Posted by: Bob Fisher | February 12, 2011

Cairo: A Singular State of Mind

Personality plus

Cities have personalities and character traits that manifest their “formative years.” The 1300+ years of Cairo’s evolution has given it a persona of provocative contrasts, bewildering incongruities, and riveting juxtapositions. As Egypt’s largest city and Africa’s most populous — a city of 25 million people in a nation of over 80 million — Cairo can be daunting. If you are at all susceptible to culture shock, Cairo may give you heart failure. On the other hand, if you are the type of person who thrives on hypersensory travel — physical, emotional, conceptual, aesthetic, and cultural — then Cairo is your destination of choice.

In Cairo and the great Pharaonic sites on its outskirts, you will undertake a multidimensional journey into 5000 years of human civilization; and for better or for worse — it’s ultimately up to you which it will be — Cairo will be a mind-altering experience. This city is the proverbial “best of times, worst of times”; but if you lean toward the intrepid in your travels and are prepared to go with the flow (visualize The Nile at the heart of Cairo, probably one of the most important rivers in human history), you will soon find yourself totally engrossed in the capital city of eternal Egypt. And you will live to talk about it with enormous enthusiasm.

The password is Inshalla

The word means, “If Allah wills … or God willing.” And this is the only frame of reference within which you can really come to terms with the exhilarating and confounding realities of Cairo. If you are open to the mindset that Allah, God, fate, chance, historical happenstance, or some other unseen set of circumstances is the operant factor in your travel “adventure” in Cairo, then Cairo will come to you.

Encore Cairo

It has been 27 years since we last visited Cairo, and because we know that time does not stand still we are somewhat unsure about what we will find over a quarter of a century later. Well, Cairo is the same city — only more so.

Much more so!

In another sense, however, it is as if we have to learn all over again how to relate to and negotiate this city, which is every bit as clamorous and discordant (to Western eyes and ears) as we remember it. And once again we are challenged by its complexity. But we soon recall that the perceived dissonance of Cairo is primarily a product of our North American sensibilities. What we have remembered from our last visit however, is that the sights and sounds of Cairo embody complex and ancient historical relationships; and to process them requires time, effort, and a healthy dose of objectivity.

TRAVEL TIP: If you are making your own arrangements, as opposed to buying an all-inclusive tour package, we strongly recommend hiring a private guide and driver. At about $100 a day (for two people, gratuities extra), we found this the best way to really get to the heart of Cairo. Our private guide and driver were exceptionally competent, pleasant, and knowledgeable. In addition, with their assistance we were able to visit some out-of-the-way parts of Cairo and unique sites that a tour group probably would not see. And finally, the mere presence of a government-licensed tour guide by our side kept hawkers at bay and allowed us to interact to some extent with locals. In addition we highly recommend that you arrange airport transfers through a local company as making your way through the complex procedures of Cairo airport can be a slightly harrowing experience. We chose TAT Travel. for this purpose and made all arrangements via email; the company’s Tourism Manager dealt with us directly.

Defining the essence of Cairo

How do you describe Cairo? Confusing, disorienting, definitely pedestrian-unfriendly, raucous, cacophonous, polluted, overwhelming. Cairo is intense, strenuous, unpredictable, uncertain, but essentially as safe as any other major world city. But it is also a timeless city in which everywhere you go you sense layers of meaning and a pentimento of centuries of human civilization.

When you negotiate with Cairo, you have a choice of two itineraries: the “Western” one during which you presume that you are moving in a certain “logical” direction. And then there is the intrinsic, convoluted, multi-layered itinerary that has little to do with an anticipated final destination — or destiny itself for that matter.

The name Cairo means “The Triumphant” although in that name is also the suggestion of someone or something being subdued. Good luck! This is also the city that has seen it all. Founded by the Fatimid caliphs in the 10th century, it has been ruled or occupied by many powers with imperial ambitions: Mamluks, Romans, Crusaders, Ottomans, French (Napoleon himself), British, to name a few.

Sprawling along the banks of the Nile and over islands in the middle of this great river (an understatement you will only comprehend once you have been here), Cairo is on the edge of the desert, at the northern end of the narrow Nile Valley (Egypt is The Nile, and hence a nation that is said to be only a kilometre and a half wide but 2500+ kilometres long); and it is at the portal of the immense and agriculturally-rich Nile Delta where people have been farming for 5000 years.

As a hub for the whole of the Arab world, especially in terms of educational institutions, Cairo is also a cultural capital in the most far-reaching meaning of that term. It is here where human civilizations of many varieties have met, and often clashed. This too is part of the cacophony of Cairo.

In the 21st century, and in geopolitical terms, Cairo is of course an economic and political capital of great importance in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions; it is also a major media capital. As a tourism destination, it is unparalleled (for centuries) and is the major point de départ not only for the endless treasures of Egypt, but for other Middle Eastern destinations, including Egypt’s own booming Red Sea resort areas.

In a blog I discovered on the Internet called “From Cairo, With Love: Free Thoughts and Reflections of an Ordinary Egyptian,” the author has posted an interesting comment that reflects not only the tourism “issues” facing Egypt and Cairo, but also the travel and tourism industry worldwide.

“I’ll start off by saying that I’m not a believer of tourism in Egypt. Not that I don’t welcome tourists in Egypt, or wouldn’t encourage them to spend time here. But I’m just against relying on tourism as one of three main sources of income for Egypt (all being services). Besides the fact that this is an industry that does not allow people to be productive, develop, progress and hence improve the general standard of living. It’s one of the main industries in Egypt because it’s a gold mine that generates revenue without doing any effort from our side. Investors build hotels and resorts, locals tour the tourists around the historical sites, and let them have their fun on the beaches. We’re simply making money out of being good hosts, showing off our history and beaches.”

Musing in the Egyptian Museum

The Egyptian Museum was established by the Egyptian government in 1835. The present building, a neo-classical design by French architect Marcel Dourgnon, has more than 120,000 objects that date from pre-historic times to the Greco-Roman period.

Above the main entrance to what is an Egyptologist’s dream (amateur as well as professional), Hathor looks down somewhat haughty but welcoming. Holding the lotus flower to her bosom, she seems to imply that this can be an intimate and privileged experience for the visitor, if you know how to go about it.

Inside is the greatest collection of Egyptian treasures in the world, in a dowdy and dark building that could be mistaken for a warehouse. At the entrance of the museum there is the usual confusion of tourists and their guides; today we are also part of such a customized group. Nonetheless, we have to be assertive about going with the swarm or we will never get in, through the tight security and past guards who seem to make arbitrary decisions about who shall be first and who shall bide their time before entering this ancient realm. We will also come back on another day by ourselves and just do our own thing.

In the foyer, two immense Pharaonic statues confront us. Calm and assured with that sense of serenity that great power permits (albeit temporary and temporal), their large noble eyes, sensuous lips, and sculptured cheekbones have an aesthetic that is quintessentially Egyptian. Their stance is also classic; solid and balanced, one foot before the other, seeing far beyond what any ordinary mortal would. The body language says it all, “I am Egypt. I am eternal.” However, a dramatic conflict is already evident; the colossus on the left, originally that of Ramses II, is now the post mortem representation of his son and successor Merenptah. The immense statue was eventually usurped by this youngest son who, having diligently survived 12 older brothers, succeeded his father as Pharaoh. It was a victory of course, even though he too would eventually fade into oblivion, in a physical sense. And yet … there he is, looking much larger than life — a Pharoah’s privilege. Oedipus-like, the son eclipsed the father by appropriating his image and having his own name and titles carved into the breast and shoulders of the colossus. While considering the implications of this mortal rivalry, I turn to my right and find myself staring at the foot of the colossus of Amenhotop. This king of ancient Egypt is elevated on a great block of granite; his left foot is at my eye level. I find that it intimidates and diminishes me; it is massive but at the same time elegant. The stone foot has veins of black, tangerine, grey, and ivory.

The crowd of anxious visitors is oppressive; and the guides commanding and very loud, because they are competing for the attention of their clients to each of whom they seem to want to impart the most essential information. We are to follow and listen. Although I follow in a desultory way, I can’t help tuning out. Despite my resistance, I find myself being propelled along the gloomy corridor, then around a corner and into a long hall where the lids of sarcophagi bearing many and varied human likenesses are lined up along the walls. Some are those of dwarfs and pygmies; they served as cultic dancers and were considered especially close to Ra, the sun god. The effigies stare out from either side as we pass, and they seem to mock us: “Foolish mortals. Your insubstantial flesh has none of the resilience of our immortal selves.”

I move ahead in an attempt to distance myself from the noise but the slow flow of humanity catches up with me. Dumbly I rejoin my group as we move silently past basalt stella of headless seated figures. I am feeling even more subordinated and confined; and so I veer off to the right and come upon a four-foot high exquisite, bronze-coloured figure of breathtaking beauty. The details are finely sculpted, the delicate navel especially. The light touch of the artist is like a soulful sigh in transit through time.

Individual groups follow the multilingual and fortissimo voices of their guides, mix and mingle, and continue to migrate slowly through the jumbled rooms. I manoeuver in and around them until unexpectedly another serene moment presents itself. I stop and gaze at a frieze of painted limestone depicting a funereal procession of musicians, some playing reed flutes, others plucking bow-shaped harps with their slim ankh-like fingers. They are followed by dancers bearing vessels in the shape of lotus flowers, arms raised in unison above their heads. It is a peaceful and celebratory scene.

On the landing of a peach-coloured stairway up which visitors scramble, I pause to examine a superb two-metre long scene painted on papyrus and preserved behind glass. The narrative is “written” horizontally and the colours have barely faded. The images are of long-forgotten human events.

At the top of the stairs, I turn right and find myself standing outside the Tut exhibit, just a few small rooms really. The exhibits are carefully situated and dramatically arranged. This is the third time I have come face to face with Tutankhamun (or at least some of his relics). A previous meeting, oddly enough, took place at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Mes hommages my friend. The famous death mask is of course the central piece in the room, and suggests life more than death. His gaze seems to take in all passersby through peripheral vision, while at the same time looking beyond us to a time and a space that we have all imagined and he has seen. He was just a child, just a boy king.

I have become quite separate from my group now, and on this upper floor it seems that many others have done the same. In small groups or alone, visitors now look relaxed but no less enthralled. The pace is slower; the sense of urgency has dissipated. I descend another stairway and enter the Great Hall, a cavernous space in which ponderous statuary and temple fragments form the solemn core of the museum. Standing off to one side, I look up and contemplate the effigies and “memento mori” that look down upon us. They seem to say, “There is no need to rush headlong through this place. Linger and look upon us awhile.”

Outside in the courtyard, my French colleague Bernadette and I engage in a light free-flowing discussion about the nature of time and space. We also discuss the “culture of travel” itself. She comments that travel is, above all, a privilege; au gré du temps et de l’espace — at the whim of time and space.

To visit the museum’s website, click here.

Images and imagery of Cairo

What can I say? Cairo is a great photo op; if you enjoy the medium as an expression of contrast and juxtaposition, you will have a great time capturing idiosyncratic Cairo.

To view this slide show, click here.

Egyptian Woman

Since our last visit to Cairo over 25 years ago, we notice that many more women are wearing the hijab. In fact, when you walk through the streets of Cairo, you see a profusion of head scarves. Most women seem to have incorporated their own personal sense of style into their hijabs, which given its importance as a symbol and statement of identity, is understandable.

The women of Cairo are and have always been a significant and influential part of the dynamic of this city. We are aware of how many women were obviously working outside the home, going to and from work, and also working in non-traditional occupations. In the hospitality and tourism sectors we encounter many women with considerable professional training and status. This diversity of roles of women in Cairo and in Egypt, in general and historically, is reinforced by powerful images found among the art works of the permanent exhibit at the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art.

This museum is located in a relatively new complex, a short walk along the Corniche, from the “downtown” hotel area, and is located next to the Palace of Arts and the Cairo Opera House. (The latter is a gift from the Japanese people.) Architecturally, it is a delightful and very “art-friendly” space. The open central gallery looks up to a stylized silver metal dome of Islamic design which gives the museum a wonderful sense of inclusiveness, as well as providing the kind of illumination that is most suited for art. The art is exhibited on three levels; and the second and third levels look over the central gallery so that you are always conscious of being close to something essential in this rich collection of Egyptian art. The artwork is especially interesting because you can see clearly both Pharaonic and European influences. The use of light-coloured wood throughout the museum, especially in the “balconies” over which you are frequently looking also give the space a delicate cohesiveness. Also interesting are the “Soviet” style works of art; an influence that recalls the Egypt-Soviet relationship that was crucial to the building of the Aswan dam and to Egypt’s political and economic self-determination during that critical period in the history of the Middle East.

The extensive exhibits of paintings and sculptures in the museum represent the development of the Egyptian art movement from the pioneers of the early 20th century to the contemporary art scene. Among these works you will find wonderful and meaningful images of women, of Cairo and Egypt including Berber, Nubian, Bedouin, and Beja women. These poignant works of art have strong narrative and historical qualities. For travellers to Cairo they are also an excellent visual record capturing the stories of women in the region.

We are especially impressed by the “vision” statement of Farouk Hosni, Minister of Culture (published on the museum’s website), in which he confirms the universal role of art as a collective form of self-expression and historical record.

“Time changes, societies alter, and history runs its course; but no matter how much we come to depend on technology as the mainstay of our age — indeed, no matter how our economy changes, with companies that transcend nationalities and continents, no matter how small the world becomes, art museums will remain the living measure of civilization, the heartbeat of a culture, the soil in which the seeds of the future take root and flourish.

It is in recognition of this fact that the Ministry of Culture holds the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art in such high esteem; we are committed to developing it and have great ambitions for it. Through its treasures, we show our great pride in the artists who have played such an unforgettable role in our culture throughout the twentieth century, up to the start of the third millennium.”

Images an imagery of Egyptian women in the Museum of Modern Art

To view a slide show of some of the works that depict women, click here.

Images source: The Egyptian Museum of Modern Art

To visit the museum’s website click here.

The Mahmoud Khalil Museum: Egyptian patron of the arts

This museum is actually a palace built by Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil in Art Nouveau style with some neo-classical elements. Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil was a prominent citizen of Cairo, an art lover and collector, a statesman, cabinet minister in the Egyptian government, and Speaker of the Senate. He was also a leader in the arts in Cairo, sponsoring a number of initiatives including the formation of the “Society of Lovers of Fine Arts.” Married to a French woman, Émiline Lock (she was studying music at the Paris Conservatory when they met), he was also instrumental in creating cultural exchanges between France and Egypt, and was elected to the French Academy of Fine Arts in 1949.

A small museum, it is however a gem. The collection includes works by Alfred Sisley, Pablo Picasso, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Auguste Rodin, and its resident “star” is a flower arrangement of two red poppies by Vincent Van Gogh. Also very noteworthy in this building, which in itself is a work of art, are the collections of rare vases and Japanese lacquered boxes.

After his wife’s death, the palace and its contents were donated to the state as a museum bearing the name of Mohammed Mahmoud Khalil and his wife. Before his death, it was used by Anwar Sadat who lived there with his wife Jehan who now lives part of the time next door. Today she is a Senior fellow at the University of Maryland, College Park which has the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development endowment.

Be sure to walk around the grounds, especially on the Nile side in order to see the detail of the architecture, and then along The Nile past the Cairo Yacht Club and the various rowing and other sports clubs.

To visit the museum’s website, click here.

Fatimid Cairo, Old Cairo, and Coptic Cairo

In its convoluted physical spaces and heterogeneous environment, Cairo is a challenge for anyone whose sense of direction is even the slightest bit shaky. But therein also lies the adventure, as we discover during a very full day visiting the above three areas of the city.

In an historical sense, Cairo is also a labyrinthine destination because of the many ruling empires that left their mark on this sprawling metropolis. Modern day Cairo owes a great deal of its physical complexity to the Fatimid dynasty who arrived here from Syria by way of Tunisia, and who eventually, thanks to an army of 100,000, completed the conquest of the region and named the city Al-Qahira. Subsequent rulers such as the Abbassid, Ayyubid Mamluk, and Ottoman also added to the congruence that today is the mega mosaic of Cairo. So as you wind your way through the streets of these three areas, think about the organic nature of human history.

For our day’s “outing” we ask our guide and driver to focus on Islamic architecture primarily and to show us Cairo at street level in the most intensive way they can, which they are very proficient at doing.

Because, unfortunately, some tourists do not react well to the term “Islamic,” the tourism powers-that-be in Cairo tend to refer to Islamic Cairo as “Fatimid Cairo,” which makes good sense on one level.

Exploring the Islamic architecture, arts, and history of Cairo is an exhilarating experience. It has often been referred to as the “City of a Thousand Minarets,” and in Fatimid Cairo, you will understand why. This section of the city is essentially a medieval city within a city; and in its narrow, haphazard streets and marketplaces you will experience the timelessness of Cairo.

Although not in Fatimid Cairo, the Cairo Citadel and the mosques nearby are, for all intents and purposes, also Islamic Cairo. This area is especially noted for the view from the Citadel over Cairo, and if the pollution isn’t too bad the day you visit, the view of the Pyramids of Giza in the distance will give you an additional frame of reference in terms of Cairo’s proximity to the desert and to these great Pharaonic monuments. The magnificent Mosque of Mohammed Ali with its Turkish architectural influences is also one of the literal and figurative high points on the Cairo skyline.

Old Cairo, or Coptic Cairo, is actually the oldest part of Cairo and here you will see Roman walls still intermingle with the part of Cairo that is most representative of the three major religions whose “first prophet” was Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Of the 20 churches in this formerly Christian stronghold, five remain, most notably the “Hanging Church” (of the Virgin Mary) and the Church of St. Sergius which according to legend is built over the site where Jesus, Mary, and Joseph took refuge after fleeing to Egypt when King Herod allegedly ordered that the “Anointed One” be killed. (The historical accuracy of this event has been questioned.) This area of Cairo was also home to the Jewish community in Egypt; and here you should also visit the Ben Ezra Synagogue which was built in 882 on the remains of a Coptic cathedral.

Although the images in the slide show below tell the story of the areas and specific sites that we visited (too many to mention in full), we especially recommend the following:

Khan Al Khalili

This is the famous marketplace and one of the biggest bazaars in the Middle East, if not in the world. As a destination within a destination, it is also of considerable value to the economy of the city. Located in the eastern section of the city, this souk sharkiat (market road) is essentially a small town within the larger metropolis. Crowded into narrow lanes and alleys are small business of all kinds, artisans, merchants, and wholesalers. Many of the goods are mass produced but you can find unique handmade objects of considerable value from an artistic and cultural point of view. Khan Al Khalili is Cairo in miniature, with its sensory stimulation on all levels. It is also reminiscent of the 14th century stopping place on the caravan route from East to West; later to become a Turkish bazaar and one of the most important spice markets of the ancient world. We especially enjoyed Sharia an Nahaseen (the Street of the Coppersmiths) and the mosques in the area, some of which date from the 14th century

Al Azhar

As the focal point of Fatimid Cairo, this mosque is a brilliant example of the delicate harmony of Islamic architecture, especially given its immense size. In the elegant courtyard, students of the mosque’s madrasa (the term means an Islamic school; and today it is a university and the oldest in the world), make this far more than a tourist site. Named after the daughter of the Prophet and located in the hectic and vibrant El Hussein Square, the mosque and its madrasa were established in 972 at about the same time as the founding of Cairo itself. Highly reflective of Islamic architecture throughout the ages, it is especially noteworthy for its five minarets, intricately carved columns, and large courtyard surrounded by porticoes. At night, it is illuminated beautifully and becomes even more the centrepiece of the area.

The Citadel

An immense structure and complex, the Citadel is actually several sites in one, and was home to the rulers of Egypt for 700 years. Near the centre of Cairo, the Citadel was fortified by the Ayyubid ruler Saladin (Salah al-Din) between 1176 and 1183, and served as a defence against the Christian Crusaders. On the summit of the limestone hill is what may be the most photographed site in Cairo, the Mosque of Mohammed Ali. And not far from the Citadel are also the very impressive mosques of El Rifai and that of the Sultan Hassan.

The Mosque and madrasa of Sultan Hassan

Stylistically, this mosque is a masterpiece of Mamluk-Islamic architecture. It has a remarkable scale and symmetry of design, although its two minarets are of unequal size. In addition to its beauty, the mosque of Sultan Hassan has many stories to tell; stories of tragic proportions. Sultan Hassan assumed the throne at the age of 13, was deposed and assumed the throne again (twice!), but was assassinated before the mosque was completed. It was also the site of a tragic accident when about 300 people watching the construction of one of its minarets were killed when the structure collapsed. During the French occupation of Egypt, Napoleon also shelled the mosque in attempt to put down an uprising of the local population.

The Mosque of Ar-Rifai

This is one of our favourite mosques in Cairo, even though it was constructed relatively recently (1867-1912). Originally the land on which the mosque now stands was a shrine to the medieval Islamic saint Ahmad al-Rifai, and a pilgrimage destination thought to have special healing powers. It was built to be the final resting place for Egyptian royalty, and therefore is also national symbol. The architects faced the challenge of complementing the imposing Mosque of the Sultan Hassan nearby. Today Ar-Rifai contains the tombs of members of the royal family as well as that of the last Shah of Iran. On the day we visited, there were fresh flowers on his tomb.

Mosque of Amr ibn al-As

This particular mosque is noteworthy for being built in 642 at the centre of the recently-founded capital of Fustat, which eventually would be named Cairo. It was also the first mosque to be built in Egypt and also therefore the first mosque in Africa. It is an active mosque with an equally active and devout local congregation. On the day we visited there was a funeral in progress, attended only by men. According to our guide, the women wait at the actual grave site. When you visit, note the 200 columns each of which is different.

The “Hanging Church” of Saint Mary

St Mary, the mother of Jesus, is also known also as El Muallaqa Sitt Mariam. The Copts are the largest Christian community in Egypt and the Middle East. According to tradition, Saint Mark introduced Christianity to the Egyptians in Alexandria, during the reign of Nero, shortly before the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Scriptures were translated into the local (Coptic) language which was spoken in North Africa as late as the 17th century. Suspended over the northern gate of the ruins of Fort Babylon, today the church is approached through a narrow passageway and then up a flight of 29 stone steps. It is squeezed into a very tight area in Old Cairo, an appropriate metaphor. Inside the church there is a remarkable ambiance; and its location and significance underscore the presence here of the three major religions of the Middle East.

The Ben Ezra Synagogue

Originally a Coptic Christian church, the Ben Ezra Synagogue was purchased by Abraham Ben Ezra in 882 because the Copts were unable to pay the annual taxes imposed by the Muslim rulers of the time. Ben Ezra had arrived from Jerusalem during the reign of Ahmed Ibn Tulun and bought the church for 20,000 dinars. Moses Maimonides, a famous physician, philosopher, authority on religious law, was a member of the congregation while living in Cairo. During restoration in the 1890s, a medieval geniza was found in which thousands of sacred books and legal scrolls from the Middle Ages were hidden. Like so much of Old Cairo, this synagogue is a “hidden” treasure in many senses of the word.

Images and imagery in Fatimid Cairo, Old Cairo, and Coptic Cairo

To view this slide show, click here.

TRAVEL TIP: We usually travel with a guidebook, but are careful in our choice as we find that some are more appropriate (for our purposes) depending on the nature of the destination. For Egypt and Cairo, we chose The Lonely Planet guide because of the depth and detail of information but also because of its emphasis on historical and architectural detail, and objectivity.

Something new, believe it or not, at the Pyramids

As we approach the Pyramids, we are shocked to see how the city of Cairo has grown and completely closed the gap between itself and these ancient wonders. Equally disturbing is the commercial excess leading up to the sites and the very dispiriting garbage and other refuse alongside the road and in the shallow canals running beside it. We realize that it is sometimes inadvisable to go back; anything can happen to a destination.

However, as we discover, you can never return often enough to Giza. There still is nothing on this planet that compares to the treasures of the necropolis on the Giza Plateau: the Great Pyramid of Giza (of Khufu or Cheops as he is also known); the Pyramid of Khafre (Chephren); the Pyramid of Menkaure (Mykerinus); the Great Sphynx; and the smaller “Queens” (additional ancient tombs that stand like royal consorts nearby the trio of larger pyramids). Of the Seven Wonders of the (ancient) World as defined by the Greek poet Antipater of Sidon’s, this is the only one still in existence. And gazing once again at these monuments, there is still a profound sense of timelessness.

(b) The Solar Boat

On our last visit, we saw a recent excavation — a very large rectangular but empty pit — behind the Great Pyramid. Here in 1954, the dismantled funerary boat of Khufu had been unearthed. Today the re-assembled boat is displayed in a structure of unobtrusive design. You pay an additional fee to enter and are required to wear soft-cloth “booties” over your shoes in the very carefully climate-controlled building. This funerary boat, which would have borne the Pharaoh across the sky into eternity on the same journey as that of the Sun God Ra, is in miraculous condition.

We will return, inshallah, to Giza.

For more information on what is known as the Khufu Ship, see the following link:

Khufu Ship.

(a) Memphis, Saqqara (the Step Pyramid), and the Red Pyramid

We especially recommend a visit to these three sites. The ruins of Memphis, the ancient capital of “Lower Egypt” or the “Old Kingdom,” are about 20 kilometres south of Cairo, on the west bank of the Nile. Here you will see the remains of the temple of Ptah and of Apis, as well as impressive statuary, including two of Ramesses II, both about four metres high.

Saqqara is nearby and is the site of the famous Step Pyramid, the model for the Great Pyramid of Khufu, and the oldest standing step pyramid. Saqqara is also the necropolis for Memphis, and dating from the Third Dynasty, the Step Pyramid is the eternal resting place for the Pharaoh Djoser. At this vast ancient burial ground, which is located in a relatively remote part of the desert, you get an extraordinary sense of the eternal, which in many ways is what a visit to “The Pyramids” is all about.

At Saqqara we are also very pleased to see that the site has not (yet) become overdeveloped. There is an extraordinary stillness and acoustical beauty here; you hear and feel the continuous desert breezes as you wander undisturbed throughout the site. What is new this time around is a wonderful small museum of Pharaonic treasures and statues; the latter are especially beautiful because of their distinct “personalities.” At Saqqara you can also admire ancient mastabas (impressive flat-topped, rectangular tombs with sloping sides), which in their simple, eloquent way embody the pure geometrical beauty of these Pharaonic treasures of ancient Egypt.

The Red Pyramid is also worth a visit because, like the Step Pyramid, it will give you a clear idea of why all the great pyramids are not identical, and how each has its own particular style, shape, dimension, and appeal. The Red Pyramid has more of a flattened appearance and evokes a great sense of solidity and the weight of these amazing structures, as well as the immense weight of time which is manifest in them. At the Red Pyramid, you can also now go inside … be entombed … so to speak. I can assure you, because I did it, that this is a remarkable experience, and not just something to dine out on at home. But be forewarned; this is not an experience for claustrophobes. The passageway that leads into the interior of the Red Pyramid is very narrow, has a very low ceiling, is not well lit, is hard going for most of the way (especially coming back), and has the appropriate airlessness of a tomb. However, you get a very real sense of the massive size and weight of a pyramid — from the inside; and of human frailty . You also get an up close look at how a pyramid was built. After descending into the interior of this pyramid, you eventually come to three chambers, each of which has a stepped ceiling, one almost 13 metres high. You will also stand on a spot in one of the chambers which lies directly beneath the apex of the Red Pyramid itself. I cannot guarantee any kind of mystical experience, but it is a “moment” that you will not soon forget.

On the way back from the Red Pyramid, be sure to stop by the side of road and admire the equally amazing Bent Pyramid which materializes in the distance against the desert sky.

TRAVEL TIP: To the uninitiated, the hawkers at the major sites can be intimidating. You must run the gauntlet of hawkers because they have been given the lucrative exit corridor through which visitors must pass before exiting the site. On the other hand, why not? Considering how contemporary marketplaces elsewhere on the planet bombard us with much more subtle and subliminal commercial messages, I enjoy this direct approach. And bargaining of course is de rigueur. When bargaining however, remember that this is not a competition to see who “wins”; rather it is a traditional practice through which both buyer and seller reach a reasonable agreement that satisfies both.

Other “individuals” who are dependent on tourism revenues, can occasionally be a bit of a problem. At one point as we returned from visiting the Solar Boat on “the other side” of the Great Pyramid, we were stopped by an official-looking individual who demanded to see our “tickets.” He was simply not going to let us pass until we paid him more. We refused to be intimidated, however, knowing that Tourist Police were strategically located at certain distances in the area. So it was just a question of getting from one zone to the next. Egypt is not Disneyland.

Video clips of Cairo

A Quiet Traffic Day in Cairo

An evening stroll through Cairo’s Khan Al Khalili market

The Solar Boat of Khufu

RESOURCES

We recommend the following websites especially:

The official website of the Ministry of Tourism of Egypt

Egyptology Online

The dedicated website for tourist industry professionals and the press.

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Responses

  1. Very fascinating and helpful…we are en route there and can´t wait to experience all this too.

  2. I’m happy you wrote that post..

    Sincerest regards,
    Mindy

  3. For more information about the Cairo Genizah, you may want to check out my new book on the subject: “Sacred Treasure: The Cairo Genizah,” published by Jewish Lights Publishing.

    Enjoy!

    Rabbi Mark Glickman


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