No other place I've visited has been everything I expected it to be and a place I couldn't have ever imagined all at once. My first impression of Egypt was that it was a country of contradictions--women completely veiled in the same room as sensuous belly dancers was one thing that gave me this impression--but I've since come to the conclusion that the sharp contrast of Egypt's many images work together to make a powerful, mystical, brilliant, and (at times) dark bouquet.
Egypt's power and mysticism stems through its giant and elaborate temples. The ruins of Ancient Egypt put any leftover vestiges of Rome scattered through Europe to shame. Many of the Egyptian temples are still in very good condition, some with enough paint left on the walls even after 3,000-5,000 years that it is easy to imagine how breathtaking these structures must have been when they were just built and covered with vibrant colors and adorned with gold. From Karnak Temple in Luxor, which was once considered one of the wonders of the world, all the way down the Nile to the magnificent temples of Ramses II and his beloved wife Nefertari in Abu Simbel near the border of Sudan the riches, strength, pride, and spirituality of the Ancient Egyptians is preserved in stunning quality.
Of course, these qualities are well encompassed in the Great Pyramids of Giza. The amazing statistics about these pyramids are well documented and beyond impressive in their own right. However, knowledge of these statistics is not necessary to appreciate the Great Pyramids. Numbers, no matter how large, are the last thing to enter the mind when you stand at the base of these massive structures and your head doesn't even reach the height of the first block. All you can do is look up and attempt to pick out the limestone pinnacle from the glaze of the heavy sun and try not to feel small. The Pyramids are the symbol of Egypt not only because of their iconic status, but because of their inherent balance and symmetry.
Egypt's images provide an equilibrium between ancient and modern, wealth and poverty, pride and humility, power and weakness, religion and politics, danger and safety, and tomb and cradle. Herds of sheep bed down on the concrete pastures of downtown Cairo (population 21,000,000) below tall office buildings. Mudbrick houses of rural Upper Egypt are devoid of roofs but are equipped with satellite dishes. Donkey powered carts compete for road space in downtown Cairo with fancy BMWs and cars that look glued together (where the only traffic rule seems to be that the biggest vehicle gets the right of way). Five star hotels and elaborate embassies are on the same block as hovels and shanties. Bustling city centers are minutes away from rural populations that haven't changed in thousands of years. Lovers on the banks of the Nile in Cairo, reminiscent of the Seine in Paris, sit next to police outfitted with automatic rifles. Giant cruise boats power down the Nile leaving dug out canoes and primitive sailboats in their wakes. The rich, tropical landscape of the Nile Valley is a thin strip through a vast and barren desert. The hectic pace and clamors for bakshish of the markets and bazaars don't seem to affect the relaxation of men sitting in nearby cafes dressed in galabeas and smoking hookah pipes. Ancient temples dedicated to any one of numerous deities sit next to beautiful mosques, each with their respective share of obelisks and minarets. Giant statues of pharaohs stand next to giant pictures of Hosni Mubarak. A constant police presence manages to stay separate from an endearing local hospitality. The Valley of the Kings, the chosen burial place of many great Pharaohs, rests on the outskirts of the Nile Valley, the ancient womb of humanity. The wealth, power, and progressiveness of the Ancient Egyptians is resurrected despite the obvious oppression faced by many modern Egyptians.
The last image I mentioned represents the dark side of the bouquet. On my second to last full day in Egypt I witnessed riot police and military personnel beating protesters and journalists with billy clubs and rifles. Some people were thrown into paddy wagons destined to a fate unknown. Although Egypt is a "democracy," backed by billions of dollars annually by the U.S.A., their president, Hosni Mubarak, has been in power for decades and in the last "election" received something like 99% of the "vote." A couple of judges had the temerity to suggest that the elections may have been rigged and as a result were on trial for criticizing the government. The protests were in support of the judges. Freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and free elections apparently aren't a big component of Egyptian democracy. Despite these conditions, the Egyptian people are as warm as the climate in which they live (the summer temps in some parts of Egypt reach 130 degrees), and the experience of visiting this ancient and rich place can be as new, refreshing, and mysterious as the lotus flowers that line the banks of the River Nile.