Thursday, February 12, 2009


Wednesday, January 21st. We awoke early to visit the sights of Cairo, an enormous city, larger than New York. The Egyptian population has grown exponentially in the last 50 years, and the city has grown haphazardly. Many buildings appear to be unfinished as I explained in my last installment, and the reason may be the taxation system and the corruption in government. Money allocated for public works tends to disappear. The city is lacking in the delivery of essential services like trash removal and clean water supplies, although we also saw nice neighborhoods which compare to those in New York or London.

Our first stop was the Egyptian National Museum which houses the antiquities which Egypt is so famous for. The museum was an antiquity in itself and is badly in need of renovation. Many of the exhibits are behind worn out plexiglass. The glass reflects sunlight, so it is difficult to see many of the exhibits. No photographs are allowed, but I don't think the flash bulbs would make a difference at this point.

The museum is full of statues, sarcophagi, hieroglyphics, not in their natural settings, but similar to museums in Europe and the U.S. The prize exhibit is the Rosetta Stone, which is not the real one. The original resides in the British Museum in London, and although Egypt has attempted to get it back, the best they could do was make a copy. The Rosetta Stone, discovered by the French in 1799, is a translation of the Egyptian hieroglyphics into Greek. It was the key to reading and understanding everything in ancient Egypt. It was commissioned by Ptolemy V, a descendant of the Greek general who started the last dynasty after the death of Alexander the Great. History owes him an enormous debt.

I was interested in how normal Egyptians looked and lived. The museum contained many lifelike statues of regular folks. Upon death, even these people were mummified. Although the museum contained a wealth of information, we were surprised and amazed by the sheer volume of artifacts we would later see on site in the pyramids, temples and other structures of the ancients. And it is estimated that today, only about 30% of the ancient works have been unearthed. So there will be job security for archaeologists for centuries to come.


After the museum we visited the Mohammed Ali Mosque, a huge Muslim mosque in Cairo, named, not after the boxer, but a 19th century king of Egypt as I'll explain in a few moments. It contained a spacious marble floored courtyard where the common people congregate in the hot sun. The elite get to pray in the shade. We were required to take off our shoes prior to entering. The beautiful tapestries inside every mosque contain intricate geometric shapes but no human faces.

After lunch we toured the bazaar in Old Cairo. As bazaars go, this one is bizarre. We wandered through narrow streets and cross streets past numerous little shops containing linens, Egyptian cotton, jewelry, 3-foot high water pipes (for smoking), pots and pans and dishes, and of course T-shirts. The vendors agressively attempt to pull you into their shops. You end up paying about one-tenth of the original quoted price. When you're walking, you learn not to make eye contact, or they won't let you go. It's like walking a gauntlet between the lines of vendors. The Egyptians apparently smoke a lot of hashish because we saw many stores with inventories of large water pipes. Later in the trip, in Nubia, we were invited to try smoking them. My friends at the American Cancer Society will be relieved to know that I passed on that.

The food is good in Egypt. The meals consist of generous portions of lamb, beef or chicken, but no pork. Also rice is common, plus cooked vegetables like tomatoes, green peppers, onions and zucchini, not to mention hummus and yogurt.

They make a distinctive bread, similar to pita bread which is very tasty. The water comes from the Nile River, and tourists are advised to drink only bottled water, even in nice hotels. You can see why, when you see people throwing trash into the canals which lead into the Nile. Stomach ailments like dysentery are common among the locals.

Later that evening, we were treated to the light show at the Sphinx. We saw a 45 minute show with bagpipe music, lights and ancient Egyptian history. We were surprised to learn that bagpipes originated in the Middle East and were brought to England and Scotland much later, in the Middle Ages. We got the best seats for the show because the Tauck people learned long ago that baksheesh goes a long way in Egypt. They schmeer the right guy, and the tour gets the best of everything, best seats, best parking place for the bus, etc.


The next morning, Thursday, we started the day with a 2 hour lecture about the modern history of Egypt (last 1000 years) by a female professor who was very articulate in English. She also covered Egyptian politics and economics. I found her presentation very interesting.

Until the 1800's Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire (along with Arabia, Palestine, Turkey and others). In 1798, the French under Napoleon Bonaparte invaded and occupied Egypt. They sought a foothold to threaten British influence in India. The French weren't around long, and their fleet was destroyed in 1801 by the British under Admiral Horatio Nelson. The result was a power vacuum, and in a power struggle, the Albanian leader, Mohammed Ali out-fought the others and took control. To eliminate his adversaries, he invited 500 Mameluke emirs to a banquet and massacred them on their way home. You don't want to get into a fight with Mohammed Ali!

He created a Western style army and set out to industrialize Egypt with mixed success. His expansionist policies achieved some military victories in Greece, Arabia and Sudan, and threatened the Ottoman sultan and the European powers. He finally pissed off too many people, the British intervened, and he had to back down. Ali died in 1849, and after a few ineffective successors, Khedive Ismail took over. Ismail attempted to modernize Egypt, building railroads and a postal service. His great weakness was his appetite for rich food. His great achievement, if you could call it that, was that he had the Suez Canal built in 1869. Actually, the French had been promoting it, and they slipped it into the fine print of a contract that he signed over a pasta dinner. The contract, which he didn't read, gave the French all the rights to the canal. The Egyptians didn't get control of the canal until the 1950's. Khedive Ismail's other great achievement was the construction of the Mena Hotel where we stayed. He had built it as a hunting lodge to impress his friends.

To continue the brief history, the last in his line was King Farouk who was deposed in 1952 and, according to the Western media, spent the rest of his life carousing on the French Riviera. Gamal Abdul Nasser, the young military officer who overthrew him, nationalized everything in Egypt, giving power to the people. He brought in Soviet Russian influence and seized the Suez Canal. He got the Russians to build the Aswan Dam, but they didn't do it for free. The Egyptians had to pay back all the Russian loans. Nasser drummed up popular support by starting several wars with Israel, but he managed to lose them all. He died in 1972, and Anwar Sadat came in to pick up the pieces. Sadat eventually signed a peace treaty with Israel, won a Nobel Prize, kicked out the unpopular Russians, and brought some prosperity with U.S. aid. For his efforts, the secretive Muslim Brotherhood assassinated him. The Egyptians we talked to had high reverence for Mr. Sadat.


We put on our blue suede shoes and drove down to Memphis to look for the King. We found him--Ramses II who ruled Egypt for 67 years and died in his 90's. We saw his mummy (and his daddy too) in the Egyptian museum in Cairo. He was a small, wiry guy, but then he was over 90. In Memphis, the capital of ancient Egypt, lies a 50 foot statue of Ramses lying on his back in a building built to house it.

Memphis was a treasure trove of statues and artifacts. When upper and lower Egypt were unified, it was chosen as the capital because of its relatively central location. Aside from the statue of Ramses II, Memphis was an outdoor museum displaying an alabaster mini-Sphinx, and various sarcophagi. Did I mention that the ancient Egyptians were pre-occupied with death and the hereafter?


Nearby we visited Saqqara, the home of the supposedly earliest pyramids. We entered the Pyramid of Titi (6th Dynasty) through a passageway about 3 feet high. We had to walk bent over for more than 100 feet to enter the main part. The walls contained many hieroglyphics detailing that Pharaoh's life. In effect, the Egyptians were writing the guy's obituary. This is the only pyramid where these ancient funeary writings are accessable to the public.

Next to the pyramid were tombs which we entered. Once again there was a wealth of hieroglyphics on the walls. The ancients had carved them on plaster and then affixed them to the stone walls of the tombs and pyramids. The tomb of Mereruka, Titi's son-in-law, has wall paintings, including a marsh scene with Mereruka hunting among birds, fish and hippopotami, and another showing tax evaders being punished.

Then there was the tomb of Ankhma-Hor, known as the Physician's Tomb because of the wall paintings depicting surgical operations, including a circumcision. Ouch! These types of graphic illustrationss are very common in Egypt, but because of the large quantity of images, you need a tour guide to tell you where to look.

What amazed me was that people were stealing the carved wall coverings until just a few years ago and the Egyptian government wasn't doing anything about it. Mind you, this stuff wasn't easy to haul off. Unfortunately impoverished people have no sentimentality about historic objects; they steal this stuff just to survive and sell it on the Egyptian version of eBay.

In Saqqara, you find the Step Pyramid of Zoser, built by the legendary architect Imhotep. It is considered by Egyptologists to be the first one, and it is relatively crude, compared to the Great Pyramid. Some scholars believe the Great Pyramid was the first one, built by an unknown civilization pre-dating the Egyptians, and the Step Pyramid and Bent Pyramid were relatively clumsy attempts to replicate it. Whatever you believe, these pyramids are quite awesome in their own right.

We met a friendly Arab entrepreneur who agreed to take his picture with me. He placed his burnoose on my head and gave me his robe to wear, switching clothes with me. We have a great photograph of me in native dress.

Not far away, in Dahshur, the Bent Pyramid was another example of on-the-job training by the ancients. This time, because of settling, they had a change of plans in mid-stream. The builders had to alter the angle of the structure halfway up. This pyramid is unique because most of the shiny limestone casing is still intact so one can envision how impressive the pyramids must have looked in their time.

Our tour group trekked around the Bent Pyramid, accompanied by soldiers on camels. I got my picture taken with a soldier. He let me borrow his hat, but not his machine gun (just to hold!). I asked.

Next: Down South to Nubia and that Darn Aswan Dam. Also, Rescuing the Temples of Ramses and Nefretari from the Nile waters.



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