Category Archives: Travel

Tardy, Tardy!

Yes, I am home, and no, my journey back was not free of trouble! *grin* It was a lot of fun, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not how I want to do it all the time. I will write it up, as usual, but need to catch up on trip posts. Given how far behind I fell in the very-busy last few weeks, those posts will have to be interpolated with new ones from home. Ah, well!

Classes have started up again, and my facebook relationship status has changed, and I might get a fourth cat. Aside from having no money, I would say that life is about as good as it gets. I’m gonna get back to working on slide shows now. I found I really like working from them, though I don’t know how long it will take to make new ones for each week. Worth a try! *waves*

Sufis And Beer

Stepping back a little, I owe you the story of how my museum day ended.

So I had gotten in contact with the fella named Amor who was involved in some radical publication projects and knew a mutual friend. He decided that I deserved to see a local Sufi concert of sorts — it’s technically a religious ritual, but it’s really performance art. I’ll get back to it in a minute.

I met him by the KFC in Tahrir square, which is the one and only Western-style fast food joint I saw in the city. he had a companion with him — a German gal named Sophia with whom he flirted relentlessly. I have never seen a guy work so hard to get in someone’s pants. I felt distinctly awkward to be the fifth wheel on what would doubtless have made for a better date without me!

Anyroad, we headed from there to a place that he thought he knew the way to, but really we were lost. We wandered for a long time and missed close to an hour of the show. This would be a recurring theme throughout the night…

The ritual was interesting, albeit too slow for me. The singer was extremely passionate and clearly drank in the attention. The lyrics were about loving god and being full of God in the heart and stuff like that; typical Sufi themes. But he seemed more interested in pleasing the audience than God, which I found oddly endearing (being not one for religious music). The band was great — a tabla, an oud, a violin, a wooden flute, and a percussionist. But the rhythm was hypnotic. I found myself swaying to it and nodding off repeatedly.

In the show we met a friend of Amor’s and we piled into his car. The intent was to take us closer to where we could get a beer and talk. It being Ramadan there was only one place they knew in the city where you could drink. But not only was his friend an usually scary driver (nearly hitting people a couple of times), but neither of them had a clue in hell where they were going!

His friend finally dropped us off and we began to walk, but we started not far from where I met Amor, which made the entire drive a waste of time. Not only that, it was in the wrong direction. He then set about trying to find the place the way Cairenes do: by asking everyone and their uncle that you pass! You see, street signs are pretty rare and addresses are non-existent, at least in the sense of being printed on the actual buildings. If you don’t know anyone in the area to call as you approach, you’re just supposed to ask people.

As it happened, few people could give good directions, or didn’t really know, or Amor just couldn’t tell what they meant, since we wandered for what had to be at least an hour and was probably more. Amusingly, we got closer and closer to the street, then to the building, where I was living. Wonder of wonders, the place ended up being in the same building! Had I been able to ask the directions we could have gotten them a lot faster, since I knew the streets in that part of the city better than Amor did. (He’s from Alexandria and only moved to Cairo recently, and he doesn’t live downtown.)

This place ended up being one of the facilities used by the Greek consulate, and they had just one type of beer. Didn’t matter, I had a couple big ones because there had been no beer in my diet for a week, hehe. The two of them smoked (most people smoke) and we all talked a bit. They both knew some of the people at a nearby long table, as the expatriate community is not that large and people tend to network. One of them came over to join us for a while, then went back and forth for the rest of the night.

We talked about Amor’s work with a bunch of creative types and the art magazine they put out, about girls and sex and how sleeping with people upset Amor’s parents — and about how his father locked him in his room for a month as a kind of rehab!

And we talked about my research project (the fourth party, whose name I forgot, asked and seemed very interested), and then got into Amor’s experiences in the revolution, which is why I came out in the first place. There were tales of baton charges and getting his head knocked, about being arrsted multiple times, etc. One particularly good one had him in the back of a police car when it was surrounded by pro-Mubarak thugs. They tried to drag him out of the car (likely to kill him) and the cops said, ‘hey, why don’t we just let them have you?’ Scary, no? But they ended up driving off and Amor lived to fight another day.

I don’t want to get into much more of this stuff, but we talked until closing time and then went out onto the street. We parted company and I went looking for a place to buy some water, while the two of them wandered off into the night. I wonder if he got lucky (she was pretty cute!). *lol* Then I headed back to my hostel and went to sleep. Zzzzz.

Heading Back To The Old U. S. of A.

To-morrow I leave the Middle East and head home. It’s with a certain sense of regret that I do so. I quite like it here, have a lot of research work and language study I could do, and I don’t want to face the responsibilities (and the poverty) that will greet me in California!

But I have good reasons to be happy I am leaving, and I am. For starters, I am in pain and am thoroughly exhausted; I have been punishing myself a bit here. I miss my cats, of course. And I have a gal who’s meeting me at the aeroport for the first time, which doesn’t happen very often in one’s life! I am excited as hell to see Anthea in person. I wonder what she’ll be wearing….

Anyroad, that’s it for me, my loyal droogs. I will next be posting from the comfort of my own home. I did queue two things to go up while I’m flying, though — my story about a Sufi concert and hunting for beer during Ramadan, and another Nietzsche meditation. That should tide you over until you can get your next fix of Liam-ness.

להתראות / مع السلامة

Tahrir Square

On the evening of 12 August I went out to Tahrir Square for the Friday protest. So much of the impressions I have are feelings that it is difficult to know how to put things, but I will stick to the events as I saw them and hopefully convey some of those impressions in the process.

I had see the square a couple of times before this, and each time there were rows of police and army vehicles in the streets leading to it. The presence seems to be constant these days, though they (the individual troops) were not always out in formation. I did see (and posted previously) a tight ring of riot police in the centre of the square on the first evening that I went down to see it. The same sight greeted me this time, along with an already-large and growing body of Cairenes.

The press that morning was filled with finally-confirmed stories of the evening’s changes. Where originally it was to be some larger event with dozens of groups in attendance, this about 20 organisations had pulled out after the government asked them to do so, and the event was rescheduled for the following Friday. The remaining groups, along with a promised huge contingent of Sufis, still planned to go. It was also announced that the evening would be essentially a huge iftar — the evening meal that Muslims take at the end of a Ramadan fast — and that large rallies would not be taking place at all. I was a bit taken aback by this, but it turned out to be largely untrue.

In the end, it turned out to be a rally for a civil state, i.e., against the idea of religion being written into the governing institutions. This is a contentious issue in Egypt to-day, with many long-suppressed groups like the Muslim Brothers hoping to have Islamic principles woven into the fabric of the new Egypt. A few weeks ago the square was taken over by a massive and partisan rally of bearded Salafists demanding a Shari’a state, which was the first time that the protesters’ unity was seriously disrupted — a tacit agreement had kept divisive issues out of the square for most of the previous months.

This undoubtedly emboldened secularists to rally against the idea. Egyptian secularists and the ecumenically-minded have wisely chosen not to brand their idea as a ‘secular democracy’, but rather as a ‘civil democracy’. It is purely a semantic distinction, but it is symbolically significant as many Egyptians (and Muslims in general) view secularism as godless and therefore threateningly heretical.

One of the first things I noted on coming into Tahrir that night, aside from the military vehicles and ring of cops, was the number of vendors scattered around the periphery, particularly on the east side. This I had noted on the previous, non-Friday evening visit, but their numbers were considerably greater on this night. One stand-out was the large number of tee-shirt vendors, and before the night was up I would purchase four of these to bring back with me. (I had needed some thinner shirts anyhow, and these were astonishingly cheap — about 3$ — and would both provide memories and express support.) Other vendors were less interesting, selling a profusion of buttons and ribbons and flags, as well as those who were providing refreshment to the protesters. The prices here were surprisingly reasonable — one might expect price-gouging in a similar event in the USA.

Lousy photo of a tee-shirt vendor. I bought a few and love them -- very comfy. Should have bought more. Heh.

Slightly clearer, with blurry walking dood.

But I did see one amusing ‘fight’ between rival vendors. The carts were mobile, and a new guy set up his drink stand immediately beside one that was already in operation. The original seller exploded in rage and started threatening the new guy, who maintained an unimpressed expression while setting up his own business. Since his rival was unwilling to turn to physical violence in the presence of so many cops, he was forced to back down and acquiesce to the competition. Hot-tempered exchanges like this are apparently common in Cairo from what I have heard, and I saw two others before leaving — one of which was quite wild and I will write about that in my last from-Cairo post.

The protesters themselves were a motley bunch representing plenty of distinct interests and parties. One common sign — visible in the square for months — shows Mubarak with a noose hanging in front of his face. It was hard not to smile at the courage it takes to express sentiments like this in a police state. (I call it still a police state since, while there are promises of reforms and the lifting of emergency laws, Egypt is still governed by the military, and many protesters have been arrested and put on trial by the government.)

Huh-huh, huh-huh, uhhhh, he said "hung".

How to capture a sense of what it was like to move through that crowd… I was not the only non-Egyptian there, though there were few of us. I felt at ease the whole time, though, and moved freely about taking photos and videos. At one point a poet burst into action spontaneously and I managed to capture a large chunk of his performance. It was comically intense, with him sweating and gesticulating dramatically, his voice rising and falling with an infectious rhythm. I would post a photo but I didn’t take one, though I did video tape more than two minutes of his performance. Maybe I can embed a video here…? Hm. Nope. I can, but only tiny ones. Ah, well. I will find a way to upload it and link to it later.

{insert poet here} 😉

The crowd was filled with large Egyptian flags, some with slogans written on them. A few children were there with their faces painted in the colours of the flag, which was quite precious in an annoyingly patriotic way. *lol* There were plenty of people holding up signs, some professionally printed, others hand-drawn on poster-board. A few of these really stood out for me, including one with large cross and crescent and an appeal to ecumenical solidarity, and one which seemed to be attacking Israel, though I will have to translate its contents later (it was very long).

Flags, flags, everywhere.

Christians and Muslims together in one state, no shari'a for me, thanks...

Not all patriots are young secular folk.

Speaking of controversial ideals, one vendor had set up a table in the square to sell photographs of political figures past and present. There were shots of Nasser and Che and Sadat and Fidel, of course, but also of Saddam Hussein and Usama Bin Laden. This is not surprising, of course, but it was interesting.

Usama, Che, Saddam, Nasser... Choose your own hero.

Another thing you might find interesting was the attitude of the soldiers and police. I was able to walk right up to armed soldiers and take photos. Some seemed to enjoy the touristic attention, smiling for the camera and returning friendly waves. Others tried to look away or simply ignored me. But on a few occasions I walked right up to their formation, stood maybe a metre away, and examined the line-up.

'Pretty maids all in a row..'

Toy soldiers... with real guns.

Smiling for the camera.

Other times I repeated this with soldiers and police down by the transport vans and paddy-wagons, or on the armoured personnel carriers. Even the guys manning the machine guns had no problem smiling for the camera. It was all pretty surreal. You know that, on the one hand, these guys won’t mess around if given the order to clear the square. On the other, it all seemed somewhat comical, as if there were merely a part of the show, boys playing at soldier.

These things filled almost all the side streets.

Riot police donning their gear.

Armoured personnel carrier with machine gunner.

As the night wore on a platform stage that had been erected on one of the sidewalks was filled with speaker after speaker. Loud and rousing music would pour through the PA system, then someone would take their turn on the mic and speak their piece. The speeches were pretty impassioned and often got a powerful response from the crowd. After the speeches a hip-hop act came on, which has to have struck many of the middle-aged attendees as a bit odd. Aside from Eurodance stuff, Western music forms don’t seem to have much penetration in Egyptian popular culture. Every cab but one was playing either recordings of the Qur’an or sermons, or more traditional Arab balladry. There is an English-language rock station in Cairo, though — Nile FM — which I only discovered on my last day in town.

Crowded platform of speakers, rousing the crowd and jeering the soldiers.

Distance shot of the platform with some of the crowd.

Cheering on speakers, singing, call-and-response... it was an amazing thing, being there.

On the periphery I was struck by a curious graffito: an Israel flag shaped like a heart. Someone here loves Israel and is not afraid to say so! It seemed a little odd, given the anti-Israel sentiment that predominates in Egyptian culture. I wonder if this is a more common youth sentiment, or a philosophical outlier.


Things grew steadily more tense as the evening wore on, and I received a few warnings that the police would attack soon. I did see movement in the formations that was unlike the routine shuffling of earlier, and I did see one abortive charge a little earlier in the night. Either way, the scene was growing a bit intense. I wanted to stay until the crowd was dispersed, honestly, though I knew this was a bit riskier that it was worth. I decided that the folks back home would be a bit angry with me if I got myself trampled or arrested, so I followed a chunk of the crowd which was already seeing the signals and headed into the metro tunnel. As the roads around the square were choked with police and army, the metro station below the square seemed the safest and most practical escape.

If you ever visit Cairo, definitely check out their subway system! For one pound Egyptian, the equivalent of 16 US cents right now, you can ride anywhere on the system, hopping multiple trains as you like. It was crowded but very efficient and has a pretty wide coverage area. I used it a few times while there and was very impressed by the value. *lol* Anyway, this has nothing to do with the excitement in Tahrir but I figured it was interesting enough to tack on here. I split before things got really nasty, but I got enough of a sense of what these events have been like. It was definitely one of my more fascinating Egyptian experiences and I am glad I stayed there longer to do it.

The Egyptian Museum

Note: This post will contain links to graphics in the public domain, as I was unable to take my own photographs this day.

All right, we left off with my recounting of the Giza trip, right? Sorry for the slow updates lately — I have been busy as hell both in Egypt and since I got back to Israel/Palestine. I was just up in the Nablus area for a few days and will have some stories to tell there when I reach it chronologically, hehe! I will work hard to get caught up when I get home. Anyroad, back to Egypt…

The day after Giza I set out early in the morning to do what I had wanted to do the previous day: visit the Egyptian museum. First, however, I needed to make a detour all the way back to Giza to retrieve my ATM card! The bastard machine in the Banque Misr branch across from the Sphinx had eaten it, much to my chagrin. This, therefore, was a titanic waste of time and cab far, but whatever — the day at the pyramids was still worth it.

I had the cab drop me off at the museum once back in Cairo. I had remembered to leave my camera back in the hostel, as the museum no longer allows photos inside and will hold your camera for the length of your visit if you bring one (and I am not particularly trusting). The outside of the museum is a huge garden space with various hunks of antiquity just lying around. This is as good an introduction as any to the way this museum works. There are relatively few signs or notes of any kind on the works inside, with even important pieces often going unlabelled. I pity anyone who wanders through here without a good grasp of ancient Egyptian history, as they will get only a half-assed appreciation of it from wandering. A bit of awe at the pieces, sure, but without the context how do you know what you’re looking at or why you should care?

Egyptian Museum, aerial

Egyptian Museum, façade

A good case in point is the first major piece I encountered inside. Well, the first to really jump out at me and make me smile like an idiot schoolboy. *lol* plopped into one corner near the end of the first big gallery, partly in shadow, is a gigantic dark granite stele. For anyone who doesn’t know what a stele is, it’s just a monolithic slab, usually quite large, that is inscribed with something. Technically a gravestone could be called a stele, but it’s more appropriate to the sort of commemorative signs that Pharaohs liked to scatter about to glorify themselves.

This one was more historically meaningful to me than most things in the room, since it is the only one to mention the ancient Israelites. In fact, the Merneptah Stele may be the only reference to Israel that will ever be found in ancient Egyptian documents, and one of the few pieces of corroborating evidence that such a people existed. Tellingly, it does not use the sign that Egyptian writers used to denote a state or kingdom, but rather a people, suggesting that what was encountered was a kind of tribal confederation. This matches the archaeological evidence in the land of Israel which, contrary to what Bible-believing nudniks would have you thinking, shows no evidence of large-scale migration a-la the Exodus story, nor of a large and unified kingdom of David and Solomon. These things are highly embellished myths used to justify later political positions. But I’m off-topic; the point is that I was able to touch, that is, run my hands over the lettered surface, the only truly ancient document that mentions the Israelites. (The Torah is not, per se, an ancient -document- since it has been copied countless times by hand.)

The Merneptah Stele

The early rooms were filled with humongous statuary and fragments of same, and these I could pass through pretty quickly while making few mental notes. It was impressive, sure, but most of it was so big that its story was either easy to see or not even very interesting. *lol* There were several pyramidion, which are the polished caps that fit atop pyramids. Very few pyramids still possess these, and none of those at Giza do (those are lost). The ones in the museum are from much smaller, lesser known pyramids (there are a damned lot of these scattered around in Egypt).

Museum statuary


The next thing to really take my breath away was a large display case of cuneiform tablets. If anyone doesn’t know what cuneiform is you fail my world history class! It is perhaps the first human writing system, and certainly the oldest we have found. Its origin lies with the temple hierarchies of ancient Sumeria in southern Iraq more than 5,000 years ago. It was produced by pressing a wedge-shaped stylus into wet clay and then baking the stuff. Cuneiform tablets are found all over the Middle East, betraying the extent of early trade networks and the long influence of the system itself, which was the source of inspiration for many later ones. Anyway, what strikes one on looking at cuneiform tablets is just how small they are, with nearly any of them fitting into the palm of your hand. I have told classes this but I have seen very few in person.

Cuneiform letter

The last exhibit on the ground floor that I will mention (the cool stuff is mostly upstairs) is an alcove filled with things from the reign of Akhenaton. This is another figure y’all ought to be familiar with, and if you’re not I will now bore you… Akhenaton was born and coronated as Amenhotep IV in the 18th Dynasty, somewhere around the 14th c. BCE. He is famous for dissing the gods of Egypt, including Amun-Re, in favour of a new god called Aten. This is considered by scholars to be perhaps the first example of a monotheistic or henotheistic faith. Over the course of his reign he gradually restricted the worship of Egypt’s other gods, promoting the cult of Aten, the sun-disc, as their only replacement.

We know a lot about this almost-forgotten Pharaoh (his successors were not keen to preserve his memory!) because of a massive cache of cuneiform documents uncovered in Akhetaten, now called Amarna, the city he built to honour Aten. (Incidentally, the cuneiform tablet pictured above is from the Amarna cache.) Anyway, this alcove had his coffin, statues of him and his mother and queen, and other nifty things. Oh, last bits of cool trivia. Ever heard of Nefertiti? A bust of her is one of the more iconic images of ancient Egypt and that was his wife. And Tutankhamen was his son. Yes, that Tutankhamen — the one with all the gold. *lol*

Akhenaten and Family



Heading upstairs I first stopped off in the rest room. Given the huge foreign crowds this place gets I was pretty sure I would find ‘normal’ facilities… I was mistaken. Egyptians do not use toilet paper. Think about that for a second while I go on… *lol* Many Egyptian toilet facilities, particularly the older ‘squatting’ variety, have hoses or bucket-and-faucet combinations so that you can wash yourself with water. But Western-style toilets seem to lack even this functionality, so that you have a choice between using a squat toilet or not being able to wash your arse at all. Fortunately I am a clever traveller and choose a third option — I always have a roll of TP in my backpack!

Exhibits upstairs are broken into tonnes of smaller rooms, all partly open to the main space so that you can easily flow in and out of them from a number of directions. I will mention here some of the things that stood out to me in a list-format so that we can move along more quickly!
— Poison-tipped arrows of wood and bone. Cool!
— Lots of small artefacts from Menes’ tomb and the First Dynasty! (Menes is the first Pharaoh, the guy who unified Upper and Lower Egypt.)
— Intricately carved alabaster fragments from Zozer’s pyramid.
— A Huge collection bowls, plates, etc from Saqqara.
— An extraordinary number of painted wooden mummy cases.
— Models of Egyptian infantry and Nubian archers.
— Massive collections of papyri in hieroglyphics, hieratic script, demotic script, and Greek. Some of this stuff was just awesome to look at, including the world’s oldest medical manuscripts, and some hymns to Jesus!
— Carved pieces of ivory from lower down in Africa.
— Bronze and iron daggers and swords and tools, wow!
— A huge 3000-yr-old wooden ladder?!
— Three nested coffins and a sarcophagus for Yuya, some noblewoman that I couldn’t remember.
— A mummified woman from the 2nd c CE with Roman-style portrait painted on the wrappings, showing a nifty kind of cultural syncretism.
— Gilded mummy case of a girl, also painted and from the 2nd c CE.
— In fact, an entire rooms full of various mummies and mummy cases!

Several separate rooms exist upstairs along the walls. One of these was filled with jewellery and I must say, it was indescribable. The collection includes two of of Rameses II’s bracelets and some massive gold collars. There was also an animal-mummy room and a room of treasures from the royal tombs of Tanis. These may well be the only things I didn’t get to! I was moving quickly since I read and grasp what I’m seeing quickly enough that I was more interested in seeing as much as I could than in sitting to reflect on individual exhibits.

Another room that I found amazing required a separate admission fee, which makes sense given what it must take to preserve these things indefinitely. This was the royal mummy chamber. The corpses of some of the most famous rulers in Egyptian history have survived, despite their tombs being looted in antiquity. The collection included Rameses II, Seti I, Amenhotep I, Tuthmosis IV, Tuthmosis II, Amenhotep II (trivia: he was 1.83 metres tall), Merenptah, Tuthmosis III, and Hatshepsut!!! Anyone recognise the first and last in this list? The first is one of the greatest builders, responsible for the massive temple at Karnak and that huge monument at Abu Simbel that was carved out of a hillside.

Rameses II’s mummy

Giant Rameses II statue

Abu Simbel

The last exhibit in the museum, and one of the last things I saw, was the collection of Tutankhamun artefacts. As above I will format this as a list to save time, and I will refrain for posting links to photos since, well, if you haven’t seen images of Tutankhamun’s treasures you have been living in a deep well underground since the 1930s. *lol*
— The three huge nested boxes for his sarcophagus.
— Three gilt ceremonial beds.
— Lots of toy little boats — an afterlife navy or a child’s things?
— The alabaster and gold canopic jars (holding his innards after mummification).
— Two mummified foetuses, so I guess his kids were miscarried or stillborn? Too much inbreeding…
— An amazingly intricately painted throne in gilded wood.
— Various crooks, bows, and flails.
— Several chariots, so he could kick ass in the afterlife.
— Tonnes of fancy necklaces and collars to impress the dead ladies.
— Both gilt and jewelled coffins to hold his mummy (this guy had six layers of stuff surrounding his body inside the tomb.
— And, of course, that iconic gold funerary mask that everyone and his uncle has seen. Interestingly, there’s writing on the back of it, both inside and out, which I had never seen photographed.

All right, I am tired. *phew* So I’m gonna wrap this up with a few last observations. Strangely, the museum gift shop at the exit was completely empty — just shelves. Dunno if it was new or what. There was one truly huge Asian tour group that moved in rapid single file and I have no idea how the people in the back heard a damn thing, or if they cared! Finally, there were a large number of European or American tourists walking around in very immodest clothing. Come on, people — it’s a Muslim country, show a little more respect than cleavage! Not that I mind seeing what you want to share, but it’s not really nice to trample on other peoples’ cultural values so forcefully.

That night I went out to a Sufi concert with a couple of people and then for beers at the Greek consulate, but I am tired and will have to write that up another time. I will post this and the story from Tahrir, and if there’s time before I fly out I will back up and tell you about that night.


The Giza Plateau, Part Two

This is a continuation of the previous post. It was broken in two because of the number of photographs.

We then moved down the remains of an ancient roadway between Khafre’s pyramid and the Sphinx, which appeared to be made of huge blocks of granite worn down and rounded by millennia of sand and feet. I was as impressed at this road as at anything else, which seemed to perplex my guide. Hey, I like both civil engineering and the ancient world — sue me. The approach to the Sphinx was quite lengthy but scenic. Coming up behind it was unforgettable, though.

Movin' on down the line... Look there in the distance: can you see our goal?

But first, another extraordinary piece of ancient engineering that doesn’t usually grace the covers of books and posters. We came up a giant hole! That’s right, a hole — actually there were three of them but two were genuinely astonishing. These things were dug deep, deep down into solid bedrock in order to create an underground channel from the Nile river, which is not close by! It was an aqueduct, intended to channel fresh water to the building sites for the workers, which is quite clever as well as practical. Just as with the pyramids, it is difficult to express just how big this hole was unless you’re standing there, but here are a couple of photos all the same.

What's this? A giant hole in the ground?

Now this is impressive -- right into the bedrock to pipe water from the Nile. This would still be difficult now!

After the aqueduct I stopped at one of the well-preserved buildings from the funerary complex and workers’ sites. Many of these are closed off by iron grills and gates, but this one was wide open and beckoning… so do you really think I hesitated for a second? *lol* My guide seemed perplexed, but I pulled the MAG light out of my backpack and in I went. After a while it’s too choked full of garbage to proceed without great risk of snake-bites, so I crawled back out and went back to exploring things that wouldn’t get my killed!

Who can resist an open door? Not me.

"Snakes... Why did it have to be snakes?"

Looking back up the causeway to Khafre's Pyramid.

And then… I came upon the Great Sphinx of Giza. *miaow*!

The main body of the Sphinx is carved from the bedrock, putting it at a much lower level than the other objects on the Giza plateau. This also had the effect of burying it in sand once the Old Kingdom civilization had faded, leaving only the head and upper back exposed for most of the last four millennia. These are, as a consequence, noticeably more eroded. The sections that have only been unearthed in the contemporary period are astonishingly well preserved, and casing stones that cover the kitty’s tail and hind quarters look brand new.

Sneaking up on kitty from behind...

Kitty's curling tail. There's a small hole on the bottom left, possibly from one of the lunatic attempts to 'prove' this monolith has hidden chambers inside.

From the side both degrees of preservation are clearly displayed. I don’t know what the guide book I saw was talking about when it said most travellers were surprised and thought the Sphinx was smaller than they’d imagined — this thing is massive, and an extraordinary feat of carving and decoration for the time. I was in awe of it, personally.

Pushing my camera through the bars to get a side view of the Great Sphinx.

Great Sphinx, Great Pyramid... Isn't this great?!

Coming around the front I was disappointed to see the view blocked by a bunch of new construction designed to protect the site. There is a large stele in between the great kitty’s paws that I was hoping to see but could not. I did, however, have to turn away scads of hawkers selling fake scarabs and wooden pyramids and other nonsense tchotchke. We moved a little way down the slope and turned back to look. Amazing.

Kitty, Khafre, Menkaure, and Me!

'Hey, check it out!' Liam standing on a broken stone, striking a deliberately-stupid pose.

More of the same... Liam and his equally-arrogant camel.

One last shot of father and son -- Khufu and Khafre's Pyramids, with kitty in the shadows.

At this my tour was over. We rode back into town and stopped at a Banque Misr location for me to withdraw cash. The damned machine ate my card! This apparently happens if you do not immediately yank it out. As the bank was closed, this was a real pickle. I would need to return the next day to retrieve it (which I did), but it definitely put me in a foul mood which was pretty obvious to everyone. We returned the mounts and entered the shop so that I could pay for my tour.

It was another perfumery and I was encouraged to go and see the jasmine process and how perfumes were made, etc., in their ‘museum’, but I politely declined several times. Their clear objective was to entice sales, but I was both irritable and was developing a fierce headache from the powerful scents in the shop. I finished the water they offered (“Arab hospitality”, though the beverage choice was mine) and paid the bill — which was reduced still further given my obvious unease over having to return and the added expense of the car to do it.

Following this I allowed myself to be talked into visiting the papyrus ‘museum’. The whole network of separate businesses that collaborate to milk tourists was pretty impressive in itself, and anyway I was curious enough to go and see what they had. It was predictably a big shop full of massively over-priced paintings on papyrus. I endured a demonstration of how papyrus was made, identified, taken apart, and stained darker. It was actually kinda nifty. After that the haggling began.

I made it clear repeatedly that I had very little money left, was a poor student, had already dropped a wad of cash for a camel ride, etc. This was all part of the game for them and they played along. I did end up buying two things, but I named my own price in the end. It was clearly more than they were worth material & labour-wise, but less than a quarter of the opening offer (which was already a lot lower than the marked price). I’ve never been comfortable with the art of haggling, but I can get into the spirit of it when I want something badly enough.

With gift in bag I headed back to my waiting car. It is not unusual in Egypt to hire a taxi for the day or for hours at a time, and while you do whatever they just wait around. Life’s somewhat slower pace probably makes this bearable but to me it seems a miserable way to spend the day, and for very little cash. My ride out cost me about a hundred pounds, which paid for two 30-minute drives in traffic, several hours of waiting around, finding a restaurant for me afterwards, helping with my order in an unfamiliar setting (vegetarian, after all), and then waiting for that, all before finally bringing me home. Go ahead and look up the conversion rate from LE to USD. I’ll wait.

Got it? Okay, now can you believe that guy spent the entire day working for me to take home 17 bucks? And seemed happy to do it; I didn’t hardly push him on the price at all. To drive home the point I will give you a small taste of the filth and poverty in Cairo…

A slice of modern Giza, shot earlier in the day.

Speaking of that dinner, though. We drove around for a while talking about possibilities before finally taking me to a fish-boat: one of many permanently-moored ships along the Nile bank that served as classy restaurants. This place was really quite nice. I had a hunk of fish, rice, Egyptian salads, several bread rolls, two sodas, and paid a whopping 12$.

The fish-boat upper deck (I ate in the dining room below).

Sunset on the Nile, from the upper deck of the restaurant.

I got home, paid the cabby, made arrangements to meet there at 0900 the next morning, and went upstairs. Later that night I noticed a nice-sized bruise on my right shin which I must have picked up somewhere during the day — I have no memory of it at all. But over the nine days from then ’til now it has done some interesting things! I will finish with a shot of my short-term souvenir from the Giza plateau. This one will fade and be forgotten, but the photos and memories of those ancient wonders will last a long, long time.

Right shin with haematoma and yellowing bruise. Hrm. Damned camels and pyramids.

Postscript to the mosquito article below. The problem continued unabated despite all efforts, and by the time I left I had long since quite counting them. If you look at just the foot/calf in the photo above, now the entire ankle is covered in bites — more than twenty clustered right there — and I counted 69 bites now visible in the region photographed two posts prior to this one. I would update the shot but … I LOST MY CAMERA ON THE WAY BACK TO ISRAEL. *lol*

The Giza Plateau, Part One

This post is broken into two parts to accommodate a larger number of photographs.

I did not set out to go to Giza last Tuesday. I had not even bothered with sunblock initially, as I was planning to go to the Egyptian Museum. On arriving, however, I discovered that they have special Ramadan hours and close very early. I had no interest in paying for a ticket and spending one hour in the museum, so scratch that.

But I met outside the museum an older gentleman who worked with some people in Giza to sucker people in for tours. It was all kind of obvious, but this seemed a good part of the ‘tourist experience’, so I was game. We hopped in his car, which, I discovered to my chagrin, was the worst p.o.s. car in the world, and headed off to Giza, about half an hour’s drive.

Western Cairo is filled with endless towers of red brick that are perpetually unfinished and being expanded upward. This is where the poorest resident live, including a large number of Bedouin. It was fascinating to shoot down the highway past building after building like this. Much of this highway stretch actually had us crossing the Nile, which was truly amazing to see. We paused once on the side of the highway to let me take a photo, which was a cute idea (not mine).

It's me! On a freeway! Above the Nile!

If you think you've got it rough...

El Giza itself is pretty much one gigantic slum which, given the nature and value of the treasures behind it, faintly surprised me. The streams I saw were full of garbage, the streets were bad even by Cairene standards, the houses were crumbling and awful… It should come as no surprise that many people here make their living bilking the tourists — it’s hard to imagine being able to make a comparable wage doing anything else.

Speaking of bilking tourists… So we arrived at this business with which my driver apparently has some arrangement and I am immediately set upon by several persons with varying degrees of weak English. I proceeded to negotiate a deal to see the pyramids by camel — I was offered a choice of camel or horse, but who would pick a horse over the camel? *lol*. There were three packages and I worked on the middle one, taking its price down by more than a third before guilt set in.

Hopping onto a camel is an interesting experience. Given their prodigious height you do not mount with them standing, but they do not stand with all four legs together so you have to lean back while it is getting up or down, which feels odd the first time it happens. We rode out through the town and into the Western Desert, past the slave tombs, and up onto the Giza Plateau. The ride was uncomfortable for a while but I made my peace with the camel and got into it. And the view was amazing.

Peeking over a wall at backhoe-archaeology.

I am about to ride a camel through that gate. And yes, it is as low as it looks... *blink*

If I understand correctly there are slaves entombed beneath that hill.

Oh, to be lost out there.... *yikes* From here on it's desert all the way to the Libyan border and beyond.

We came up in between the pyramids of Menkaure and Khafre. The former is the youngest and at 66m by far the smallest of these three ancient marvels. It retains a good bit of the original casing stones along the bottom edges, which surprised me since it would seem this was the easiest of the pyramids to strip. (For those unaware, the pyramids did not look like they do now until the Islamic period. They were originally encased in polished limestone such that they were totally smooth and would sparkle in the sun. This was stripped away over the centuries to build palaces and mosques. Bastards.)

The latter looks to be the tallest but is not. Khafre’s pyramid sits higher on the bedrock and it still retains a bit of its casing at the top — the only pyramid to do so. This makes it look higher than the Great Pyramid of Khufu, but that monster stood 146m while his son Khafre’s was 136m. (It should be noted that the heights I’m giving are original; all are smaller due to the lost casing stones and erosion on the softer stone that’s now exposed.)

The Pyramid of Menkaure in the distance.

Cheesy camel shot 1: Liam in front of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, trying to look casual.

Cheesy camel shot 2: Liam close-up with Khafre and Khufu's pyramids visible.

A shot of the Great Pyramid. Look in the bottom right and see if you can tell why I picked this one.

Something struck me on seeing these in person. Has anyone else seen pictures of Khafre’s pyramid used as the Great Pyramid? The cap on top is a dead give-away. I had forgotten that it wasn’t on Khufu’s, honestly, and I could swear I’ve seen this mistake made in films or suchlike. Perhaps the illusion of greater height fools even modern man? *lol* Anyway, Khafre’s pyramid was awesome to see up close. And I got to climb up on it, though they wouldn’t let me go further than the third block.

Coming up on Khafre's Pyramid. Note the limestone casing that is still present near the top.

Rubble at the base of Khafre's pyramid.

Liam, having climbed up to the third level of Khafre's Pyramid. This was fun; wish I could have kept going...

Close-up of Menkaure's Pyramid showing the large entrance aperture.

Gazing at the Great Pyramid across the rubble field.

Hopping down, I was confronted by the first cluster of people hawking cheap souvenirs to rip off the tourists. I declined each with a carefully put ‘la shukran’ and moved on. But more interestingly, I ran into two soldiers on camelback. One of them indicated that I should take a picture of them as a souvenir, and I thought, why not? No sooner had I done so but they had approached me insistently demanding payment. I refused, as the notion was silly in the extreme.

Their response was to use physical intimidation, pushing their mounts ever closer to my body, nearly knocking me over at one point (I was on foot at the time). This attempt to extort money through the threat of violence must work with most people. In this case it led to a shouting match with my guide and relentless stonewalling on my part. Eventually they left, glaring the whole time. Assholes. In joking vengeance, here is the photograph I refused to pay for!

Steal this photo!

Liam, with Khufu's Pyramid rising behind. Note the structure in front, which contains one of Khufu's excavated funerary barges -- perhaps the oldest surviving boat in the world.

Liam on the funeral causeway, with Khafre's Pyramid towering behind.

This story is continued in the next post.

Yay, Mosquitoes!

The Nile is pretty and all, but… *grumble* This post is made as a warning to future travellers: Experiment with bug repellents before you come! I stopped counting at 67 mosquito bites. I have tried two poisons to no avail, and the anti-itch cream I brought with me doesn’t work for shit. Find the formulae that work for you and the critters and save yourself the scratching. And bring a mosquito net! *lol*

Anyway, I’m off to the Tahrir iftar, and hoping it’s a bit more exciting than to-day’s Al-Ahram made it sound. *grin*

Oh, and.. I am behind on posts but I started my Giza story and made notes for the Egyptian Museum. Those should go up before I leave the country for sure.

Beautiful Cairo Welcomes You!

My first day in Cairo started late. I wasn’t able to sleep after arriving at the African House Hostel. Once I’ve been awake for so long it’s hard to still the mind & body for sleep. So, I ended up talking on the ‘phone’ for a few hours. I was finally convinced to try sleeping by the fact that I did want to do something on my first day!

It would be a massive exaggeration to say that I had a culture shock on being in Cairo, but it was a little odd. There were tonnes of things I could recognise from my experience with Palestinian Arabs, but these elements were buried beneath so much that it was the differences that stood out the most. If you’ve ever been in a ‘third-world’ country you will have some idea what we’re dealing with: rubbish in the streets, disused construction material piled up here and there, very old buildings reconfigured endlessly to new purposes, homeless people sleeping where they can, an astonishing lack of hygiene, etc.

I was surprised that, in a city of more than 22 million, there were essentially no big international chains to be found with the exception of some hotels (Ritz Carlton, and so forth). There are almost no Euro-American fast food, retail, or fuel franchises anywhere. So far the only ones I have seen are one I already knew about — a Pizza Hut restaurant just across from the Sphinx in Giza — and a KFC in Tahrir Square. If there are others around I’ve not found them yet. What you do find is an endless variety of small shops and cafés and street vendors, and a few regional chains, primarily in banking and fuelling.

Anyroad, I didn’t get a great deal of sleep, as even with earplugs Cairo is a loud city and I’m not an easy or long sleeper in general. But on getting up I took my sweet time and took stock of where I was. I set things up in the room, sorted my gear and worked out what I would carry and what I would leave, figured out how all the facilities works, did my laundry, took a shower, blah blah blah. I then wasted some time on the computer, you know, talking and writing. Then I headed out for a walk in the afternoon.

The view outside my window.

Ditto, looking slightly right.

I ended up going a decent distance given how slowly I went, snapping photos and interacting with people. I got constant questions about where I’m from — it seems to be the phrase everyone learns when they don’t speak any other English. “Where are you from” or “what’s your nationality?” (which is hard to understand through the accent), followed by one of the following two: “America forever!” or simply “Welcome!”. It’s kind of cute, really; people either ignore you or go out of their way to talk to you — or out of their way to sucker you into their shop and begin pressing you to buy something! *lol* I am rapidly getting used to this and learning how to handle it.

There is simply no way to describe the sights and sounds of downtown Cairo, there really isn’t. It is loud, chaotic, filthy, and oddly endearing. I could stay here for a while and learn the local culture; it really is quite amazing to see and hear. The constant honking of car horns and the unbelievable driving techniques alone are worth seeing! *lol* No lanes, no traffic lights, no crosswalks — total pandemonium. People walk across wherever they like and weave in between cars. (I noticed to-day that I have started doing the same thing. I crossed a massively busy intersection near the museum at rush hour, cars pushing all around me, so strange!)

Typical Cairenne traffic near my hostel.

Ditto here; note that the pickup truck there is -parked- like that -- this is common practice (double-parking).

This guy shot out into fast on-coming cars on a bicycle with a huge tray of bread balanced on his head. Awesome.

So anyway, I headed off south down Emad Eldin, which becomes Muhammad Farid, and followed it through a traffic circle and finally to a huge intersection of streets with very long names that I’m too lazy to type in. I believe it was in this square (or maybe in that traffic circle?) that I stopped into an Etisalat reseller and got myself a SIM card and an Egyptian telephone number. Hm, yes actually that was in the traffic circle off Farid. I also stopped at a grocer and picked up some bread and Mirinda for the room. I’m having a tough time finding food I can safely eat here, given the sanitary conditions and my not eating meat (something few Arabs seem to understand).

Note merchant and pedestrians eating up road space -- this is the norm. And that car is parked.

An example of the pedestrian-only alleys you see every few streets.

A really cute traffic circle that can get -crazy- busy, or empty like now.

Cairo is full of perfume makers; I have been inside two others, both much larger than this.

Getting ready to help the city break the Ramadan fast. Spreads like this are everywhere.

From Naguib I headed west down Al-Raeis ‘Abd al-Salam Aref, along the way passing a bookshop that I would return to a couple days later, and finally stopping for a snack at a native fast food place called Mo Men. I ate some french fries and drank a soda while sitting on a low wall in an island between two big streets. By this time it had gotten dark, so I wasn’t going to be getting any more photos in, but I was really close to Tahrir Square so I pushed on once I had finished eating.

Big intersection at the end of Muhammad Farid. Note pedestrians wandering into the traffic.

Same intersection; note donkey cart -- horses and donkeys are pretty common sights.

The square was a sight, I’ll tell you, but not like you have seen in the newspapers. In the centre, forming a complete ring, was a row of soldiers in riot gear. They stood almost like statues, with relatively little movement, and watched the crowd. A bunch of people were gathered on the outer edges of the square, many of them leaning on railings or standing just behind and watching the soldiers. There was a bit of nervous tension in the air, as if neither side knew what the other intended and was waiting for something to happen. A bunch of enterprising types were selling patriotic kit from carts all around the square. This is apparently a big business now, though I have no idea how Egyptian patriotism was expressed before. There are trees painted in the flag colours and tonnes of cars have things on or in them to wave the flag, as it were.

Tahrir at night with army presence.

Troops hold the centre to prevent protesters from camping out.

A bit of tension in the square...

I then hailed a cab for the ride back to the hostel. Taxis are astonishingly cheap here when you think about the currency conversion. But this ride gave me my first experience of the sort of dirty tricks some people will play on tourists. The ride back was negotiated at 15 LE. I pulled out and handed him a twenty. He then pulled a sleight-of-hand trick and disappeared the twenty, handing me back a five and acting as if that’s what I had given him. I am pretty careful about pulling things out of my wallet, so I didn’t even know what he was on about at first.

When I figured it out I firmly insisted that I had already given him a twenty and that the five that I did not recognise was his. He acted innocent and insisted I had given him the wrong currency. I should have just gotten out of the cab, but it was my first day in the city and I wasn’t sure how he’d react. So, I caved and gave him another twenty. This took my ride up to 30 LE, but since that still comes up to about six bucks I don’t think it was particularly painful! *grin* I was ripped off, but for a $3 difference I’m not gonna make a huge fuss. I did speak to the guys in the hostel about it and they advised walking away in future. Good to know.

That puts me back in the hostel for the night so we’ll leave off here. My next post will have me riding a camel and wearing a keffiyeh, neither of which were my idea but I guess it completes the tourist experience, eh? *grin*

And From Taba To Cairo

[Please note, I just edited the previous post to add photos.]

Picking up where we left off… I had just crossed the border from Israel to Egypt and gone through passport control on the Egyptian side. Voilà, I was in Taba. Looking around, I was surprised to see some hotels right smack dab on the border. One of them very prominently advertised as a casino, which I thought was helluva funny considering how many times I’ve been to Vegas. Here I was in a desert half a world away and still I couldn’t escape the damned gamblers. *lol*

Immediately the Egyptian barter culture hit as I was accosted by several people offering me rides to the bus station. One enterprising man offered to drive me all the way to Cairo but for about $150 — fat chance. I made it clear that I wanted to walk to the bus station, as it was only two kilometres away and this was my first time in the Sinai. One of the men helped me to fend off the others and I headed on up the road. I stopped to take a photo of a sign that had my surname on it, so people can see why I get into trouble in Israel. Other than that, I just kept walking and snapping pics of the mountains, etc.

See the name near the top? That's why I get questioned so often.

Walking to the bus station, two km that way.

The bus station was a little nothing of a place with a few older men just hanging out, one of whom sells tickets with a surly sort of confusion about him. There was a small souq, a dusty car park, and one of the filthiest toilets in the world (want to see a photo? *lol*). And, with pretty much nothing to do, I got to hang out there for the next 2.5 hours. Given how long I had been awake by this point (no sleep the night before), this was something of a challenge. I paced a lot, bought water and Mirinda (a PepsiArabia brand of orange soda) twice, and amused myself by trying to read signs phonetically. I got help at one point from someone there, given my unfamiliarity with some of the common fonts, and then had fun with it for a while.

Finally a bus came and away we went. I was almost the only gringo on the bus. There was an older British couple sitting behind me, and the man sounded disturbingly like Michael Caine. It’s exactly the same accent so I’d guess they were raised in the same area, but his voice was also similar — same register, intonation, etc. Odd. Anyway, I had to show passport and ticket to an officer once on the bus, and then we were off.

The early part of the ride was quite astonishing. We passed along the coast for a little while, offering glimpses of fancy resorts and future developments, but also some amazing mountains and an island with a huge castle on it! How cool is that?! On the way they showed some awful Egyptian television programmes, and then near the end started playing ‘Rush Hour’ with subtitles (it was cut off halfway through, so good thing I’ve seen it, huh? *lol*).

Umbrellas on an empty beach. I didn't see anyone at -any- of the Egyptian resorts.

Check it out! A castle!

Later that night we stopped for an army security check. This was about an hour out of Cairo, as we had fully crossed Sinai and were about to go underneath the Suez Canal. We all poured out of the bus and opened our luggage. My check was pretty cursory, but someone didn’t feel the same courtesy: A Christian man exploded in rage because he felt that his bag was being more carefully searched on account of his faith. I swear I thought it would come to blows — he was screaming and cursing and waving his fists, and other passengers kept trying to push him away from the soldiers. For their part, the soldiers seemed not to care one bit.

I found it curious that they were not armed, too. No-one at the border was armed, here there were army soldiers doing an inspection, and no-one had so much as a pistol. Such a contrast from Israel where even off-duty soldiers can be walking the streets with assault rifles.

After the security check someone tried to help me stand and offered to carry my bag back inside when he saw the walking stick. I politely declined, of course. Once back inside someone else offered me a drink from his water bottle, which I also declined. This trading of water seems common — not only have I been offered drinks from other people’s bottles in Palestine, in Cairo I would later see someone trying to offer the remnants of his drink in a restaurant to other patrons (one took it).

The bus then took off again and we got to pass through a long tunnel underneath the Suez Canal. Whoa! And to think they are digging to make the canal deeper, too… I had always assumed that bridges were the norm for crossing; the tunnel was a complete surprise.

On the other side was the city of Suez. We turned north and drove a little ways, then stopped for a 15 minute smoke/piss break, the first (and only) of the trip. The Eilat bus stopped three times on a 4.5 hour drive, so having one stop on a six hour was surprising, too. I was tired and didn’t have to go, so I was the last off the bus — I almost stayed but finally decided to hop down and stretch my legs.

It was pretty nice out — late at night but still kinda warm. There were two big patio areas like open-faced factory roofs filled with tables. It’s warm enough at night that you want that breeze! It was a pretty desolate (not built up) area, so we must have been well outside Suez as that looks like a big city. The last stretches of road into Cairo were mostly desert, but a few parts were built up near the end, all on the opposite (right/north) side of the bus. We pulled into the bus station, I hopped down, and found myself a cab to the hostel.

I discovered immediately that one does not have a metre in most cabs — you haggle with the driver. The newer white ones do use metres I’ve been told, so I will stay away from them; given the traffic in Cairo it would be much more expensive. The ride was pretty quick (and cheap) and I arrived at the hostel, hm, has to be close to midnight, maybe 23-something? As I had been forced to cancel my reservation the previous week they had already expected I was not going to show.

The African Hostel is located on the third and fourth floors of a very old building. The elevator is a real trip — I will post photos of it and the rest of the place later. Everything about this building sums up downtown Cairo, it seems; a real microcosm.

The room I got is relatively huge, with a double and a twin bed in it, and a private bathroom. This all for about $13/night. I have a huge window on the city, a powerful ceiling fan, and the hardest pillows you’ll ever find. I’m also being eaten alive by mosquitoes. By now (on the third night) I must have about 20 bites and it’s fucking miserable, I tell you! The plug-in poison thingy does not seem to be very effective.

Oh, and this is funny: I am amazed this place hasn’t burnt to the ground yet. The outlets are old and worn out, and since plugs here are smooth and round, that means nothing will stay in any of the three outlets I have. In order to get any electricity I need to shove match sticks into the holes along with the plug. And one of them — sadly, the only one that works even with the match sticks on my stuff — sparks powerfully every time you put something in. Wow.

Doesn't this look a bit.. weird? Match sticks in the outlet, oh joy.

My first-day-in-Cairo post comes next, then the one about to-day’s trip to Giza. I’m not sure if I’m awake enough for either, but we’ll see.