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by ZweiBieren Cairo, Giza, Alexandria: Pyramids!  The sphinx and Khufu's pyramid
Cairo, Giza, Alexandria, November 14-18
Selected pictures from the Cairo area
More pictures from the Cairo area
Sunday, Nov. 14 — Fly to Cairo

Our flight from Jerusalem was uneventful after a small security hitch. In the ten years since S got her pacemaker, the guard at security was the first one to ask S for a medical card proving she had one. After a short discussion, the guard did let us through without seeing the card. Then, looking further,S did find it, right where it should have been.

At the Cairo airport we met our guide and were assigned to the "green" group along with all the others who had done Jerusalem. It was nice to stay together with "old" friends.

The bus from the airport took not very much time. We later learned that the Hadj was underway and traffic was way down. Wed-Thur-Fri are the three feast days following the Hadj. Upside: almost no traffic in the city. Downside: tourist places flooded with Egyptians. However, It was great to see the Egyptians at play. They were all smiles and very friendly.

At the hotel our guide, Bassem, spent ten minutes telling us how to get to our rooms. The hotel has two towers separated by a garden with three stories of rooms between (and at the back of the garden). The numbering scheme is not (and cannot be) very simple. Our room (3140) was on the second floor behind the gardens in the middle. the access to the rooms is via the ends, so we did a bit of walking.

Warning, the public restrooms in the Cairo Marriott have attendants demanding 1 Pound Egyptian to do your business. At 5.73 LE to the dollar, that's about 17.5 cents. The cost is no problem, but always having a Pound is. The Egyptian National Bank branch in the hotel does not have pounds, but the other bank does. Besides banks the hotel also has six restaurants, gift shop, bookstore, beauty parlor, and the business center where I am writing this. None of the three ATMs were working when we arrived, their money having been doled out and not replenished during the Hadj.

Monday, Nov. 15 — Tour Cairo itself; home-hosted dinner

We are three groups--green, yellow, and red. With guides Bassem (tall), Salah (average), and Farid (fat like me, and his name is the Arab form of mine). On Monday morning they each gave a lecture. Bassem - tour logistics, Salah - a pitch for the optionals tours, Farid - ancient Egypt. The only bits that stuck were that the 31 dynasties of Egypt can be divided among various Periods, especially the three Kingdoms (Old, Middle, New) and three Intermediate Periods (1st, 2nd, 3rd). The Kingdoms were ruled centrally and the Intermediate periods were chaotic due to collapse of the central power for one reason or another -- famine and lack of will being dominant. The entire country was divided into 42 states; today there are 28.

After lunch we visited the Egyptian Museum of Antiquites. (No cameras, sigh). Bassem showed various symbolic conventions such as a king statue always having the left foot forward. Then we visited the Tut relics. It would have been cheaper to have seen them during their tour of the USA, but I didn't. They were spectacular. The item that most intrigued me was a camp cot. The sleeping area was papyrus, a substance of many uses. But--surprise!-the frame folded in three for convenient transport. Hinged frame and folding legs. Have we reallly progressed much from antiquity?

Dinner was at the home of a local Egyptian family. The wife and children anyway. Husbands were still at work at that late hour. The apartment we visited was huge, a great room with three areas of 400 sq ft and a smaller dining room. The floors were highly polished hardwood. The TV set was about 40 inches. The decorations were classy, but lacked any ties to the Ancient Egyptian themes we are exploring. The food was excellent.

rebar sprouts from a home to prepare for adding floors for children
Rebar sprouts from homes

The entire building is owned by Grandma and most of the apartments house relatives of one sort or another. Multi-generation dwellings are very common in Egypt and other Arabian countries. Many buildings are empty shells. Many more are occupied on the lower levels with shells above; incomplete to the extent of having exposed rebar jutting upward. Why? Because the tax laws charge only half tax for "incomplete" buildings, occupied or not.

We lunched at the Bakery in the Marriot. Purchasing requires a map: go to the first station and place your order, you get an order form; proceed to the third station to pay and get a receipt; step back to the second station to get your food. My sandwich was fine, although sort of American. The biggest upside was getting a plastic bag we could use for packing lunches.

Tuesday, Nov. 16 — Pyramids, Saqqara, an American ex-pat

THE DAY ARRIVED! The Pyramids and Sphinx. I asked to see the pyramids and it cost me a whole month. But the important day--actually only three hours--finally arrived. The biggest thrill was seeing the tops of the pyramids above the tops of the houses as we drove through Giza to the grounds of the pyramids.

Khufu's pyramid at 8:15AM
Khufu's big pyramid
The three largest pyramids are for Khufu (old, incorrect name: Cheops), Khafre (Chephren), and Menkaure (Mycerinus).

Impressions at the pyramids: Dust, sand, hot sun, no shade. No climbing, sigh. Hard to get a picture showing the magnitude of the beasts. On Mythbusters, all explosions appear pretty much the same. I got the same feeling looking at the pyramids from the ground nearby, thee is nothing to accentuate the dimensions. Perhaps the originals, covered with hieroglyphics, would have been even more impressive. A bit sad that the pyramids, like old English cathedrals were treated as quarries somewhere in thir history.

The middle pyramid has a big gash on one side where a Frenchman used dynamite to try to open an entrance. The value of the gash it to see behid the sloping wal a sheer vertical wall. The construction is a sequence of steps with the sloping surface added on.

Most of us took the five dollar camel ride to a spot to view the pyramids and have our picture taken. I wasa bit putout when the photographer refused to return my camera, holding onto it until I forked over more cash. Bassem got me back the camera, but not the chance to take pictures during the return journey.

In all my musings about travelling to Egypt. I have been in dread of the urchins crowding around and begging for money. It's not the money, but the fact of the unlimited need in the face of my own finite resiurces. Didn't happen. No urchin beggars. Well, urchins did smile and wave at me, but just in friendliness. Some wanted to have me take their picture; but more as they chance at immortality than as a money-making proposition. Susan got caught up with three girls on festival and had a fine time learning Arabic from them. Like many modern cities begging appears to be illegal while selling things is not. Vendors were everywhere with each seeming to believe that he or she was the very first to offer me postcards, miniature pyramids, headdresses, or whatever thetheir particular wares. A simple gesture of friendly dismissal was usually enough to persuade them that their time would be better spent elsewhere.

Tuesday afternoon we joined the optional tour to Saqqara (or Sakkara), a continuation on from Giza. At Saqqara we visited the Step Pyramid, the Bent Pyramid, and the oldest true pyramid.

The Saqqara site was the brainchild of Imhotep, an earlier incarnation of Leoardo Da Vinci. A man of many talents and titles (few of which I remember), Imhotep was the architect of Saqqara and--according to Bassem--took the bold step of building the site from stone instead of the earlier mud brick construction. As such--according to Bassem--the pyramid, temple, and various oubuildings at Saqqara are the world's first stone buildings. Given the size and complexity of the site, I find this difficult to believe; smaller structures would have been needed to develop the technologies needed. One indication of earliness was that the columns were not freestanding, but were attched to the wall hehind bar a protrusion. This helped them stand, although many fell along with the wall behind.

Bewteen the temple and the Step pyramid is a large square, It was once surrounded with 42 temples--one per region--each of which the pharoah had to visit on certain feast days.

The Step pyramid itself is early-days construction. Imhotep had wanted to build a pyramid, but could not work out the details of building the slanted surfaces. Instead it has just six steps of decreasing height. Or, some think, he wanted to build mustabas, one atop the other. A mustaba was the traditional burial form and had slanted sides. A stack of them would be something like a pyramid.

The "bent" pyramid, as seen from Saqqara
The Bent pyramid, et al.

Next built after the Step Pyramid was the Bent Pyramid, visible in the distance from Saqqara. Its architect failed to work out the shape exactly right, so there is a bulge in the middle. Near it is the first fully realized pyramid; they did eventually get it right.

After the temple we drove a quarter of a mile to the Imhotep Museum celebrating the work of Imhotep and Jean-Philippe Lauer, the Egyptologist who spent seventy years exploring Saqqara. To me the most interesting artifact was a small piece of tile one which were drawn instructions for building a curve. The text written on it shows the decreasing heights of each ascent along the curve.

Scheduled at 6PM, my dinnertime, was a presentation entitle "Home away from Home" by an American now living in Egypt. Her Egyptian farther had moved to American, where she was born and raised and trained as an educator and lawyer. Unsatisifed with lawyering, she moved to Egypt. It was tough going. Fear and uncertanty were constant companions. She did succeed in renting a place to live, buying food, cooking it, and getting a job. Some areas like the island containing our hotel are espcially accomodating to foreigners. Other areas are not so easy to get along in. Arabic is difficult for an adult to lear and five years of immersion and instruction have not yet made her proficient. She married an older man in the office of her fathers company, where she was and now is working. Thier daughter is 3 years old and our speaker is determined to return her to the states to learn its unique fetaures, like autumn leaves and snow. Christmas is not a problem; it is celebrated here in Egypt.

She went to the States to bear her daughter and for othe major medical attention. When she broke her leg, her husband turned the ambulance around at the local hospital and instead had her taken to a new hospital in the desert jointly run by the Egyptain and American militaries. It is state of the art and she got excellent treatment.

We dined on Pizza in the Promade Cafe, on the die of the gardens next to the main building and opposite the garden rooms.

Wednesday, Nov. 17 — Alexandria by Train

Wednesday we travelled by train to Alexandria. Most companies, we were proudly told, just cart people there on buses. I guess the train was faster and more comfortable, but the train smelled and its toilets were,as guide Bassem described all strange items Egyptical, a "discovery." After all, Bassem says, you should not expect Egypt to be the United States. Otherwise, why travel?

Security at the train stations was stifling. Our group of a hundred was surrounded by some thirty guards/soldiers. We might have been safe with no guards at all, but Egypt takes few chances with its prime customers.

Our usual bus and driver met us in Alexandria. We went first to a Roman Ampitheatre and baths. Next to a catacombs. Across the street was a feast day carnival. Lots of kids having a grand time.

Next we travelled the length of the city along the Corniche bordering the Mediterraneum; we passed the flashy new library built on the ancient site. 8 million books. We lunched (at 2PM, ugh) near King Farouk's palace. Helnan Hotel: beautiful place and fine lunch.

Sunset from the bus in Alexandria
Sunset in Alexandria

Finally, we bused all the way back across the city to take a half hour at the beach and to see a fort at the site of the ancient lighthouse. The latter was a traffic quagmire thanks to the Feast Days visitors. Our guide and security guy both got out to direct traffic to get us out of the parking lot. Tunring a bus is not that easy, They did a great job. We made it in time for the train back to Cairo. We had been warned that dinner was unlikely, so wew brought sandwiches. I ate mine with dirty fingers, which may have been the source of my bout of Pharoah's revenge. It lasted through most of the Nile cruise.

Thursday, Nov. 18 — Relax / Spiritual Cairo

On this morning, I wrote this section. Later I ate lunch, relaxed, and repacked.

Susan did the Spiritual Cairo tour. I figured I had seen the Taj Mahal and no other mosque could quite compare. S got some good pix.

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