The Sands of Time


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Africa » Egypt » Mediterranean
April 29th 2018
Published: September 28th 2018
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Egypt


The true Egypt experience starts as soon as you hop on the Egypt Air flight, delays on the runway in the heat of a Dubai day caused much discomfort, I don’t know why the aircon wasn’t on or why drinks weren’t given to the passengers or why the entertainment system wasn’t switched on.

Our driver Abdul met us at the airport with his nice red Hyundai and took us to the big and brash Khan el Kahlili bazaar. The maze of alleyways and streets were straight out of an Ali Barber and the forty thieves story. The unexpected rain added a new dimension as traders emerged from their shops wielding squeegees to clear the water from poorly drained streets with one guy deciding to push rubbish in front of another guy’s shop, suddenly all hell broke loose. Loud Arabic voices echoed as the offended shop owner stormed back into his shop and came out swinging his very own squeegee and soon enough it was like a game of ice hockey as they pushed the pile of wet rubbish back and forth, yelling with fierce intent totally ignoring the rubbish basket just a couple of meters away. We continued down some dark and questionable lane ways and back onto the Main Street. We stopped on route to our hotel to enjoy an authentic Egyptian meal which fed he three of us for the equivalent of $10.

Ah Egypt the world’s oldest tourist trap, no sooner did we arrive at the hotel then the fireworks began, good old Booking.com which failed us on NYE in Croatia...twice... led us astray yet again. I paid upfront for 2 rooms at Novatel for what looked like a good deal, but they didn’t tell us about the 28.8% tax ($130) and then for the double room another $45 for the extra person. No not the third but he second person it seems a double room in Egypt includes only one person. I ripped into the guy on reception, but he wouldn’t budge so we ended up paying anyway.

The next day was about pyramids, I was keen to visit Dahshur which I had not visited the last time I was in country, so we began the day with the decaying Black pyramid, built some four thousand years ago by Amenemhat III and was constructed of bricks rather than stone. The pyramid is poorly built and sunk although attempts were made to reinforce and restore by later monarchs. The next pyramid was the older Bent pyramid circa 4600 BC built by Sneferu which also began to sink due to proximity to the Nile and flooding.

The third pyramid located at the Dahshur necropolis is Egypt’s third largest (105 metres) and possibly the first of the now familiar pyramid shapes found at Giza, it was built by Sneferu after his previous failures at Meidium which collapsed during construction and the peculiar looking Bent pyramid. We entered the Red pyramid and descended 61 metres down a three feet high passage deep into the bowels of the structure. I wasn’t sure how I would fair going down, but no signs of claustrophobia although my legs ached for days afterward. The best part of all was the total lack of crowds, no chance of that at Giza unfortunately.

Next stop Saqqara the ancient necropolis serving the capital Memphis which contains the Step Pyramid of Djoser, the whole area is of course a World Heritage site. Initially we passed the ruined pyramid of Userk as we approached the funerary complex at the pyramid of Teti, here we visited the wonderful mastaba of Mereruku with its stunningly decorated walls before again plunging into the interior of the pyramid itself which was fascinating for its sarcophagus and pyramidic text.

Next, we continued to the funerary complex of Djoser where we came across a few of Egypt’s well-known scammers I warned the boys to stay off the animals, but they didn’t listen and copped an expensive camel photo in front of the step pyramid. Djoser’s pyramid was the first and was designed and built by Imhotep the architect during the king’s lifetime and is estimated at 4700 years old. The complex is surrounded by a high wall and a deep trench and is entered through a roofed colonnade. We then entered the South Tomb before moving on to Giza.

The journey to Giza was crazy the traffic follows no rules I can determine; the roads are often poor and lined with garbage even the tributaries to the mighty river were clogged with plastic. Soon the pyramids at Giza came into view and we decided to stop for lunch in their shadow. The experience was probably worse than my first visit here the feral souvenir sellers and the camel wallahs selling rides have completely ruined the place. My tolerance was sorely tested that day and the Egyptians soon learned to stay away from me.

We then travelled down the hill to the Sphinx. It is an awesome structure sitting amongst its temple buildings the adjacent KFC and McDonalds are still there to my chagrin, a hotel owner beckoned me inside and proudly showed me pictures of Shirley Mclean when she stayed here 40 years ago.

A quick visit to the Papyrus paper shop for a first-hand demonstration of ancient paper making was accompanied by highly inflated tourist prices for genuine hand painted originals, that look surprisingly like another hand painted “original” on the other side of the shop. I didn’t want to go in, but t was extremely hot outside.

After a big day we sampled a bottle or two of Egypt’s finest brews, our driver, Abdul, found a liquor shop where we purchased 12 beers for the price of a single beer in Dubai.

Abdul met us at 630am as today we head for the Mediterranean city of Alexandria which is about two hours to the north west of Cairo. I thought Dubai was bad but the Egyptians even on a an empty four lane highway still insist on straddling the lines and randomly weaving all over the road. The line markings are generally only considered as a rough guide of direction.

The beauty of having our own driver is we can modify our itinerary on the fly after adding Abdul’s extraordinary local knowledge. Only another 70km to El Alamein, the site of some fierce battles with the advancing German and Italian Armies in WW2 and the site of a Commonwealth (Australian) war graves cemetery. So, we decided to go to Alexandria then onto El Alamein.

The Citadel of Quaitbay is a fantastically preserved Turkish fort built on the site of the ancient wonder of the world, the Light house Alexandria. We arrived in Alexandria at 830am and headed straight for the fort which commands a pretty harbour. We weaved our way along the Corniche when the traffic stopped, a large palm tree was blocking the lanes.

Arrived at the ticket box at 847am, 15 minutes before opening so I spent the time patting some local cats, there are many here which is unsurprising for a Port district in any city. We entered through the impressive main gate and spent well over an hour wandering through the citadel built in 1477 by Mamluke Sultan Al-Ashraf Sayf al-in Qa’it Bay. The fort was fully restored in 1984 and the sea wall sprinkled with cannon must have formidable once.

Alexandria has a population of five million people and the streets were bustling despite it being Friday, the day of rest and prayer for the local Muslim population, we opted to stop near the famous library for lunch, no one is in a hurry to provide service, it took twenty minutes or so to get the tea ordered and even then, we had to almost force them to take the order. While we were waiting I had this awesome cheese and shrimp stuffed crepe.

Next stop was the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa (Mound of Shards) which consists of a series of Alexandrian tombs, statues and archaeological objects of a Pharaonic funeral cult merged with Greek and Roman influences buried some five metres underground. The catacombs built in the second century AD were discovered in 1904 when a poor donkey fell down the shaft. The Emperor Caracalla appears to have built a similar catacomb to contain the bones of is horses which became merged at some time. The catacombs have three levels the lowest is now full of water (not sure why it wasn’t pumped dry) the second level has three huge stone coffins and an array of statues, carvings, friezes and tunnels. The first level has a funeral banquet hall (Triclinium) and a six-pillar central shaft opening into a vestibule.

All tourist sites here have Tourist Police in attendance, these guys were mostly concerned about having cameras as there was a sign saying No Photos. “Any cameras?” they asked, I pulled my empty camera case from my backpack. “Where’s your camera?” they asked as Tony motioned to the bulge in his pants. Ok, in true Egyptian style they just let him through. So, after a few photos underground a guard yelled out “no photos” then just walked off as everyone whipped out their cameras. The tourist police are incredibly corrupt here which allows touts a free reign to destroy the tourist experience.

The catacombs have some great carvings and hieroglyphics and the antiquities would be pride of place in most of the world’s museums, but it looked like a garage sale with crypts, old Roman fountains and headless statues scattered around everywhere. Driving through the back streets towards Pompey’s Pillar was a great experience in itself, watching people going about their lives in these narrow-crammed streets while old men sip coffee and while a way there days. Horses, donkeys and small children all saying hello while the Hyundai negotiated impossibly narrow and crowded laneways.

Pompey’s Pillar is the largest Roman triumphal column located outside the Rome’s imperial capitals and sits at the Serapeum of Alexandria where it dominates the whole area. The column shaft is 21 metres high and almost 3 metres at the base and is one piece of red granite weighing an incredible 285 tonnes. The column was built at the order of Emperor Diocletian in 297 AD. The Serapeum itself is an ancient (246BC) Greek Temple built by Ptolemy III which may have held a branch of the fabled library, the temple was looted, and the library destroyed in 391AD.

As we departed Alexandria we were briefly diverted by a funeral blocking the streets and ended up squeezing the Hyundai through hundreds of people in the bird market, which quickly turned into the couch market, cat and dog market and finally into the duck, geese and pigeon market where we were rear ended by an ancient tram, in true Egyptian style Abdul immediately hopped out to assess the damage then to our surprise hopped straight back in. No problem. It was only a minor hit. The Hyundai has been subjected to a few of these before and continues to live another day. Anyway, it wouldn’t have been a truly authentic Egyptian experience if we hadn’t had an accident.

Police road blocks and the occasional bribe saw an uneventful 106-kilometre trip along the Mediterranean coast to El Alamein (two worlds in Arabic). The whole distance to the Libyan border has thousands of villas designed to look out over the stunningly beautiful turquoise sea what a contrast to the poverty in Cairo. The German War Graves Cemetery was located amongst these villas and here we asked a few local men where the Commonwealth Cemetery was located. A short time later we were passing the new looking Military Museum and there it was.

An impressive cemetery operated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and very well maintained, 7240 men lie here, 815 of which, remain unknown. Three Australian Victoria Cross holders lie here and there is a separate Australian memorial on the hillside near the entrance. Alemein, Churchill argued was the turning point of the War, the first German battle loss occurred here, and it was last defeat of the war for the empire. It was a sobering experience to see row upon row of headstones dedicated to such young men, the Australian troops lay predominantly on the left side of the cemetery.

The 240 kilometre drive though the desert to Cairo took about two and a half hours on a good road we made it back in record time and were back at our hotel for a few more examples of Egypt’s finest brew to finish off a wonderful.

I began the day at the Egypt Museum just a ten-minute walk from the hotel across the 6 October bridge that spans the mighty Nile river. As is expected chaos reigned at the entrance thanks to the selfie stick equipped, flag following Chinese tour groups. We tried to rush in before we were trampled and as per every tourist locale, security is high. Just as I got through I was sent back to buy a Camera ticket for an extra 50 Pounds phones are fine though. Go figure.

The museum has not changed much since I was last here 15 years ago and as we wandered through the warehouse like structure full to the brim with anything and everything they dug up over the years a fire broke out at the new 800 million Giza museum which is due to partially open this year. The greatest collection of Egyptian artefacts and they are scattered randomly with many rooms closed for apparently no reason, I enjoyed my time there, but I didn’t enjoy the crowds. When I arrived at the Tutankhamen exhibit, my camera ticket didn’t seem to matter a damn as they allowed no photos of the famous golden mask, fuck knows why it is on Google for god sake.

The mysterious, plain clothes camera police saw Shane attempt a poorly executed attempt to sneak an iPhone shot which got him dragged over to the side DELETE IT! was the order, as I showed the screen and pushed the delete button. Obviously, he didn't know about the
Tomb artTomb artTomb art

Saqqara
restore delete feature. Meanwhile I was watching a guy with what appeared to be an Apple watch with a small camera embedded in the watch band slip some sneaky shots of the mask... Oh well.

We checked out of the hotel (and of course they tried to overcharge me for the mini bar) and into the Hyundai for the final adventure, the mighty Citadel and the famous gates in the old walled section of old Cairo. The Citadel is an imposing structure sitting high up on the hill overlooking a hazy, polluted city but the view is still spectacular. The original aqueduct system used to bring water from the Nile to the old town is still mostly intact where as the one from the nearby mountain was cut in half to make way for a new highway. We took some time out to just sit in the Mosque, well we were sitting but as has become the custom I always seem to attract the ire of the people in authority. This time my crime was laying on the floor. Not allowed!! OK enough contemplating so outside to see the rest of the grounds and Military museum which has a great display of old Russian Tanks and MIG aircraft.

A quick phone call to Abdul and he was waiting for us at the gate and we were off to find the old walled town. Fatimid Cairo in the eleventh century was enclosed by a wall with seven gates or Babs (Arabic for gate) so Bab Zuweila the southern gate is one of only three remaining and has a wrought iron clad wooden gate, 1000 years old. Such a beautiful structure but inside is a maze of old, narrow streets filled with bustling markets...so what do we do? Well we drive right through the middle of them.

I thought yesterday's trip through the bird market was crazy, this one was even testing Abdul's ability. At one point we had to fold the mirrors back and the shop keepers had to move some of their wares, so we could squeeze through. We got stuck in an impossibly narrow lane where it was gridlock with a couple of Tuk-Tuks. Simple solution just drag one of the Tuk-Tuks out of the way so we could proceed. Anyway, back to the crazy markets. Found a parking spot where there wasn’t one with the aid of an authoritative looking lady who was happily accepting cash to "allow" you to park your car. Story goes if you don't pay her she scratches your car. Oh well it worked. We all headed deep into the market and back streets, no idea where we were going and getting deeper and deeper into the even narrower laneways stepping around the kids playing. We found a bunch of tiny cobbler workshops making then eventually back onto the "main" road dodging cars and those plentiful little Suzuki carry vans. Up a narrow but much wider street, still dodging cars and scooters carrying all sorts of building supplies we found our way to Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church or the Hanging Church.

The name coming from the fact it is built above a gatehouse of the old Roman Babylon fortress located in Coptic Cairo (old Cairo) and dates to the 3rd century AD. The area also features the Ben Ezra Synagogue, St George Convent, five additional ancient churches and he homes of the many families still living amongst back alleys. It is a hot day, so a shady spot and a cold beer beckoned as we watch the sun set on a great weekend.

We made another short drive to Bab al Futah (conquest gate) which is also in excellent condition before stopping at a modern mall near the airport for burgers before to board the inevitably disorganised Egypt Air flight home.


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28th September 2018
Mastaba of Mereruku

Egypt
Rich in history and beauty.

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