Travel: City breaks: 5,000 years in one weekend

The Luxor massacre edged Egypt off the tourist map, writes Anna Dedhar, but now's the time to go back. And where else but Cairo can you take in five millennia of civilisation in one brief break?
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Some people seemed doubtful when I told them I was going to Egypt for the weekend. It is a long way (a four-and-a-half-hour flight from Heathrow); it is getting hot at this time of year, and, of course, everyone remembers the massacre of 58 tourists at Luxor. But friends who have visited the country since the killings in November said that security has been tightened, and there was a four-night trip to Giza - home of the pyramids and the Sphinx - staying in a four-star hotel, for pounds 415. It was too good an opportunity to miss.

Arriving late on Friday night, we were driven straight to the Mena House Hotel, a grand establishment popular with travellers in the days of the Empire, the headquarters for the Allied chief of command in the Second World War and the base for peace negotiations between Egypt and Israel. At first we thought we had been cheated of the promised view of a pyramid from our room, but as we peered through the dark night our eyes focused on a huge mass, so close we could practically touch it from our balcony. Without their original polished limestone cladding, the pyramids have an unnerving habit of blending into the background of desert and sky.

Opulent in decor and lavish in facilities though the hotel is, the visitors were too few to make it bustle. Driving through Cairo with its jammed, manic traffic at almost any time of day and night, and navigating the packed Khan al-Khalili bazaar one evening, we found noise and crowd levels painful. But at the tourist sites the little boys trying to sell postcards and the old men offering camel rides outnumbered the visitors.

It was wonderful to be able to stroll around and stand and gaze, appreciating the monstrous scale of the pyramids of Cheops - the highest, at 137m - Chephren and Mycerinus and the wives' smaller ones, the Sphinx and the vast expanse of desert stretching away with little to interrupt the view except a few huddles of camels and riders posed timelessly against tombs or dunes. But for the Egyptians, the collapse of their tourist industry is, of course, disastrous. Security at tourist sites has been tightened. At the hotel and museum, entrance was through metal detectors - although the hotel's was malfunctioning. There were cameras scanning the areas, rather lackadaisical young armed soldiers and Tourist and Antiquities Police patrolling on camels.

Perhaps the lack of visitors has also cut down the number of vendors, but there was not as much hassle as I had expected. Of course those with papyrus bookmarks and embroidered headbands to sell tried hard, but few were really persistent. However, some people found that the price of a camel ride did not include a dismounting fee; they had to hand over more cash before the beast was allowed to kneel down for them to get off. It was also disconcerting to have a camel cantering after you and breathing hotly down your neck while its owner tried to persuade you to give him your camera to take a picture of you.

Since we had just three days, we wanted to pack in as much as possible. So we went to Cairo's Egyptian Museum, where we were saturated with the golden glories from the kings' tombs - including the outstanding haul from Tutankhamun's previously unlooted chambers - awed by the royal mummies and overwhelmed by the sheer quantities of sarcophagi, statuettes, papyrus and jewellery. We went to Memphis, the 3100BC capital of the Old Kingdom where there is little except the giant statue of Rameses II, and to Saqqara, the Old Kingdom necropolis with its tombs, temples and pyramids - including Zoser's step pyramid (the oldest, from the 27th century BC) and the tomb of Ti with its walls of painted panels - and to Saqqara country club to admire the fine Arab horses.

Two friends who had been to Cairo before hired a car and driver by the day and visited places off the beaten track, including pyramids which are on no road; but we wanted to see the main sights first, so we went as unashamed tourists by coach - with an armed guard and lots of bottled water. Ancient Egypt is highly photogenic, but keen photographers should beware the camera fees that are almost invariably added to admission fees: pounds 5-pounds 10 Egyptian for an ordinary camera, and up to pounds 100 Egyptian for a video-camera.

We also saw the son et lumiere at Giza, which is a melodramatic, hour- long mix of floodlighting and booming soundtrack to sketch a history of Egypt told beside the great Sphinx, illustrated by hieroglyphics and moving pictures on tomb walls etched by lasers. There must be seats for an audience of 1,000, but on the Saturday evening barely 100 were taken.

And, of course, we found time to swim and lounge by the pool, where there were trees for shade, a breeze to cool the afternoon sun and waiters to bring snacks and drinks. It's surprising how much you can pack into a three-day weekend.

Anna Dedhar paid pounds 415 for a long weekend at the pyramids, booked through Jules Verne (0171-616 1000) and including BA scheduled flights from Heathrow to Cairo , plus four nights B&B at the Mena House Hotel (Cairo 383 3444), Giza. British nationals need a visa, but the Egyptian Consulate in London (0171-235 9777/9719) is giving them away free at the moment.

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