Curious About Cairo?

IMG_3201The capital city of Egypt, Cairo, has 24 million inhabitants. There aren’t a huge number of high rises, so the city is wide spread. Rows upon rows of apartment buildings look like they haven’t been finished yet, with rebar sticking out of the concrete and no glass in the windows. Most buildings have the same colourless, dusty look as the desert on whose fringe the city was built. Thanks to the Nile, there is a green stretch here, too, of agricultural land and palm trees.

The endless traffic creates a smog, not helped by the desert dust, that turns the sky grey by mid day. In the morning we can see pyramids from our 6th floor hotel room but by noon they have faded into the smog. It’s easy to get around by hailing a taxi. But you do need to insist on a meter. As in many Muslim countries, Friday and Saturday is weekend here and taxi fares often increases. The first taxi we tried on Friday morning quoted us 100 Egyptian pounds for a ride we knew would cost 50. We waved him away and the next taxi was indeed 50 EGP.

IMG_3054The first trip we made here was to Giza, to see the ‘real’ pyramids. Those in the Valley of the King are mere mounds and hills, not the pyramids we came to see. Seeing the pyramids all the way from our hotel room in Ma’adi should have told me how big they are. Once our van got closer, I thought it might be disappointing: just some large piles of rocks. But once I stood at the foot of the towering Great Pyramids, I got all choked up. It was overwhelming. I had this amazing feeling of centuries of people who toiled here, who dwelled and worked here. Thousands of years. People rolling stones up the sides. People buildings tombs inside. People selling their wares here, much like is still happening today. Camels lay in the shades while people flocked to the pyramids. It is a whopping 140 meters tall, I felt tiny at the base gazing up. How did they do it, all those centuries ago? I heard that all the rocks of this one pyramid could form a 10’ high wall around the entire country of France…

IMG_3231One of my other favourite places to visit in Cairo was the Khan El Khalili (Kh is a guttural ‘g’ in Arabic so it sounds like Ghan el Gha-lili), We started at the large mosque where families sat in the grass to eat from the tin containers they brought, getting ready to say their prayers. It was about 7 PM and getting dark as we followed the labyrinth of cobblestone streets and alleys. Archways revealed more and more tiny shops. Here you can buy leather, cloths, sponges, copper bowls, old old dial telephones, cotton candy, and anything else you might need. People wore western clothing, or gallibayas, long cotton shirts mostly in light blue or grey. Most women wear head scarves. There’s still a lot of smoking here, even inside restaurants. Smoking a water pipe is also popular. You can sit at a cafe that offers hookahs many flavours – rosewater, hibiscus, etc. I bought a wool carpet (that I now have to fit into my little roll-on bag) and some souvenirs. Then we ate traditional Egyptian food in a wonderful, bustling place with waiters wearing a fez and customers smoking hookahs while listening to traditional wailing music. When we left the souk, around 10 PM, the streets were even more crowded, the families still picnicking and, at an outdoor coffeeshop a group of older men was happily playing music with traditional string instruments and drums. IMG_3212

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Muezzin tops for sale

With tourism down, vendors are desperate for clients. The funniest vendor was during our Nile cruise. Suddenly a tiny row boat appeared next to our cruise ship. A great big Egyptian stood up in his little boat, held up a tablecloth and hollered “Héllo dahling! Want to buy a table cloth?” He ended up bundling it up in a plastic bag and tossed it 5 decks upon, right onto a small table on the upper deck. It was the funniest show you’ve ever seen. Some people on the boat unwrapped it, he threw more, they threw stuff back and eventually he sold something, the money wrapped in the plastic bag and tossed back into the rowboat. The show was probably worth more than the merchandise.

Egypt doesn’t feel like the other African countries I have visited. Neither does it really resemble Middle Eastern countries, except perhaps Pakistan. So I asked several Egyptians “Do you feel your country is African or Middle Eastern?” They looked at me and shook their heads. “We’re neither. We’re Egyptian.” And it seems true that their history and culture is uniquely their own.

We find the people incredibly friendly. Many speak at least some English. They always smile and say “Welcome to Egypt!”. As soon as we tell a taxi driver that we are from Canada, he grins, gives us a thumbs up saying “Ah! Good! Canada – good!”

Traffic in Cairo makes me feel like I’m a pawn in some crazy board game in which each piece (car, bus, donkey cart or motorbike) aims to fill the next empty space. They don’t pay any attention to lines on the road but simply aim for space in the general direction they are headed. If you are in the far left lane and need to go right, you just elbow your way over and try to narrowly miss all of the other vehicles lurging in the same or different directions. They all honk, too. And, weirdest of all, most vehicles turn off their lights at night….

We visited the Egyptian Museum but were not impressed. It felt more like a storage facility than a museum. Rows upon rows of shelves with mummies, statues, carvings, all just lined up but not nicely displayed. There’s no air conditioning. Some displays have an old typed card with information but many treasures just sit behind a smudged window. It’s time the new museum, scheduled for 2020, opens to properly display Egypt’s treasure trove of artifacts. IMG_3319

In Cairo we also had the pleasure of going out for a night on a felucca. These traditional, flat bottom boats have one large triangular sail. By hoisting or lowering it, the boatsman gets where he wants, slowing tacking up and down the waters of the Nile. We watched the lights of Cairo by night as we ate shaved meat with yogurt and hummus and deep fried strips of aish baladi, traditional pita bread. As the warm air hugged us and the sounds of Cairo’s crazy traffic faded, we felt very grateful to have been able to visit this unique country and its beautiful people.IMG_3120

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Pharaohs and Temples

IMG_2643The number of temples, the names of pharaohs, the dates of construction and discoveries – it’s making my head spin. Egypt’s history is beyond anything I’ve seen before. Even if the carvings are similar to those I’ve seen at Angkor Wat or Aztec temples, these Egyptian monuments predate everything. I’ve never before been inside a 4,000 year old building. 

IMG_2992During the cruise on the Nile we visited the temples of Karnak and Luxor. At Karnak, gigantic pillars tower over the visitors. It’s a huge temple complex and we walked around the sphinxes and columns and walls with hieroglyphs. We visited here both in the day time and at night while a light show gave details on the era. It was interesting but I wouldn’t highly recommend the light show. As an archeological site, Karnak was one of the most impressive though.IMG_2668

Luxor, too, had interesting sites. I’m surprised at how different each ancient site is. Some have columns, others just facades. Some have tombs and others are a different kind of monument. In the fabled Valley of the Kings we walked around in the blazing heat and made the trek down into some of the tombs. The long narrow walk way was so low that we had to move bend over. I kept my arms over my head to protect myself from bumping my head on the low stone ceiling. But at the bottom it opened up to a large room which held the sarcophagus. I kept wondering what it would have been like to discover these amazing tombs and their guilded treasures. IMG_2823

Construction of the tomb was started as soon as a pharaoh ascended the throne. If he lived a long life it might get finished but often they had to rush unexpectedly when he died young. The hieroglyphs on the walls leading into and all over the temple, tell the king’s life story and of his heroic deeds. Everything that the king might need in his next life was provided: furniture, tools, food. The spirit had to recognize his body, so the outer sarcophagus was lifelike. The mummified body was inside several different caskets. The whole thing is pretty mind boggling. The model of hidden tombs at Valley of the Kings gives a good idea of the magnitude of the tombs and how secret passageways led all over the place. images

In the Valley of the Kings, pyramids were built as mastaba’s – benches. They are lower mounds of stone. In the period that these were built, pharaohs did not want it knowns where their graves were for fear of grave robbers. Later, the great pyramids of Giza became the iconic symbols for pyramids, including the Djoser Pyramid at Saqqara, built in the 27th century BC.

IMG_2857The temple of Queen Hatshepsut is visible from Karnak. It honestly looks like a huge modern building but dates back to some 1,460 years BC. I believe that all, or almost all temples holding tombs are on the west bank of the Nile. This is because the sun sets in the west and ancient Eqyptians believed that the sun died each night, to be reborn in the east. So the west bank of the Nile is the ‘death’ side and all life took place on the east bank.

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Sunset on the Nile

Tourism is way down in Egypt. Our guide told us that before 2011, long line ups stood outside the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Now there were some tourists but no line-ups and I was able to take photos without too many people in the way.  As at all major tourist attractions, there are plenty of vendors around. In Egypt bartering is not just a way to get the price down. It is an art form and part of the culture. With the lack of tourists, vendors are pretty desperate and incredibly persistent. They held up cloths and necklaces in our faces, walking along, yelling, sometimes even grabbing our arm. They did not easily take ‘no’ for an answer and it often took the intervention of our guide to get rid of them.

In one area, tour guides were asked not to block the way by speaking to their group in front of the entrance. The English translation of this sign left a bit to be desired… IMG_2869

We do get a chuckle out of many English signs. It’s amazing they don’t get them proof read, especially official signs in official places. There are spelling mistakes in airplanes (a note to “pasangers”), in restaurants (on our menu are “wuffles” and “beanutbutter”) and many other places.

The Gift of The Nile

“Egypt is the gift of the Nile.”  ( Herodotus)

Upon our return to Aswan (population 2 million) from Abu Simbel in the southern tip of Egypt, we were delivered to our cruise boat. These cruise boats do not resemble western cruise ships. Rather, they are large flat bottom boats with about 5 decks stacked like an oval shaped wedding cake. A gang plank led to a large glass door through which we entered a two storey tall lobby with stained glass ceiling. From here a curved wooden staircase led down to the dining room and up to two decks of cabins, as well as an outer deck with swimming pool and easy chairs. IMG_2554

Our cabin was a lovely room with kingsize bed, two easy chairs, a small fridge, a bathroom and a balcony with two chairs. The total fare for a 4 day cruise, including all food except drinks, all sightseeing, all entrance fees for archeological sites, a private guide (which we had not realized until it happened), and all transportation to and from the boat, came to about 600 US for both of us. 

The capacity of the Sonesta Moon Goddess, our ship, was 225 people but we cruised with only 40 people on board, an illustration of how tourism has declined across Egypt. At major sites, our guide would sigh “There used to be long line-ups here to enter the tomb,” but now we walked right up and often were one of just a few visitors. Most of our photos show no other people.

IMG_2559We had no idea that our fabulous guide from Abu Simbel would accompany us for the entire trip. He had a room on the ships and also ate all meals there with other guides. Guides can speak a wide variety of languages: we heard Spanish, French, Italian, German and more. Ours was a very knowledgable guide who had taught many of the younger ones, had a wicked sense of humour and knew everything! IMG_2611

Soon we set sail on the Nile. Egypt is a bit of an upside down country! The south is called Upper Egypt, the north is Lower Egypt. The Nile, longest river in the world, flows from south to north. Thus you travel upstream to go south and down stream to go north. Confusing. 

The names and dates of gods, pharaohs, ancient sites and temples have my head spinning. There’s no way I can accurately tell you what happened when and to whom, so you’ll have to check out specific events or places online. 

The boat sailed fairly fast north with the strong current. We saw Elephantine Island near Aswan and soon green strips with corn fields and palm trees streaked past. Little barefooted children came running down muddy slopes yelling “Hello! Hello!”, waving furiously. We saw cows and goats and dogs. And lots of cats. Of course, Egypt is the land of the mysterious cat and they dwell everywhere in great numbers. We listened to the melodious call of prayers floating on warm wafts of air as we sailed by. Men led donkeys to the river to drink and women hung laundry and blankets from glass-less windows. In larger towns, houses are build of bricks but often houses are the same colour as the local mud.

This very southern region of Egypt is part of the land where the original people lived, the Nubians. They are more African looking and speak their own language.

IMG_2614Without the river Nile, Egypt would be all desert. One broad strip of green runs the length of the country along either side of the river. From the air, the strip looks to range from a few hundred feet to a couple of kilometres wide. Before the dam this was the river’s natural flood plane where fertile silt was deposited with each flood. Since the dam, water is regulated but chemical fertilizer is now needed to grow grain, fruits an vegetables. The dam created Lake Nasser, which hosts about 30,000 crocodiles. All crocs were eliminated from the river itself so that people can once again use it for washing, swimming and leading their cattle to drink.

IMG_2638Our boat docked, together with several other river boats, immediately opposite the Temple of Kom Ombo where it is believed are the very first depictions of medical tools in the hieroglyphs. We also stopped at Edfu where we rode a horse drawn carriage to the temple. I was impressed by the size and height (37 meters) of the temples. Even though this temple was constructed in the century before Christ, it looks newly made from fresh cement. This is because often these temples were completely buried in sand and thus protected from the elements. I always thought that few, faded hieroglyphs were found and am blown away to see every inch of these gigantic monuments covered in letters and pictures that are as clear today as they were 4,000 years ago…

https://www.sonesta.com/africa/nile-cruises/sonesta-moon-goddess-nile-cruise-shiphttps://www.sonesta.com/africa/nile-cruises/sonesta-moon-goddess-nile-cruise-ship

Our guide: masteregyptologist@gmail.comIMG_2630

Abu Simbel: Traveling Back in Time

IMG_2530Egypt. Fabled land of sphinx and pyramids, of the river Nile and Cleopatra. I didn’t think I’d ever visit here. But – thanks to my books My Librarian is a Camel, the story of libraries around the world, and thanks to Stepping Stones, the story of a refugee family – I received an invitation from an international school in Cairo to come and do author presentations for the students.

Of course, that was an opportunity to plan some travel in Egypt. But where do you start and what is possible?

We started by getting books from the library, including travel guides. We also borrowed several DVD’s, even a copy of the classic Cleopatra movie with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. We visited the Egypt exhibit in the BC Museum and read many nonfiction books.

Then we delved into travel sites like Tripadvisor to read about other people’s experiences. We like to travel on our own rather than with a tour group so we started by counting the days we had to decide where to go. 

IMG_2522Arriving in Cairo, we connected immediately to a flight to Aswan, in the south of Egypt. We knew we would arrive very late, around midnight. After much research I found the perfect itinerary: booking.com showed a Nile cruise of 4 days leaving Aswan on a Wednesday and ending in Luxor. The rate was very reasonable and so I booked it, even though a Cairo travel agency insisted there was no such cruise from south to north. Research paid off.  

Prior to sailing, the boat offered an excursion to Abu Simbel, ancient temples in the very southern tip of Egypt on the border with Sudan. We really wanted to see that sight so we booked it but would be picked up at 5 AM. Since we arrived at midnight, I searched for a cheap hotel and found one for about 30 euros. It was cheap but clean and they even had a breakfast box ready for us when we left. The van for our trip south showed up early, at 4 AM when we were still sleeping, so it was a mad dash.

But soon we found ourselves on our way south through the western reaches of the Sahara Desert. After the Aswan Dam the road was long and boring. We dozed for 3 hours but by the time we arrived it was light and still relatively cool. We walked around a mount and suddenly there were there: four gigantic statues, 20 meters tall, the sitting figures of Pharaoh Ramesses II, carved more than 1,200 years before Christ. IMG_2490The sheer size and precision of the decorations is awe inspiring. The temples are dedicated to Ramesses and his wife Nefertari, (our guide called them Ramsex and Never-tired because they had something like 42 kids…) who is shown here in the same size as him, a big exception. In most places the females are depicted much smaller than the males. Besides the incredible exterior, you can enter the temples. I had always pictured these ancient temples as small and dark. But on the contrary, they are huge and light. At 30 meters high, the ceilings and walls are entirely covered in hieroglyphs. Having seen cave paintings in Australia and many other places, I imagined that hieroglyphs would be the same: a few found here and there, small and faded. But no – these hieroglyphs look as if they were carved yesterday. They cover the entire walls and tell stories that jump right off the ‘page’. Even if you can’t read the letters and words, the pictures are clear: they pay tribute to the good life of the pharaoh and what he did. You see people fishing, specific fish that are recognizable to this day. They carry pots and fruits. They dance and pray. You can see the clothing they wore and who they met. It is incredible. IMG_2516

These temples and statues at Abu Simbel would have been lost forever when the dam was build that now forms Lake Nasser. So, thank goodness, the authorities had the entire site moved from down below to up high. With painstaking precision, with cranes and helicopters, the sandstone was secured and hoisted up to a level that would be well above the water level.

The lake was created and now is home to some 30,000 crocodiles. But Abu Simbel’s temples continue to stare across the land, more than 3,000 years after they were conceived.

We were lucky to be assigned an amazing guide from Abu Simbel to Luxor. His name is Mr. Hamed. He is a master egyptologist, can read hieroplyghs like we read our alphabet. He knows everything and taught most guides here. If you ever come to Egypt, book him: masteregyptologist@gmail.com

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