Walk like an Egyptian

Trip Start Oct 30, 2005
Trip End Jun 19, 2006

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Thursday, March 30, 2006

I don't know if it was unconscious design, or just coincidence, but it was amusingly appropriate that "Walk Like an Egyptian" by The Bangles started playing on my iPod as the train from Alexandria approached the outskirts of Cairo. I had retreated to the personal sanctum of iPodland an hour or so earlier, having been unable to endure the sniffs and mutterings emanating from the fleshy walrus of a man slumbering in the seat beside me any longer.
The prospect of Cairo had been exciting me for days now, ever since I caught a brief glimpse of its sprawl as I flew over on my way to Alex. I've always attached images of such exoticness and legend to Cairo, home to the Pyramids - one of the Wonders of any world, ancient or modern - and the bustling centre of the Islamic World. However, having once pinned such expectations on Mumbai, only to be disappointed, I was a little wary.

I needn't have been. I liked Cairo from the first, as I trudged out of Ramses Station, enturtled once more by my pack, and strode off with the vaguest of directions to find my hostel. Eventually, after several arduous navigational conversations with locals in my fledging pidgin Arabic ("alatool?" La, shimaal, 'then' alatool. "Cool, thanks mate!), I stumbled across it, dumped the backpack, and set off into the city. I had a goal, and would not be swayed from it. This was one of the most important things I was to do on this whole journey, and I wanted to see it done. Yep, that's right - I was off to acquire an ISIC card (International Student Card, for the acronym-phobic). Okay, I admit my student days are now long behind me, and though my recent gainfully employed stint at Auckland University was not really going to hold water, I knew that in Cairo, it didn't matter and that a valid and authentic student card only required 75 Egyptian Pounds. Easy! That little gem was going to pay itself off before I left Cairo, notwithstanding the enormous savings (we're talking $100's here folks) that I knew I'd accrue throughout Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and probably Europe.

With that accomplished, the next step was to hit the tourist trail for a couple of days and follow the well-trodden path to the Egyptian Museum, repository of treasures and a vast wealth of history, and of course, the Pyramids.
The Egyptian Museum stands imposingly at the edge of the motorised chaos that is Tahrir Square in Central Cairo. It is a grand building, its front lawn dotted with statues, and swarming with the chittering hordes continuously disgorged by an endless array of tour buses. The collection inside contains an astounding 40,000 items, running the gamut of classical Egyptian history from the Old Kingdom to the Roman occupation. It would take weeks to even see the entire collection, let along describe it to you, and I am unable to do either. Concisely though, it is a staggering array of treasures, and I spent several absorbing hours wandering the halls aimlessly taking in as much as I could. As I'm prone to do in such institutions, I tried to decide which piece, which treasure, I would choose to take home with me in the unlikely event of the City of Cairo, on account of my worthiness as a person and honoured guest, offering me such a boon. By the time I had circled the museum entirely once however, I was mentally so laden down with booty that my knees were buckling. In the end, I choose a gorgeous and simplistic gold and silver bowl, in the shape of a flower, from the Tanis collection, from 950 B.C. It would've looked just right on the mantelpiece back home!
The showpiece, of course, of the Museum, is the Tutankhamun collection, and rightly so. Following so excellent advice from Mum's cousin, Alison, I had arrived at the gates uncommonly early in the morning, and so was first through the doors at 9 am, ahead of the ravening schools of package tourists. I headed straight upstairs, and to the back, towards the Tutankhamun gallery, determined to enjoy the splendour of his famous golden funerary mask and sarcophagus in silent contemplation. And it worked. Myself, and 3 likewise clued-in folk, were able to enjoy 20 minutes of mute reverence and awe, before the jostling crowds made their way into the gallery. Much has been made of the beauty of Tutankhamun's treasures, but to behold him in person is something else. The mask, and sarcophagus, both of solid gold and bedecked with ornate carvings and endless precious stones, was works of art to rival any I've seen. They're are simply beautiful. Seeing them in the dark, air conditioned sterility of the Museum is impressive enough, but I can only imagine what Howard Carter must've felt (or indeed, said) when he saw that first glimpse of beaten gold amid the dust and sand of Tut's tomb. The rest of the collection is almost as stunning. Jewellery, clothes, boats, weapons, gods and statues, plus several of the layers of burial vaults that surrounded the sarcophagus are all on display. Indeed, it's a little overwhelming!
When, finally, I had slaked my thirst for beauty, and explored much of the rest of the Museum, I blinked my way back into the sunlight. I can't even begin to describe the other excellent works within, I wouldn't know where to start, but I will say to you all to come, and see it all for yourself. Indeed, I went back for more, on my last day, to saw it all again (plus many pieces I swear I didn't see the first time)...and to check on my wee golden bowl.

The following day I figured I'd devote to the Pyramids, sole surviving member of Philon the Athenian's Seven Wonders of the World and current finalist for the new list. I had a look through the contestants, those 21 marvels, for the New Wonders project, and after much consideration, cast my votes as I thought best. Of the 21 monuments, from all annals of history and locations dotted around the globe, I have already seen, or will in the next few months, half of them, enough to know that the final Seven selected will be at best a global compromise on Greatness. Choosing one's favourite monuments is such a subjective exercise! One man's trash, is of course, another man's treasure, and that old aphorism holds true of mighty structures, ruined or not. Take the Pyramids, for example. An incredible, and unparalleled, feat of human endeavour, perfection set in eternal stone. 5000 years old, they are the greatest monuments to the glory of death ever constructed. Or, at least, that's how I see them. Some other bugger may very well make the trip to Giza, wander thoughtfully past the Pyramid of Cheops, and say, "Well, it's just a big pointy pile o' rocks, innit?"

I imagine, of course, that folk like that are probably in the minority, that it would like a fairly dour soul not to be stirred by the sight of the Pyramids soaring out of the rough sands of Giza. One of the most famous, instantly recognisable images on earth, the Pyramids are truly a humbling and awesome sight. And even better when you've managed to sneak in for free, via the local hawkers' entrance! I'm not going to divulge how I discovered this secret route, and thus deprived the Egyptian Tourism Board of my student-discounted ticket price of 20 Egyptian pounds, but rest assured that I'll be most definitely try and find that route again on my next visit to Cairo!

I really enjoyed this city. Of a size and population with Mumbai, it has a cosmopolitan charm and amiable personality that I found lacking from the Indian city. Cairo appealed to me from the first, despite the intensity and the bustle. It's a place I could easily imagine living in, the first such city I've encountered on my travels. Indeed, I'm considering spending three months here at some stage in the next few years to learn Arabic.
As Ali Mohammed Adbel-Hameed, an Aswan poet I met one night in Cairo walking alongside the Nile, told me, "Once you have drunk from the Nile, forever will you return to Him."

I'll be back.
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