Pyramids, Camels, and a Bizarre Bazaar

Trip Start Apr 03, 2007
Trip End Jun 16, 2007

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Flag of Egypt  ,
Saturday, May 26, 2007

Today was the big day I've been waiting for: Egypt!  The culture here is so incredibly different from what we're used to.  I got to see the pyramids, eat lunch on the Nile in a felucca, visit a mosque and a traditional Islamic house, and visit the wildest Bazaar in Cairo.  It was quite a day...
Got up early to catch the start of the guided tour at 7:30 AM.  We disembarked from the ship in Alexandria and got on the tour bus.  As the bus drove through Alexandria and then through the desert towards Cairo, our tour guide gave us some excellent commentary on Egypt, both modern and ancient.  She has a Masters degree in Egyptology, but is such a great teacher and an excellent tour guide.  She also collected questions from everyone on the bus, and then answered all of them for us.
Alexandria itself is a very large city, with over 3.5 million inhabitants, and took us quite awhile to drive through.  Eventually, we crossed over the salt marshes and out onto the highway that leads away towards Cairo.  Along the way, we saw many people wearing the traditional garb, which is a headscarf for women and a sort of dress for the men.  The guide told us that the people still primarily wear the traditional garb in the rural areas, but in the cities it is more practical to wear modern style clothing.  We pulled out of the city and entered the desert region.  There is nothing there, not a tree within sight (except for the few irrigated areas).
After about 2.5 hours (luckily, the bus was air conditioned and very comfortable), we came out of the desert and entered Cairo.  Cairo is the largest city in Egypt and in Africa, with a population of 8 million in the city itself (population density is an incredible 35,000 persons per square kilometer), and about 16 million in the greater metro area.  The first thing we noticed is that all of the buildings are built unfinished, with the tops open so that more stories can be built on top of the buildings.  The guide explained that this is so that future generations of the family can build on top for their families to live in.  It makes the city look very different than what we're used to, though.
First glimpse of the pyramids came earlier than expected.  You can actually see them from quite a long ways off, even in the western suburbs of Cairo.  Our first stop was right at the base of the pyramids.  They sit up above the city on the Giza Plateau, but I was surprised that the buildings of Cairo have reached right up to the base of the plateau.  I thought the pyramids would be more out in the desert, but they are literally right next to the city on one side, and the desert on the other.  Our tour bus parked next to the other 3 dozen tour busses and we got out.  In the immediate vicinity were a whole lot of tourists, many camel drivers with their camels offering rides/pictures for the tourists, and a bunch of pushy hawkers trying to sell stuff to the tourists.  This was only a taste of what was yet to come, however.  I walked up to the base of Khafre's pyramid, and paid the 20 Egyptian Pounds to go down inside.  You have to crawl through a cramped, hot, stuffy, passageway that feels like a sauna, crowding past other suffering tourists going the opposite direction.  Eventually, you come to a section where there's sufficient head room to stand up.  There's a burial chamber at the end of the passageway, but nothing is left in there except for an empty stone sarcophagus (and an old guy who gives about a 30 second narration and then expects to get a tip for it).  Coming back out was a relief, but I was already sweating a lot from the heat and humidity inside the tunnels.  I took some photos of the three pyramids, including the largest one and the seventh wonder of the world, the Pyramid of Khufu, and the smaller-by-half pyramid of Menkaure.  I also got to look out and see the desert to the west of the pyramids.  We got back on the bus and drove the short distance down to the Sphinx.  The first thing you notice about the Sphinx is that its body is way too big for the head (or is it vice-versa?).  Anyway, I guess it was buried up to its neck in sand for centuries, so at least today we get to see the body.  With the pyramids behind it, it makes for some great photos.
We moved on from there to the Nile River, where we disembarked from the bus and got onto a felucca, which is the traditional small sailing boat that sails on the Nile.  This one was a bit bigger than the old ones (it held about 12 passengers), but we still got the experience of sailing back and forth across the Nile as we ate lunch onboard the ships.  With no motor, it's surprisingly quiet out there on the river.  The food was good, with various types of salads, meats, and desserts, served with a red wine.  It was a neat experience, especially as our boat had several near-misses with other feluccas and a couple of much larger boats.  Nevertheless, we made it back safely and headed out for the 2nd largest mosque in Cairo, the Mosque of Ibn Tulun.  There were no prayers in progress at the time, so it was mostly empty, but we got to walk around the quite spacious courtyard and feel the breeze as it blows through and cools it down nicely.  The minaret of that mosque has a very unique appearance.  After that, we went next door to a traditional house (actually 2 houses interconnected).  A British man, Major R.G. Gayer-Anderson, bought the houses in the 1930s and stocked them up with Egyptian artifacts and traditional furnishings, and now they're a museum.  It was very interesting to see how the women had separate living areas from the "family" common areas.  All of the tables and chairs were very low to the ground, and often they just sat on cushions on the ground or on a low couch.  Scenes from the James Bond movie "The Spy who Loved Me" were filmed here.
Next, we drove through greater Cairo, past the City of the Dead.  It's essentially a giant mausoleum, with a hodgepodge of single-story buildings containing the graves of the people of Cairo.  Cremation is not allowed in Egypt, so everyone is buried, with 5 or 6 or more people in each little crypt.  I was surprised to learn that thousands of living people actually live in the City of the Dead.  There's so many that live there that it even has its own school.  We passed by the Citadel, which was where Egypt was ruled for centuries, and finally arrived at the Khan el Khalili Bazaar.  This place was bizarre indeed.  It's basically a maze of narrow streets and alleys, with stores on all sides, and the store owners and other hawkers approach you and try to bargain with you at every door.  If you show any interest at all, they won't hesitate to follow you for blocks, trying to get a sale.  All kinds of things were for sale there, but mostly trinkets, jewelry, and things made out of various kinds of stones.  It was quite a wild place, and easy to get lost in.  Somehow, I made it out and back to the bus.  The people sitting nearby were from Denver, Colorado, and they got stuck bargaining with a merchant.  It took a long time to close the sale and I guess eventually they just had to leave the cash laying there and leave.  They had to run to make it back to the bus, just as we were pulling away.  They said that they were avid shoppers, but this wore even them out.  It was interesting to see, but not something I would care to do more than once in a decade or so.
The last stop we made was at the Papyrus Institute, where they still make papyrus.  They showed us a demonstration of how they cut the papyrus into strips, weave it together in a grid, and press it for several days until it forms sheets that can be written on.  Then they print various paintings on them and sell them.  I couldn't resist and bought a few of them, since they're very colorful and look exotic.  There was also a gift shop upstairs with lots of more trinkets, but that wasn't as interesting.  I did also buy a Cartouche T-Shirt with my name written in hieroglyphics.
We got on the bus and headed back towards Alexandria.  It was a fairly hot day (high 80's), but nothing like it would be during the height of summer (110+).  Overall, this was the most exotic location of my entire trip, and probably just edges out Malaysia as the most exotic place that I've been to.  The culture is just so different there.  Unfortunately, there's also a lot of trash all over the place.  There were hawkers all over, but I didn't see hardly any beggars.  The police must keep them away from the tourist areas.  The police presence was also the highest of anywhere I've been.  Several people claimed that Egypt is the safest place you can go, and it could be true.  There's literally police everywhere we went.  Even on our tour bus, there was a security guard with a semi-automatic weapon bulging out from under his suit.  The tour guide told us the best way to see Egypt is by taking a Nile cruise from Luxor to Aswan.  Sounds like fun for a future trip.  Egypt has definitely been one of the highlights of my trip.
Next up: Athens and the Acropolis
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