Pharoahs and Freeways - Cairo, Egypt

As we leave for India in two days, we wanted to write about Egypt because we don't know really when we will next write and how often we will find email. Plus, the internet cafe in Cairo is air conditioned!  

Ah, Egypt ... so strange, so foreign, so @!%*# HOT! There was much to get used to. First and foremost, staying alive while crossing the streets. Here, real life Frogger is played out every time one ventures across the streets. There are no lane dividers, so cars create four lanes where there is room for two. To cross you throw yourself into traffic and try to make your self as thin as possible, then dart across a few more 'lanes' then stand, as another car comes bearing down on you honking. They rarely obey street signals, and total chaos is averted only through a complex vocabulary of honking. Brakes are for sissies, real men use horns.

Many quick beeps, furiously : Get out of my way, or I will run you over.

One long beeeeeeeeeep: I do not have enough speed to run you down, but if you don't get out of my way, I will run over you slowly.

One long beeeeeeeeeep on a two lane road: means you are travelling slower than the speed of sound, and I will drive 3inches from your bumper til you let me pass.

Beep, Beeeeeeeeep: On a two lane street at night, I am coming around the corner in your lane, I can't see you and I am not stopping, so watch out!

Really, the drivers here are horrendous. Perhaps to conserve fuel or something, many try to drive at night with their headlights off as much as possible! Oh, the public buses. Continually trying to set a record for the most people in one vehicle, the buses never stop. To get on, you run alongside and grab the rail by the back door and pull yourself on. The back door is always ripped off and left open to facilitate this practice. To get off, same thing, avoid the people jumping on, look both ways, and throw yourself into traffic, as the buses don't drive near the curb.

Once used to manuvuering Egypt, then we we learned about baksheesh, the black market economy. Baksheesh is supposed to be tipping for service, but here more than anywhere else, baksheesh is expected for EVERYTHING, and many people live on it alone. And its not just the tourists who are expected. Egyptians must baksheesh to get the better cuts of meat or fresher fruits, better handling of their packages at the post office, etc. Its a way of life, but it can become extremely IRRITATING! Here in Cairo, there are many beautiful mosques. Upon paying to enter a mosque, we must baksheesh the guy who stands over our shoes. Then, when we go in, another man rushes over, points out something utterly useless, then puts his hand out for baksheesh. If he doesn't think its enough, he will keeping whining and hanging on, until you surrender more, or run screaming out of the mosque. Sometimes, they will lock things that are supposed to be open, just so you will pay baksheesh to see it. Other times, they will let you crawl all over antiquities and do other things you shouldn't, just for baksheesh. In Luxor, at the famous Kings Tombs, the light is dimmed and no flashes are allowed and you cant touch anything for fear of damaging the paintings. Well, the tomb guard, will look the other way for a little baksheesh. Sometimes, after paying for the ticket, they turn off the lights, and wont turn them on til you baksheesh. The pharonic monuments are even worse. Walking around an incredible monument, they run over to you and latch on like a leech. It is one horrible aspect of Egypt and it can ruin your experience, until we learned to play the game. We hoard tons of small bills, and carry them separate from our money (because if they see you have more, then they will demand more) so if we get caught in the web, we can get away cheaply. But more often than not, we just run the other way, or hide behind a column.

And the salesmen, they sell just about anything here. Just yesterday, we saw a man set up a small wooden crate and begin to layout his wares, Hundreds of shower caps in all different colors and patterns. Nighties are also big here. While women must be covered in public, they certainly seem to have a very active private life. The strangest sight has been a women in full black chador with only her eyes showing (even black gloves on her hands) fingering a lacy, frilly pink negligee.


But once we adjusted, there was alot to take in. Here in Cairo, we visited the famous Egyptian Musuem, crammed full of precious antiquities. The museum is way too small for the number of exhibits, and wonder upon wonder are crammed into old wooden cases with few descriptions. But thats part of the mystique and with a good guidebook, we made our way through. The best part of the musuem is the exhibit of Tutankhamun's funerary treasures. His tomb was discovered completely intact in 1922 (Most of the famous pharoah's tombs had long been plundered) and the treasures for this insignificant pharoah were so amazing as to wonder what a great pharaoh like Ramses II would have been buried with, had it not been stolen by ancient grave diggers. We saw the famous solid gold King Tut funerary mask and all his other treasures. Jewels and gold galore. They also have a special room for the royal mummies, and we look faced to face with a 5000 year old man. 

There are also a number of serene mosques to visit. Usually built around central open courtyards, these mosques are some of the finest examples of modern Islamic architecture, with their repeating arches, soaring ceilings and dramatically low hung lights. The atmosphere was somber and reflective, and very inspirational. 

In Cairo, we spent a little extra and stayed at the fabulously decayed Windsor Hotel. It reeked of a by-gone elegance complete with an antique elevator and an elevator man to turn the hand crank. Our room was furnished with antiques and beautiful mahagony wardrobe. And the bar was dim and full of strange bedfellows. We sat before a wagon-wheel cocktail table and enjoyed sidecars and breakfast was a stiff affair in the main dining room with starched linens and silver cutlery. Highly recommended.

From Cairo, we traveled to Luxor in southern Egypt on the famous Nile to visit a number of famous temples and ruins that are remarkably preserved and clustered in such a small area.

There we also visited the Valley of the Kings. After building the great pyramids (which we have not seen yet and our saving for our last day) pharaohs realized their mistake of showing the world where they were buried. Not long after the pyramids were built, they were plundered and the treasures carted off. In ancient Egypt, they believed that the quality of your afterlife depending on all the 'provisions' that you were buried with, and robbery was too great a chance to take. So they stopped building pyramids, and went to a very isolated valley and built their tombs there in utmost secrecy. The workers were kept in walled cities and killed after tomb completion so as not to disclose the location. The tombs were built deep underground and sealed hidden. The tombs were built completely randomly, and one pharaoh had no idea where previous ones were buried.

So in the scorching heat of 122 degrees, we wandered around the Valley of the Kings, visiting these incredible tombs. Even with all these precautions, many tombs were plundered, but what remains is still remarkable. Wall carvings and paintings that are so brilliant they look like they were built yesterday. And all the time, Egyptologists, are still carrying out excavations. About a year ago, they found another tomb that they believe is for the many(200)sons of Ramses II.  

In the midst of our travels, we decided to take a vacation, and booked a two day cruise aboard one of the many ships that ply the Nile. It was fantastic. For two days, we lounged in splendor, watching the fertile Nile valley pass by, stopping occasionally to be taken to some beautiful ruin along the way, lying in the sun, swimming in the on-board pool, and only interrupted three times a day to be fed. Highly recommended. 

The package came with tours in Luxor where we met Mohammed, a great enthusiastic guide whose coming to Chicago in April to begin his masters in Egyptology at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute. He was a great guide, you could tell he really loved it, and he told us all his theories and current directions in modern archeology.

We learned about more 'recent' history of the area, including much of the vandalism by Christian Crusaders intent on wiping away traces of a 'pagan' society 


So, while Egypt cannot really be complete without the pyramids, we will end it here and talk about the pyramids next time (after we see them.)

Over and out

Ann and Doug

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