Friday, April 25, 2008
POSTCARDS FROM EGYPT by Kate Baker
POSTCARDS FROM EGYPT
By Kate Baker
Greetings from Cairo!
Traveling with my friend, Anita, is like...., well, a box of chocolates, to quote an old sage. You just never know what you are going to bite into. No one is a stranger to Anita, and in a place like Egypt, that can lead to adventure............ or misadventure.
Gazing from the hotel balcony onto the city of exotic novels and movies of intrigue, we were eager to plunge into the unknown. So Anita and I set off for the famous Cairo Museum which houses 5,000 years of art and antiquities. Walking along the Nile Promenade, we were not out of the hotel 10 minutes before we were suckered in by the oldest line in the book......” the museum was closed for siesta and would we like to take a walk in the city center?” To make a very long story short, several hours later we were left with a little glass bottle of “perfume”, divested of way too many American dollars, and keenly aware that Egyptians are masters of income redistribution! Our income redistributed to them! It was nearly dark when we finally arrived at the museum which was, of course, never closed. The good news is that by going late, most of the crowds had dissipated so we nearly had the place to ourselves. Magnificent, colossal statues populate the first floor while clearly the artifacts from King Tutankhamun’s tomb on the 2nd floor are the pride of the museum. With the heaviness of attempting to view almost all 120,000 items in the museum, walking out of this funereal sanctuary into the cool night air felt wildly liberating. The surrounding gardens, with statuary, backlit and golden-hued, gave the whole atmosphere a glimmering, haunting beauty. We managed to walk back to our hotel without incident, which, trust me, given our track record, was pretty remarkable!
Gullibly yours, K
Greetings from Giza!
As we drove through the desert plateau towards the Pyramids, we seemed to come upon them all at once. I mean, there you are in the city, and without fanfare or warning, they pop out of the landscape...... the Pyramids of Giza, with the loyal Sphinx standing guard! The vision is staggering, stunning, stupendous! It takes a little time to digest the sight of these ancient monuments which have captured the world’s imagination for centuries. Though imbued with mystery and magic, the actual facts concerning these monoliths are astonishing. I bought an extra ticket to venture inside the largest one, Khufu’s Pyramid. Not for the faint of heart! It is a strenuous climb as well as hot and claustrophobic, but well worth the trouble to experience the eeriness of a nearly 4,000 year old tomb! Afterwards, we were cajoled into taking a camel ride around the Pyramids and discovered that camel hawkers are also adept at income redistribution! With her generous tip, Anita was trying to talk the hawker into buying a book for his son, an 11 year old camel tender. Somehow, I don’t think she convinced him, but it was a valiant effort. I must admit, with an Egyptian blue sky as background viewing the Pyramids from atop a camel just may be one of those rare, beautiful moments without equal.
Humbly yours, K
Greetings from Luxor!
We arrived in Luxor this evening a bit shell shocked from the chaos of Cairo and were transported back to a colonial era gone by in the Winter Palace Hotel. Housing such dignitaries as Princess Eugenie of France and King Farouk, the hotel is a virtual museum of an elegant past. We passed a peaceful evening dining on fine Egyptian food, and a morning in the well tended garden imagining Agatha Christie on the sun-drenched verandah writing “Death on the Nile” . Boarding the ship about noon, we anticipated, but in no way could imagine, the amazing sights awaiting us in Luxor, built on the ancient ruins of Thebes. The Temple of Karnak is Egypt’s most important Pharaonic site besides Giza. Built over a 1300 year period by successive Pharaohs each trying to outdo the other, the massive temple complex covers about 100 acres. The magnificence and importance of Thebes is evident in the vast array of pylons, temples, rows of sphinxes, and giant columns and obelisks. For over 1,000 years, the complex was buried under the desert sands until the mid 19th century when excavation and restoration began and continues even today. In the evening, we were treated to a Sound and Light show within the complex guiding us through each Pharaonic period and its history. During ancient times, an avenue of sphinxes led from Karnak to the entrance of Luxor Temple. We, however, took the bus. This elegant temple which is much smaller than Karnak, houses a pink granite obelisk which was one of a pair until its mate was given to the people of France as a gift. It now holds court in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Buried until 1881 when excavation began, a village actually developed on top of the site and had to be removed. Only a 13th century mosque is left.
Our task master tour guide is teaching us hieroglyphics and Pharaonic periods. Since he has forbidden us to talk to strangers, we have not gotten ourselves into any trouble today!
Hi from aboard M/S Carmen, somewhere on the Nile
De Nile! De Nile! I’m in a state of De-nial! Pinching myself to prove that I am really cruising on this ancient icon, studied in history books and romanticized in film and novels. The sky is the most incredible blue I’ve ever seen and wispy clouds dance about while a golden sun warms the cool winter day. Sitting from the vantage point of the ship’s deck, I am watching life go by as it has for centuries. A bull drinking from the river, a shepherd herding his sheep, a lone fisherman in a small wooden skiff. Beyond the lush green landscape by the river, brown, mud brick villages spring up amongst the desert hillocks. A tiny blue mosque sits atop a outcropping of sandy hills. A reed hut is a beehive of activity. At the edge of a small orchard, children play, long robed men carry loads of cane, cattle graze. Two little boys in a battered skiff are taking a bundle of cane across the river. They wave and shout greetings to us. I see 5 black-clad women washing their clothes on rocks. Two men unload hay from a donkey cart. Oh, the poor Egyptian donkey! Is there a load he is not asked to carry, a day he is not expected to work? What good luck not to be a donkey!
Thankfully yours, K
Hello from Abu Simbel!
It was party, party, party on the boat last night as we bade farewell to our disparate group of new friends who had become so familiar and comfortable these past few days. One night we dressed as Egyptians relinquishing all inhibitions and dancing with abandon. Even with an early call in the morning, the weary tour guides had a difficulty getting us to leave the dance floor for our state rooms. The belly dancer was ugly, but the whirling dervish was amazing!
Early the next morning, we were transported to Aswan airport where we boarded a flight to a small island which is home to two historic temples. Abu Simbel resides in an area called Nubia, just a few kilometers from the Sudan border. Four Colossi of Ramses II are carved out of a cliff of solid rock with an interior of graceful carvings and hieroglyphics. Can you imagine sailing up the Nile and seeing these massive figures? (Ramses II’s lips alone are one meter in width!) Obviously, they are meant to impress and to frighten! The second temple is dedicated to the Goddess Hathor, and Ramses II commissioned it for his beloved wife, Nerfertari, a beautiful Nubian. Buried in the sand for centuries, Abu Simbel was threatened to be buried by water after the Aswan Dam was built. In the 1960’s, UNESCO was able to cut the monuments piece by piece from the mountain and locate the temples in their entireties to another island, an immense undertaking by the international community.
Before we knew it, we were back in Cairo at the mercy of taxi drivers and without our guide to keep us out of trouble. Although we had to sit on on our suitcases because I’m sure that the taxi driver was on his way to the recycling center, we managed to make a good deal (we think) on our return trip to the hotel. Also, Anita managed to get the life story of the taxi driver in the process.
Back in Cairo!
After the majesty of the Pharaonic antiquities and the serenity of cruising on the Nile, Cairo hits us with a cacophony of traffic, pollution, and admittedly, an excited edginess now that we have no protective guide! We decide to focus on Islamic Cairo. A colorful glimpse into the past, this part of the city is a maze of narrow streets writhing with activity, old Mosques, and the famous Khan al-Khalili Souq (bazaar). Would you believe that we took our Turkish coffee at the same coffee house where Naguib Mahfouz used to take his! Fishawi’s has been around for 200 years with its brass topped tables and antique mirrors all crammed together, smoky and exotic. Young men puff away on sheeshas (water pipes) and the intelligentsia discuss lofty topics over mint tea or pomegranate juice. I could just see Mahfouz in the corner hunched over his manuscript for “Palace of Desire” sipping tea.
Across the square, Mosque of al-Aqmar is the oldest stone-built mosque in Egypt. Dating from 1125, this beauty is also home to a madrassa, a school for teaching Islamic law. Architectural details are stunning and rich in decorative features such as inlaid stone work and carving. A marble columned library provides texts where students from all over the world study.
Another “must-see” in Cairo is the Citadel which dates from 1176 and is comprised of a huge enclosure housing mosques, museums, and a vast view of the cityscape. The spectacular, Mohammed Ali Mosque, the jewel of the Citadel, is popular not only for the tourists, but also for Muslims who have come to pray. A young man calls plaintively into a prayer niche, another bows his head to the floor, silently others give their submissions oblivious to the camera-toting tourists.
Howdy from a farm near Cairo,
My last day in Cairo! Anita left this morning, and I’ve made an plan for myself. At the Winter Palace Hotel in Luxor, I had a chance meeting with a British woman married to an Egyptian, and she very kindly invited me to Friday’s lunch on their farm outside of Cairo. Friday being a holy day for Muslims, family and friends gather after prayers for socializing and enjoying a meal together. After a tour of the farm which is home to over one hundred Arabian horses, a menagerie of dogs, cacti extrodinaire, and various children and family members, we drove out into the desert behind the farm. With exhilarating speed and freedom, we negotiate the deep furrows of the desert sands and speed over giant hills. In the distance, we can see the odd pyramid and ruin. I’ve learned that scattered all along the Nile from Cairo to the Sudan, pyramids exist in various states of disrepair, the well-known Giza Pyramids being the most outstanding. Perched upon a strategic hill, we see a most amazing sight........a full view of the Giza Pyramids at one end of the horizon and Saqqara at the other end. Saqqara is the famous step Pyramid, Egypt’s earliest and prototype for all pyramids to follow. The children romp in the sand as if it is perfectly natural to play in the midst of 5,000 year old relics while we adults gaze awestruck.
Back at the farm, the guests arrive in groups. Danish, English, American, German, the Egyptian family members, grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins, some very traditional and some very fashionable. I lose track of who’s who. A feast of Egyptian cuisine such as lentils, babaghanoush, hummus, fish, melokiyah soup, fresh tomato and cucumber salad is laid upon a colorful tablecloth of traditional design. Bathed in the warm winter sun, we are seated at round tables scattered about the garden engaging in easy conversation. As in this garden on this farm in 2008, Cairo remains a cultural magnet for people from distant lands speaking foreign tongues. And so it has for thousands of years.