18 June 2014

Cairo, Egypt 2008

The year 2008 was likely a good time to visit Egypt. In hindsight, it was in between terrorist attacks that were often aimed at tourist sites.

Our hotel was on Gizera island in the city, a “safe” and central location. For example, the Egyptian Museum was but a twenty-minute walk away ... if you had any free time! The first morning at breakfast: the dining room faced east to the sunrise and was open to the Nile River immediately beside it. A splendiferous greeting for the day. It was lovely to stroll along the hotel’s river walkway, day or night. Cairo's palpable brown fog of pollution seen from great heights is not necessarily evident on the ground.

Up a hill we drive to the Citadel, one of Cairo's best-known landmarks, a twelfth century fortress built by Saladin for protection against the Crusaders. Subsequent rulers naturally made improvements and additions; as with any large historical monument, restoration work is ongoing.

Photo: M.A. Waring, 2008

There we remove our shoes to enter the Mohammed Ali Mosque. The disrespect of some tourists wearing inappropriate clothing (shorts, sleeveless T-shirts, and so on) always appalls me. The unsmiling women scrutineers at the entrance will not let them enter until they've been covered with green dropcloths. While the mosque itself is a nineteenth century structure, its predominating height makes it the city symbol for Cairenes. The interior is enormous with much alabaster marble and decor detail to admire. 

The Crypt of the Holy Family was of great interest to me, in Old Cairo where many ancient sites survive. Below Saint Sergius Coptic Church (aka Abu Serga) is where it's said Joseph took Mary and young Jesus to stayamong other placesduring their three-year exile in Egypt. We descended along a fresco-walled passage into the below-ground church to view the deep remains of the original site, now a crypt under the sanctuary of today. Because the location is close to the river, the crypt suffers flooding at times. 

Photo: touregypt.net

It measures about twenty feet by fifteen; we can only look, not enter, and my photographs of the dim interior are unsatisfactory. The Coptic church structure dates to the fourth century, with much rebuilding and restoration over the centuries. By now it was apparent that everywhere we would go was absolutely thronged with tourist groups and we are moved along without lingering.

Lunch was at a restaurant in the Khan el-Khalili bazaar area. Good soup and mezzes (small dish appetizers) but too bad we were placed in the restaurant depths, away from the street action. However, along came a bit of free time to shop in the alleyways of vendors. This I enjoy; good humour is absolutely essential in the street salesmanship of any bazaar or market. “Egyptian cotton, lady!” “Handmade!” "Look, look! I have all colours!" Buying souvenirs is not satisfactory for the vendor without a respectable amount of haggling; of course you know he opens a transaction at two or three times what he will settle for. One young man was keen to interact, admitting he had had no lunch that day. “My mother lives up there,” he showed me, pointing to the top storey across the alley. “Mama,” I yelled to the roof, “Send lunch down for your boy!” Much appreciated by his friends. And then, of course, I had to buy a scarf.  
Khan el-Khalili Square, photo: in.lifestyle.yahoo.com/traveler

Our guide Saliba emphasized we were to meet at the prescribed place in the square at the prescribed time. Which we obeyed, being Canadian and all. We waited and waited while unbeknown to us, Saliba and our tour leader were enjoyably loitering over their coffees. Waiting was not a bother; the activity and colour around the square were vastly entertaining. Impresarios went by twirling large pans of fresh bread on their heads, on the lookout for anyone with a dollar to take their photograph. We watched with great interest as plain clothes cops continually inspected people entering the square carrying anything like a package or briefcase. The memory would come back to haunt us.

Between points of interest, we were ferried about by bus. On it, I not only had trouble hearing / understanding tour leader Sameh’s soft, slightly slurred English, but also Saliba had quite an accented, staccato delivery. Many of the guides in Egypt and Middle East countries are post-grad students who know their history well. Sometimes their accents, rapid delivery and background noise made it a little difficult to catch and absorb information. Therefore advance research in history and culture is highly recommended! The silent man in the front seat of the bus was a mandatory armed guard. His gun was not so artfully-concealed under his jacket.

One afternoon was at the Egyptian Museum on Tahrir Square where it became impossible to hear Saliba, considering the crowds and the yammering of dozens of nearby guides with their groups. It’s exhausting to be concentrating so hard on the audio and trying to grasp the visual. The museum is huge. Artifacts are still exhibited in the original old display cases with little security. Half a day visiting does it no justice at all. We didn’t get to see the special Mummy Room because not enough time (I had seen it back in the '60s).

Another day's trip was to outlying Memphis, Saqqara, and Giza (the latter posted in May). Along the way we learned that those odd towers on the landscape are roosts for domestic pigeons. Memphisnot its original namewas an immense city, capital of the Nile lands for something like 3,000 years. Its decline, still being studied by scholars, was complete by the seventh century AD, the ruins covered with river silt and sand. Excavation has been an ongoing slow process over two centuries. Little of Memphis' scope and majesty is visible today apart from scattered, partial monuments. The colossal carved-stone statue of Ramses II (1303-1213 BCE) is the most distinctive artifact retrieved yet.

 Our tour was a common itinerary for most tourist groups, more or less. Maybe not everyone gets to see Alexandria, a very different city from Cairo; the high-tech innovations (as of six years ago) of the famous re-born library were awesome. Seeing Abu Simbel, flying over Lake Nasser to reach it, was a huge thrill. And then there was the five-day Nile cruise: Ahhh. Just ... ahhhhh. More to come on that.

So it's a bit disconcerting that protection and preservation of such world heritage monuments suffer from inadequate funding. The obligatory stops at the carpet factory, the papyrus shop, the jewellery shop, and so on, are not hard-sell; one tells oneself that buying anything at all helps to keep people employed and the economy moving.

Postscript: Four months after this, a "dirty bomb" exploded in Khan el Khalili square, placed under a bench in the area where we had sat to wait. A visiting French teenager died; twenty-four people were wounded by the vicious blast of nails and metal fragments, including local Egyptians. Immediate fears arose that this signaled a new wave of Islamic militant attacks against the tourist industry; what it did effectively was throw thousands of hotel employees and small business operators out of work. But later such incidents have been only sporadic in some parts of the country (distinguishing between hardline Islamic militants and the revolutionary movement of the so-called Arab Spring that began in late 2010). In an unpredictable cycle, a very small group of terrorists can bring to a halt the livelihood of their fellow citizens.

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.

Photographs BDM 2008 unless otherwise credited.

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