While studying Arabic at the American University in Cairo—where he fell in love with Egypt and its people—Mark began considering Egypt his home away from home.
Mark recently transitioned from academia to travel, but his work is essentially the same: teaching. “Just as I encouraged my students to learn about this complex and fascinating region, I encourage my clients to experience the wonder of this place firsthand,” he says. “I’m also available to accompany clients to the region, where we navigate its rich history
and culture together. As their Arabic interpreter, they can connect with the people on a deeper level. It’s hugely rewarding when clients tell me how their experience gave them a new perspective about this often misunderstood part of the world. Helping plan and provide travel that transforms is what gets me out of bed every morning.”
As such, here’s Mark’s take on his most recent Egyptian sojourn.
You’ve been to Egypt seven times now. What do you find most enchanting about this part of the world?
For starters, I love history, and there are few places more historic than Egypt and the Middle East. The opportunities for appreciating our most distant recorded past are like no other. That’s what drew me to the region. What’s kept me returning again and again? The people. Egyptians are warm, kind, affable, hospitable, and have wonderfully-wicked senses of humor. Life in Egypt is real. All that is beautiful and all that is raw—it’s genuine. Very little feels artificial. Egyptians live life with great feeling and emotion, and they possess a strong sense of community: family, friends, neighborhood, village, city, country. When they welcome you and bring you into their lives—and into their communities—you yourself become Egyptian in a way. You can’t say that about most places.
Did anything feel different on this latest trip?
Absolutely. Egypt is back. I was last there in 2016 and tourism was at a standstill. There was depression in the air, and people were grim, which is very uncharacteristic of Egyptians. To date, 2019 has been the best year for tourism since before the Arab Spring. 2020 is looking to be an even better year and Americans are returning in droves.
What is the biggest misconception about Egypt that you always tell curious travelers?
That it’s unsafe. It’s actually very safe overall. According to the U.S. State Department, Egypt is a Level 2 Advisory Country, one where travelers should exercise “increased caution.” China is Level 2. So is Morocco. As are France, Italy, and the Netherlands. So, knowing this helps put the situation into a clearer perspective. Yes, there are certain “no-go” zones—such as the Western Sahara and northern Sinai, for example—but all major tourist areas are open and the security presence is the highest I’ve seen since I first traveled there in 2003.
What would you tell someone traveling to Egypt for the first time?
I would tell them that while Egypt is safe, it can still be overwhelming. As a tourist you’re going to be pestered by vendors, impromptu guides, beggars, kids, all kinds of people wanting to part you from some of your money. This used to annoy me until I read Herodotus. When the ancient Greek historian visited Egypt, he complained about locals bothering him at the Pyramids. That was 2,500 years ago! So, you just have to accept that this is part of the landscape at the touristy places and not let it distract you from why you’re really there: to be astounded by marvels you can’t find anywhere else in the world.
Top 3 Trip Highlights:
The Tomb of Nefertari in the Valley of The Queens in Luxor. I honestly don’t know how I missed this for all these years. Nefertari was the principal wife of Ramses The Great, and her tomb is perfectly preserved, with floor-to-ceiling painted bas reliefs that are stunningly beautiful. Seriously, you’re walking into a tomb that’s more than 3,200 years old, but it looks as though it was freshly painted the day before. It’s mind-blowing. Also, since more tourists go to the Valley of the Kings than to the Valley of the Queens, you might be lucky enough to have it all to yourself, just as we did.
Dahabiya Nile Cruise. Most travelers spend a couple of nights on a large riverboat cruising the Nile from Luxor to Aswan or vice versa. I’ve done it twice, and it’s a highlight of any trip to Egypt. On this last trip, we went from Luxor to Aswan on a dahabiya, a small river yacht with only a handful of staterooms instead of hundreds (as on the larger boats). Powered by sail, or pulled by a tug (depending on the direction of travel), our trip took a leisurely four days where we visited sites inaccessible to the cruise ships, ate like pharaohs, and lazed on the top deck watching this ageless landscape slide by. If you can add the extra time to your itinerary, make the dahabiya experience a priority.
Making New Friends. I repeat: Egypt. Go for the history. Go back for the people. Here’s a few of them that can make a trip unforgettable. Magdy, our guide in Luxor, invited us to his home for a family feast the next time we’re in Egypt. Saleh and Fawziya, an Egyptian couple met on our boat, graciously hosted a luncheon for us at their Cairo villa. Merna, a documentary filmmaker, had her taxi driver give me a lift one morning in Cairo. Two nights later, she took us out to her favorite restaurant in Zamalek, Abou Es-Sid (think Rick’s Café in Casablanca)—a must.
Favorite Foodie Find:
I rediscovered Koshari, a simple but delicious dish consisting of rice, macaroni, lentils, and fried onions all topped with a spicy tomato sauce. It’s a tasty mid-day carb load that you’ll burn off in no time tramping around pyramids, exploring tombs, and climbing minarets.
Where to Stay:
The Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan. It’s a thoroughly-modern five-star hotel housed within a beautiful historic property built by Thomas Cook in 1900. Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile here while enjoying the best view of where the Sahara’s mountainous dunes crash down into the world’s most fabled river. It’s a beloved Egyptian classic.
al-Moudira in Luxor. This is my favorite hotel in Egypt (and anywhere). Modeled after a traditional Egyptian country estate, al-Moudira evokes a wonderful sense of relaxed elegance with its numerous courtyards, colonnades, alcoves, antiques, and fountains—all enhanced by lush gardens. It’s as much a retreat as it is a hotel; if you’re like me, you’ll never want to leave.
Pre or Post Egypt:
If you have a few days before or after Egypt, take a side trip to Jordan. Sleep under the stars at a Bedouin camp in Wadi Rum where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed. Explore Petra’s labyrinthine, rock-hewn majesty. Pamper yourself with an invigorating Dead Sea salt scrub at … ahem, the Dead Sea. Like Egypt, Jordan is a stunning country with so much to see and incredibly hospitable people. It’s a perfect add-on to any Middle East travel experience or a great destination in its own right.
Not to Miss:
Historic Cairo, also referred to as “Islamic Cairo.” Everyone knows that Egypt has a glorious ancient past, but what most people don’t realize is that more recently Egypt was the center of a world civilization for hundreds of years. From the 1200s until the 1500s, Egypt was the center of the Islamic World, with Cairo being the largest, most culturally-vibrant city west of China. During this time it earned the sobriquet: Mother of The World. Today, Mama Cairo is home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site featuring the largest concentration of historic Islamic architectural monuments in the world. The place evokes Aladdin and the Arabian Nights, and there you’ll observe art, commerce, and cultural traditions that have persisted for more than 1000 years. In my opinion, it’s as
impressive as walking through Florence or any other major medieval or Renaissance-era city in Europe.
What to Pack:
For visits to Ancient Egyptian sites (tombs, pyramids, ruins, temples, etc.), pack a comfortable pair of hiking shoes or boots. In Cairo, pack comfortable shoes that you either don’t mind getting dirty or that can be easily cleaned. I wear all-leather loafers with rubber soles. Also, I never go to Egypt without cotton handkerchiefs. If it’s hot, you can wet one down and tie it around your neck for some welcome relief. And in restaurants and restrooms outside of your hotel, it’s nice to have one on hand when the only napkins or paper towels to be had consist of Kleenex. Yes, it’s a thing there.
What Not to Pack:
Skimpy clothes. Pack shorts and bathing suits for when you’re at your hotel, at the beach, or on your Nile cruise boat. Otherwise, I recommend both men and women dress conservatively: long skirts or pants and sleeved shirts and blouses that cover the shoulders and upper arms. Most Egyptians dress along these lines. You don’t have to dress conservatively, but respect for their norms is definitely appreciated.
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