Cairo is kind of like New York, except without traffic lights. (And without left turns being legal, which means that any time someone wants to make a left, they have to pass their destination, make a U-turn in the middle of crazy traffic, and double back. Who makes these rules?) Anyway, traffic speeds along, and crossing the street is like playing chicken for your life.
Andy kept telling me to be like the locals, to be bold, and to just race headlong into traffic and make the cars stop for me. But I am not bold like that, and half the time ended up running screaming back to the curb. Where I would wait until a local took pity on me and basically held my hand and walked me across the street. A hearty thanks to the local pedestrians of Cairo, without whom I, and many other tourists, would surely be dead.
Anyway, other than the traffic problem, I loved Cairo. It's a late-night city, a foodie city; there's a subway system; you can drink the water; there are no power outages (actually, there are neon lights everywhere!); and the hot water flows freely from the taps. It felt like New York...well, if New York had 25-cent falafel sandwiches, hordes of headscarf-clad ladies crowding the streets, and regular calls to prayer, that is.
The other thing Cairo has that New York doesn't is pyramids just outside of city limits. If you're like me, you may have imagined that the great pyramids in Egypt were far out in the desert somewhere, hours from present-day civilization...but, my friend, we were wrong. They are actually all within about 20 kilometers of Cairo, and can be visited on an easy day-trip. On our first full day in Cairo, we hired a driver, Ragab (who had been recommended by our friends the Ethiopian baboon researchers!) to take us around to see them.
Most people head straight to the biggest pyramids at Giza, but we started at Dashur, home to some of the older (and much cheaper to go inside of) pyramids. This excursion marked the first time we've ever had to pretend to be Canadian for tourism purposes--apparently, Americans and Israelis are supposed to have an armed guard with them when visiting pyramids, but other nationalities don't need one. Our driver sagely informed us of this, and we were Andy and Tara from Corner Brook, Newfoundland, for the rest of the day.
At Dashur, there were hardly any tourists, AND we were allowed to go inside the Red Pyramid (built around 2500 BC) for no extra charge, making it the best pyramid deal in Egypt. If you think pyramids look impressive from the outside, you should see the tall, stepped ceilings inside!
The way down into the pyramid was steep and low-ceilinged--not for the claustrophobic. Also, once you get inside, it smells strongly like ammonia--thanks, 4,500 years of anaerobic decomposition!
There wasn't actually all that much to see once we got down to the main inner chambers--like most pyramids and tombs in Egypt, this one was vandalized over the years.
We paid a security guard almost $1 in "baksheesh" (tips) for showing us around the outside of the pyramid and taking this picture, so we had to include it on the blog as one of our more expensive pictures ever. At least it is a good picture.
Also at Dashur is this "Bent Pyramid"--the builders realized halfway through construction that the angle they had started with wouldn't work, so they had to make it steeper in order to finish the structure.
Our next stop was Saqqara, which has pyramids, tombs, and a really nice new little museum. I was quite impressed with this painted sarcophagus (clearly I hadn't been to the Egyptian museum yet, where there are approximately 1 million of them).
Some of the tombs at Saqqara had amazingly well-preserved wall-reliefs, original paint and everything. You don't need to be in Egypt very long to be really blown over by the incredible shape that so much art from thousands upon thousands of years ago is still in.
One of our favorite carvings at Saqqara, documenting a period of starvation in the kingdom. You can see how skinny these figures are, their ribs are showing through their skin.
The most famous structure at Saqqara is the "Step Pyramid," the first pyramid ever built! Andy says around 2600 BC. Later, techniques were refined so that the edges could be smoother, but this is still a very big and impressive pyramid.
Our final stop was Giza, home of the biggest (and most touristed) pyramids. Oh, and the Sphinx! Hello, Sphinx.
I'm sure Andy would have something clever and historical to tell you about the Sphinx.
All I can say is, what a lovely Sphinx!
There are loads of camels and camel-wranglers around the pyramids, offering tourists rides. This camel was on break and wanted to be in our picture of the two big pyramids.
A view from the base of the Great Pyramid, looking up. Each of the building blocks is about half as tall as a person and probably weighs a heck of a lot more.
More great pyramid. Nice in the late afternoon light. These pyramids were built as glorious tombs for Pharaohs, in case I didn't already mention that. Who built them, you ask? The theory that it was slaves has apparently been discredited by the discovery of remains of pretty nice workers' camps near the pyramid sites, but whether those camps were for humans or aliens is still up for debate...
Nighttime is a wonderful time to wander around the historic district of Islamic Cairo. It is filled with beautiful mosques, like this one, and an active bazaar.
As the sun fades, the mosques turn on their lights (thanks to the Aswan Dam on the southern Nile, Egypt apparently has electricity to spare) and look all pretty for us tourists.
We spent the next day visiting the Egypt Museum (no cameras allowed, but awesome museum) and Coptic Cairo, which has many beautiful old churches and even a lovely old synagogue (no cameras allowed there, either). But the most fun happened that night, when we went to a Sufi dancing show back in Islamic Cairo! If you are ever in Cairo, you must try to catch this show. Tickets are free, but you have to go claim your seat two hours in advance in the theater. Luckily, many people told us it was worth it, so we stayed for the show, and it was great.
Not only are the musicians fantastic, but then this guy (admittedly, dressed kinda like Heidi of the Alps) comes out and spins around for 25 minutes straight. Note that in the picture above and this one below his skirt has a different pattern--he actually wears three layers of skirts and strips them off, doing all sorts of fun whippy motions with each liberated skirt, as the show goes on. Egyptian striptease!
Our next destination was Alexandria, around three hours northeast of Cairo, up on the Mediterranean coast. The sky was blue, the sea breeze was rolling in, there was cheap ice cream and amazing fresh juice along the waterfront, and we got to visit the best library ever. Alexandria is fantastic and I might like to live there someday.
(Though, I should point out, we were there in late October, which is low season for tourism. We have heard that if you go during the summer, the city is packed with Egyptian tourists, hotel prices soar, and it's a much less pleasant place to be.)
Adding to its already substantial charm, Alexandria has trams. They cost approximately 5 cents US to ride.
Alexandria, though it has a lot of history, is not loaded with antiquities like many other sites in Egypt. It was the site of the great lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, but that crumbled into the sea millennia ago and has been replaced by a less-exciting fort. It was also the site of the Library of Alexandria, the number one place to study in the ancient world. Nothing of that remains, either, but in the spirit of the ancient library, Egypt has built the huge and ultra-modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which opened in 2002.
The library, right on the shore, is designed to look like a sun rising at an angle out of the Mediterranean sea. Its exterior is decorated with characters from every known alphabet.
One of my favorite characters. Anyone know what language this is from??
The inside has seven floors of books, computer stations, and reading areas...four of which are below sea level. The windows all filter direct sunlight to keep away the glare, and the insulation absorbs sound to keep things quiet. There's a nifty glassed-in observation area, from which you can look down on it all.
There are also several museums within the library, including a new one dedicated to Sadat, Egypt's president in the 1970s and early 80s who made peace with Israel and got assassinated for it. We didn't know a lot about him, so it was interesting to learn a bit, though we probably could have done without the display of his personal hairbrush and toothbrush.
You're not allowed to bring bags into the library (Egypt is a little bit security-obsessed), so we checked our backpack at the baggage check outside. Then we decided to stay after hours for the free animated short-film festival (great programming at the library!), assuming that the baggage check would stay open late, too. Wrong-o! Come back tomorrow, we were told. We did, and it took about 45 minutes, discussions with five different officials, and a photocopy of our passports to finally get our bag back. Please learn from our mistake if you ever visit the Bibliotheca Alexandrina!
A final shot of the lovely library from the front. If I lived in Alexandria, I would hang out here every day.
That's it for Egypt, Part 1. Andy will take over with our adventures in the south and in the Sinai!