Writing this blog close to the end of our Egypt trip from Luxor, where there is a wedding going on outside the hotel – I’m assured by Reception that it’ll stop in a few minutes. We’re making our way up north again from Aswan where we spent the last couple of days. Tomorrow we fly back to where it all began.
There’s only one way to describe the famous metropolis of Cairo and that is to imagine a thick layer of dust covering everything you see. From the deliberately unfinished buildings (with the bricks exposed – no plaster, no final flourish of paint), to the cars and even the clothes of the pedestrians in their gelabayas and burquas – a fine layer of dust seems to coat the entire city and its inhabitants.
Cairo and the rest of the country are desperately trying to pick itself up from the upheaval of recent times with the revolution in Tahrir Square in 2011. Its biggest income is in tourism and things have been quiet for way too long. Ahmed, for example, who met us in the café next to our hotel, offered us tea as he smoked his shisha pipe. He knew that we were about to start the group tour the next day and the places we wouldn’t be covering. He sold us the idea of visiting the Coptic Church and Islamic Cairo tour by taxi, but by way of a papyrus factory/art gallery first. Soon we found ourselves being given a crash course in the art of making papyrus, the first paper the world has ever seen by an enthusiastic niqab wearing Niveen. The papyrus plant is a kind of bamboo with a juicy stalk – it is first peeled and flattened and then pressed in alternating vertical and horizontal lines for two full weeks, till they all naturally stick together to form the original paper. She rattled off a condensed version of Egyptian history as she pointed out the key scenes in the paintings on display. “Ancient Egyptians were all about the after-life, she said – a bit like your faith,” she said. There were riches and wonders aplenty after death – the spirit that is one with God and the soul that is one with the Self. The most popular painting is the world’s first Love Story – Rameses the Second and his wife Nefertary, the Nubian princess. They are seen to be holding a lotus and a papyrus flower in their hands – symbols of love and trust. We parted with a significant amount of cash that included a payment in pounds sterling, but we’ll have to worry about that later.
The Coptic churches and the Ben Ezra Synagogue are tucked away in an enclave in Giza (across the bridge from Cairo) – small, modest churches that date back to the beginning of Christianity. We saw an old portrait of the holy family (Mary, Joseph and Jesus) fleeing to Egypt when Jesus was nine. Behind the church, a man persuaded me to come and have a look at the place where apparently Moses was found in the basket – no one knows for sure. It was a well in an empty compound that was cordoned off – somehow, it felt significant.
The Citadel mosque was about to close as we went in – being a Saturday, school children were there for a visit and were pouring out of the gates. A bunch of boys insisted on taking a photo with me – when I asked why, they said they wanted to show their mum! The mosque is a magnificent structure with intricate mosaics in red, blue and gold inside the dome and people are free to wander almost everywhere. It reminded us a lot of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.
Cairo Museum in the morning is an unbelievable collection of Egyptian antiquities. With the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb (the only one that was intact because it was hidden behind a fallen boulder), the artefacts of that alone are truly mind-boggling. On the first floor, we saw a big square sarcophagus covered in gold leaf – the outer container for the coffin. Next to it was another gold sarcophagus of a smaller dimension – also in gold, to fit into the first one. The smallest square box would hold the mummified pharaoh – essentially, three palanquin boxes in descending sizes. Just so that the pharaoh was taken safely into the next world, the full body gold mask with elaborate bejewelled breast plates in coral, turquoise and lapis lazuli was also in three layers – each of them exactly the same in decoration. King Tut, the nineteen-year old Pharaoh who ruled for a mere ten years lay deep within all this. His contribution to the reign of the pharaohs was inconsequential, but his is the only tomb that was not defaced or robbed. There is a lot more in the museum – plenty of statues of pharaohs down the centuries carved out of solid granite – deep red and jet black. The tiniest ivory miniature of the pharaoh to whom the Great Pyramid of Giza is dedicated is that of King Cheops – just three inches in height with his name engraved on his left shoulder. This is the only surviving statue from the pyramid that was raided thoroughly through the years.
The camel ride to see the panorama of nine pyramids was a little nerve-racking to start off with, but my camel, (named Michael Jackson!) and its owner, were absolutely wonderful in setting me at ease. Astride this graceful animal, the desert and the view were quite splendid.
I aim to write detailed blog posts for Aswan and Luxor – I shall stop here with Cairo and do justice to the rest soon.