Our second day in the land of the Pharaohs was a “free day.” In tourism parlance that means “you are on your own buddy.” The guide gave the group the option to sign up for a “city tour”. Most of the group sounded interested. He told us we would visit the Citadel of Cairo, a Coptic Church, a Synagogue and the Mosque of Mohamed Ali. Mary Ann poked me in the side when I asked if we could see the Church of Rocky Balboa also. I do not think the guide got it. The people who did not drift away from the group at that point, definitely moved away from me when I asked if we could include a trip to Garbage City in the tour. So Mary Ann and I were the only two who signed up. The rest were on their own for the day.
Our first stop was the “religious area” of Cairo. This is where the church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus. This church is traditionally believed to have been built on the spot where the Holy Family, Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus Christ, rested at the end of their journey into Egypt when they escaped King Herod who did not like the fact that people were calling baby Jesus the King of the Jews.
It is a 4th century Coptic Church. It really is quite beautiful inside. It is where all the Coptic Popes have been consecrated for 1600 years. I do not know much about the Coptics other than they are their own branch of Christianity, so much so that they celebrate Christmas in January. If you want to know more, there is this amazing tool called Google.
I can bore you with a few facts about the Church however. It is called “the hanging church” because it is built over the top of two Roman structures. The church is suspended between them, hence hanging. The ceiling of the church is built to resemble the structural hull of the Ark, from the inside, and upside down. The artwork inside is beautiful. The pulpit is built on pillars that are supposed to represent the five something or anothers, I was not paying attention to the guide, I was taking pictures. In the back area is a baptismal fount where Coptics have been baptized for well over a thousand years. It is the size of a small hot tub.
Now the real claim to fame of this church is a small underground crypt in back of the alter. This is the room where Jesus, Joseph and Mary hid out for a while after escaping Jerusalem because Herod was after them. They did not allow photos back there, don’t ask me why. The room is quite small, maybe 10 x12. It looks pretty much like it did when the original excavation was done. This was the first time I have ever physically been where Jesus was. I had to think about that for a while. At least I did not get a nosebleed, but it was a touching moment.
I stole this photo from Google.
Now we walked about a hundred yards and we were at The Ben Ezra Synagogue. I had no idea what I was in for. I have to admit I have never been in a synagogue before, certainly not one that dates back to the first century. It was originally a Coptic Church, but after the Muslims took over Cairo they imposed a tax on the church, and they had to sell it. So they sold it to the Jews. The Jews wanted it because tradition claims that this is the exact site where a daughter of a Pharaoh discovered baby Moses in a papyrus basket after his mother had sent him adrift on the Nile. There is a beautiful monument to mark the spot. Again, no photos allowed. Being a tourist without a camera is a very naked feeling. Again, foto courtesy of Google.
Getting bored yet? Maybe I’ll include more pictures for ya, so keep reading, The best is yet to come.
The next thing on the planned city tour agenda was the Mosque of Mohamed Ali. It is shaped like a pair of boxing gloves, no not really. Neither is there a church of Rocky Balboa.
Ali was a strange ruler. He was influenced heavily by the Ottomans, as his mosque shows, and also by the Malmuks. He built his mosque in the mid 1800’s inside the citadel of Cairo The citadel was built about 1180 to defend against the crusaders. It sits on top of the highest hill in Cairo and has commanding views. The Citadel served various regimes as the Royal abode, right up until WWII when Montgomery used it as his Egyptian HQ, and stationed many troops there. I’ll just give you some pictures here, you do not even need to read the captions. But do not go away, you must see garbage city!
So now, the guide thinks we have lunch and he is done. Uh Uh. I want to see Garbage City. He had no idea it even existed and he has lived in Cairo for years. I saw it a NetGeo TV show called The Road Less Travelled and I insisted he take us there. He called his office and found out where it was. It turned out that it was really close to the Citadel.
The story here is that there are 3 large families in Cairo that go around the city and collect all the garbage. They deliver the garbage to this neighborhood. The people here make a living by separating out the recyclables and selling them.The guide and his driver both became tourists for this part of the trip. They were taking their own photos. I asked the guide for a discount because now he had a new destination for his customers. The look on his face said “only the tourists a weird as you.”
In this day of plastic bottles, plastic is their biggest market. Follow the bouncing photos below to get an idea of what is is like to live and work in Garbage City, Cairo.
When the guide spoke to his office I guess they told him to take us to another Coptic church that sits on the mountain above garbage city. This was an amazing church. It is carved into the rocks which was the quarry for the stones that they used to build the pyramids. It is called the Church of San Simeon the Tanner. It has the entire life story of Christ carved into the mountain sides and the pews of this church seat 10,000 people. They all have to ride buses from the city through Garbage City to get there so they must be truly faithful. Thursday is the day of miracles. These regularly scheduled miracles are healings, the cripples walk and the cynics believe. Obviously I did not attend on a Thursday.
San Simeon was the leader of the Coptics I would guess about 1300. He and the Jewish leader of Cairo did not see eye to eye. He was claiming hat the Coptics were a false religion and should be banished from Egypt, The Muslim leader was asked to settle the dispute. He was at a loss. So he referred to the Bible and reminded the San Simeon that Moses parted the Red Sea. Then he found the passage about men of faith being able to move mountains. He told him that if he could move that there mountain yonder, it would prove to him that his Coptic Church should continue in Egypt. San Simeon asked for time to pray, and could they all return on Thursday. To make a long story short (too late you say?) he made the mountain float in the air. If you don’t believe me, just look at the picture.
All Roman Catholic churches, and I guess Coptic churches have a relic in them, usually in the cornerstone. A relic could me a miniscule piece of bone from the saint for which the church is named. This Church of San Simeon of course has his relics, but it also has relics from John the Baptist. See the photos!
Our last stop was a store that sells clothing made from 100% pure Egyptian cotton. I of course bought a great shirt, but Mary Ann found the cotton sheets. They had 600, 800 and 1000 count levels of quality. She made me fell a 600 count sheet. It was wonderful. I asked her what our sheets were at home and she said “ZERO and they are not 100% Egyptian cotton either” This turned out to be the most expensive thing we bought in Egypt, and as soon as we put them to use, I’ll let you know what pure Egyptian cotton feels like.
Well. That’s it for Cairo. I was actually enthralled by the history and how the tourism people have made it all accessible. If you were a hardcore Egyptologist and did not mind getting your hands dirty, you could spend days in the Museum of Egypt, blowing the dust off of antiquities. If crowds do not bother you a person could spend all day staring at the Sphinx. Yes it is that cool. And if you are not prone to nosebleeds, you could spend the better part of a week circumnavigating the Great Pyramids of Giza.
The people of Cairo are very friendly and damned glad to have you there. They have been hosting and/or fleecing tourists since 330 B.C. People who do anything that long are bound to be good at it. Walking through the Cairo Bazaar you will hear the best hawker lines anywhere. “Come in and make your eyes happy” and “How can I take some of your money today?” were my favorites.
Day three will be our transfer to Alexandria and a tough day of touring, including the burial sites of the first tourists, as well as the Library of Alexandria, which is so old I think they invented libraries.
Stay tuned, thanks for reading, tell a friend and 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.