Pilot’s log: Friday, July 10, 2020

Origin:Cairo Sphinx Airport (HESX), Cairo, Egypt
Destination:Indira Gandhi Airport (VIDP), Delhi, India
Distance:2,658 miles

Good morning and time for another take-off in our around-the-world journey. Speaking of time: in our last leg, we visited Athens and Cairo, two places with deep roots in the ancient past. Today, we’re heading back to the present day. We’ll fly over Dubai, a city on the Persian Gulf that barely existed just 50 years ago but today is a glittering showplace of modern development. After that, we’ll continue on to India, a place where the past and the present exist alongside each other.

We’ll start our eastward journey by first flying over the sprawling city of Cairo. Home to 5 million people, it’s the largest metropolis in the Arab world. Like many cities, Cairo owes its existence to a river: in this case the Nile, which has supported settlements in this area for 5,000 years. In Cairo, the Nile is near the end of its 4,130-mile journey, which takes it from deep within Africa’s interior north through the desert and then finally into the Mediterranean Sea.

The Nile River flowing through Cairo, Egypt

The Nile is tied with South America’s Amazon for the title of world’s longest: the difference is tiny, and depends on how you measure small feeder streams. But they’re very different: the Amazon runs entirely through rain forests and grows to carry a massive amount of water, while the Nile flows through long stretches of arid desert, giving it only a tiny fraction of the Amazon’s volume.

As we fly east, we’re crossing from Africa into Asia, and more specifically the part of the world known as the Mideast, which is the region immediately to the east of the Mediterranean. It’s a complex place with religion, ethnic, and political conflicts and disputes going back thousands of years. It’s where Judaism, Christianity, and Islam first emerged, and where most scenes from ancient scripture were set. We don’t have time to explore this area in detail, but a general understanding of some of the region’s issues is essential to understanding of the world today. As we continue, we eventually come to the Persian Gulf, an area that in the second half of the 20th century was utterly transformed by one thing: crude oil. The discovery of huge oil reserves in this area led to an immense income for the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and smaller “emirates,” many located along the shores of the Gulf.

A pilgrim in the presence of Islam’s most sacred site, the cube-shaped Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia

The sudden influx of wealth from oil exports transformed this part of the world. As one example, consider the United Arab Emirates, or “U.A.E.,” a group of seven smaller Persian Gulf states that act as a single entity. Until the late 1960s, the U.A.E. was a small maritime trading enclave populated by nomadic Bedouin tribes whose way of life hadn’t changed in centuries. After oil exports began in 1969, the ruling families of the U.A.E. began plowing petroleum money into modern roads, health care, and creating a diversified economy. This fueled the incredibly fast growth of Dubai into a brand new luxury tourism destination and a special favorite of the world’s elite. Today, Dubai’s claims to fame include the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, which rises 2,722 feet.

But long before oil became a mainstay of the Mideast economy, aviation was important. Starting in the 1920s, air routes were being established to far-flung places such as India, the Far East, and Australia. Due to the limited range of aircraft, these routes often meant refueling and rest stops in exotic locales from Bagdad to Bahrain. With surface travel arduous and difficult, and sea travel limited to coast regions, the development of air travel in the first half of the 20th century helped connect the Mideast with the world.

The Dubai skyline, anchored by the Burj Khalifa in the center, the world’s tallest building
Emirates Airlines’ Airbus A380 lands at Boston Logan airport
Photo by Ora Lassila / So Many Aircraft

After Dubai, we continue east across the southern part of Iran, the modern name of the area known for most of human history as Persia. It’s home to another highly accomplished ancient civilization, although one with less direct effect on the Western world compared to the Greeks and Romans. We then fly across southern Pakistan, a nation established 1947 when the ruling British split the area off from India to create a Muslim-majority state. This was done to provide a haven for India’s many Muslims in advance of the British granting India its own independence, which happened in 1948. Relations between the two states have been uneasy ever since; both nations successfully pursued the development of nuclear weapons, largely to act as a deterrent against each other.

India is about half the size of the continental U.S.

And with that, we are now flying over India, on our way to today’s destination: the capital city of New Delhi. Below us sprawls the Indian subcontinent, an immense land, the seventh largest nation by area, and home to 1.3 billion people, making it the second most populous after China. (And India is growing faster, and is expected to surpass China’s 1.4 billion by 2022.) India is a world unto itself, encompassing mountains, deserts, jungles, and some of the world’s most crowded and chaotic cities. It’s a collection of distinct regions and ethnic groups, a nation with 22 official languages, which means to communicate outside one’s native area, most people use English, a leftover from 200 years of British colonial rule. Before the British, Islamic military leaders conquered and ruled India, and before them were the Persians, the Greeks (in the form of Alexander the Great), and many others. Through it all, India kept steadily to its ancient ways, although recent economic growth and the development of a middle class has done its share to disrupt the subcontinent’s timeless rhythms.

India is a land of incredible contrasts: a place where farmers use teams of oxen to bring produce to market, but which also boasts an aggressive space program; a place of ear-splitting urban cacophany but also ashrams offering tranquil retreats for silent meditation; a place where the glamour of a thriving film industry known as Bollywood coexists with poverty-stricken slums. Underpinning much of Indian society is Hinduism, a religion that has provided structure, guidance, inspiration, and comfort for more than 4,000 years. With about 1.25 billion adherents, it’s the world’s third-largest religion, after Christianity and Islam. Those faiths and others are present in India, including Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism, making India one of the world’s most spiritually diverse societies. But Hinduism predominates; followers make up about 80 percent of the population. Hindu temples are found everywhere throughout the country, ranging from simple shrines to elaborate worship centers.

A different form of guidance is found in the teachings of Mohandas K. Gandhi, an Indian lawyer and anti-colonial nationalist active in the first half of the 20th century. Gandhi renounced wealth, lived modestly, and often donned the rural garments of his native area Gujarat in western India, preaching non-violence resistance to create social and political change. Sometimes called “Mahatma” Gandhi (an honorific term meaning “great soul”), his vision of India’s future included religious tolerance and independence from British rule, a stance which made him the nation’s unofficial father. In 1948, the year that India won independence, Gandhi was tragically assassinated by a Hindu nationalist. For more information about Hinduism, Gandhi, and some of India’s other faiths, see the links in today’s pilot log.

Chandni Chowk, a busy street in the heart of Delhi

With nearly 20 million people, Delhi is India’s second largest city; Mumbai is slightly bigger. Delhi is actually a cluster of a number of cities spread across a wide area; among them is “New Delhi,” a zone containing the nation’s capital. (Sometimes “Delhi” and “New Delhi” are used interchangeably, but that’s the distinction.) Delhi has been inhabited since the 6th century B.C. and has often served as the capital of empires, most notably the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire, two Islamic kingdoms that ruled large areas of the Indian subcontinent for 600 years, through the 19th century. They were followed by the British, who made New Delhi the administrative capital of colonial India and laid out the foundations of the modern city. When India became independent in 1948, Delhi remained the capital.

Flying over the city, we’ll see evidence of India’s long history below us. Flying from the northeast, we’ll first cross the Red Fort, a massive leftover fortification from the Mughal Empire, and the Jama Masjid, an enormous mosque that towers over Delhi’s old town. Further south, we’ll see Connaught Place, a commercial district where the roads were laid out by the British in circular form. Below that is the actual national capital, highlighted by an immense ceremonial boulevard known as the Rajpath, with the monumental India Gate on one end and the stately President’s House, or Rashtrapati Bhavan, on the other. This area was laid out in grand imperial fashion by architect Edwin Luytens in 1911, at the height of the British rule, or “raj,” when the capital of colonial India was moved from Calcutta to Delhi.

Laxminarayan Temple, a large Hindu Temple in Delhi
The Jama Masjid is an enormous mosque in Delhi built by the Mughal emperors who ruled India from the 1600s to the mid 1800s

We’ll land at Indira Gandhi International Airport outside Delhi, named after prime minister Indira Gandhi, who led the nation in the 1980s. She was not related to Mahatma Gandhi, but was the daughter of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, a close Gandhi advisor, and married into a family which used the same name. Like the Mahatma before her, Indira Gandhi became a victim of religious strife, assassinated in 1984. It’s been a long flight today, but believe it or not we’re still not even half-way around the world from our starting point in Manchester, N.H. We’ll continue to make progress in our next legs, which take us to the exotic city of Kathmandu, Nepal and then into the Himalayas, the tallest mountains on earth.

Mohandas K. Gandhi helped lead India to independence in 1948

Resources to learn more about today’s flight:

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