Imagine the crowded streets of a city with twenty million inhabitants. The continuous honking of cars and taxis, the harsh acceleration of motorbikes and trucks. Try adding the sounds of diverse animals to this acoustic and then top it up with the overpowering yet distant melody of the muezzins calling for prayer from many distant corners of the city. Welcome to Cairo. The Egyptian capital is hot and dusty and there is no way to escape from its hectic speed but to wait for the night when it all quiets down. At night another city takes over daylight-Cairo, the streets fill up with coffees, scattered around the sidewalks they give way to endless hours of shisha and conversation.
"It was like living in another city. Cairo was deserted."
This was the Cairo I left before the summer of 2013, but the massive demonstration of June 30th and the end of Mohamed Morsi as the president of Egypt aroused the deadliest month in years. Thus, on my return to the country in October something was missing in the capital: the nightlife in the streets. People had started meeting indoors and cafés closed early. It was like living in another city, more so during the holiday week of Eid, one of the holiest celebrations of Islam. Cairo was deserted. One could walk alone in the avenues and it was actually quite pleasant doing so. But there was also the crying of the lambs, begging for survival. That was when I decided to take a break from work and indulge in a little outdoor trip. It was a small trip in time and distance, but an utterly fascinating journey into the past, not only of Egypt, but of the African continent.
The city of Fayoum, about 130 miles Southwest of Cairo, is surrounded by the tips of the Saharan Desert. It is said to be one of the oldest cities in Africa. Ironically, the main feature of this ancient land is actually water: miles and miles of it fill the lakes that give name to this area, once the shoreline of the Tethys sea.
We left Cairo early in the morning in a car provided by en Eco-lodge located in the village of Tunis, in the outskirts of Fayoum. Before midday we were enjoying breakfast at Zad El Musafer, an adobe and palm tree refuge run by a retired writer, Abdu Guber. His guesthouse was at the doorstep to the heart of Wadi al Hitan (Valley of the Whales), one of the best-kept secrets of Egypt until recent decades. Even still a fairly unknown wonder of the continent, hosting the largest collection of fossilized whales in the world.
Surrounded by pottery mugs, mats and herb gardens we waited for the Bedouin that would guide us into the desert. A couple of hours later the tires of the 4x4 that he was driving danced around high golden dunes, paying homage to the setting sun. Mohamed stopped the jeep right on top of the highest dune and invited us to enjoy the view. Before we could utter a word he dashed down the sand with the vehicle and left us there in the middle of nowhere. We felt as if we were looking down over the top of the world with nothing but the vast horizon and the reddening sun as witnesses of our existence.
'The times are a changing', said Bob Dylan, and for the native Bedouins of the desert land the age of technology is not unfamiliar. Like elsewhere their lives are connected to the Internet, and if need be they climb up the dune in the night to salute their relatives over the phone. Some things remain unchanged, however, such as the knowledge about the secret paths in the sand that still runs through their blood. Mohamed lays a mat and lights the fire under the rising moon, he makes tea and shisha following the ancient tradition. A couple of hours later, his young uncle appears and sits down to join us. He has walked about an hour in the dark alone, with his white attire and turban. It’s a wonderfully quiet night to just sit and observe the landscape. The full moon rises and submerges the whole place in a magnificent and lunar white night. We sleep under the stars tucked under a sleeping bag, with nothing but the sky over our heads.
Signup to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
The sand can be an amazingly comfortable bed and we wake up ready to continue our journey into the desert. We set off after a lush breakfast sitting by the shade of the jeep. One hour and a half later we arrive to the Valley of the Whales.
There is absolutely no one but us there, only the two Egyptians that look after the tiny café at the entrance of the site. We start our tour accompanied only by the wind, the silence, and the omnipresent sun burning over our heads.
The open-air museum surprises us like nothing we have ever experienced before. Its collection of fossils lay framed by the most beautiful shapes of other worldly rock formations. We walk around areas protected only by ropes, so close to the 40 million year old fossils that we can bend down and feel the bones of a millenary whale with our fingertips. The blazing sun tries to remind us otherwise, but we are actually walking over what once was a lush tropical land with fresh ocean waters. It's easy to imagine the prehistoric sea here just by following the winding shapes of the land as you walk around petrified corals, hardened mangrove bushes, shark teeth fossils, and the impressive display of skeletons on the sand.
It feels inspiring to walk the site alone. There is this massive space around you and nothing but bones and surreal-like sand shapes in the distance. How is it possible for Egypt to keep so many wonderful secrets?
The first geological studies in the Valley of the Whales started out back in the 1800's, but the difficult access to the area cut off projects of investigators such as a small group of scientists that came to Fayoum in 1907, sponsored by the Museum of Natural History of New York. Only in 1989 the Wadi el Rayan Protected Area was created around this site, and in 2005 the valley became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
"The species found at Wadi el Hitan show of a unique step in evolution"
There is no one there to guide us. Later on, we learn that paleontologists from the National Geographic Society and the University of Michigan continue studying the ancient whales. Some of them are now extinct, like the Zeuglodon or the Basilosaurus. In fact, the species found at Wadi el Hitan show of a unique step in evolution: the transformation of the whales from land-based mammals to oceanic creatures. Some of the 400 pieces that can be found here could actually walk with their little hind legs.
Refreshed by tea and some Bedouin style chicken, we spend the next few hours contemplating our profound voyage in time. On our way back to Cairo, we make a last stop to jump in the warm water and enjoy the light breeze at one of the Fayoum lakes. The slightly salted water reflects the afternoon sun and the desert wind dries our hair before we set back to reality. It will take us quite a while to bring our minds back from Fayoum, a magical place where walking whales dance around the sun, sand, water, and stars.