Egypt: Pyramids, people and progress for tomorrow

 “If you drink from the Nile, you will return,” say the Egyptians, and yes, we will once again flock to her brilliant sun and mysticism. Photo: Jacquie Kubin

The Sphinx before The Pyramids at Giza (Photo: Jacquie Kubin)    The Sphinx before The Pyramid at Giza (Photo: Jacquie Kubin)

EGYPT — February 25, 2011  – It is hard not to think of analogies to the “sands of time” when standing on the edge of the Sahara Dessert, the Great Pyramid of Giza before you.

It is also hard not to think of Egypt’s history – or her place and time in our history.  Whatever the makeup of your ‘our.’

Present day images of Egypt are of mythical progress and urban decay. The recent riots and dissatisfaction of so many of the Egyptian people is not surprising. 

Egyptian street showing disparity of housing. Note the cable dish on the house on the right. (Photo: Jacquie Kubin)

Egyptian street showing disparity of housing. Note the cable dish on the house on the right. (Photo: Jacquie Kubin)

Traveling through the neighborhoods of Cairo in October, 2010, and as a guest of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt, it was difficult not to see the disparity between the classes. 

Cairo is filled with vast numbers of humanity that live on all socio-economic and societal levels.

From the Westernized luxury hotels that line the Nile in Cairo’s Heliopolis, to the buildings one on top of the next visible from the upper floor of those same luxury buildings, Egypt’s economic disparity is visible.

From the thousands of people living in the crypts of Cairo cemeteries, to the ramshackle housing that lines the Nile canal’s banks as you travel further south toward those venerable  “bucket list” stops – the pyramids at Giza, Luxor, Karnak, the Valley of the Kings to the reality of daily life in Egypt, you can’t help but wonder why so little is done.

A vendor at the Tomb of Mereuka (Photo: Jacquie Kubin)

A vendor at the Tomb of Mereuka (Photo: Jacquie Kubin)

Visiting Egypt, you will often hear the phrase “If you drink from the Nile, you will return,” as a form of greeting from friendly natives who want you to know you are welcome now, and when you return. 

Because, of course, you will return.

This is a country filled with generous people that work hard, often for meager returns.  Upon asking one man why he was so happy he replied “I will never be rich in money, but I can be in happy in life.”

The Nile River is the source of the sparse green fertile land that Egyptians live on.  It is difficult to live in the desert, and Egypt has a lot of desert, and without the Nile, that is all that it would be. 

The countries ancient name, Kemet, means “black land” and refers to the lush verdant plains created by the seasonal flooding of the Nile. In ancient times the Nile’s flood cycle would move the rich silt from the river bed creating fertile lands for growing crops such as wheat and barely.  

The Nile also provided birds and fish that were the peoples main source for protein.  People lived simply then, as they do now, only now they cannot rely on the earth for the simple life from to sustain them.  The birds and fish are harder to find and often inedible. The waters polluted; potable water for drinking and cooking a luxury.

This because a natural event, flooding, has beed tamed, by building a series of dams: The Roseires Dam, Sennar Dam, Aswan High Dam, and Owen Falls Dam all control the water that flows along the Nile River.

Taming the Nile has meant that she no longer floods and instead farmers rely on irrigation. Which means, progress has altered the cycle of water moving from the mountain of South Africa to the Mediterranean Sea, a “cleaned by Mother Nature” cycle; now the rive is in many places far too polluted to be swam in, much less drunk from.

Irrigation canals, dug along side the river to handle flooding are lined with garbage that children and women walk through to pull reeds that are used to make a “faux-papyrus” for tourists; the polluted water irrigates small to large garden patches

The Nile and canals are dumping grounds for commercial waste – from farming fertilizers to the industrial wastewater from chemical, electrical, metal, mining, oil, textile and wood industries, leading to disease from parasitic worms known as Schistosomiasis and cancers from high levels of heavy metals and pesticide found in the soil and water.  (see 1 for references)

The Nile Canal.  Notice the banks; what might look like dirt is actually mounds of dirt covered plastic bags. (Photo: Jacquie Kubin)

The Nile Canal. Notice the banks; what might look like dirt is actually mounds of dirt covered plastic bags. (Photo: Jacquie Kubin)

Are the people of Egypt better off without the flooding? For those that want to live in large cities, with high rise houses and paved streets, probably. Though for millennia they lived with it, anticipated it and used it to be better their crops and their daily lives.

I find it difficult to internalize that they are better off without the flooding when the waters are beyond polluted by industry that is not governmentally controlled and an infrastructure that is often non-existent creating a cesspool for the people to live in and with.

Asking tourists about travel to Egypt, to Cairo and the first thing you hear is “I was surprised by the garbage.”

The people that live among the canals and rely on the waters of the Nile for their sustenance are forgotten and no, I do not differentiate between the Nile and the canals because they are one; They are not separate, though they are separated, as it is one source of water.

The government officials, when asked, said the problem is too big because there are too many people. The Cairene, the people of Cairo, number more than 14 million with populations in Alexandria of 4.5 million and Giza, 2.9 million (reference). 

Giza is located on the West Bank of the Nile River, southwest of Cairo and along the banks of the Nile.  It is at the Giza Plateau that tourists flock to take photos of the pyramids, the Great Sphinx and the temples: They are magnificent.

Standing at the base of the Sphinx is empowering.  Its size is overwhelming, however it is the energy the Sphinx resonates with that makes you pause. Though you know it is immovable, it truly seems to vibrate with power. 

Between the paws of the Sphinx, those lucky enough, as I was, to get close will see the Dream Stella, a stone engraved with hieroglyphs that tell Thutmosis IV, who fell asleep below the Sphinx and had a dream that the Sphinx told him to dig the monument out of the sand.

The Dream Stella between the paws of The Great Sphinx (Photo: Jacquie Kubin)

The Dream Stella between the paws of The Great Sphinx (Photo: Jacquie Kubin)

In return, the Sphinx promised Thutmosis IV, that when he cleared the sands from the Sphinx he would become king of Egypt.

The Giza pyramids are overwhelming in their grandeur.  Sitting beneath the haze of the hot Egyptian sun, where it over 120 degrees in October, it is hard not to stand in awe, mouth agape. 

The Great Pyramid, tomb of King Kufu, is so overwhelming. As a stoic trio, they are really hard to accept as real. Walking up the ramp leading to the burial chamber of King Khufu’s pyramid, the largest of the three, is arduous.  

Air is limited, the space dark, and there are many people coming and going. 

I will admit that reaching the top of the ramp after a good half-hour climb, including rest stops, and after doubling over to crawl into the inner sanctum, I felt the effects of the physically strenuous exercise. 

Effects that mystically disappear as I walk into the cool, dark room and sit down with my back to the empty sarcophagus.  Instantly, my breathing calmed, a pounding heart and heat and sun induced headache eased and I felt, easily, much younger than my years.

And now I fear that those magnificent structures are in danger due to a political party that did not do what they should – effectively lead and care for their people. It is the pyramids that tourists want to see and there is a structure of commerce and life around them, fostered by tourism that helps to support the Egyptian people. 

From hawkers selling postcards and trinkets to the “camel” jockeys who urge tourists onto the backs of colorfully clad dromedaries for a five-minute walk and photo opportunity. Tour operators and food sellers, the livelihoods of the people, and the animals, are now in danger due to the uprising and a now unstable tourism market.

A camel working at the pyramid of Giza (Photo: Jacquie Kubin)

A camel working at pyramid of Giza (Photo: Jacquie Kubin)

While the monuments of Giza lord over a desert whose vastness never ends, the density of buildings in Cairo is overwhelming. 

It is hard to find a space that does not have a building, most not finished and with rebar and satellite dishes placed between the sheets and makeshift walls of the cities homeless lucky enough to find a place on the rooftops, at a cost of $1 to $4 (Egyptian: 1 EGP = 0.1681 USD, 1 USD = 5.9490 EGP) per month, above the street to live.

Generations of families are raised on the roofs of Old Cairo, which I did not get to tour but could see as we drove by. You can see the informal, above street housing from the road.

Grandparents and young children living beneath ramshackle roofs made of discarded tin and old tires to keep out the occasional rains and walls that are often not more than thin cardboard, cardboard or cloth.

Statistics reflect that more than million people live in an area that is not much more than 15,000 square miles, leaving less than .000018 acres of land per person, and placing more than 99% of Egypt’s immense population onto less than 6% of it’s total land area.

This is a reality of Egypt and one, as a tourist, that is difficult to ignore with as much ease, as the government seems to be able to do.  It is shrugged off with the non-apologetic “Cairo was built to house only so many and instead we have so many more, there is little we can do.” 

At the heart of modern Egypt is Muslim social dominance over the Coptic Christian and non-Muslim peoples of the country.

The Zabbaleen, or garbage people, are Coptic Christians living in a Muslim country where they have been collecting Cairo’s trash for decades. 

For decades the Zabbaleen were paid minimally to pick up the trash, taking it back to Moqattam Village or “the garbage village” where they have the worlds “most effective and successful recycling program,” recycling or reusing over 80% of the trash they collect. 

In comparison, few commercialized trash company recycles more than 20-30% of the trash they collect, effectively reducing the income structure of the Zabbaleen. The shortsighted government decisions to privatize garbage collection in 2003 have led to the Zabbaleen not being able to continue their enterprise, reducing their lives to non-producing poverty in exchange for a politically appointed system that simply does not work.

One only needs to look out the window as you drive by to see that it does not work. Trash, dead animals, car parts and other unidentifiable “stuff” liters the canal banks, sides of the roads, empty lots.  There is an abundance of trash that leads to unsanitary conditions, disease and a lower quality of life level.

One of the results of the revolution was the coming together of young Egyptians and the native Coptic Christians that live in the cities.  Tales are told of Muslims coming together to protect the Coptic Christians as they gathered for Coptic Christmas Eve services, an early indication that things were changing in Egypt.   

If you drink from the Nile, you will return.  (Photo: Jacquie Kubin)

If you drink from the Nile, you will return. (Photo: Jacquie Kubin)

It was reported that Mubarek’s sons were among those standing guard during their holiest ceremonies.

The sands of time have begun to blow in a different direction, first for Egypt, a short revolution that was blessedly peaceful and now the tumultuous violence in Libya.

We watch the people of these countries as the youth show social evolution fostered by an internet that brings information, not only politically but also lifestyle based, to people who realize there should be more; children do not have to die because of unsanitary conditions. 

We, the people, do not need to live beneath an iron fist.  We do not need to live in hate because of our differences.  Muslim can love Coptic Christian.  Man can respect woman.  That the people of Egypt can demand their lives be better. They have shown they are willing, ready and able to work toward that betterment

Visiting Egypt meant meeting people with as much resolve as those ancients that created pyramids and temples that are icons of an advanced civilization thousands of years old and a humanity that reaches back as far.


Jacquie Kubin is a 15-year, award-winning veteran of travel and culinary writing. Today, Jacquie edits and directs a staff of writers for Donne Tempo Magazine, where you can read more of her entertainment, travel and culinary reviews. Jacquie is always looking for new talents who want to expand their horizons.

E-mail Jacquie with ideas, questions or to share your writing dreams.  Follow Donne Tempo on Twitter and Facebook.


1.   As found Water Politics in the Niles Basin NBI, 2005.Nile Basin Initiative, 2005. Nile Basin National Water Quality Monitoring Baseline Study Report for Egypt; Soliman, A, et al. 2005. Environmental Contamination and Toxicology: Geographical Clustering of Pancreatic Cancers in the Northeast Nile Delta Region of Egypt: Khairy, A. 1998. Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal: Water Contact Activities and Schistosomiasis Infection in menoufia, Nile Delta, Egypt: Volume 4, Issue 1 pp. 100-106; Nile Basin Initiative, 2005. Nile Basin National Water Quality Monitoring Baseline Study Report for Egypt


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Jacquie Kubin

Jacquie Kubin is an award winning journalist that began writing in 1993 following a successful career in marketing and advertising in Chicago.  She started Communities Digital News in 2009 as a way to adapt to the changing online journalism marketing place.  Jacquie is President and Managing Editor of Communities Digital News, LLC and a frequent contributor to The Washington Times Communities as well as a member of the National Association of Professional Woman, New American Foundation and the Society of Professional Journalist.  Email Jacquie here

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