We were off to something of a bad start … despite the best attentions of the Kuoni representative, who met us inside the airport on arrival in Cairo, and of Hany Salam, Secretary of the Philatelic Society of Egypt, and Mohamed Yehia, Board member, who greeted us outside, and despite an easy formality with Customs examination of our exhibits, there was nothing anyone could do when two suitcases went missing. Except smile; and that is something David and Ann Sedgwick, first-time visitors to Egypt, did very bravely indeed over the next three or four days until their clothes arrived.
But once at the Sheraton Towers in Giza all started to go well. Our rooms were in the newly restored Cleopatra Tower, and the facilities were soon found - breakfast downstairs, the pool at rooftop level away from the traffic, the Metro a couple of hundred yards away … it proved an excellent centre from which to help the Philatelic Society of Egypt celebrate its 75th anniversary.
And our welcome from the Egyptian philatelists was warm and promising. The first morning was a flurry of phone calls, followed in the afternoon by what seemed to set the pattern for the next few days - a mad hour-long car ride through the Cairo peak-hour traffic to reach a riverboat ride that was in fact only ten minutes' walk away - a matter of minor misunderstanding taken by everyone in very good heart. And the fact that it wasn't a felucca but a motorboat in no way spoiled the enjoyment - it was a good chance to make new friends in a calm and peaceful sunset atmosphere.
This is the moment where it is 100 per cent necessary to pay tribute to two very special ladies - Jeanne Fikry and Aida Salam - who gave up house and home, children and family, to escort us on a series of tours, acting as chauffeur and guide, mentor and haggle-advisor, through what can only be described as a maelstrom of traffic. I would not drive in Cairo if you paid me a pharaoh's ransom - Aida and Jeanne accomplished the task with calm and dignity, never a hair out of place despite the army truck or the 70-seater bus bearing down on us with every indication of wiping out the whole party. Thank you, ladies. And thank you, too, Samir Fikry, who was not supposed to be involved, but was involved, out of the generosity of his heart.
And where did they take us, these intrepid ladies? The programme they organised was supposed to occupy the distaff side while the menfolk busied themselves with little pieces of printed paper - but it was astonishing how many of the "leisure" events attracted the menfolk too! And the first was the most stunning of all … totally unexpected even to those of us who have been visiting for years.
We were driven up Salah Salem, round behind the Citadel, to visit the zebeleen, the garbage-collectors whose little donkey carts do such an invaluable job in keeping Cairo's streets free of rubbish and then recycling it. They have become established in the Moqattam Hills since the time of Nasser, and we expected to see their alfresco workshops and stores. What was totally unforeseen was the series of churches these Christian (Coptic; the descendants of the Ancient Egyptians) workers have literally carved out of the hillside … the Monastery of Saint Samaan the Tanner and ancillary buildings. The main hall, open to the skies, holds 5,000 worshippers, the second hall, cleared by illegal blasting away of the rock timed to coincide with the cannon announcing the end of a day's Ramadan fasting, can seat 2,000, and both are regularly filled. The hillsides are carved with scenes and inscriptions from the Bible, gaily painted and treated with awe and respect by locals and visitors alike. This astonishing spectacle was the gift of Samir and Jeanne's daughter Nadine, who suggested the idea. This place is not on the tourist track - yet. But it deserves to be, and it will be soon. Thank you, Nadine!
From the sublime to the less unexpected. Next morning we were off to the Khan el-Khalili bazaar to top up on gifts for home, but not before we had stopped off at two of the most spectacular mosques in Cairo - Sultan Hassan and Rifai, at the foot of the Citadel mount, where recent Kings of Egypt are buried, including Ismail and Farouk. We were staggered by the potency of the call to prayer of one muezzin who performed it for us in a darkened room, as well as by the sheer magnificence of the Rifai and the extended roles taken on by the Sultan Hassan as court, school, hospital as well as place of worship.
Then it was on to Khan el-Khalili, where all of Jeanne's negotiating skills came to the fore in providing excellent bargains - as well as mint tea and fuul and taamiya sandwiches
And next morning provided another "first" with a visit to the 74-acre Al-Azhar Garden, a wonderful green lung for Cairo built at the Aga Khan's expense on land reclaimed from derelict - an exercise that revealed to the archaeologists a mile-long 50ft-high city wall built by Salah ed-Din in the 12th century. The park is planted with over 655,000 trees and is designed to catch the breeze among its lakes, rivulets, valleys and facades - an ideal place to relax amid countryside features as well as being well supplied with restaurants and cafeterias.
While we visited the Moqattam churches, Khetcho Hagopian had been hard at work setting up the 20-frame exhibition in the PSE clubrooms in Abdel Khalek Sarwat Street in downtown Cairo - a thankless task when those supposed to provide 16 sheets hand over 32, and those who should provide eight make it nine. But the task was performed with characteristic good humour (and only the occasional sharp tongue for those who are not usually exhibitors!) and the balance of classic to modern, postal history to stamps, was just about right to suit all tastes and interests.
The exhibition ran from Friday lunchtime to Sunday lunchtime and was well attended, with one of the two side rooms accommodating local dealers who made good use of their time. As did, naturally, the visiting collectors!
The exhibitors were: Khetcho Hagopian (First Issue); Artin Kasperian (Second Issue); Samir Fikry (First Issue postal history); Sherif Samra (1879 Provisionals); Ibrahim Shoukry (1879 De La Rues); Mahmoud Ramadan (OHEMS post); Sherif Hesni (Perfins postal history); Hisham Bassyouny (British Forces in Egypt); Raffat Milad (Egyptian stationery); Hany Salam (Fuad 1923 Issue); Karim Darwaza (Ottoman Offices in Syria); Samir Nabih Attia (Thomas Cook in Egypt); Greg Todd (First Issue); John Sears (Maritime Mail); John Davis (Postal Concession Commemorative Seals); Edmund Hall (Gaza 1900-2000); Mike Murphy (Gabriel Boulad's own mails); Peter Andrews (Mail Damaged in Transit); Cyril Defriez (Egypt Air Mail); David Sedgwick (Egypt and the North of England); Mostafa El-Dars (FDCs of the last Monarchy Commemoratives).
Our welcome in the clubrooms, whether as exhibitor or guest, was overwhelming, with opportunity to make myriad new friends as well as renewing acquaintance with many old ones. The atmosphere throughout was one of friendly good fellowship, with everyone involved going out of his way to share news, views and opportunities to ask questions. Refreshments were provided by two charming young members of Hany Salam's staff
The official events were crowned by the formal dinner on Sunday evening at the august Automobile & Touring Club of Egypt (once the Royal Automobile Club and a favourite haunt of Farouk), at which we were all treated to a right royal dinner specially selected by Dr Sherif el-Far, Vice-President of the PSE and clearly a man with a wonderful epicurean imagination. All "stamp" members of the UK party were presented with a beautiful bronze commemorative medal (after the style of the 1991 medals), and all exhibitors were given a beautifully ornate certificate of participation. These were presented by Dr Sherif Battisha, Vice Chairman of Egypt Post, who had attended the exhibition the previous day.
There were speeches from Sherif Samra, Hany Salam, Samir Fikry and John Sears which delayed the arrival of the chocolate soufflé - but not by too much! - and there were gifts from the ESC to PSE officials and ladies who had gone particularly out of their way to help … but at the end of a most enjoyable evening it was impossible to tell which diner was from which side: what we had instead was a meeting of good friends.
The conviviality continued next evening at the home of Vahe Varjabedian in Heliopolis, where he and his wife Hermine (headmistress role abandoned; now she is a homeopath) made the whole party very welcome indeed with a wonderful display of food that looked so good that we were all afraid to touch it!
Quite apart from the full-scale events, there was a whole series of informal meetings, visits and dinners, with John and Pat, our intrepid President and his wife, braving a taxi as far as Suez (but missing out on any major vessel in the Canal!), while others ventured forth to the Museum, the Citadel, American University bookshop, the Railway Museum, the Gayer-Anderson House (Beit el Kritliya), to dealers all over the city, even to have lessons in deciphering Ottoman Turkish Arabic. And some fortunate ones among us were invited to the homes of some of our hosts - thank you so much, Samir, Jeanne and Nadine Fikry, Ibrahim Shoukry (best wishes for Madame's recovery!), Mahmoud Ramadan, Lucien and Jackie Toutounji, Hany and Aida Salam: we could not want for better friends.
There was time on Tuesday - the last day - for catching up, for buying last-minute presents, but then suddenly it was all over and we all - Egyptians and British alike - agreed that the whole visit had been altogether too short. So another is being planned. Probably next year. See you there.