The adventures of a wrecked ship can be pieced together from entries in its log book. The last moments of some doomed flight can be reconstructed by consulting its black box. If Dominic and I come a cropper here on the hard shoulder of the Cairo–Alexandria desert road, our iPhones will tell our story in Google searches:
23:30: ‘how do you get out of Cairo airport?’
00:07: ‘why don’t Egypt drivers use headlights?’
03:00: ‘Toyota Corolla won’t start’
03:30: ‘How to deactivate Toyota Corolla immobiliser?’
04:00: ‘Hertz Cairo number’
05:00: ‘Hertz worldwide emergency number’
05:14: ‘What time sun rise in Egypt?’
Soon after that, the iPhones’ innards will record that both batteries died, abandoning us to our fate beside the motorway, rocking in the violent wake of passing trucks, waiting for dawn.
A little sleep deprivation can make any holiday excitingly surreal. By the time we climb out of Toyota number two in the coastal town of Mersa Matruh, just east of the Libyan border, we’ve been awake for 36 hours and the pavement seems to swell and roll beneath our feet. Mersa Matruh has a romantic history — Antony and Cleopatra came here on holiday to frolic in the bay — but to our sleep-starved eyes it looks just like Brighton: the same faded beachfront hotels and out-of-season melancholy; street lamps painted that same duck-egg blue. But it’s Brighton in a dream: the sea seeps on to the main road; skeletal cats with wise, old hungry faces haunt the cafés and cows wander the promenade where the hen parties should be.
The next morning we begin our pilgrimage, south through the desert to the once-celebrated oracle at Siwa — the oracle consulted by Alexander the Great before he set out to conquer the world. Alexander travelled by night from Mersa Matruh, guided by the stars. We spin across the sand in an air-conditioned bubble — but even so, I can hear the dark crunch of his soldiers’ feet keeping time. After 300 kilometres, the land rises up into rocky hills and the road descends between them to an oasis in a sea of palm trees. Above the jungly tree tops, perched on a cliff: the temple of the oracle, just as it was 2,300 years ago. We follow Alexander’s ghost up the temple mound, through the gate, then more cautiously, into the inner sanctum where the world’s greatest warrior once stood alone in the flickering torchlight and whispered the question that had burned in his mind since he was a boy: ‘Am I really the son of Zeus?’ We can see now what Alexander could not: the hidden corridors built into the temple’s walls that allowed a sneaky priest to hear the question and prepare the oracle’s answer. But though the secret of the oracle’s success has been exposed, Alexander’s remains a mystery. He left here, his mind up-ended by revelation: ‘So it’s true! I am the son of a god!’ What a strange thing to imagine oneself to be. Stranger still that there’s almost no better explanation for the terrible enormity of what he went on to achieve.
Siwans, who are mostly descendents of ancient Berbers, don’t think of themselves as Egyptian and they don’t set much store by strangers. Princes and generals have visited throughout the ages, from Alexander’s day to ours, but to no great effect. The only non-Siwan who seems to have made a decent impression was Rommel. Whilst allied troops passed their time here bitching about the squalor and chipping away at the ancient hieroglyphs, that clever old desert fox brought tea and sugar to the Siwan sheikhs, who told him everything they knew. Even today, there is a garden and a bicycle hire shop named after him.
The desert seems like the right place for soul-searching, so I have packed a helpful book. It’s an excellent one by the American psychologist Clarissa Pinkola Estés but because my soul is still shallow and cowardly I am embarrassed by its title: Women who Run with the Wolves: Contacting the Power of the Wild Woman. Our hotel is isolated, right on the edge of the oasis just before the Great Sand Sea. No one in sight to sneer, so I take the book and scramble up the chalky rock behind the hotel to get archetypal in front of the setting sun. Light dies quickly in the desert. Before long I start to feel anxious about the deepening dark, so I close Clarissa and turn back. Only a few steps later, there in front of me appears… a wolf! A shaggy, lean, bushy-tailed wolf, say 20 feet away. Clarissa would have smiled calmly. I flee in a primitive panic, blindly scrambling down the rockface, heart thumping. When I turn around, the wolf is looking confused. At the bottom of the hill I realise the awful truth: I have contacted my inner wild woman and it turns out that she runs from wolves.
At El Alamein, on the way back home, the sunlit tops of gravestones in the allied cemetery shine in quiet lines. Here’s a boy from the Durham Light Infantry; there’s two from the Coldstream Guards. It’s easy to think of them as far from home. But then — at home, war memorials make do as urinals for drunks. Here, an Egyptian soldier in immaculate white holds open a little swing gate for visitors and someone has spent hours kneeling beside a prayer inlaid in bronze, polishing up the word ‘God’ as if to reassure visitors that He keeps an eye on Africa, too. As we leave, the call to prayer unfolds across the graveyard.