Whenever my family travels, the destination is always a careful balancing act between the differing interests of my brother and I. Though we are related, we couldn’t be more different. I live in the world of literature and art, and would love nothing more than to spend an hour staring at a painting or browsing through a book store. My brother, a Geology major, hates museums and cathedrals, and can’t stand city tours. My mother gave me a budget and said that we could go anywhere in the world the two of us could agree on. I remembered a past trip we had taken to Paris. At the Louvre my brother had complained non-stop through the paintings by European masters, but in the Egyptian wing, we both stared transfixed at Ka statues and Steles in total awe. It seemed the destination for our trip had been set six years earlier and a continent away. When I suggested Egypt, my brother smiled, and happily agreed.
Once we reached Egypt, we realized we had to come to a country even more contradictory than two starkly different siblings. As we traveled through Cairo, Aswan and Luxor on The Royal Sonesta’s Nile Goddess, we learned more about the exotic country that we were in. Egypt seemed to be stuck between two worlds. For American and European tourists, Egypt was a relic. It was the land of the Great Pyramids of Giza, The Temple of Djoser, and The Valley of the Kings. It was a place where you could see a Vegas-like light show reflected on the Great Pyramids’ walls. For Arab tourists, Egypt represented a break from an oppressive society. For an Islamic country, Egypt’s policies towards women in public were relatively lenient. Poolside at our hotel, Le Meridien, with the Great Pyramids as a dramatic backdrop, we watched beautiful young Arab women free themselves from their burqas for possibly the first time in their lives. For them, the Pyramids were just the background for a country that symbolized freedom.
For me, Egypt left me with something stronger than ruins or nightclubs ever could. It left me with a burning curiosity. Though I’d studied a fair amount of Ancient Egyptian art and mythology, nothing had prepared me for the scope and magnitude of the Egyptian empire. I used to be impressed by the Temple of Dendur in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and had spent many a class trip sitting beside its reflecting pool. But the temples in Egypt expanded beyond my wildest dreams. In their heyday they included zoos and hospitals. As I wandered through the walls of the Temple of Edfu I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by the strength of faith the entire culture exhibited. Today it’s easy for us to declare that Ra and Isis and Hathor were just fallacies, but to them, they were everything. I couldn’t help but wonder if in another thousand years, a seventeen year old girl just like me would wander through the ruins of Notre Dame or the Hagia Sofia and question how an entire society could put so much faith in God or Allah.
When I came home from Egypt, something had changed inside of me. I had seen a part of the world that was completely different from the one I knew. And I had experienced a country that showed different faces to the people who visited it. I couldn’t help but long to go back to learn more about the country that had modernized itself in the shadow of an ancient civilization.
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