4 March 2022 – Cairo Egypt – Holiday Time
As I wrote in my last blog entry, we returned to Cairo Egypt because of “unfinished business”, “being tourists”. I booked our trip through Expedia, including flights and our stay at the 4-star hotel (later reduced to 3.5 stars), the Regency Pyramids Hotel. We met up with our friends Steve and Liz from SV LIBERTE on the first night, and had a cheap dinner at a local fast food joint.
You can’t beat the pyramids view from our hotel room.
The view from the rooftop of our hotel was even better.
For background on Egypt, I went to the CIA World Fact Book to get a good summary of how the country of Egypt developed. The regularity and richness of the annual Nile River flood, coupled with semi-isolation provided by deserts to the east and west, allowed for the development of one of the world’s great civilizations. A unified kingdom arose circa 3200 B.C., and a series of dynasties ruled in Egypt for the next three millennia. The last native dynasty fell to the Persians in 341 B.C., who in turn were replaced by the Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines. It was the Arabs who introduced Islam and the Arabic language in the 7th century and who ruled for the next six centuries. A local military caste, the Mamluks took control about 1250 and continued to govern after the conquest of Egypt by the Ottoman Turks in 1517. Completion of the Suez Canal in 1869 elevated Egypt as an important world transportation hub. Ostensibly to protect its investments, Britain seized control of Egypt’s government in 1882, but nominal allegiance to the Ottoman Empire continued until 1914. Partially independent from the UK in 1922, Egypt acquired full sovereignty from Britain in 1952. The completion of the Aswan High Dam in 1971 and the resultant Lake Nasser have reaffirmed the time-honoured place of the Nile River in the agriculture and ecology of Egypt. A rapidly growing population (the largest in the Arab world), limited arable land, and dependence on the Nile all continue to overtax resources and stress society. The government has struggled to meet the demands of Egypt’s fast-growing population as it implements large-scale infrastructure projects, energy cooperation, and foreign direct investment appeals.
With a current population of about 102 million people, the major sources of revenue are from exported petroleum products, the Suez Canal and tourism. It’s main exports consist of natural gas, and non-petroleum products such as ready-made clothes, cotton textiles, medical and petrochemical products, citrus fruits, rice and dried onion, and more recently cement, steel, and ceramics.
I lived and worked in Egypt during the period 1980-1982, in the Sinai, Cairo and Alexandria. I still cannot get over how different, but yet the same – the city of Cairo looks. It is still crowded, noisy, polluted and everything seems like a sandy colour – but there are so many more high rise apartment buildings. The area around the pyramids (the suburb of Giza) is completely built up. When I lived here 40 years ago, it was just sand and dust. Now it is full of apartment buildings and more city. The honking horns never seem to stop. Diane had ear plugs, handy for sleeping in the hotel room, but I neglected to bring mine.
On our first day on the ground, we took a day trip to see some of the local sites. Our first stop was to see the Citadel of Saladin, a medieval Islamic-era fortification built by Salah ad-Din and further developed by subsequent Egyptian rulers. It was the seat of government in Egypt and the residence of its rulers for nearly 700 years from the 13th to the 19th centuries.
We then went to the Alabaster Mosque of Mohammed Ali, situated in the Citadel and commissioned by Muhammad Ali Pasha (Ottoman Empire) between 1830 and 1848. Situated on the summit of the citadel, this Ottoman mosque (or Masjid as the Muslims prefer to say, since the word Mosque is a translation of the word), the largest to be built in the first half of the 19th century, is, with its animated silhouette and twin minarets, the most visible mosque in Cairo.
Most experts and media sources estimate that approximately 90 percent of the Egyptian population is Sunni Muslim (same as Saudi Arabia) and 10 percent is Christian (estimates range from 5 to 15 percent). Approximately 90 percent of Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church. We next went to the Cavern Church. Situated in Coptic Cairo, this church is one of the oldest Coptic churches in Egypt, dating back to the 4th century. It is traditionally believed to have been built on the spot where the Holy Family, Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus Christ, rested at the end of their journey into Egypt. They may have lived here while Joseph worked at the fortress.
Next, was the Coptic Church of St Barbara, the place where many patriarchs of the Coptic Church were elected. The first to be elected here was Patriarch Isaac (681-692). The church is dedicated to Sergius and Bacchus, who were soldier-saints martyred during the 4th century in Syria by the Roman Emperor Maximian. Their sacred remains are kept within the Church.
Finally, we went to the National Museum of Civilization. When I lived in Egypt 40 years ago, the only Museum in operation (that I visited) was packed full of mummies and antiquities and they have been working on a modern replacement for many years, and unfortunately, it is not yet open. However, this Museum of Civilization was still a treat, because it is new and very well presented.
Photography of any kind was prohibited, but I managed to sneak one photo of this mummy, without using a flash.
On 3 April 2021, the museum was officially opened by president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, right before the moving of 22 mummies, including 18 kings and four queens, from the Egyptian Museum in a glamorous event termed the Pharaohs’ Golden Parade. I remember reading about it in the news and you can see a short video summary of the event below.
The next day, we visited the Saqqara Step Pyramids behind this walled structure.
Saqqara contains the oldest complete stone building complex known in history, the Pyramid of Djoser, built during the Third Dynasty. Another sixteen Egyptian kings built pyramids at Saqqara, which are now in various states of preservation. High officials added private funeral monuments to this necropolis during the entire Pharaonic period. It remained an important complex for non-royal burials and cult ceremonies for more than 3,000 years, well into Ptolemaic and Roman times.
Later, we went to see the museum at the ancient capital of Memphis.
Then we stopped for lunch, again preferring to sample some of the local cuisine.
After lunch, we went to the Giza Pyramid Complex, and then the Sphinx. The Great Pyramid and the Pyramid of Khafre are the largest pyramids built in ancient Egypt, and they have historically been common emblems of Ancient Egypt in the Western imagination. They were popularized in Hellenistic times, when the Great Pyramid was listed by Antipater of Sidon as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It is by far the oldest of the Ancient Wonders and the only one still in existence.
Standing at the base of the Great Pyramid, you really get a sense for the size of this historic wonder. I still cannot believe that in August 1981, I climbed to the top (and have the photo to prove it).
We couldn’t resist a historic group photo shot.
Next, we went on to see The Great Sphinx of Giza, commonly referred to as the Sphinx of Giza, Great Sphinx or just the Sphinx. It is a limestone statue of a reclining sphinx, a mythical creature with the head of a man, and the body of a lion. Cut from the bedrock, the original shape of the Sphinx has been restored with layers of limestone blocks. It measures 73 m (240 ft) long from paw to tail, 20 m (66 ft) high from the base to the top of the head and 19 m (62 ft) wide at its rear haunches. Its nose was broken off for unknown reasons between the 3rd and 10th centuries AD.
The Sphinx is the oldest known monumental sculpture in Egypt and one of the most recognizable statues in the world. The archaeological evidence suggests that it was created by ancient Egyptians of the Old Kingdom during the reign of Khafre (c. 2558–2532 BC). All the chairs are setup in this photo, as there is a “sound and light” show in the evenings.
On Saturday, we took a flight to Luxor and on the first day, visited the East Bank (Karnak Temple and subsequently the Luxor Temple). Luxor, by the way, was the site of a (Osama Bin Laden financed) terrorist act that resulted in the deaths of 62 innocent people (mostly foreign tourists) in 1997. The terrorists were either killed in the attack or subsequently committed mass suicide in a cave. It is a rare, but sobering truth.
Construction of the the Karnak Temple started around 2000 BC, and finished around 305 BC, as various Kings and Pharaohs put their influence into it.
The key difference between Karnak and most of the other temples and sites in Egypt is the length of time over which it was developed and used. Approximately thirty pharaohs contributed to the buildings, enabling it to reach a size, complexity, and diversity not seen elsewhere. Few of the individual features of Karnak are unique, but the size and number of features are overwhelming. The deities represented range from some of the earliest worshipped to those worshipped much later in the history of the Ancient Egyptian culture.
One thing that is not obvious is that the level of sand around the temple is quite a bit different (due to excavation) than it was more than a hundred years ago. Here is a photo I took of a very permanent carving, made by some fellow by the name of L. Buvry, evidently from Berlin in 1852. This carving is much more permanent than your average street graffiti artist makes on city walls. I figured it was about 5m high.
Unlike the other temples in Thebes, the Luxor temple is not dedicated to a cult god or a deified version of the pharaoh in death. Instead, The Luxor temple is dedicated to the rejuvenation of kingship; it may have been where many of the pharaohs of Egypt were crowned in reality or conceptually (as in the case of Alexander the Great, who claimed he was crowned at Luxor but may never have traveled south of Memphis, near modern Cairo).
You don’t have to look hard for signs that some of these Kings were very serious about portraying themselves as real studs, with almost mystical fertility powers. Have a look on the right to see this man’s penis.
There is a newly reconstructed avenue in a straight line for about 2,700 metres between the Luxor Temple and the Karnak area – lined with hundreds of sphinxes. It is closed to cars, walking only.
Here is something that you often see outside the Western world, but not easily decipherable. In Arabic, it states that the entrance fee for adults is 10 Egyptian Pounds, 1/8 of the foreign entrance fee of 80 Egyptian pounds. Also, the student entrance is only 5 Egyptian pounds, likewise 1/8 of the foreign student price. The entrance fees for all of these sites do mount up.
In the afternoon, Diane and I went for a very pleasant sail on the River Nile on a felucca, a traditional sailboat used in this area of upper Egypt.
It had no motor, a drop centre board, and a very crude sail rig — but it worked. The Captain sailed away from the dock, sailed up river, against the current at a speed of 4-5 knots, and then sailed back to the dock after an hour.
The Nile River is incredibly clean in this area, a far cry from the brown septic stained Nile River that passes through the centre of Cairo. In fact, the whole Luxor area impressed me by being so much cleaner than Cairo.
Diane clearly was not seasick.
On Sunday, we visited the West Bank to see the Valley of the Kings and the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. In both cases, the crowds of tourists were starting to build. The Temple of Hatshepsut (the guide referred to her as “hot chicken soup”) is a mortuary temple built during the reign of Pharaoh Hatshepsut during the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt (15th century BC). It is considered to be a masterpiece of ancient architecture with three massive terraces rising above the desert floor and into the cliffs. Across the river Nile, the whole structure points towards the monumental Eighth Pylon, Hatshepsut’s most recognizable addition to the Temple of Karnak (barely visible in the distance) and the site from which the procession of the Beautiful Festival of the Valley departs.
Next on the agenda was a drive to see The Valley of the Kings, as depicted in this topographic view.
This is where, for a period of nearly 500 years from the 16th to 11th century BC, rock-cut tombs were excavated for the pharaohs and powerful nobles of the New Kingdom (the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Dynasties of Ancient Egypt).
The valley is known to contain 63 tombs and chambers (ranging in size from KV54, a simple pit, to KV5, a complex tomb with over 120 chambers) – and they are still digging, finding new sites. Since the 1920s, the valley has been famous for the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, and is one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world.
We went down (lots of stairs) into only 3 of the available tombs, starting with Merenptah’s tomb.
The tombs of Kings Ramses I and III were also very special.
Later in the day, we took a horse and carriage to the Museum of Mummification. I did not drive.
Unfortunately, although they described the process of mummification, they only had one mummy to show.
Sunday night, we flew back to Cairo, arriving at our hotel after midnight. On Tuesday, we took a day trip North to Alexandria, a city where I lived for a year, 40 years ago. We took the “desert road”, a distance of about 200km on a very good 4 lane highway (4 northbound and 4 southbound). I can’t even say it looks like a desert road anymore.
We saw many “pigeon houses” along the way. Egyptians raise and eat pigeons and pigeon eggs, in much the same way that the rest of the world eats chickens – but they are a different tasting bird. I ate it a few times, years ago.
All along the road, there are farms, industry and cities. Obviously, the development has been due to the use of deep water wells and government incentives.
The streets of Alexandria looked much the same as I remember them, with European style buildings and tram tracks.
We were told that the taxis in Alexandria are all Russian Ladas, with distinctive black and yellow markings.
At a roadside stop, I spotted an electric vehicle charging station, just over Diane’s right shoulder. It is a green post, with an electric cord and lots of dust (which is normal).
Although I never saw very many solar panels, I did spot one roadside vendor on the corniche with this panel.
We visited the Catacombs of Kom el-Shuqqafa, hewn from the rock on the southern slopes of a hill. Thought to date from the 2nd century AD, they offer an admirable example of the characteristic Alexandrian fusion of Egyptian and Greco-Roman styles. Discovered in 1900 (thanks to a donkey falling into them) they are laid out on several levels of sarcophagi and loculi (shelf tomb) chambers. A spiral staircase leads down into the ground to the main rotunda.
We stopped in at the Yacht Club of Egypt. There were lots of local boats moored in the bay, but only one monohull sailboat. There don’t appear to be any docks. I inquired at the office about stopping in with a foreign flagged boat, but due to the lack of Customs and Immigration facilities, this is a complete non-starter. Maybe in the future?
We stopped to visit Pompey’s Pillar, situated on a hill littered with the remains of ancient walls, architectural fragments, and rubble on which Alexandria’s only fully intact ancient monument is left standing. Pompey’s Pillar rises from the ruins of the ancient and famous Serapeion (Temple of Serapis), which was once used to store the overflow of manuscripts from the Great Library of Alexandria.
We stopped by to visit the Ras el-Tin Palace, or Citadel. This was once a summer escape for Egypt’s sultans when the desert heat of Cairo got too much to bear. It’s also the famed location where King Farouk – Egypt’s last king – officially abdicated in 1952 before sailing out of Alexandria’s harbour and into exile in Italy. Today, the palace is used by the Egyptian navy, which means its glorious interiors are out of bounds to casual visitors, but the exterior walls are worth the walk.
We met a family visiting from Yemen that were thrilled to talk with Western tourists. He and his wife have 5 daughters.
Lastly, we stopped by the Bibliotheca Alexandria. This modern facility finally replaced the building and function performed by the Great Library of Alexandria, one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world – lost in antiquity. In the year 272, the buildings of the museum were destroyed in a civil war under the Roman emperor Aurelian, although the educational and research functions of the institution seem to have continued until the 5th century. The rebuilt library was finished in 2002, and has shelf space for eight million books, with the main reading room covering 20,000 square metres (220,000 sq ft). The complex also houses a conference centre; with specialized libraries for maps, multimedia, the blind and visually impaired, young people, and for children; four museums; four art galleries for temporary exhibitions; 15 permanent exhibitions; a planetarium; and a manuscript restoration laboratory.
On the last full day in Cairo, we asked our driver Mohamed to take us to the “old” Egyptian Museum, followed by a tour of the City of the Dead. The Egyptian Museum is the oldest archaeological museum in the Middle East, and houses the largest collection of Pharaonic antiquities in the world. The museum was inaugurated in 1902 by Khedive Abbas Helmy II, and has become a historic landmark in downtown Cairo, near the famous Tahir Square and home to some of the world’s most magnificent ancient masterpieces. I did visit this museum 40 years ago, and my thoughts then were that it was crowded, stuffy and had way too many objects either on display or in the basement.
Although the Kings mummies (and some of the Queens) have been transferred to the Museum of Civilization, there are still many mummies that remain in this museum, together with many other artifacts. The museum displays an extensive collection spanning from the Predynastic Period to the Greco-Roman Era.
While writing this blog, I came across an easy to use Internet hieroglyphics translator. I’m not sure how useful it is, but its an example of new technology helping to understand old technology.
These photos depict some relicts found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb.
As previously mentioned, there are still quite a few mummies in the Museum, although they are probably not Kings.
Among the museum’s unrivalled collection are the complete burials of Yuya and Thuya, commemorating the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under one king. The museum also houses the splendid statues of the great kings Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure, the builders of the pyramids at the Giza plateau. An extensive collection of papyri, sarcophagi and jewelry, among other objects, completes this uniquely expansive museum.
Our last visit was to The City of the Dead, a place that I have certainly never been to but was alway curious about. The City of the Dead, or Cairo Necropolis, is a series of vast Islamic-era necropolises and cemeteries situated in the centre of Cairo (great real estate). They extend to the north and to the south of the Cairo Citadel, and separated roughly into two regions: the Northern Cemetery to the north of the Citadel and the older Southern Cemetery to the south of the Citadel.
The necropolis that makes up “the City of the Dead” has been developed over many centuries and contains both the graves of Cairo’s common population as well as the elaborate mausoleums of many of its historical rulers and elites. It started with the early city of Fustat (founded in 642 CE). Throughout history, the necropolises were home to various types of living inhabitants as well. These included the workers whose professions were tied to the cemeteries (for example gravediggers and tomb custodians), the Sufis and religious scholars studying in the religious complexes built by sultans and other wealthy patrons, and the regular inhabitants of small urban settlements and villages in the area. Modern urbanization and housing shortages have led to a large increase in the number of people living in the necropolis zones. Some people resorted to squatting within the mausoleums and tomb enclosures and turning them into improvised housing. Our driver Mohamed told us that the keys and right to use of the family crypts usually passes down from family to family. Some of the people that are living in these family tombs are temporarily occupying the ground floor living space (normally a visiting space for relatives) while the dead are buried below the ground. The tombs themselves were often seen as a better alternative to squatting or low-quality housing available nearby in the inner city, as they provided already-built structures with relatively ample room. From what I can see, they had water, electricity, street lights and even garbage collection.
This is clearly an “occupied” tomb / home, without an external padlock.
There were lots of stray dogs on the streets, as there are in all of Egypt – and this momma was feeding her pups right on the street.
We stopped at a small cafe, a “Dead” cafe, and ate some take out food, primarily Kashary (a kind of macaroni dish with lentils, vegetables and chilli). This is where we bought the Kashary.
This is Mohamed and I eating and what we ate. Diane was also there, but just not in this photo. The food was very good, and very economical.
Estimating the population of the “City of the Dead” is difficult as it does not correspond to just one administrative district in the Egyptian census but stretches across several, with some cemeteries blending into the main urban fabric of Cairo without presenting a clear border between city and necropolis. A commonly cited estimate puts the current population at half a million or more people, and some put it even as high as two million.
The Egyptian COVID-19 vaccination rate is very low, about 30%, although required by law – and yet the number of reported deaths is also very low. It’s suspicious that the actual reported death rate is so much higher in Western countries, and lower elsewhere. When speaking with young men here, they come up with same logic that I’ve heard in many countries. They think that COVID-19 is hardly any more deadly than the seasonal flu. In reality, in a country like Egypt (where the cause of death is rarely determined by a doctor), the published statistics for death “due to COVID” are very unreliable. Although there is free public health care in Egypt, it suffers from long waiting times and very poor services. Most people opt for private health care. Many people that die, just die – and are buried, with no cause of death investigated or reported (as I think is the case in many non-Western countries).
The purpose of our trip was entirely tourism, to see Egyptian sites that we could not see two years ago when we were locked down in Port Ghalib Egypt. We achieved that, but in wrapping up, it saddens me to say that little has changed in the past 40 years, other than the fact that there are more Egyptians, more buildings, more cars and a lot more garbage. Although we did not get close enough for first-hand observation, it appears that the urban planned “New Cairo” city may be a step in the right direction.
This is a photo I took of one of the many canals of the Nile River that are split off in the Cairo area. The current flows slowly from left to right. You can see the pile of floating garbage plugging up the canal on the left side. There is obvious evidence of people dumping household garbage, on a regular basis, into this canal – and not just here, but in dozens of places that I saw. This is not tourist or industrial waste, but simply lazy citizens dumping household garbage in their backyard.
Much to my surprise, I did see garbage trucks in several places in Cairo, picking up garbage from collection points – but they can’t seem to keep up with the demand. Frankly, it astonishes me, and many other Western people that the pyramids and ancient temples were built here nearly 4,000 years ago. Are these local Egyptians really descendants of those industrious, clever people? We stayed in a 4-star hotel in Luxor. At nightfall, I realized that the patio door would not close, and could not lock. Upon closer inspection, I determined that the patio door was actually not installed correctly, and it could never lock. The pin was out of alignment by at least 50mm! The hotel was probably 25 years old, and this had apparently never been addressed before. When I asked to move to another room, they gave me one that was the same, the door would not lock. We finally moved to a third room, which had a locking patio door. Everything in this country seems to be designed by foreigners, built by reasonably skilled contractors and very poorly maintained by local Egyptians. By and large, they seem to have very poor work habits, terrible management practices and lose a lot of their wealth through corruption. Practically everywhere you go, with nearly every encounter with a local Egyptian, he/she has their hand out – asking for baksheesh (a tip). It gets old quickly, believe me. Been there, done that!