Back in the mists of my own pre-history, I was given the The Big Book of Egypt on an early birthday. It was full of drawings, diagrams and maps of excavations. Egypt fascinated me then and still does today. I learned of pharaohs, dynasties, the angles to build a perfect pyramid (42.5 degrees), the Valley of the Kings and Tutankhamun, and all about the Nile, which brought the land fertility.
I read the histories of Greek, Roman, Arab, French and British conquests and interventions. Over the decades I’ve watched all the films and every documentary. Less practically, I completed two primary-school projects involving trips to the British Museum, building a pyramid out of yellow card and sticky-backed plastic with my son (more difficult than it sounds), and getting messy with my daughter as she mummified a broken Barbie doll in papier-mâché to make a pretty fine miniature horror-movie prop.
But I never got round to going to see Egypt for myself. Even though my wife has a degree in archaeology (she now works in financial IT), we’ve never found the time, promising ourselves a cruise up the Nile. Someday, sometime… when all the other stuff is out the way.
And suddenly, the opportunity to visit opened up this autumn.
New lockdowns might leave Europe closed, but the Middle East is open and the flights are busy. My first proper business trip in two years was a long one – time spent in Dubai putting together the financing package on a new infrastructure deal, followed by a trip to Egypt working with the team behind it to refine the models. (The only travel difficulties I encountered were in the UK – trying to get a pre-flight PCR test. The first company I paid up for failed to deliver – it was a start-up founded by some likely lads coat-tailing parliamentary chums who enabled their enterprise.)
The contrast between Dubai and Egypt is extreme. Dubai is overly clean, impossibly expensive, ordered, polite and lacks any clear character of its own. Don’t get me wrong – the restaurants, roads and hotels are superb. It’s just that it all feels somewhat lacking in identity. Everyone is an immigrant and everyone has the ‘big deal’ they desperately want to sell you.