With apologies to Al Stewart. If you remember his wonderful song, Year of the Cat, hum along while you read my terribly improvised lyrics.
A foggy morning from a Bogart movie
In country where they turn back time
You go strolling with a crowd of expat tourists
Without a care for the grime
Cats are everywhere underfoot
they are everywhere that you look
On all the streets and in all the restaurants
It is the town of the cats.
OK line by line now.
The morning fog in Egypt is impressive. In both Cairo and Alexandria you feel like you are swimming in a bowl of mushroom soup from dawn ‘til 10.
A Bogart movie? Yeah. You expect to see Bogie around every corner. Especially in Alexandria. The entire town could be used as a movie set for any film set in the 30’s or 40’s. You would not even need to replace the street cars.
A country where they turn back time should be an obvious reference. Egypt makes a living on the fact that everywhere you go you are immersed in 5000 years of history. Alexandria history is really only 2300 years old. Alexander the great settled in what was not much more than a fishing village in 323 B.C.
Without a care for the grime might be a bit over the top, but I needed something to rhyme with time. Actually the city is pretty litter free. The locals pay for garbage clean-up crews when they pay their electric bill, and the streets are free of plastic bottles and the like. But it is a decaying city. It is a grey city. Like Cairo, it is not a beautiful city. It is set on a wonderful harbor and if someone were to tear it down and start over, it could be very beautiful. But 2000 years of unplanned development have created an unattractive façade.
Now, the cats. They are everywhere you go in Alexandria. They travel in packs, prides, herds and gangs. There is at least one cat for every souvenir vendor, and THAT says a lot.
The cats are not mangy or skinny. They do not look underfed or abused. They appear to be neighborhood cats that are encouraged to stay close and catch mice. I am not sure if they are venerated like the sacred cows in Hindi-land. They do not beg for food or attention, they are just everywhere you go in the town of the cats.
Back to the travel blog.
We left Cairo with our tour group of fifteen expats, all Americans from the UAE. It was a foggy morning. We were looking forward to seeing something on the trip, but it was impossible to see more than 100 feet or so. We were lucky however. That morning, in southern Egypt a convoy of American Tourists in bigger busses had a terrible accident. One of the busses sideswiped an 18 wheeler pulled over to the side of the highway because he could not see anything in the fog. 12 Americans died, something like 20 injured in the one bus. There were 4 or 5 busses all travelling together. Our bus pulled over for an hour because of the fog. We counted 9 accidents between Cairo and Alexandria. All seemingly fog related. Traffic in Egypt, for or no fog is miserable. There seem to be no rules, except that your horn must work. They test them all the time to be sure they do.
I will digress here a bit. The Egyptians have had their share of violence against tourists. The law is now that any time 10 or more tourists are travelling together they must have an armed escort. Ours was a nice guy who carried a semi-automatic in the back of his belt, under his suit coat. It bulged and was obvious. I’ll mention him again in part 4 of this trip.
Half way to Alexandria we finally got to a rest stop. It could have been a rest stop in Kansas in many ways. Exhausted travelers stumbling to the coffee shops and WCs. Cheap souvenirs all made in China. There was however a woman making fresh flat bread.
I was hoping that our first stop in Alexandria would be a restaurant for lunch. I do not believe I was alone in that desire. This is when you begin to wish you had a private guide. If we did I would have just said FOOOD.
Our first stop turned out to be the burial site of the first tourists in Egypt, the Greeks.
The catacombs of Alexandria were yet another place where you were not allowed to take photos. Sure, they sold post cards of the catacombs. Like I said, the Egyptians have gotten good at this tourist business thing.
These catacombs were weird. The guide kept calling them unique. In a way they were. The reliefs carved into the walls were a vivid combination of Greek and Egyptian motifs. Obviously Greek heads wearing Egyptian style clothes. Maybe they just went native. He said that the catacombs were discovered by a donkey. The donkey just happened to fall into a 200 foot deep hole that was the center of the structure. This happened in 1920 or so. They found the tombs. They found jars filled with ashes, but they did not find any bones. Pardon me, but there should be some bones I said. The guide told me that they did not know how to mummify bodies, although he had just pointed out a relief of the god of mummies doing his thing on a body. It bothered me that there were no bones. I have been in catacombs with Inca bones. He could not explain it to me well enough and got tired of me asking.
After the 200 foot climb in and out of these catacombs, I was ready for FOOD. I tried to gather support from the other tourists, but the guide had a plan, sort of.
Our next stop was some Roman ruins, primarily a Roman Amphitheatre. I asked him if this was Alexandria’s version of Urban Renewal. He had no clue what I was asking and he got a bit nervous when some of the tourists laughed at the question. He started to explain how these ruins were unearthed during a construction project. When I said “no donkey eh” he actually laughed. I think he was starting to like me, even though every time we passed a decent looking restaurant, I groaned FOOOD.
The amphitheatre was very cool. I do not know if this is true in all amphitheatres, but if you stand in a certain place on what would be the stage, and speak towards the seats, your voice is echoed right back at ya. It does not happen anywhere else you stand, nor can anyone not right there on the exact spot hear the echo. I went first and cried out “Friends, Romans Countrymen.” The echo was astounding. I have to figure out if this is a normal feature for Roman amphitheatres or a quirky thing.
There was an outdoor museum here which displayed statues found underwater in the Alexandria harbor.
We still had two more stops to make before he would let us eat. The first was yet another citadel. Sorry, but I have been in enough forts in the Middle East already, so I stood by the sea, admired the view and pined for FOOOD.
The last stop he had in mind for us was yet another Mosque. I have seen many of these as well. In Egypt, mosques are open to non-Muslims all the time. I’m not sure why. This mosque was just right for Alexandria. Mosques take great pride in their carpet. This carpet was worn down like something in a welfare office, and it was dirty. But it WAS a tourist mosque, with souvenir hawkers and even beggars outside. I have never seen either of those at any other mosque.
OK, everyone was saying FOOOD at this point. Does he take us to a typical Egyptian restaurant? Nope. Pizza Hut. No one cared. The salad bar looked like it got hit by a tornado in minutes. There was no one else in the joint and the crew was having a lazy afternoon, then 15 hungry infidels invaded. Anyway, we got fed.
Then the highlight of the entire Alexandria experience. The Library.
The original library in Alexandria was one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. It was a center of knowledge as much as a repository of books. Under royal decree it was to obtain a copy of every book published worldwide. It sent out buyers to all the known cities. Whenever a ship pulled into Alexandria harbor, the library took whatever books it did not already have. Some people say they just borrowed them and returned copies to the ships. However they acquired their volumes, they were the largest library in the world. Until Caesar. He started a fire in the harbor, and it spread and burned down the library and all but some books spirited out by the librarians. These were papyrus volumes of importance to Egypt, and from what I understand, they still exist in the rare book collection.
The library has gone through more than a few changes until 8 years ago when the new library was opened. It is a magnificent building. Situated a cross the street from the University of Alexandria it is well used. It is generously equipped with computers and such. Many governments in the world contributed to the rebuilding and equipping of this library, including USAID and Microsoft.
Our group took a tour, but we did not join them. I had a very special tour guide. Mary Ann is a professional librarian, and she was in Nirvana. We walked up to a rack of books. She laughed and said “Dewey”, I got what she meant. This library uses the Dewey Decimal categorizing system, instead of the Library of Congress system. She pointed out a few other things that only a librarian would notice. I spend a lot of time in Mary Ann’s library at AUS. It is as noisy as a bus station. This library was dead silent. People in study groups or doing independent research, and respecting the tradition of silence in a library, it was wonderful.
OK the next post is day two in Alexandria. It was our free day. We went back to the library, watched a show in the library planetarium about the Stars of the Pharaohs, rode a trolley across town, watched fisherman in the harbor and had chaotic trip home.
Thanks for reading. Tell a friend. PLEASE make a comment.
I’ll start this post at the Pyramids. In the words of Alexander the Great, Marc Anthony, Napoleon, General Montgomery and Jerry Garcia, “oh maaan”. Mary Ann, who has been here before, warned me that I would be overwhelmed and might cry. I was so overwhelmed I had to get into an ambulance, but more on that later.
Let us start with the midnight flight from Sharjah to Alexandria. I have learned to really like Air Arabia. This flight took us over the holy city of Mecca, over Mount Sinai and over the Red Sea, although it was too dark to see any of it. We got into Alexandria at 3 a.m. I had the fantasy that a flight to Egypt leaving at midnight would be nice and quiet. Wrong. The plane was full of crying babies, make that screaming and crying babies. One thing I have learned to not like about the culture here is that they do not shut their kids up when they scream. I have never been on a flight with so many kids. Taking a baby or even a toddler on a midnight flight is just cruel so I cannot blame the kids, but I was ready to crack a few parents heads. But like all flights do, it eventually ended. 3 a.m. in Egypt, and sure enough we were met by the tour company, In Arabic, the word for thank you is Shakran. They even spelled Nash correctly. We have grown used to seeing such a simple name mangled, (Mash, Gash, Rash, and Cash) that it is good sign when they get it right. Plus it meant we had our ride to Cairo, two hours away. It was just us in a Cushy Town Car, no crying kids. Things were looking up.
As an aside here, the rep from the tour company who met us at the airport was named Mohammed. It is the most common name in the Moslem world, so it was easy to remember. At the hotel, we were approached by a cab driver who would take us anywhere we wanted…his name, I swear was Obama. The guy who led the tour the next day was named Osama, “Just call me Sam” he said. But I digress.
We are staying at a hotel called Barcelo Pyramids in Giza. We stayed at a Barcelo before, in Mexico, and they deserve the four stars. We crashed, got up at noon, and went to the roof top pool to have an Egyptian beer.
I got my first view of the Pyramids from there, across a smoggy, unpleasant stretch of Giza. This is not a beautiful city.
That night we went to the Pyramids Sound and Light show. (This is done in the same outdoor theatre where in 1978 The Grateful Dead did a two night stand for Dead Heads who invaded Cairo in tie-dies. I missed it and have always regretted it.) The show borders on cheesy, the sphinx talks, laser beams blast across the Pyramids and anyone with any historical knowledge is not going to learn much. But seeing the Pyramids and sphinx for the first time, all lit up like Las Vegas is mighty impressive. You get an idea of the size of them, even in the dark. Supposedly the footprint of the Great Pyramid of Cheops could contain most of the Vatican, with Rhode Island thrown in just for kicks.
Our first “tour day” was today. We started at the Egyptian Museum.
This is of course where they keep the King Tut stuff. His was the only tomb found in the Valley of the Kings that had not been cleared out by grave robbers. Consequently there is a whole wing just to house his treasures. Amazing because he was a minor pharaoh who died young after ruling less time than Nixon. It leaves you wondering what must have been in the tombs of Pharaohs who ruled as long as FDR. In size, this museum (built in1901 or so) is not as big as any of the Smithsonian museums in DC. But it is so crammed full of everything from mummified crocodiles to King Tut’s death mask that it boggles the mind.
There are important items, statues and such, from all over Egypt that the guides make sure you see. There are guides speaking most of the major languages to tourists from Japan, China, all over Europe and even America. The worldwide drop in tourism due to a combination of the economy and manufactured fear has not hit Cairo. The joint is jumping. Everywhere you go is jam packed with groups of geese being led by mother hens chattering away like ducks. (How is THAT for mixing metaphors!)
The guides race from the old Kingdom to the middle Kingdom to the third, stopping long enough to quack about a statue or a burial crypt. They move fast to not hold up the other groups behind them, and to keep the tourists from breaking off in search of Tut. They cover the important stuff, but crammed in this corner and that cubbyhole, down some dark hallway, and behind the sign to the men’s room is more STUFF. Thousands of things, large and small. The collection is all over the place. Items that would be the proud possession of the LA County Museum, are just gathering dust with nary a word describing what it is and therefore ignored by the masses. I got the feeling I could walk out with something like a cat statue, and no one would ever miss it. Word is that in 2012, they are opening a new museum behind the pyramids to better display these things, and, believe it or not, empty out the BASEMENT of this museum of STUFF gathering cobwebs since 1901.
Well, Mary Ann and I did break away from our group and headed for the Tut wing. There is enough gold in this collection to pay off some national debts. Impressive, awe inspiring, breathtaking are all insufficient to describe the feeling you get as you wander the length of this wing of the museum. Then, finally you get to the special room where the iconic Tut Death mask is displayed. No photos are allowed anywhere in this entire museum, (unless you are Japanese I guess) and I must say that no pro photo I have ever seen of the Tut mask comes close to the beauty of this treasure. Astounding.
The museum has an excellent gift shop. The only thing I bought was a King Tut baseball. Too bizarre to pass up!
We found our group and headed off for lunch. We found ourselves sitting in a restaurant called the Cleopatra, in Giza, in the shadow of the pyramids, and listening to “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” sung by the Chimp Monks. Way too weird.
From there they took us to a papyrus museum. The word museum is a stretch. They did show us how papyrus is made.
But the main purpose of this “museum” is to sell you paintings on papyrus. Some were gorgeous, some, well most, were truly expensive. Our group bought a bunch of them, which is good for the tour guide who gets a cut. He could have taken us to any of a dozen such “museums”, so they take care of him. Me? Well I found a drawing that was on the Grateful Dead poster back in ’78, so I had the artist write, in hieroglyphics, Grateful Dead Cairo 1978. Another useless souvenir.
Now it was bucket list scratch off time. We headed for the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the first and largest of the three. Actually there are nine here, six for queens.
Mary Ann and I either travel by ourselves, or we hire a private guide, usually option 2 so we do not need to deal with Taxis or –gasp- public transportation. This time we booked the entire trip through Air Arabia and we are in a group with a dozen Americans who all work in the UAE. They are good pleasant people. But, you know me well enough to know that I am not one to accept arbitrary limits on my fun. When the guide said, “OK, we are here for20 minutes” I growled “bullshit”. I have been waiting all my life to stand here, and no bozo with a stop watch is going to tell me when it is time to leave.
I was simply not prepared to take in the scope of this edifice, this monument, this tomb, this pile of 10 ton rocks. I could not set my eyeballs on wide angle enough to take it all in at once. My head was spinning back and forth and my neck was bent out of shape from looking up up up. Of course my cheap camera (Have I mentioned I hate my camera?) could not capture any of the grandeur. One could walk a half mile back and take a shot, but are you kidding me? I walked right up to the first layer of stones, taller than I am, petted one and said “You ROCK.”
Then, for some reason beyond all reason, my nose started shooting out blood like I had a severed artery. Nothing like this has ever happened to me. Here I am bleeding on the last of the seven wonders of the ancient world like a stuck pig. A world heritage site now is stained with my type B+. (if you ever visit Cheops tomb, my contribution is on the second stone in from the NE corner).
Mary Ann was wondering what the hell she could do for me. I almost suggested she should put a tourniquet around my neck, but I was afraid she might take me up on it. Then an Egyptian man came running up. I thought maybe he was upset about me defacing his source of income. But he pulled out a pocket sized pack of Kleenex, which I immediately stuffed up my nostrils and turned them bright crimson. He led me away from the royal tomb, which was a good thing on its own, but then he walked me to an ambulance. The paramedic did what he could do. He then told me he wanted to take me to the hospital. I understood him but politely declined. He was not sure I understood him so he waved his finger in a circular motion over his head and went “Whoowhoowhoo.” Maybe laughing was all I needed because the hemorrhaging stopped. I had a larger problem than blood loss to deal with, I was late for the bus.
Our time at the pyramids was not over. Osama took us out into the desert where there was a herd of camels and their owners. Osama told us to beware of most of the guys, but that he knew one who would give us “good price”. I’m sure he got a cut here too, big deal.
Even though 20 minutes earlier my nose was a gusher, I knew Mary Ann really wanted to ride a camel, so I joined her.
We were led by a 12 year old named Adam, who is a hustler in training, but great kid. He had a well developed sense of humor, spoke English to us, shamelessly flirted with Mary Ann, and spoke Hindu to some people from India in our caravan. As long as the pyramids do not fall down, he will make a comfortable living.
From here we went to the Sphinx. As someone might say after they meet a movie star, I thought he was bigger. But he (she some say) was beautiful, even without a nose. Some say the French soldiers shot his/her nose off, some say it was an Egyptian Queen, jealous of how good looking she/he was. This is a very impressive antiquity. Built to protect the tombs, it has stood guard for thousands of years. I think this will remain my favorite memory of Egypt.
Our day was not over. We took a dinner cruise on the Nile with whirling dervishes (one of them a dwarf) and a belly dancer. The belly dancer dragged me onto the dance floor and I did my best to imitate her moves.
And now, my favorite foto of the trip.
Stay tuned for day 2 where we visit a Citadel buil to defend against Crusaders. I will take you to the church where Jesus, Joseph and Mary hid from Herod. 100 yards away from this church is a synagogue where baby Moses was found in the rushes of the Nile by the daughter of a Pharaoh. Amazing as all that sounds, we also visited a Coptic church carved out of the mountain that was the quarry for the rocks that built the pyramids. AND I will take you to a place called garbage city.
Thanks for reading, tell a friend and please make a comment.