Friday, September 23, 2016

Cairo on your own

On the Cairo subway, a gentleman stands up and offers my wife his seat. On a busy street, the two of us are standing, looking at the city map on our tablet, and a man in a late model car stops and asks if he can help us. In the airport, standing in a long line for what appears to be Gate 4, a man comes up to us and gently points out that this line is for a flight for Baghdad, probably not our destination. At a fruit stand, we try a glass of sugar cane juice, with some warm Egyptian bread from the next door bakery. In the evening of a very hot day, we sit on our porch and watch the Nile go by; where there are a group of female rowers all in head scarves, party boats that are playing Arabic disco music, and the call to prayer from a nearby mosque.

It’s September of 2016, and my wife and I (a couple of 50 year olds) are having four days of adventure in Cairo. We went about it on our own, and had a marvelous time. Here are some of our successes, as well as mistakes.

Before arrival. We used one of the many online services to book a place to stay, a houseboat on the Nile, in the downtown area. This gave us fabulous views, a gentle breeze, and a place to unwind after the hot day, but also the loud music of party boats that went down the Nile till around 2 AM on the weekends. Before leaving, we downloaded a map of the city ($4) on our tablet. As we did not have cell phone service in Cairo, the tablet allowed for GPS tracking and was an excellent way to get our bearings. [You can use your phone/tablet as a GPS by first downloading a map, and then simply putting the device in Airplane mode. While Google Maps allows you to download maps of many places for offline use, it does not allow it for Cairo, so we ended up purchasing the downloadable map.]

Arrival. We acquired a visa upon arrival at the airport. On the plane they handed us an immigration form, and once landed we simply walked to one of the banks and handed them $25 each and received a small sticker (they take US dollars). We then gave the form along with the sticker to the immigration official, who placed the sticker in our passport. That served as the visa. We picked up our bags and met a driver that our host (our landlady) had arranged. It was a 30 minute ride to downtown (we arrived at 1:30 AM). A taxi ride from airport to downtown should cost you no more than $10. Our host was waiting for us when we got to the flat. She had the fridge stocked with food and drinks. We exchanged dollars to Egyptian pounds with her (the rate was 12.5 pounds to the dollar, considerably better than the official exchange rate of 9 pounds to the dollar).

Transportation. Taxis are plentiful and have a meter. The meter starts at 300, meaning 30 cents. Our longest ride took about 30 minutes and cost about $5. None of the taxi drivers we met spoke English, but having a tablet with a map was very useful because we could show the driver where we want to go. However, traffic was crushing and air pollution was severe. A much better bet was to take the metro. The metro was clean, frequent, and efficient, but covered only a limited region. To get to our destination, we often took a metro as far as we could, and then used a taxi. To use the metro, upon entry you will need to buy a ticket. Metro tickets cost 1 Egyptian pound (about 10 cents) and give you access to the entire system. Keep the ticket after you enter because you will need it to exit.

Day 1. Egyptian Museum. When my wife was a teenager, the King Tut exhibition came to Seattle. She remembered the long lines. At the magnificent Egyptian Museum, there are thousands of items from Tut’s tomb, and we were often the only tourists in the various rooms. The museum is in Tahrir Square (Sadat metro station). Upon entry, we bought a ticket and were immediately approached by a guide who offered his services at a rate of 120 pounds per hour (about $10 per hour). He was an older gentleman, well educated, with excellent knowledge of Egyptian history and contents of the museum. (The guides are licensed by the museum, and wear an identification badge.) We checked our backpack at a kiosk and headed in with our guide. The guidebooks had mentioned the crowds, but judging from our experience, after the 2013 revolution/coup there now appears to be very few visitors to Cairo. In most rooms at the museum we were the only people. The museum itself, in my view, contained some of the most beautiful pieces of artistry in human history. Nearly 5000 years ago, when the Egyptian had yet to invent the wheel, they were depicting women with wings, long fingers, elegant body, covered with linen, on the sarcophagus of kings. The craftsmanship, in the chairs, foot rests, staffs, and chariots of the pharaohs, was breathtaking. The most surprising item was the condom that was used by King Tut, and the strap that held the item around his waist, both made of animal skin, in nearly perfect condition.

Walking slowly through the museum, listening to our guide, I thought about how for 5000 years, the belief in the after-life was so strong that it supported whole legions of artists that made such beautiful pieces of work. Then came science, and it erased so much of those beliefs, perhaps now leading to its near complete elimination. Religion was for so long the strongest motivation for support of artistry. Kings paid the artists because they were paying for something that they would personally need in their after-life. I left thinking that perhaps in ancient Egypt we had the golden age for the profession of the arts.

The museum closed at 4:30, and so we asked our guide for a good place to eat. He suggested that we try Kosheri, a traditional Egyptian meal, consisting of pasta, lentils, and crispy fried onions. He took us for a 15 min walk down Champollion Rd, to a busy restaurant that only served Kosheri. The sign on the wall proudly said “we have no other branches”. It was absolutely delicious.

Day 2: Giza. Our taxi brought us to the entrance of the Giza pyramids and after a security check, a guy got into our taxi and told the driver to go over to where they were renting horses and camels (this guy worked for the horse master). There, we chose to ride our own horses (the other options were a horse-drawn carriage, or a camel). We made two mistakes here: the tactic used by the horse master was to first put us up on our horse, and then begin negotiations on price. It was harder to walk away when were already up on the horse. Our second mistake was to agree to pay for the tour in advance, rather than at the end. However, having a horse turned out to be a good way to see Giza, making it fun to climb the hills and try vantage points for pictures, and then gallop a little on the warm sand. We rode to each of the three main pyramids and went inside a couple of the smaller ones that surrounded them. In one of the smaller underground tombs, apparently that of an engineer who designed the largest pyramid, we entered to find hieroglyphics on the walls, and one symbol that looked like a face with large ears. It looked like Obama!

I spent a bit of time looking at the stones that had fallen from one of the pyramids. It was red granite. The facade for the pyramids used to be white limestone, some of which was still there on the bottom two rows of one of the pyramids. Magnificent craftsmanship that was later damaged when pieces of the pyramids were taken away to be used in churches, mosques, and palaces. The horse ride lasted about 3.5 hours and cost about $160. As the ride ended, the guide wanted us to spend time at a particular store (which he called a “museum”), which we politely declined.

Afterwards we explored the impoverished village near the pyramids, buying some of the local bread (5 cents a piece) and having a wonderful time at a fruit-juice place, trying the fresh squeezed mango and orange (about 50 cents a glass). From the village, we used our GPS to walk to the main square and then hired a taxi home ($5).

Looking back, it would have better to go to Giza with our own guide. Although seeing the pyramids on a horse is wonderful, the guide offered by the horse master was there merely to handle the horses and could tell us little about the history of the place. The ideal way to see Giza may be to hire a guide in Cairo and go together to Giza, have him negotiate for the horses, and then ride together to see the sights. Coming with your own guide makes dealing with the incredibly aggressive horse masters much easier.

A tapestry depicting Adam and Eve before and after she took the forbidden apple.  The guide suggested that the horse to the right, tied to the tree, represents the ability of humans to control their impulses.

3. Coptic Cairo. Greeks, Romans, and then Christians followed the time of the Pharos. A good place to see the remnants of these civilizations is Coptic Cairo, which houses churches that were built on spots where Mary and Jesus are claimed to have spent a few months during their flight from Palestine. We started with the Coptic Museum, directly across the Mar Girgis metro station, and found a superb guide that we stayed with for the rest of our visit to Cairo. [His contact information is available at the end of this blog. He charged about $10 per hour.]

At Coptic Cairo we spent the afternoon with our guide, walking through the Hanging Church, Church of St. Sergius, and the Ben Ezra Synagogue. Starting with Pharonic history, he explained the evolution of the symbol that represented the upper and lower Nile, to the cross that the early Christians used in fear of being found by the Romans, to the cross that Eastern Orthodox and Coptic Christians used, to the 7th century arrival of Islam. In the architecture, in the symbols, in the art used to decorate the churches, you can see the sharing of the ideas between the dominoes of history.

Probably the coolest exhibit for me was a recently unearthed library from the 3rd century. An important page on display was from a book that describes “the origins of the world”, describing philosophy of a group of agnostic Christians.

That evening we bought kabobs from a tiny restaurant that both an Egyptian friend and a local driver had recommended: Abou Shakra. The menu was in Arabic only, and the place was not much not to look at, but with the help of the guy behind the counter we ordered some kofteh kabobs. The food was simply superb (dinner for two, $5).

When we arrived home, our host texted us to ask if we would like some Sheppard Pie that they had made, our second dinner.

Day 4: Sakkara and Islamic Cairo. We arranged our final day of adventures with the guide that we had met the day before. We rose early and took the metro to its last stop near Giza. Our guide picked us up with and his car and drove about an hour south to Sakkara. Sakkara is home to the first pyramid built in Egypt (called the step pyramid), a superb museum that has some of the finest examples of wooden statues found in the tombs, as well as examples of surgical instruments from around 2500 BC. Unlike Giza, Sakkara provided access to the tombs, where one could see the spectacular artwork on the walls, depicting life of ordinary people, girls playing a game, farmers harvesting grain. The artwork showed bakers, fishermen, and craftsmen, as well as the animals of the Nile, including geese, hippos, and a variety of fish. I was surprised to find that some of the drawings still maintained their colors, blues and reds. 

Sakkarah was special for me because it celebrated probably the first known engineer in history, Imhotep, who designed the first stone pyramid in Egypt around 2780 BC, the step pyramid. The pyramid is still mostly intact after nearly 5 millennia. I wondered whether any of the structures built in the 20th century would be around in the year 7000 AD.

For lunch, we found another fruit-juice place and enjoyed a few glasses of citrus and some local bread, and then headed north to the Islamic Cairo. We focused on the Citadel, a place that Saladin built in the 12th century to fortify the city against the crusaders. The fortress is dominated by the mosque of Mohammad Ali, built in gorgeous alabaster. There were two other mosques in the neighborhood, with one housing the remains of a few modern kings of Egypt, as well as the Shah of Iran.

That evening, we had our host and her sister up to our place, where we enjoyed a wonderful conversation. Our host arranged for a ride to the airport on the next day.

Leaving. The Cairo airport had multiple security check points long before we got to the check-in counter. It took us about an hour to go from arrival at the airport’s first security check to the gate.

And then, something beautiful: the call to prayer, and a large number of passengers, waiting at the various gates, get up and self-organize in a carpeted space between two gates, and begin to pray. Their motions, as if spontaneous choreography among a group of stranger.

On our last evening, sitting with our host and her sister, she asked whether we would return to Cairo. Thinking about her question, I remembered that as we walked on the sidewalks, even in the nicest neighborhoods; I couldn’t help but be saddened by the piles of garbage; couldn’t help but be annoyed by the constant honking of horns; couldn’t help but be unhappy that in one evening from 11pm to 4am, the neighboring house was undergoing noisy construction. Yet, I don’t know of anywhere else on earth that one can view examples of ancient art and engineering, see depictions of how people lived at a time before the invention of the wheel, walk on lands crossed by Alexander, Jesus, and Saladin.

A wonderful local tour guide: Ramadan Emam <>

1 comment:

  1. History, culture, hospitality cuisine. Egypt has it.