'Do you have a strong heart?' asked the man behind the Egyptian Museum’s bookshop counter. 'You need one here…'
'Yes, yes, I think so', I said, nodding earnestly.
I assumed we were about to segue from a conversation about the museum’s layout to talk of the challenges facing Cairo after three years of revolution. Tourism, on which many livelihoods depend, is at an all-time low and political tensions are high. Every Egyptian I’d met over the past few days had been keen to share their thoughts on the immense strain the city is under. People say they’re exhausted. That the daily grind of traffic congestion is the worst it’s ever been. It’s dusty, dirty and noisy – not an easy place to travel, let alone to live.
The man dropped his voice to a whisper, so I leaned in to catch what he was saying: '…because if you go to see the mummies today, then one day soon, you will feel a tap on your shoulder. They will say: “You have visited us – now we are visiting yoooooou!”' He tried to lift his arms up, walking-dead style, but was laughing too hard to manage it, collapsing on the counter in hysterics instead. As I walked towards the stairs he hooted after me: 'Be very careful!'
Cairenes might have had a rough time of it lately, but you certainly can’t accuse them of losing their sense of humour.
The Egyptian Museum faces Tahrir Square, which has been the focal point of the country’s revolution – the scene at various times of occupations, peaceful demonstrations and violent clashes since the anti-government movement of 2011. The taxi driver who dropped me off told me he’d camped there overnight himself last year, joining thousands of others to oust the then-leader Mohamed Morsi.
Many who followed news of the revolution from overseas have only ever seen pictures of Tahrir Square in uproar, but for Cairenes, the square as it is now is the norm: an uneventful roundabout with a constant din of traffic, occasionally broken by the Omar Makram Mosque’s call to prayer.
There are a few reminders of recent turmoil, such as the revolutionary art covering the walls of nearby Mohamed Mahmoud street. Some paintings depict soldiers surrounded by skulls, others show elderly, abaya-clad women weeping over pictures of young men.
To get to the sun-drenched courtyard of the museum, I had to walk past spirals of barbed wire, and a long line of tanks, which I assumed were there as a deterrent against further clashes. The soldiers sitting on top seemed cheerily resigned to having little to do except point disorientated tourists towards the museum’s entrance.
Inside, the exhibition halls were impossibly quiet. This home of world-class ancient artefacts – statues of pharaohs, stone sphinxes, the solid gold death mask of Tutankhamun, a beautiful but unfinished bust of Nefertiti, animal mummies, dramatic jewellery recovered from tombs – had only a handful of visitors. Once upon a time, you would have had to jostle through crowds for a mere glimpse of these pieces, but today there were just a few students making notes, and a couple, fingers linked, wandering aimlessly from one silent room to the next.
The Egyptian Museum is terribly lit, and the information cards so cursory that they read more like storage labels. (Forgive the plug, but your LP Egypt guide is invaluable here, containing heaps of info to help make sense of it all.) With no one else around, I had the sense I was trespassing in a private warehouse of forgotten treasures.
I’d had a similarly surreal experience at Giza’s Pyramids the previous day. It was far from lonely, as would-be guides and touts selling horse rides must have outnumbered tourists by 20 to one, meaning seriously intense levels of hassle. Once I’d fended off the hawkers, however, I was rewarded with a completely uninterrupted view of the three major pyramids. The sky was bright blue, soft clouds floated by those imagination-defying yellow points, and the site was quiet except for the distant rattle of horse and carriages. It occurred to me that while millions of tourists have stood on these paths over the years, very few can have had the privilege of a practically solitary visit.
But even this couldn’t top the thrill that was in store at the Egyptian Museum. The bookseller had guessed right – I was mostly there to see the Royal Mummies. Isn't everyone, really? I rushed towards Room 46, then stopped short at the door, overcome by an irrational twinge of nerves. I had expected there to be a guard at the very least but there wasn’t a soul around – just me, and some of the ancient world’s most famous pharaohs and queens. Ramses III, IV and V lay in their glass cases, with Queens Tiy, Henettawy, Nesikhonsu, Nedjmet, Maatkare and a mummified pet baboon close by.
I walked among their bodies, forcing myself to peer right over the glass caskets and stare at their shrivelled black fingertips, gaunt cheekbones, broken teeth and curls of hair. Every now and again my reflection would catch the glass unexpectedly and I’d spin round, wondering where the movement had come from. In the end it wasn’t a tap on the shoulder that did me in, but a deathly glance from Queen Maatkare, whose wide open eyes may have been made of stone, but were much too lifelike for comfort. I bolted, practically delirious with adrenaline.
There are a million reasons to visit Cairo right now and some not to. February’s attack on a bus of tourists in Taba understandably horrified potential visitors to the country, but it took place in South Sinai – a different land mass entirely. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) does not currently advise against travel to Cairo, but does recommend that travellers take particular care in areas with a history of regular protests. As recently as 2 April, there were bomb blasts at a police post at Cairo University, with reports of deaths and injuries.
Cairo is a volatile place and it is very likely that there will be more flare-ups in future.
It’s true that the high-octane chaos of Egypt’s capital can be overwhelming too, but it’s also utterly exhilarating – and as everyone knows, the best travel moments don’t get handed to you on a plate. Just make sure your heart’s strong enough for an encounter with Ramses III and co.
Travelling to Egypt? Here’s all you need to know to stay safe at the key tourist sites
Cairo and Alexandria
Most of the clashes and anti-government demonstrations have taken place in these cities, particularly the capital. Travellers are advised to avoid government buildings and areas with a history of protests, and to leave the area if a demonstration begins. No violence has been deliberately targeted towards tourists and there is no FCO advice against travel here.
Cruises run regularly along this stretch of the Nile, with passengers disembarking to visit nearby areas of interest such as the Valley of the Kings, the Temples of Karnak and Luxor, Kom Ombo and Edfu. There have been no terrorist incidents here since 1997, but there is a heavily armed security presence at most of the key sights. There is no FCO advice against travel here.
A bomb was set off on a bus carrying South Korean tourists from St Catherine's Monastery in South Sinai to Israel in February. Three passengers and their Egyptian driver were killed. A statement was later posted on a Twitter account, widely believed to be used by Sinai-based militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, warning tourists to leave or face attacks.
Sharm el Sheikh is still considered safe for tourists by the FCO and enhanced security measures are in place at the airport and at the resorts. The FCO now advises against all but essential travel to the rest of South Sinai, including Taba, St Catherine’s Monastery, Dahab and Nuweiba.
For information and updates about safety in the rest of Egypt, check gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/egypt.
For recent tips from travellers about safety issues in Egypt, join the discussion on Thorntree: lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/thread.jspa?threadID=2383214