Flight Into Egypt

February 3, 2008

O Best Beloveds, what follows is some verbal snapshots of our trip to Egypt, because there is too much to talk about it in great depth–not and still have your attention, that is. As always, reading this might be the written equivalent of wading through someone else’s vacation slides, so do move right along to more important matters. Just know we went to Egypt and we are still somewhat stunned by that fact. The whole thing seems like a dream.

–Cairo smacks you in the face after a long long long day of travel. It’s hectic and crowded and noisy and jammed like Manhattan at rush hour, only all over the place, and traffic laws are just suggestions, so cars routinely straddle two or even three lanes, for the more dexterous drivers, and crosswalks are just signals to speed up, particularly if a person is actually using them, with the result that everyone just crosses willy nilly anywhere there is a break in traffic or whenever they are ready to take their life into their hands. Toss in some donkey carts and you have a chaotic teaming mass that made our jet lagged heads swim. Off the street in the downtown area (where we were staying) are countless little shops selling pretty much a little of everything, while above the shops are shabby Belle Epoque faded grand old facades. On the sidewalks, merchants hawk slippers and scarves, toys and trinkets, while down dim alleys are outdoor hookah bars, almost entirely patronized by men. About 80-90% of the women we saw wore head scarves, but only about half of those went so far as to wear robes over their every day clothes, and very few were in full chador or burqa. Most of the younger women, in fact, were wearing very high fashion clothes–tight slim jeans, high heels and the like–so combined with their covered heads they looked most stylish indeed.

–Outside of the downtown area were countless unfinished buildings, big concrete block apartments with the rebar still sticking up on the as yet uninstalled roof. Curiously, most of the flats would be totally unfinished–no walls, windows, nothing but the bare exterior bones, but there would be one or two flats that were entirely complete, down to bright colored paint jobs. It was clear, glimpsing possessions on balconies and peeping through windows as our bus went by that inside matters were quite comfortable and even prosperous. Even though it was in many cases the sole finished flat in an otherwise hollow structure. No one could give us an answer about this, so we just guessed it was that someone just bought a flat and paid to have it finished–and the others would trickle along as more buyers came in. It seems weird, but it’s better than the 500,000 (estimated) people who live in the graveyards, the above crypt cities of the dead, now turned into miniature towns with shops, and schools and pirated electricity and water.

–The coolest purely Cairo moment was when we stood above the city at the Citadel, right during the afternoon call to prayer. Spread below us was this landscape of new and old, with mosque minarets popping up at intervals–and from every one of them the Iman was calling out, “There is no god but God,” in his own particular voice and cadence, dozens and dozens of these chants, clashing and blending together, rising above the jigsaw puzzle of city buildings, with the pyramids at the back. It went on and on, and we all were stunned into silence. (That same day, an Iman chanted for us at a mosque, to show the acoustics of the dome shaped room, and it was incredible, so pure and clear and powerful. “He’s the Frank Sinatra of Cairo!” said his assistant, with just, if unexpectedly phrased, pride.)

–Oh, the pyramids. They are exactly as you think they would be, sharp and clear from a distance, worn and chipped away up close, powerful monoliths that have stood (or sat) for centuries, and are not impressed by our puniness and short durations. Yeah, they are worth seeing in a lifetime. So’s the Sphinx, who lounges nearby with a pyramid backdrop, once sharp features blurred by time (and Napoleon’s target practice), but just as noble as you think. Also, it has a tail, which curls around its back and side just like the big cat it is. We didn’t expect that.

–We got to see all the Tut stuff at the Egyptian museum, and it’s really remarkable to see it all in one place because you can’t figure out how the heck all of that was packed into such a small tomb. The museum was also a good place to ponder questions of culture and ownership; though there is plenty of Ankhnaten and Nefertiti relics within, the famous bust of Nefertiti is in Berlin. Which seems very wrong, since it’s an icon of Egypt. But then again, the Egyptian museum feels like nothing more than a huge box of really great old stuff that was turned upsidedown, with all the contents then scattering higgildy piggildy, and left where they landed. There is little in the way of graphics, and most of it is accessible to roaming hands, should you want to caress the cheek of a 3000 year old statue. Even the famous Tut death mask (which is really All That) is in a simple glass case and fairly close to visitors, with no guard or visible signs of security apart from a video camera overhead. Of course there must be substantial security, but it sure didn’t look like it. So the question remains, as it has; should the place from whence objects originated have those objects, as part of their cultural heritage, or should places that can better care for the objects (and perhaps salvaged them in the first place) have them? Please note a fancy new state of the art Egyptian museum is being constructed as I type, though it won’t be open for years.

–The royal mummies were awfully cool, especially the newly identified corpse of Hapsetsut, the only female Pharaoh. And that exhibit was done very well.

–Outside of Cairo, unless you are right up next to the Nile (smaller and calmer than anticipated, very serene), it’s bleak, stark desert, so desolate it makes Joshua Tree look like a rain forest. Miles and miles and miles of red dust and rock, and some tremendous rock formations. No wonder it was a problem to wander around there for forty years. The landscape may be more beautiful, but along every serious road there is some kind of haphazard–and, it appears, largely abandoned–development, so there are large areas that have been torn up, with the skeletons of buildings standing empty. It does not add anything by way of artificial beauty.

–Speaking of Tut (yes, the Steve Martin song was an ear worm we could not remove no matter how much we hummed other songs) we saw his tomb in the Valley of the Kings, complete with his unwrapped mummy now on display in a special climate controlled glass case, right where it originally lay. And it is a small space indeed. How the heck did they fit it all in there? And how the heck did they get it all out? Otherwise, the tomb is unremarkable, especially compared to the many others with deeply cut, still sharp hieroglyphics and bas relief wall paintings as bright as the day they were painted (one assumes, anyway). Gorgeous.

–Speaking of desolate landscape and Biblical references, Steve climbed Mt. Sinai, seven hours round trip (more or less) up a steep and rocky trail, dodging camels, in order to see the sunrise from the top. (Cancer Chick’s feet ruled this event out for her, and I struggled between disappointment and secret relief.) The whole thing was exhilarating and quite the feat, and if you go to his column, you can hear a recording he made of his guide, singing a Bedouin song.

–There is no food porn, because we didn’t really get a chance to sample local cuisine (our day trips didn’t feature much in the way of lunch and we came home too late to eat dinner anywhere but in our hotel–oddly, there weren’t many restaurants near our hotel), apart from the fare at the Egyptian Pancake House (really!), a cross between crepes and puff pastry, topped with cheese and olives, or sweet versions including milk, butter and honey. We also went to a more upscale restaurant with a friend from God School (she lives there with her mother), where Steve had koshari (a very-traditional mix of rice, pasta, lentils and chickpeas with a garlicky tomato sauce) and I had walnut chicken (fork tender thin slices of white meat in a creamy walnut sauce). And our first night we found a small bakery specializing in baklava and had fried dough so oozing honey that a bite sent the honey dripping down our throats.

–And there is so much more, as you can imagine, the majesty of the Temple of Karnack, the funny bird with the hammer shapped head who would sink his long skinny beak into grass to suck up insects looking and acting for all the world like a feathered oil derrick, the light streaming through the lattice worked space in the mosque so that the beams came out lace-shaped, the audience with the Coptic Pope (no really–it was arranged through our school, and he blessed a cross I brought along), Coptic Christmas mass (all four late late night hours of it), the Burning Bush (yes, its own self–St. Catherine’s monastery was built in the 6th century around it, or the bush traditional assumed to be said divine vehicle), the camels with their curious noises when they stand up or kneel down and their funny faces, the smell of apple flavored hookah smoke, the giant statues and everything they must have seen, the warmth and color of the Red Sea (blue, not red), the animal mummies (like the dog and baboon found together), the late night Bedouin party outside the guesthouse on the way to St. Catherine’s, meeting Sister Wendy (the BBC art show host) at St. Catherine’s, the 5th and 8th century Coptic Christian wall paintings, the site where the Holy Family is said to have stayed during the flight into Egypt, the winding narrow streets of the Coptic Quarter, the golden icons at the Coptic Museum and St. Catherine’s, and lots and lots more.

It was all so much and so fast that it’s all like a dream now.

Yes, we stood in line to see the Boy King,