I’m strolling along the Nile, ignoring the approaches of various hustlers and chancers, when I fall prey to a man who steps in to apologise for them. “I’m sorry, sister,” Yousef says, throwing a baleful look at his rivals, “but you can trust me.” He says he is a porter from the Winter Palace hotel. “I carried your bags when you arrived, remember?”
I did, in fact, remember the charming porter from the Winter Palace, and he had not been this shifty, if enterprising, man. Nevertheless, I go along willingly with the scam. As one of the few travellers in town, the least I can do is allow myself to be mildly fleeced.
I’m in Egypt for a couple of weeks, winding my way slowly back to the UK, going home. It has been the best and worst of years. An alchemical counterbalance of luck to tragedy. The violent loss of a parent; months of lockdown grieving palliated by a long drift through the sanative wilds of southern Africa; from the Namib desert, to the baobabs of Limpopo province, down to the beaches of the Western Cape.
Like so many places in our strange world of now, the city of Luxor, despite its incomparable trove of archaeological wonders, is empty. There are no tour buses. Cruise ships are moored. The Nile is so clean I swim in it every day.
But for every gloriously deserted temple there is a guide and vendor whose living has been bitterly compromised. Buy programme. See King’s Tomb. No hassle. Where you from? Give me 30 Egyptian, 20. OK I sell for 5 because we’re friends, you my sister . . . This is not bargaining, it’s a desperate rant against Covid piled on top of terrorist attacks compounded by a decade of unrest and the devaluation of the Egyptian pound.
Moreover, my visit falls during Ramadan and Egypt is suffering through an unseasonal heatwave — 42C and climbing. Luxor might be quiet, but every day is an increasingly loud jangle of hungry nerves.
Yousef somehow manages to power me away from the boardwalk towards the market; past stalls of surplus watermelons and “vintage” baklava. Nobody is really buying. He gives me his best patter, but not even I can raise much interest in papyrus papers or amber oil. He stubbornly refuses to take me to Sofra, a famously delicious local restaurant where I will feast most other nights I’m in town. “Ah, no, I tell you the truth,” he slaps a hand to heart, “the chef has leprosy, the owner has Covid; the food is no good.’’
He propels me instead towards an unprepossessing looking establishment with a pyramid of garbage outside. Of course, this place too is empty and not quite as clean as I’d like. The proprietor, Mohammed, has one milky blind eye, but his freshly grilled chicken and parsley, at £3.50 for two, turns out to be excellent value and Yousef and I part amicably enough.
With a work deadline looming, though, I leave the relative bustle of the east bank for the Al Moudira, a hotel on the other side of the river. “You won’t like it,” says Ahmed Mohammed Farrag, my taxi driver, sweet-talking me into one last hour of templing, “it’s not new.”
He apologises for the overpowering smell of petrol; he has just filled his tank. In a few days we will drive four hours south to Aswan together and I will think wistfully of the smooth sedan the Winter Palace had proposed, but Ahmed has nine children to feed. “Nine was my destiny,” he said, when I went round to his house to meet them: Mayram, Osman, Mohammed, Hamada, Yaseen, Shahinda, Rahma, Rodayna, Fatima. One by one, they’d looked up with fleeting curiosity before returning to Iftar, their Ramadan evening meal of fried fish and vegetables.
I like Ahmed, serene in his snowy white turban and gallabia. He has 50 of these garments from his days as a bazaar owner in Sharm el-Sheikh, a resort on the Red Sea. “I did very well. Tourists came like locusts; you wouldn’t believe how many.” But the Arab spring decimated his business and he retrained as a cab driver. Now he, too, is struggling.
At 8am at the Karnak temple complex, the heat is stultifying. A guard sits in a makeshift shack watching an Egyptian soap opera on his phone. Ahead of me, an insolent cat lifts its leg against the stone base of a ram-headed sphinx. I wander through the Hypostyle Hall in near silence, slowly becoming aware that I’m being shadowed, pillar to pillar, by an old man.
Eventually he steps into a shaft of sunlight, withdraws a rusted circle of keys from between the folds of his robes and jangles them seductively. Hoping for some hidden sarcophagus or hieroglyphic, I dutifully follow him; past obelisk, pylon and megalith, picking my way over construction rubble and degraded cobble towards a quarter closed off to the public.
My new friend unlocks a door to a chapel and leads me along a narrow stone corridor, shining a torch into the occasional ankle-breaking crevice, until finally we ascend a narrow staircase and emerge blinking on to the roof. “Panoramic view,” he announces, sweeping one elegant hand at the burning landscape and extending the other for a tip.
The Al Moudira turns out to be one of the prettiest hotels I’ve ever stayed in, a mishmash of Italian palazzo and Moorish palace. I’m taken to my room along a labyrinth of tiled paths and trickling fountains. “Come as early as you like and stay . . . well . . . as long as you want,” the owner, Zeina Aboukheir, had texted me from Lebanon, where she was getting her vaccine.
My pink bedroom has a vaulted ceiling decorated with frescoes and a huge iron bed. I set up office on the terrace outside and, save for the odd swim, barely move for three days. From time to time treats appear; a fan, a glass of cold hibiscus juice; lunch. I feel as though I’ve been invited to the home of some Egyptian grandee, who, though sadly indisposed, has ensured a lavish welcome nonetheless.
By late afternoon, the smattering of other guests usually return from their sightseeing and, depleted by the heat, drape themselves around the property — two Frenchwomen at the pool, glamorous in bright lipstick and floppy Riviera hats; a milky German youth reading in the garden; his much older companion, chic in a straw Panama, languidly chain smoking on a dusty velvet sofa.
The hordes cannot possibly stay away for long. There is too much mystery here, too much history and discovery. In Luxor, archaeologists recently unearthed a Pharaonic city dating back 3,400 years — a sort of “ancient Egyptian Pompeii” according to one expert. In Cairo, 22 royal mummies were moved with suitable pomp and ceremony to the new and exquisitely curated National Museum of Egyptian Civilization where they now lie in state, skin burnished with resin, their hair bright with henna.
For now, in the piping hot living room, I’ve taken to playing the broken piano for the barman and a stray cat. There is a hint of Casablanca to Egypt in the time of Covid. We European stragglers lying low, filling out exit visas, applying for letters of transit, while our hosts wait for the status quo to change; for the business of the world to resume.
Follow on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first