned from Western Airports on safety and noise grounds. I love 3rd World airports.....

Column, Karnac

Column, Karnac

Our trip to see the antiquities (not just the aeroplanes...) was interesting, except that the guide talked too much, and we ended up thinking "Oh, not Another Bloody Temple....".
There's enough to see for a day but not a great deal else, and I found it as interesting to view modern day mainland Egypt as it was seeing all the ancient buildings.
And I got to bribe a soldier for a picture.....

You want picture? 1 Egyptian Pound my friend.....

Column, Karnac

Ancient Egyptian culture has been copied like crazy by popular culture, especially Hollywood, but it's more interesting to see the originals.
I half expected Lara Croft or Indiana Jones to come swinging by at several points during our tour.

Columns, Karnac

Columns and sunlight, Karnac

The Policemen were as much in evidence in Luxor as they were in Sharm el Sheikh, but disturbingly their equipment looked more relevant to calming riots than preventing bombers.
They all had little steel wheeled riot shields with nifty gun hangers on the inside.
But any rioter wanting to disable them would have only needed to roll a Molotov Cocktail under the shield or shoot at their exposed feet. Staggeringly ineffective.

Columns, Karnac

Columns, Karnac

The various tombs and temples were incredible: they would rank well amongst modern civil engineering feats, but they were built 3,000 years ago with no electricity, no hydraulics, no internal combustion engines, no slide rules, just unimaginable quantities of sweaty labour.

Valley of the Kings

Columns, Luxor Temple

It begs the question: if they were that advanced 3,000 years ago why aren't the Egyptians leading the world now? I look around and all I see is a low-tech 3rd World country. What have they been all been doing for the past 3,000 years?

It is very noticeable that the Eastern Europeans (collecitvely regarded and despised as "Russians" by all the locals) are increasingly taking foreign i.e. outside the USSR holidays, and Egypt is a favourite. There were many in the resort and it was felt that they were rude, money-pinching and offhand.
I suspect that like Americans abroad, the ones that get to go are the ones that are not good adverts for the country. They were universally taciturn, muscled, scowling and with bottle-blonde frightened-looking girlfriends half a step behind them.

Obelisk, Karnac

Columns, Karnac

Conversely, the Egyptians seem to like the Brits; I suppose because Egypt is far enough away (and not alcoholically attractive enough) to avoid the lager louts the sort of English they get to see are the Middle classes who are polite, tip and don't get rude and drunk

Inscriptions, Luxor Temple

Columns, Luxor Temple, Sunset

As in all Arab countries (except, it seems, Oman) "maintenance" is a word that doesn't appear to translate in to the local culture: things are built, used until they break then abandoned.
The Western (and, I note, Indian) culture is one of repair and maintenance, where things are built better and maintained longer.

Mountains behind Sharm el Sheikh, Sinai

Why oh why can't we have these in Britain?

Egyptian roads are terrible:
Badly designed: for example to turn left from one dual carriageway to another you must turn right then do a U-turn from the fast lane in one direction to the fast lane in the other direction
Badly built: terrible surfaces, no maintenance, huge potholes
Badly used: no lights at night "so as not to dazzle the other drivers", apparently.....; overtaking in all directions; driving in the middle of the road; driving the wrong way up dual-carriageways; kids running in the middle of the roads trying to sell things, even on the major roads; 8 year olds driving donkey carts; 8 year olds driving mopeds (!); 30 year old Peugeot 504 taxis everywhere.
I did not miss renting a car one little bit.

Adventures in Scuba

The fish were incredibly numerous

The fish underwater in Sharm el Sheikh were fabulous: the diving really is as good as they say it is. One of those rare occasions when somewhere really does live up to the hype. Recommended.

Like swimming in an aquarium

Amazing fish even at the surface

I did notice one thing; the Egyptians have a strange habit: they put pepper in the pot with one hole and salt in the pot with many holes; the complete reversal of the common custom. Very odd.

We were left with the overriding impression of a country overmanned to a standstill; where labour is cheap and everyone is poor and desperate for a little extra cash; where the Government directs everything and there is very little private initiative.
A heavily Socialist Government means the inevitable high taxes, further increased by the Black Market cash economy ensuring that a huge percentage of business bypasses the Tax authorities entirely.

What future for this boy with increasingly strident Islamic Fundamentalism?

It will be interesting to compare with India.

View across the Nile, Luxor