The Egypt of Zach Murphy’s mind was shaped by history classes, Hollywood movies, and stories from the Bible. That Egypt featured the remains of once-luxurious temples, hieroglyphic-covered buildings, and a river that flowed between Cairo’s major landmarks.

He pictured a place stuck in time, a different era that had somehow remained as the world shifted and evolved.

Of course, that Egypt isn’t the one that met Zach at the Cairo airport.

Instead, he found a modern, 21st-century city in the middle of the desert. There was a metro system, bright neon lights, American fast-food restaurants, high-rise apartment buildings, and a river that looked more muddy than lively.

Zach got off at the Tahrir Square metro stop and turned in circles, expecting to see pyramids looming in between buildings.

Though it wasn’t what he had expected, it was to be expected. He hadn’t flown back to Ancient Egypt or stepped into the pages of a history textbook. Cairo is a living, breathing, modern city.

Still, among the rush of modernity, Zach was able to catch glimpses of the historical Egypt he’d envisioned.

He hiked up to an ancient citadel and marveled at the sweeping view of the city, complete with the faint outlines of the Great Pyramids in the distance. He walked through crowded markets that seemed centuries-old, sharing the streets with donkey carts and elderly men smoking shisha. He found electronic shops beside antique stores, and imagined that the artifacts sold inside might have actually been touched by a pharaoh.

As he moved down the Nile River, he seemed to go further back in time. While the ruins had been lost in Cairo, they were still prominent pieces of the landscapes in Luxor, Aswan, and Abu Simbel. He explored the remains of temples, courtyards, and ancient dwellings — places that seemed simultaneously familiar and foreign.

Contrast, he decided, was the best way to describe Egypt.

The ancient and modern, the old and new.

Zach may not have stumbled into the past, or into the Egypt he had in his mind before visiting, but he did find exactly what he was hoping for.

As he rode a camel through the pyramids, visited intricate tombs, sailed down the Nile, and hiked Mt. Sinai at sunrise, he realized he was in the presence of history.

He was in a place, a civilization, that had bore witness to every era of humankind.

It wasn’t exactly what he expected, but what Zach experienced made him feel insignificant yet honored at the same time.