The Ancient Past and the Dystopian Future
I wasn’t entirely comfortable in Cairo. I didn’t feel actively threatened, as such, but I didn’t feel like I could take a walk down the street without facing a very real risk of injury or death. The extremely casual interpretation of the Highway Code and general Health & Safety precautions was a significant factor in that feeling, but the vibe generally felt…wrong. Maybe that was just me and the paranoia a couple of years without travel had created, but it was still enough for me to decide to move on from Egypt after only a single full day.
I had already decided that my next stop would be Athens, and I found an evening flight for a reasonable price. That gave me most of the day to pick from the historical attractions around Cairo and entertain myself. I selected the Egyptian Museum.
After another tasty breakfast (albeit a smaller one since the hotel owner obviously noticed I left a lot of the previous day’s feast), I went back to reception and asked to be driven to the Egyptian Museum. While I waited for the driver to arrive, I decided to use the time to book my hotel in Athens. This proved to be more challenging than expected.
At this point, I need to explain a little about my financial situation – specifically, the fact that I have two bank accounts in Thailand. My salary is paid into my Siam Commercial Bank (SCB) account, but I transfer limited amounts of it into a Kasikornbank (Kbank) account for day-to-day expenditures, leaving the rest in reserve in the SCB account. This is mostly because the Kbank app is much better and the card is more widely accepted for online and in-store transactions.
I hadn’t had the opportunity to transfer much money into the Kbank account, unfortunately, so I was relying on the SCB account for this trip. However, in attempting to complete the hotel booking, I received a text message from SCB informing me that my account had been frozen. I never told the bank that I would be travelling overseas and using the card for overseas transactions, so they assumed it had been stolen or scammed and locked it as a precaution. I was now stuck right at the start of my trip with no access to most of my funds.
Where do I live?
The text message from SCB informed me that I could unlock my account using the SCB app or by calling the support helpline. For reasons I still haven’t figured out, I have never been able to log into the app. A concerted effort in this emergency situation proved that nothing had changed there. That left me with just the helpline. Not ideal.
After a pause while my phone decided to take a random two-minute break from functioning, followed by a further pause while my heart rate returned to normal, I tried the number. Then I tried it a few more times before I finally connected to the helpline’s automated system. Just as I did, the hotelier (Marwan and/or Hassan) told me that the driver had arrived, so I had to hang up again virtually immediately.
Now on the road, I quickly checked the time in Thailand and immediately regretted doing so. It was already 4pm there, and the call centre closes at 5pm, so I had no choice but to call again during the noisy drive. On the third or fourth attempt and after a minute or two of jaunty hold music, I was connected with a lovely lady who spoke excellent English, understood my situation, and kindly helped me reactivate my account with the promise to keep it active throughout the trip.
There was one moment of panic during this lengthy process, which was when I was asked to prove my identity by giving my address. Unfortunately, I really don’t like dealing with banks and I hadn’t updated my account details since I moved house. And I had completely forgotten the address of my old apartment! With the help of Google Maps and a certain amount of patience and compassion on the part of the bank employee, she eventually believed that I was who I claimed to be and unlocked the account.
Incidentally, this “lengthy process”, which included several long minutes enjoying the jaunty tunes while the lady sorted out my account, would end up adding a couple of extra zeros to the end of my phone bill for the month.
Too much history
Thoroughly relieved and satisfied that this problem would not repeat itself, I arrived at the impressively grand Egyptian Museum. After passing through three rigorous security checkpoints, I somewhat reluctantly left my rucksack with an extremely relaxed guard in the cloakroom and headed inside.
What I found was, if I’m honest, a little disappointing. The artefacts in the museum are undoubtedly impressive, comprehensively covering about 5,000 years of history. Just take a look at the photos and you’ll see what I mean…
However, what you may also have noticed is that it genuinely looks like the place hasn’t been thoroughly cleaned or organised in decades. Many of the information labels were yellowed with age and not that easy to read. Perhaps, had I hired a guide, I would have got a much clearer understanding of Ancient Egyptian history out of the place. Instead, I got about 250 photographs and sore feet from four hours of walking around somewhat aimlessly, not helped by the route through the exhibits being confusingly signposted. I’m pretty sure I saw two copies of the same sign pointing in opposite directions, at one point!
It’s worth mentioning that the Egyptian Museum shares more than a naming convention with the British Museum. Both are far too big to visit in a single day! I very rapidly went from closely inspecting every case to quickly scanning entire rooms and making snap decisions on whether or not it was worth my increasingly dwindling time and energy. This is less of a problem with the British Museum, which is free to access, but a day pass for the Egyptian Museum costs £200 (Egyptian pounds, of course, so about £5 in sterling). If I was going to take a close interest in every single room, reading every label and admiring every artefact, it would have cost me about a week and £1,400!
Talking of the British Museum, one thing that stuck me while I was exploring was the sheer quantity of artefacts that have survived the centuries since they were buried. Despite the amount pilfered by the Ancient Romans, as well as that recovered and preserved by archaeologists from the UK, US, France and other countries (not to mention the unknown quantity stolen by grave robbers), large sections of the upper floor of the Egyptian Museum consisted of cabinet after cabinet of unlit and unlabelled sarcophaguses, many of them caked in dust behind grimy glass. It’s a very graphic display of why grave robbers used to use mummies as firewood – there was certainly no shortage of them!
There were some interesting highlights, on the other hand. The 52-foot-long (about 16 metres) Book of the Dead and associated displays were remarkable, though not as much as the Tutankhamen exhibition. Sadly, the latter was the only part of the museum where photography was not permitted and was even actively prevented by attentive guards, probably because of the amount of gold on display. There were a lot of other interesting little details throughout, too. I just would have preferred to have come away with a better understanding of what I was looking at.
Ready Player One
As doubtful as I was about the security of the cloakroom, I got all of my belongings back and ordered an Uber for the airport. Having arrived in the city at night, I hadn’t really got a good look at the place on the drive in. On the drive out, I noted that this would be the perfect place to film a movie set in a dystopian future. Picture literally any sci-fi movie with such a setting (Blade Runner, Ready Player One, Alita: Battle Angel, etc.) – that’s pretty much what the drive to Cairo International Airport looks like.
This impression did not noticeably improve once I reached the airport itself. The driver got a little lost trying to find Departures, but finally dropped me off close to the first of an exhausting number of security checkpoints, each of which required a thorough pat down. I had to go through two of these just to get to the check-in counters! Once I did, the information displays weren’t especially clear and I had to ask a Russian lady if she was also flying to Athens. When she confirmed that she was, I commented: “Well, we’re either both in the right place or we’re both in the wrong place!”
Fortunately, it was the right place and we both successfully boarded the correct aircraft. I arrived in Greece a couple of hours later and a grumpy Greek taxi driver got me to my [now successfully paid for] hotel, where I slept as soundly as the mummies back in Cairo.