29.03.2019 - 12.04.2019
Hello once again from Arabia,
I've been to a few more places this year and in February visited Cairo, the Arab world’s and indeed Africa’s biggest city, it’s also the biggest in the world I hadn’t been to so was really pleased to be able to visit. As a teenager I visited the South of Egypt around Luxor so it was interesting to get an older perspective and see what I made of the country as an adult.
Cairo itself wouldn’t rank as the most beautiful city I’ve been to. By far. Absolutely filthy and clogged in awful permanent traffic jams, it’s the sort of city the phrase ‘urban hell’ was devised for. Egypt experienced massive rural to urban migration in the ‘80s and ‘90s and the city was simply unable to cope with the influx of people; people ended up living in cemeteries and underneath motorways as the city became notorious for its pollution and other problems.
The infrastructure has been improved a bit since then but large swathes of the city still feel fairly ‘temporary’, particularly in poorer residential neighbourhoods as the buildings are deliberately built with no roofs to avoid paying tax on them and there’s little to no beautification of public spaces. The rich live in swanky compounds away from the chaos of the city a
nd as with other megacities in Middle Income Countries like Sao Paulo and Mexico City the rich poor divide felt unpleasantly stark here.
The city itself was less satisfying than I thought it was gonna be, whilst Old Cairo is interesting to walk around in for a couple of hours, the central area around Tahir Square (site of the protests in the Arab Spring) was just extremely dirty with several major roads running through it. Even doing a cruise on the Nile was not as pleasant as it sounds as the city is just not very attractively built and has fewer points of interest than I imagined. The one big exception to this being of course the mighty pyramids; an unmistakable sight from all over the South of the city, the sheer size of them can’t fail to awe and wandering round them trying to appreciate how they were constructed 4,500 years ago is the definite highlight of Cairo.
Desperate to get out the city, we took a flight to the Sinai peninsula for a real change in atmosphere. Actually part of Asia rather than Africa, Northern Sinai has become quite dangerous near the Israeli border as the army are fighting an ongoing insurgency against Islamic terrorists. The Southern part however is much safer with the beach resorts of Sharm El Sheikh and several others offering welcome Winter sun to European tourists. We went to the city of Dahab which offered a great combination of sea and mountains. We went snorkeling in the cold but very cool Blue Hole to see some of the famous Red Sea marine life then went on a 2 day trek up into the mountains to climb Mt. Sinai. Where Moses (allegedly) received the 10 Commandments it was quite an easy hike in truth but in stunning scenery of parched red sandstone mountains as far as the eye could see, it certainly had the feeling of somewhere important in human history. After spending an utterly freezing night near the summit we headed down to the warmth of the coast and our flight back to Cairo.
Speaking to Egyptians it’s not a very happy place right now with some parallels of Britain of how divided the country feels. After overthrowing one longstanding military dictator (Mubarak) in 2011 after briefly and unsuccessfully trying democracy they’re now back to another military backed dictator (Sisi) who seems to be tolerated and loathed in equal measure. Egypt is by far the biggest Arab country and certainly the most influential in terms of culture, after Mubarak was overthrown the Muslim Brotherhood came to power and there was a fear that Egypt was becoming could go down the route of Syria or Iraq and become dominated by Islamists or even Daesh. Therefore many feel the coup by Sisi was necessary to stop the country going down this route. However, lots of people were utterly contemptuous of him and the whole process of how he came to power so the country is extremely divided and everyone is very aware of it, a bit like how Britain has changed since Brexit.
Overall, it wasn’t the easiest place to travel in but certainly somewhere I’m pleased to have seen and get a bit more perspective of living in and understanding the Middle East.
Abu Dhabi and Jordan
I write this from Madaba in Jordan where I spent the last 2 weeks.
Madaba is a small town outside the fairly forgettable capital Amman where we began and ended our trip here in Jordan. Whilst it’s scruffily built, it has a real charm and hides a secret in its 5th century churches and incredibly well preserved early Christian mosaics. As with most spots in Jordan, fascinating history is never far away.
Before arriving here though we made a quick stop off in the capital of the UAE, Abu Dhabi. Whilst Dubai is by far the more famous, Abu Dhabi is much larger, wealthier and more powerful. Within the UAE, it calls the shots, including the lamentable embargo on Qatar .
It’s certainly not as flashy as Dubai and lacks the standout sights like Burj Khalifa or Burj Al Arab but as in Dubai I found myself really admiring it. Unlike in Qatar the infrastructure is largely finished and the city just ‘works’ with an efficient bus system, lots of parks and vegetation and a more mixed economy than the oil and gas stereotype. It’s based on a fairly ugly peninsula with fairly non-descript islands dotted around but it still has a couple of cool sights to see in the amazing national masjid and the controversial Abu Dhabi Louvre. All in all a very pleasant city and definitely somewhere to recommend as a stopover.
Jordan however I would probably pick as the best place in the Middle East to go ‘on holiday’; manageable distances between sights, friendly people and a good tourist infrastructure make the country feel very ‘easy’ to travel in and the range of history and variety of landscapes to see is just outstanding.
Before heading to Jordan’s most famous sights further South, we warmed up by visiting the incredible Roman city of Jerash. Nicknamed the Pompeii of the Middle East it’s a huge Roman city that got abandoned after a couple of earthquakes but is still remarkably well preserved. Whilst there’s no one building to compare with the Temple of Jupiter at Baalbek, it has several points which are jawdroppingly impressive such as the 6,000 seater theatre and huge colonnaded main street. The landscape around it is upland agricultural land and almost feels alpine but the next day we headed East and saw a completely different side of the country. Rows of crops and trees were replaced by vast expanses of sand as almost the entire Eastern half of the country is empty desert. It was here that the Islamic Caliphs from Baghdad built castles and much later TE Lawrence roamed around fomenting the Arab rebellion against the Ottomans in WWI. The road heads Eastwards and I felt a strange sense of foreboding about the road as it headed into the desert as it leaves the safety of Jordan, into the heartlands of Daesh territory in the Syria/Iraq border region.
It felt good to head back to the more populated regions and we next drove South via some incredible Crusader castles. Whilst it’s an era that doesn’t seem to get taught too much in schoolsI find it a very rich period to study with several sliding doors moments in the history of the ‘old world’ and the religious makeup of the world. Investigating the remains of Baldwin and Saladdin’s castles with the backdrop of the Great Rift that Jordan sits on was extremely satisfying.
Our next stop of Petra was however, definitely Jordan’s crown jewel for me and would have to rank as one of the greatest architectural sights I’ve ever seen. ‘Rediscovered’ by the Swiss explorer Burckhart at the beginning of the 19th century it rose in Western consciousness when featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and it was deservedly chosen as one of the modern seven wonders when put to a public internet vote in 2007. I’ve now been to all of them and whilst to a lesser extent Machu Picchu and certainly Christ the Redeemer don’t deserve to be there (democracy doesn’t work) Petra really is a thing of wonder. As you descend the main highway off the Jordan plateau a mesmerising set of sandstone formations arises in the distance; when the road stops you have to continue walking and as you slowly move through the narrow, twisty canyons with walls some 100m high, out of seemingly nowhere the incredible treasury suddenly reveals itself and leaves all first time viewers simply speechless. Petra was created by a civilization called the Nabateans who weren’t around too long (300years, then destroyed by earthquakes/Romans) but my word what a wonder they have left. Whilst stumbling on the treasury is the most famous part of a Petra visit there are some 800 tombs, temples and sacrificial altars carved out of the beautiful pink sandstone. In what would have to rank as one of the most intense sightseeing days I can ever remember, around almost every corner there was something incredible to see and I found myself marveling over the patience and craftsmanship required to carve such incredible monuments out of the sandstone some 2000 years ago. A truly unforgettable experience.
After such intense sightseeing some relaxation was needed so we headed down to the Gulf of Aqaba and did some lovely snorkeling and swimming in the sun. You have to go to a private beach to do this though as still conservative Jordan doesn’t really go in for swimming costumes and displays of flesh.
Worried about getting soft we then headed to the famed Wadi Rum, another iconic playground of TE Lawrence. Whilst the desert in the East was vast, almost featureless plains of sand in Wadi Rum it’s very different; the sand feels more like an ocean but dotted with plentiful islands of sandstones which rise up steeply and create wonderful vistas. At certain times (particularly at sunrise and sunset) the rocks give off beautiful colours and it’s an extremely photogenic and atmospheric place to be. Whilst it’s billed as ‘the authentic’ Bedouin desert experience I think it has lost a bit of that feeling as there are now so many tourists visiting and the camps needed to support them have changed the landscapes. Unfortunately litter can be seen a bit too frequently in the area and the night skies that I’d heard so much about were somewhat contaminated by the light pollution from the bulbs of the various camps but it’s still a wonderful place to see and explore.
We then did the long drive back North to the Dead Sea and got to see yet another fascinating landscape in the Jordanian kaleidoscope. The road from Aqaba by the Israeli border starts off flat but then starts to descend and the temperature gradually climbs. Agriculture starts appearing and the area is surprisingly well populated, albeit it’s a tough life. Like in Israel, Jordan earns a lot of money from the Dead Sea creating Bromine, Magnesium, potash and other minerals but these industries along with the intense agriculture have created serious water problems. Jordan now ranks as the 5th most water deprived country in the world with just 77cu meters per person (anything <500 = water scarce) as a combination of rising population, massive depletion of rivers and underground sources has meant that by some estimates in as soon as 20 years Jordan could run out of water completely. It was sad seeing the effects of it in Azraq in the East as a huge wetland oasis in the desert has now shrunk to just 1/10 of its former size and the Dead Sea is shrinking at an almost unbelievable rate. In the hotel we stayed at it was now a 5min walk down to the water as the hotel built in the 1990s was now no longer on the coast. There is a plan to pump water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea to replenish it and Israel has agreed to send desalinated water to Jordan in exchange for their continued political support but there’s no doubt the population is having a disastrous effect on the landscape.
The Dead Sea was however a wonderful place to finish the trip and effortlessly float in the dead still waters. Dotted around the lake are various Biblical sites to visit including questionable claims to Sodom, Gomorrah, Lot’s Cave and Mt Nebo (where Moses ‘died’) but a better one for where Jesus was baptised in the Jordan. The river really isn’t very big or impressive and seeing it in the flesh it was incredible to think such a varied and interesting country is named after something so small!
All in all, a wonderful place to visit and an excellent holiday destination.