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Egypt is the oldest tourist destination on earth. Ancient Greeks and Romans started the trend, coming to goggle at the cyclopean scale of the Pyramids and the Colossi of Thebes. At the onset of colonial times, Napoleon and the British in turn looted Egypt's treasures to fill their national museums, sparking off a trickle of Grand Tourists that, by the 1860s, had grown into a flood of travellers, packaged for their Nile cruises and Egyptological lectures by the enterprising Thomas Cook.
Today, the attractions of the country are little different. The focus of most visits remains the great monuments of the Nile Valley, combined with a few days spent exploring the souks, mosques and
of Islamic Cairo. However, possibilities for Egyptian travel also encompass snorkelling and diving along the Red Sea coasts, remote oases and camel trips into the mountains of Sinai, or visits to the Coptic monasteries of the Eastern Desert.
The land itself is a freak of nature, whose lifeblood is the River Nile. From the Sudanese border to the shores of the Mediterranean, the Nile Valley and its Delta are flanked by arid wastes, the latter as empty as the former are teeming with people. This stark duality between fertility and desolation is fundamental to Egypt's character and has shaped its development since prehistoric times, imparting continuity to diverse cultures and peoples over five millennia. It is a sense of permanence and timelessness that is buttressed by religion, which pervades every aspect of life. Although the pagan cults of ancient Egypt are as moribund as its legacy of mummies and temples, their ancient fertility rites and processions of boats still hold their place in the celebrations of Islam and Christianity.
The result is a multi-layered culture, which seems to accord equal respect to ancient and modern. The peasants (
of the Nile and Bedouin tribes of the desert live much as their ancestors did a thousand years ago. Other communities include the Nubians of the far south, and the Coptic Christians, who trace their ancestry back to pharaonic times. What unites them is a love of their homeland, extended family ties, dignity, warmth and hospitality towards strangers. Though most visitors are drawn to Egypt by its monuments, the enduring memory is likely to be of its people and their way of life.
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