nile cairo

During a recent visit to the ancient Karnak temple complex in Egypt, I overheard a lady saying Mr Trump should be here. She was suggesting that looking at these gigantic monuments, the U.S. president would realise how small he really is and that the ancient ruins should teach him a lesson.

It turned out that the lady was a Parsi. I picked up a brief conversation with her husband who said he was Clubwala originally from Mumbai now settled in New York. The conversation ended quickly as we had to follow our different tourist groups. Parsis are dwindling in numbers but they are visible everywhere.

Her remark was significant. Our politicians, particularly ones like Narendra Modi with their pride , their wanting to demolish all dissent, need to understand how hollow power ultimately is. Curiously, Mr Modi’s globe trotting has not covered Egypt yet. But perhaps power obsessed politicians may see the monuments as a justification for their crazy building of tall statues. The ultimate idea apparently is that one day their own giant statues will come up. What they should realise is that ultimately this whole exhibition of power, arrogance and dominance comes to nothing.

It is a coincidence that this is the 200th year of Shelley’s famous sonnet Ozymandius which shows how little remains of the once powerful and boastful Egyptian ruler whose statue now lies in ruins, this is what hubris, false pride, come to.

This year also marks 200 years of the Shelley’s talented wife Mary’s novel Frankestein which again is a warning against creating monsters. Indeed Trump is seen by some observers like a Frankestein, the extreme incarnation of an incendiary stoking of fear, racism, and xenophobia, a misbegotten monster come home to roost. He also suffers from the edifice complex and wants to build a giant wall to keep out immigrants.

Indeed one sees how hollow this pursuit of power and dominance is when one visits the Egyptian museum in Cairo. I paid quite a hefty sum to visit the mummy section as well and here one sees the withered remains of the once powerful men and women of ancient Egypt.

While one is overawed by the engineering and architectural marvel of the ancient monuments, one is left wondering about the hubris and craze for power and dominance that created such outsized images.Also, more impressive than these grand works, is the marvelous skill that is so visible in the paintings which still survive to a good degree after thousands of years. It is also a testimony to the natural paint material they used .

Another big lesson from Egypt is the Nile. Compared to the Ganga it is very clean , though it is much longer and flows through a number of African countries before reaching Egypt and joining the Mediterranean sea. I saw the Nile from close quarters in Cairo and Luxor . I could hardly find any dirty objects floating around. Of course, there are mindless sorts everywhere. While sitting on the bank of the Nile in Cairo, I saw a well dressed young man with wife and child mindlessly throw a plastic bag on the rocks at the edge of the river. But these are more of an exception.

It is an irony that even while we swear by the holiness of the Ganga we pollute it more and more and hundreds of crores have literally gone down the drain. Nile has escaped severe pollution because there are apparently few industries in the vicinity. Its water is not potable but certainly it does not look dirty at all.

In tourist literature in India the Nile seems to be heavily underrated. In our Eurocentric fascination we think of the Rhine and Danube and Thames but seldom of the Nile. It is a wonderful experience to sit by the side of the Nile in Cairo and Luxor. In Luxor particularly, it is a sight to have the magnificent Luxor temple on one side and the Nile on the other with luxury liners and small boats providing a nice backdrop.

It is a wonderful experience to walk on the long bridge over the Nile in Cairo with wide footpaths on either side. If only we had such nice walkways on our long bridges like the Bandra Worli sea link. One also understands he contradictions of urban development in Cairo as one walks along the bridge. Once one is past the river, down below there are hundeds of acres of greenery where common people have little access while the rich have a lot of space for their tennis and other sports.

This is fairly close to the famous Tahrir square, the symbol of the big popular resistance of 2011. The area next to it today is quite undemocratic. There are multiple streets and flyovers and not one traffic junction. Relentless car traffic makes crossing the wide roads extremely hazardous. Signage is also poor or non-existent. The imposing Egyptian museum is right there at Tahrir but without any signage.

But the Egyptian peole are extremely friendly, particularly towards Indians. One man walked with me for over a mile to guide me to my hostel. In another place three security men left their post, came out on the street and guided me.

Muizz street in Islamic Cairo deserves to be known much more than the streets of the West we fancy so much. It is one big open air museum with the greatest concentration of medieval Islamic architecture.

Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of a book stressing the importance of public transport

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  1. Even if Narendra Modi visits Egypt, the lessons from the ruins of the statue of its past ruler and from Shelley’s `Ozymandius’ will go over the head of our Prime Minister. As for Mary Shelley’s `Frankenstein,’ Modi is a comic replica of that monster, tottering on clay feet.

    Sumanta Banerjee