Whew… Our weekend in Cairo was definitely an adventure. And I think, frankly, that if we had started our visit to Egypt with the tourist sites in Cairo that our impression of Egypt would be quite different.
On Thursday afternoon, we arrived at the train station in Cairo at about 4 p.m. We were met at the train by our driver for the weekend, Yehia. Yehia is a taxi driver in Cairo, and Yasser said that Yehia is the only driver he trusts in Cairo. Unfortunately for us, Yehia doesn’t speak much English. So, he led us out of the train station to his car, a very dilapidated old station wagon in which neither the speedometer nor the fuel gauge seemed to be operable. I took a look at the odometer – well over 250,000 km – but I’m pretty sure that it is no longer operating, either. In any case, we loaded our luggage up in his car, and we were off.
Now for a funny aside. Since Jennifer needed to be met at the airport at around the same time that we were met at the train station, Yasser had asked Yehia to arrange for another driver to pick her up. We had sent this bit of information to Jennifer in an email, not knowing that she had already departed her home base in Bulgaria. So, she got in to the Cairo airport, made her way quickly through customs, and then shared a taxi with a woman from Bulgaria that she had met on the airplane.
Meanwhile, Yehia’s friend got to the airport a little late and held up his sign for Jennifer. We were starting to get a little worried, since we heard that the driver still hadn’t found her about 45 minutes after her flight arrived. Finally, about an hour after her flight got in, Yasser called to say that Jennifer had been picked up. When we got to the hotel, though, Jennifer had beat us there by 5 minutes, and clearly wasn’t with Yehia’s friend.
As it turns out, a Japanese tourist who couldn’t even read Yehia’s friend’s sign had latched onto him because she wanted a taxi. She got in the taxi, and he headed for our hotel, not understanding a word that the woman said. About 10 minutes outside the airport, Yehia’s friend’s car broke down. (Not surprising, if you have seen what passes for a taxi in Egypt.) So, after dropping us off at the hotel, Yehia went back to pick up “Jennifer” from his friend’s broken down taxi. Just after Yehia got “Jennifer” into his car, Yasser called Yehia to tell him that the real Jennifer was already at the hotel. Yehia wondered who was in his car. Yasser agreed to translate, assuming that the woman spoke some English. Unfortunately, the woman in the car spoke neither Arabic, English, or French, only Japanese, so Yasser couldn’t communicate with her either! Nevertheless, it is my impression that Yehia eventually managed to transport her to her desired destination, somehow.
We were spending the weekend staying at the Hilton Pyramids Golf Resort, since I had decided to cash in some Hilton HHonors points, and the hotel I chose in downtown Cairo filled up moments before I made my reservation. (A little suspicious, but anyway…) The Hilton Pyramids Golf Resort was about 45 minutes from downtown Cairo even with no traffic. So, it wasn’t the greatest location. But, since we left the hotel each morning and didn’t return until the evening, it worked out fine.
After getting settled in at the hotel, we set out to make plans for the evening. Yasser had suggested a dinner cruise on the Nile, and it seemed like a good idea. So, we got the concierge to make us reservations on the Nile Maxim, which was the cruise that Yasser had recommended. We also ended up asking the hotel to arrange a taxi, since Yehia was still driving around Cairo with the Japanese tourist.
The cruise was delightful. The food was good, and we enjoyed seeing the city at night from the river. There was also a show on the cruise: The first part was pretty awful, but after the singers finished, there was a Sufi dancer and later some belly dancers. The Sufi dancing was pretty impressive – the guy must have whirled around continuously for at least half an hour – but it was a little repetitive after a while. I didn’t care that much about the belly dancing, so I mostly stood outside and took pictures of the city.
On Friday morning, the adventure really began. We started with the pyramids, and Yehia asked if we wanted to ride a horse or camel, or if we just wanted to go by car. We decided to try riding a horse or camel, so he took us to a stable. Now, Yehia, with his limited English, isn’t really a touristy kind of taxi driver, and we think he took us to the first stable that he found. We found out later that we paid far too much for our horse rides, but frankly, it didn’t matter. We rode horses through the desert around the pyramids and sphinx, and that is something that I will never forget.
Shortly after leaving the stable on our horses, though, a guy comes up to us and offers me a head covering – sortof like what Yasser Arafat used to wear. I declined it repeatedly, but still he puts it on me, insisting that I need to cover my head because it is so hot. Our guides from the stable were very complicit in all of this, and I finally was led to believe (though it was never explicitly stated), that this was included in our horse ride. Then, he puts them on Jennifer and Becky, too. He goes along with us for a few minutes, and then the guide lets the boy leading Becky and Jennifer’s horses get ahead, and takes me aside with the head-covering-guy, who wants me to pay 25 L.E. (Egyptian pounds) each for the head covering. I took mine off and gave it back to him, but he continued to insist. I finally gave him a little money (too much, but much less than 25 L.E. each) for all three head coverings, and he went away. This little story does have an up side, though. Our guide could tell that I was very angry about the whole thing and helped to get rid of others who approached us to sell us drinks, postcards, and other junk. In any case, we learn our first rule of the day: Accept nothing, no matter how it is offered, until you have agreed upon a price.
Apparently, though, tourists to the pyramids have “suffered torture that no pen can describe from the hungry appeals for baksheesh that gleamed from Arab eyes” since the days of Mark Twain, who visited in 1866. We actually haven’t found the requests for baksheesh (tips) to be all that onerous, compared to what the guidebook led us to believe, but the number of people touting various wares to tourists is a little overwhelming after a while.
I haven’t ridden on a horse since I was a boy, so by the time we finished our ride two hours later, and for the next two days, I was pretty sore. In fact, I’m still a bit sore. Nevertheless, I think it was worth it. Next weekend, though, I think we’ll just see the pyramids on foot.
After the pyramids, Yehia took us to the Egyptian Museum and dropped us off. We walked over to the Nile Hilton where the guidebook recommended a restaurant and enjoyed some lunch, then started in on the museum. I should perhaps mention that we see the trappings of security at almost every tourist site we visit – metal detectors, X-ray machines, etc. Sometimes they check our passports, too. Usually, though, the guards don’t care if we set off the metal detectors since we are Americans. We’ve certainly noticed that anyone appearing to be of Arab decent is checked much more closely. It makes me slightly uneasy to know that they don’t check everyone closely, even if it does work to my personal advantage. At the Egyptian Museum, though, they check everyone very closely. Since I kept setting off the metal detector, I got a full pat-down. I kept trying to get everything out of my pockets, but I kept missing something, which the guard was sure must be a knife. I finally got everything out of my pockets and convinced him that I didn’t have a knife, although he was still a bit suspicious of the USB Flash Drive on my keychain.
The Egyptian Museum was truly overwhelming. It contains tens of thousands of artifacts, covering more than 5000 years of human history, but they are poorly displayed in dozens of rooms and seldom are they clearly labeled. I am sure that an Egyptologist could probably spend 20 or 30 minutes describing each piece of the museum, and with a good guide or catalog one could spend days upon days there. For bettor or for worse, though, we only had a couple of hours, which we spent following the “highlights” tour given in the guidebook. At the very least, it directed us to the most significant and interesting pieces in the museum, and we saw plenty of other pieces along the way. I really wish that I could have taken some pictures, but cameras were strictly forbidden.
The vast majority of the museum is not air conditioned, unlike the Alexandria National Museum where temperature and humidity were carefully controlled. Only one small room is air conditioned – the room containing Tutankhamen’s gold funeral mask. Nearly half of the upper floor of the museum is filled with finds from Tutankhamen’s tomb, which was discovered nearly intact by Howard Carter in 1922. Apparently Tutankhamen himself was not a particularly significant pharaoh, but the treasures from his tomb are truly spectacular and his funeral mask (pictured here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Tutankhamun_Mask.jpg ) really was the most astounding thing that I saw in the museum. Some of the other pieces in the museum are older and have more historical significance, but staring into Tutankhamen’s golden face, which I have seen in countless images throughout my life, really sent shivers up and down my spine.
After the museum, it was back in the car to spend some time in Khan al Khalili, an enormous marketplace (or “souk”) in Islamic Cairo where merchants have been plying their trade since medieval times. The interior of the market area is basically pedestrian streets, and the market area covers blocks and blocks. On a Friday afternoon, it was jammed with people – mostly locals, but plenty of tourists as well. For a long time, we just walked around, without the nerve to enter any shops. Just walking down the street was quite intense: crowds of people, men carrying heavy boxes or pushing giant carts of merchandise down the street, merchants trying to entice you into their shops, etc. We did finally enter some of the shops, and we even bought several souvenirs. And, once we started to get the hang of shopping in the souk, it was actually pretty fun. In order to be successful in the souk, you have to already know how much something is worth before you try to buy it. Offering half of the initial asking price isn’t unusual, and starting to walk away is almost always a good way to bring the prices tumbling down.
The only time we got ripped off in the souk was when we went to eat dinner. We picked a restaurant that looked quite busy, as this is a recommended way to at least ensure that your food will be fresh. We sat down and looked at the menu, then ordered some falafel and Cokes. The falafel was on the menu and was very reasonably priced – 10 L.E. But when the guy came for payment, he also wanted 10 L.E. each for our cans of Coke, which hadn’t been on the menu! I protested loudly, but he refused to lower the price. I guess he figured that since we had already drunk part of the Cokes and since they weren’t on the menu that he could charge whatever price he wished. We paid up, but you can bet that we won’t be eating there again… It comes back to the first rule: Never accept anything before the price is settled.
At the souk, I didn’t really feel comfortable taking out my fancy camera. So, I was very grateful that Jennifer had a small point-and-shoot with her. Hopefully she can send me some of her pictures, and I can post them along with mine.
After the Khan, it was back to the hotel. We had planned to swim in the pool after our long day of sightseeing, but the pool closed at sunset, so we were thwarted.
On Saturday, we had another early start. This time, we headed first to the pyramids at Saqqara. Saqqara was the main necropolis of Egypt’s ancient capital at Memphis. There is a huge complex there of temples, tombs, and assorted pyramid ruins, but we went mostly to see the Step Pyramid. Before the ancient Egyptians figured out how to build a real pyramid, the Step Pyramid of Zozer was constructed by placing successively smaller mastabas on top of each other.
After Saqqara, we continued South to Dashur. Our primary goal in Dashur was to see the Bent Pyramid. This is the pyramid that starts up at one angle, but was then finished at a less steep angle because the architect realized that the steeper pyramids were collapsing. Also at Dashur, though, is the Red Pyramid, which is really the first true pyramid. These two pyramids are both the same height, and they are exceeded in height only by the two largest pyramids at Giza.
When we got to the entrance gate at Dashur, a guy in a very dusty old business suit and tie wanted to get in the taxi and ride with us to the pyramid. He said that he was with the tourist police and Yehia seemed to think that it was okay, but being a cynic after the previous day’s adventures, I didn’t believe him. After all, most of the tourist police wear uniforms with big arm bands that say “Tourism and Antiquities Police” – not business suits. He finally showed me a little badge, but I still wasn’t very convinced. Finally, I asked him, “How much?” and he said, “No, no. No money.” So, we let him get into the taxi and ride with us to the Red Pyramid.
Jennifer and I climbed up and into the Red Pyramid. Becky waited at the base of the pyramid, and the tourism policeman stood around and talked to Yehia. The entrance to the chambers was down a long, sloped shaft that was about 4 feet tall and descended deep into the pyramid. There really wasn’t much to see inside, other than the construction of the chambers deep within the pyramid. Plus, the lighting was so poor that I couldn’t even get a picture – which is always a real disappointment to me. Nevertheless, after only seeing the great pyramids from the outside on Friday, it was neat to go inside a pyramid.
After seeing the Red Pyramid, we were ready for the main event of Dashur, the Bent Pyramid. Unfortunately, our best efforts at communications – including hand signals, pointing to the guidebook, and trying to get Yasser on the phone, were unable to convey to Yehia that we wanted to see the other pyramid at Dashur, too. So, we went back through the entrance gate where the tourism policeman hopped out; he didn’t ask for money, therefore finally convincing me that he was, in fact, a police officer. We headed back towards Cairo.
We stopped at a restaurant in Giza for some lunch – a fairly non-descript place – and then proceeded to Coptic Cairo for more sightseeing. Coptic Cairo is the oldest part of the modern city. It is a walled enclosure which contains several ancient Christian churches and synagogues. We quickly found the Hanging Church, so called because it was built above one of the gates to the walled compound.
There, in the Hanging Church, we had a very unexpected encounter. Jennifer, as you may recall, is currently serving in the Peace Corps in Bulgaria. At the Hanging Church, she encountered three other Peace Corps volunteers, one who she knew reasonably well, who had just completed their Peace Corps service in Bulgaria and were traveling around the world. We chatted for a few minutes, took some pictures, and then continued on. I could definitely hear “It’s a Small World” playing in the background.
Unfortunately, most of the entrances to Coptic Cairo are closed due to a large USAID project to lower the groundwater level to protect the basements of these ancient buildings from continual flooding. So, after leaving the Hanging Church, it took us quite a while to actually find the entrance leading to the rest of the sites in Coptic Cairo. We eventually found it, though, and we saw a couple of other churches – including one supposedly built on the site in Egypt to which Mary and Joseph fled – and a beautiful synagogue.
After Coptic Cairo, we were headed back to the hotel. But, Jennifer really wanted to get a papyrus, and we knew that most of the papyruses sold in the market to tourists were fakes. So, she wanted to go to Dr. Ragab’s Papyrus Museum where her parents had bought a papyrus when she was a child. We had wanted to go on Sunday morning, but Yasser didn’t think that we would have time. So, Yehia took us to another papyrus museum on the way back to the hotel. All we really wanted to do was buy a papyrus, but first they insisted on giving us a demonstration of papyrus making. Then, they followed us around and wanted to tell us all about each of the papyruses, which was somewhat annoying. Jennifer got her papyrus, though, and we ended up getting one, too. One of the guidebooks says that the main thing about fake papyruses is that when you try to roll them up the paint will chip off. Ours have been rolled up for a few days now, and the paint still hasn’t chipped, so I think we may have gotten the genuine article.
We returned to the hotel and had a swim in the very nice resort pool. A perfect end to another tourist day.
On Sunday, we left the hotel a little later for the Cairo Tower. The Cairo tower opened in 1961 and is now one of the defining features of the Cairo skyline. It is 187 meters tall and stands in the El-Gezira Area, on a large island in the middle of the Nile. We got some great pictures of the city, although it was rather smoggy. I did take a series of pictures that I hope to stitch together into a panorama…
After that, we walked around the area a bit, and then Yehia took us on to the train station. We sat in a café in the train station and had a little snack until almost time for our train. Yehia escorted us to the train and sent us on our way. Yasser was paying Yehia, but I tried to offer him something extra (a little baksheesh) for being so kind to us. He refused to take any money from me, though. Mahmoud met us in Alexandria and returned us to campus.
Cairo was really an overwhelming place. It was loud and dirty, and at least the tourist areas were filled with people trying to sell you things. After the relatively slow pace of our life in Alexandria, we were “homesick” for Alex by the end of the weekend.
I took a number of pictures during our visit to Cairo, and I’ll try to get some of them posted soon. I should perhaps note that I haven’t had a chance to clean up any of the pictures that I’ve been posting. And, since they are being taken in RAW camera format, they definitely need some cleaning up – they haven’t even been properly white balanced. Still, I probably won’t have time for all of that until after I get back to the states, and people seem to be enjoying the pictures in the meantime.
Sorry that this message is late, but between things going full steam in my classes and entertaining our guests, I really haven’t had time for much else.