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Cairo, on first visit, is both awesome and disappointing. The city is overcrowded, noisy and in many places squalid. The air is so polluted by automobile fumes and soot that from the elevation of the Citadel you can see it as a layer of orange haze. To accommodate the exploding population, there are countless new constructions all along the way between central Cairo and Giza, but many of these are somewhat shabby four and five storey houses of brick and cement which hint of the slums they will become within twenty years. Such construction has spread inexorably outward until it is at the very foot of the pyramids.But the awesome part is that one knows, one senses every minute, that this is an ancient land, heavy with history and filled with things beyond our understanding. Signs are in a language an American cannot decipher, men are in galabiyas, long shirt-robes that are scarcely different from biblical times, and many of the women wear the hijab, the full scarf that covers all their hair. Having traveled all over western Europe, I can patch together friendly little phrases in all the main European languages, but it is a very different thing to try to take of business in Arabic.

Elaine in the crowded streets of Old Cairo

Splendid example of Old Cairo's islamic architecture

The Egyptian Museum

Angelique took me first to the Cairo museum which contains not only the entire Tutankamun exhibit (much more than had made the tour of Europe and the US in the 1970s) but also the Royal Mummies. In a special room, small and unworthy of the dignity of their age, the mummies of several pharaohs and queens were displayed unwrapped under glass. Most impressive by far was Ramses II (Ramses the Great). His dark and desiccated hawk face was fully intact after 3,000 years, and did not look much worse than it probably looked in life, considering that the man died close to the age of 90 (after a reign of 66 years.) The Tutankhamun exhibit was much flashier and more of an attraction to tourists, and it was very frustrating to be pressed in the middle of them before the famous sarcophagus, mask, shrine, and chariot of the murdered king. The pieces were staggering in their opulence, of course, but it was also a relief to be able to break away and simply meander among the other rooms looking at the more anonymous stelae, chests, statues and canopic jars.

The last artifact we looked at was the famous granite stela of Meremptah which – dated about 1200 BC – contains the only reference to Israel in Egyptian writing. Contrary to the myth of a Jewish slave population building the pyramids, this stela is viewed as a strong indication that Jews did not even come to the notice of the Egyptians until the New Kingdom, over a thousand years later.

Khan el Khalili

The woman will shop!

Khan al Khalili in the al Azhar district, is Cairo’s souq, and its narrow alleys and shops give a sense of what Cairo – and probably most other Arab cities – were like a millennium ago. Angelique knew it like her hand and she led me through its medieval streets with aplomb. Urchins begged baksheesh from us on many of the streets, and the sullen way they accepted our money suggested they had to hand it over to a parent or employer. One could not make them smile.

But every merchant was our immediate friend. Every one promised us the very best merchandise at the best price, and offered us tea, a cushion, a history of the Khan, anything to begin a business relationship. Cleverly, we went first to the cotton souq to buy a bag to carry everything else in. Then it was to the spice market to buy karkady (hibiscus tea), cardamom, saffron; to the weavers for a camel bag, and to the brass souq for a brass kettle. In the heat of the day, Angelique brought me to that quintessentially Arab institution, the coffee house. El Fishawy, the place of mirrors, was an alley lined on both sides with benches and tiny tables where one could order hot or cold drinks and sheesha, that is, a tall hookah with apple-flavored tobacco to smoke. It was a perfect place to watch the passersby they way the Egyptians had watched us, in a pleasant lethargy.

Camels, Desert and Pyramids

The desert between Cairo and Saqqara is not very nice. We rented camels for a trek through the desert to the step pyramid at Saqqara and I, at least, expected Lawrence-of-Arabia dunes. We found instead that the edge of the desert near the city is largely a dump where trash is left out to desiccate and blow away. So we soon found ourselves passing through automobile tires, construction refuse, miscellaneous metal objects, and a dead horse picked at by birds. Riding a camel was amusing, although a bit more fatiguing than riding a horse, since you sway in a sort of circular motion, on muscles you are not used to using. But the two hours between Giza and Saqqara was not particularly demanding, and at the Saqqara pyramid complex Angelique the Egyptologist gave me a rundown of the history. Much nicer than a guidebook

Camera-shy camel...

Elaine riding off into...nothing

Khepren looking forever on towards sunrise

The Great Pyramids are the stupendous tombs of Khufu (Greek: Cheops) Khafre and Menkaure on the Giza plateau. They are surrounded by dozens of smaller pyramids, mastabas and a necropolis and constitute with them an enormous park of the ancient dead. What the postcards and the history book photos do not reveal however, is that the squalid little town of Giza has now oozed out like lava and spread almost to the foot of the Sphinx. The pyramids themselves are still awesome by their very size and antiquity, but it is difficult to feel the mystery with so many tourists and merchants all about. We rode first on horseback out into the unpolluted part of the desert on the western side, and simply sat awhile, absorbing the experience of being before the most ancient of edifices. Then we viewed the splendid solar barque which had recently been unearthed – and reconstructed – at the site.

Elaine and Angelique riding at Giza

Like Father, like daughter
Winter 1928
Spring 2000

Dr. Salam Baker, Angelique and Elaine at the closing dinner of the 8th International conference of Egyptologists
Closing Dinner of the 8th International conference of Egyptologists, at the foot of the pyramids

Overnight Train to Luxor

The overnight train to Luxor is boarded at Ramses Station, in downtown Cairo. We reserved a first-class cabin for the night, and after a tolerable supper, we turned off the light and starred out the window at the villages the train passed during the night. We passed through towns of all sizes, some lit with modern lighting and some, the smaller villages, with only the scantiest of electric service. But everywhere there were minarets, large and small, lit up with neon lighting, almost always green. Near the tracks we caught sight of men in groups squatting on the ground in their galabiyas in the semi-darkness. We presumed they waited for a train, not ours, but in the dim light, they looked like souls in purgatory.

View of the Nile as our train slowly leaves the Cairo area

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© 2002 by Elaine Sutherland and Angelique Corthals. All Rights Reserved. Last Modified Monday, March 24, 2003