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Cairo - Pyramids and Sheesha Pipes


sunny 30 °C
View Around the world on joshuag's travel map.

I'll skip ahead just a little and start with this photo...

I saw the Pyramids of Giza!!

Ok, back to the beginning... After so many years of dreaming about it, I am finally in the land of the pharaohs.

During my first evening in Cairo, I sat alone on the hotel's roof top lounge and just enjoyed the seranading calls to prayer echoing from the mosque minarets all around me. I must admit, my eyes welled up a little as it reminded of where I was and how long I'd waited to be here. Luckily Egypt is a sandy and dusty type of place because the old "just got some dust in my eyes" excuse might come in quite handy. For the first day or two, I really couldn't believe I was actually in Egypt... now I must... resist... the urge... for an... "I'm in de-Nile" joke, aargh! Darn it, too late!

I chose to stay in the center of Islamic Cairo which is surrounded by grand mosques and souqs (markets) intertwined with residential areas. What first struck me about Cairo was that almost every building has the same monochromatic dark tan colour. It's hard to tell if this is the colour of the building materials or whether it is just a thick layer of dust coating every surface. Something else I noticed immediately was that every third or fourth building has a top floor which looks either crumbling or half finished but with no signs of any building work going on. It looks like the city was hit by a large earthquake, then everybody started rebuilding but couldn't complete it because the money had ran out.

I spent several hours walking around the old, yet somewhat touristy, suburb of Khan al-Khalili. The area is littered with souqs selling tacky souvenirs such as stuffed toy camels, alabaster pyramids and skimpy belly dancing costumes. Alongside these souvenir stores are the more traditional fabric, spice, silver and gold merchants which give the place a little more respectability. There are also plenty of cafes, some of them entirely populated by local men and others filled mostly by tourists who are perhaps there for their first taste of sheesha (flavoured tabacco water pipe).

The Mosque of Sayidna Al-Hussein on the edge of Khan al-Khalili in Islamic Cairo

I went inside the great Al-Azhar Mosque and spent a while walking around and taking a few photos. I then took advantage of the quiet atmosphere and sat down outside on the long carpets lining the edges of the central courtyard. There, next to rows of men reading the Qur'an, I sat and read my Lonely Planet (they had their holy book and I had mine).

The great Al-Azhar Mosque in Islamic Cairo

Women walking around inside Al-Azhar mosque

Although the area was busy during the day, at night it really came alive. Buzzing crowds of both young and old people, locals and tourists, swarmed around visiting the mosques, shopping, fending off touts or just sitting in cafes chatting with friends. On the more serious and less touristy spots, gangs of serious looking Egyptian men sat around rickety tables in dimly-lit, no-frills cafes playing backgammon, smoking sheesha and drinking tea. With my night-owl tendencies, I knew straight away that Egypt was going to be my kind of place.

There was no doubt about it, I had arrived in the Middle East and it was absolutely fantastic. Sure, the traffic was still insane, the touts were out in force and the language was completely foreign, but it somehow felt more managable than China or India. I was quite surprised that while I walked around (without my "touristy" satchel), I attracted virtually no stares and most touts left me alone. Perhaps I'll be able to blend in a little better in Egypt - probably thanks to the remnants of my Goa-induced tan.

My hotel room was quite shabby and not nearly as clean as it ought to have been, even for a budget hotel. Within minutes of entering, I spotted a medium sized cockroach surveying the walls, there was a dark and irrecognizable dried-up substance splattered on one of the walls and on a hook behind the bathroom door, there hung an old and slightly stained woman's bathing suit - though it could also have been super-sized underwear, I didn't investigate further. Believe it or not, I somehow didn't care too much about any of this. I think after travelling for this long, I've grown quite tolerant of such things and I was just glad I had somewhere where I could put my pack down as well as sit and cool off under a wobbly ceiling fan.

The next day I went to the Cairo Museum with Halle whom I'd met at the hotel the previous night. Halle is from the US and was taking a short break from her work in Rawanda for an NGO. The museum was amazing and nowhere near as confusing or disorganised as I had read it would be. Photography was strictly forbidden inside so it's hard to describe; but I can say that it was one of the best museums I have ever been to, at least in terms of its contents. Tutankhamun's treasures were of course amazing and they weren't limited to the famous golden death mask, but also his two golden sarcophagi and the large gilded wooden shrines which encased them by fitting each one inside the other. Just as facinating were some black and white photos of these items which were taken as they were found in the tomb chambers back in 1922. By pure chance I had read in the news the day before that DNA of the malaria parasite had been found in samples of Tutankhamun's mummy which means he had most probably died from malaria and not just complications from a severely broken leg as it was previously believed - I felt pretty darn smug when I overheard one of the uninformed tour guides still telling the old the broken leg tale - I felt like leaning over and saying, "He's lying". Another favorite part of mine in the museum was the Animal Mummy room which housed a collection of dusty mummies of crocodiles, cats, dogs, rams, baboons and jackals. I do slightly regret not going in to the Royal Mummy room, but the extra price seemed steep at the time (100 EGP) and visiting the museum a second time was still not out of the question.

Halle was leaving that evening for Sharm El-Sheikh on the Sinai peninsula, but we still had enough time after visiting the museum for a coffee and my first taste of sheesha in a small cafe in Khan al-Khalili. I chose apple flavour sheesha and I have to admit, I now see what all the fuss is about because I quite liked it. It tastes nothing like tabacco and the flavoursome water-cooled smoke not only smells nice, it also almost feels soothing to the lungs (don't worry, I realise in reality it's hardly lung soothing).

Halle smoking sheesha with me at cafe in Khan al-Khalili

The next day I met Sarah and Sarah - convenient names for someone like me who usually forgets them before the handshake is even over. They are both teachers from the New York (though one of them is currently teaching English in London) and they were in Egypt for a short trip during their holidays. After chatting for a while, we agreed to visit the Pyramids of Giza together the next day. That same evening the hotel's owner invited all of his guests for a party on the hotel's roof top to celebrate his birthday. It turned out to be quite a treat not only because there was lots of free food, including birthday cake, but he'd also organised a traditional Sufi band and dancer to come along and perform. The music and the dancing was quite entrancing and we were quite lucky that we got to see it. The Sufi dancer was basically spinning constantly for about 30 to 40 minutes; I couldn't believe how long he was able to sustain it. The dance reminded me a little of the amazing Whirling Dervishes from Turkey which I really hope to see one day. There was quite a nice mood the whole night with everyone eating, clapping and eventually dancing (yes even me and there wasn't even any alcohol at this party).

Sufi band and dancer performance at hotel in Cairo

Some nice light effects caused by the Sufi dancer

Early the next morning we set off on our journey to see the pyramids. We decided to hire a car for the day which would not only take us to Giza, but also Saqqara which has several other ancient monuments and is only about 20 kms south of Giza. I still remember the very first peek we got of the pyramids rising out of the desert (or more precisely, out of the buildings) as we drove down the highway. I remember thinking how incredible it was that this was the same view seen by hundreds of millions of people for over four and a half millenia, albeit with very different foregrounds.

My first glace at the Pyramids of Giza

We finally arrived at the front gates of the pyramids, but not before the driver took us for a detour to a store offering us the hire of a horse or camel for the day. We all politely declined and we departed amicably, I guess you can't blame people for trying to make a living. Once we got our tickets, we passed through the usual metal detector and x-ray machines as we entered the compound in front of the Sphinx. This is where the real hassles started, firstly with a couple of agressive camel touts, one of them even saying, "Alright, F#@k off!" to me after I politely declined. Then it was a group of young Egyptian men pleading and harassing Sarah & Sarah for a photo with them. The young guys, who we unfortunately bumped into again a couple more times along the way, just wouldn't take no for an answer. Luckily they had a friend with them who eventually saw sense and pulled the rest of them away. All of this and we hadn't even walked past the Sphinx yet! Fortunately, the rest of our walk the pyramids was much more relaxed. We were able to forget these hassles and just gaze at the amazing ancient structures with only a few camel touts here and there which were relatively easy to get rid of. I'll skip the historical commentary and just get on with the photos...

The Shinx in front of the pyramids of Menkaure and Khafre

We made our way anti-clockwise around all three pyramids, starting with the Great Pyramid of Khufu, then the Pyramid of Khafre and finally the smaller Pyramid of Menkaure.

The Great Pyramid of Khufu

Up close to the pyramid of Khufu - yes, I actually touched it!

I lost count of all the "jump" and "walking like an Egyptian" photos we took along the way, but it was hilarious and we provided quite a lot of amusement to some of the local and tourist onlookers.

Yes, we just had to do it... several times!

At least I think I have the right shaped head for this pose

Standing in front of the Pyramid of Menkaure with Khafre's in the background - Wow!

The Pyramid of Khafre - It's the second largest, though because it sits on higher ground, it looks taller than the Great Pyrmaid of Khufu - it's probably my favorite one because of the relatively intact cap

In and around the pyrmaids there are several other monuments like funerary temples and some smaller Queens' pyramids

We were almost on our own by the time we reached Menkaure's pyramid so it was absolutely brilliant. At that point it felt just like how I'd always imagined the pyramids to be like, quiet and with the illusion that they are located in the middle of the desert.

The view in between the Queens' pyramids next to Menkaure's Pyramid

Nice shot of a lone camel on top of distant plateu

Sarah looking at the view from near Menkaure's funerary temple - Ok, so I asked her to pose like that, nobody who's already wearing sunglasses and a hat would voluntarily try to block the sun with their hand

Us at the end of our loop at Khafre's Valley Temple near the Sphinx

We met up with our driver outside the gates and set off on our way to Saqaara. I must say, in New Zealand the thought of passing another car while other cars are coming the other way would have sent me into a rage, but here (and also in India and China) everyone does it all of the time and I was only half terrified. What's worse is that in Egypt they drive on the right hand side and I was sitting in the front passenger's seat; so to me it felt like I was in the driver's seat but with absolutely no control of the car whatsoever. I think the driver might have noticed as I repeatedly pressed my foot down on the floor of the car where the brake would usually be, though this didn't cause him slow down at all.

We only had a couple of hours to spend at Saqqara because they closed at 4 pm (way too early in my opinion) so we ended up walking around the area quite hastily. The most famous monument at this site is the Step Pyramid of Zoser, which is the oldest pyramid and in fact the supposed to be oldest stone monument in the world. It was in the process of being restored which meant that it was partly surrounded by scafolding. This has been a recurring theme in my travels, the views of a lot of famous buildings and monuments have been shrowded by ugly scafolding which don't make for very good photos.

The Step Pyramid of Zoser, the oldest stone monument in the world

As we walked past the front of the pyramid, an eager guard waved us towards him and while looking around pretending what he was doing was "against the rules", guided us through the barriers and around the back of the Step Pyramid. We knew some backsheesh (tip/bribe) would be demanded eventually but we were curious so we followed him. He pointed to some small holes on the rock wall of a small building attached to the base of the pyramid. Looking through the hole, you were confronted with the face of a statue staring back at you. This was supposedly a statue of Zoser and later I learned it was common to place a statue of the king in a Seradab (basement) attached to the pyramid that he had been buried in.

The statue of Zoser in the Step Pyramid's Seradab

From Zoser's Funerary Temple Complex surrounding the pyramid you could see several clusters of pyramids, some nearby and others in the far distance. This area was obviously the true birthplace of Egyptian pyramids and one vast necropolis.

The distant Bent, Red and Black Pyramids of Dahshur as seen from Zoser's Funerary Temple Complex

A man and his donkey from Zoser's Funerary Temple Complex

There were dozens of tombs and monuments in the area but we were running out of time so a quick check of our LP revealed that our best bet was to visit the supposedly impressive Mastaba of Ti only a short distance from the Step Pyramid (or so we thought). So we headed out on foot through the desert using the small map in the LP and the small guard post huts on top of some of the hills to guide us.

Camels in the deserts of Saqqara

We ended up walking for some time through the desert until we reached what we thought was the correct spot marked by a nearby guard post. A man came out of the hut and after we mentioned, "Mastaba of Ti", he unfortunately pointed to a different hill about 1 kilometer away. By then it was nearly 4 pm and there was no way we could have made it there and back before the site closed so we had to turn back.

Sarah walking up ahead through the desert at Saqqara in our vain attempts to find Mastaba of Ti

We took a slightly different (and faster) route towards the carpark and even though it was only about 5 minutes after 4 pm, we spotted two trucks in the distance full of police men who were howling at us trying to get us to hurry up and get back to the entrance. We had just been walking around in the desert for a couple of hours so not even the sight of them waving guns in the air made us walk any faster, I thought, "What are they going to do, shoot us for being late?". We met our driver near the gang of over zelous police men and even he mentioned that he'd been looking for us. It was amazing how little we cared even though everyone around us was having heart attacks. They could have fired warning shots over our heads and I would have still been smiling - perhaps it was the heat and the lack of food.

When we finally made it back to the hotel it was getting dark and my new companions were also leaving Cairo that evening, but we had enough time for some Koshary and a quick trip to a cafe for some tea and Sheesha.

My Koshary - it is supposedly Egypt's national dish. It is entirely vegetarian and consists mostly of rice, lentils, pasta with a tomato-cinnamon sauce. It was delicious and nutrituous

Sarah smoking Sheesha in cafe near Al-Azhar Mosque

Me smoking Sheesha

The cafe in a souq near Al-Azhar Mosque

And that was that for Cairo, from then on, I'd be heading south up the Nile to do some serious ancient site explorations.

Lastly, anyone who's read my India blogs might remember the "child clinging to leg" incident in Delhi; well I now have a photo of the event thanks to Roberta who was alert enough to capture the moment. It's now included in my blog entry: "Delhi - What Planet Am I On?"

Posted by joshuag 02:49 Archived in Egypt Tagged backpacking

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Am so jealous - Egypt, so exciting! Where to next Africa or Middle East?

by Erin

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