“Is it safe?” If I had an Egyptian pound for every time I heard that question in the months leading up to our fun, mad, exhausting, infuriating and inspiring family holiday, I could buy a lifetime supply of shawarma with extra hummus.
Most of those asking cared for us: that’s why they were asking. For others, I suspect, it was code for “Haven’t you heard of the Gold Coast?”
Was Egypt safe? Is anywhere safe?
I must have been so busy packing the Diarrhoea Stop or tweaking my Out of Africa safari wardrobe that I missed the news, a week or so before we left in early January, of a terrorist attack in suburban Giza, a few kilometres from the pyramids.
We caught up with the unsettling details mid-felafel in a Cairo restaurant, planning our visit to the only wonder of the ancient world still standing.
Three Vietnamese tourists and a guide were killed. According to media reports, Egyptian police retaliated by killing 40 suspected terrorists they believed to be planning attacks on tourist and religious sites.
Is it safe? Should we even go to the Great Pyramids of Giza?
According to the Australian Government’s Smartraveller website, probably not. “Reconsider your need to travel” it warned. We took that on board, but also talked to recent travellers, read up-to-date blog posts and travel forums and swotted up on our Lonely Planet.
We had no plans to go anywhere generally regarded as dangerous. Travellers, particularly Europeans, were returning for the first time since the Arab Spring. So, we decided that we needed to travel.
As we were planning our day at the pyramids, someone left a bomb at a Coptic church door in Cairo: news reports said a policeman was killed trying to defuse it.
So, if we just stay away from the big tourist monuments, places of worship, the contentious Sinai, the western desert near Libya … We should be absolutely fine if we shelter in our AirBnB apartment for three weeks with Uber Eats kebabs and free Wi-Fi.
Most visitors join tours or Uber/cab it to the pyramids. In the end, we caught the ordinary, commuter train. We figured, perhaps erroneously, that our biggest danger might come from simply being tourists. Instead, we were surrounded by bemused folks going to work and sleepy-looking kids heading to uni, none of whom, it seemed, was used to seeing dorky tourists on the underground.
The train – fast, clean and with a carriage reserved for women – was a respite from the insane traffic. Greater Cairo has a population of a shade under 20 million, and it feels as though every single one of them is on the road all the time in crumpled cars, observing the only road rule consistently applied: never ever cede a centimetre to another vehicle.
Just crossing the road here takes guts. Is it safe? Not particularly.
At Giza, we negotiated hard and squashed into an ancient, doorless VW Kombi ‘bus’ that wove its way madly between cars, buses, motor bikes and donkey carts.
Soon, the Great Pyramids of Giza loomed above ramshackle office buildings and dreary shops, looking like they’d been Photoshopped in to the unlikely scene by a bored graphic designer.
They don’t disappoint, those pyramids. Even world-weary teenagers were impressed. Massive and unearthly, ringed by a rowdy circus of camels and donkeys, ‘official’ guides, tour groups, hustlers and peddlers of ankhs and amulets, they rise above it all as they’ve done for more than 4000 years.
And the Sphinx, wounded and disarmingly delicate, surveys the tumbling, sprawling city that has crept so close to this place, the subject of millions of school projects and an item of millions of bucket lists.
The only danger we felt, really, was in tripping over the busted paving or piles of ancient rubble. Or being overcharged for a crap factory-made ‘ancient’ bust of Nefertiti. And the only time my children were concerned for their safety was when using the unappealing public conveniences.
In the life of a family, it was a golden day worth every bit of risk, real or imagined. We celebrated with sunglasses selfies but really, Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure’s tombs – the ultimate show of strength and designed to defy death – burrowed deep into everyone’s minds and hearts.
Scrolling through our Walk Like An Egyptian shots from that day on my phone recently, I came across a text message sent by a friend last year. It came in the hours after the shocking 2018 Bourke Street attack in which beloved Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar co-owner Sisto Malaspina died.
“I’ve heard about the tragedy. Please take care and be more alert,” warned our compassionate friend, an international student studying interstate and at that moment far away from our wide, treelined streets and quiet, orderly suburbs.
“I’m truly terrified by what happened today in Melbourne,” he concluded.
Is it safe? We live in hope.
Footnote: I’ve just seen a news story about a deadly explosion at central Cairo’s Ramses Railway Station, which killed at least 25 people and injured many more.
A terrorist bomb? According to media reports, a train crash triggered the explosion: it was caused by two conductors fighting and one jumped out of his train without putting on the brakes. The Transport Minister has resigned.
Is it safe? How could you ever know?