Cairo, the City of Superlatives

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

As the largest city in the Middle East, Cairo is a place of superlatives, with millions of people, culture spanning thousands of years, poverty, riches, antiquities, mosques and bazaars, churches, and the pyramids. 

On the first day, I visited the Egypt Antiquities Museum to see King Tut's treasures (see King Tut post) and artefacts spanning Egypts Kingdoms.  The statues and everything else are packed tightly into each and every corner of the museum, showing that Egypt just overflows with ancient treasures.  Highlights were:

A highly-distinctive statue of Akhenaten and a bas-relief of him receiving the symbolic life or ankh from the hands of the sun disk, the one god he raised to supremacy while completely abandoning all others and their priests.

Comparing "Eyes of Horus" and protector goddesses on dozens of brilliantly-colored sarcophogi.  Among them was Isis, who often was winged, with obvious parallels to Biblical angels.

The King Tut treasures were an obvious highlight as they are arguably the greatest complete collection found in any worldly museum.

I was staying a few blocks away from the museum, in the center of Cairo, where the streets bustled.  Crossing the streets was an art, as even green "walk" signals didn't mean you were safe.  Tucked in between the main thoroughfares were leafy sidestreets, where men repaired cars and motorcycles between small grocery stores and apartments.  Kushari restaurants were in this area too and became a staple of my diet. 

Kushari is a rice and chickpea and lentil dish, topped with a tomato sauce and crispy fried onion bits.  You can add vinegar and a spicy red oil to taste.  The waiters will give you a small, medium, or large bowl.  After, you can have a rice pudding dessert.  The locals packed into Abou Tarek, El-Tahrir, and Lux to eat these wholesome and inexpensive meals.

Back at the hotel, I met a fellow American trying to get into the Gaza Strip.  He had been in Egypt for two months and wasn't able to get permission to enter, despite his brothers and sisters living there.  We talked about Palestine and Israel and the current situation.  He was going to give it one more week, then maybe give up for now, as the timing wasn't the best, given the tensions.

The Old Kingdom Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx and Saqqara and the surrounding desert were my next destinations for an extremely long yet rewarding day beginning with a minibus ride to Giza.  The pyramids, of course, are the greatest burial monuments from the ancient world, four thousand five hundred years old, human geometric mountains pointing towards the gods.  The Egyptians could easily have built burial mounds or something less grand, so there was definitely something important with the size and geometry of the pyramids and the high accuracy of the building ratios.

What could that be?  With this one, anyone can use their imagination, and that is easy to do while standing next to these almost perfect square bases topped with four triangles ending in a common point, while bedouins try to get you onto their camel.

The Sphinx is one of many Mister Potatohead-type mythological creatures in Egypt, where some have human bodies and animal heads and others have animal heads and a human body.  As the gatekeeper of the pyramids, I passed it before heading to the pyramids.

From Giza, I took another minibus to friendly Saqqara Village, walking through the dirt streets.  An hour later, I was almost at the Saqqara Archaeological Site when a young man insisted on giving me a motorcycle ride the remainder of the way, just to be friendly, accelerating to full speed for a while for fun.

At Saqqara, I saw the first pyramid, Zoser's step pyramid, as well as ancient mastaba, or tombs full of wall bas-reliefs and symbolism.  The museum was simple and elegant, with a few key exhibits of ancient sculpture that revealed much about who Egyptians were back during the Old Kingdom, when Memphis was the capital, and the nobles were buried here, in the limestone desert, the Land of the Dead.  The green land of the living Nile, meanwhile, was a couple dozen meters lower in a fertile plain, seemingly highly vulnerable to the encroaching desert.

 As late afternoon approached, I left for Cairo, taking several buses and the metro to get back.  Egypt's minibus system is fairly seamless and just telling the driver where you are going is enough: he'll let you know where to get off to catch the next minibus leg.  At one point, one of the drivers was a twelve year-old and his friend, who seemed to enjoy their position of responsibility.

Still on other days, I visited many parts of Cairo on foot, walking all day along the Nile, through the old quarter, in the Islamic District, in Coptic Cairo.  In each part were characters: a man selling licorice, one of the few remaining Jews "shalom", old men sitting near mosques watching the world go by, Coptic Christian women without veils and with the latest hairstyles and sunglasses, and thousands of others adding energy and vitality to the intense city.

In every meaning of the word, Cairo is intense.  The winds blow dust and sand throughout the streets, along with garbage.  People crowd around bazaars, creating seas of people.  Traffic congests bursting streets.  People wait in line for bread.  There is an underlying tension and discontent among many.

"People aren't good to each other, everyone lies," said one man, who wanted to talk.  He was disatisfied with his country, the hereditary system of movies, politics, and riches, and the corruption. 

"Mubarak is not liked, corrupt.  America should invade."  I think he was trying to see what I would say to that one.

Many other people wanted to practice their English or give you their business card or take you to their shop.  Along the way, I stopped in different places, as it's a common thing to do: have tea, talk with the owner.  If they are more interested in talking and relaxing, great; if they want to pressure you with strong-armed sales tactics and such, it's time to go.  Over a cup of tea, one shopkeeper, who was relatively well-off said: "here we eat well, but in other places of Cairo, people are hungry."

Those other places were all over, as I walked through run-down streets, where many greeted you with a bit smile, despite their poverty and little chances of improving their life under the current conditions, with Egypt saturated with people well above any type of sustainability.

To the northeast, however, was Heliopolis, where Egypt's affluent lived, the suburbs.  Fancy shops lined the streets here.  This was the Egypt you saw in the Egyptian movies and soap operas that graced television sets all over the Middle East.

From Heliopolis, I left Cairo for Greece, leaving Egypt behind, with its superlatives of history and problems and its contrasts of desert and river, life and death, poverty and riches.
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