Letter From Egypt

"There is a question," our correspondent writes, "that less-sophisticated Americans ask (and more-sophisticated Americans would like to): Why are people in the Middle East so crazy? Here, at the pyramids, was an answer from the earliest days of civilization: People have always been crazy."

Hatred between Palestinians and Israelis abides. Arab-led Islamic fundamentalism destabilizes nations from Algeria to the Philippines. The threat of terrorist attacks by al Qaeda continues. Also, our car needs gas. It is important to understand Arab culture.

Egypt seems a good place to start. Egypt is by far the most populous Arab state. And although Egypt is a poor country in per-capita-income terms, its economy is larger than Saudi Arabia's. Historically Egypt has been the most westward-looking of Arab countries. A Napoleonic invasion, an Albanian pasha named Muhammad Ali, and a British takeover gave Egyptians plenty to look at. The modern Islamist movement can be dated from the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood, by an Egyptian schoolteacher, Hassan al-Banna, in 1928. Two of Osama bin Laden's closest aides, Ayman al-Zawahiri and the late Muhammad Atef, came from Egypt, as did Mohammed Atta, who led the September 11 hijackings. And there is this thing called the "Arab street," which various serious people take seriously. In the November 11, 2001, New York Times, John Kifner wrote, "It is on just this Arab ... street that President Bush must fight in his war against Osama bin Laden." On January 24, 2002, Chris Matthews said on the television program Hardball, "America's been fighting another kind of war to win the hearts and minds of the Arab street." And on November 16, 2001, the NBC Nightly News reporter Martin Fletcher, broadcasting from Cairo, declared, "The battleground isn't only in Afghanistan; it's here in the Arab street." Well, Cairo has thousands of miles of street.

But there's a problem with Egypt. It's been around for five millennia. America is only three human life-spans in age. I'm an American born and bred, so were my folks, and ... How could the same small part of America vote for Rudolph Giuliani and Hillary Clinton? How could any part of America elect a professional wrestler as governor? Why isn't he noticeably worse than other governors? Why is the fastest-growing spectator sport in America watching cars turn left? How come I've never heard of anyone—Linkin Park, Big Tymers, Musiq—on the Billboard Top 50? Why can't they spell? By what means did the Amazon.com list of best sellers come to contain The Wisdom of Menopause, Self Matters, Look Great Naked, and BodyChange—the last by someone called Montel Williams, who is on daytime TV? Have you ever watched daytime TV? Who are these people taking DNA tests to see which one molested the Rottweiler?

I don't understand anything about America's culture. What could I hope to learn about Egypt's? Actually, quite a bit—before I'd been officially in the country for more than a minute. Coming through passport control, I was detained by a solemn fellow who showed me a badge. In his well-ironed dress-down Friday clothing, clean grooming, and chilly politeness, he was the exact counterpart of a Mossad agent at Ben-Gurion Airport. "I would like to ask you a few questions about why you are visiting Egypt," the solemn fellow said.

My tour operator, carrying a placard with my name completely misspelled, swooped in with a great bustle: "We are a prominent Egyptian tourism company! Government-licensed! This man is a valued client! Tourism is in a ruinous state! Do you even see another tourist?! What will become of Egypt's foreign-reserve situation?!"—although that was all body language. I believe the only thing my tour operator actually said to the intelligence officer was "He's with me." Away we went. Have your travel agent try that with the Mossad.

There was another lesson in just the drive through Cairo from the airport, on the far east side of town, to my hotel, by the pyramids in the west. It's the lesson of all swollen capitals in societies with uncompetitive economies. "In a competitive society," the economist Friedrich Hayek once said, "most things can be had at a price—though it is often a cruelly high price we have to pay ... The alternative is ... the favor of the mighty." The mighty have their seat in the capital. Better stick close to their chair legs and napkins to get a crumb from the mighty's table.

Cairo is the largest city in the Middle East and Africa, with as many as 16 million people, most of whom were offering to carry my luggage at the airport. And they were more persistent than the secret police. Annex Damascus to Beirut, Baghdad, Kuwait City, Jerusalem, and Riyadh (what a war you'd have!) and you still wouldn't get Cairo. Almost a quarter of the people in Egypt live in the city, a long haul from the sea, on the site of an old fort of middling strategic importance, distant from natural resources or any traditional means of creating wealth except the Nile farmlands now under Cairo pavement. Think of a capital of the United States located in an obscure Maryland swamp with 70 million Americans gathered there to be close to Medicare benefits, Fannie Mae, and Small Business Administration loan originations.

After ninety minutes in my tour van I realized: so vast is Cairo, there really is no way across it. At least no way with my eyes open. The traffic is too scary. We Americans, who invented traffic, are always being startled by the forms into which it has evolved around the world. (God, if he's a Darwinian, may be similarly aghast at life.) But most foreign driving has the advantage of either brevity, in its breakneck pace, or safe if sorry periods of complete rest, in jam-ups. Cairenes achieve the prolonged bravado of NASCAR drivers while also turning any direction they want, in congestion worse than L.A.'s during an O.J. freeway chase.

When I could bear to peek, I saw traffic cops—not in ones or twos but in committees, set up at intersections and acting with the efficiency and decisiveness usual to committees. And I saw a driving school. What could the instruction be like? "No, no, Anwar, faster through the stop sign, and make your left from the far-right lane." Surely John Kifner, Chris Matthews, and NBC News are kidding when they use "Arab street" as a metaphor for anything in the Middle East. Or, considering the history of the Middle East, maybe they aren't.

The bar at the Mena House Hotel, in Giza, has half a dozen floor-to-ceiling windows, and the view of the Great Pyramid of Khufu fills them all. A number of people were in the bar. Unfortunately for business, they all worked there. Several waiters craned their necks, trying to catch my eye. Across the room full of empty tables a musical trio abandoned their classical repertoire and began cracking one another up with jazz noodlings of "Woman in Love." Out in the lobby, by the front door, was an unattended metal detector. Every now and then it emitted a merry buzz, and everyone in the bar looked up hopefully, only to find another idle taxi driver on his way to the men's room.

I wandered across the street to the pyramid complex, now closed for the evening. Behind a police station was a stable yard with horses and camels kept for foreign visitors who, in better times, when there are foreign visitors, want a Lawrence of Suburbia moment on their home videos. There I met Mousa, who presented himself, in so many words, as the Night Mayor of Khufu. He promised a forbidden after-hours tour.

"Can we climb to the top?" I asked.

"It is forbidden."

We walked through an alley, past a large hole in the wall that surrounds the pyramid complex. "Japanese tourists did this," Mousa said, "to climb to the top." Has anyone had any success understanding Japanese culture?

Mousa told me that he worked as an unlicensed guide from eight at night until two-thirty in the morning. He supported, he said, his father, his wife, three daughters, his sister whose husband had died, and his sister's child. "I must tell my father there is one tourist in Egypt," Mousa said.

I asked him about the September 11 terrorist attacks. "Whoever does this ruins my life," Mousa said. "I do not know who does this."

Perhaps taking my silence as a rebuke, Mousa continued, "Maybe Osama bin Laden does this." He warmed to his theme. "Osama bin Laden does the killing in Luxor." Mousa was referring to the murder of fifty-eight tourists at the Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, in November of 1997. And Mousa may have had a point. According to the Egyptian police, one of the killers, Midhat Mohammed Abdel-Rahman, had traveled to Afghanistan and Sudan for terrorist training. "Osama lives in Egypt before," Mousa said. (Maybe not, but the family business, Binladen Brothers for Contracting and Industry, employs 40,000 Egyptians.) "And has no respect for Egypt. He tries to destroy our country."

We walked across the outskirts of the village of Nazlet as-Samaan. The people who helped with the building of the pyramids once lived here. Now the people who help with the gawking do. We went behind the Sphinx into the quarry where pyramid makings were cut, 4,600 years ago, and climbed to the edge of the Giza Plateau. There was Khufu—immense, 449 feet high, almost exactly 745 feet wide at the base of each side.

The stones aren't as big as those that the Hebrews in The Ten Commandments hauled across the movie screen. The real blocks of granite and limestone are about the size of industrial air-conditioning units on strip-mall roofs. They look depressingly unfake. You can imagine the awful labor of heaving and pulling these rocks—2.3 million of them, according to Mousa.

There is a question that less-sophisticated Americans ask (and more-sophisticated Americans would like to): Why are people in the Middle East so crazy? Here, at the pyramids, was an answer from the earliest days of civilization: People have always been crazy.

A certain amount of craziness, if not possessed already, can be acquired trying to walk in Cairo. The city is well supplied with sidewalks, but they just take you around the block. You can't step off them, because of the traffic. The locals manage to cross streets. I began thinking that Cairenes employ some chapter of the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, which I missed when I was a hippie, that tells them how to keep going after they've been squashed between two trucks.

It took me forty-five minutes to cross the Shari El Corniche to get to the Nile embankment—and then, rather than try it again, I hiked almost a mile to what I thought was a walkway overpass. It wasn't an overpass. It was a stairway for pedestrian access to one of Cairo's few stretches of expressway. I guess this was installed for those bored with ordinary Cairo jaywalking: a sort of double-black-diamond run for the Cairo shoe slalom. Later, in a taxi on this same expressway, my driver missed an exit and backed up to it from somewhere beyond the next one.

Cairo's buildings are Cairo's traffic in concrete. Every structure seems halfway through construction or halfway through demolition, and some seem to be undergoing both. This is modern Cairo. You can find old stones in the town if you let your tour guide drag you to them. My tour guide, Peter, did his best to show me a first-century Roman fort, the ninth-century mosque of Ibn Tulun, and Saladin's twelfth-century citadel. But even the pyramids are as beside the point in Cairo as the Dutch wall is on Wall Street. Functionally all of Cairo is modern. The population was only 570,100 in 1897. The number of residents has more than tripled in the past twenty-five years. I saw a cement truck, barrel turning, load ready to pour, driving down a Cairo street at two o'clock in the morning.

Upthrustings and downtearings in central Cairo's business district look the way they do in every busy place. Or they would if you could see them behind the profusion of blimp-sized billboards that look the way they do in every busy place. As it turns out, the Nile is just a river in Egypt—not nearly as wide as the Hudson River at the George Washington Bridge. Cairo's rich have river views and live, as most rich do nowadays, in apartment houses of faceless effrontery. The only apparent difference from the apartments of the American rich with river views is that in the Cairo apartments every single room has a huge chandelier.

But the emblematic building of Cairo is the small tower block—five or six stories designed in a functionalism so basic that the Bauhaus architects were lapdogs of ornamentalism by comparison. Slab floors are supported by reinforced-concrete posts and beams, like the skeletons of timber-frame Colonial farmhouses—and like Colonial farmhouses, the tower blocks tend sometimes to the rhomboid. The spaces between the posts are filled with jumbles of approximately brick-shaped bricks and punctuated, apparently at random, with little windows and balconies. The outside edges of poured-concrete staircases poke through the masonry, their runs and risers making zigzag patterns. Dried oozes of mortar cling to the brickwork. Water pipes and electrical wires are tacked onto the outside walls as if in half-hearted, rust-staining homage to the Pompidou Center.

In Europe these myriad domiciles would look like self-storage units for the urban proletariat. In Egypt concrete mosques are crammed between the tenements and festooned with colored lights—as if for Christmas decoration, except no red, just the green of Islam. Commerce hums on the ground floors in shops and restaurants, one called Pizza Hat. Roofs are adorned with the festive dishware of satellite TV. The walls of the little balconies are plastered and painted blindingly cheerful shades of swimming-pool blue and lawn-chemical green.

"Plain exteriors," Peter said, "mean less taxes to the government. Interiors are very often elaborate." And peering into bright living rooms, I could see another emblematic Cairo item—the astonishingly ugly sofa. An ideal Egyptian davenport has two Fontainebleaus' (the one in France and the one in Miami) worth of carving and gilt and is upholstered in plush, petit point, plaid, and paisley, as if Donald Trump and Madame de Pompadour and Queen Victoria and The Doors had gotten together to start a decorating firm. Often there's a pair of matching chairs.

You see the astonishingly ugly sofa everywhere—in the homes of the well-off and the otherwise, in hotel lobbies, office reception areas, furniture-store windows (of course), and, most spectacularly, on Egyptian television sitcom sets. One actor sits down on the couch and makes an exasperated face while the other actors gesticulate comically. I couldn't understand what was going on in Egyptian sitcoms, but I could tell it was more charming than Montel Williams.

I got to watch a lot of Egyptian TV, owing to a miscalculation in my attempt at cultural understanding. I'd arrived in Egypt in early December, in the middle of Ramadan. Not that Ramadan itself is hard to understand. It's a kind of Lent or extended Yom Kippur, with fasting from sunrise to sunset. Nothing is supposed to pass the lips, not even a smoke or a sip of water. And Egyptians, at least in public, observe the rules. Clubs and discos are closed. Coffeehouses are empty. People in airport lounges are reading the Koran aloud. I was changing money when a call to midday prayer came from the PA system of the local mosque. The bank guard put his rifle aside, unrolled a rug, and performed his devotions. Fortunately, bank robbers were as pious and made no depredations. But Ramadan also has the aspect of a month-long Thanksgiving dinner with the family. When the sun goes down, everyone rushes home for the iftar feast. Another big meal, suhour, is served before dawn. There's a bit of Christmas, too, with shopping for toys and clothes to be given to children during the three days of the eid al-fitr, when the fasting is over. Stores are open at all hours of the night, and folks are out in the streets at three and four in the morning, children in tow. I'd been in Egypt for a week before I realized I was a diurnal creature in a nocturnal biosystem.

During the hours of daylight Egyptians are—considering that they're hungry, thirsty, and really wanting a cigarette—remarkably cheerful. That is, when they're awake. People sleep late. Arriving in Egypt during Ramadan is like arriving in an American small town on a holiday weekend about the time that the bowl games come on. Ramadan is, in fact, Egypt's peak television-viewing period. "Best TV Land is in Ramadan," I heard an announcer say as I surfed past what might have been an Arabic version of Late Night With Conan O'Brien. The celebrity guests were sitting on an astonishingly ugly sofa.

The effusive, jolly ugliness of furniture suits a city that should be depressing but isn't. And the city ought to be squalid. It's an impoverished metropolis with a population density three times New York's. But Cairo is clean—if you don't count a sky that ranges in color from cheap-motel bed sheet to frightening diaper.

There's little begging, although plenty of Whereyoufrom Youbuypostcardokay? if you look like a tourist, and I do. Nobody is living on the street. The homeless, Peter explained, have teamed up with the lifeless. The city's huge Eastern and Southern Cemeteries are filled with house-sized mausoleums used as houses. The Egyptian government, surrendering to the perennial Cairo housing shortage, has provided the cemeteries with a modicum of water and electricity—a humane version of American big cities' just giving up and getting Target to provide the homeless with snappy Michael Graves-designed trash bags to sleep under.

According to Peter, there are postmortem sublets in the so-called City of the Dead. The tenant of record's heirs charge rent to the viable occupants, who have to make themselves scarce on holidays and other special occasions, when bereaved families come to picnic or even spend the night with the deceased. Peter said there have been squatters among the tombs since the fourteenth century. But the taste for elaborate mausoleums goes back further in Egypt—and so, maybe, do the squats. Perhaps disaffected experimental colossus carvers, young barley-beer addicts, and aspiring scribes with papyrus sheets full of edgy new hieroglyphics had crash pads in the Great Pyramid of Khufu.

Peter and I went ten miles south to Memphis, the capital of Egypt during most of pharaonic times. For three and a half millennia Memphis was the most important city in the country. Then, in the tenth century, the Fatimid general Jauhar Al Rumi pillaged its stones to build Cairo. The dikes were neglected. And now Memphis is gone beneath the silt of the Nile.

But the former capital's necropolis, Saqqara, survives, marked by the Step Pyramid of Djoser. The Step Pyramid was completed about 2635 B.C. Peter said, "This was the world's first stone building."

I said, "In a country that's nothing but stone, with not a tree for miles, surely somebody ..."

"The ancient Egyptians," Peter said, "built their houses out of mud and their tombs out of stone—to last for eternity." Most of Saqqara has collapsed into rubble.

Nearby is the Bent Pyramid. "This was the first pyramid of the true smooth-sided type," Peter said. To me it looked like a monument to middle-aged adultery—an affair begun with an aggressive angle of attack that couldn't be maintained. Apparently, building a pyramid was less straightforwardly Herculean than one might think. Peter explained, though not in these words, that there was more to it than making the top pointy so that the ancient Egyptians would know when to stop. Peter said the craft of pyramid building required a hundred years to perfect. Leaving five pharaohs under large but irregular piles of stuff.

We went into the tomb of Mereruka, son-in-law of Pharaoh Teti, who reigned from 2355 to 2343 B.C. This tomb was a mastaba, a flat-roofed stone building, with thirty-three rooms. Peter claimed that only royals were allowed to depict the gods in their burial chambers, so Mereruka decorated his with scenes from daily life. And what a life. Carved into the walls is a nice-looking family with plenty of household help. Frequent gourmet meals are served. There's surround-sound lute playing, many buff dancing girls, and goldsmiths coming up with something bound to placate the missus. Packs of happy naked kids—it must have been a progressive day-care center—play tug-of-war and Johnny-on-a-pony. Travel is as adventurous as anything in an Abercrombie & Kent brochure. Mereruka is shown spearing hippos (probably the bungee jumping of its day). And one whole wall is devoted to a lively illustration of revenue enhancement. Serf personnel are—to put it in modern terms—allowing their 401(k)s to be used to purchase the corporation's own stock (at the urging of supervisors with sticks).

Mereruka did well for himself while his wife's dad was running the show. I was looking at a recognizable yuppie paradise. Nothing here would have been strange to the Reagan merger-and-acquisition years or the dot-com boom. All it lacked was golf.

And yet I was also looking at thirty-three rooms of tomb, every one of which was to be filled with custom-made furniture, precious jewels, designer-label kilts and sandals, supermodel-endorsed eye kohl, vintage grand-cru palm-sap wine, and enough meals-to-go to last forever, not to mention archaeological treasures and priceless items of ancient Egyptian art. Plus there was that mummification, which probably cost more than a year at a spa.

Mereruka had invested the proceeds of his peak earning years in worm's meat. I was standing in what amounted to his Aspen ski lodge, his Hamptons beach house, his Gulfstream jet, the professional sports team he never owned, the college education of his kids. (And in the event, Mereruka's tomb was never finished. Teti's successor, Pepy I, may have been one of those churlish brothers-in-law determined to get the deadwood out of the family business.)

There's a temptation to think that understanding an ancient culture is easier, or at least less hectic, than understanding its modern offspring. The ancient culture holds still for inspection and doesn't produce mysterious new phenomena, such as Cairo.

But giant burial vaults can't have been an economically efficient investment of surplus capital. Riches could have been channeled into more-productive use. Channeled literally, as in digging a canal across the flatland between the Nile Delta and the Gulf of Suez. But none was dug until after Darius, the Persian Emperor, had conquered Egypt, in the sixth century B.C. Instead, when pharaohs wanted to trade along the Red Sea coast, they dismantled their boats, hauled them through the eastern desert, and put them back together. The Egyptians did not smelt iron. They didn't even discover bronze until the Middle Kingdom, a thousand years after the civilization was founded. Irrigation was accomplished with buckets on the ends of long levers or by carrying pots slung from yokes. The water wheel wasn't introduced until the Persian invasion. And before the Persians there wasn't such a thing as money. The ancient Egyptian technological innovation of note (besides the enormous triangular four-sided sepulchre stack) was papyrus paper. According to the Egyptologist Cyril Aldred, the ready availability of paper "made the highly organized Egyptian state possible." For the privilege of living in which the Egyptian peasantry paid 50 percent of its produce in taxes.

Even so, I felt that I emerged from Mereruka's tomb into a poorer, more woebegone country. Of course, I didn't. Modern Egypt has a per capita gross domestic product of $3,600. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that before the Industrial Revolution, world per capita GDP was about $650 (in 1990 dollars). In 1820 Great Britain was the richest country on earth with a per capita GDP of only $1,756. In wealth-per-person terms, merrie olde England was a Ghana. The ancient world seems rich to us because its DVDs of Sex and the City have survived rather than its kinescopes of The Honeymooners. And disparities in income, so shocking to our contemporary sensibilities, can't have been less. Consider the negative net worth of the slaves. They didn't have a title to, or even a mortgage on, themselves.

That said, in the fields and palm groves along the Nile are low mud houses of a kind unchanged since the days of Teti and Pepy. Identical homes are on display in miniature at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo—part of the Legoland of peasantry and servitude that was placed as an offering in a pharaoh's crypt.

These Nile-side domiciles, in contrast to the City of the Dead, have been supplied with few electrical wires. Running water has in fact been taken away. Nile floods are now contained by the Aswan High Dam, and Egypt's fellaheen must use commercial fertilizer to do the job that muck did for eons.

So the farmers in their millions move to Cairo, and between the remaining wattle-and-daub homesteads rise the weekend villas of plutocrat Cairenes. The villas would do credit to any gated community in Boca Raton. But the villas are the product of a path to success unfamiliar to Boca (if not to Mereruka). "Who can afford these places?" I asked Peter, who has a Ph.D. in Egyptology, as does his wife. They struggle to support two kids.

"Officials," he said. "And belly dancers."

Other paths to success are steeper. Peter took me to one of the numerous "carpet schools" along the Memphis-Giza road. Here children aged ten and up were engaged in—pedagogical alibis and apprenticeship hooey aside—child labor. Also, some of the children looked more like eight than ten.

There was nothing Dickensian about the well-lit, swept, and airy ground floor full of looms. The manager said that the boys and girls were paid "to give them encouragement" and that "maybe they'll be able to get a job in the company's factory." But I had a feeling this was the factory. He assured me that his charges receive academic instruction similar to that in the government schools. And maybe they do. Scribbled on one weaving frame was graffiti in English that read, "I will always be looling you." I watched little-kid fingers move with blurring speed among warp and woof and saw little-kid faces puckered in grim expertise. I'll never buy a handmade rug again.

Although I bought one. Small, expectant eyes were upon me. "September eleven is like a black day to us," the manager said. Is rug weaving really any worse than Play Station II? Maybe not; but since I got back from Egypt, wall-to-wall carpet made on automatic machines by unionized labor is looking better—the orange shag kind included.

To blame the existence of al Qaeda on poverty like Egypt's is a slur on the poor. The September 11 attackers were taking flying lessons in America, not rug-weaving lessons in a village on the Nile. Yet there must be some economic, or political-economic, roots to the burning —flaming, bursting, exploding—bush of current events. Fouad Ajami, the author of The Dream Palace of the Arabs and a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, has written, "Atta struck at us because he could not take down Mr. Mubarak's world, because in the burdened, crowded land of the Egyptian dictator there is very little offered younger Egyptians save for the steady narcotic of anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism."

Narcotics aside, this "very little offered" raises a question about Arab culture. Why has Egypt—and the whole Arab world—made relatively little economic progress? Even the oil-flush Gulf states have not become rich the way we understand rich in the West. Kuwait is little more than an oil spigot with people sitting on top, and all they have to do is turn the tap. But Kuwait's per capita GDP is $15,000, whereas utterly resourceless Luxembourg's is $36,400.

Egypt of yore may have been economically sclerotic, but modern Egyptians can't really blame their ancient civilization. At least they had a civilization, which is more than we did—or, to judge by Jenny Jones, do yet. And Islam didn't destroy that civilization any more than the Ptolemites, the Romans, and the Byzantines had before. The capitulation of Egypt to the Arabs was brokered by the Christian Patriarch of Alexandria in 642, on condition of security for persons and property and with religious freedom guaranteed in return for payment of tribute.

The Arab world began with a number of economic advantages besides tribute. It had a common language, a unified government, and territory that sat athwart the trade from the Orient to the Mediterranean, between the Mongols and the deep blue sea. To move goods by any other route was to risk getting very wet, or dying. The obligation of pilgrimage stimulated commerce and encouraged the general public to travel the way nothing else would until the invention of frequent-flyer miles and Disney World. A measure of law and order existed, unlike in Europe, where there was none, and in China, where there was too much. And Arabs had absorbed the learning of Greco-Roman civilization centuries before Europeans, in their Renaissance, began to pick scraps of it out of the ruin they'd made of Greece and Rome. Also, the Islamic religion has the right attitude. In the Koran, Sura II, verse 275, states, "God hath permitted trade." The Koran orders the use of honest weights and measures, the fulfillment of contracts, and the payment of debts. And one of the sayings attributed to Muhammad makes him not just the Prophet of Allah but the prophet of Adam Smith: "Only God can fix prices."

But something went wrong. How did the Arabs fall behind Europe, America, and now the Far East? It was probably nothing so air-filled as "the experimental model and European rational thought" or "the Protestant work ethic" or "Confucian values." Civilizations, like people, trip over smaller things. The answer may be as boring as a real-estate title search.

Caliphs and sultans did not bestow feudal lands on a hereditary nobility. Fiefs were generally temporary. Land was given to a particular person for a certain time in return for military or other services. Agricultural estates were your salary. You got a raise by squeezing everything you could out of them. And you had to do it quickly, before you lost your job. There was no incentive to invest in the land, much less in the people who tilled it. This was a carnival concession. You were never going to see these rubes again.

The dearth of private land in the Islamic world is of a piece with the excessive government centralization that has always plagued the civilizations of the Fertile Crescent. Farming in much of the area requires irrigation, a horribly communal activity, like being trapped in an endless Amish barn raising. Then the people of the region went and invented writing. Writing is the enabler of bureaucracy. Bureaucracy leads to the Department of Motor Vehicles model of government, with patronage jobs, wire pulling, and a political hack of a boss.

The Muslim conquerors of the Fertile Crescent may have come from independent and roughly democratic Arab tribes, but they quickly glommed on to state power, as did their Seljuk and Ottoman Turk successors. Despite the laissez-faire prescriptions of the Koran, and the Prophet's warnings against price controls, the Islamic state proceeded to interfere grossly with the economy. The pre-eminent Western historian of Islam, Bernard Lewis, estimates that Middle Eastern agricultural yields began a decline in late Roman times that has continued almost to the present day. As for commerce, Lewis has written, "Governments seemed to have reasoned that if they could earn so much a year by taxing the pepper trade, they could earn even more by taking it over entirely." This works so well in Cuba. Lewis argues that Islamic commercial wealth was not destroyed by European innovations in ocean shipping. Rather, Europeans were driven to the sea lanes because in the 1400s the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt nationalized the spice trade and forced the Kmart of nutmeg-and-ginger caravans into Chapter 11.

The economic decline can be measured by the number of people the economy was able to support. The Egyptian historian Afaf Marsot believes that the population of Egypt at the time of the Arab conquest was 20 to 30 million. By the late 1700s it was about three million.

Mamluk Sultan-ish behavior persisted into the modern era. Gamal Abdel Nasser ruled Egypt from 1952 to 1970, and his political slogan said everything that can be said about centralization: "We are all Nasser." He nationalized banks, insurance companies, and other major enterprises. Land ownership was limited to around forty acres, about the size of the plot on which the average peasant was starving. Imports were radically reduced, and a broad program of "import substitution" was effected. I'll have a McGoat and a large order of papyrus fries. Marsot says of the Nasser regime, "The real administration was carried out through exceptional decrees, through patron-client relationships, through appeals to individuals in power."

Sounds like Enron to me. But Alan Greenspan says America's economy is doing okay. And so, to some extent, is Egypt's. Reforms and privatizations were begun by Anwar Sadat and have continued under Hosni Mubarak. Egypt's GDP grew by an average of 5.05 percent a year from 1997 to 2000. I had dinner with some Egyptians in the steel business. Their business talk sounded like any business talk. When they discussed the downturn in structural-steel demand resulting from global recession and the September 11 attacks, they may have meant "We are all Nasser"—but what they said was "We are all dead." Though considering the size of the restaurant check they picked up, they didn't really mean it.

Shopkeepers, though glum about the current situation, did not seem to be in a mood of permanent despair. I spent a pleasant hour in the Khan al-Khalili bazaar lounging atop rolls of brilliantly striped Egyptian canvas talking to a maker of drawstring pokes and backpacks. He was interested to hear about the L. L. Bean boat bag and how there are people called WASPs in America who can't so much as send a kid and the nanny to the beach club without employing three or four of these stiff cotton sacks.

I had lunch with an Egyptian who had been born in the United States. When he was in high school, in suburban Chicago, he became serious about religion and observed Ramadan with rigor. Then he went to Egypt to work as a journalist, and now, in Ramadan, he was having lunch. "My sister is a Christian fundamentalist," I said. "She wouldn't crash a plane into the World Trade Center, but she might land pretty hard on evolution. And then we'd all have to remain amoebas."

"A lot of people don't make that connection," the Egyptian journalist from Chicago said.

But the movement of Egypt's material culture into the modern age is not happening fast enough to simply turn them into us. (And since I began watching Maury Povich, I'm not sure I want it to.) Also, a small item in the December 10, 2001, edition of The Egyptian Gazette indicates that the fatal bull's-eye of centralization remains pinned to the Egyptian economy. "Minister of Planning Othman Mohammed Othman," the item read, "said the government was unable to manage the economy alone." Plus, Egypt continues to suffer from the corruption that's bred when profit lies down with politics. Transparency International's 2001 Corruption Perceptions Index rates Egypt 3.6 on a scale of 10, with 10 being the least corrupt. Finland is 9.9. Drug-lord-beleaguered Colombia, at 3.8, is less corrupt than Egypt.

Five millennia of economic tomfoolery is bound to leave Egyptians confused about economic principles. On the subject of free trade M. Ali Ibrahim, who writes the front-page "Tell Me More" column for The Egyptian Gazette, can sound like Pat Buchanan on a bad chest-hair day. "Immediate restrictions must be introduced to drastically reduce imports," Ibrahim wrote on December 5, 2001. "We waste millions of dollars on provocative imported commodities, dog food, nuts and ice cream." Ibrahim cited the work of Mahmoud Bazaraa, "an economics expert" who claims "that a liberal economy doesn't mean opening wide the doors for imports." A few days later Ibrahim's column was titled "Tell Me More ... About imported prayer beads, how they're bankrupting local merchants."

"In the United States," I said to Peter, "we're worried about Egyptian Islamic extremism. So what's with all the crosses on the Cairo skyline?"

"I'm Christian," Peter said. The owners of his tour company are also Christians, as are most of its employees.

"How many Egyptians are Christian?" I asked.

"Many," Peter said, "but I don't know how many."

Most Egyptian Christians are members of the Coptic Church. Fouad Ajami writes, "The demographic weight of the Copts is one of the great riddles of Egypt." Ajami quotes the political historian Rifaat Said, who says, "We count everything in Egypt: cups, shoes, books. The only thing we don't count are the Copts." Copts make up six percent of the Egyptian population (the official estimate) or 10 percent (the historian Afaf Marsot's estimate) or 12 percent (the estimate from the Center for Religious Freedom, in Washington, D.C.) Only 11 percent of Swedes go to church. Egypt may be a more Christian country than Sweden.

Copts believe that the nature of Jesus Christ was completely divine. Other Christians believe that the nature of Jesus was both divine and human. This used to be something you could get killed over. And it still is. Muslims believe that the nature of Jesus was just plain human. Islamic-extremist violence has been aimed at fellow Egyptians as well as at foreign tourists. In January of 2000, in the town of Al-Kosheh, anti-Copt rioting resulted in the death of twenty-two Christians and one Muslim.

But Afaf Marsot claims that the Copts were treated better by their Muslim conquerors than by their Byzantine overlords, who considered them heretics. Copts were incorporated into the Arab government. Bernard Lewis says that as late as the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries Muslims were complaining that Copts were running the administration. They're still there. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a Copt, was Mubarak's deputy prime minister for foreign affairs before becoming Secretary-General of the UN.

Peter took me to the Coptic quarter of Cairo. We saw a welter of Christian worship going on—although it was a weekday—and more than a few Santa decorations. Peter showed me where Pharaoh's daughter found Moses floating in a basket. The basement grotto was flooded, so this may have been the spot. No, I'm getting mixed up in my notes. The flooded grotto was the place where Jesus and Mary and Joseph sought shelter on their flight into Egypt. I hope they brought galoshes. The Church of Saint Sergius, one of the oldest Christian churches in Egypt, was constructed over the grotto, in the fifth century. To support one end of a door lintel in the church a Roman column was used with its capital flat on the floor—in case you think it's only Muslims who turn civilization upside down.

The place where Moses was found is in the Ben Ezra Synagogue, which is no longer used for daily worship. "Fewer than a hundred Jews are left in Egypt," Peter said. "All of them are over seventy. There are maybe twenty synagogues in Egypt. Only one is open."

When Ben Ezra was restored in the nineteenth century, thousands of manuscripts were discovered, dating back to the eleventh century. "It is the habit of the Jews all over the world," Peter said, "to write the story of their lives and hide these writings in certain places." I was thinking of Anne Frank, but I don't believe Peter was. He talked about "the closed society of the Jews" and said, "We do not forget the help the Jews gave the Hyksos." These were the pharaohs of the Fifteenth Dynasty, apparently of Semitic origin, who ruled Egypt after the fall of the Middle Kingdom, 3,650 years ago. Peter was still irked. "The Jews came to Egypt three times," he said, frowning, "with Joseph, with Ptolemy, and in 1492." By the way, they were moderately well treated on each occasion—although there seems to have been a flare-up of ill feeling about the time of Exodus. And now, of course.

The big hit from Egypt's pop singer of the moment, Shaaban Abdel Rahim, is "Ana Bakrah Israel" ("I Hate Israel"). Rahim says the cassette has sold five million copies. In a week's worth of Egyptian Gazettes, each edition only eight to twelve pages long, I counted fifty-eight articles involving Israel. The December 12, 2001, issue alone had five, three of them on the front page. One piece, on December 10, cited "rumours that Mossad agents have secretly hidden magnetic strips inside Cleopatra cigarettes." The story noted that "strong electromagnetic fields are a health risk" and went on to mention "'lethal' magnetic belt buckles, seen as an Israeli plot to make Egyptians sterile."

The Egyptian Gazette, which the Lonely Planet guide calls "Egypt's awful daily English-language newspaper," is an anodyne (and anti-Osama) publication that turns up outside hotel-room doors in the morning and is clearly meant to be read by foreigners, some of whom are likely to be Jewish. Much worse things are available from the Arab- language press, as is pointed out by The Middle East Media and Research Institute, a pro-Israel organization that collects much worse things from the Arab-language press.

According to MEMRI, the following items appeared in the Egyptian government dailies Al-Akhbar and Al-Ahram from April to August of 2001:

Mahmoud Mahmoud Muhammad Khadhr, a cleric from Cairo's Al-Azhar University, posed the rhetorical question "Did Hitler attack the Jews or did their crime deserve even more? ... The Zionists were a fifth column in Germany, and they betrayed the country that hosted them."

Dr. Mahmoud Al-Said Al-Kurdi stated, "The Talmud, the second holiest book for the Jews, determines that the 'matzahs' of Atonement Day must be kneaded 'with blood' from a non-Jew. The preference is for the blood of youths after raping them!!"

And the journalist Fahmi Huweidi described his feelings after a suicide bombing: "I cannot hide my happiness about the martyrdom operation that took place in Jerusalem last Thursday. I won't deny that it liberated me from the sorrow and misery that have overtaken me over the past weeks."

Fouad Ajami's "narcotic of anti-Zionism" packs a punch.

And maybe so does poetic license. In The Dream Palace of the Arabs, Ajami explains that Arab society puts a great value on poetic expression—a 1950s-Smith-College-girl-with-her-head-in-the-oven value. In the March 10, 2002, New York Times Book Review, Judith Shulevitz wrote about Osama bin Laden's recitation of poetry on one of his videotapes (a poem plagiarized from the Jordanian poet Yusuf Abu Hilalah). Shulevitz said that this recitation "would burnish bin Laden's reputation in a way that Americans might not readily understand, given the higher premium placed in the Middle East on poetic eloquence, even in a political leader." And it is hard to imagine George W. Bush cribbing from Sylvia Plath in his post-September 11 address to the joint session of Congress:

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

Ajami quotes the poet Nizar Qabbani, who said that the Arab is the "quintessential poetic being," and that poetry is "written on the forehead of every Arab." Anyone who has had a similar experience of letting his words get ahead of his frontal lobes knows where this can lead. Maybe, in the calumnies of Al-Akhbar, there is a kinship to Plath's poem "Daddy," in which she addressed her father: "Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You—" Otto Plath was a Boston University professor of biology and an expert on bees.

Or maybe what we're hearing in Al-Akhbar is prosaic hate. But either way, the reality is that it's been almost thirty years since the last war between Egypt and Israel. Americans in my parents' generation were pretty mad at the Japs. They got over it. And by the 1970s they were driving Datsuns.

I flew to Luxor. Trying to understand a culture by being a tourist is famously useless. But trying to understand Egypt without being a tourist would be worse than useless. Egypt is the cradle of tourism. Herodotus was a tourist here in the fifth century B.C. And the First Dynasty of the pharaohs was as far removed in time from Herodotus as he is from us. Tourism was the source of history's original failure of cultural understanding. Cyril Aldred writes that ancient Greek and Roman vacationers in Egypt "never really understood Egyptian religion and were inclined to see in inexplicable acts and beliefs a more profound significance than actually existed." Thus the concept of the "inscrutable Orient," the idea of the "mysterious East."

Luxor is the site of the ancient sacred city of Thebes, 419 miles upstream from Cairo. The Temple of Luxor is downtown, and nearby are the Colossi of Memnon, Karnak Temple, Hatshepsut's Temple, the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, and the Ramesseum, with the gigantic shattered statue of Ramses II that inspired Shelley to write "Ozymandias."

And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck other than ticket booths,
soda-pop stands, souvenir stalls, dozing guards,
and 200 men in galabias asking,
"Whereyoufrom Youbuypostcardokay?"

At the Sheraton hotel in Luxor a few tourists were braving the geopolitics—some Europeans, a couple of Japanese, and a scattering of doughty American retirees of the type who can't get along without L. L. Bean boat bags. I heard a voice in the Sheraton bar saying, with a plummy English accent, "The reason I got fired ..."

My guide in Luxor, Ibrahim, was one of those people—rare among tour guides—who are impelled to tell the truth. His description of the mummification process was sickening. I asked Ibrahim about the war on terror. "Egyptians support America's actions in Afghanistan," he said, and paused. "Most do. But I must tell you the truth, others do not. Maybe thirty percent do. I am Christian. All Christians support America's actions." He paused again. "But maybe ninety percent of Egyptians are opposed."

Luxor's tombs and temples were interesting—briefly. Ibrahim would recount the attributes, the ancestry, and the avatars of every mythological figure portrayed. He came to a brief, embarrassed halt only at Min, who is represented with a healthy erection. And so Min might well be represented, given the lithesome and un-burka'd female deities on the tomb and temple walls. The ancient Egyptian pantheon seems to have read Amazon.com's best seller Look Great Naked in an earlier edition.

But the mild thrill of anachronistic eroticism wears off, the gimmick of puppy-headed gods palls, and a satiety with ritual mumbo-jumbo sets in. Too much Egyptian art in a day produces moods that go rapidly from Hobbit-jaded to child-wizard-bored to the feeling of being in a vegetarian restaurant with a blind date who's talking feng shui. Ibrahim took me to just such a restaurant near the Valley of the Kings, although it became vegetarian only after Ibrahim suggested I look in the kitchen.

From the restaurant's terrace I could also look up and down the Nile. The land of Egypt is nearly 700 miles long and, for most of that distance, effectively about seven miles wide. How did this affect a culture? Did people try to make their lives long and narrow? The funerary monuments around Luxor are a huge pharaonic Keogh plan meant to fund an eternal hereafter just like the therebefore.

I could be wrong. What will be left of our civilization 5,000 years hence? Probably the ruins of our interstate highway system. The tourists of some future age will wonder, as I wondered at the Valley of the Kings, "Why were these people so obsessed with where they were going instead of where they were?"

But our rest stops won't present the same opportunities for looting. ("A Jersey Devils snow dome!") All the ancient Egyptian tombs were robbed, many by contemporaries of the deceased. Even the famed trove of Tutankhamun was picked over not long after it was sealed. Suspicions arise of an inside job. A pharaoh's kids had motive, means, and opportunity. They'd been bilked of their inheritance, knew where the tomb was, and were paying the salaries of the guards.

"Didn't Grandpa have a set of solid-gold dinner plates just like this?"

"Finish your papyrus fries."

Nowadays the tombs are well protected. And so are their visitors. After the 1997 terrorist attack at Hatshepsut's Temple, the corps of black-clad Tourist Police was expanded and given special training. I saw one of them sitting in a squad car with a Furby hanging from the rearview mirror.

The Tourist Police were present in force at the Karnak temple complex. Karnak covers almost as much ground as Disneyland. The Great Hypostyle Hall alone has space enough for a heck of an Ancient Egyptian Adventure ride—whizzing among the 134 gigantic stone pillars. Indeed, visitors once came to Karnak with a more Disney-fied attitude. According to the scrapbooks of nineteenth-century tourists, there's room for a hundred men to stand on the capital of one of these columns. That was the kind of culturally insensitive thing tourists used to do. Now they're herded into sound-and-light shows.

The Karnak son et lumière began with Wagnerian music and recorded male and female voices bouncing back and forth between widely separated speakers in the manner of sound-effects records from the early days of stereo. I forget what the female voice was pretending to be. The male voice was Amon-Ra—a Middle Kingdom syncretism of Ra the sun deity and a local goose god, the Great Cackler, who laid the cosmic egg.

The language of the performance was as poetic as anything that bin Laden is snapping his fingers to in the coffeehouses of the Shah-i-Kot Valley. "I am Amon-Ra," the male voice said. "The waters of the Nile sprout from my sandals." The lumière part consisted mostly of plunging us into darkness while we hung around in the supposedly spiritual ruins. Some of the tourists took flash photos of the opacity. "Yes, definitely spirits," I heard one woman say.

A Ramadan service was being broadcast over the loudspeaker of a mosque outside the Karnak walls. The son et lumière producers turned up their volume. The Muslim clerics turned up theirs. The producers responded in kind. So did the clerics.

If the pious Muslims had had Ibrahim translating the son et lumière into Arabic, there might have been more than a war of words. "I am the father of fathers, mother of mothers," Amon-Ra announced very loudly indeed, "... the salvation of Amon, the salvation of Ra, also the salvation of the crocodile, offered equally to all the compass points of earth and to you, new pilgrim to Thebes."

I was reminded of nothing so much as my dad in a fez, headed out for a night with the boys. Dad was a Thirty-second Degree Freemason and a member of the Ancient Egyptian Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. It's hard to imagine a worse case of cultural misunderstanding than the cultures of Egypt and Arabia represented by Dad on a midget motorcycle in the Fourth of July parade. Or maybe Dad knew more than I thought. During the late nineteenth century Egypt's King Tawfiq was a member of a Masonic lodge, as were many of Egypt's reform-minded liberal elite.

The next night I visited the Temple of Luxor, mercifully in silence. Luxor was consecrated to the "Theban Triad": Amon-Ra; his earth-mother consort, Mut; and their moon-god kid, Khonsu. The temple was constructed about 1300 B.C. and restored by Alexander the Great, who built a new sanctuary for Amon-Ra. "In the wrong place," Ibrahim said. "Properly it should be in the last room of the temple, not here in the antechamber." Alexander's sanctuary stands just inside the antechamber's original walls. One set of hieroglyphs and reliefs was carved a thousand years later than the other.

"You see the difference," Ibrahim said.

I didn't. There is a supposed dynamism to ancient Egyptian art. According to Cyril Aldred, "It is often possible for the expert to date a specimen to within a few years by its stylistic features alone." So the expert says. But the ancient Egyptian language, Aldred himself points out, "has no genuine active tense." He notes that the ancient Egyptians did not adjust their calendar with the addition of an extra day every four years. They just let it slide for a millennium and a half until it got back into phase. When it came to art, I think the ancient Egyptians had a look going and decided to hang with it for 3,000 years.

"Notice how the quality of decoration degenerated," Ibrahim said. An important part of cultural understanding is to understand that not all cultures progress.

Ibrahim and I went across the street and had dinner at McDonald's, where the quality of decoration had degenerated much further.