21 April 2008

Ancient Egypt, Modern Cairo, and Alexandria

Ancient Egypt

Friday Lori and I got up pretty early and got a taxi to the pyramids at Giza. Giza is surprisingly close to Cairo: it only took about twenty minutes to get there, since the roads are deserted on Friday mornings, when everybody goes to mosque. Here are a bunch of photos of the pyramids!

This is the Great Pyramid. It's really really enormous. Its blocks come up to my waist.

This is the corner of the Great Pyramid, plus the Second Pyramid (it's the one which still has some of the limestone casing left on top) and the Third Pyramid. If you can see an itty bitty pyramid beyond that, that's the fourth.

This picture shows just how close Cairo is to the open desert. You can see, and hear, Cairo to the left, but to the right there's nothing but sand.

Here are the Second and Third pyramids, and the teensy little fourth one.

Here am I on a camel... this one gets a story. When you go to the pyramids, you are frequently ambushed by people trying to sell you things. And you try your best to ignore them or get them to leave you alone. The more successful ones surround you, and present what they're selling as "gifts" so that they can then inform you that you're being rude by refusing. I should have just given in to being rude, but I wasn't forceful enough. So after they wrapped my head in a scarf (twice, because I tried to take it off the first time), they put me on a camel. The camel was sitting down, so I expected to be able to escape easily. But then they made the camel stand up and that plan flew out the window. Riding a camel isn't unlike riding a horse, except that camels are significantly taller. Lori says that camels are more uncomfortable, but my legs are longer so that helped. Once I got down, they of course wanted money. They had techniques for this too: I offered thirty pounds, and they acted insulted. The camel man said that he would give me change from a 100-pound bill (a bit less than $20) but then refused once he had put it into his pocket. I ended up getting ten pounds "change." I was incredibly pissed. And naturally, this bad experience is as vivid in my mind as the good experience of seeing the pyramids. Which makes me even more angry. But it's the past, and can't be changed, and at least I have a picture of me on a camel in front of the Great Pyramid:

The Third Pyramid is still a destination for tourists, but where there were hundreds by the two big ones, there were handfuls by the third. It's still huge, even though it's not as big as the popular ones. Here it is!

And here's the back of the Second Pyramid, miraculously free of tourists:

I made Lori hike to the fourth pyramid with me, since I felt bad for it. It's hardly noticeable from where the tourists are, and it would feel very neglected and left out if it were anthropomorphized. Good thing there's no International Pyramidal Union, or it would probably lose its pyramid status.
Once you get close, you see that there are more pyramids! The fifth is very short (in comparison) and shows more traits of a step-pyramid than the big guys, and the sixth is clearly a step-pyramid. Here are the three poor, neglected pyramids:

This photo is good for size comparison: compare me, approximately six feet tall, with the stones making up the fourth pyramid:

Here's the fourth pyramid and the Cairo skyline:

And here are the four pyramids in the other direction: the big from perspective fourth pyramid, the Third, the Second with its casing, and the Great Pyramid looking deceptively smaller.

Here are Lori and me in front of the pyramids. Woohoo!

And finally, here is the noseless Sphinx, seen here with the Second Pyramid.

Here it is with the two big ones.

I still can't believe I saw the Pyramids... I was really there! I'd dreamt of this since I was little, but never really thought it would happen. But it did! They're amazing.

Modern Cairo

In the afternoon, Lori and I met up with her friend Sarah (the one who isn't her flatmate) and we went to City Stars, which is the rich "suburban" mall. It's air-conditioned, mostly smoke-free, shiny and clean, and enormous: like, as big as Mall of America, not just merely as big as Woodfield. We got ice cream (I congratulate whoever came up with mint cookies and cream ice cream... wow. The best of both worlds.) and walked around the mall for a good, long time. I found a messenger bag to replace my former carry-on, which has been all around the world with me and has the hole and weak spots to prove it. It had gotten to the point where I carry a spare bag just in case my messenger bag dies while I'm en route somewhere, and needed to be replaced. Its replacement is a little bit small, but it's nice, and it was on sale quite cheap. (And I can now add after traveling with it... the lining is terrible quality and already needs to be patched. But that's not too annoying.) We stopped at Starbucks to get Lori some coffee, and I got a mini apple pie, just because I could. Starbucks scales its prices to be closer to Egyptian standards, so it was only two dollars. In America, the only thing you can get for two dollars at Starbucks is... a cup of air, probably.

We ate dinner at a Lebanese restaurant, which was really good. I got orzo soup and "oriental duck," which was excellent. Lori got hummus as usual, and lentil soup. Sarah got pigeons. A lot like a cross between beef and chicken, whereas duck is like a cross between lamb and chicken. (On a side note: when you imagine a cross between a lamb and chicken, do you imagine a lamb with wings like Lori did, or a wooly bird like I do?) We got two desserts to share: Om Ali, which is some sort of dough baked with cream, and Mahalabeya, which is a cool custard type dessert with nuts and dried fruit on top. Both were good, but way too sweet for my taste.

After a bit more wandering, we headed home. Then followed a night of six hours of very restless sleep (my lack of sleep will become a separate story line, don't worry...) and our trip to...

Saturday we woke up really really early and headed to the train station and thence to Alexandria. We got first class tickets, since they're not much more than second class... and still cheaper than trains in most other countries! The train was pretty nice, and we managed to sleep for part of the 2.5 hour train ride. Once we arrived, we walked a bit away from the train station so that taxi prices would go down, and got a cab to the Catacombs. Recently a donkey fell down a deep hole in Alexandria and discovered the catacombs, which are really awesome. They date from the Roman era, and are a fascinating mixture of Roman, Egyptian, and Greek art and architecture. In most cases, they can't tell who was buried there, but the most impressively carved tomb seems to have been that of a Roman couple. There are very Greek motifs in there, but the most striking things were the statues of Anubis-- the jackal-headed Egyptian god, dressed like a Roman legionary! In some places, there were remnants of frescos on the walls, there were several columns still standing, and lots of empty graves. Mummies didn't last very long in warm, moist Alexandria. The catacombs are also connected to another underground tomb, which has brick arches and other interesting features. The two weren't originally connected, but some grave robbers accidentally linked two tunnels.

Outside the catacombs, you're allowed to take pictures. Here's Lori adding an Egyptian component to the Greek/Roman style tomb:

Our next stop was the fort, which stands on the spot where the Lighthouse/Pharos of Alexandria used to be. It was one of the original seven wonders of the world, but was destroyed several centuries ago. The fort, however, is quite beautiful. And it's on the Mediterranean, which is also really pretty.

We aimed for the entrance to the fort, but missed... and ended up in the fish museum, which has really cheesy dioramas of fish in the Mediterranean. I liked the whale skeleton, and I really liked the expression on the face of this enormous papier mâché fish, pictured here with Lori:

We walked from the fort to the Fish Market, which is a fancy fish restaurant on the shore. We got salad: a bowl of vegetables and some fresh bread to dip in a collection of seven types of hummus and other dips, plus two plates of Egyptian pickles. That alone would have been plenty for a meal, but since we were in fresh-fish land, I got calamari as well. It was fresh and light and delicious. In Egypt, the type of bread you get is a little like pita, though lighter and puffier. It's fun to deflate and delicious.
Here is the fort, seen across a boat filled bit of Mediterranean:

Next stop was the library, which is built on the site of the ancient library, another of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. The library that's standing now is ultra modern, and beautiful. I love books.

There was a rare books section, which was really neat. I particularly liked the display of margins, where they showed some of the most impressive margin-graffiti in their collection. There was also an exhibit on an Egyptian film maker with lots of pictures of costumes he designed, and one on the history of Alexandria, which was interesting in a boring sort of way... interesting, but not enough to want to read labels on pictures. We walked around the literature section for a bit, and were surprised to find quite a bit of what we consider to be "teen crap fiction." However, it was pretty tempting... so Lori picked out a Buffy the Vampire Slayer novel, and I picked a Sweet Valley High book (could it get any worse? No.) and we spent an hour reading, sixth-grade style. Then I spun around the historical Alexandria bit of the museum before we left, which was really neat. They had stuff from all the religions which Egypt has been home to (Egyptian polytheism, Roman and Greek polytheism, Coptic Christianity, Islam), neat statues, and two beautiful mosaics from the original Library of Alexandria. I was amazed at how well everything was preserved: if you picture a Roman statue, you probably don't picture one with all of its limbs and facial features, and your image of a Greek vase probably isn't uncracked and likely doesn't have all of its decoration intact. Egypt must be the ideal environment for keeping things pretty over the millennia.
Here's a neat modern sculpture at the library:

The train back to Cairo was less uneventful than we would have liked... we were fortunate enough to be sitting right behind a family with three crying children. Two of them screamed (literally) for an hour (literally). Their parents weren't handling the situation well, either, which annoyed me. Finally they cried themselves to sleep, and I got about five minutes of sleep.
Back at Lori's apartment, I packed and we chatted with Lori's flatmate Sarah, who has awesome adventures.

At one, my taxi (a fancy metered taxi) arrived to take me to the airport. Traffic was light, so it didn't take long. The driver spoke pretty good English, and we chatted a little. I learned that Egyptians drive through the streets honking for marriages, just like Americans and the French do. The airport isn't bad, but the organization for check-in was horrible. There were only a few desks open, and I was in line for more than an hour. I got through passport control and security just after boarding had started, so I didn't have much time to find 70 pounds worth of stuff to buy in the duty-free shops... I ended up buying four big chocolate bars, which is perfect since chocolate gives me migraines. I got milk chocolate though, so it probably won't be too bad. I met some pretty nice people in the airport and the plane, which was nice. I usually give people the silent treatment, since nine times out of ten I'm seated next to someone who flirts with me or tries to convert me or something. I got almost two hours of sleep on the plane before they cruelly woke us up for a too-sweet carb-filled breakfast that I didn't really want.

I had three hours in the airport in Rome, and it was an uncomfortable three hours. I tried really hard to stay awake for an hour, then tried to find a comfortable position to sleep in for an hour. They have really hard seats with fixed armrests (so no lying down), and really hard floors. I dozed for a while in a corner, but ended up with more cramps than extra energy. Then I dozed in the chairs for a while, and woke up to discover that they'd changed my gate. I hate it when they do that. So I walked to the new gate, which luckily wasn't far away. On this flight, I read the French Sunday newspaper, and then slept for about an hour. So, at this point, we're counting about nine hours of bad sleep over Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I wasn't in too good of shape. After arriving in Paris, I panicked slightly about my bag, but luckily I had just picked the wrong return belt-- there were two flights coming in from Rome, neither of which had my flight number since it was an Air France flight that Alitalia put me on. I got terrible pizza for lunch, then sat around staying awake until I got onto the (late) train. Then I crashed, and slept for two and a half hours. I ate some pasta for dinner at home, then slept for eleven hours... which brings me to today, Monday. I'm functioning slightly better now that I've taken a nap, but I'm still pretty tired.

Tomorrow (or at least quite soon) I'm going to post about non-"stuff we did" topics from Egypt, the more cultural observations. If you have any questions or curiosities, post comments and I'll explain anything you'd like to know! It's a fascinating place.

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