Monthly Archives: October 2005

Impressions of Egypt, Number 12

Hello, Everyone –

We are now at home! I shall continue my narrative where I left off on Thursday, October 20, though.

On Thursday, as planned, I went back to the dorm after sending the last message, and we finished packing. We were done somewhat early, so we just hung around until iftar time, and then went down and had our iftar. At about 6:45, Mahmoud came to pick us up. He wasn’t in his usual car, though. Instead, he was with a hired driver in a large station wagon. We found out later that Yassser had called this car in case our luggage wouldn’t fit in Mahmoud’s car, but then the AAST car that Mahmoud usually drives (a nice, new model) broke down that afternoon. So, it was good that we had backup.

As we drove to the train station, I noticed that the sea was particularly rough – perhaps the roughest it had been during our stay in Alex. It almost seemed as if it was bidding us farewell from Alex. We were met at the train station by Yasser, who helped us onto the 7:40 p.m. train and wished us well. We will see him again in a few months in Blacksburg, inshallah.

Yehia was a little late to the Cairo train station to pick us up. He had been confused about when we were arriving. So, by the time we got to the Sheraton Heliopolis, it was 11:30 p.m.

I’m really not sure why we took such a late train. Yasser just decided that we should go then and arranged our tickets. But, it resulted in an extremely short night, as we had to catch the 4 a.m. shuttle bus from the hotel. Perhaps it was the short night that caused me to forget my cell phone, I think at the hotel. During our time in Alex, we had two cell phones. But, we had left one of them with Yasser. So, after forgetting the phone at the hotel, we were phoneless. Luckily, our cruise itinerary was prearranged, including transfers to and from the airports.

As we flew into Aswan, it was interesting to look out the window of the plane. We were flying over vast, featureless desert, and it was impossible to tell how high or low we were flying because there were no reference features on the ground. When our flight arrived in Aswan, at 7:15 a.m. on Friday, we were met by another guy with a badly misspelled name card. The travel agent had spelled my name “Alan Macaenzie.” I think she misheard the “K” in my last name as an “A,” even though it doesn’t make much sense phonetically. At the Aswan airport, though, the sign said, “Plan Macaensy.” It’s really quite a miracle that I can even interpret these things…

We waited for our luggage, which came out very quickly, and then we were on our way. It was about 15 minutes into central Aswan, where we met our ship. The guy who picked us up at the airport said we might not be able to get our cabin until 10 a.m., but it was ready when we arrived, which was nice. Many of the people on the cruise had joined it a few days earlier in Luxor, and some of those people were off on day trips to Abu Simbel, which, regrettably, will not be part of our Egyptian experience. (They had to leave the ship between 3 and 4 a.m., though, so they weren’t much better off than us in terms of sleep!) Those of us not going to Abu Simbel had a long and restful day.

It is actually unseasonably cool in Aswan, which means temperatures in the 70s, so Becky and I spent practically the whole day under the awning on the sundeck. A nice day, and the food on the ship is good, with lots more variety than the AAST cafeteria.

Saturday was an early start (but not as early as Friday), leaving the ship at 7 a.m. We started with a visit to the Philae Temple. Unlike the other sites that we have visited, this time we had a tour guide. He told us many interesting things about the temple and its history. The Philae Temple is a temple of Isis. It is not as old as some of the Egyptian temples, a fact which is evidenced by the Greek influences on the temple columns. In Roman times, Isis was worshipped all over the Roman Empire, as far away as Brittan. Even after the empire converted to Christianity, Isis worship continued at Philae as late as 550 AD. The earliest remains are from around 370 BC, although Isis worship at Philae dates back to at least 690 BC.

The temple at Philae was flooded for many years after the construction of the Aswan Dam. In preparing for the construction of the high dam, though, many other monuments had to be moved. Since the expertise was already onsite, after the high dam was finished Unesco decided to move the Philae Temple, a project that took from 1972 until 1980, when the temple reopened in its current location. I actually really liked the much smaller pavilion next to the temple, known as the Kiosk of Trajan or “Pharaoh’s Bed,” which was apparently a frequent subject of Victorian painters. The image of this pavilion has actually come to be recognized as a symbol of Philae.

After the temple, it was on to the High Dam. Many attempts have been made to control the Nile through the ages. During the reign of Mohammed Ali, a dam was built at Esna. Later, during British rule, the much higher Aswan dam was built, opening in 1902. Finally, the High Dam was constructed begun in 1960 and completed in 1971. The high dam is of rock fill construction. It is about 110 meters tall and 4 km long. At the top, it is only 40 meters wide. At the bottom, though, it is almost 1 km wide. Egypt originally sought the aid of the US and Brittan to build the high dam, but after complicated political intrigue, including the Suez Crisis, they ended up getting the assistance of the USSR instead. As a result, beside the dam there is a monument to Russian/Egyptian friendship. Behind the dam lies Lake Nasser, which is the largest artificial lake in the world.

The guide told us about the advantages and disadvantages of the dam. In disadvantages, no further archeological sites may ever be found South of the dam in Egypt, as they are all underwater. (Except, of course, the ones that were moved before or during the construction of the dam.) In addition, many Nubians, who had lived in the same area for centuries, had to be relocated to new villages, a difficult situation. Also, the dam prevents the flow of silt that was critical to the fertility of the Nile Valley, leading to a much heavier use of artificial fertilizers. On the plus side, though, the dam provides all of Egypt with steady and predictable water source for drinking and irrigation (no more Biblical famines in Egypt). It also produces a lot of electric power, it prevents flooding, and it has raised the water table, increasing Egypt’s area of cultivatable land. On balance, the high dam has won international acclaim as one of the most beneficial dams ever built.

After the high dam, we went on to a papyrus museum/shop. The list prices were a little lower than the shop we visited a few weeks ago in Cairo, but unlike the shop in Cairo, this shop was unwilling to bargain. So, on balance the prices were similar. Then, it was back on another motorboat to visit Kitchner’s Island, also known as the Aswan Botanical Garden. It was nice, but like most gardens we have visited in Egypt, the emphasis was on trees and green plants. Becky usually loves to visit gardens, but she mostly likes the flowers. So, trees and greenery are a bit disappointing. I did get nice photographs of some of the flowers that we did see, though.

After the garden, we returned to the ship for lunch. During lunch, our ship started north from Aswan to Kom Ombo. About three hours later, we arrived at Kom Ombo and visited the temple there. The most unique aspect of the Kom Ombo temple is that it is a temple built for two gods, one the crocodile god, Sombrek, and the other the falcon-headed god, Horace. I was also amazed by the quantity and variety of the inscriptions. Among the ones that our guide pointed out were a calendar, showing when various offerings were to be made to the gods, and a carving showing a wide variety of almost modern looking medical equipment (forceps, scalpels, needles, etc.).

I noticed that our ship got off very quickly before lunch, actually departing a few minutes earlier than scheduled. On the way to Kom Ombo, we ran alongside another ship for a long way, but then managed to take the lead as the channel narrowed. As we approached Kom Ombo, though, there were actually two or three other ships arriving, all trying to beat us to the dock. It was just like Egyptian driving, with honking horns and everything, except with much, much larger, more expensive, and less maneuverable vehicles. The other ships made their moves too late, though, and we got the spot next to the dock.

I don’t know about cruises in other places, as I’ve never been on one, but there aren’t enough docking facilities in some places along the Nile, and so the ships end up docking 3 or more deep. If your ship isn’t next to the dock, then you have to cross the other ships to reach the shore. Furthermore, if the other ship decides to leave, then you may be stranded on shore or on your ship until the maneuvering is complete. Hence, the spot next to the dock is the coveted spot.

Sure enough, when we got ready to leave, there were four other ships docked between us and the Nile channel. It took nearly an hour for us to actually depart, with lots of yelling going on between the ships, as the other ships would want to let passengers on or off before we departed. Our crew would stop anyone from crossing our ship for a while, and there would be more arguing. Finally, our crew would yield and let a few passengers cross the ship, in return for one of the ships pulling away from the dock. I think some of the other passengers on the ship were slightly alarmed by the chaos of it all, and the seeming hostility between the crews. I think, though, that it was more of a game, much like the negotiations that go on in the souqs.

After finally getting away from the dock, we sailed on to Esna, arriving a little after midnight.

On Sunday morning, we crossed the lock at Esna, which I really enjoyed, as we sailed on for Luxor. It was a free morning on the ship, and we resumed our usual locations under the awning on the sundeck. Most of the people on our ship were significantly older than our parents, and I think they found the fact that we brought our laptops up to the sundeck quite odd. But Becky couldn’t pack enough books to read for 8 weeks, so she has been downloading and reading Ebooks. And I had several things downloaded to read on my laptop, too, in getting back up to speed on research.

Around lunchtime, we arrived in Luxor. After lunch, we headed into Luxor to visit the Karnak and Luxor Temples. The Karnak Temple is the largest temple in Egypt. It was built over a period of 2400 years from 2000 BC until 400 AD, and it is easy to see how different parts of the temple were built in different periods. It is difficult to convey the scale of the place. At the center of the complex is a temple to the main Thebian God, Amun. After the center of Egyptian power moved to Thebes (modern day Luxor) during the Middle Kingdom, the Thebian God, Amun, was combined with the old chief God, Ra, to create Amun-Ra, the King of the Gods.

The heretic pharoah, Akenaten, though, had many of the images of Amun at the temple defaced. He built a temple beside the one for Amun to his chosen god, Aten. After Akenaten died, his reign was not remembered fondly, and it was believed that he had angered the gods through his heresy. Hence, the temple to Aten was destroyed, and the ruble was used as fill rock inside a new pylon that was being constructed. It is here that the Metropolitan Museum of New York found the remains of the temple to Aten while reconstructing the pylon. They reconstructed parts of the Aten temple, some of which are on display at Karnak, and some of which are at the Met in New York.

The site includes 10 pylons, although they are in various states of completion and preservation. Most impressive to me, though, was the enormous “Hypostyle Hall,” a forest of 134 enormous stone pillars. At one time, the whole area was covered with a roof. I also really liked some of the colossi, which have guarded the temple for thousands of years.

After Karnak, we went on to the Luxor Temple. It is smaller than the Karnak temple, but still impressive. It also contained some of the most impressive statuary that we have seen in Egypt, including giant colossi of Ramses II. In the midst of the temple sits a 14th century Mosque, built before the temple was uncovered, and now an antiquity itself.

Monday was another early start, with us leaving the ship at 7 a.m. Our destination on Monday was Luxor’s West Bank. We started with the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. This temple, unlike the others that we have seen, is not freestanding. Instead, it is partially freestanding and partially cut into the rock. Hatshepsut ruled as co-regent with her husband’s son by a minor wife, Tuthmosis III, not yielding the throne to him as sole ruler before her death. In retaliation, he removed her name and image from many scenes in the temple. This temple was also vandalized by Akhenaten, the heretic pharaoh, who removed all references to Amun. Finally, this temple became an early Christian monastery, and the Christians also defaced the pagan reliefs. The temple was also one of the sites of the 1997 massacre of foreign tourists, the other being the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

After the Temple of Hatshepsut, it was on to the Valley of the Kings. Our guidebook is slightly out of date here, claiming that one must purchase individual tickets to the tombs that one wishes to visit. Now, a single admission ticket allows one to visit any three tombs, except for the Tomb of Tutankhamun, which requires a separate admission ticket. (We did not see the Tomb of Tutankhamum, as both the guidebook and our guide dismissed it as unimpressive. Tutankhamum’s tomb is small and unfinished, despite the vast treasures that it contained.) This policy seems to have been instituted in an effort to preserve the tombs, which are being damaged by the moist breath of so many visiting tourists. Most of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, as well as many of the other Luxor sites, are from the New Kingdom, which ran from 1550-1069 BC. By New Kingdom times, tombs had became preferable to pyramids as burial places, because pyramids were too easy for robbers to find and empty.

We first visited the Tomb of Tawosret/Sethnakht. Tawosret was the wife of Seti II. After Seti II’s successor died, she took power herself, and she built this tomb for herself and her husband. Subsequently, though, her successor Sethnakht completed the tomb, relocating Seti II (and Tawosret?) to another smaller tomb nearby. He plastered over Tawosret and Seti’s names where they appeared and replaced them with his own name. The Tawosret/Sethnakht tomb was perhaps the largest that we saw, with several chambers between the entrance and the burial chambers. It is far from the largest in the Valley, however.

Our next stop was the tomb of Seti II. This tomb had some nice carvings near the entrance, but the rear portion of the tomb was hastily finished in paint alone. Some of the paintings were very nicely preserved, though, with vivid colors and images.

The last tomb we visited was that of Ramses IV. This tomb was better preserved than others that we saw, with very fine colored paintings and carvings throughout. The guidebook claims that it is not one of the finest tombs, but our guide suggested it as the best preserved tomb that was open on the day of our visit, and we have come to trust him.

After the Valley of the Kings, we went on to visit an alabaster workshop, where they carve the alabaster by hand, instead of by machine, and then we stopped briefly at the Colossi of Memnon, which are in the ruins of a once enormous funerary temple which was, unfortunately, built on the flood plain of the Nile.

On Tuesday morning, our ship left Luxor at about 4:30 a.m. for Qena. The area between Luxor and somewhere South of Cairo is known as Middle Egypt. The Egyptian Tourist Police mostly frown upon tourists visiting Middle Egypt, and when tourists do visit they are heavily escorted and guarded – if not escorted out of Middle Egypt altogether. The Egyptian government says that this is because Middle Egypt is a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, but I think these claims are slightly questionable, and the government’s desire to keep tourists and their money out of Middle Egypt may be politically motivated. (For instance, while the US State Department warns against visiting tourist sites around Cairo and visiting the Sinai, they say nothing about Middle Egypt.) In any case, only for the last few years have cruises been visiting Qena, and our visit was marked by added security precautions. First, at all times our cruise was accompanied by a Tourist Policeman, who sat on the bridge of the ship with a handheld machine gun. While sailing to and from Qena, though, a much larger machine gun was mounted on the corner of the sundeck with a few soldiers manning it. And when we got off the ship, our buses were given police escorts. I can’t say that either of these precautions really made me feel much safer, but I didn’t think we were in much danger to begin with.

We departed the ship at Qena at about 9 a.m., and we took buses to the Temple of Dendera. Structurally, the Temple at Dendera may be the best preserved in all of Egypt. It still has its stone roof, and you can climb the ancient stone stairs up to the roof, where the priests would take the statues once a year to expose them to sunlight (thereby, they believed, recharging their powers). The figures, though, may be the worst defaced. There was an early Christian church on the site, and almost all of the figures have been chiseled away.

Also interesting about the Temple at Dendera is that many of the carvings included empty cartouches. As you might know, the cartouche was usually an oval shape with some hieroglyphics written inside, and it represented the name of a king. The Temple at Dendera was built in the Greco-Roman period, when Egypt’s monarchy was in upheaval. So, apparently the stone carvers were unwilling to commit a king’s name to their carvings, for fear that the king might change again at any time.

After Dendera, we had lunch and sailed back for Luxor. Sailing back took all afternoon, as we were now sailing up the Nile instead of downriver, as we had been the rest of the week. We spent some time on the sundeck. It was interesting to compare the landscape North of Luxor, which was flat and pastoral, with farmland coming right up to the bank of the Nile, with the landscapes around Luxor (high limestone cliffs) and Aswan (granite cliffs and boulders). Becky and I tried to get a nap before our long journey, but we were only mildly successful. After tea, we finished packing. (Most of the people on our boat were British, and we had tea every afternoon. It was very civilized.) After I had finished packing, I went up to the sundeck, as we sailed back into Luxor. It was really fabulous to float by the Luxor temple, lit up at night; it was a sight I shall not soon forget.

At 8 p.m., we left the ship. Our driver to the Luxor airport was a Christian. He had several little crosses and things in his car, and he also told us that he was Christian. I’m not sure whether or not he is the first Christian that we have met in Egypt. It seems unlikely, as everything I have read suggests that around 5% of Egyptians are Christian, but he was certainly the first to be quite so forthcoming about it.

We caught our flight to Cairo, arriving at around 10:30 p.m. We had left our two largest suitcase with Yehia during our cruise, and he was supposed to meet us to take us to the other terminal of the Cairo airport and give us our luggage back. We looked around for him, but we hadn’t found him when a guy came up and asked me if I was Dr. Allen. I said yes, and he called his friend over. His friend got Yehia on the phone, and Yehia said (in his broken English) that this guy would take us to the other terminal. Sure enough, he had our large suitcases strapped to the roof of his car. So, we put our other luggage inside and got into the taxi with the two guys.

Ordinarily, I would expect taxi drivers to know their way around an airport, but these guys, or at least the driver, had no clue. So, we went careening around the airport. Every time I saw a directional sign on the pavement, we were heading in the opposite direction. Every time his friend told him where to go, he went the opposite way. They even stopped to ask directions a couple of times, but it looked to me like he went a different way than the people that he asked suggested. Finally, the third time we stopped to ask for directions, the driver followed them and we made it to the other terminal, which was less than half a kilometer from where we started, although it took us about half an hour to get there. We could have made better time if we had just pushed a luggage cart along the marked walkway…

So, we arrived at the proper terminal at around 11:30 p.m., but security was closed until 1 a.m., so we had to just sit in the vestibule of the airport for an hour and a half. Finally, at 1 a.m. on Wednesday morning, we were able to check our luggage and walk down to our gate. Our flight for Frankfurt left at 3:30 a.m., and in Frankfurt, we made our connection to Dulles. On Wednesday evening, we stayed with Becky’s parents in Maryland, and this (Thursday) morning we drove home to Blacksburg.

I know I mentioned eating dates in Alex, and I think I mentioned that their were date palms all around campus. I don’t think I mentioned, though, the multitude of efforts to retrieve the dates from the trees on campus. Obviously, the shorter trees, with fruit close enough to reach from the ground, got picked first. After that, though, I saw all sorts of techniques. Some people would throw a brick or a large rock at the dates, in order to knock some of them down. The carpenters at the job site beside our building built a makeshift ladder out of wood for the sole purpose of getting dates out of trees. And, on our last day in Alex, I saw a guy who had actually managed to climb about 20 feet into a tree, where he was picking off the dates and dropping them down to his friend on the ground. It was quite amusing.

Being on a cruise ship was much different than our earlier experiences in Egypt. There were positives and negatives. On the plus side, our Egyptologist was quite knowledgeable, and it was nice to know what we were looking at and have an opportunity to ask questions. It was also nice to get on an air conditioned coach or ship after sight seeing, instead of getting into an un-air conditioned taxi. After 7 weeks in Egypt, it was also nice to be with people speaking English again.

On the minus side, though, the experience was much less authentic. We were around English speakers pretty much 100% of the time. Even off the ship, we only saw tourists, tour guides, and people who try to sell things to tourists. We saw hardly any ordinary Egyptian people, with the exception of farmers working fields along the Nile. (Sorry, but people who try to hock souvenirs to tourists all day are not ordinary Egyptians.) Also, since most of the tourist hocks are men, we hardly saw any Egyptian women during our cruise. On the cruise ship, you couldn’t even tell that it is Ramadan. I was pretty sure that some of the people on the ship didn’t even know that Ramadan was going on. Most people on the cruise had no idea how much things should cost, and some of them paid ridiculous prices for souvenirs, food, and beverages off the ship. (The prices on the ship were not cheap, but reasonable.) The cruise ship’s idea of bringing Egyptian culture on-board was having a galabayah party one night. (Becky and I were spoil sports, though, and decided not to buy Egyptian costumes for one night, despite the fact that we could have easily gotten something to wear for about $4 each.)

It is very difficult to summarize our experiences in Egypt in one single, final paragraph. I am tired and jet lagged, so I won’t even try. Maybe in a few days I’ll be a bit more introspective and philosophical about the whole experience. For now, though, I’ll say that spending two months in Egypt was unforgettable. I met many interesting people and broadened my horizons professionally and personally. I’ll certainly never look at news from the Middle East in the same way again. It was really a remarkable journey. Thank you for sharing it with me. I will try to send a link to a final set of pictures in the next few days.

Regards, Allen

Impressions of Egypt, Number 11

Hello, Folks –

On Saturday, we stayed in most of the day, with a brief jaunt to my office to check Email.

On Sunday, it rained. It actually rained one other time in Alex since we have been here, but only for a few minutes. And that time, we didn’t know that it had rained until we came out of the Alexandria National Museum and found that the ground was wet. This time, it really rained. The ground was soaked by the time I left the dorm in the morning, and we had several other bouts of rain, sometimes hard, during the morning. In Alex, it typically only rains during the “winter,” which starts sometime in November. The first rain of the season, which we experienced today, is called “the washing of the dates” for reasons that should be obvious from my last message. We had missed rain since being here, though, and I enjoyed watching it out my office window. Becky actually sat out on the balcony at the dorm, just to watch it rain.

In the middle of the day, one of my students, H, took me out on the town. He took me to the Roman Amphitheater in Alex. He offered to take me several other places, but they were all places that I had already visited – usually multiple times. Each of the students seems to want to take me somewhere that I haven’t been before, so we settled on the Roman Theater. In addition, as we were driving around, H pointed out several things that I hadn’t been shown before. So, that was nice.

The Roman Amphitheater was interesting. It is the only Roman Theater which has been discovered in Egypt. Alongside the theater were several “lecture rooms” where professors would teach students. The whole area is a working archeological dig, and they have also uncovered a Roman Bath and a Roman Villa, which included some beautiful tile work. The villa was owned by wealthy Romans who redecorated several times, so there was tile work from the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd centuries on display. After the villa and surrounding homes collapsed in an earthquake, the Byzantines built on top of the rubble, so there was some 4th century Byzantine tile work, too. So, you have Roman ruins, covered by Byzantine ruins, covered again by the modern city. It was interesting to see the way they had pealed away the historical layers at the dig site.

I did get a bit snippy at H at one moment during our outing. He tends to be a bit indecisive in class, and this time he led us out into the middle of a busy street, with cars whizzing by, and then couldn’t decide which side of the street he wanted to be on. I snapped, “I don’t care which side we go to, but let’s not walk down the middle of the street.” Once we were safely on the sidewalk he said, “Sorry, Professor, but sometimes we just walk down the middle of the street.” This is certainly true, based on my observations of Egyptian life, but is a bit too far outside my comfort zone. Plus, I don’t have the honed instincts for jumping out of the way of speeding cars, as the Egyptians do.

On Sunday night, I got a call from one of the other students telling me that R and his wife had gone to the hospital for her to give birth. On Monday, though, I found out that they had been sent home on Sunday night, and they had returned on Monday morning. The baby was born on Monday afternoon, I believe. So, R was not in class on Monday and Tuesday. I excused him from the last homework assignment, but he still had to give a presentation in class on Thursday and be prepared for the final exams next week. I figured that would probably be enough to keep the new father busy…

Monday and Tuesday began the final week of class and were typical days in Alex. At iftar on Monday night, the girls in the dorm told Becky that they were all sick because of the rain and “cold,” though. This made me laugh, as even on the day it rained it got up to at least 80 degrees. It has been cooler in the evenings the last couple of weeks, but I have never been uncomfortable in a short sleeved shirt. On Tuesday afternoon, I observed one of the locally taught classes, to better enable me to report on the VT-MENA program after I return to Blacksburg. It probably would have been good for me to conduct more of these course observations, but it didn’t occur to me until too late.

On Wednesday evening, we went out with all of the students to Chili’s for iftar. Surprisingly, it was Yasser, not us, who suggested Chili’s. I think he chose it partially because it is near the Miami campus, where two of the students had to be for a videoconference class at 6:30 p.m. I think, in fact, that they were giving presentations to their classmates in Blacksburg and Northern Virginia via videoconference, so I hope that they made it in time and didn’t encounter any technical difficulties when they arrived! We had the iftar buffet this time at Chili’s. It was quite different from the usual Chili’s fare, including many Egyptian foods. It did have some definite Chili’s touches, though, like hot wings on the buffet and barbeque sauce on some dishes.

After iftar, we went with R to meet his baby. (His wife had really wanted us to meet the baby.) It was a long drive for a brief meeting with a sleeping newborn, but she was very cute. More interesting, perhaps was our conversation while traveling to and from seeing the baby. We talked a lot about religion and cultural norms, among other things. Finally, after two months, I think I’m starting to get a faint notion of how Muslims in the Middle East may think about these things. (And, it is a far more tolerant attitude than you might think based on the media in the US.) Interestingly, this conversation started by talking about the company that R co-founded. Their business is providing plug-in web email services to companies that want to offer web-based email to their customers. Their company is funded by ad revenue, because they show banner ads to people who use their email service. The reason that they have been so successful in the Middle East, though, is that they carefully screen their ads for content that might be offensive to Muslim viewers. So, they don’t accept banner ads for adult sites, or ads that show people dressed immodestly, or ads for dating sites, etc. Becky pointed out that some Christians (and others) might also appreciate this feature in a webmail service, and R added that they do, in fact, get quite a bit of business from the US. In any case, it was an interesting discussion all around.

On Thursday, I taught my last classes. Now, I am finishing up some work in the office, and then I will return to the dorm to finish packing my bags. My final exams will be administered by one of the local VT adjunct professors next week. The plan is for Mahmoud to take us to the train station this evening to catch the 7:40 p.m. train to Cairo. Then, we’ll spend a night in the Sheraton Heliopolis before catching a plane to Aswan early Friday morning to meet our cruise. We’ll cruise for 4 nights from Aswan to Luxor, visiting many sites along the way. On Tuesday night, we’ll return from Luxor to Cairo, then catch our 3:30 a.m. flight to Frankfurt.

Here are a few more pictures. There aren’t that many, as I haven’t done that much since the last time I posted pictures:

As always, you can see all of the Egypt pictures that I have posted here:


I don’t really expect to have access to email again until I get back to Blacksburg next Thursday. At that point, I plan to send out the last of these full length narratives. In fact, judging from our cruise itinerary, I’ll probably have a lot to say. Then, it will probably take me a few additional days to get my remaining pictures uploaded and send a link to those. So, I’ll see you on the flip side, inshallah.


PS – “Inshallah” means “God willing.” Whenever Egyptians make any plans for the future, whether in an hour or in a month or in a year, they tack on the word “inshallah.” It’s a nice sentiment, I think.

Impressions of Egypt, Number 10

Greetings, Again!

It has been a week of interesting small occurrences, without much in the way of excitement. Still, a few things worth describing.

On Tuesday, I taught my classes in the morning on a slightly altered schedule to accommodate my students’ Ramadan teaching schedules. In the afternoon, I gave a talk about my research. The talk was extremely well attended, I thought, with probably almost 40 people in the audience. The audience was a good mix of men and women, and a good mix of undergraduates, graduate students (mostly from the VT-MENA program, but probably some local M.S. students, too), and faculty. My talk seemed to be well received, too, a fact for which I was grateful. I didn’t come to Egypt particularly well prepared to give a research presentation. While a faculty member probably shouldn’t travel anywhere unprepared to make a research presentation, I switched to a new laptop about two weeks before departure. While I made sure to copy over any files I might need for teaching, I brought almost no research files. So, I had to create the presentation from scratch and mostly from memory. I planned to augment it with figures that I could find on the web on Monday afternoon, but the power outage foiled my plans. I was able to download a few figures on Tuesday morning to break up the text.

With lunch on Tuesday, we were given fresh dates. The only kind of dates that I have had in the US have been dried, and the fresh ones (although I have seen them on trees since our arrival) were much different than I expected. If you haven’t seen a fresh date, they are small, elongated fruits. The ones we had were yellow, about 1-2 inches in diameter and 3 inches long. They have a long “seed” or pit that basically runs from tip to tip, and you eat the fruit (and the skin) that surrounds this central core. The fruit basically tasted like the dried dates that I have had, but the consistency was like an apple, while I expected something softer and chewier. They gave us a pretty large bowl of them with lunch, so we took them with us and I snacked on them over the next couple of days.

Also on Tuesday, Becky got stuck in the elevator in the dorm. She wasn’t stuck for very long before someone from the dorm got her out, but it is an experience that she would rather not repeat. The elevators in the academic buildings seem pretty reliable, but the elevator in the dorm is not. It has been repaired multiple times since our arrival… Nevertheless, our room is on the fifth floor (which would be called the sixth floor in an American building), and I am not allowed to set foot on the other floors (because I am male and it is a women’s dorm). So, we ride the elevator.

Wednesday was another slightly altered class day, again because of the students’ Ramadan teaching schedule. Since the start of Ramadan, we have been eating dinner at around the same time as the students in the dorm. (Before this, we were almost never in the cafeteria at the same time as the students, as we ate at more typical American times.) On Wednesday, one of the girls in the dorm got up the nerve to say hello to us. Becky started a conversation with her, and ended up moving over to the girls’ table to talk with them. (They didn’t seem interested in talking with me, and I was pretty sure that I wasn’t supposed to join the all women table for dinner!) The girl who started talking to us is actually from Iraq, although we still haven’t exactly figured out where. Becky talked to them a little bit about their studies, dorm life, and so on. She didn’t talk too long, but I think she really enjoyed interacting with them.

On Thursday after class, Mahmoud took us to the travel agency to get our Nile cruise tickets, which we had reserved a few days earlier. The travel agency was the busiest that I’ve ever seen. A half dozen travel agents at desks, twice as many customers, plus phones ringing off the hook. Whenever you pass a travel agency in the US these days, it always looks deserted. I’m guessing, though, that online ticketing hasn’t taken off in Egypt… In any case, we got our airline tickets from Cairo and our cruise itinerary for Aswan to Luxor. We depart Cairo for our cruise next Friday morning, returning to Cairo on Tuesday evening a few hours before our flight to Frankfurt. In any case, I had expected the outing to take longer, but the agent swiped my credit card, gave us our tickets, and bid us farewell in about 5 minutes. So much for my afternoon outing… In the evening, Becky ate dinner at the girls’ table. After dinner they took her up to show her real life in the dorm. While there, she met a third year undergraduate who had attended my research talk and was very interested in my work. Becky gave her my email address and encouraged her to stop by my office next week. So, we’ll see if anything comes of that. Perhaps she’ll join the VT-MENA program in Fall 2007!

Friday began our final weekend in Alexandria. We stayed on campus in the morning and early afternoon. Around 4 p.m., Yasser picked us up. We drove along the Corniche for a while, until we saw a huge group of people gathered on the shore. Yasser insisted that we must see, and he pulled over to the side of the Corniche and parked. We got out and went to look, but we were too late. If we had made it a little earlier, then we would have seen the fishermen hauling in their nets. The fishermen think that it is bad luck for people to see the fish while they are being hauled in, though, so they bring in the net and then cover the fish as quickly as possible. Yasser also took us to a shop to get some souvenirs, and then we went on to iftar. (Iftar is the name of the evening meal during Ramadan.)

We had iftar at a nice restaurant called “Siomar Oriental Cuisine,” but the food was basically Egyptian. At the restaurant, we finally met Yasser’s wife and his three children. The food was excellent, but the company was better. We really enjoyed meeting and talking with Yasser’s children. He has one daughter who is about 15 years old, and then a boy and a girl who are 13 year old twins. (I might be slightly off on those ages, but I’m close…) It was interesting to talk with them about their schools and about their interests. They have seen more American movies than I have seen, they also like many American TV shows, and they enjoy computer games. Becky recommended some books in English that they might enjoy, which I think that Yasser appreciated since he would like them to read more and watch less TV!

Most of the things that we ate were the same as we have had before: kofta and kababs, fuul, and so on. We had one thing new, though: pigeon. The pigeon wasn’t bad. It tasted somewhat like chicken, but it was more tender and a little bit gamy.

Yasser’s wife was quite disappointed that she hadn’t been able to serve us iftar in their apartment. Unfortunately, the apartment is undergoing renovations, which were supposed to be completed several weeks ago… Listening to Yasser tell about the hassle of getting the apartment completed sounded exactly like working on renovating one’s house or condo in the US. Things are delayed, workers don’t show up when they are expected, when they do show up they don’t do the job exactly right, the general contractor insists that other work must be done (at great expense) before completing the planned tasks, and so on… Suddenly the only part of coming home that I dread is the bathroom remodeling project that awaits me!

Something I have failed to mention is that a different number system is used here. I found this rather amusing since we call the numbers that we use in the US “Arabic numerals.” And some of my students explained that the same numbering system that is used in the US is also used in some other parts of the Middle East, although it sounds like the one used in Egypt is more common. It is fairly easy to learn the Egyptian numerals, but it is a bit confusing as some of the same basic characters are used to indicate different numbers. For instance, 0 in Egyptian is the numeral representing five, and 7 means six. Most of the others are either totally different or have the same meanings, though.

Also, in my first message I mentioned the slums in Cairo, with their reinforced concrete frames filled in with brick walls. When we got to the Arab Academy, though, all of the buildings looked much more modern, with stucco-like exteriors. Since the day after our arrival, though, they have been building a new building beside our dorm at the academy. I was surprised to see that the new building was being constructed with reinforced concrete beams and posts, with bricks filling in the walls! Apparently, the stucco exteriors and plastered interior walls are only a veneer over a concrete-and-brick skeleton! I’ve also been astounded by the quantity of wood that the workers use during construction. They build very elaborate frames and scaffolds, but they are built using used wood and are only temporary. Once the concrete is poured, the wooden structure is removed and the brick laying begins. Then, more wooden structure is built in preparation for more concrete. I’m sure that concrete and brick are cheaper building materials than wood in a desert country, but the building technique is extremely labor intensive. I suppose that shouldn’t surprise me by now, though. In addition, I must say that the construction laborers work longer hours than anyone else that we have seen in Egypt. They start before 7 a.m., and they work into the night, even during Ramadan (although they do pause for iftar).

Finally, ever since Ramadan began, we have been awakened almost nightly by fire alarms in the dorm. Usually they only go off for a few seconds and are then shut off. We had assumed that this was because of all the people smoking in the building at night. (Smoking, like eating and drinking, is prohibited for Muslims during the day during Ramadan.) The girls that Becky has been eating with, though, told her that the alarms were “for fun.” Not to rain on anyone’s fun, but I’ll bet if they marched those girls outside a few times in the middle of the night that their fire alarms wouldn’t be quite as fun any more… And I should know, I used to be an Resident Advisor in a dorm!

I should be sending one more of these messages from Alex on Thursday. After that, I probably won’t have email again until I get back to the states.

That’s all for now! Allen

Impressions of Egypt, Number 9

Hello, Again!

Last Wednesday, I taught my classes, and we ate lunch. Then, Mahmoud picked me up to take me out for a haircut. Yasser called the place that Mahmoud took me a “barber shop,” but I think it might be more accurately called a beauty salon for men. In general, if I may say so, Egyptian men (or at least Egyptian men of a certain class) seem to pay more attention to their appearance than American men, and the barber shop/salon definitely reflected this. Ordinarily, I don’t use any kind of styling product in my hair and neither does my barber. At the salon, they used three. First, the guy cut my hair. He was much more careful and detail oriented than my usual barber. Then, he took me to the back and washed my hair. It has been many years since I had my hair washed during a haircut, and when I have had it done, it has always been before the haircut. After that, he put some sort of cream into my hair, then dried it with a hair dryer, then worked some sort of wax into my hair, and finally covered me with a heavy, heavy coat of hairspray. I had to take a shower in the afternoon because my hair was attracting so many bugs…

I went up to pay for my haircut, and the guy said, quite clearly, “13 pounds.” So, I went to take out a 10 and a 5 pound note, but he pointed to another 10 pound note. So, I gave him 20 L.E. He smiled broadly and thanked me profusely. I’m pretty sure I gave him a 50% tip. But even with a 50% tip, my haircut was less than $4. So, I can’t complain.

After the haircut, Mahmoud took me next door to the pharmacy for some cough syrup. I looked at the box that I was handed, which did include instructions in English, but it was an unfamiliar brand and I didn’t recognize any of the ingredients. I was a little uncertain: Is this stuff safe? There weren’t even any indications of possible side effects. And the dosage instructions were a bit vague, “Take 1-2 teaspoonfuls, or more if necessary, 2-3 times per day.” But Mahmoud made a gesture that somehow indicated, “Don’t worry! I take it all the time. It’s great!” So, I paid 4 L.E. for a bottle of cough syrup, and then we returned to the academy.

Before bed, I took one teaspoon. It didn’t seem to do the trick, though, so around 3 a.m., I took two. That seemed to get rid of my cough, and I haven’t noticed any side effects, other than a desire to sleep in. Subsequent nights, I have taken two teaspoons at bedtime, and that seems to get me through the night cough-free. I’m not taking it during the day, though, because I think there’s a good chance that it would make me groggy.

Thursday, October 6, was a national holiday. The students were concerned about being able to get onto campus and into the building, but Yasser took care of it. So, I taught my classes, and then taught one make-up class in the afternoon. Between classes, I also finished up Email Number 8, although I didn’t get to send it until Saturday… After the makeup class, we rushed back to the dorm for a late lunch.

In the evening, two of my students took us out to dinner with their wives. First, they picked us up on campus, as they usually ride to campus together. We dropped M at home, and then R took us to his apartment. (I’ve decided to abbreviate the students’ names…) At R’s apartment, we met his wife, who is an ECE student at Alexandria University. She is also 8+ months pregnant, although R told her and their doctor that she can’t have the baby until my classes have ended! R’s apartment was the most opulent private home that I have ever seen. Gilded furniture, beautiful glassware and crystal, and the most elaborate crown moldings that I have ever seen. I don’t think this is typical for a graduate student, as R co-founded a successful company (the largest webmail service in the Middle East) before returning to graduate school. But I have visited the homes of some moderately successful people in the US, and never have I seen such an opulent home…

After spending a half hour or so at R’s home, we headed out with R and his wife to Pharos, which is the Faculty Club in Alexandria, named for the ancient Alexandrian lighthouse and located next door to the Egyptian Yacht Club, which we visited the first week. At Pharos, we met up with M and his wife, who is a pharmacist. When the clock struck sundown, we started our meal. I must say that the food was only so-so, but the company was enjoyable. After dinner, we moved out onto the patio, where we continued chatting and watching the sea. I was able to tell the students more about the VT-MENA program (they knew surprisingly little about it), and they told us more about Egyptian life and culture.

After dinner, we were ready to go home, but R insisted on stopping somewhere for dessert. We had couscous, which they called couscousi, with powdered sugar and nuts on top. It was quite tasty, but a little heavy for me after a big meal. R mentioned that when couscous is eaten in some other countries in Africa, it is served like rice – which is how I’ve always had it in the US – but in Egypt it is served as a sweet dessert. Go figure.

For the weekend, we stayed on campus. We were planning a quiet weekend, and Friday was perhaps our most boring day yet in Egypt. We had breakfast, and then we planned to go in to my office to use the internet. We got to the building, though, and unlike past Fridays, the doors were all bolted shut. I think that this was due to the fact that Thursday had been a national holiday, but perhaps it had something to do with Ramadan. Who knows. In any case, we ended up staying in the room virtually all day. I had plenty of work to do, but I mostly took a day of rest: reading, watching movies on TV, etc. By the end of the day, though, I was really insanely bored. I did do some grading in the evening.

On Saturday, we had breakfast, then spent most of the morning in the room. I did more grading, worked on lecture notes, and so on. We assumed that we would be locked out of the office again, but when we went for a walk at mid-morning, we saw that the academic buildings were open. So, after lunch, we went to the office to use the internet for a while.

We had planned to head off campus to the Montazah Mall Chili’s for dinner, and we thought that we would leave around 5 p.m. It takes about 15 minutes to get there, we figured, and then we’ll have time to pick up a few things at the grocery store before dinner. We were running late, though, and we didn’t get out in front of campus (where there are usually taxicabs waiting) until 5:15 p.m. This was a major mistake, as the Ramadan fast is currently being broken at about 5:30 p.m. (The exact time changes daily and depends upon sunset…) So, the roads were deserted. We started hiking out to the main road, thinking we might find a taxi there, but we soon realized that there weren’t many taxi’s going by on the main road, either. We had resolved to return to campus for an hour or so – until people had finished their “breakfast” – when a taxi slowed down. We told him where we wanted to go, and he stopped and let us in.

It was the most interesting taxi ride yet. First of all, the taxi smelled strongly of gasoline. I was a little afraid that the car might explode at any moment. Second, as we drove through Abu Qir, someone reached through the taxi window and dropped a handful of fresh dates, individually wrapped with messages in Arabic, into Becky’s lap. I think it was some sort of Ramadan treat (generous Ramadan, you know). In any case, we gave them to the driver. Then, the trunk lid popped open. The driver stopped and closed it, but about a half mile later, it popped open again. This time, he couldn’t get it closed. So, we went on with an open trunk. I gave him an extra generous fare, given that he had picked us up when there were no other taxis on the road and his car seemed to be falling apart. (There are no functioning taxi meters in Egypt. All the cars are equipped with them, but apparently they were installed when gas prices were ridiculously low, and so no one uses them. Note, though, that the current “high” gas prices here are about 1 L.E. per liter. That’s about $0.70 per gallon, for those of you keeping track at home. So, you give the taxi driver what you think is a fair price for the trip, and if the driver doesn’t agree then he will argue with you. I’m not very good at estimating a fair price, so I overestimate, and so far I haven’t gotten any arguments. Even my overestimated fare would barely start the meter running in the US, though…)

By the time we got to Montazah Mall, the grocery store was locked up tight. Chili’s was interesting, though. They had a special buffet for Ramadan, although we decided to just order off the menu, as the buffet was pretty packed with fried food. After dinner, we tried the grocery store again. It was still locked up tight, but there were some Egyptian women standing around looking impatient. So, I suspect that if we had waited 10 more minutes, then we probably could have gotten in. We didn’t wait, but went ahead and caught a taxi back to campus. None of our grocery needs were particularly urgent, although we have run out of chocolate, which might be considered an urgent need by some.

On Sunday, we both came in to the office to use the internet in the morning, and I came back in the afternoon to try to get some work done. The up and down of the internet on campus is really starting to annoy me. My understanding, though, is that the fault is not with the campus network, but with the ISP’s point of presence in Abu Qir which, according to a reliable source here, is the most unreliable in Alexandria. In any case, I spend a lot of time waiting for things to download only to have my connection go down.

My efforts to send these “impressions” messages seem to be cursed. I finished this message early Monday morning. But around the time that my classes ended, the power to the building where my office is located went out. Apparently something was wrong with the main supply cable for the building, and I was told that power would not be restored until the next day. This greatly complicated my preparation for my presentation on Tuesday, as downloading some figures to supplement my slides was a major objective for the afternoon.

Monday evening, we decided to order pizza from Pizza Hut for a change of pace. It was basically just like ordering pizza for delivery in the US. The pizza, though, was pretty short on sauce and didn’t include many spices in the sauce or otherwise. It wasn’t bad for a change of pace, but it wasn’t as good as the pizza that we have gotten at Carrefour, either.

I should perhaps observe that most things in Egypt don’t necessarily happen through the “normal” channels that might be used in the US. Instead, things rely very heavily on networks of acquaintances. If you want a train ticket, then you may call your friend at the train station. If you want a hotel reservation, then you call your brother’s friend at the hotel. If you want a taxi, then you call Yehia, your trusted taxi driver in Cairo. When Yasser wants to find out why the power is out and when it may be restored, he calls someone that he knows. In some ways, this is nice, and much more “personal” than many transactions in the US. On the other hand, my impression is that these relationships are built over long periods of time, making it difficult for an outsider (especially one that doesn’t know the language) to get a foothold.

Also, I may have given a mistaken impression about our food. Our meals off campus have, for the most part, been really wonderful, and those are the ones that I have described. The cafeteria food has been decent, but it is very repetitive. For breakfast every morning, we get a scrambled egg, a bowl of corn flakes, and some bread with cheese and honey or jam. We always get hot reconstituted milk, which I managed to tolerate on my cereal for the first couple of weeks, but now I usually just eat the cereal dry. For lunch and dinner, there are three possible meats: beef, chicken, and fish. We might get fish once or twice a week, but otherwise we get either beef or chicken at lunch, and the other at dinner. And, the chicken and fish are always either grilled or fried, the beef is always grilled. For lunch and dinner, we also always get a starch: almost always french fries or rice. And we sometimes get vegetables: usually a plate of fresh vegetables and sometimes some grilled or sautéed vegetables. (At first, we almost never got grilled or sautéed vegetables. So, when we got them we made a big deal out of how good they were and how much we liked them. Now we probably get them once a day.) And about once a day we get dessert which is usually either fresh fruit (often guavas, which are okay but not our favorite) or some sort of baklava. Like I said, it has gotten kind of repetitive. I’m not sure that Becky and I realized what a wide variety of foods that we ate at home before we came here.

Dinner is somewhat better since the start of Ramadan. We now usually get a bowl of soup with dinner, the meat has been upgraded to beef ribs instead of random slabs of beef, and the desserts have improved in variety.

Catching up on pictures, we have two new tags. First, here are many of the pictures that I received from Jennifer, some of which may actually prove that I am in Egypt. (My mom complained that I don’t appear in any of my pictures.)

And here are my new pictures, mostly from Mary Anne’s visit.

As before, all of the Egypt pictures that I have uploaded can be found here:



Impressions of Egypt, Number 8

Ramadan Karim, Everyone!

Shortly after I sent my last message on Saturday, we were off to the train station again. Yasser took us himself this time, as he doesn’t like to impose too much on Mahmoud’s evenings and weekends at home. We were running a bit late, but we still managed to catch the train without too much difficulty. We were met in Cairo by Yehia, who took us to our hotel for the weekend – The Cairo Mariott. The centerpiece of the Cairo Mariott is a converted palace in which the lobby and most of the restaurants are located. The guest rooms are located in two towers which flank the palace. We had a room with a Nile view, looking directly across at the Nile Maxim’s dock.

Immediately upon entering the city this time, I was overwhelmed with the smog. After a while, it started to burn my eyes a bit and certainly aggravated my cough. At first, I thought I had somehow failed to notice it as much the previous weekend. After reading in the newspaper about the onset of the “October smog” which has plagued Cairo for the last 6 years, though, I realized that perhaps it really was significantly worse than it had been the previous weekend. The smog also ruined a number of photo ops, as you will see shortly.

After a few minutes to get settled and change clothes, we met Yehia for our trip to the Pyramids Sound and Light Show. One of Mary Anne’s friends, whose name will be withheld to protect the guilty, told Mary Anne that we simply must see the sound and light show. The show was really cheesy. It was narrated by the sphinx, and told a rather revisionist history of the pyramids and the surrounding monuments. It was somewhat neat to see the pyramids lit against the night sky, but seeing the pyramids by day probably would have been sufficient.

Back at the hotel, Mary Anne ran into the parents of two students that she had taught a number of years ago. He was filling in at the American Embassy for a few weeks for officials on home leave in the US, and his wife had come to visit. Again, it’s a small, small world.

On Sunday, we started our day by returning to the Pyramids. This time, we simply paid the admission fee and walked around – no horse rides or light shows. It is difficult to convey the scale of the pyramids in pictures or words. Their true size is only apparent when standing right next to the base — even from a few yards away the sloping sides make them appear deceptively smaller than they really are.

We tried to enter the great pyramid, but we were told that no more tickets were available until 1 p.m., which was far longer than we wanted to stay at the pyramids. We were able to enter the second pyramid, though. The inside, at least the part we were able to explore, consisted of long narrow shafts connecting relatively plain chambers.

We also walked down to the Sphinx and took some pictures. Mary Anne really wanted a picture on a camel, so we found some guys with camels. (They really aren’t hard to find.) Mary Anne asked them, “How much?” and the guy said, “Whatever you like. You happy, me happy.” He obviously didn’t realize who he was dealing with… So, after getting her picture, Mary Anne offered them 5 L.E. They were not happy. They wanted 20 – 30 L.E. But she wouldn’t budge. I think she might have paid more if they had negotiated up front, but they refused to do so, and I guess they paid the price. I don’t really think that 5 L.E. was unreasonable for making a camel stand up and turn around; the guidebook quotes the official price for riding a camel for 1 hour in 2003 as 20 L.E.

After that, it was on to the Egyptian Museum. We stayed somewhat longer this time, and I had a chance to take some pictures of some of the outdoor pieces. After the Egyptian Museum, we returned to the hotel to freshen up before dinner.

We had dinner with a VT Alumnus, Amr Shaarawi, and his wife. Amr is now an Associate Professor at the American University in Cairo, and he is a very interesting person. In addition to being a professor, Amr also owns two mango farms (inherited, I think). His wife is Italian, and so was able to share her own experience with adjusting to life in Egypt. They also speak English at home, which made the conversation free and easy.

Amr’s wife shared that one of the main advantages of living in Egypt is that you can (if you are reasonably well employed) afford many amenities which would be out of reach in Europe or the US: a driver, a housekeeper, someone to launder and iron your clothes, etc. We had already realized this, but hadn’t quite put it in perspective.

In any case, we had Kofta and Kababs in a restaurant called Kababgy on the Nile in the El Gezirah Hotel. The food was excellent, but, like many of our dining experiences in Egypt, they didn’t bring us much in the way of vegetables or side dishes. If it weren’t for all the wonderful bread, then being in Egypt would be like being on the Atkins diet…

On Monday, we started with the Citadel, which we hadn’t had time to see with Jennifer. The Citadel sits on a high limestone bluff on the edge of the city. Saladin began building the Citadel in 1176 to defend the city from Crusaders, and it served as home to Egypt’s rulers for around 700 years. The Egyptian ruler Mohammed Ali (not the boxer…) was one of the last rulers to live in the Citadel, and he remodeled much of the complex, crowning it with the mosque that bears his name and dominates Cairo’s Eastern skyline.

We saw 3 mosques inside the Citadel: The Mosque of Mohammed Ali (an enormous domed, Turkish style mosque built in the mid-1800s), the Mosque of An-Nasir Mohammed (a Mamluk structure built in the 1300s), and the Mosque of Suleiman Pasha (an Ottoman-era structure built in 1528). It was very interesting to compare and contrast these very different mosques. After the Mosques, we walked through the gardens, took a brief look at the carriage museum, and found some lunch. The other museums inside the Citadel, the National Military Museum and the Police Museum, didn’t hold much interest for us.

After the Citadel, we returned to Coptic Cairo and then to Khan al Khalili. In Coptic Cairo, we saw one church that we had missed the previous week, but otherwise it was mostly the same (except that we didn’t get lost this time!). We wandered lots of different streets in Khan al Khalili this time, but the basic experience remained the same. After the souq, it was back to Ramses Station, and Becky and I returned to Alex. Yehia took Mary Anne back to the Mariott, and then on to the airport on Tuesday morning.

This time, Yehia bought our train tickets for us and then sent us to the platforms on our own. The train system in Egypt isn’t particularly friendly for non-Arabic speakers. Unlike most things in Egypt, which tend to be printed in both Arabic and English, neither the tickets nor the signage for the trains are in English. We were early for our train, but we weren’t sure which platform we needed to use. We waited around for a bit, and then a young man came up out of the blue and asked if we wanted the train to Alexandria. We said yes, and he pointed us to the proper train. I still have no idea how he knew that we wanted to go to Alex. In any case, we double checked the train with a policeman and a porter, then got on board.

When I got on the train, I was surrounded by luxurious silence. It was only then that I was reminded of just how loud a day in Cairo can be. My ears were actually ringing for the first 15 or 20 minutes, although that may have had as much to do with my sinuses as with the noise.

Once again, it was good to be back in Alex. Cairo’s smog really did further aggravate my cold. My throat is better, but I’m still congested with a sinus headache and a cough. Ugh. We brought some cold medication along, but it really doesn’t fit my symptoms very closely. What we brought was mostly for sinus and allergy symptoms, not for a cough.

Tuesday was the first day of Ramadan. It is hard for Americans to fathom how much influence Ramadan exerts over the day-to-day life in a Muslim country. Businesses shift their hours dramatically, the university shortens its class days, many (most?) restaurants are closed during the day, people stay up until late into the night, and so on. The impact on our program was supposed to be minimal. After all, we are running our classes on Virginia Tech’s schedule, and the students are supposed to be preparing to come to the US, where they must deal with the fact that nothing changes despite the fact that they are fasting. Nevertheless, the impacts were greater than one might expect.

First of all, there was confusion about our food, although I’m not sure whether this was due to Ramadan or our being away for a couple of days. When we got back from Cairo, we noticed some bread had been wrapped and left in our room. We weren’t sure what it was for, but when we went down for breakfast this morning, the cafeteria was locked. So, we came back up to the room and ate bread as well as some other food we had stashed in the room. When I got in to the office, I asked Yasser about it, and he said that our food was supposed to continue as usual. Phone calls were made, and I believe that the situation was resolved. In any case, we managed to get lunch, and ultimately ate dinner, just after sunset, with the largest crowd of people that we have ever seen in the cafeteria. (In the evening, we also discovered cheese and jam which had been left in our fridge to go with the bread. Too bad we didn’t see that earlier…)

Secondly, many of my students are teaching sections at the Arab Academy this fall. The shortening of the class day here, though, caused the times of their sections to interfere with the classes that I am teaching. Most of them have been able to reschedule their sections, but I may wind up having to teach my classes earlier 1 or 2 days a week.

Third, the internet went down Tuesday afternoon around the time that everyone went home (3 p.m.), and it didn’t come back up until Wednesday morning. I doubt if the fact that it went down had anything to do with Ramadan, but I’m pretty sure that Ramadan was responsible for the fact that no one came to fix it.

Reading the Koran is a popular pastime in Egypt. There are copies of it (in Arabic, of course) lying around everywhere – most taxi drivers keep a copy on their dashboard, for instance – and it isn’t at all unusual to see someone reading one of these copies. (Unlike in the US, where some people keep Bibles out but you rarely see anyone reading one in public outside of a church building…) Since Ramadan has started, though, I have definitely noticed a large up-tick in Koran reading. To supplement the written copies, there are also radio stations devoted to the reading of the Koran, prayers, and sermons, and it isn’t unusual to get into a car (taxi or otherwise) and hear the Koran being read. (They don’t just read, either, they chant or almost sing. It is hauntingly beautiful.)

Even without the Korans or Ramadan, though, it is hard to forget that you are in a Muslim country on account of the ubiquitous calls to prayer which occur 5 times per day. We can’t really hear them in our dorm room (a fact for which I am thankful at about 4:30 a.m. each morning), but I have yet to be outside anywhere where they couldn’t be heard.

Sorry I’m so far behind, I’ll try to catch up this weekend…

Regards, Allen

PS – Ramadan Karim means, roughly, “generous Ramadan.”

Impressions of Egypt, Number 7

Hello Everyone –

I am trying to get up to date on these messages before I leave for Cairo again this afternoon… Before I resume our adventures with our return to Alex last Sunday, though, I should probably insert at least one thing that I left out from last weekend in Cairo.

While I was walking around in Khan al Khalili with Jennifer and Becky, various shop keepers and others kept making comments like, “Lucky man! Lucky man! Two wives!” This became the running joke for the duration of Jennifer’s visit. I had to divorce Jennifer before she returned to Bulgaria, though, so now I’m back down to one wife. She’s a good one, though, and I think I’ll keep her. 🙂

Also, I failed to mention my health. Something I ate in Cairo brought on a bought of pharaoh’s revenge starting last Friday night. Somehow, though, while I was afflicted Becky and Jennifer were spared, despite the fact that I didn’t eat anything that at least one of them didn’t also eat. I drank lots of water, though, and never really felt bad, aside from frequent visits to the men’s room… By Monday morning, I decided it was time to break out the antibiotics. By Monday evening, my symptoms were basically gone, making me wonder if I jumped the gun on the antibiotics. (It is supposed to take at least 24-36 hours for them to do their work.) In any case, that problem has now been resolved, and I will be even more careful this weekend.

Since this Thursday, though, I have had a bit of a runny nose and sore throat. Again, I’m drinking lots of water, and I think it is improving. I guess the common cold knows no boundaries…

On Sunday, after returning to campus, we decided to go out for dinner. We decided to go to Chili’s because there is one only a 10 minute drive from campus and Jennifer hadn’t had good Mexican food in about a year. The menu was basically exactly like an American Chili’s aside from the fact that all of the bacon on the menu had been replaced with beef bacon. We had nachos and other goodies. It was quite a treat. My sister worked at Chili’s one summer when she was in high school; I’ll bet she had no idea that there were Chili’s in Egypt. 🙂

This actually raises a more general point, though, that we discovered through conversations with Jennifer. We actually have access to more amenities in Egypt than she has in Bulgaria, even though Bulgaria is under consideration for membership in the EU. It seems that the distance from Egyptian-style dictatorship with a significant dose of capitalism to full participation in the global economy is much shorter than the distance from Soviet-style communism to a similar level of participation. I’ve certainly heard of all of the trouble that communist states are having with the transition to market-based economies, but our discussions really brought that news to life…

After Chili’s, we briefly visited the grocery/department store next door, and then returned to campus.

On Monday morning, it was back in the classroom for me for the beginning of week 3. While I taught, though, Mahmoud took Becky and Jennifer to the beach. The beach was basically deserted, with vacation season finished, and they sat under an umbrella and enjoyed the Mediterranean. After I finished class, we met back up for lunch at the dorm. Then, Jennifer and I hired a car to try to go see the Catacombs of Kom el Shouqafa, which didn’t interest Becky that much. Despite the fact that we clearly indicated a desire to see the Catacombs, the driver actually took us to Pompey’s Pillar, which is a five minute walk from the catacombs, although we found that out too late. Since we arrived at 3:55 and were told that they closed at 4 p.m., we rushed in to have a quick look around, only to discover that we were at the pillar rather than the catacombs. (Every guidebook that we own gave a different closing time, and the phone number printed in the guidebook is someone’s home number. Oh well, live and learn.)

Pompey’s Pillar is actually the oldest ancient monument still standing in Alexandria, but it isn’t all that interesting to look at. Its name is actually a misnomer, as the pillar has nothing whatsoever to do with Pompey. It was built in 291 AD to commemorate the quelling of a riot during the reign of Diocletian by Publius, who was then Prefect of Egypt. There really isn’t much else to say about the pillar – it is simply a giant piece of Aswan granite carved like a pretty typical roman pillar. Also on the same site, though, are the ruins of the Serpium, a temple built to honor the god Serapus, who I described in an earlier email. With only 5 minutes to look, though, we didn’t get to see too much of the Serapium.

Given that we were clearly disappointed with not having seen the catacombs, it was nice of the driver to also stop at the site of the Roman Amphitheatre in Alex, where we took some pictures through the fence. We couldn’t see the Amphitheatre itself very well, but the whole site is an archeological site where they have uncovered a Roman bath and various other things.

After that, we headed on to Carrefour. I know it seems like we go to Carrefour quite often. This time, though, it was an emergency! I have had two pairs of pants fail catastrophically since arriving in Egypt, and I really needed some more pants! I’m not sure how I managed to have two pair of pants fail, but both had suddenly developped large holes in them. I got two pairs of khaki pants, Egyptian made, for less than $10 each. The fit is slightly odd, but I think they will serve fine for the duration of my visit here.

While at Carrefour, Jennifer got to enjoy more treats of home. First, we went to Fuddruckers and had a “milkshake.” It didn’t quite hit the spot, as it was much more like chocolate milk than a true milkshake, but I think it might have been close enough for Jennifer. Then, we picked up some pizza and Cinnabon to take back to the dorm. (Yes, the Carrefour mall has both a Fuddruckers and a Cinnabon. Who knew?)

On Tuesday, I stayed in and taught my class and then worked in the office all afternoon. Becky and Jennifer, though, went on an adventure. First, they returned to the Catacombs, which were top on Jennifer’s list of things to see in Alex. Then, they tried to go on to the Bibliotheca, which is, alas, closed on Tuesday. Along the way, though, they got to see what it was like for two young American women to travel alone in Egypt. They got lots of comments from guys on the street (mostly, “Hey pretty lady!”), and a taxi driver tried to overcharge them. Nevertheless, they got to where they needed to go and returned safely.

In the evening, we had planned to all have dinner with Yasser. Unfortunately, Yasser couldn’t get out of Cairo because he missed his train because all of the roads were closed for Mubarek’s inauguration. We thought about going to the Fish Market on our own, but ended up deciding to stay in for the evening.

On Wednesday morning, Jennifer left early. Mahmoud took her to the train station in Alex, she caught the train to Cairo, and the Yehia picked her up and took her to the airport. There, she helped Yehia find Mary Anne, and then caught her flight to return to Bulgaria. Yehia brought Mary Anne to the train station in Cairo and put her on the train for Alex, where Becky and Mahmoud met her at about 4 p.m. By 5 p.m., Mary Anne had arrived on campus. We got her checked in at the dorm, and then ate dinner. A busy day in terms of departures and arrivals, but I got plenty of work done.

On Thursday, I taught my classes, including giving my first midterm, while Becky and Mary Anne went to visit the Bibliotheca. They had less trouble getting around than Becky and Jennifer, although Becky still got some “Hey, pretty lady” comments. We all had lunch together, and then stayed in for the afternoon. In the evening, we all had dinner with Yasser at the Fish Market. We got some slightly different dishes than our first visit, but the overall experience was about the same. The Fish Market’s view of the Eastern Harbor is really spectacular, something I didn’t fully appreciate the first time we went, when I was still a little dazed from our travels.

On Thursday night here, daylight savings time ended, one month earlier than it ends in the US. This has caused some confusion with respect to the scheduling of videoconference classes from Blacksburg, but I think those issues have been resolved. In any case, for the remainder of our trip we are only 6 hours ahead of Eastern time instead of 7.

On Friday morning, we all went to Montazah and walked around for a while, seeing the palace closer than I had seen it before, as well as some of the other areas within the walls. One area appeared to be little condos on the beach and there is also a hotel within the walls. I thought that I got some great pictures of the palace, and one picture of the McDonald’s inside Montazah which is styled to look like the palace, but my camera was acting up due to an error on my part when I downloaded the last set of pictures.

After that, Mary Anne wanted to see a grocery/department store, so we thought that we would take her to the store next to Chili’s, which is right across from Montazah. Unfortunately, by the time we got there it was just about noon, and pretty much everywhere, including the grocery store, apparently, closes from noon – 1 p.m. on Friday. In any case, Mary Anne could see inside, so I think she got the idea, if not the full effect. We were going to go to Chili’s and have a Coke, but they don’t open until 2 p.m., as you might expect knowing that most people here don’t eat lunch until 3 p.m. So, we returned to campus.

Jennifer had highly recommended the Catacombs, so after lunch Mary Anne and I headed out. Becky had a headache and hadn’t been sleeping well, so she stayed behind to nap. The Catacombs were quite impressive – three levels of Roman graves carved out of solid rock underground. Apparently they were first carved for some Roman Nobles in Alexandria, and then gradually expanded to include space for others. There are hundreds of tombs, as well as various rooms, including a banquet room where friends and relatives of the deceased would gather from time to time. I really wish I could have taken some pictures, and I really don’t think there is anything in the catacombs that would have been damaged by photographs even with flash, but they didn’t allow cameras inside, so I have no pictures. I did find this on the web, which has a couple of pictures from inside the catacombs, for you to enjoy ( ).

After the Catacombs, we took a taxi up to Fort Qaitbey, and then walked along the Corniche for quite a long while, just taking in the sights of Alexandria. We returned to campus in time for dinner.

Today, Saturday, I came in to the office to finish up this email and do some work for my classes before we depart for Cairo on the 2 p.m. train. Now that we’re a bit wiser, I expect that this visit to Cairo will be quite different from the last one, although I’m sure it will still be noisy and dirty! I have rescheduled my classes on Monday, as we won’t be back to Alex until Monday night.

I have finally uploaded some Cairo pictures, too. As before, all of the pictures that I have uploaded can be found here:


Or you can see just the newer ones here:

I also have received some pictures via email from Jennifer, but I haven’t had a chance to go through them yet… And my pictures aren’t quite up to date, either, as I haven’t uploaded any from since we returned to Alex on Sunday, but at least my story is up to date…

I hope that everyone in the States is having a great weekend!