Published: January 31st 2006January 27th 2006
Two of the Pyramids of Giza
Finally! I've wanted to see these for a very long time. From this perspective it looks like Khafre's pyramid (foreground) is larger than that of Khufu (The Great Pyramid), but it's actually the other way around.
January 13, 2006 (Cairo, Egypt) Shannon:
Today was our first full day in Cairo, having arrived yesterday afternoon. My first impression: chaotic and loud. Cairo is a huge, sprawling metropolis with 16 million inhabitants. As we tried to navigate our way to our hotel, the streets were choked with people. It didn’t help that we arrived during the holiday of Eid, which made things even more chaotic and crowded than usual. And our first introduction to Egyptian hospitality was certainly interesting… Sean:
At the airport we managed to find our way to the stop where you catch the bus that takes you downtown. While there, we struck up a conversation with a nice man in a suit who said he’d show us which stop to get off at. He seemed pleasant enough, making small bits of conversation now and then during the bus ride. But after he told us it was time to get off, he exited the bus as well and offered to show us the rest of the way. This appeared a little strange, but what did we care? We were feeling tired from the long trip and the jet lag so I figured that if he
The Scale is Impressive
Up close, you begin to get an idea just how enormous these structures are. The Great Pyramid of Khufu stands 450 feet tall. (By contrast, the Statue of Liberty is 152 feet tall from base to torch.)
wants to show us the way, I can flip him a couple dollars for the effort (that’s how it’s done here, we’ve read. The whole country runs on the premise of baksheesh
, or spreading some change around for every little thing. Not much mind you, but a dollar here and a dollar there). When we reached the hostel, I was prepared to give him a little dinero for his efforts but he insisted on ascending the elevator with us. We were a bit wary as we felt he’d served his purpose. His efforts were well appreciated, but we’d made reservations online with the hotel and communicated with them so his role in the Adventures of Sean and Shannon was not needed anymore. We told him this, but undeterred, he really wanted to see us inside. Hmmm. When we got to the front desk, I told the hotel owner who we were and then our “friend” started chatting him up in Arabic. (This is the point in the story where everything turned a little bit more interesting.) Evidently the owner of the hostel wasn’t keen on what the guy was saying because he got all pissed off. He then turned to
A girl needs her rest after a day tramping around and in the pyramids.
us, visibly attempting to control his anger, and said this guy was a cheat who only offered his services so he could negotiate a higher price from the hotel and get a cut of the action. Our buddy protested adamantly but the owner kept telling us this was a common scam while continually ordering him to leave. When the guy refused, the owner came around the desk and started shoving him hard and cursing in Arabic. The guy continued to profess his innocence (body language and tone speak volumes so proficiency in the language wasn’t necessary to figure out the situation) as he tried to remain on his feet. We didn’t try to do anything as we had no vested interest in either of these guys and weren’t sure who the bad guy really was anyway, so we just watched the show. The guy was pushed to the ground and eventually man-handled to the elevator until he finally disappeared from our lives. We were saved from the jackals, or so we were told by the owner.
Welcome to Egypt. Shannon:
Sean and I had no idea who to believe - the guy had seemed very nice on the
Pyramid of Menkaure
The large gash you see in the side of the smallest (but still enormous!) pyramid is the result of Saladin's son Malek Abdel Aziz's idea to dismantle it in AD 1186. He spent 8 months doing it and finally gave up after achieving very little.
bus, well-dressed and professional. And it seemed odd that he would wait way out at the airport just to latch on to some unsuspecting traveler. But then again, we later learned that no Egyptian, unless he was after your money, would ever dream of accompanying you into your hotel. It’s just not socially acceptable. Sean:
After all this drama, we checked in and were enjoying our welcome cup of tea while the owner sat down and went through the list of tours he could sign us up for. He kept asking us what we wanted to do in Egypt, where we wanted to go and trying to get us to commit to all these high priced packages. This is the pitch. You come and drink your “free” tea then he tries to convince you that you need his services. He was actually a good salesman. Most of the people who approach us have a hammy and forceful pitch, but the owner of this hostel knows just the right balance of pressure to apply to get you to sign up for his packages - and he catches you when you’ve just arrived, you’re a little confused and he makes it
There are actually 9 pyramids at Giza. Three small ones (now mostly rubble) are next to the Great Pyramid called the Queen's Pyramids - for Khufu's wives and sisters. The three pictured here are outside the Pyramid of Menkaure.
seem very easy - just let him take care of the details. Unfortunately for him, we didn’t want to go on any of his offerings. We honestly don’t have anything against organized tours and are not militantly independent in our travel style, but he was just a little pushy. Besides we weren’t in a hurry to make any decisions about our travels throughout Egypt so we politely and repeatedly declined. Besides, feeling discombobulated after the long travel, we didn’t want to make any decisions just a short time after completing 17 hours of travel and losing 7 hours of daylight. I think he’s used to people just coming to Egypt for a few days, so they need to see everything in a short amount of time. But if you’re not afraid to strike out on your own and you’ve got the time, you can get yourself around fairly easily. Then, if you want to, you can hire guides when you arrive at your destination. You don’t necessarily need anyone to manage the entire aspect of your traveling experience. Shannon:
The irony of the whole situation is that, after basically throwing one tout out of his hostel for trying to
Cairo Sprawls Right to Giza
You think of the pyramids as being way out in the desert; the reality is that Cairo now sprawls right up to them. It's sort of like visiting the Alamo...
get us to pay more for our hotel room, our hostel owner then proceeded to give us his
pitch. The distinction between tout and salesman can be very difficult to see sometimes…
Feeling somewhat refreshed today, we went to the Egyptian Museum, the holy grail of all things old and Egyptian. I had originally wanted to wait to see the museum until we had visited the sites where many of the artifacts came from (figuring that we might get more out of it if we were familiar with their context). I read more recently, though, that it probably doesn’t matter if you see the sites first because the Egyptian Museum is poorly labeled and gives you little sense of what you are seeing. Unfortunately, this turned out to be true. Upon entering the museum you are confronted with what is essentially a huge warehouse of antiquities - some with captions, some not. Our guidebook notes that the collection contains over 120,000 items, though not all of them are on display. Those that are on display look very impressive, to be sure. I just don’t know what most of them are… Sean:
Shannon’s right, the museum is very poorly
Unfortunately, there was quite a bit of it wherever we looked - quite a contrast to our visit to Machu Picchu which was incredibly clean. Hopefully the Egyptian government will rectify this in the future...
labeled (there’s very little captioning in any language so the locals don’t get much either) and it does resemble a large warehouse. When we saw the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum, it was quite impressive and the audio tour really explained its profound significance at deciphering hieroglyphics. The Egyptian Museum, it seems, is sitting on this treasure trove of amazing history with nary a peep about the importance.
The King Tut stuff is pretty neat, though. It’s mind boggling how old everything is. Now to be fair, a lot of the things they pulled out of his tomb aren’t jaw-dropping astounding artifacts (lots of sandals and even a nice stash of folded cotton underwear…I guess not everything can be gold plated). There’s a diagram showing how the tomb looked when it was first discovered and everything was really crammed in there like an attic that’s been attended to by multiple generations. His buriers seemed to have tossed anything they could think of and shoved it in wherever they could. Fast forward 3,333 years later and now each little item gets put in its own glass case, has its own security system and multiple, starched uniform guards patrol around
This Would be Hell in Summer
Winter is a great time to be in Cairo - maybe a little cold in the mornings but it warms up to beautiful days - and hardly any crowds at Giza the day we were there.
them. They’re just waiting for someone to try lifting one of the many wooden boomerangs left with Tut (and there were quite a few. Presumably so he could hunt some birds in the afterlife…you’ve got to eat, right). Even if some of the things aren’t the most awe inspiring. They. Are. Really. Old. It’s very difficult for me to comprehend how old all this is - three thousand years is a long, long time. To Jesus this stuff was legend, so it’s even harder for me to wrap my noggin around the concept of the age of all of Tut’s otherworldly possessions. Shannon:
Tutankhamun only ruled for 9 years in the 14th century B.C. and was the son of a previous pharaoh, Akhenaten, whose rule was considered disastrous. Akhenaten alienated the priests by closing down their temples and diverted all their revenues to the crown, abandoned the traditional capitol and established a new (albeit short-lived) city elsewhere, all while he was losing his grip on the empire. With the death of his son, King Tut, this lineage of pharaoh’s ended. Archaeologists now believe that up to 80% of the treasure found in King Tut’s tomb had actually been made
for his father - some pieces have one name worked over and King Tut’s name applied. They theorize that with Tut’s death, everything associated with that era was simply chucked in with him to be buried and forgotten. Out with the old, in with the new… Sean:
After you pass the hundreds of little stone statues (representing afterlife slaves), boomerangs, and clay jars (for enjoying that cool, frothy afterlife beverage), you get to his coffins (he had three total) and death mask. These are what everyone comes to see and for good reason because they’re beautiful. With the death mask (solid gold encrusted with jewels), you wouldn’t know if the gold was poured yesterday. The lines on it are smooth and perfectly flawless and the stone workmanship is very good. The fact that it was made over 3,000 ago makes it uncomprehendingly awesome.
Tut was buried in three coffins. The inner and middle coffins are displayed here with the outside one (holding his mummy) still in his vault at the Valley of the Kings. The innermost coffin is the more amazing of the two displayed as it’s made of solid gold and inlaid with some very cool precious
The limestone casing was carted away to be used in the building of Cairo...
stone work (and weighs a mere 110kg). The middle coffin was only (only!) gold leaf plated wood but nevertheless could stand on its own in any museum in the world.
What the museum lacked in explanation, it made up for in volume. The artifacts displayed (as with most museums, it’s only a fraction) are too numerous to follow as they’ve got items stashed all over the place. Unfortunately, the museum has a “no camera” policy that was strictly enforced, so we do not have any photos. However, if you go to this website, you’ll be able to see many of the artifacts: www.egyptianmuseum.gov.eg
January 14, 2006 (Giza, Egypt) Shannon:
Today we went to see the granddaddy of all tourist sites: The Pyramids of Giza. We had a great time. The pyramids were everything that I imagined they would be and it was amazing to finally see them in person. Sean and I trouped all over the site taking pictures of everything.
Aside from the pyramids themselves, of course, one thing Giza is known for are the touts who work the tourists there. According to our guidebook, the situation has gotten better in recent years, owing
Not the Classic Shot
Since we didn't want a camel ride to the "perfect" spot, we settled for this panoramic shot - a pleasant walk along a paved road.
to the reforms of the government ministry. I can’t say whether the number
of touts has diminished, but their tenacity certainly hasn’t. Most prevalent are the camel and horse riders - they approach you on their respective animals and want to sell you a ride to the “best” spot to take a panoramic picture of the pyramids. They’re everywhere. And it is a rare moment when you don’t find one by your side. It could be very annoying if you let it, but keeping a sense of humor certainly helped. I thought of it as a game - just how many “no’s” does
it take before they leave you alone?
The typical conversation (we had lots of time to get this right) went something like this:
“Hello! You want camel ride?”
“No, thank you”
“This is very fine camel.”
“No, thank you”
“You know cost of camel ride?”
“No, thank you”
“Only 30 Egyptian Pounds”
“No, thank you”
“That is very good price”
“No, thank you”
“Where are you from?” (reluctantly)
“America No. 1! Where are you from in America? California or New York?” (I guess the other 48 states are irrelevant.)
“California” (why not?)
But from close up, you can still get all three lined up pretty well.
Silver!” (They all said this, which made me wonder - why the dated reference to the Lone Ranger? We figured that it must be the pat “American” phrase - I’m sure they have one for the Russians, Italians, Japanese, Australians and Kiwis as well.)
“So, do you want camel ride?”
“No, thank you”
“Why you no want camel ride?”
“I’m allergic to camels” (from Sean - again, why not?)
“Oh, so maybe later you want camel ride?”
“No, thank you”
“Here, take this as my gift to you. Free. You no pay.” (he extends token gift)
“No, thank you”
“No, really. Free. My gift to you.” (Sure, it’s “free” - but then they want you to give them a gift in return - cash only, please. We fell for this once and immediately returned our free “gift”.)
“No, thank you.”
“Please, take this in memory of me.”
“No, thank you.”
“Ok, you want to take my picture? No cost to you. Here…” (he adopts “dramatic” pose on top of camel)
“No, thank you”
“Really, take my picture. Free.” (First lesson from Egypt - nothing is free, my friend. Nothing.)
“No, thank you.”
“You want camel ride now?”
“No, thank you”
And when they turned their backs to us, we took pictures of them anyway!
“Maybe later you will want camel ride.”
“No, thank you. Not now, not later.”
“Ok. Maybe later.”
Repeat this scenario about 25 times and you know why I say that a sense of humor is mandatory - if you don’t see the humor in it then you’re bound to get frustrated and you’ll have a crappy visit. And after traveling 8,000 miles to get here, why let touts spoil my trip to the pyramids? What can I say? I was having a very Zen day. Sean:
Even Mark Twain commented on the persistent touts when he visited in 1866, so all you can do is laugh and make a game out of the whole thing. They’ve been tramping around this site for hundreds of years, fleecing visitors so they’re almost an attraction in their own right. To amuse ourselves, we’ve started “scoring” them on three aspects: approach, delivery and persistence. Acting like Olympic judges we mentally rate them and then pick apart their performances after they leave. Individually, some of the touts were somewhat weak, but as a whole the Egyptians are doing well against their competitors elsewhere in the world. As a demographic, though, the hostel touts
of Pisco, Peru are currently in the lead for the gold. We’ll keep you updated as the “countries visited” list grows longer.
Thankfully, they didn’t diminish the enjoyment of our trek to Giza. After going to the Egyptian museum and jaw dropping at the age of all the artifacts, we visited one of the most recognizable sites in the world and discovered that these Pyramids were very, very old even to King Tut. The largest, the Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops), was completed 1,200 years before King Tut was even born, which says it’s been around for 4,500 years now. Again, no matter how hard I try, it is difficult for me to comprehend 4,500 years. The pyramids have looked the same way for so long that they’d be instantly recognizable to older - even ancient - generations.
When the pyramids were constructed they were covered in smooth limestone that formed perfectly flat sides, but this material was taken millennia ago because it was a handy building material for their antecedents. Khafre’s pyramid (the second biggest at the site) has a bit of its limestone facing near the top still intact (as it was probably too hard to remove).
A different view of the Sphinx
This gives you a little better idea how small it is in comparison to its neighbor.
Once gleaming white and polished, it now sits under 4,500 years of accumulated grime, though there is enough there to at least give you an idea of how they once looked. Shannon:
Climbing the pyramids was once a popular activity, but as usual, people falling to their deaths have now ruined the experience for everyone. Guards patrol around now to keep you off the them, though at the time of our visit they looked more interested in accepting a little baksheesh
(“a little something for my troubles”) than actually enforcing the policy. You can still climb through the Great Pyramid into the King’s Chamber (sans camera), though. Since there was nowhere secure to leave the camera, Sean and I took turns climbing through the structure. As our guidebook warned, there’s not really that much to see inside and you wouldn’t want to do it if you’re claustrophobic - part of the route entails climbing through a passageway about 130 long that’s only about 3.5 feet high and 3 feet wide. It’s a bit of a letdown once you finally get in the chamber - yep, 4 walls and an empty sarcophagus - but it’s not everyday that you get
Mosaic from the Hanging Church
This was one of the nice mosaics at the Hanging Church. That's supposed to be baby Jesus in the center being washed by Mary, but it looks more like a young Moses to me...
to spend your day that way, so I’m glad that I did it. Sean:
I also have to briefly mention the Sphinx, so as not to leave him out and negate his role in the majesty of the site. My first thought after seeing it was exactly what I thought when I first saw the Alamo: “It’s not as big as I thought it would be”. I wouldn’t say that it’s tiny or anything (it’s larger than any stone statue I’ve ever seen), but the Sphinx’s size is dwarfed by its historic brothers just up the hill (the Pyramids - so massive - are a hard act to compete with). The face, as you can probably tell from the picture, is badly worn and - sure enough - famously missing its nose. The body and paws though are in almost perfect condition. We can owe a debt of gratitude to the current masons as the hewn bricks have all been recently restored. I wanted to believe I was staring at 4,000 year old perfect masonry work, but even I’m not that gullible.
January 15, 2006 (Cairo, Egypt) Shannon:
Sean and I took it easy today
and spent our time in the area of town known as “Coptic Cairo”. This small part of the city, surrounded by stone walls and densely packed with churches, is one of the sites where the Holy Family allegedly took shelter after fleeing persecution from King Herod of Judea. It is also supposed to contain a spring that marks the place where the pharaoh’s daughter found Moses in the reeds and where Mary drew water to wash Jesus. Our guidebook made it seem really interesting, and I’m sure that it normally is. Unfortunately for us, however, the historic sites there are currently undergoing a lot of “conservation” (read: rebuilding) and we encountered what amounted to one massive construction site. Thus, many of the churches and the Coptic Museum were closed, though we did get to see inside the Hanging Church - so named because it was built on top (or suspended above) the Water Gate of Roman Babylon. It was interesting, but had I known that it would be the only thing open, we probably would have skipped Coptic Cairo altogether.
The rest of the day was spent finding some good food. So far, at least, we’ve found that much
of the food is typical Middle Eastern fare - falafel, chicken schwarma, pitas, baba ganoush and hummus. Of course, with the exchange rate, all of it seems incredibly cheap to us. For 1 LE (Egyptian Pound) you can get a pita stuffed with some really good baba ganoush or a falafel sandwich - and to us that’s about $0.17. We’ve also found some really good fruit/yogurt parfait cup things - bananas, apples and strawberries combined with yogurt, mango juice and strawberry juice - about $0.25 each and so yummy! And then there’s our new favorite nightly activity - go to a new sweet shop and pick out a few pieces of baklava. The area of town where we are staying seems to have one of these shops on every block, so there’s no shortage of places to try. They all have a slightly different selection, too, so we’re doing our part to spread our business around.
January 16, 2006 (Cairo, Egypt) Shannon:
Today Sean and I ventured into another part of the city known as Islamic Cairo. As our guidebook states, calling it such is a bit of a misnomer because this portion of town is no
more Islamic than the rest of the city. Perhaps it is simply because it is the area containing the city’s most important mosques and the major shopping bazaar. In any case, getting there looked like an easy walk on the map. Sean and I both have a pretty good sense of direction - and we carry a small compass for the times when that fails us. But even after studying the map and stopping every so often to check the compass we still managed to make many wrong turns. The streets in this area can get very confusing and there are hardly any street names posted (in Arabic or English). And then there’s the traffic. Sean and I have grown quite accustomed to third world driving conditions, so nothing should surprise us. Egyptians are probably not worse drivers than their brethren in South America but here the simple act of crossing the road is a bit like Russian roulette - Cairo’s traffic is simply chaos. At some intersections Sean and I would just stand on the corner, unsure how to get across without ending up as someone’s new hood ornament. As I told a friend in an email, we eventually
Sean and our Mosque Guide
Notice the bulging front breast pocket after he took all Sean's money.
just took to shadowing the locals. It may not be pretty to cower behind an old woman, but it gets you across. So needless to say, it took us much longer than we imagined it would to reach this part of town. When we finally got to the Al-Azhar Mosque (our first destination), we felt no small sense of accomplishment.
The Al-Azhar Mosque was very nice, though much different architecturally than the mosques we had encountered on a previous trip to Turkey. Where those were generally characterized by vast interior spaces capped with an enormous dome, the Al-Azhar was dominated by a large central interior courtyard. When we arrived, we were directed to remove our shoes, as is customary, and then immediately were ushered into the courtyard by a little Muslim “guide”. It was obvious that we were expected to follow him as he sped from one room to another, giving us some form of tour in Arabic. He paused every so often to indicate that I should take a picture of what he was pointing at, and then sped off again for the next room, only pausing long enough to make sure that we were following him. This
Smokin' the Sheesha
It can't be any worse for your lungs than walking through the streets of Cairo. It may even be healthier.
whirlwind tour was good in one way - I felt very free to take pictures, where I normally would be very hesitant to do so. And he took us into rooms I would not have felt comfortable going into myself. Of course, we knew that this was not a “free” tour so there was no surprise at the end when he modestly stood there with his hand outstretched until he felt that Sean had filled it sufficiently. (Sean:
It was quite comical with me shoving bills in his hand and him tsk-ing me into laying down even more. The final tip didn’t amount to much but here is a man who knows exactly what his time is worth and is not afraid to demand it). Shannon:
Needing a bit of a respite afterwards, we found Fishawi’s Coffeehouse in the Khan al-Khalili market nearby. This cafe is renown in Cairo for having been open continuously for the last 200 years (except for the occasional Ramadan morning). There we enjoyed some mint tea and Sean smoked a sheesha
, the ever popular water pipe.
The Khan al-Khalili is a huge warren of tiny alleyways and shops that, together, make up the
You just can't beat a sandwich for $0.50.
largest market in Cairo (very similar to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul). As with the Grand Bazaar, it is loosely organized according to what the shops are selling (i.e. jewelry shops are generally in the same location) but overall it is one chaotic mess. One of the nice things about it is that, although they do sell quite a bit of touristy crap in certain sections, other areas are obviously where the locals go to buy everyday items. As I like to look at handmade papers and such, I was drawn to the area marked on our map as the “stationery” shops. When we got to that area, though, I realized that the “stationery” they were selling was not nearly the high-end sorts of paper items I was expecting - think more along the lines of alcoves filled to the brim with boxes of Bic pens and hundreds of ordinary writing tablets. Sean and I decided to wander for a while, eventually ending up in a somewhat touristy restaurant (I needed a clean restroom). By chance we ended up sitting next to another couple who we learned were from Portland, OR (small world). As we’ve mentioned before, one of the
View of the Nile
Notice how the sunlight dapples through the smog...
great things about traveling is meeting other travelers and they were no exception. After chatting and exchanging advice for quite a long time, we arranged to meet up with them again for dinner tomorrow.
January 17, 2006 (Cairo, Egypt) Shannon:
After waking up late, we again met an interesting traveler, this time a guy staying in our hostel. Sharing a table with him over breakfast, he gave us many great tips about things to do and avoid in Egypt and Jordan. While the breakfast itself was uninspired - bread, jam, hard boiled egg and tea (the typical Egyptian breakfast) - the company was interesting and we lingered for quite a while.
We then spent the entire day wandering in the tony suburb of Zamalek, home of many of the cities embassies and upscale stores. Our mission was to find an English language version of the LP guide to Jordan (our next country) - we’ve found that arriving in a country without the guidebook just makes life harder than it needs to be. And since Cairo will be the largest city we visit in Egypt, it made sense to try to find it here. Zamalek did not
Who knew that there were so many types of this honey sweet confection?
disappoint - we actually found two bookstores with good selections of English language books and one of them had the book we were looking for.
Getting to Zamalek was fairly straightforward, unlike our previous days wandering in Islamic Cairo. We figured that it would be a nice walk, too, since a good part of it would be along the banks of the Nile and we’d get to cross the river for some good picture opportunities. Sean:
Crossing the Nile and along the banks of the river though are some fairly major thoroughfares and the brisk walk we envisioned to get the blood pumping was easily negated by the volume of exhaust fumes we damaged our lungs with. I can only assume that the Egyptians haven’t adopted California Emissions standards for their vehicles yet, but I’m sure that bit of legislation is just around the corner. Until that happens, calling the smog and air quality “bad” would be a gross understatement that wouldn’t do the thick miasma floating in front of your face any justice as you breathe it in.
Tonight we went out to dinner at one of Cairo’s upscale restaurants. It’s called the Fish House Restaurant
The one thing I would advise anyone who wants to travel to Egypt - learn your numbers in Arabic. It makes life so much easier.
and it sits (as some of the other, nicer places) on a boat, permanently moored along the Nile. The appetizer spread was very tasty with a couple different types of hummus, baba ganoush, salads and tabouli. Then came the key moment where we picked out our main entrees. All of the seafood available is laid out like a fish shop. Sea bass, lobster, clams, and a few other types of fish that I couldn’t translate were set up in ice along a long display case. You pick out the one you want and then tell them how you want it cooked (baked, fried or grilled). I chose one of the ones I didn’t know, assured by the attendant that with light frying it would come out well. When the morsel eventually landed on my plate you could tell that the kitchen doesn’t perform much in the way of preparation. My fish was slit down the middle, gutted, breaded, and then thrown into a frying pan. Picking through the numerous bones and chewing a good tasting (albeit not very meaty) fish wasn’t so bad until I saw Shannon’s sea bass emerge onto our table. It seems as though the extra steps
The one that started them all.
of opening and gutting were too much and so the whole fish was coated then fried. It looked as though it just hopped from the sea into some breading and then unfortunately into the pan. Quite a novel way to prepare it, I feel. To be fair, though, one of our new friends ordered the shrimp and they looked excellently grilled. They split the tails and of course left the heads on, but numerous crawfish boils have squelched any squeamishness I ever had about ripping the heads off crustaceans (I never did get into sucking the heads though).
January 18, 2006 (Cairo, Egypt) Shannon:
Back on the trail of the pharaohs, Sean and I decided to hire a taxi for the day to see the ancient sites of Saqqara and Dashur, about 40 minutes south of Cairo (and not very accessible by public transportation). Hiring a taxi may sound expensive, but in reality it is quite the opposite: we negotiated a rate of 80 LE (a little over $13) for the trip. A side benefit, as it turned out, was that our taxi driver was very friendly and we had a great time conversing with him. When
This was a neat shot. At Saqqara, there is a statue of Zoser inside a large stone vault. In order to gaze upon his reflection the builders drilled two small holes where mere mortals could see him for themselves.
we first told him that we were Americans, he jokingly told us that he would not be able to talk to us, as we would obviously not get along at all. He was opinionated, but certainly not pushy. He told us quite a bit of things from his perspective - how he had worked in Kuwait for 9 years, about his return to Egypt, his views on his own government and country, what he thought of American foreign policy these days - even what his favorite American movie is (Titanic). In turn we tried to convey a bit of our perspective, as well. Talking to Mohammed was certainly an unexpected highlight of the day and it certainly helped to round out my perspective of Egypt. Sean:
The first stop of the day was to the first pyramid constructed - the oldest stone monument in the world - the Step Pyramid of Saqqara. It was built for Zoser (the second pharaoh) in 2650 BC and it’s obvious how this structure influenced all later building achievements of the ancient Egyptians. Looking at the picture you can see that it’s not as majestic as those of Giza, but it was the original
I was really looking for much more mystery than just carrying fowl to the pharaoh.
and I’m sure there was a learning curve involved. Shannon:
Saqqara is very important architecturally and I first became aware of it in my Architecture 101 history class way back in college - before Saqqara all temples and tombs were made of perishable materials and were basically underground rooms topped with mud-brick roofs. Imhotep (who designed the pyramid) made two big leaps forward with the Step Pyramid - it was above ground and
it was made of stone (and therefore would last for eternity). Later generations would build on this idea to create even more elaborate architecture - and successive cultures would in turn mine the wealth of Egyptian knowledge for their own building techniques. So in some ways, visiting Saqqara is akin to visiting the birth of all buildings…
But back to the site: Saqqara was essentially the cemetery complex for the ancient city of Memphis (the capital of Egypt for more than 1,000 years). Amazingly, Saqqara was an active burial ground for over 3,500 years and is the final resting place for all of the Old Kingdom pharaohs, not to mention their subjects and various nobles. Surrounding the Step Pyramid is a large funerary complex, as
From this view you can really see the two different slopes.
well as various other pyramids built for later pharaohs and many tombs elaborately decorated with hieroglyphs. Sean:
Walking around this site we explored some of the burial chambers filled with hieroglyphs and scenes of daily ancient Egyptian life. They hunted, rode in boats, played instruments, picnicked and a lot of other humdrum activities that comprise the bulk of human existence. I studied the carved walls and searched for any mention or pictorial history of space aliens or other unnatural phenomena as I was promised by the countless tales surrounding these ancients. From Leonard Nimoy’s “In Search of” to “Indiana Jones” to “The Mummy”, pop culture is rife with the fact that the Pharaonic times were full of mystery and inexplicable occurrences. Unfortunately for me, the people in the reliefs didn’t seem to be communicating with any extraterrestrials nor were there doors behind any of the cryptically written hieroglyphic panels. I tried pushing on all the walls and, to my great disappointment, no secret passages opened up. Sigh. Shannon:
After exploring Saqqara thoroughly, we headed a little further south to the site of Dashur, the stomping grounds of another important Egyptian pharaoh (at least architecturally), Sneferu. Sneferu, who ruled
Behold...the first true pyramid.
Egypt about 35 years after Zoser, built what is now known as the Bent Pyramid, which was his attempt to improve on the Step Pyramid and build the first “true” pyramid shape. Unfortunately, he started with a 54 degree slope, but realized about a third of the way up that this was an untenable grade and had to finish with a more modest 43 degree slope. Hence, the name is derived from its shape. Sean:
About half a mile away from the Bent Pyramid sits the Red Pyramid. The Red Pyramid (though quite a distance from Cairo, it is still visible across the desert from the Giza Plateau) stands out fairly alone and is limitedly touristed (the only way to get out there is by some organized tour, drive yourself, or do as we did and hire a cab for the day) which means there aren’t any pushy nick-nack hucksters imploring you to open your wallet. Going inside the pyramid is also very impressive as it’s a long, long way down a sloping, 3 ½ foot high, narrow passageway (much like the route inside Khufu’s Pyramid that Shannon described earlier). Then it opens into a larger room where you
No matter where you are, there is always time to stop for tea...
have to climb a staircase into the next narrow passage until you open up into what was Sneferu’s burial chamber. The chamber isn’t anything amazing (although they found bone fragments inside which they say are Sneferu’s) but without anyone else inside combined with the dim lighting and poor ventilation, you feel - for just one second - what it must have been like 4,595 years ago when they entombed him. The knowledge of the extreme weight that is being held back by the vaulted ceilings helps to add to the feeling. This was well worth the effort to get out here.
January 19, 2006 (Cairo, Egypt) Sean:
Today’s trip was out to one of Egypt’s most anti-climactic attractions. To be fair, it’s not everyone who cares about the Suez Canal. We knew there wasn’t anything really out there to see, but felt a need to complete the circle, as it were, after our trip to Panama. Before Ferdinand de Lesseps failed miserably in his attempt to build a sea level canal across the Isthmus of Panama, he was the talk of the world for his engineering feat that linked the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea and
Mosque at Port Said
This sits near the start of the Suez Canal. We took a ferry across the canal just to do it - it's not like there were too many other pressing things to see in Port Said.
by extension, the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean. The savings in time and resources by not having to sail around Africa meant a great deal in this early era of international shipping.
It’s unfortunate that he couldn’t make the same plan work in the New World, but in terms of terrain, climate, and landscape these two areas couldn’t be more dissimilar. While Panama’s fortunes - and very existence - are inextricably linked to its canal, the same cannot be said for Egypt. In fact the Suez Canal would probably be at the bottom of a list of all things Egyptian if one were pressed to enumerate the qualities of this fascinating country. Shannon:
We knew before our making our pilgrimage that there’s would not be much to see, but we felt compelled to go anyway. On the trip there, we did see ships using the canal - the site of them apparently “gliding” through the sandy landscape was interesting to observe. Unfortunately, it may not have been exciting enough to deserve the trip, though. But we did learn an interesting tidbit of history: the Statue of Liberty was originally slated to stand guard at the entrance to the Suez Canal at Port Said. Inspired by the ancient statues at Abu Simbel (a site we will later visit), the French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi envisioned a huge statue of a woman holding a torch to symbolize progress (‘Egypt carrying the light of Asia’). After two years of sketching, however, the project was deemed too expensive and the ‘Light of Asia’ was sent to New York, where she stands today beckoning the “huddled masses”.