Monday, May 24, 2004

Egypt - Around Cairo, Giza, Saqqara, Memphis

I definitely have to say that going to Egypt was one of the most nervous voyage I've ever taken so far. I was really completely alone. I had no traveling companions or friends I knew there. Yet since it has always been my dream to go see the wonders of Egypt, I knew I had to. There really was no question of not going.
So as I boarded the EgyptAir bound for Cairo after many hours of layover at JFK, I couldn't help but feel the creeping of excitement at the same time imagining myself fumbling through the foreign customs and possibly getting lost. I needn't have worried. It was unlike any trip I had undertaken before. As soon as I walked off the plane...yes, we had to descent from our plane and walk to the airport...and entered the airport, I immediately saw my trusty guide.
All I can say is that the travel industry in Egypt is simply marvelous. In no time, I had VISA in my hand and was out through the customs and the airport with my bag.
View of the Cairo City
I guess first impression of Cairo is the dry warm heat mingled with the smog. Having lived in Korea, the smog and the traffic (almost death defying drives) were not completely new to me. Neither was the heat since Cairo in May was like summer in LA. Still, one notices the absence of colors, or rather the sea of cement-colored buildings, the chaos in the streets...This, I was not used to.
In comparison to the world outside, the hotel I stayed in was full of order and elegance. I was not shocked by the difference, but nevertheless my mind took note of it. Despite feeling like the stranger, I went to explore an elegant local restaurant nearby as I watched the strange people walking on the Nile banks.
Mosque of Mohammed Ali
The first sights I saw of Cairo was that of Islamic Cairo. My guide met me and we headed for the mosque of Mohammed Ali. I have seen mosques at Spain, but those had been mosques converted to cathedrals. Seeing an actual mosque itself was a new experience for me. We entered holding our shoes, then sat on the floor of the mosque.
Inside the Mosque of Mohammed Ali
Strangely I didn't feel as though I was entering a foreign territory. It was like an experience of entering a beautiful Gothic cathedral for me. I guess I just can't seem to get it through my head that people put such importance in the differences in two religions as supposed to the similarity.
We walked the grounds of the mosque and I saw the view of the whole Cairo with the haze of smog covering the various mosques with crescent spikes.
Visiting the Egyptian museum was like being transported to the previous century. I don't think much has changed since the museum was first set up. So many artifacts are just carelessly strewn about, some in glass cases made of wooden frames. There are no air conditioning to speak of. I could imagine myself walking out with any number of items without a single warning alarm. I think the museum would have been exactly the same hundred years before.
The Egyptian Museum
Treasures of Tutankamun, countless mummies, jewels, sarcophagi...amongst all, the one that most affected me was the mummy of Ramses II. The details...even each strand of hair is preserved. I simply could not believe Ramses II died at such an old age...
Cairo, or let's say Egypt in general is strange in a sense that Christians and Muslims seem to coexist rather well. The Coptics, not considered an accepted Christian faction, but nevertheless in great number in Egypt had one of the oldest neighborhoods in Cairo with the small, but impressive church.
Inside Coptic Church
Until I went inside the church I was not quite sure what they meant by "hanging church". Then I was told to look under my feet and realized. Church was literally sitting on top of pillars.
Outside Coptic Church
The neighborhood outside the church was full of narrow streets and other churches with a huge mosque right next door. I suppose I would have loved to just wander around the neighborhood, but it was too hot even for me and I don't think my guide would have appreciated me wandering around the old Cairo.
I think because of the markets I visited in Korea, I was more prepared for the ever famous Khan-el-Khalili market place. Yet I was not at all prepared for the ever persistent shop vendors. It was almost to the point of harassment. I suppose they do not understand that customers might possibly buy more if they aren't so persistent. Especially without my guide to fend them off, I definitely did not have good time of it.
A mosque and buildings by khan el khalili market place
Still there's just something about the marketplace...the smell of spices, scarfs blowing in the wind, the shelves full of handmade goods. I guess my advice would be to proceed with caution and don't show any interest at all.
The experience of walking through the whole market was definitely worth any amount of harassment.
Khan el Khalili market place
After having been on one, I don't believe I will ever be on the dinner Nile cruise in Cairo, but one should try all life has to offer at least first time. So there I was, sitting at the cruise. Usually the food in Cairo I found to be rather bland. I suppose they are trying to cater to tourists, but the only memorable food I had was during the first night at the privately owned restaurant of the real Egyptian food.
Night Cairo from the cruise
Still, I had overall enjoyable time with the cruise...Sufi dancer was something I had never seen before and Belly dancer was not fabulous but entertaining. I personally think most people go on the cruise to be romantic on top of the boat when the sun goes down.
Pyramids. That was what I was waiting for, right? Well, strangely, as I approached them, I don't think I was overly excited as I thought I would be. They were a sight to be hold, but they did not exceed my expectations. Maybe if I were allowed to climb one up to the top, I might have changed my mind. That practice unfortunately was no longer allowed.
Pyramids of Giza
In order to enter the Pyramids, one must do some bending and slight acrobatic moves. It is a hold that just goes straight down. Even with the help of ramp, it is not at all easy thing to do. I was very glad not many people were in the walkway with me. It was barely enough for few people to go down.
The stale air and lack of light made the whole place very unattractive. Yet why is it that people go to the pyramid? I am not sure. There really is absolutely nothing inside.
Pyramid at the bottom
No matter, I was still very awed in their presence. I would gladly have signed up if there was some sort of time machine that would transport me back in time during the construction of such pyramids.
The history it seems is still a mystery. I don't really think anyone knows still what exactly went through the mind of those pharaohs who built the pyramids. We all speculate about this and that. We all know the facts, but do we really? It seems the more we scrutinize, the less we know about history. So many theories accepted as a fact, but do we really know?
Pyramids of Giza
Of course, I didn't really want to question that. Sometimes one must simply taken in the sight.
There are not much that was left of the artifacts inside the pyramids (no wonder...a huge target for robbers, so easy to see!), but a large boat was found very well preserved. To not deteriorate the boat displayed, we had to cover our shoes with some sort of cloth shoe covers.
After seeing so many colossal statues and pyramid, I thought the boat might be a bit of a disappointment, but I was mistaken. I think it's the history that makes it so interesting. How was it possible to have such sophisticated craft over 5000 years ago?
Sun Boat
One very crazy yet interesting about Egypt is that there is a police force dedicated entirely to tour industry. They are extremely easy to spot since they wear all white uniforms. Your presence in Egypt is never taken for granted. They know from point to point where you are from and where you go. I guess we should feel more safe that way and I did feel quite safe.
Tour police on a camel near Pyramids
It was still a bit disturbing to know that my movements are tracked by the police...a little me!
It's very funny, but I did not realize how close sphinx is to the pyramids until we drove our bus for less than few minutes and stopped. I am still not quite sure why they insisted on driving me around...although I can imagine having tourist faint on them due to heat might be one of the reasons. Regardless, there I was, suddenly in front of this giant sphinx and the funerary structure at the bottom of the hill from the sphinx.
Sphinx surrounding area
I got a brief lecture on the funerary proceedings. Yada di da...Yes, I tried to listen with enthusiasm for which I have read about many times, not wanting to offend my guide.
With some excitement, I walked the corridors of funerary structure near Sphinx. It was my lucky day. There were very few, perhaps no one around the sphinx area. There were only few around pyramids to begin with. We had left little earlier and also the tour season was over. I didn't quite mind the heat. I would seriously recommend going in May if you want to avoid being stuck in the middle of pyramid with 50 people. I can't even imagine if such thing is possible...
Step Pyramid Saqqara. That was our next stop. So close yet so different. There are evidence of irrigation everywhere, but still, it is a desert. I guess step pyramid is what has evolved to become pyramids.
Step Pyramid - Saqqara
My guide was very surprised that I wanted to go inside every mastabas. I liked the beautiful fresco still left over at the mastabas near the step pyramid. They told stories although they are usually not well known and few cared to know about them. Personally I think they're far more interesting than bare pyramids. Who knows, maybe I do have makings of becoming an archeologist.
Ramses II was probably very proud pharaoh and not beyond little self promotion. One of few pharaohs who actually erased others' and put his name on the statues. Perhaps that is why there's so many colossal and other statues of Ramses II everywhere.
Yet another colossal statue of Ramses II in Memphis
Still, I can't help but feel fascination for him. After reading the series by Jacq on Ramses II, even knowing it is all fiction...who's to say there isn't some truth to the story?
I almost believe there's sound and light show at every major monument in Egypt. This is first of many to come. Although not the best one, this is one most frequented by the tourists. Here, you hear the sphinx talk, usually about the history of Egypt in abbreviated terms. Sometimes it is disconcerting to see all the laser and images, but it was definitely worth all the strange sounds to see the pyramids and sphinx at night illuminated by various lights.
Sound and light show at Pyramids

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