What feels like forever ago, I visited Egypt very briefly. Cairo was on the brink of revolution. Just a few months later, Tahrir Square would erupt in demonstrations. We felt it coming in conversations we had with people at the market; in hushed stories of discontent told by a guide as he drove us to the pyramids, then looked around and loudly proclaimed his love for then-president Mubarak; and the men at a kabob stand who told us how food prices had been rising in recent years. Still, in late summer of 2010, the city was mostly calm, or as calm as a city that is constantly frenetic can be. We were there on a quick stopover from Jordan and did only the most touristy things. I’ve been wanting to return ever since and actually spend some time there, but for now here are some photos from the past, with some of my notes from the time.
Our first stop was the Step Pyramid of Saqqara/Pyramid of Djoser. It was the first pyramid ever built, in the 27th century BC for Pharaoh Djoser. The first pyramids were made in step formation, before the traditional smooth sided pyramid. Originally, the Pyramid of Djoser was 203 feet tall and was covered in white polished limestone. Over time it has decreased by 11 metres, but is still enormous. The pyramid is surrounded by trenches and a colonnade entrance, and there is a vast open courtyard. At the time the pyramid was built, the Pharaoh would race a bull from the colonnade entrance to the front of the pyramid where they would circle a stone structure, and back to the entrance. If the man beat the bull, he was fit to rule, but as our guide said, they probably drugged the bull somehow.
Many people think ancient Egyptians worshipped animals and objects, but that’s not true. They did worship the jackal, or Anubis, god of the dead and fire, and the ram, or hathor, goddess of fertility, but not in animal form. They worshipped the things they could not defeat, and the virtues they brought. They couldn’t defeat fire, so they worshipped its heat. They couldn’t defeat the ram, so they worshipped its milk as fertility. They couldn’t stop the jackal from entering tombs, so they made him a temple and designated him as guardian of the dead. And they couldn’t defeat the falcon, so they worshipped him as protector, and so on. They ate the meat from these animals, but if they worshipped the animal itself, not only its abstract quality, they would not have been able to eat it.
We saw tombs and were amazed at the hieroglyphics inside. They’re so intricately carved and beautiful!
We visited the Great Pyramid of Giza/Pyramids of Khufu, the most famous of the pyramids. It’s the oldest of the seven wonders of the Ancient World and is massive. It’s crazy to think that people built it with rock, pulley systems, water movement and their own strength. It was built as a tomb for Pharaoh Khufu in the fourth dynasty, in 2560 BC. For the next 3,800 years It was the tallest man-made structure in the world. We took camel rides to the spot where you can see all three pyramids in a line. It was fun, but a little odd… The camels are all just sitting there in a field waiting to cart tourists around. Kind of sad. The Pyramid of Khafre, next to the Great Pyramid, is smaller but still impressive. It belonged, along with the Sphinx, to Pharaoh Khafre. The Sphinx was really cool, but actually smaller than we expected. It’s hard to believe when you’re standing in front of the pyramids that they were built by hand so long ago, and that civilizations flourished here. Muhammad gave extensive detail on the dynasties, the pharaohs, anything you could think of. He also told us that being a tour guide here is a really good job and takes a lot of schooling.
We visited a school where they teach students starting at age eight to weave rugs of silk and cotton and wool. The rugs were beautiful, and the students’ hands were flying! We also visited a place where they make lotus perfume and many other pure scents. It was nice but Muhammad was clearly getting a commission for bringing us there. Same with the shop where they make papyrus paintings. Still, both were interesting.
A nighttime fluka cruise on the Nile River. When you think of the Nile, or at least when I thought of the Nile, I did not think of being surrounded by hotels and McDonald’s and bright lights. Muhammad is trying to convert us to Islam. On the cruise he told us it’s his mission for this trip, and he bought us Arabic to English translations of the Qur’an. He says if you’re Muslim and you convert someone, you’re almost guaranteed to go to Paradise. It’s charming actually, but he doesn’t realize I’m the least religious person I know. (The Qur’ans are actually very beautiful).
We visited the citadel, overlooking all of Cairo. We saw the prison there, and the military side. It was interesting to see the security measures in place at the time. El-Naser Mohamed mosque was the first mosque in Cairo. It was made with stolen pieces, so the windows are all slightly different, as well as parts of the pillars. It was really lovely. Like all mosques, there’s a curved spot in the front so the Imam leading the prayer can be heard in back (or at least his echo can), and there’s an open area for praying and facing Mecca and Saudi Arabia, and a balcony in back to lead the people outside. The second mosque, the Mosque of Mohammed Aly, was incredibly beautiful. It was built in 1830 AD, modeled after the Sultan Ahmet mosque in Turkey. The painting and decoration is so intricate, and the lamps lighting the inside give a magical glow. Mohammed Aly’s tomb is in the mosque also.
The Hanging Church, or Saint Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church, is also in old Cairo. It is called the hanging church because it is above the gates to Babylon Fortress, and ancient fortress city for the royal family. It is one of the earliest churches in Egypt, built in the 3rd century AD. The Ben Ezra Synagogue is nearby, on the site where baby Moses was found, according to the local tradition.
The Egyptian Museum is one of the best things we did, but sadly, pictures are not allowed so I can’t show you! I don’t think it’s possible to explain how amazing it was! It has ancient statues, mummies, tombs, and an entire floor dedicated to King Tutankhamun. His was the only tomb ever found intact, as all other tombs had already been raided by the time people started looking for them. His tomb was impressive, one of the most decorated and protected. He had a solid gold casket, inside another one, and another and another, to protect his body. Then there were gifts and offerings and things to protect him and keep him happy in the afterlife. Chairs, statues, jewelry…the jewelry was so pretty, and so detailed. We saw the solid gold headdress put on King Tutankhamun when he was buried. It’s extremely protected in the museum, and for good reason. The most amazing thing was that because he died so suddenly and so young (he fell off a chariot), all of this was made in a very short amount of time. It seemed like each piece would have taken forever to make, so it’s unbelievable that everything in the entire floor, which is like six rooms, was made in such a short time. Each artifact, and each painted chair, bed, box and jars holding his insides, statues of gods to protect him was incredible. I wish we could have taken pictures!! [New note: During the Egyptian Revolution the museum, which is in the center of Tahrir Square, was broken into. Two mummies were destroyed, about 50 objects were lost (half have been found since), and several other artifacts were damaged. One of the most memorable images from the revolution is that of Egyptians standing as a human chain, protecting the museum].
Alexandria, the Greek city in Egypt on the Mediterranean. Very pretty, and nothing like Cairo (which is beautiful in its own way and I actually preferred). The city was founded by Alexander the Great, and was Egypt’s capitol for almost a thousand years, until AD 641 when the Muslims took over and founded Fustat, later Cairo. We saw the Catacombs, or Kom el Shoqafa, multi-level labyrinth tombs. These were really cool, and just like the pyramids hard to imagine how they were built and carved with minimal tools. Again, sadly, pictures weren’t allowed. Then we went to Pompey’s Pillar, a Roman column originally part of a colonnade made for Diocletian, in memory of the rebellion of Domitius Domitianus. It is one of the best-known ancient monuments still standing.
We went to the Alexandria Library, which is not an average library at all. It’s huge, and has the largest open space to read in the world. It’s also a museum. The library was only built seven years ago, and the architecture, designed by a group of architects in Norway, is amazing. From an aerial view the main building is shaped like the sun and it has writing in many languages on the sides to represent blending cultures. There’s a planetarium on the west side, representing the Earth orbiting the sun. It has one of the largest Internet databases in the world, and you can read ancient books online. Each page of the actual books are photographed, so you can flip through them and read.
I’m sure much has changed in Egypt in the last six years, and I cannot wait to return and explore the country at length. Have you been? What were your favorite things about it?