Cairo

From Greece we hoped to visit an as yet unplanned combination of Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Turkey. Due to a fuck-up in the White House (both noun and verb), it didn’t seem like the best time to visit Turkey. So we booked our flight from Athens to Cairo and landed in Cairo on a quiet Friday morning.

We drove through the heart of Cairo from the airport to the east of the city to Giza in the west, crossing over the Nile. Our driver pointed out landmarks as he drove. To me Cairo seemed like a huge dust and brick colored sprawl. As we approached our guest house, the driver made a sudden u-turn and pulled up outside a fruit juice store. A minute later we were drinking fresh ganne-ka-ras (sugarcane juice). It tasted just like those at the Tank Bund when I was growing up in Hyderabad. The driver refused to take any money for it, and conveyed in broken English that it was his way of welcoming our family to Egypt.

Three weeks before this there were surprise antigovernment protests in Cairo’s Tahrir square over alleged corruption in Egypt’s military and government. British Airways cancelled regular flights between London and Cairo for a week. Two weeks before our departure the government clamped down on protests, effectively closing down the area around Tahrir square and arresting over 3000 protestors and bystanders, adding to their alleged cache of 60,000 political prisoners. Turkey at war was beginning to look like a better option.

This is us at Tahrir square with our guide. It is peaceful and completely normal looking. Security is high in tourist dominated areas, just as in Europe. Our guide and driver tell us that Cairo is one of the safest cities in the world, and that Al Jazeera always makes up news stories to make Egypt look bad. “If you watch TV you think there is war in Cairo. Look, there is nothing. Only peaceful people.”

Al Jazeera is funded by Qatar. Qatar has been blockaded and ostracized by a Saudi-led broad coalition of Muslim countries since 2017, including Egypt, with tacit support from Trump. Qatar, which hosts the largest US Air Force base in the Middle East, is accused of having ties to terrorist organizations like the Brotherhood of Islam, the party that rose to political power after the 2011 Egyptian “spring”, and Iran. In 2012 Egyptians voted for Morsi. An Islamist member of the Brotherhood with a PhD from USC became president. After a year of fumbling around rather badly, in 2013 he was deposed in a coup by his defense minister, a General Sisi, amidst popular support for change. Thousands of Brotherhood protestors were allegedly massacred and the organization was banned as a terrorist group. Sisi ran for president and won overwhelmingly. The protesters three weeks ago in Tahrir square accuse the Sisi government of corruption.

Tahrir square looks peaceful. After visiting the fabulous Museum of Egyptian Antiquities at one end of the square we ate at a light but very tasty lunch at a local favorite called Felfela, just off the square. The road leading into Tahrir was guarded by police in full SWAT armor. Armored anti riot trucks guarded every entrance into Tahrir square. They are tucked behind the streets so you can’t see them from the square. But the city bustled around the trucks and cops and everything appeared normal. Even the SWAT police looked bored.

It is difficult to wrap my head around the history and heritage of Egypt. Indians have been at it for as long, as have the Chinese and many others. But Egypt is unique. From before 3000 BC till Cleopatra of Mark Anthony fame, the rulers of Egypt have been called Pharaohs. They come from different places, belong to different families, and formed different dynasties. But they ruled all of Egypt – both upper and lower Egypt, built massive temples, engaged in the funerary rite of mummification, wrote in hieroglyphics, depicted themselves in sculpture in similar ways, and wore the double crown – the red crown of lower Egypt, and the white bowling pin crown (named by Evan) of upper Egypt. The place to start understanding 5000 years of Egyptian history is at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, with a good guide to take you through a tiny fraction of the displays.

Here Evan is looking at a statue of Thutmosis III from about 3500 years ago, considered one of ancient Egypt’s greatest warriors. This statue was originally in the enormous Karnak temple in Luxor. He was the sixth Pharaoh from the 18th dynasty of the New Kingdom. This statue is one of 120,000 items at the museum. Even the best intentioned eyes glaze over quickly.

The section that displays the contents of Tutankhamun’s tomb is jaw-dropping. Gold death masks, huge gold sarcophagi, chariots, weapons, thrones, and even his sandals are on display. You aren’t allowed to photograph Tut’s death mask and a few other items but everything else is right there with seemingly little overt security. Similarly the royal mummy room is astonishing.

Then here’s something you don’t see everyday – a young lady in a full burka taking a selfie with a statue of a seated pharaoh.

We visited the great pyramids the next day. Our guesthouse is located just across from the Sphinx and the pyramids. The guesthouse roof gave us a great view of the Giza complex and good look at the light and sound show at night. I grabbed a beer and we settled down on a couch on the rooftop balcony to watch it. The kids wandered off quickly. Then I lost Jo. I made it to the end of the show but I’m glad I didn’t pay for it. After a while I felt bad for the poor neighbors who are subjected to Omar Sharif’s nightly narrations and deafening recorded orchestral music.

The pyramids are magnificent. We got there early but so did everyone else. The first pyramid is the biggest and is that of Khufu (called Cheops since Greek times). We climbed up and into a tiny rough rock tunnel to see the chamber inside the pyramid. After waiting inside the tunnel in the stifling heat for about 20 minutes and having tourists disregard the queue and get in the way of people coming out, I started to feel that if just one person freaked out, it could result in a stampede. Vivian wanted out, and the first time Evan voiced a similar feeling, I gathered them up and left.

We toured the reconstructed boat found in a pit next to the pyramid and walked around the outside. This pyramid was the tallest structure in the world from when it was built in 2500 BC to about 1300 CE – for more than 3800 years. It was built so precisely that modern construction methods would be hard pressed to replicate it. The entire base of the mammoth structure is within plus or minus 15 mm form the horizontal. The structure’s sides line up with the true cardinal directions within a fraction of a degree. The base is an almost perfectly squared square. The ratio of the perimeter of the base to the height of the pyramid is almost exactly 2π. All this leads to speculation. Our guide, who was so sensible at the Egyptian Museum the day before, turned into a full-on History Channel’s Ancient Allens conspiracy theorist. He explained that the pyramids are really more than 25,000 years old. The Old Kingdom found the already constructed pyramids and used them for their tombs. The pyramids were completely submerged during Noah’s flood. And the boat that they unearthed next to the pyramid isn’t Khufu’s ride to the next world after death. It is Noah’s Ark. Jo told me to ask our guide how Noah got all the animals into this boat.

After visiting Noah’s Ark I decided to try the tunnel one more time. Jo and the kids waited outside. It took me about 50 minutes. The rough tunnel is called the Robbers Tunnel. Then there is an ascending passage that is tiny – about 3 foot tall and 3 foot wide that you have to crawl up along with people coming down. That widens into the tall Grand Gallery which continues to slope upwards. At the end of that is the hot and humid King’s Chamber – a high ceilinged room of plain granite somewhere inside the pyramid. The only content is an empty burial crypt of rough granite that is larger than the width of the grand gallery leading egyptologists to believe that it was placed in there during construction before the massive 80 ton granite ceiling blocks were moved into place. The crypt was found empty. It is believed that the Great Pyramid was raided many times, possibly even during antiquity. Recently imaging techniques have unearthed new unexplored empty spaces in the Great Pyramid. It is safe to say that we don’t have a clue about many aspects of this iconic structure.

After we finished mucking around the pyramids we drove down to the mortuary temple complex and the Sphinx. Even less in known about the Sphinx which led to more speculation and rampant theorizing from our guide.

At this point we were ancient-Egypted-out. But we continued to Saqqara to see the first pyramid – a step pyramid structure like the ones in Mexico and Central America. We entered two tombs and saw intricate well preserved artwork and hieroglyphics.

Then we just had to say no. We couldn’t take another word of history. There was a lot more to see. We didn’t make it to Memphis or Dahshur. And we had just skimmed the top even at the places we did manage to visit. At stores and restaurants in Cairo we were met warmly and made to feel welcome, especially Vivian and Evan. It is a chaotic huge city of 37 million inhabitants and can do with a power wash (Jo’s comment) and a lick of paint. But I’d like to go back and see it properly someday.

2 thoughts on “Cairo

  1. Arun,
    I’m loving your posts and pictures. Your dry sense of humor and keen observations come shining through making your trip real instead of a “look how much fun we’re having” type of trip. I love you posting the wonderful, the good, the heartbreaking, the touching. I can so relate to Evan’s expression in a number of your pictures. (I have an Evan of my own). Are we there yet? Which makes his joyful pictures that much more meaningful.
    Now that y’all have been gone a while, is there any longing, mostly on the kids’ part, for home? Mine have no wanderlust is why I’m asking. Keep up the wonderful adventure and posting!
    From Austin, where a cool front gave us one morning of 49 degrees for a nanosecond,
    Jennifer

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    1. Jennifer -spot on about Evan. He’s mostly enjoying the trip though he misses home, friends, and school. We are coming back to Austin for Thanksgiving so we can all spend some time with friends and family. Enjoy the cool weather.

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