The Egyptians might have thought this through. They could have made getting into the Great Pyramid of Giza a lot easier.
Getting to the entrance is a brisk climb through a narrow and dusty path. Those leaving and those entering must share the same squeezy-paste space, which generally works until you meet someone from Canada with a giant backpack.
It is not helped by an extra encumbrance: that every second person along the way is taking a selfie (another thing missed during the planning brief in 2570 BC). The tunnel entrance is narrow and requires a long climb in a painful stoop position (think the original entrance to Aillwee cave).
The ancients also neglected to install air conditioning, although someone helpfully turned on a fan in their inner chamber and laid a cable along the same dusty corridor to power it.
How pharaohnically frustrating. The modern Egypt gets presented with a world attraction, the oldest and most intact of the wonders of the ancient world, and arguably the world’s most instagrammable monument.
It cannot get visitors in and out fast enough, and never will.
It is inevitable that soon there will be a faux-pyramid built with adequate bus parking to which visitors will be diverted, like Lascaux, Newgrange or Cosquer Cave.
Which defeats the purpose, because the world has spent millennia trying to fake what Egypt made.
In the meantime, we must (thankfully) experience the magic as it was built: a tomb for the mysterious Khufu, a death chamber for a single pharaoh and birthplace of a thousand theories as to why, how and where — in the celestial sense, at least.
Some of the theories are daft. Google pyramid and extraterrestrials. Sit back and enjoy the flight.
Almost as daft and incredulous is the management of the monument. A jolly Egyptian sold us tickets to the pyramid. We climbed as far as the entrance in the dead heat only to be told when we got there that we needed another, separate ticket to go inside.
Maybe it was the heat, but I thought I could hear the Gods of the underworld, Isis and Osiris, chuckling at our expense.
The visit will take your breath away. And that is just the climb to the entrance. It snakes up a path through the damaged stones. Awe for age, admiration for the task (and the accumulated years of having waited for this moment) takes a little more breath away.
And then the heat: wobbly, dizzy, dry desert heat.
And the weight of history, which somebody calculated at six million tonnes.
Few sights in the world are as familiar and unexpected, and sometimes both at the same time.
In the marketplace nearby, someone was selling a t-shirt which said, “Don’t count the days. Make the days count.”
If you are looking for Indiana Jones, exit the pyramids and head to the Museum of Egyptian Civilisation. This museum should be in a museum. It is exactly as a 1920s visitor to Cairo might have expected to find it — small notices pinned to the glass, and gallery after gallery crammed with amazing artefacts — any one of which might have had a whole museum built in its honour, if it was in America.
Egypt does not just have history, it has so much of it that the world came to loot it — and still left enough behind to fill a thousand museums.
The statue of the architect of the pyramids, Hemiunu, was among the trophies that went abroad. It will be returned from Germany for the opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum, designed by Dubliner Róisín Heneghan and scheduled to open sometime between now and February 2024 (give or take an aeon), to house 100,000 artefacts and the complete Tutankhamun collection. It will be worth the wait.
Egypt decided long ago it is two destinations, not one, with separate tourist board campaigns and very different audiences.
For those who want to stay in Sharm El Sheikh, the original and most prestigious of the beach destinations, the day trip to Cairo on Tuesday is a popular option. Where Cairo is all traffic and crowds, Sharm is calm (with mood music).
The pyramids of Cairo, or the river cruises to the temples of Luxor, could be a different millennium from the beach resorts — four and a half of them, when you think of it. Here, you will be guaranteed heat and sun and sprawling five-star hotels with vast rooms, spa treatments and waterpark pools.
Because here be tourists, and here be also a terrific modern museum of ancient civilisation. One of the best museums I have seen (Museum of Egyptian Civilisation), it has all the modern play of space and light that would do a pharaoh proud and Hemiunu might have been included in the original design for the pyramids if he had been forewarned.
In Sharm El Sheikh, they already have 165 hotels and 54,000 more rooms under construction. But it, too, has an ancient past that refuses to disappear under the concrete dust.
Last year, Sharm hosted the Cop 27 environmental conference (“peace, mangroves and sustainability” was the slogan on one Instagram spot); a contradictory and, at the same time, ideal venue for such a sensitive gathering, with gated entry like a customs zone and security checks on each street.
At the local orthodox church, Fr Youannes explained the difference between western and eastern Christianity in one magnificent line. “At the big debate we were prevented from attending, some decisions were made with which we disagreed.”
At a perfumery, a skilled salesman tried to convince us to buy a papyrus flower, “for concentration and short-term memory”.
The itineraries at Sharm are as popular as they are predictable: desert dune bashing, and the boat excursion with a magnificent dive into the blue watery wonderland 10m under the Red Sea. Our dive was accompanied by a flotilla of 40 boats, bouncing through the sun shimmering waves, on the way to an underwater adventure or a lazy cocktail waist deep in the water or sprawled on a sandbank.
Our boat was named Rehab. Maybe they knew they had travel writers on board. Sands of time indeed.
HOW TO GET THERE
Egyptair fly direct from Dublin five times weekly to Cairo. Previously, there were charter flights to Luxor and the Red Sea riviera. Now we have Cairo direct for the first time. Getting to the point, or at least the pointy bits, has never been easier. The flight is five hours and 20 minutes and was a little prone to delays in its first year, but generally gets off an hour or so after the scheduled time. See egyptair.com