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Published: January 7th 2010
Egypt and Israel
December 27, 2000 - January 8, 2001
Egypt is a country that has created a present as fascinating as its past, so when we had an opportunity to visit friends who were living in Cairo, Brian, Bill, and I eagerly planned a trip that would also include visiting relatives who had recently moved to Israel. We flew from Houston to London Gatwick, where we had an eight-hour layover, so we took the tube into London's Piccadilly Circus. A five-hour flight brought us to Cairo around 11 p.m.
Our friends had arranged for a “meet and assist,” who whisked us through all administrative red tape & visas, and soon we were out the door and met by Kasey, Bruce, and their driver Mustafa. En route to their home in Maadi, a suburb of Cairo, we drove past the Northern Cemetery, popularly known as the City of the Dead, a cemetery where about one million living and dead Egyptians live in the vast mausoleum tombs built in Pharaonic tradition, designed to include a room for a guard or visitor. The city’s homeless, resulting in the comfortable coexistence of the living and dead, now
occupy these tombs.
Bruce is an executive with an oil company, so their home is a lovely 3-floor, palatial penthouse. The rooms are huge with hardwood floors and marble throughout. The formal living/dining area is 36 feet by 60 feet (2100 sq ft = larger than most homes), and the kitchen and master bedroom complete the first floor of about 4,000 square feet. On the next level, our bedroom was 20 ft by 20 ft with private bath and balcony. Normally, it is Kris’s bedroom, but he graciously shared another bedroom with Brian. Kasey and her grandma shared the other bedroom. Also on this floor is a huge family room and large patio, from which there is an unbelievable, million-dollar-view of the Pyramids at Giza.
After a walk to a local bakery for delicious breakfast rolls, our schedule took us first to the Pyramids of Giza, considered by the ancient Greeks to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Brian and I began by climbing inside the smallest of the three pyramids, the Pyramid of Mycerinus. Although there is not much to see inside, the experience of climbing through such an
ancient structure is unforgettable (impossible if one is claustrophobic). The entrance leads to a descending passage so small that it requires hunched-over duck-walking for about a hundred yards to get to the tomb of the pharaoh. Boy, was I sore the next day. After this experience, we went on to the other two, including the largest pyramid in Egypt, the Great Pyramid of Cheops, 146 meters high, completed around 2600 B.C.
Of course, part of the cultural experience of visiting the pyramids is running the gauntlet of the ubiquitous camel hustlers and souvenir hawkers. We quickly learned how to say “la, shukran,” which means in Arabic, “no, thank you.” Often this had to be repeated angrily many times to the same hustler with a dismissive wave of the hand. Their gimmick was to give you something as you walked by and say “gift, gift.” As you politely accepted and walked away, they ran after you and screamed that you owed them money. The camel hustlers were equally shrewd, quoting a price to ride the camel and then demanding more money to let you off at the end of the ride! We didn’t mind the hassles, and Bruce did
St. Sergius in Coptic Cairo
Church built on the site where the Holy Family lived after fleeing from Herod
protect us from most of it. Next, we visited the Solar Boat Museum (housing possibly the oldest boat in existence, buried with the king to provide transport for him in the next world) and the Great Sphinx of Giza, which Brian had warned would be smaller than we expected!
After the Sphinx we lunched at the Farmers’ home & opened Christmas presents: Bill and I each received an engraved mug and bronze castings; I also got a calendar, and Bill to his great delight received from Kasey a clock with the loudest, most obnoxious-sounding Muslim call to prayer! We took a short walk then to a local market and finished the day with a luxurious evening Nile dinner cruise on the classy “Nile Maxim,” operated by the Marriott. After drinks, we enjoyed a fabulous salad buffet followed by dinner and dessert. I had the mixed grill: lamb, shrimp, chicken, beef, and kafta (seasoned skewered meat—tastes like sausage). Entertainment was provided by a very good orchestra (we danced) and a belly-dancing floor show.
Coptic Cairo, which has been the focus of Egyptian Christianity since religion was introduced in 40 AD, was our first destination
The Hanging Church in Coptic Cairo
Known in Arabic as Al Muallaqah (the suspended), its nave is suspended over the water gate of Roman Babylon (4th century)
today. Bruce, Kasey, Brian, Bill, and I spent several hours in this small, time-locked enclave within the greater Muslim city of Cairo. Five churches remain of the one time 20, and they are linked by narrow cobbled alleyways that run between high stone walls. We visited the Hanging Church (dedicated to the Virgin Mary but named because it is built on top of the Water Gate of Roman Babylon), the oldest Christian place of worship in Cairo, dating back to the 4th century; Convent, Monastery, and Church of St. George; Church of St. Sergius, built supposedly over one of the spots where the Holy Family rested after fleeing from King Herod; Church of St. Barbara; and the Ben Ezra Synagogue, the oldest in Egypt, built near the spring where it is said Mary drew water to wash Jesus.
We lunched at Lucille’s American Restaurant on Road 9 in Maadi, spent the rest of the afternoon shopping on Road 9, and then enjoyed Kathy’s fabulous lasagna dinner at home. Bill was feeling a bit ill in his tummy, so he retired early.
We are struck by the friendly, hospitable people here, not just the ex-patriots but the
locals as well. The traffic, however, is the wildest I have seen anywhere in the world. It’s like the chariot races in Ben Hur, but with Fiats. A favorite maneuver is to suddenly to sweep across multiple lanes of traffic to make a turn on the opposite side. Brakes are scorned in favor of horns, constantly honking as if to say, “I’m here, so if you get hit, I warned you.” No headlights are used, even at night, and vehicles are interspersed with pedestrians, motorcycles, and donkey carts. It is definitely not for the faint-hearted.
Bill and I wanted to take a bus for the cultural experience, as we usually do when we travel, but Kathy and Bruce talked us out of it, fortunately--in retrospect. We later understood why. Cairenes stampede the bus, charging the entrance before the thing has even slowed down. Hand-to-hand combat ensues as they run alongside the bus trying to leap aboard. Often several passengers don’t quite manage to get on, and they make their journey hanging off the back doorway, clinging perilously to the frame or to someone with a firmer hold. Just as the bus doesn’t always stop to let people on,
it frequently does little more than slow down to let passengers off. They simply stand in the doorway, wait for the right moment, and launch themselves into the road.
Baksheesh (tipping for services) is another custom of this culture that could get irritating as one is asked for money for everything from opening doors to pointing out the obvious in museums to simply small children begging. Plenty of small change has to be kept handy.
Sun 12/31/00 New Millennium’s Eve
Day of rest and shopping on Road 9 before going to mass at 6 p.m., followed by the New Year’s Eve party with Ben and Barb and family.
Mon 1/1/01 New Millennium’s Day
After breakfast Bruce drove us to Islamic Cairo and the Citadel, home to Egypt’s rulers for over 700 years. Their legacy is a collection of three very different mosques, several palaces now housing museums, and impressive fortifications offering superb panoramas of the city. The Citadel was commissioned in 1176 as the mightiest fortress in the Islamic world to repel the Crusaders. We visited the Mosque of Mohammed Ali with its dignified and ornate alabaster paneling, as well as Ali’s
one-time Harem Palace, now the National Military Museum; the Mosque of an-Nasir Mohammed (1318); and the Gawhara Palace, where Ali resided and which is now reconstructed & refurnished to reflect life in that period. We then went on to the Great Bazaar, the Khan al-Khalili, perhaps the Middle East’s largest bazaar, begun in 1382. It is an immense conglomeration of markets and shops squeezed together in a labyrinth, full of smooth-talking merchants who love to bargain. We ate a bite in a coffeehouse within the Khan before continuing with our shopping experience for the remainder of the day.
Bruce had to go into his office today, so Kasey led the tour as their driver Mustafa took us to the Egyptian Museum, where over 100,000 relics and antiquities from 4,500 years of ancient Egyptian history are housed. To put that into perspective, if you spent one minute at each exhibit, it would take you 9 months to see everything. The amazing thing is that over 100,000 more are crammed into the basement and have not been catalogued for display yet. A new, larger museum is currently being built on the Nile. One of the highlights: the
Dome of the Rock and the Wailing Wall
Dome of the Rock: encloses the sacred rock upon which Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son and also the spot from which Mohammed was accepted to heaven. Western Wailing Wall: only remaining part of the temple built in 20 B.C. by Herod; most holy of all Jewish sites.
Tutankhamen Galleries, housing the tomb and treasures of this king who ruled for only nine years during the 14th century B.C., discovered in a well-hidden location below the already-ransacked tomb of Ramses in 1922. The incredible contents of this rather modest tomb can only make one wonder about the fabulous wealth looted from the tombs of Pharaohs far greater than Tut. Mummies, impressive jewelry, Pharaonic technology, and models of daily life 4,000 years ago were among the uncountable relics we visited.
Lunch at the fabulous Nile Hilton followed in a quiet café on the first floor, after which Mustafa picked us up and took us back to Maadi for more shopping on Road 9. We departed for the airport around 8 p.m. Since we were flying on Israeli El Al Airlines to Tel Aviv, we knew we were in for some tight security, but we were not prepared for the inquisition we received!
After Bruce dropped us off at the departure terminal, we had to wait for about 30 minutes for our “security interview, “ which consisted of about 40 - 50 questions by a female security officer and took about 10 minutes. She began by
Mount of Olives
Sharon is standing at the top of the Ramparts of Jerusalem, overlooking the Mount of Olives. Jesus is said to have spent time on the Mount preaching to his disciples. At the foot of the Mount lies the Garden of Gethsemane.
saying that she was going to be very intrusive with her questioning because they wanted to be sure we weren’t unknowingly carrying a bomb. Questions included: Whom were you visiting in Egypt? Why are they in Egypt? Did anyone give you any gifts? Why? Did everything you buy come off the shelf or did someone give you something from a back room? Where was your luggage last night while you slept? Did you carry your luggage to the car yourself? What sightseeing did you do? How did you get there? Who drove? What kind of car did he drive? Why are you going to Israel from Egypt? Why did your nephew move there? Why did he become Jewish? Etc. etc. Then we were taken by a bus to the airplane, and the rest of the flight was very comfortable and uneventful. El Al practically invented airline security, and they know how to do it!
When we landed around midnight, again we were taken by bus to the terminal where nephew Drew was waiting for us. He drove us to their lovely home in the beautiful Judean Hills between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in the town of Bet Shemesh.
The Tomb of Jesus
Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem
Drew and his daughter Rachel escorted us into Jerusalem’s New City, where we toured the magnificent Israel Museum, a multi-dimensional experience as it is a combination of classic museum and cultural center all in one. The Arts Wing and the Archaeological Wing engrossed us for several hours, but the highlight was the Shrine of the Book, which contains five of the 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls found in clay pots near the Dead Sea about 50 years ago by a young Bedouin.
We lunched on cheese turnovers at the museum and then picked up Sharon at work before returning to Bet Shemesh for a lovely dinner at a local restaurant. Instead of single-serving salads to begin the meal, about 8 bowls of a variety of vegetables and salads were placed on the table, family-style, plus hummus and bread. My main course was “shashlik,” or turkey grilled on skewers. A leisurely stroll along the shops near the restaurant completed the evening.
After dropping two-year-old Tamar and four-year-old Rachel at their “gaan,” or pre-school, Drew and Sharon drove us back into Jerusalem for a fascinating and meaningful day in the Old
City, a densely-packed labyrinth of living history surrounded by about three miles of walls and gates. We entered through Jaffa Gate and actually walked atop the walls, getting a fabulous view of the Mount of Olives rising above the city on the East, from where Jesus is believed to have ascended into heaven, and on which are the world’s largest and oldest Jewish cemetery and the Garden of Gethsamane, where Jesus was betrayed and arrested. The Kidron Valley lay below, where the Bible says the events of the Day of Judgment (rising of the dead) is to take place.
Next, we climbed down from the ramparts, and after a thorough security check, entered the embattled Temple Mount and gold Dome of the Rock, currently one of the major obstacles to peace between the Jews and Muslims because it is a spiritual keystone to both faiths as well as having significance to Christians. For the past two months, Muslims have controlled it and do not allow non-Muslims to enter the area. Below the Dome, in direct contrast to its ornate magnificence, is the bare Western (Wailing) Wall. Drew told us that Muslims often throw rocks down onto the praying
Masada in the West Bank
Awaiting the cable car to take us to the top
Jews at the wall, where men and women are separated by a fence.
At this point, Sharon received a call that Tamar was sick, so she had to leave us. Drew and Bill and I wound through the maze of markets and walkways of the Muslim and Jewish Quarters to the Christian Quarter for my most meaningful and captivating experience, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. One of the holiest of Christian shrines, the church terminates the Via Dolorosa, or Way of Sorrows, the route that Jesus took as he carried his cross to Calvary. It is built over the tomb of Jesus and the spot believed to be the site where Jesus was crucified. The last five Stations of the Cross are inside the church, and I was entranced as we visited the 10th: where Jesus was stripped before crucifixion; 11th: where Jesus was nailed to the cross; 12th: the site of the crucifixion; 13th: where the body of Jesus was taken down and handed to Mary; 14th: the Holy Sepulcher, or tomb of Jesus. A nice, well-spoken gentleman directed us to the sites and explained their significance.
The Dead Sea
Lowest spot on earth: 400 meters below sea level. The Dead Sea is 30% solid minerals.
I bought some souvenirs from an Arab vendor on the Via Dolorosa, who engaged with Drew in lively philosophical discussions of the current political situation while I shopped. Then we threaded our way back out and exited via the Armenian Quarter past the Tower of David where we hailed a cab to Mea She’arim, possibly the world’s most reluctant tourist attraction. This haredi district consists of those with the most uncompromising interpretation of Judaic law in the world--the ultra, ultra conservatives. It is a medieval world of fanatical intolerance to other ways of life. This enclave does not even recognize Israel or other Jews, and they refuse to pay Israeli taxes or serve in the military. The men do nothing all day but study and worship. Signs proclaim “No tour groups welcome—women must be in modest dress—no shorts or pants, long skirts only and body fully covered.” I was wearing slacks and was a bit nervous after reading that visitors who disobey have been known to have rocks thrown at them. But we walked several blocks, careful not to show any affection, as even handholding is forbidden. Before mini-bussing back home, we stopped for a bite of very late lunch and had fabulous “coffee with milk” that tasted like warm melted mocha ice cream sundaes.
Sharon had arranged a full-day tour for us to Masada and the Dead Sea in the West Bank for today. We were a bit nervous as we drove through security checkpoints and past demonstrations by local Jewish settlers denouncing Israeli President Barak’s plan to give the West Bank back to the Palestinians. We passed Bedouin camps in the dry river beds, Jewish settlements atop the dry and barren hills, the road to the ruins of Jericho, and the Jordan River. We arrived in about an hour at Israel’s most popular attraction, Masada, a fortress built on a free-standing sheer-sided plateau high above the Dead Sea and Judean Desert. It was built by King Herod during the years 40 - 4 B.C. and is Israel’s equivalent of our Alamo, a symbol of their commitment to freedom. During the time of the Roman Revolt, a group of a thousand rebels escaped to Masada and for many months withstood the Roman attack from the mountaintop. Realizing their survival was impossible and rather than surrendering to become Roman slaves, they committed mass suicide—men, women, and children. We rode to the fortress in a cable car and had a 1 ½ hour tour of the remarkable archeological digs.
Next was the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth at 294 meters below sea level and the world’s largest flotation tank. The Ein Gedi Oasis Spa adjacent to the Dead Sea was where many in our group swam in the spa and covered their bodies in the black mineral mud used over the centuries for cosmetic and beautification purposes. We walked along the salt deposits on the banks, and after wading in the sea, huge salt crystals covered my feet.
Upon returning to Jerusalem, Drew and Sharon couldn’t come and pick us up because Shabbat had begun, so we took the “taxi ride from hell” back to Bet Shemesh. Our driver had no idea where their address was and got very upset when we told him he couldn’t call Drew and Sharon for directions because Shabbat had begun and they wouldn’t answer the phone. After much ranting and raving, he found the address with the help of directions from an eight-year-old boy on the deserted streets, and then had the audacity to demand extra money. The ride ended up costing us 200 sheckels (about $50)—all we had and he wanted still more, even though the trip had been agreed upon at 142 sheckels beforehand. We finally just walked off into the house, and he drove away.
We enjoyed a sumptuous Shabbat dinner for eleven, including friends Lionel, Karen, and children. They did it all without electricity, cooking all day yesterday and then warming all the food today on a hot plate that had been turned on before Shabbat had begun. The refrigerator light had been turned off, and all lights remained as they were at 5 p.m. on Friday. In the evening, we visited Sharon’s brother and family for dessert and coffee.
Sun and Mon 1/7-8/01
We left the house by taxi at 6 a.m., and after another interrogation, less intense this time, boarded El Al for the five-hour flight to London. We arrived at Heathrow around noon, took the SpeedLink to Gatwick, courtesy-shuttled to our Holiday Inn, and arrived there around 3 p.m., too tired to go into the city. We enjoyed some British television in our room, watched a couple of huge hares frolic in the field outside our room, and turned in early. The next morning we departed on British Airways and arrived home mid-afternoon.
It was a memorable way to spend the "real" millennium: two awe-inspiring lands of antiquities and ancient wonders with friends and family as tour guides!
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