While pusillanimous souls quiver violently in terror when the term “Middle East” is merely uttered, I adopted ambivalence to such qualms and eagerly anticipated travelling through this region. Unfortunately, the tabloid media and political rhetoric in the West has produced a panicked public perception of all things Arab and an irrational and generalistic [new word] judgement of the safety in visiting Middle Eastern countries. Granted, its probable that unabashed naivety is only evident on a collective scale in the American “fly-over” states (which isn’t so comforting since that constituency’s political power could potentially engineer the extermination of the entire region). Nevertheless, there are many supposedly educated and sensible Australians that exhibit inherent and perpetual fear in relation to the Arab world. Upon discovering my intentions to visit a minuscule and highly touristic pocket of the Middle East, one person afflicted with this problem was compelled to repeatedly e-mail me snippets from the Australian Government’s Smartraveller website for the respective countries; falsely suggestive that I ignorantly disregarded reading the issued advise. For me though, this nonsensical ploy was the actual epitome of ignorance. Obviously such irritating actions would only be performed by one’s own mother. I think Mum should at least be appreciative that I have resisted “doing a Sean” Stevens, which involves intentionally providing exceptionally vague plans and contacting home once every three months. I have much preferred Peter Stevens’ approach in sending random recommendations for places to visit, knowledge that was likely acquired from his Arab-dominated football club (I believe the ironic nickname of “Saints” has recently been abolished (ironic because of the religious contradiction, not because I’m implying a racial slur!)). This ostentatious diatribe may have risked jinxing my experiences in the Middle East. However, while the incessant hassling increasingly irks and my detestation for motorcycles solidifies, I have thus far felt completely safe in Egypt and less threatened by the prospect of theft than in Western Europe.
Cairo is an absolute disaster of a city. I suppose there must be some tourists that revel in the cacophony of mayhem and find it charming, but a touch of insanity would be necessary for this perspective. Cairo enlightened me that mega-cities of developing countries are probably not my cup of tea. Cairo is ridiculously overcrowded and a densely populated metropolis of nearly 20 million residents (although the Cairanese seem to have a penchant for exaggeration as I was told estimations of 25 million, 30 million and even 50 million. I only trust the most reliable source available, Wikipedia). As the day progresses in Cairo, market stalls gradually manifest on the footpaths and on the sides of the roads, which severely complicates pedestrian movement considering the crowds. In the evenings, virtually the entire road system is diabolically congested with cars and motorcycles that uniformly spurn civilised traffic laws (if they even exist). Piles of rubbish abound throughout the city and they are occasionally set on fire. The urban layout lacks any logical order, save only for a few major roads that incise through the tangle. The air is dusty and polluted, the streets are implacably heaving with people and the buildings are generally ugly and dilapidated. Policemen are ubiquitously sighted but they are untrustworthy and uncooperative in warding off hasslers. Worst of all, considering the corruption and inefficiency that constrains Egyptian society and the physical magnitude of the current city, I struggle to conceptualise how Cairo will ever develop at least a semblance of order; its trajectory is surely to become busier and more chaotic. However, this depiction of Cairo is not intended to discourage visiting the city as the overwhelming and confronting experience was exceptionally memorable and educational. It is also necessary to stay in Cairo to see some of the world’s most outstanding ancient monuments and finest Islamic architecture.
The Islamic quarter defies the unpleasantness that the rest of the city pervades. This district was where the Fatimid dynasty established their new capital in the 10th century AD and ultimately founded the Islamic city of Cairo. The Fatimids were patrons of a Shi’a sect of Islam and thus they are now reviled by the predominately Sunni Egyptian population. The recent suggestion by Dr Morsi that Iranian tourists may soon be permitted entrance into the country has triggered pandemonium; and I even read one article which claimed that such a policy would risk Egypt being swept by Shi’as who would return it to the dark days of the Fatimid dynasty. Nevertheless, the Fatimids left an astonishing legacy by constructing breathtaking mosques, minarets, medersas, mausoleums and palaces. The Mamluks, who were originally a slave-soldier caste, and the Ottomans each ruled Egypt for three centuries and added to the legacy by constructed numerous buildings in their own architectural styles. Consequently, Islamic Cairo now brims with monumental structures that exhibit a plethora of design motifs. I assumed that Islamic Cairo would be similar to the medinas of Morocco and Tunisia, where even important buildings seldom display grandeur on the exterior. I was therefore shocked by the imagery of Islamic Cairo with the phenomenal concentration of imposing structures and was particularly stricken by the countless number of pencil-shaped minarets that protrude into the sky. The area is roughly defined by one thoroughfare which the most significant buildings are located on and the network of bazaars branch out from. Non-Muslims are permitted to enter the courtyard area of mosques in Cairo (from which the prayer room can be viewed anyway), so I visited two of the largest mosques in the area and both were heavily crowded with studying students. The Al-Hakim Mosque featured a huge courtyard surrounded by cream-coloured arcades and green curtains and was blindingly bright in the midday sun. The Al-Azhar Mosque, one of the most important in the Muslim world, had intricately decorated surfaces and several stunning minarets. I visited several medersas and mausoleums and some of which featured cavernous spaces while others displayed exquisitely detailed embellishments. Bab Zuweila, the Southern entrance to the area, was my favourite structure. The gateway consists of two incredibly tall and slender minarets that almost resemble space rockets.
The Great Pyramids of Giza are the oldest and only surviving Wonder of the Ancient World and are also perhaps the most iconic structures on the planet. So where are all the tourists? The massive desert plateau that bizarrely rises out from the suburbs of Giza has no lack of hasslers; they just have few people to hassle. Therefore the unfortunate souls who do visit the Pyramids are inundated by an unthinkably endless barrage of hassling. It starts in Central Cairo before you even enter the Metro to reach Giza, as everyone in the city seems to know someone that owns a camel and can take you for a ride (for an “Egyptian” price). It continues immediately after exiting the station, where people generously advice that you should enter through the “Egyptian” entrance which is apparently much cheaper and nicer than the tourist entrance. I was most amused when one man (who was supposedly catching the same bus as I was because he lived in the area) concluded his rant about the virtues of the “Egyptian entrance” with “So which entrance will it be? Egyptian entrance or tourist entrance?”, to which I enthusiastically responded “the tourist entrance!!!” The “friendly” man then walked off, without catching the bus. Even as you ride the minibus to the Pyramids, people call out to you from the streets. When exiting the vehicle, you are almost deafened by the mass of screeching hasslers and need to vigorously fight through the throng to reach the official entrance. Most depressingly though, the worst hassling I have ever experienced occurred after I had entered the precinct. Egyptians with camels or donkeys or postcards or water or cola or worthless figurines relentlessly (I cannot stress that word enough. Usually my writing employs severe exaggerations, but in this I am conveying the uncompromised truth of the situation!) pursue and harass the Western visitor the entire time they are there. If I received one Egyptian pound for each time I was asked “Hello, where are you from?” then I would only need to spend one hour at the Pyramids to fund my entire trip! Ok, maybe that was an exaggeration. Everyone there is after “baksheesh” (tips) for the smallest things; even the corrupt policemen are in on the act. Apparently annoying someone incessantly should earn you a tip in Egypt. Obviously this tainted my experience of visiting the Pyramids, although I was at least afforded some respite when I wandered through the utterly deserted cemetery for the nobles. This account focuses on the hassling aspect because I cannot provide original content about the Pyramids that people would not already know. Just in case extra-terrestrials are reading this blog, the Great Pyramids at Giza are three square-based pyramidal structures that were constructed more than four and a half thousand years ago (the time between the Pyramids’ construction and the suicide of Cleopatra is more than the suicide of Cleopatra and the modern-day. Isn’t that flabbergasting!!!) by the Egyptian pharaohs Khufu, Khafre and Menkraue to be used as colossal tombs. There is also a gigantic sculpture of a lion with a pharaonic head that guards the plateau and is known as the “Sphinx”. There are no superlatives that can adequately describe the experience of seeing the Pyramids or how impressive the Ancient Egyptians were to construct them.
Easily my favourite excursion in Egypt was to the pyramids and archaeological sites at Saqqara and Dahshur. I visited the sites with a Kiwi couple I meet on the plane from Tunis and who are travelling through Africa for at least a year. The small towns, in close proximity to each other, are located around 45 minutes from Central Cairo and beyond its sprawling and chaotic suburbs. They are surrounded by lushes palmeries and fields of agriculture that are irrigated with water from the Nile. The paradisiacal green scenery abruptly ends with the commencement of the desert and the endless nothingness, which is where the pyramid fields and mastaba tombs are situated. The first known monumental pyramid ever constructed was the Step Pyramid of Zoser at the Saqqara necropolis, by Imhotep who is considered to be the first architect and engineer in history if Wikipedia can be believed. Imhotep published an encyclopaedia on architecture which was used as a guide for Egyptian construction for thousands of years. The structure has been relatively well preserved, although it was covered in wooden scaffolding when we were there. The Saqqara necropolis also features dozens of mastaba tombs which are trapezoidal shaped and almost camouflage into the desert landscape. Inside them, the walls are decorated with exquisitely detailed carvings of people, animals, flora or scenes in Egyptian stylization. Some even retain the vivid colours of the original paintwork, despite being more than 4600 years old. Now I’m far less impressed by the preservation of the frescoes at Pompeii! The pyramids at Dahshur, within eyeshot of Saqqara, are among the most captivating sights that I have ever seen. The Red Pyramid was the first “true” pyramid constructed and was consequently the prototype design for the structures at Giza. It is magnificently well preserved and in the absence of other people and hasslers, it was easier to appreciate this wonder. We were able to enter the pyramid, though this was not necessarily an endeavour I supported since it required ascending and descending a narrow, sloping and almost infinitely long passageway (not conducive for tall people who like to complain a lot). The dark and relatively small tomb within is shaped like a triangular prism and features a black surface. Walking between the Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid was a tremendously surreal experience, as we were completely alone in the desert and surrounded by nothingness; except for two gargantuan and otherworldly objects. As the namesake implies, the builders failed to achieve structural perfection in constructing the Bent Pyramid; yet its almost entirely preserved and is unique to have retained the smooth sandstone surface that has disappeared from the other pyramids. Remarkably, there were only a handful of other visitors at the Saqqara necropolis and literally no one else at Dahshur (I’m discounting the tourists who arrived by car and stayed for only three minutes), even though, in my highly revered opinion, these attractions are the best in the Cairo region.
The Egyptian Museum provided absolute confirmation that I am simply not a “museum person”. I anticipated that an entire day would be required to explore the building, based on the many glorifying reviews I had heard (specifically of the collection, not of the woeful presentation). However, even the most outstanding and extensive collection of Ancient Egyptian artefacts failed to command my attention for two hours. I first visited the room displaying the treasures found in Tutankhamen’s tomb, which were quite extraordinary to see. I was mesmerised particularly by the intricate detail in the design of his golden mask and attempted to find defects which I expected would exist considering it was produced more than 3000 years ago, though I was unsuccessful. I then began a chronological tour of the museum, moving between rooms that displayed statues, coffins, jewellery and other ornaments from the Old Kingdom through to Roman rule. I find it incomprehensible how the stylization of Egyptian art remained in essence unchanged across two millennia from the Old Kingdom to the New Kingdom (at least to the untrained eye); especially in comparison to the monumental changes in Western art that have occurred across the last two thousand years. The galleries displaying art from the Ptolemaic and Roman periods provided a dramatic contrast to the monotony of the previous halls. Unfortunately visitors needed to buy an additional ticket to view the mummies of the pharaohs so I skipped that area since I was already losing interest. I was able to view mummies of animals, which included an unbelievably preserved six metre crocodile. After two hours, I realised that was walking around aimless with my mind in another place, so I quickly escaped the facility.
The Coptic area of Cairo was quite an anticlimax and it certainly doesn’t feature the spectacular architecture that its Islamic equivalent does. Coptic Cairo is an infinitesimal area in the context of the broader metropolis, consisting of a cluster of churches, small monasteries and souvenir shops. Most of the buildings are accessed from a pedestrian footpath that is below street level. Coptic churches are substantially smaller than Catholic churches and seem to provide a more intimate and homily communal experience. They are absent of lavish ornamentation and employ timber heavily as a decorative motif, which creates a more ambient atmosphere. There is also a synagogue in the area and armies of security guards.
I accompanied a group from the hostel on a felucca trip along the Nile, the first time that I had seen the mighty river. The Nile is one of those “things” where the enormity and wonder of it is completely intangible. While I couldn't really distinguish the uniqueness of the river, I did enjoy the pleasant ride on the traditional Egyptian sailboat. Later in the evening, we visited a local tea house where an Egyptian was singing/screeching Arabic songs. The music was shocking noise the locals seemed to like it and so it was quite a cultural experience.
Egypt does not boast one of the Mediterranean’s most intriguing kitchens, but I stilled enjoyed some appetizing dishes in Cairo. Probably the most popular meal in Egypt is “kushari”, which consists of macaroni noodles, rice and lentils mixed together with tomato sauce, fried onions, lemon juice and chilli sauce (chickpeas are also sometimes added). Kushari is incredibly inexpensive comfort food and also very filling. I sampled Egyptian-style pizza, which is characterised by the flaky pastry-like base and the thin layer of topping that allows it to be rolled up and eaten like a souvlaki. The four month absence of dip from my diet (dip is normally constituent staple) was finally broken in Cairo and I concluded that the dip the Egyptians excel at best is babganouj (eggplant dip). Fuul, the pureed bean dish that Egyptians often eat for breakfast, just looked like a pile of poo whenever I saw it so I didn’t trouble myself with sampling that dish. I savoured the opportunity to eat falafel, although I suspect that there are superior varieties in perhaps Lebanon and Turkey as I don’t believe the Egyptian offering superseded falafel that I’ve eaten in Australia. I happened to be in Cairo during Coptic Easter and since many people in the city celebrate the occasion regardless of their faith, the hostel generously hosted a traditional feast. The colourful display primarily consisted of fresh vegetables, salads and (very) salty herring, the latter of which is only eaten on Easter. The most delicious item I ate while staying in Cairo was a ridiculously cheap flat-bread pocket sandwich of falafel, stewed eggplants, feta and tomato salad and tahini.
What an incredibly overwhelming time I had in Cairo, its certainly not a place where boredom can develop. I was incredibly relieved to be departing Cairo when my train for Aswan left Giza Railway Station, but now that I reminisce about the city I’m finding the prospect of returning quite appealing! It was undoubtedly one of the most memorable periods of the trip.
That’s all for now,