I'm not one for long trips. A week away from home is usually enough for me. So I was a little apprehensive about my trip to Egypt. Ten days, in a country about as far removed from the European metropolises I'm accustomed to as the moon surface is from the Yorkshire Dales.
Ten days flew by. But words, my stock in trade, have been slow to come. Egypt is simply beyond description. I found myself gaping more often than exclaiming, struck dumb by sights I hadn't imagined, well beyond the typical tourist vistas.
We arrived around midnight, greeted at the airport by a professional, whose job it is to arrange a visa for you and get you through customs. While it's not necessary to have someone like Nabil, it does help. Then we were turned over to a driver, Saed, who whisked us through the highways and streets of Cairo to our hotel.
Both of these were arranged by my niece, who is an ex-pat living and working in Cairo. Not only did she smooth the way through the airport for us, she also provided invaluable information and, over the weekend, a personalized tour in her small car. No small feat—driving in Cairo is one of the riskiest endeavors anyone could undertake, I deduced on the midnight journey from the airport to downtown Cairo. The roads were filled, even at that late hour, with cars, motorcycles, donkey carts, and other vehicles of questionable merit, many without any lights on.
Sitting in the back seat, I imagined myself in a cocoon, safe from road accidents, my driver possessing superpowers that prevented other cars from bumping us. It was a feeling I adopted often, since almost all of our travel around Cairo was done in the back seat of taxis.
In other cities, I always walk from site to site, using public transportation only to travel long distances. But I quickly realized that would be impossible in Cairo. Walking across four or five lanes of whizzing traffic, even for one pretty quick on her feet, isn't a good idea.
Fortunately, everything is cheap in Egypt, including taxi fares. A thirty minute trip cost around £E20, or about $4. There are two kinds of taxis: ancient black ones, for which you negotiate a price (only try this if you already know how much a trip should cost) and newer white cabs, with meters. While the second may cost more, especially during high traffic times, you won't get ripped off, nor will your driver stop and pick up a second fare while taking you to your destination. Plus your car is much more likely to have windows.
If you're visiting Cairo, there's a good chance you've heard of the top tourist attractions. After all, who hasn't heard of the famous pyramids at Giza? Giza is actually a suburb of Cairo, a thriving town in its own right—older, in fact than Cairo. (It used to be called Memphis—ring any bells?) It's pretty easy to get to, via taxi or with a hired driver—a thirty minute trip from downtown, barring traffic (which almost never happens). If you hire a driver, be sure to have him take you to the Pizza Hut near the Sphinx entrance. Go to the top of the building, on to the roof, and for the price of a pizza you'll have the very best view of the Giza pyramids. Especially at sunset, when the view may include the light show that begins at dusk.
There are three main pyramids in Giza (there are 97 in all of Egypt), plus the Sphinx. The tallest, the Great Pyramid, was built for Khufu (Cheops). The slightly smaller (though it appears taller, due to its higher position) Pyramid of Khafre still has a distinctive cap of limestone, an overlay that once covered the entire structure. The smallest of the three is the Pyramid of Menkaure. All three are relatively close together, joined by roads traveled by tour buses, donkeys, horses and camels. You can easily walk from one to the other. The Sphinx is also in the complex, guarding over the entrance with its half human, half lion fierceness.
If you wish, you may buy an extra ticket for entrance inside the pyramids. There is limited entry into the Great Pyramid, but for £E60 you can buy a ticket to tour inside the Pyramid of Khafre, where you'll find a large empty tomb room, explored in 1818 (you'll see graffiti inside telling you as much).
It just so happened that Cairo was experiencing one of its infrequent rain storms while we were at Giza, so we waited outside the pyramid, pelted by cold raindrops, for our chance to go inside. Then we walked hunched over as we went down, then back up again, finally into the empty tomb room. We were told we weren't allowed to take cameras, but almost everyone there had brought a camera in and were snapping away.
As I learned, almost everything is possible in Egypt for a price. Cameras are forbidden generally in underground tombs, but if you pay your guide a few coins—the equivalent of about $.20, you'll be allowed to take photos. The same applies if you take photos of donkeys, by the way, as I learned when I started snapping photos of a donkey at Saqqara. The donkey's owner jumped in the photo, smiling and posing, while I snapped away, then he grabbed my camera and urged me to get in the photo. Before long, I owed him some "baksheesh", which he grabbed from my hand. Best to be quick about it, and hand over a few piasters (worth literally a few cents in Western currency).
The other nearby pyramid site is Saqqara, which is further than Giza but likely less crowded with tourists. Saqqara is the site of the famous Step Pyramid, built for the pharoah Djoser. It's surrounded by tombs built for high officials in his administration, with their fascinating tomb drawings and carvings. It's well worth the visit, for the Imhotep Museum alone, where many artifacts from Saqqara are displayed.
On Saturday, the second day of the Egyptian weekend, my niece took us to a place she warned was difficult to describe. She was right. The place of the zabaleen, Garbage City, has to be seen to be believed. The zabaleen are Coptic Christians, second class citizens in Muslim Egypt. Their job is to gather the garbage, bring it to their homes in Garbage City and sort through it, recycling bits and pieces. The word "recycling" makes it sound tidy and pristine, but that's really a euphemism for what goes on in the zabaleen area. The streets were lined with large containers of garbage, and everywhere people—mostly women—picked through it.
We drove through one alley way after another, as my niece navigated expertly through streets she'd been through before. Finally we pulled up to a relatively clean school yard, devoid of garbage. Inside were young girls learning fabric crafts, and rooms where their objects were sold. They made material from—you guessed it—garbage. They crafted rugs, handbags, quilts, Christmas wall hangings—and everywhere were pictures of Jesus, looking slightly older than in Western images. The women and girls looked happy—this was no sweat shop, despite its location. The girls were learning a valuable skill at this private school. State schools here, I read online, would only teach them how to sort through garbage.
The zabaleen, being pork-eating Christians, also raised pigs, who ate the organic matter from the garbage. But last spring the Egyptian government ordered all the pigs slaughtered, an overreaction to swine flu fears. So now, with nowhere to dispose of the organic waste, rats have taken over the job, and diseases such as hepatitis are increasingly common.
Yet the children we saw seemed happy, clean, and eager to interact with Westerners. The zabaleen, despite their occupation, are better off than much of Egypt's poor population. Some are even prosperous, having made money off what others casually toss away. Yet...I will never get over the sight of immense piles of garbage.
Before we left the Coptic area, we turned down a road that led to St Samaan's Church. Soon, literally carved into the alabaster walls of the mountainside, was the church—as large as an American mega-church, yet completely outdoors. Carved into the rock were scenes from the Bible, alabaster reminders of eternal life offered by Jesus, rather than the ancient gods who inspired the pyramid builders.
Again, words fail me. I've been to some of the greatest cathedrals of Europe, and this immense church, carved into a mountain, a stone's throw from Garbage City, was one of the most awe inspiring places I've been. Like Garbage City, it's not in any tourist guide, and not for the faint of heart—behind one of the churches I noticed a pair of monkeys in a dirty, darkened cage. A disturbing sight, one that made me want to get out of there quickly.
Across the main highway from Garbage City and St Samaan's stands The Citadel, the Islamic 12th century stronghold built to withstand the Crusaders' invasions. We tried to go, but there was nowhere to park where we wouldn't have to cross a busy highway—none of us were in the mood for that, and besides, we were still shocked from what we'd seen. There's only so much awe a person can take in on a Saturday.
So we headed back to Ma'adi, had a nice dinner, and tried not to think about where our leftovers were going.
Ma'adi is a pleasant suburb of Cairo, where many ex-pats and foreigners live. Tree-lined streets and boulevards offer more leisurely driving, and its handsome villas, smart restaurants and treasure-filled shops offer a break from hectic, haggling Cairo.
I mentioned everything is cheap in Egypt, right? This is why you may become distracted from the pyramids, the fantastic Egyptian Museum, the ancient tombs at Saqqara...and decide to go shopping instead. Like other tourists, you'll probably head to the Khan el-Khalili market, and get ripped off. The sellers in the Khan are highly experienced professionals when it comes to haggling. With open exhortations inviting you to be exploited: "I don't know what you're looking for, but I have what you want" and "Tell me how I can take your money!" they lure English speakers into their gilded traps. (I pretended to speak French, but they know French as well. Pig-Latin, I'm told, works best when feigning ignorance.)
The Khan is a fun cultural experience, but for real shopping, head to Ma'adi, a thirty minute (when there's no traffic) taxi ride from downtown. Shops here don't bother haggling; the price listed is what you pay, though you may be able to cut a deal if you're buying a larger item, like silver. After buying a mother-of-pearl picture frame in the Khan for £E120, I found similar items for around £E30-40. Other identical items were also much cheaper than the best price we could negotiate in the Khan.
Moral: You will not out-haggle an Egyptian. Shop where the locals shop, and save your money.
Other highlights of our trip were the Nile cruise, a night-time luxury boat ride up and down the Nile, though it seemed as if we were going in long circles. Entertainment onboard included a belly dancer and a whirling dervish. The belly dancer made me uncomfortable—she smiled way too much, but the dervish was fascinating to watch, and made the cruise worth it. The food and wine, however, left much to be desired.
But then I didn't come to Egypt for the food and wine.
We also spent one day in Alexandria. It's only about 200 kilometres from Cairo, but despite relatively good roads, the journey took almost four hours. Alexandria is located on the Mediterranean, with miles of coastline road clogged by traffic. We had our driver take us to the catacombs, Kom el-Shoqafa, where the Roman rulers of Egypt buried their dead in the 2nd century. There are 300 tombs there, including two huge spaces for Hadrian's horses, whose bones are displayed rather chaotically in a wooden cabinet.
The catacombs were supposedly discovered by a donkey, whose cart fell through to an opening during excavations on the site in 1900. But like every story in Egypt, that's—perhaps—not exactly how it happened. It is a great story, though, except for the bit about the donkey dying when he plunged through the opening. The guide there will even show you the spot where the donkey fell through. (I use the term "guide" loosely—like at all the tourist spots in Egypt, he is there to make a buck, though he acted surprised when we gave him a fiver—worth a dollar.)
Near the catacombs is Pompey's Pillar, again, not built for Pompey at all. It was built to honor Diocletian, who ruled Egypt in the 3rd century.
But I suppose that's all the Roman history you need, since this is, after all, a post about Egypt. Egypt, though, is a complicated place, with detailed history going back over 5000 years. It's been ruled by Egyptian dynasties, by Romans, by Macedonians, by mamluks, Muslims, and finally by a president who isn't ready to give up power.
Poverty and power have been the real story of Egypt, its wealth once coming from the Nile, and now painstakingly found among the garbage piles of the zabaleen.
Tourists like me come and go, leave our piasters with washroom attendants who may never see more than a few dollars' worth of Egyptian currency, then fly home to our sparkling clean world.
The ancient dust of Egypt was washed from my shoes by the time I left Heathrow, but in the thousand photos I took I found a few memories and, it turned out, some words.
More photos here.