My first glimpse of Egypt is from a dewy ship balcony at dawn. Sunlight peeks through lavender clouds and drizzles onto the blurry coast; a peaceful entrance into what is supposed to be a country suffering social upheaval.
We dock in Port Said, which hosts what is by far the eeriest silence I’ve experienced in a city. From our buses, which are escorted by what looks like the city’s entire police force, we pass boarded stores, a closed Pizza Hut and tall, empty apartment buildings.
The few cars that dot the cross-streets wait patiently for our parade of tourist buses and armed police as we speed through the city. It seems strange that our hosts are so anxious about getting us out of this quiet place. I know their reasoning; Egypt has just overthrown its government. Nothing is safe. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t imagine Port Said housing violence.
Soon we’re on the highway. People emerge from their two-room farm homes, readying themselves for a warm spring day. Children run up to the road to wave at us. Miles later, the local military replaces the city police. They sit languidly in their truck beds, their AK 47’s resting in their laps.
We make it to Cairo just as the sun begins its Western descent. Square sand-colored buildings rise from the earth, accompanied by intricate mosque towers that dust the sky.
Our bus crosses a high bridge, which reveals heaps of trash covering the roofs of some of the more run-down buildings. A rusty, broken air conditioner lays abandoned on top of piles of rotting cardboard, plastic bags and newspapers disintegrating into dust. Just past the bridge looms a beautiful, intricate mosque, its white domes gently lifting to the heavens. This dance between destruction and elegance seems an integral part of Cairo.
Blocks further, we drive by nearly fifty people carrying signs and picketing against one of the presidential nominees. On the other side of the road, citizens supporting the nominee protest against them. But they immediately stop their shouting match when they see our bus convoy. They wave, take pictures of us and flash peace signs.
It seems that wherever we go in this city, locals stop what they’re doing and wave at us with the same wide smiles. Is this really an area where Muslims despise westerners and want them to leave, as we’d been told countless times by the news anchors? Or are they happy to see visitors in their struggling city, where all day business owners wait in empty shops and restaurants, hoping for just one customer to enter?
I ponder this as we make our way toward the Giza Plateau. We ascend a low hill that gives us a wide view of the city. Miles in the distance, two shadowy pyramids stand waiting for our arrival.
We’re surprised to see just how close the Pyramids of Giza are to the rest of the city. Even our hotel is just across the street from the Great Pyramid, giving us a spectacularly eerie view of the behemoth from the pool area. It feels strange to be sitting by a perfectly modern pool fed by a manufactured crystalline waterfall, looking up at this ancient, expansive structure.
After dropping our luggage off at the hotel, we pile back into the bus and drive ten minutes to the base of the Giza Pyramids. Tourists take photos and try to ignore the merchants bombarding them with souvenirs and trinkets.
I get out and look up, overcome with the profound sense of insignificance each visitor meets upon seeing the Great Pyramid. Not only is it towering, but it has existed thousands of years. It witnessed the ancient Egyptians lay chiseled rocks on top of each other as they built the neighboring pyramid of Khafre. It saw countless storms, buried itself beneath the safety of sand, and emerged again in triumph for millions of fascinated eyes to look upon it.
Two Muslim women dressed in simple hijabs look up with wide, wondering eyes. A man with scruffy, sandy blonde hair shades his face so he can see the wonder better. In this ancient, sacred place and at this single moment, it seems that anyone can stand together and revel in humanity’s capabilities. Here, the overthrow of governments, the wars between religions, the hostility and misunderstandings are all forgotten.
This, to me, is one of the greatest human achievements of all: creating something so awe-inspiring, that, if only for a moment, every person can come together in peace.
About the Author: Sarah Long graduated from Tulane University in 2010 with a Bachelors Degree in English Literature and a dozen books in her head that were demanding to be written. She’s currently working on publishing the first and serves as a freelance editor in the meantime