alternate universes

“The whole world is a book, and whoever does not travel reads only a page.” This is a quote attributed to Saint Augustine, a Christian saint of North African origin in the fourth century.

I recently went on a week-long trip to Egypt with two friends, and what an education. We visited Cairo, Aswan, Luxor, and Alexandria, and we stopped at some small towns as well. Seeing these places with knowledgeable guides, one had to marvel at the achievements of the ancient Egyptians.

The engineering feats of the pyramid builders are well known – the largest of them contained a million blocks of stone, each weighing a ton or more. The stones were brought from hundreds of miles away and somehow lifted into place. Tunnels inside the pyramids lead to the burial chambers of the pharaohs. It was done 5,000 years ago, perhaps even before the invention of the wheel.

Then there are the tombs carved deep into the hills in the Valley of the Kings, just outside Luxor along the Nile. With wonderful drawings on the walls of the tunnels leading to the burial chambers, the colors of which remain to this day. Equally impressive are the city’s Luxor and Karnak temples.

Although much has been lost over the millennia, what remains is still an inspiration. Among the surviving artifacts are obelisks. The columns, which were carved from mountains of granite using nothing more than hand tools and basalt rock to create a smooth column that weighed several tons. Exquisitely decorated with hieroglyphs and cartouches of the pharaohs and kings, these obelisks were built to commemorate them.

The obelisks we see today in Istanbul, Paris and New York were created in ancient Egypt. They were carried to faraway places. But seeing them in their original place, including one at Aswan – which was left unfinished because the granite had cracked before completion – gave us a whole new perspective on the art and labor involved in making obelisks.

There were other interesting notes from the visit not related to the ancient Egyptians. We visited Wadi El Natrun, a small town about an hour north of Cairo, famous for its ancient Coptic Christian monasteries dating back many centuries. On a Friday, all the monasteries swarmed with devotees – men, women and children. There were posters and pictures of saints and figures venerated in the Coptic faith.

The atmosphere was not much different from what one might find in a Sufi shrine in Pakistan. Devotional and optimistic at the same time. Visitors would kiss the corners of the cloth coverings on the tombs and some would touch them with their children, seeking the blessings of their saints.

We are told that 20-30% of Egypt’s population are Coptic Christians. People whose roots go back to the early days of Christianity, long before the advent of Islam in Egypt. There are no official statistics available regarding the exact percentage of Christians in Egypt, but they represent a significant minority. While this religious community has suffered some attacks at the hands of extremists over the past years, what we saw was a thriving community, very much in the mainstream of the country.

The most interesting part of our visit came in the conversations with our guides. We asked them about several American presidents in the past two decades. To our surprise, almost all of them chose Donald Trump as the ‘best American president for Egypt’. We were told, “He didn’t tell us what kind of leadership Egypt should have.” On the other hand, Barack Obama, who traveled to Cairo as his first foreign trip with the aim of extending a hand of friendship to a Muslim-majority country, was viewed negatively: “He lectured the Egyptians.”

There were other surprises—one of our guides told us he likes Trump because he “always told the truth.” Trump, who was documented in the United States, told 30,000 lies during his four years in office! Another guide from American tourists learned that “during the Trump administration, people in America had the best healthcare.” Never mind Trump’s repeated efforts to strip health insurance from more than 20 million Americans.

We live in a world of multiple realities and so-called “alternative realities”. As these alternate realities travel across national borders, they also seem to create alternate universes.

The writer is an independent contributor based in Washington, DC.


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