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A Crusade to Petra

A Visit to the Rose Red Ruins of the Ancient City

sunny 48 °F

Years ago when I was in high school, I received a postcard from a summer camp friend that showed a massive building facade carved into the side of a mountain. I immediately recognized it as the resting place of the Holy Grail from Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, which had been released a few years before. I wondered why my friend went on vacation to see a movie set. Okay, I was pretty ignorant back then, and had never heard of Petra. Once I learned that the facade was really the Treasury building for this ancient city, my interest was piqued. I made it my mission to see Petra someday.

This rocky area of Jordan had likely been occupied since early Biblical times by the Edomites. But most of what we know about Petra began around 312 B.C. when arabic nomads known as the Nabateans conquered the area. Petra became a major stop for the Spice Road, and the inhabitants prospered through control of this trade. The Nabateans were responsible for most of the incredible monuments carved into the sandstone rocks. However, the Romans eventually conquered the Nabateans in 106 AD and added some of their typical free-standing Roman buildings. Eventually, control passed to the Byzantines who subsequently built several Christian churches. With their subsequent fall to the Islamic Conquest in the 8th century and the decline of the trade caravans, Petra ceased to exist as a major city. Eventually, it became lost to the Western historical record for a thousand years. In 1812, a Swiss explorer named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, rediscovered Petra for the rest of the world. He had to disguise himself as a sheikh as non-Muslims were prohibited from entering the area. At that time, Petra was occupied by Bedouins who resided there until the 1960's when the Jordanian government relocated them all to a nearby town.

Just in case I didn't emphasis it in my previous entries, it has been freezing here. Although Petra opens at 6 AM, Bashar recommended we hold off on starting until around 9 AM so the air could warm up a bit. Even then, it was still freezing because deserts don't have trees to block huge blasts of cold air. Conveniently, the ticket office for Petra was directly across the street from our hotel. We hired a local guide who had graduated from tourism school only a few months before. He seemed like a nice guy, but I could tell he was still inexperienced and reticent. He told us that since it is the off season for tourism, he only guides one tour a week.

Included in the cost of the entry ticket is a horseback ride to the beginning of the site. We had heard warnings that the people who handle the horses will hassle you pretty hard for tips of 10-15 JD (~ $20). We figured we needed the exercise, so we decided to walk. Besides, I'm pretty cheap. This ended up being the coldest part of the day as we were hammered by freezing crosswinds.

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(Left) The 1 km walk to the Al-Siq can be traversed by horse or foot. (Right) Four obelisk adorn this tomb.

The wind died down once we reached the shelter of the Al-Siq, a narrow canyon flanked by cliff walls up to 650 feet high. Some parts of the pathway still remain paved with stones dating back to the Romans. It has taken thousands of years for water to chisel this canyon out of the mountain. Unfortunately, this same effect has slowly eroded several of the monuments and statues within the Al-Siq.

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(Left) Irrigation canals were carved into the rock walls to store and carry rainwater to the city. (Right) A flash flood in the Al-Siq killed 12 French tourists in 1963. Several dams have been built to divert the water away.

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Many shrines have been carved into the rock walls so that the Nabateans could worship idols of their gods.

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(Left) People toes. (Right) Camel toes.

We dodged several horse-drawn carriages ferrying older tourists. We were shocked to see one horse suddenly collapse and lay motionless. Several tense minutes passed in which we were sure it was dead. Finally, the horse got up and was retired for the day. I'm no veterinarian so I couldn't tell how well those animals were kept. But, I was glad that we decided to walk.

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One more victim for the glue factory.

Inexplicably, we also noticed some visitors already leaving as we were arriving. I suspect that some people only visit the Treasury building and then leave without seeing the remainder of the large city. What a waste coming all the way to this exotic location. As we approached the end of the 2 km long Al-Siq, we caught a glimpse of a statue peeking around the edges of the canyon's walls.

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We emerged into a clearing with the enormous facade of the Treasury building towering over us. With the rays of the morning sun illuminating the rose-colored sandstone, the Treasury has become the quintissential structure that people identify with Petra.

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Our guide told us that the name is a misnomer--no treasures were stored there. There was an ancient myth that the Exodus pharaoh chased Moses and the Israelites all the way here. Encumbered by his vast wealth, he then stored it in the giant urn carved at the top of the building. Of course, historically this couldn’t have happened. But it didn’t stop Bedouins from shooting the urn hoping that gold would spill out. Instead, the building was likely used as a tomb, possibly for a Nabatean king. In the past few years, excavations were carried out discovering several more rooms below the structure, but these are inaccessible due to a covered grate. The decorations on this building demonstrate the many influences that other cultures had on the Nabateans.

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In the center is a badly eroded statue of the Egyptian goddess Isis.

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The two equestrian statues at the bottom of the Treasury represent the mythical Graeco-Roman twins, Castor and Pollux, the patron gods of sailors and travellers.

After enjoying a warm tea and taking the obligatory pictures of the Treasury, we continued on towards the rest of the city. We passed a large open-air theatre initially built by the Nabateans and improved by the Romans.

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Although the performances may be in 3D, this theatre still has no IMAX compatibility.

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The site is teeming with smaller caves that were used as tombs in ancient times.

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Although there is no evidence that these were used specifically by kings, these more ornately-carved structures have been labelled as
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We eventually arrived at a long colonnaded street that dated to the Roman occupation. Sadly, most of it is in complete ruins. Paving stones still cover a good portion of the road, but most of the columns have fully collapsed and lay to the side. More excavation and reconstruction are needed to restore it to the semblance of the structure it once was.

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(Left) Remaining columns. (Middle) Remaining road stones. (Right) Remaining guards.

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Ruins of 'The Great Temple' that has been excavated by Brown University.

On a hill overlooking the colonaded street are the excavated ruins of Byzantine era churches. Their mosaic floors are still well preserved and beautiful works of art. We reached the end of the colonaded street where we saw the Qasr Al-Bint, a three-roomed temple dedicated to the chief Nabatean god Dushara. Although it was damaged by an earthquake in 363 AD, it is the only free-standing stone building still remaining in the city.

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(Left) The Qasr Al-Bint. (Right) Amazingly, the arch at the entryway still stands, albeit it looks like a gentle zephyr could cause it to collapse.

At that point, we ditched our guide and decided to do the hike to the Al Deir which is also dubbed the 'Monastery' for some unknown reason. The path comprises 800 steps that wind up the mountain.

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(Left) The locals were smart enough to use donkeys. (Middle and Right) The pathway to the Monastery.

The majority of tourists to Petra tend to forego this journey. A small handful (mainly older folks) hire donkeys to carry them up. The rest of the people who made the trek tended to be younger and in decent shape. That being said, it wasn't really difficult, just somewhat tedious. At the top it was sometimes worse because of the occasional wind-tunnel effect. Harsh sand and small pebbles were whipped up leading to an unwanted exfoliating facial.

As we rounded a corner at the top of the mountain, an enormous structure greeted us. Although not as ornately carved or decorated as the Treasury, the Monastery’s dwarfs it in sheer size. The doorway alone stands 8 meters high. We ended up hiking further up the mountain to get a better vantage point to view and photograph the massive structure. Altogether, it took less than 2 hours to make the round trip to see the Monastery.

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It would have been nice if the Nabateans had built the Monastery 800 steps closer to the rest of the city.

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(Left) A restaurant lies empty on top of the mountain. Location, location, location. (Right) Further up the mountain is an immense room with a small shrine sullied with modern grafitti.

Along the way down, some of the locals manned stands selling cheap trinkets. At least they had the sense to wait until we were heading back down the mountain before they asked us to view their wares. The bedouins, for the most part, were polite. They didn't harass us too badly like we had expected. Usually, a simple 'no thanks' was all it took and they left us alone. Several of them also had their children with them. The Wife noticed a cute little boy and girl. She gave the boy an apple and motioned him to share with his younger sister. He shook his head 'no'. So when the little girl came over, The Wife tried to hand her a bag of potato chips. Seeing the superiority of the salty snack, the boy handed the apple to his sister and grabbed the chips. It's good to see that all cultures appreciate junk food over healthy snacks.

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This house comes with a two car garage.

We finished up with the rest of the excavated areas at Petra. Astonishingly, experts believe that only 15% of the site has been excavated so far. The whole experience at Petra took a total of about 6 hours. Did we see every nook and cranny there? Probably not, but we were satisfied that we got our fill of this exotic location. Sadly though, we never did find the room containing the Holy Grail. It's probably all for the best because I’m sure that I would have chosen...poorly.

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Posted by evilnoah 14:45 Archived in Jordan Tagged jordan petra Comments (0)

Desert or Dessert?

Ho hum in Wadi Rum

sunny 60 °F

Back when I was in public elementary school, my teacher tried to help my fellow students and I learn how to differentiate between the spelling for 'desert' and 'dessert'. The difference is in the number of 's'," she said. "Everybody loves desserts, therefore you want one MORE 's'." But nobody wants to be stuck in a desert, so you want one LESS 's'." As flawed as that logic seems to me now, it made perfect sense to me at the time. I have yet to eat sand after dinner.

We had originally planned to visit Petra for a second day because so many guide books and Internet posts recommend 2-3 days there. Really? One day of sore feet was good enough for us. Since we had no other plans, Bashar recommended a trip to a popular site called Wadi Rum (Wadi means 'valley' and Rum is an alcoholic beverage usually made with sugarcane). In the limited research I did on Jordan, I found that many people consider it the second best tourist site in the country. Some folks, including Bashar, enjoy it even more than Petra. We had earlier decided to forego a visit there because of lack of time (most tourists camp there overnight) and lack of interest (we didn't enjoy our trip to the Thar Desert last year).

"Would there be any walking involved?" I whined. Our guide replied, "No, we can either rent a jeep or a camel--". "No $@&@! camels," I protested. Why compound sore feet with an aching ass.

After checking out of the hotel, we proceeded south on the King's Highway for 1.5 hours until we reached the Jabal Rum camp. Our Bedouin driver pulled up in a filthy Nissan pickup truck. If this were back home in Tennessee, I'd say he had just gone muddin'. The wife and I piled in the cabin and headed out into the desert with him. There were no roads, but a route was marked by red arrows painted onto rocks on the ground. He would stop (or I would ask him to stop) in order for us to take some photographs. He spoke no English and I spoke no Arabic, making our conversation just a series of gesticulations and grunts.

The highlights in Wadi Rum are the unusual rock formations.

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The desert wasn't completely devoid of vegetation. There were actually many small bushes and shrubs that dotted the landscape. We also noticed a phallic-looking plant poking out of the sand.

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This plant can be crushed to make red dye.

Our guide showed us more methods of collecting and storing water in the desert.

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(Left) That cistern is likely a cesspool of cholera. (Right) In the unlikely event that it rains, this canal will help collect the water.

There are also some interesting rock wall writings, some Nabateans and others Thamudic. These drawings depict men on camels hunting horned animals such as antelopes.
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(Above) All Greek to me.

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(Above and Below) Since antelopes cannot thrive in today's desert, perhaps Jordan was more green and lush in the past?
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Simply put, the desert was deserted. For the first hour, there was not another soul in sight. Then, as we pulled up to a large rock bridge, lo and behold, we saw a group of Indian people filming a Bollywood production. An hour later we passed a lonely Bedouin herding his camels over some sand dunes. And that was about it for people during our three hours in the desert.

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(Left) They weren't doing of the typical Bollywood dancing, so I'm sure the movie will suck. (Right) $@&@! camel.

We sat around for awhile letting the fine sand sift between our fingers and toes while the unrestrained wind whipped around us. Then we got bored. Really bored. For me, sand without a large body of water nearby is merely glass waiting to happen. The solitude of the desert is only relaxing for a short while. I'm not the type who enjoys sitting around and doing nothing. I can do that in front of my TV at home. I don't need to travel halfway around the world to accomplish that.

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Unable to communicate with our driver that we were okay heading back early, we waited the full three hours and returned to the Jabal Rum camp. From there, it was a three hour drive to the airport near Amman. Although there are plenty of restaurants in the terminal where we could have eaten dinner, we eschewed them in favor of the sweets in the duty free shops.

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Sadly, I have no clue what the desserts are called. All I know is that I would rather sit there stuffing my face with them rather than spend more time in any desert. I guess my teacher was right after all.

On the EgyptAir flight from Amman to Cairo, we were the only non Middle-Eastern passengers. I'm sure those long-bearded men wearing robes and Arabic scarves probably would have freaked out many ignorant passengers on American flights. But then again, I wonder if those Arabic passengers were nervously thinking, "Are those two Asian people gonna hijack the plane?"

Posted by evilnoah 18:30 Archived in Jordan Tagged jordan wadi rum Comments (0)

Wonderful Things

Our First Day in Cairo - The Pyramids and the Egyptian Museum

sunny 80 °F

During the 19th century, the field of Egyptology really rook off. Led by European scholars and archaeologists, hieroglyphs were deciphered using the Rosetta Stone, enormous temples like Abu Simbel were reclaimed from the desert, and several new tombs were discovered in the Valley of the Kings. However, the quintessential find, an unperturbed royal tomb, had remained elusive. That all changed in 1922 when Howard Carter, with the backing of Lord Canarvon, discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen, a previously obscure pharaoh. When Canarvon asked him what he saw as he peered inside a small hole into Tutankhamen's tomb, Carter replied, "Wonderful things". In our first day of sightseeing in Egypt, The Wife and I were hopeful to be amazed just like Howard Carter was a century ago.

At 8 AM we met with Sam (Sameh), our tour guide for the next three days in Cairo. The first stop of the day was a visit to The Great Pyramids at Giza. The area has been notorious for the aggressive touts and scams that are employed to extricate tourists from their money. We had read on Internet forums that with the recent decrease in tourism, the harassment to buy cheap trinkets or hire a camel or horse would be much worse. Sam even gave us a pep talk right before about how to handle these hawkers, so we approached the Pyramids with our game face on. Surprisingly, the vendors were not bad at all. In fact, most of them were actually quite polite. They usually approached Sam, recognizing that he is the tour guide, and had him inquire whether we wanted to buy anything. Others who spoke to us directly in English made small talk first, almost always guessing that we were from Japan. Konichiwa. More than half the time, they left us alone after one simple 'la shukran' or 'no thank you'. Nobody was following us around the whole site incessantly badgering us or getting in our face--experiences we have had in other countries. Maybe the presence of a tour guide helps. Or maybe the harassment factor is over-exaggerated. Either way, it's not like these sellers had easy pickings--there was no more than 100 tourists in our general vicinity. Compared to the thousands that we had to jostle with when we had visited Machu Picchu or the Taj Mahal, this was a small pittance. Although hurtful to the local economy, the tourism drought was our boon.

After taking the obligatory pictures of the pyramids, we went inside the tomb of Menkaure (a ticket was LE 50). It was small, featureless, and looked like there was a cave-in. Not very exciting. After we climbed out, Sam told us that all of the pyramid tombs are pretty much the same. Once you see one, you'll never have to enter another.

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(Left) It's a long way to the top of Khufu's Pyramid. (Middle) A wooden pole shows how high the pyramid used to be. (Right) Giza also has many smaller tombs for the pharaohs' wives.

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(Left) Huge blocks were brought here from a quarry miles away to build the Great Pyramids. (Right) The outside used to covered with white limestone "casing" blocks. Most of these were destroyed by an earthquake or later scavenged to construct 14th century mosques and forts.

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The pyramid of Khafre, Khufu's son. The tomb is smaller that that of his father's, but it is built on higher ground giving it the illusion that it is taller. Some "casing" blocks still cover the top.

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The smallest of the tombs is Menkaure's. The base is actually built with harder granite blocks that were transported down the Nile from Aswan.

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The Great Pyramids of Giza, with Cairo in the distance.

We then headed over to the Sphinx, part of Khafre's temple complex. It is much smaller than we had expected. Sam agreed saying that many tourists have that same thought.

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The pyramid complex of Khafre houses the Sphinx.

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Our guide, Sam, and I in front of the Sphinx.

We then drove back into Cairo to visit the Egyptian Museum which is located in Tahir Square. A year after the revolution, the place looks like any other busy plaza in any other metropolitan city. The exception are the small number of tents in the center lawn. Sam told us that those aren't revolutionaries but instead, just people capitalizing on it by selling drinks and souvenirs. The real protesters have to go back to work and support their families. An effigy still dangled from a rope in the square. A tent with multinational flags served as a sign of solidarity for other Middle Eastern countries undergoing political change. But the most blatant reminder of the revolution is the burned-out husk of the National Democratic Party Headquarters. During the protests, this building was torched because it belonged to Mubarak's political party. There was no obvious police or military presence in the area. Sam says that the cops do not dare come near Tahir square. They have to much blood on their hands from the first couple days of the revolution.

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There has been no decision on what to do with this building yet. Sam hopes that it will remain as a reminder to people of the revolution.

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(Left) Only a few tents and squatters remain in Tahir Square. (Right) Vendors capitalize on the revolution.

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Protests hang from a street light. Note the flag with the Star of David.

Our van dropped us off at the entrance to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities which has stood here for a century. All of our tour books from the past 2-3 years state that a new Egyptian museum should be ready to open in 2012. Sam replied, "This is Egypt. They haven't even broken ground yet. Give them six or seven more years".

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Although the Egyptian Museum is adjacent to the destroyed political headquartes building, all Egyptians made an effort to protect the the building and its precious contents.

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Small stone statues are displayed in the courtyard of the Egyptian Museum.

Sam then took us on a three hour tour of the museum, hitting the highlights. No cameras were allowed. We wandered over to a display of papyri found in the tomb of the pharaoh Huni. Sam meticulously explained the images of this Book of the Dead and its role in assisting a person in the Afterlife. We visited a room filled with mummified animals. The preserved dogs, cats, monkeys, and Ibises were interesting, but the the giant Nile perch and huge crocodile were downright bizarre. While we viewed the artifacts in the museum, Sam taught us how to read several of the cartouches including those of Tutankhamen, Menkaure, and other important pharaohs.

Sam was happy that we asked to see the Narmer Palette, one of the oldest documents in human history. He explained the different scenes that depicted the unifications of Upper and Lower Egypt by the first pharaoh. He showed us the evolution of the cartouche from square to oval in the Old Kingdom, the statue of Zoser (the only pharaoh who had facial hair--an Errol Flynn moustache), and Egypt's copy of the Rosetta stone. The tablet is actually a proclamation that was placed in several temples throughout the land by Ptolemy V. Three such copies have been discovered, but the original one that was crucial to the translation of hieroglyphs remains in the British Museum in London.

For an additional LE 100 per person, we entered the mummy room. The remains of famous pharaohs including Ramses II and Hatshepsut are stored here. I gotta say that it is a bit macabre. I thought that the most interesting one is the body of Seqenenre Tao II. He was a Theban king who lived during Egypt's Second Intermediate Period. He led a failed revolt against the Hyksos, Asiatic people who controlled the country during this time. His mummy has prominent axe wounds to his head, likely the cause of his death in battle. His son, Ahmose I, eventually expelled the Hyksos and founded Egypt's Eighteenth Dynasty.

Much of the museum's second floor contains artifacts found when Howard Carter opened Tutankhamen's tomb. There were golden thrones, large chariots, symbolic solar boats, beds, game boards, bow and arrows, jars still filled with essence (more on that later), and his alabaster canoptic jars. The pharaoh would need all these items in the afterlife. Normally Tutankhamen's jewelry room would be packed full of huge tour groups with a long queue waiting outside. When we were there, only two or three other people were inside. We had all the time we wanted to examine the intricate craftsmanship of his famous death mask and coffin both constructed of pure gold.

I could have spent days marvelling at all the artifacts crammed into the Egyptian Museum. The Wife not so much. Eventually we had to leave as we had other stops on our itinerary. Next we headed over to the docks for a felucca ride. These simple sail boats had been used since ancient time. There was almost no wind, so little rowboats sped past us. It was still very relaxing though. Eventually a motorboat ended up towing our boat and another one too to give it a more 'authentic' experience.

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(Left) Motorized boats docked on the Nile. (Right) A few decades ago, this used to be the largest fountain in the world.

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This lady left our slow felucca in the dust.

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(Left) A motorboat tows a felucca. (Right) We latched on to form a small train.

After our felucca ride, we headed back to Giza. A person once told me that I MUST visit an essence (perfume) shop while I was in Egypt. Maybe that was just some friendly advice. Or maybe it was a thinly veiled remark that I have bad body odor. Sam took us to the Flowers Temple Essences, a shop where he buys them for his wife. It is run by an older man named Adel whose family has been producing these fragrances for several generations. These perfumes are made in the same fashion to the methods used during the time of the pharaohs. Several bushels of aromatic flowers are placed into cheesecloth-like material and pressed to extract the juices. This liquid would then be buried in pots into the desert sand. Eventually, the water would evaporate through the porous ceramics leaving the fragrant juice and some solids like sugar. This thin layer of impurities floating at the top can then be scooped off leaving the aromatic essences remaining.

As is the custom in most Middle Eastern countries, Adel's staff was hospitable and brought us some mint tea. It was good but neither of us noticed the layer of sludge at the bottom and got a mouthful of tea grinds (we are used to tea bags or solid tea leaves). Sam had called ahead, and the staff brought us some koshary--essentially the national snack/meal of Egypt. It is a mixture of macaroni and linguine noodles, white rice, legumes, fried onions, tomatoes, and spices. It is simple but nutritious, delicious, and inexpensive enough for any person to afford. Surprisingly, koshary has not found any popularity outside of Egypt.

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Koshary may not look like much, but it sure satisfies a carb craving.

Adel then explained the differences between Egyptian essences and the name-brand perfumes from Europe. Those large fashion houses take these same essences and add impurities such as alcohol, water, and other chemicals and then charge consumers much more. The Egyptian stuff is pure and just as fragrant. The wife was happy because she usually gets a headache from the odor of all the additives in most perfumes.

Adel then personally had us smell samples of his different essences. He had fragrances composed of just the same flower as well as combinations of up to ten different ones. He said that when King Tut's tomb was excavated in 1922, several papyri were found which gave the recipes for different fragrance combinations. We tried almost everything. Most of them were amazing. There were names such as 'Scent of the Desert' and 'Arabian Nights' (he promised that this would ensure that you score that night). Sadly, he didn't have any 'Sex Panther'. Roar. For the ladies, the combinations went by their name-brand titles such as CK and Ralph Lauren. We pretty much disliked anything Chanel (sorry mom).

Adel's shop is pretty large with several benches for people to try the different fragrances. Hanging on the walls were letters and photographs from previous customers (mainly from Commonwealth countries) complimenting him on his essences. We were the only two tourists for the one or two hours we spent there. As Sam remarked, we bought the house--12 fragrances total (buy 5 and get 1 free) with a couple of delicate glass perfume bottles too. Adel even gave us a bottle of my wife's 'favorite' fruit aroma. Since she's not too keen on smelling like a watermelon, peach, or lemon, she picked orange blossoms.

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Adel and his essence shop.

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Many delicate and colorful perfume bottles are sold throughout Egypt.

Back at the hotel, we dined at the Mughal Room considered the best Indian restaurant in all of Egypt. Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure it is also the most expensive Indian restaurant in all of Egypt too.

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(Left) Samosas and papadum. (Right) Dipping sauces and pickles.

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(Left) Maachi (fish) tikka, murgh jhalfarezi (spicy chicken with onions and peppers), Kashmiri roganjosh (lamb with saffron), dal, and pulao. (Right) Hara bhara kebab (potato and lentil galette), aloo jeera (potatoes and spices), paneer makhani (cheese with tomato sauce), dal, and rice.

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(Left) Malai pista kulfi (pistachio ice cream). (Right) Rasmalai (milk dumplings with sweet cream and pistachios).

It was an exhausting day of sightseeing and shopping. But it was well worth it because we had truly seen and eaten some wonderful things.

Posted by evilnoah 19:44 Archived in Egypt Tagged egypt pyramids Comments (1)

Evolution of a Revolution

Visiting Saqqara, Memphis, and Dashur

sunny 85 °F

A year ago, every TV news station saturated the airways with coverage of the Egyptian revolution. It took almost everybody by surprise. People wanted to know what was the root of all this unrest in Egypt? What were the people so passionate about that they risked torture and death from the police. What would Egypt’s future mean for the rest of the world? Unfortunately, I didn't find out these answers. I was too busy watching ESPN and a plethora of mind-numbing reality shows to pay attention to the news coverage.

Our plan for the day would be to travel to three different locations around Cairo—Saqqara, Memphis, and Dashur. As we rode in the van, I had a lengthy conversation with Sam about one of his most passionate topics--Egyptian politics. Like many other young people in Cairo, he had participated in the protests in Tahir Square. He explained that there are multiple reasons why the populace has been discontent. Some people yearned for more democratic representation rather than Mubarak’s oppressive regime. Others were dissatisfied with the country’s economic situation. High unemployment, low salaries, and rising costs were burdens that many Egyptians faced.

But for many young people, the revolution was simply a fight for a better Egypt and for a better future. Because of the internet and free access of information, people could see the prosperity of other countries. "I just came back from London. Why can't our traffic be that orderly? Why can't our buildings be as nice and clean? Egypt used to be the greatest power in the world!" Sam proclaimed. As we drove around the city, we could see the problems that he was talking about.

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Although piles of trash line the canals in Giza, most of the other areas around Cairo are actually pretty clean.

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WTF! Somebody threw out a perfectly good horse!

"Look at this sh*t here!" he exclaimed, pointing to an ugly, dilapidated building right off the highway. "Egypt has only 7% useable land, and they are wasting it with that!" In addition to that slum, it is also hard to miss the glaring eyesores of unfinished buildings with naked rebars pointing to the sky. One understandable reason for this is family expansion. Whenever an offspring marries and starts a family, they just build an additional floor onto the unfinished building.

However, there are less familial reasons for these construction abominations. One such possibility is tax evasion. Supposedly, completed buildings are taxed while unfinished buildings are not. In a country with economic woes, every little bit counts. Furthermore, it may simply be just a matter of money. Buildings sometimes remain unfinished because the owners have run out of capital to complete it. In most developed countries, these eyesores would be unacceptable. Building codes would prevent people from inhabiting these potentially dangerous structures. Contractors would be deterred by stiff fines. In Egypt, the government just turns a blind eye...for the right price.

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You won't find Cairo on any lists of the most beautiful skylines in the world.

As we entered the countryside, our van was stuck for 15 minutes on a two lane road. Several cars going the opposite direction decided to use our side as a left turn lane. As our driver screamed at a police car parked nearby to do something, the officer simply rolled up his window and ignored him.

Like many developing countries, traffic laws seem nonexistant in Egypt. With two million cars squeezed into a limited space, automotive congestion is a big problem in Cairo. Cars drive three abreast in two lane roads which are already limited by vendors illegally selling fruits, vegetables, and fish on the sides. Trucks make right hand turns from the left lane daring other smaller vehicles to stop them. And there is the fleet of cheap white vans that serve as private shuttles for the populace. These inconsiderate drivers simply stop in the middle of the busy roads loading and unloading passengers. All the while, everybody behind them has to come to a standstill. Egypt should be a traffic cop’s paradise. However, there seems to be either no traffic laws or enforcement of them.

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Several parked white vans block the entrance onto the freeway

Why are the authorities so apathetic? Sam explained that Egypt has had a culture of corruption under Mubarak’s government. Favoritism, not meritocracy, had been the pathway to success. In the government, people often advanced based on who they were friends with or who their fathers were. This has got to be demoralizing for the average person who may have no opportunity for promotion regardless of how well they perrform.

Another problem is the rampant bribery and extortion that have sullied the Egyptian government. Most government employees like policemen are underpaid. Despite their low salaries, it is not infrequent to see some officials becoming wealthy by taking bribes. In the army, some lieutenants live better than their generals. The corruption has gotten so pervasive that it has almost become expected. Sam said that an investigative TV show had actually filmed a policeman nonchalantly going from car to car in busy traffic demanding money from drivers. This culture must be demoralizing for those officials who are actually honest. What’s the point of issuing citations if the perpetrators can simply bribe their way out of a penalty.

Many believe that purging the government of the old regime is the first step in breaking this culture of corruption. Unfortuanately, like many other Tahir Square protesters, Sam has experienced the disenchantment that has followed a year later. “We got rid of Mubarak,” he said. “Now some of his top deputies and generals are back running for office. I’m sure there are going to be some votes for sale.”

He laments that the country has not made substantial political advances in the last twelve months. He is angry that the military has not yet relinquished control and is failing the country. He says that the revolution was led by the optimistic, young people of Egypt. Now it has been hijacked by politicians who are out to further their own agendas.

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The sight of soldiers toting automatic weapons actually made me feel much safer.

One concern we both share is the role of religion in Egypt’s future. I reminded him that the Iranian revolution also started as a broad coalition of protestors against a corrupt dictatorship. However, it was soon transformed into an Islamic fundamentalist movement. Now Iran has a dangerous authoritarian government flirting with nuclear power. It seems like Egypt is showing signs of heading in the same direction. The news has reported that the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood has gained 47% of the parliament seats. But more alarmingly, the ultra-fundamentalist Salafi Al-Nour Party which advocates strict Islamic law has garnered 25%. Sam remains optimistic that the young people of Egypt won’t let this ultra-fundamentalist attitude take over his country. He proclaimed, “There would be a second revolution if that happened.” Hopefully, for Egypt’s sake it won’t come down to that. After all, look how well the Iranian people fared in the 2009 protests.

Our first stop was 30 minutes south of Giza at Saqqara to see the Step Pyramid of Zoser, a pharaoh of the Third Dynasty. Prior to his reign, rulers were buried in mastabas, two-tiered rectangular mausoleums. However, King Zoser desired a more unique building for his afterlife. The man who would make it happen was Imhotep (not the bad guy from The Mummy movies). Imhotep was considered a genius in his time. He served as the pharaoh’s chancellor and has been accredited as being the first physician known to history. Later generations of Egyptians would worship him as a god, an honor never repeated on non-royalty. His most important and lasting achievement was designing the Step Pyramid. The structure was built in six phases. Starting with an oversized mastabas, he kept enlarging the base and adding more levels. Eventually, a ziggurat with distinct levels was formed.

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The Step Pyramid under renovation.

Currently, the Step Pyramid is being restored. With your hands alone, you can easily scrape the mortar off, thus loosening the stones. It's surprising that Zoser's structure has held up this well for so many millennia. In contrast, the ruins of crumbled pyramids of later pharaohs lay nearby. Currently, scaffolding covers the Step Pyramid as workers have been replacing some of the eroded mortar to secure some loosened stones.

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Unlike the massive blocks of the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Step Pyramid was built with smaller bricks and mortar composed of sand.

In front of the pyramid is a large funerary complex containing the courtyard for the Heb-Sed festival that was held every 10-30 years. Some believe that the Egyptians borrowed this ritual from African tribes. To avoid having an elderly and physically weak chieftain, these tribals would kill their leaders when they turned 30 years old. Since the Egyptians were not too keen on snuffing out their divine leaders, they devised a ritual where the pharaoh had to show his prowess by chasing a bull around and cutting off its tail. Even the female pharaoh Hatshepsut and Pepys II, who ruled for 90 years (longest ever in human history) took part in this ceremony. However, nobody ever said how old and frail the bull had to be.

Sam took us right outside the temple walls to some recently excavated tombs of the nobles. We were told to watch our step because what we thought may be firm ground may instead be loose sand covering a pit. When they were not being excavating, the tombs were filled in with sand again to preserve them from the elements.

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Current areas being excavated. On the right is the Pyramid of Unas, a pharaoh of the Fifth Dynasty. This tomb is notable for being the first to have artwork and mortuary inscriptions on the walls known as pyramid text.

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Elaborate hieroglyphs above the tomb door of one of Zoser's generals.

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Sam poses in front of a tomb that he had helped excavate years ago.

The next stop was the city of Memphis. We had expected that there would be limited sights to see, but it was just plain sad. The ancient capital of Egypt is now filled with poor people and dirty buildings. Ironically, some people would say that of my hometown of Memphis too. A porous fence surrounds some rolling hills where ruins of the city once stood. However, locals can just go in at night, dig up some old artifacts, and sell anything with hieroglyphs on the black market. There seems to be no security. Sadly, Memphis ranks low in priority when it comes to excavation and protection. Temples and tombs were made of stones so they have survived fairly intact from the ravages of time. Memphis was an administrative capital where people worked and lived. Therefore, the buildings were mainly erected using mud bricks. These have a significantly less chance of survival over several millennia. The hope of finding anything meaningful in Memphis is small, thus the ruins have been neglected. The only things to see in the tiny museum are the large supine statue of Ramses II, the alabaster sphinx, and a couple of pillar pieces and statues. Not really worth the time.

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Some of the few artifacts on display at the Memphis Museum. Unexcavated fields lay nearby.

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The twin of this massive statue of Ramses II is the only artifact that has been transported to the site of the new Egyptian Museum in Giza.

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The alabaster sphinx is much, much smaller than the Sphinx at Giza.

Next we headed to Dashur where most large tourist buses skip. It's too bad because some historic pyramids are located there. Khufu's father Sneferu built three pyramids during his reign. The first in Meidum collapsed. The second was built at a 52 degree angle, but near the top it was changed to a 48 degree angle giving it the name of the Bent Pyramid. Unfortunately, it is considered structurally unsound and closed to the general public. His final tomb, the Red Pyramid, is named because the building stones have a high iron content. It's really the first true pyramid in history. It's total size is second only to Khufu's pyramid (it's shorter than Khafre's because a shallower angle was used).

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A lone camel guards the Bent Pyramid.

Unlike Giza, this place was completely deserted. There were no vendors and only one other tourist. Although photography is not allowed inside, we had read on the Internet that it is possible for the right price (not surprising). Since there are no paintings that could be ruined by flash photography nor are there any mummies (the sarcophagus was empty) that would be disrespected, I personally felt no harm would be done by taking pictures inside. After we climbed up to the entrance, the guard greeted us and immediately pointed to a stack of Egyptian currency in his hand--the universal sign for a bribe. So much for being discrete. We gave him LE 10 and took the steep climb downward into the burial chamber. In an adjacent room, a set of contemporary wooden stairs led above to a small chamber where the canoptic jars would have been stored. The air inside the tomb was hot and stale reeking of the body odor of hundreds of sweaty tourists. We stayed only briefly because the air was too hard to breathe. Despite it being a cool day outside, we were both dripping with sweat when we emerged from the pyramid. Back in our car, Sam explained that the odors accumulate in the tomb walls. Every few years, they are thoroughly washed to get the stink out. Cleaning was scheduled for last year, but it was not done because of the revolution.

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The Red Pyramid actually looks tan.

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It's a steep climb down to the tomb. The climb back up was a lot worse.

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Like most other early pyramids, no decorations adorn the walls.

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They need to think about hiring a new cleaning crew.

After finishing our sightseeing for the day, we asked to stop at a legitimate papyrus store. Most of the cheap 'papyrus' sold on the streets are actually made of low quality banana leaves. Inside the shop, we were given a demonstration on how this paper is made. Thin strips are cut from the stalk of a papyrus plant. They are then flattened with a hammer making them pliable enough to crush in your hand without breaking. The strips are then soaked in water for a few days. The longer it is soaked, the browner the paper will become. The strips are then arranged in a cross-wised woven pattern. The papyrus is then placed in a vise for six days. When it comes out, it is ready to be painted. Unlike some other papers, the colors don't fade.

We ended up buying two large papyri. One shows the judgement scene for the deceased pharaoh. His heart is weighed against a feather. If it is heavier, meaning he has sinned, the pharaoh is devoured by the crocodile-headed god Amut thus depriving him of the Afterlife. The other artwork shows the romantic scenes of courtship between a pharaoh and his wife. At first each wears their own sandals. Once they become a couple, they share the same pair. In the final scene, both are barefoot meaning that they are going to get it on.

Afterwards, we went to a store to have keychains engraved with our kids' names in hieroglyphic cartouches. I also got a silver ring with my name on it in hieroglyphs. I don't really know how accurate it is, but nobody else is gonna know. The wife was also eyeing a beautiful gold necklace adorned with Egyptian turquoise. This semi-precious stone mined in the Sinai peninsula is considered the best in the world. The piece was a whopping $4000--more than many diamond bracelets! La shukren!

Sam was very patient with us while we took a long time to shop. I told him that in Delhi, the guides received 3% of the profits from the tourists stores. I asked him what his cut would be. Surprisingly, he told me that he gets nothing at all. He even added that he could lose his Egyptology license by getting these kickbacks. He told us that he wouldn't want to do it anyway because he would feel 'indebted' to certain vendors or restaurants. In this way, he can continue to recommend the establishments that take care of his clients best. I thought his integrity was very refreshing as I jotted down notes with a Viagra pen. (Before you get up in arms, please note that pharmaceutical companies don't give any of those things away anymore. That ship sailed long before I ever arrived. Sigh.).

As we arrived back at our hotel, our van had to dodge an army of tourist hustlers loitering just beyond the grounds. As the security gate closed behind us, those aggressive touts reminded me of horror-movie zombies. They stood there behind an impassable fence salivating at their potential victims. Instead of wanting our brains, they simply wanted our wallets. "People like that weren't part of the revolution," Sam emphasized as he pointed to those tourist hustlers.

Dinner was at the hotel's Khan el-Khalili restaurant.

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(Left) Okra tagine. (Right) Steaming pile of dog poop? Nope. It's kofta and keema.

After dinner, I really got to thinking about Tahir Square, the Egyptian Revolution, and the passion their young generation has for democracy. All of this made me contemplate how much we as Americans take our freedom for granted. I have been inspired to be more political and to keep updated with our coming elections. I have felt compelled to turn on CNN and watch hours and hours of politics. I am going to change and be passionate about actively campaigning for my political beliefs...On second thought, these will have to wait until another day. Arab Idol is coming on tonight.

Posted by evilnoah 17:52 Archived in Egypt Tagged egypt cairo pyramid saqqara dashur Comments (0)

Shooting the Shisha

A Look Back in Cairo's Past

sunny 85 °F

Today would be our final day in Cairo. After a 10 AM pickup, our van took us along the Pyramid Road from Giza to Old Cairo. At our hotel, they have an old photograph from the 19th century showing this road desolate of buildings, cars, carts, or people. That is not the cause nowadays. Traffic was so congested that it took almost an hour to drive 14 km--barely faster than running speed.

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Not going anywhere for awhile. Grab a Snickers bar.

Our first stop was the Coptic area of Cairo. After Jesus' crucifixion, St. Mark brought Christianity to Egypt. The Romans persecuted these early worshippers forcing them into hiding. One secret meeting place for these Christians was the Hanging Church which was built on the ruins of a secluded and abandoned Roman fortress. It was ingenuously constructed by placing palm tree planks across from one tower to another tower. Sand and water were then placed on top and compacted down. After the sand dried, it essentially developed the strength of sandstone. Although this foundation has held up for over 1,500 years, it's still a bit nerve-racking knowing that the church is not on terra firma.

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Several churches are built on the ruins of this former Roman fortress.

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(Left) The Hanging Church is still actively used by Coptic Christians. (Right) A cutout of the church's floor shows that it is indeed suspended above the ground.

We then went nearby to the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George. He was a Roman tribune who refused to comply with the emperor's edict that all soldier's renounce Christianity. He was imprisoned, tortured, and finally executed for his religious beliefs. They have some ghastly torture devices on display including a pair of sandals with huge spikes that would pierce the foot at each step. The church is decorated with paintings of him as a medieval knight on horseback slaying a dragon, a symbol of the defeat of Satan.

The third church we visited was the Coptic Church of St. Sergius. According to tradition, the church's crypt was once a cave where Jesus, Joseph, and Mary stayed when they fled from King Herod. The church was popular with pilgrims especially during medieval times. Since the stairwell to the crypt is gated off, people write down their wishes on paper and throw them down hoping their prayers are granted.

We then walked over to the Ben Esra Synagogue, the oldest one in Egypt dating back to the 12th century. Only a few Jewish families remain nearby to worship there, most having fled to Israel in the 1950's. The synagogue has pillars and floors made from imported white Italian marble. It had been renovated within the last 10-20 years, so it is still in very good shape.

Moving forward historically, we drove to the citadel of Saladin. He is best known as the outstanding commander who opposed Richard the Lionhearted during the Crusades. He built a series of forts including this one to protect his territory against attack. At the top of the fortress stands the Mosque of Mohammed Ali, considered second only to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul in terms of beauty. Mohammed Ali was one of the greatest leaders in Egyptian history. Prior to his rule, Egypt was weak because rival factions such as the Mamelukes had kept the country fragmented. He consolidated the power of the viceroy in the early 1800's by ambushing and massacring 500 Mameluke leaders. He then set about modernizing Egypt with the help of his French advisors.

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(Left) It was refreshing to see that most of the tourists to the citadel were local Egyptians. (Right) A small trebuchet decorates the entrance of the citadel.

There were several local kids here on field trip who mobbed us smiling and asking us repeatedly, "What's your name? What's your name?" Sam remarked that this sentence is probably the only English phrase they know. Since the fortress is built on the high ground overlooking the city, the best panoramic view of the city is right outside the mosque. Nearby is also a large clock tower. Mohammed Ali had given the French an obelisk as a token of friendship. In return, the French gave Egypt this clock. It has never worked. Not even after almost 200 years.

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The Mosque of Mohammed Ali.

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The mosque was built with alabaster which remains cool even during the hot summer months.

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The mosque is ornately decorated including ceilings hand-painted using gold.

On the way out, we passed the quarries where the stones for the Great Pyramids were cut. They were then somehow dragged for miles and miles to Giza. We also drove along the road passing the City of the Dead. It's really just a cemetery. The tombs for members of the same family are enclosed by a high fence which can seem like the walls of a house. The multitude of these family plots gives the illusion of the cemetery as a city.

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The quarry for the Great Pyramids of Giza.

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The City of the Dead blends in with the rest of the Cairo landscape.

We then visited the Khan el Khalili, the old market of Cairo. We relaxed at an outdoor cafe and enjoyed a Turkish coffee and apple-scented shisha. Since I am not a smoker, it irritated my throat after awhile. The wife didn't like it at all and only took a few puffs. The apple smell was sweet yet subtle.

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(Left) Shisha pipes come in all sorts of colorful, decorative patterns. They gave us the ugliest one. (Right) Surgeon General's Warning: Smoking causes lung cancer.

It was nice just relaxing and shooting the breeze with Sam--kinda like sitting at a Parisian cafe. He told us about his trip to Singapore, New Zealand, and Thailand last year. We were particularly interested in hearing about Thailand since that is one place we are considering on going. He remarked that it is one of the few countries where Egyptians can feel rich. Sam talked about how he and his wife visited Patpong. He didn't believe any of that stuff was real until he almost got hit in the face with a flying banana. If you don't know what I'm talking about, you are best not knowing.

Thinking back on our visit to the synagogue, I asked Sam how younger Egyptians perceive Jews. He replied that obviously there will be some that hate them just because of the contentious issues with Israel. In fact Sam's father fought two wars against them as a fighter pilot. Even then, his father harbored no ill will towards his enemy--they were fighting for their country just as he was for his too. Sam stated that many see the problem as mainly a Palestinian vs Israeli conflict. Egypt has made its peace with Israel over thirty years ago. As for the Jews who remain in Egypt, Sam said that he has an even greater respect for them. Their decision to remain here despite the difficulties and potential danger shows their true love for Egypt.

We also discussed the role of women in Egyptian society. We had spoken to very few women on our trip so far. Apparently, many women do work--just not in the tourism sector. Once they hit puberty, most females in Egypt wear a headscarf that just covers their head, but keeps the face fully exposed. In modern parts of Cairo, it's not uncommon to see some younger women wearing a headscarf and tight-fitting shirt and jeans. However, we still saw plenty of ladies donning the full black burka where only their eyes are visible within a small slit. Sam explained that this tradition originated from Saudi Arabia where women dressed like that to protect themselves from the sand and wind. He said that nowhere in the Koran does it mention women having to cover themselves like that. Only Arabs or religious zealots dress in the burka. Sam is not a big fan of the look saying, "Why would I want all of our women to look like ninjas?"

He mentioned that some visitors from ultra-conservative Islamic countries act very differently while in Egypt. Some of the married Saudi men hang out at the belly-dancing clubs (the closest institution to strip clubs here) trying to pick up women. I told him that there is no shortage of that behavior from married men back in the U.S. too. Sam then told us of an account many years ago when he was stopped by a woman in a full burka who told him that he had dropped a piece of paper on the ground. As she hurried off, he picked up the paper and it had her name and phone number on it. He never called. "She could have been the most gorgeous woman of your dreams!" I remarked. "OR she could have had the face of a dog!" he retorted. I guess that is the magic and mystery of the burka.

As we relaxed vendors stopped by and politely hawked their wares. The wife had been looking for some playful headdresses for our daughter. A cute little girl about 10-12 years old haggled us up to three for LE 40 (they should only be ten a piece). I asked her why she wasn't in school that day. She answered that it was her birthday and her mother was letting her stay home. Obviously this was a lie. She was working for a shopkeeper selling his/her wares using the 'cuteness' factor as an advantage. She left and came back a few minutes later asking Sam to help her with some math. The shopkeeper was getting LE 8 for each headdress. She couldn't figure out the simple calculations to see how much profit she should make on the three she sold to us. Sadly, the lack of education for the poor people will continue to be one of the challenges that Egypt faces in the future.

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(Left) You can enjoy ice cream with your scented tobacco (narchile). (Right) Sadly, this girl propagates the myth that girls suck at math.

We walked around the bazaar for a few minutes. Most of the stuff being sold was cheap junk likely made in China. Sam had told us that the best things to get there were wood boxes inlaid with mother of pearl, shisha pipes, copper pots and lamps, and leather goods. We had plenty of souvenirs by then, so we avoided buying anything substantial.

On the way back to Giza, we stopped off to get some take-out some koshary, falafels, and shwarma sandwiches. Since we would be flying out very early in the morning, we toured the grounds of our historic hotel, the Mena House, for the last time. It was built in the 1860's by the Egyptian ruler, Khedive Ismail as a hunting lodge. It was then sold and converted into a hotel two decades later. During the late 19th and 20th century, heads of state, royalty, and wealthy Europeans stayed there when visiting Cairo. Back in those days they had a golf course and a ski slope both made up of sand. During World War II, Roosevelt and Churchill planned part of the the D-Day Invasion while staying at the Mena House. Later in the 1970's, the hotel hosted the Egypt-Israeli Talks which led to the historic peace accord. During our stay, the hotel was undergoing more renovations/expansions but it was not noticeable. The service was impeccable during our time there. We were upgraded to a room facing the Pyramids, possibly because their occupancy was low from the lack of tourism. Regardless of the reason, enjoying the view of this great monument while we ate dinner on our balcony was a great parting image of Cairo.

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A 1888 advertisement for the Mena House. Note the telephone number.

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The view of Khufu's Pyramid from the balcony of our hotel.

Posted by evilnoah 19:56 Archived in Egypt Tagged egypt cairo Comments (0)

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