Egypt is the land of romance. For most tourists, the name alone is like a magic incantation which unlocks a thousand brilliant images. Say it, and you immediately think of mighty pyramids, the unwavering millennial gaze of the Sphinx, the huge royal tombs burrowing deep into the hills in the Valley of the Kings, the endless sands; you think of the Pharaohs - Cheops, Ramses, Tutankhamun; of the great figures like Alexander the Great who conquered the world, and of Cleopatra who conquered the world's hearts; you think of the bustle of the Arab world, the smell of spices and incense, the rough and mysterious babel of tongues, the gawky camels, the shivering palm trees. And through all these images, now in the foreground, now in the background, running like a connecting thread, is the mighty Nile, whose annual inundation of the surrounding fields not only made possible the enduring achievements of Egyptian civilisation, but also, through them, those of Western civilisation too. In a very deep sense, we are all children of the Nile.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Egypt is that all these romantic images are true. Nothing disappoints: the pyramids really are breathtaking, the backstreets really are filled with the fragrance of spices and incense, and there really are camels and palm trees, and stately feluccas gliding down the Nile. Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that this world, so different from our own, lies ready and waiting such a short journey away, easily accessible to the western tourist.
We may come with a thousand images of Egypt prepared, but we must still make an enormous leap of imagination to grasp the tremendous reality which lies behind them. Imagine: a civilisation which began recording its history and wonders five thousand years ago; one which reached its astonishing peak three thousand five years ago - nearly twice as long as the entire Christian era - and one whose empire endured for over two and a half thousand years. The more we get to know about this extraordinary people, the more we feel that our own modern achievements pale into insignificance.
That we do know so much about them can be attributed to two facts: that Egyptians invented writing - probably for the first time in the history of mankind - and that their texts were either inscribed on durable stone, or else on papyrus, which survived for thousands of years buried in the sands because of Egypt's extremely dry climate - an archaeologist's dream. As a result, we have the Ancient Egyptians' own words and thoughts almost from the beginning of the country's existence. The religious texts for the passage from this world to the next, the epic poems describing the mighty battles of empire, the tender love lyrics and the fascinating travellers' tales all provide us with an insight into an ancient people unmatched for any comparable civilisation. As we journey through their land, and admire their monuments, we can therefore also hear their voices, almost as if the mummies in the tombs had sat up and acted as our guides.
Egypt began with the Nile, and is today still the Nile, the towns and villages spread along its length like pearls on a string. In pre-historical times, before the first pharaohs, it is likely that the climate of Egypt was less harsh than it is now. As a result, there were countless small villages in the middle of what is now desert, but which then supported flocks and basic cultivation. At some point temperatures rose, the desert began to encroach on the villages, wells dried up and people were forced to move towards the one enduring source of irrigation: the River Nile.
Two things then happened. First, this concentration of people along the fertile banks of the Nile meant that there were soon squabbles over the limited resources available. This led to villages rising up against villages, alliances being forged, battles being fought. Soon the chains of separate tribes were welded into larger units. The second major event was that people learnt how to predict and control the Nile's changes. They understood its regular rising and falling, and were able to husband the riches of the annual inundation of mud washed down with the Nile waters and use them throughout the year. Both of these developments - the consolidation of villages into groups that could defend themselves and their land, and the organisation of irrigation schemes - led to the emergence of something new, a larger collection of people working together in a formalised and controlled way for their greater mutual good. These groupings were the precursors of what we now call a nation.
Just before the time of the first historical records that have come down to us, there were two such consolidated groups in Egypt: that of Lower Egypt, basically the fertile lands of the Nile delta in the north, and that of Upper Egypt, the banks of the Nile upstream of this. Sometime around 3000 BC, a great battle was fought between these two for supremacy over the whole of the Nile. We do not know where it was fought, or by how many men; we are ignorant of the speeches the kings made to their troops, and of the heroes who strode forth on both sides; we do not know how many died in what was probably mankind's greatest battle so far. But we do know one thing: Upper Egypt won.
On that day, when the Land of the Sedge was conquered by and combined with the Land of the Bee, a nation was born, perhaps the first true nation in the history of the world. It is the beginning of the great Romance of Egypt.