The Egyptian museum.
So what is left to report on Egypt? Egypt is unique, so much here to do, my time is limited, my car papers now definitely run out and I need to leave the country.
Seeing my time shrink I've given up on the idea of learning Arabic here to any substantial degree, well I force myself through all the letters and I mean I can read it, or better decipher it, even write it, paint the letters. But the meaning behind words remains a mystery, the grammar a hidden secret. I am just too busy, have a backlog of untold stories, pictures not shown, so much to work off, yeah call it work! Someone on facebook pointed me to Sterling Hayden, special agent, actor, communist, writer and wanderer and he seriously lamented the dilemma that "Wandering and writing don't mix". There is no hanging loose while committed to keeping a website/blog updated. But what can we do? So it is. Also I do it for myself, so I don't forget.
An afternoon in the Egyptian museum and Tutankhamun for free (nice surprise as was sure I would have to pay extra to see the treasures) and nicely presented. Actually there is scientific news out, the child of incest Tutankhamun died of malaria, how shocking (NYT). Most of the rest of the thousands of sculptures, sarcophagus, reliefs and paintings stashed on top of each other, gather the dust of decades, typewriter descriptions from 40 years ago, or longer or a lot longer. When was the museum built, by the French? 1900? Some stuff seems it was put in place then and not moved since then. Treasures are certainly in abundance in Egypt. But also the museum receives thousands of paying visitors every day, some stuff should be moved to different locations, like the hundreds of sarcophagi they have, you might line them up in one row, oldest to youngest, the longest museum in the world, maybe along the Nile River, one sarcophagi every 5 meters, a walk of several kilometres, with good descriptions accompanying them, open till midnight. Dream on Cairo. Zahi Hawass, can you hear me?
Still I walk out dizzy, the beauty is unique, I would want to spend another afternoon there.
Well then we leave on to an extended Egyptian pyramids tour.
Great Pyramids of Giza.
"Everything fears time, only the pyramids laugh at it". - Arab proverb.
... where have I stolen this quote?
Giza and the Greatest Pyramids (wiki), Necropolis of Pharaos Cheops or Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure; Christina and I saw them actually a few weeks earlier, before when we thought we would have to leave the country, in a hurry, kind of. They are certainly the biggest world wonder, actually the only one of the seven of the ancient world you can still see today. Built in the 26th c. B.C., a wonder of civilisation! Who knows for sure whether anyone was ever buried here? What the huge struggle was really for? How they went about building them? How many workers, 20,000 or 60,000? How? How was it done? You have read what you could find but eventually it doesn't matter to you because you are taken by the shear enormity. Just try get away from the buses action, as far as you can, walk away, out in the desert, where is peace. Lie down and just look. Imagine and ponder. Certainly someone will come and bother you; this guy was actually nice he brought cold Coke with him at a reasonable price. Just make sure he does not take your place near the lady.
Oh yes there is also the Great Sphinx, …
Abusir is slightly north of Saqqara.
On the 3rd of Feb we go back to Giza but only for the greatest falafel there, it is on way to the Sphinx. From Giza we travel south to Saqqara, Abusir, Dashur and Meidum. All of these sites predate the Great Pyramids of Giza by a few decades. Saqqara (wiki) exceeds Giza in archaeological importance; it is here the step was made from tombs and mastabas (mortuary temples) to pyramid construction, step-pyramids were first.
As always I prefer the walk in the desert to all explanation babble given by guides, who behave as if they themselves built the monuments, all guides touch the frescoes, tip on them with a pen to explain particularities. I prefer escape the crowds, the French and German olds that behave like boy scouts on a weekend trip, the Asians always all protected with silk gloves and mouth masks and the Americans always in shorts and bad trainers even though even Egypt has a winter season. Is windy, cloudy; these are the cold days, morning temps are down to 5°C so that I can see my breath.
Dashur, means red and bent Pyramid.
And then there, out in the desert, away, walk on sand, halfway between Saqqara and Abusir, between the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid of Dashur, out here away I can appreciate these wonders of civilisation.
Red and Bent Pyramids (wiki) are as well in walking distance from one another, it is cold and windy, some rain, after a night in rural Dashur amidst palm groves and rice plantations in the proximity of the Nile and friendly people, the Fellahin (wiki) who live and work in the same old way since times. Darkness has fallen the chief comes, knocks on the door, looks at us, smiles, and goes. We are certainly safe here. We have bought 7 delicious falafel sandwiches (babganoush [eggplant paste], fried eggplant, gebna [local cheese] mixes) for 4 E£ (all), a bag of fries and pickles goes with it and 1 litre or coke for 3.50 E£ to go with the local blended scotch we carry, Auld Stack (is Egyptian, is on facebook), the complete meal we want for less than a Euro.
Meidum, is again another story.
We carry on south, search for the Lisht Pyramid but cannot find it. Then Meidum (wiki) suddenly appears on the horizon, a strangely shaped structure. Meidum is impressive, from the outside and we just go from overcast all day to a bit of light. And the inside though when a whole school class of below 10 year olds enters the heart of the pyramid this pressurises a bit in the claustrophobic sense. Back outside at 4 p.m. I have a little argument with the guards, who leave a point 4 and want to escort us outside a 5 km circle around the step pyramid and that just as the sun makes its first appearance under the clouds. It takes a lot of convincing. Obviously if I was Arab I could spend night here. Racial one might think but they have orders concerning tourists' security. Egypt lacks a sensible concept regarding visiting hours (sunrise and sunset viewing), here all is from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Luxor was better, 6 to 5.
Al-Rayan and El-Hitan.
Down south from Cairo so much, a detour into the desert to the oasis of Al-Rayan, and further to the world heritage site of El-Hitan seem imposing. The evening 5th of February after viewing Dashur and Meidum, we arrive after dark, somewhere near Al-Rayan and park up in the desert. I paint the last letters of faa and qaf, saad and daad, Taa and Dhaa (as opposed to the simpler taa, thaa and daa and Daad and dhaal, oh yeah there are so many d variants) and associated words in my diary, hmmm! Yes I can read this العَرَبِيَّة means transliterated al-arabiyyah, Arabic. But I would need a lot more time to understand and speak a bit more than the basic basics, knowing to read is a mere first step.
Well I learnt other things instead, to pee in a bottle at night and stuff in complete darkness.... you're impressed? These are the cold days; I can see my breath in the morning.
El-Hitan is famous for the whale fossils found here; the beauty of ancient cliffs that once bordered the prehistoric ocean in the middle of the desert against the brisk blue winter skies is what fascinates us.
Later we return to Al-Rayan, lake and oasis, but water and swimming is simply not for us at the time of the year.
Later we tour around the southern shores of salt Lake Al-Qarum, the lake is serene, calm, cold blue against cold blue skies. A bratty young guy manages to sell me a necklace for 1 E£. Many nice spots seem the waterfront, loved by locals, the speakers bleat out a bizarre mix of oriental techno, nobody even sips a coke or a tea, but all have a good time, all seem to have been here since lunch. I thought about a terrace that sells a beer. But ... not here. So this was it, means back to Giza!
Then Sunday morning, 7th of February glistering in bright yellow light I see the Great Pyramids for the last time as we make our way back to central Cairo. Will I see them ever again?
Islamic Cairo. My time's up in Cairo and Egypt.
Yes this is intended as an over kill; Cairo has too many sides and too many sides even you just round Islamic Cairo. There are no pictures from Coptic Cairo, no pictures from high life in Cairo. Islamic Cairo is the Cairo I started to like the most, from treasures and mosques, where the Sufi invites to join in the meditation, to the so often mentioned street food. Cairo is where the faithful of the faithful men wear a mal on their forehead, the size of a large coin; hard skin from the 5 fold daily prayer exercise. I have never seen this anywhere else in the Muslim world. Here it is so common. These men are not Islamists, just take their religion seriously.
Cairo is chaotic, traffic, donkeys, shit. Cats in packs of ten chase each other through the garbage; dust and flies go up in clouds. The dirty coffee/tea houses disseminate the sweet odours of the shisha (water pipe, nargile) smokers, the domino players look up, the constant welcome, the constant hassle for a 1 E£ tea, which I can laugh at. It is 5, all is a bit misty, dusty; I clean my glasses, the view remains misty, the dust is in the air. The dust remains on the ground, sweeping means sweeping paper, plastic, food remains, larger bits like cans but never dust, the dust is best spread out. Seen this many times!
Everyone smokes cigarettes, outside, inside, the falafel man while preparing the sandwich. Donkey carts bring still the essentials and fight for space with busses and minibuses, private and commercial mopeds and cars; everyone pushes and honks and pounds his way through the chaos. Constant honking for no reason and reasons! Chaos! But after a while one does not feel it as such anymore, way too chaotic for many and many come and flee. I loved it. Time is nearly up in Cairo.
"I arrived ... at the city of Cairo, mother of cities ... mistress of broad provinces and fruitful lands, boundless in multitude of buildings, peerless in beauty and splendor, the meeting-place of comer and goer, the stopping-place of feeble and strong. ... She [Cairo] surges as the waves of the sea with her throngs of ... folk and can scarce contain them ..." - Ibn Battuta 1304-1369 (wiki).
Egyptian presidential elections 2011
We discussed the difference between Egypt and Morocco. This came up in one discussion with two German academics Florian, higher education expert and Holger, political scientist at AUC, expert in authoritarianism. It's the successor question that was positively resolved in Morocco 10 years ago and is and will be an ongoing issue in Egypt with no immediate solution in the short term. Hosni Mubarak (wiki) over 80, has ruled for nearly 30 years with iron hand, supported by more than 2 billion USD/year from the US (Egypt is 3rd after Iraq and Israel as a recipient of USAID), is authoritarian, undemocratic, repressive, but considered a pole of stability in the region. Mubarak is labelled "the pharaoh", he has changed a presidential system into a royal system that serves his families' interests. His son Gamal is currently being prepared to step into the father's footsteps. But "we don't want his son, we are not a monarchy!" is widely heard.
"20, 30 years ago who ever needed to be in the region went for Cairo; all the monies of corporations, NGOs, media, culture. Today everything is a bit on hold, waits, whether universities, corporate investments, media, we want the Mubarak issue out of the way". There are also other places these days you can go. Amman, Qatar, Dubai.
"Morocco is where Egypt was 20 years ago," another friend, an Egyptian said to me at a different occasion, "but Morocco has caught up and we are falling behind."
Egypt till date deals with its high population growth 83 Million 2009, adds 1 million every 8 months, staggering corruption, decimal education of the masses in the cities, a class struggle that fuels Islamism, radicalization seems the only solution for many when all political activity is controlled and repressed, an elite that does not need to work and wants to take responsibility in its hand and above all is more and more disconnected with the majority of Egyptians.
Admittedly Egypt may come out much better this time around, presidential elections are in September 2011 (wiki).
P.S.20110212: Well who would have thought this all would come about so quickly, what a difference a year makes. Egyptian revolution on wiki.
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