Despite the travel advisory to avoid Egypt, I went to Cairo because who knows what could happen in the future. Think of all the priceless archaeological sites that have been destroyed in Syria in the last 5 years. Not that the Pyramids could be easily destroyed, but you never know.
After a night in the Freedom Hostel, I took a walk down toward the Egyptian Museum, located on the far end of a little place called Tahrir Square. This location might be familiar to anyone who followed the Arab Spring demonstrations in which the people ousted long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak. Funny story- I asked the young man working at my hostel about the revolution and he merely shrugged his shoulders saying “Eh, he wasn’t so bad.” The hostel clerk would have been in his early teens when the uprising began, so he might have a less nuanced perspective. Even so, it is interesting to think that the dictator may have had a stabilizing influence on the area. I can’t claim to know a significant amount about Egyptian politics but my general assumption would be that dictator = bad, but as a white atheist Canadian, my opinion is less than relevant.
Getting to the museum meant crossing one of the busier main roads around the square. If you watched the video I linked to in my last post, you know that crossing a street in Cairo is no mean feat. The strategy I adopted was to draft off of a local Egyptian, walking parallel to them as they navigated between cars. There is no pedestrian signal or crosswalk- you just start walking into traffic, try to make eye contact with the slower moving vehicles and hope for the best. I thought I was a seasoned traveler, having dealt with the traffic insanity of Mexico City, but Cairo is the boss level of street crossing. I found an old lady in a black hijab to follow, going on the idea that if she survived this long, she must be an expert. She noticed me when we were about half way across and I like to think she nodded slightly before she carried on as if to say “don’t worry, you dumb white girl- I can see you are out of your depth and I will escort you safely”. This was likely my imagination though.
After several trips to Latin America, where I was slowly picking up the language (a language that used a familiar alphabet), it was jarring to be suddenly so illiterate. Every sign was in Arabic, its swirling cursive completely impenetrable. The last time I was in a place like that was Poland, and while the Slavic based characters were mostly unfamiliar, at least I had the comfort of the European architecture and history. The only English I saw was on some of the tour operator signs, their shops mostly empty. Ever since a plane full of Russian tourists was blown out of the sky on their way to Sharm Al-Sheikh in 2015, Cairo has become a tourist ghost town. Other than a group of hardy Asians I saw on one of those giant tour buses, there was nary a non-Egyptian in sight (were there too many narys and nons in that sentence? Too bad, I’m doing it!).
To get into the museum, I was required to go through not one but two metal detectors, and there were armed guards all around the interior courtyard. During the revolution there were a few enterprising individuals who tried to loot the treasures within but they were stopped by a human chain blocking their access. Dr. Zahi Hawass, the former Minister of Antiquities has an excellent account of the events at the following link: (http://www.drhawass.com/wp/the-egyptian-museum-and-the-looters-by-zahi-hawass/).
The museum itself if is a strange pink colour, constructed of the same granite as the interior of the Great Pyramids themselves, and when you walk inside, you feel like you’ve stepped into the 1800s. There are no interactive displays or digital signage- only glass cases with wooden frames housing some of the world’s most precious antiquities. Starting with the simplicity of the Old Kingdom, you can trace ancient Egyptian history up to and beyond Roman occupation. At the back of the museum is the showpiece: Tutankhamun’s burial treasures and funerary mask. Officially you are not allowed to take photos in that room but… my hand slipped.
I wandered the museum for a few hours and then spent an embarrassing amount of time trying to find the exit. It is truly shocking how little was stolen during the Arab Spring. There is a LOT of gold lying around in cabinets secured only with simple padlocks. For an extra fee you can see the actual mummies in a separate area but to me the funerary masks and sarcophagi are the most interesting part. It also seems weird to want to view what are essentially dead bodies, old as they may be. Besides, one must always be aware of the potential for curses! I would also like to note the absence of certain items of world renown, like the Bust of Nefertiti or the Rosetta Stone. Like the Elgin Marbles of Greece I mentioned in my last post, these priceless artifacts are currently in the possession of the British Museum.
When I finally figured out how to leave the building, I headed through the central hallway through a crowd of teenage Egyptian girls wearing a dizzying array of colourful hijabs. One forward young woman asked me for a selfie… I said “Sure why not?” I was suddenly mobbed by the whole group, clamouring for photos with their phones. I was peppered with questions: “Are you a Muslim?, Where are you from? Are you married?“, and so on. I think I shocked a few of them with my answer to the last one; they all giggled. In a minute or two, a black-clad woman, who I can only assume was their chaperone or teacher, came over and broke up the impromptu photo session. She gave me a stern look and shepherded the girls into the next gallery. I honestly have no idea why this happened; whether it was my short, uncovered hair, my pale-ass skin or my vague resemblance to Ginnifer Goodwin, I will never know. Traveling can be weird sometimes.
I was a bit drained after my walk through history and celebrity experience so I found a little expat cafe on my way back to my hostel to have a little meal and a beer. The Cafe Riche feels like it was lifted out of an Indian Jones movie. Considering it was built in 1908, that makes sense. The scene for countless political and intellectual debates over the years, the Cafe was long a hotspot for malcontents and rabble-rousers. There was even an attempted assassination in 1919. After a slow fall from grace, it regained prominence during the 2011 revolution. Here is a great article chronicling some of Cafe Riche’s history: (http://www.economist.com/node/21541715)
As I sipped my Sakara lager, I could hear some familiar accents behind me so I turned around and said hi to the couple. Haleigh and her boyfriend (whose name escapes me right now, I think it’s Italian… Anthony? We’ll go with that) were from Alaska and work in the hospitality industry so they go traveling every year after freeze-up. My kind of people! We shared a few more Sakaras and marveled at the fact that we were traipsing around coat-less in November. We agreed to meet the next day to see the Pyramids together. I hate to admit it, but traveling with a man in Egypt is just a lot less stress.
In the morning I met them at their hostel down the road and we walked back to the road in front of the museum in the hope of catching a cab with an English-speaking driver. Originally we were going to take public transit, but after a morning coffee that took a little longer than planned, it was already getting hot. I cannot overstate how surreal it was to be weaving through Cairo’s insane traffic on my way to see the Great Pyramids. As we got closer to the Giza Plateau, I could see the biggest pyramid over the top of the buildings. We pulled up to the gate and Anthony negotiated a deal with the driver to hang out and wait for us for the day so we wouldn’t have to deal with touts at the site.
Sometimes when you see enough pictures of a landmark or see it in a movie several times, it can be rather anticlimactic when you see the real thing. This was not the case with the Pyramids. They are truly incredible in the truest sense of the word. The fact that they were build FOUR THOUSAND YEARS AGO is rather hard to comprehend. Think of it this way: The Great Pyramids were as old to Cleopatra as she is to us. When you have someone who was alive during the Roman Empire saying “Damn, that’s old!”, you know you are dealing with a truly ancient piece of architecture. Get off my blog if you even so much as mention Ancient Aliens. That show is terrible and stupid and is making idiots of us all.
Haleigh and I paid extra so we could actually enter the biggest of the Pyramids (constructed for Khufu in the 26th Century BC). A narrow back-breaking tunnel leads to the center of the pyramid where you can see the granite sarcophagus of the aforementioned pharaoh. There are no visible hieroglyphics along the walls, as the pyramid was likely gutted by grave robbers millennia ago. Still, even in the dark, humid and mostly empty space where the grave goods would have been, you get the sense of the weight of history around you. Humans have made some crazy shit.
After exiting the Great Pyramid, we checked out an adjacent building that housed Khufu’s funerary boat and then walked down the plateau to the Sphinx. Unlike the pyramids, the Sphinx did seem a little smaller in person, though still incredible to see. From here we hired some camels to walk us back. We could have done a full tour to the smaller pyramids by camel-back but the desert heat was starting to get the best of us so we made our way back to our taxi driver and rode back to town. Getting him to wait for us turned out to be an excellent idea, as the amount of people trying to sell you things at the plateau can be rather overwhelming. Being able to say that we already had a ride organized removed some of the pressure, though I still could have bought hundreds of chess sets and rolls of papyrus if I was so inclined.
We finished off the day with more beers at the Cafe Riche. The Alaskans had a boat down the Nile to catch and I was flying to Durban at midnight so we traded emails and parted ways. The Cairo airport was just as intense as I anticipated. Three separate metal detectors! I was also not allowed to buy alcohol unless I bought food. The very dry cheese sandwich went into the trash so I could enjoy a very small sub-par bottle of wine. Still worth it though! As I write this, I am in the air-conditioned austerity of the Dubai airport, waiting for my connection to South Africa. I am jet-lagged as hell and Egypt already feels like a world away. Onward and upward, as they say (or Southward, in this case). See you in South Africa!