Sinai, Cairo, Giza, Luxor: "What A Country!"

Cairo

Arab Republic of Egypt
June 10, 2007

Dear Family and Friends,

The ferry across the Gulf of Aqaba left three hours late ("we have to load the ferry"). But the ride is splendid. I have to pinch myself: To the port side are the hilly brown barren coastlines of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. To starboard is the hilly brown barren coastline of Egypt, North Africa! And, I check my map to learn that the Gulf of Aqaba is the northernmost section of The Red Sea. The Red Sea!!

The scenery is identical on each side of the Gulf because . . . .

The Red Sea, The Gulf of Aqaba, The Dead Sea, The Jordan River and The Sea of Galilee are all part of one continuous geological rift, from The Sudan to Syria.

We land at Nuweiba in the darkness of the early evening. What a scene! What chaos! What cacophony! Dozens of Egyptian families are returning home and transporting huge piles of modern electronics and furniture all encased in huge colorful containers that the local porters carry on huge steel two-wheelers, the goods to be loaded onto trucks and vans headed west. It's a madhouse on the dock.

If I close my eyes I can imagine the almost identical scene playing out over the centuries:

Sailboats cross the Gulf; the cases contain textiles and spices and exotic items from The East; I can imagine herds of camels waiting patiently on the pier to transport the goods to Cairo and Tripoli and Fez along the ancient caravan routes across the desert.

I had surrendered my passport to the purser on the ferry. So after dodging the porters and the piles of cargo and the carts and the confusion, I purchase my visa stamps at one end of the port and transport myself over and around the chaos to retrieve my passport at the Immigration counter at the other end of the port. As I enter the office, the uniformed official, who expects me, smiles, holds up my blue and gold-embossed booklet and exclaims, "Hello Mr. Jan. Welcome to Egypt!"

Ok. First I'll get all of this stuff out of the way so I can tell you about the wonderful sights:

For the independent traveler, even with an Arabic-speaking guide, Egypt can be challenging.

I will be kind:

Cairo is noisy and bustling and not the cleanest big city in the world. Public transporation is skimpy and the taxicabs are small and cramped. And all the meters are "broken." Every ride everywhere is a negotiation.

Every driver knows just the right "museum" (a souvenir shop is called a museum!) or restaurant or camel driver where he no doubt receives a small "consideration" from the proprietor.

To be diplomatic, folks here don't always give the correct information and sometimes the correct information is faulty. A responsible travel agent rebooked a flight and gave me a ticket with the wrong date! Which I discovered a week later!

Bargaining here is different from other countries I have visited. The opening price is outrageously high, and if my patience is thin, I simply decline to play the game. I never got the knack. When I return I will play their game and offer an outrageously low number and I suppose I will end up at a fair price.

Agreements can change in mid course or at the end. All of sudden the deal is not the deal. You really have to be tough.

And finally, "baksheesh." Everywhere, everyone wants a tip for something or other. I can understand hotel and restaurant workers, but security guards, "guides," even policemen? It gets a little wearing.

Ok. Enough. Now for the good parts.

The Sinai: Brilliant

When Sinai was in Israel Land, thousands of backpackers came down for long weekends of dissolute partying on the beaches along the Gulf of Aqaba. As I drive north from Nuweiba to Taba, I spot dozens of straw and brick and mud huts that provide just enough shelter and privacy for whatever Israeli kids like to do. Now that Sinai is in Egypt Land, the huts have fewer visitors. Most of this area, including some large luxury resorts, seems quite empty at the moment. And that is a shame.

The calm sea is a brilliant deep dark blue; close to shore the dark blue changes to a powdery clear turquoise. The sand is brown and granular. Treeless gray brown mountains form the backdrop to the beach. This is a beach -- in the desert.

At Taba we make a sharp left turn for a five hour drive west across the middle of the Sinai Peninsula towards Suez and Cairo. What a drive!

The solid two lane highway cuts up and through and around a chain of nameless sandstone and granite mountains identical to the desert scenery of the Jordanian Wadi Rum: striated red sedimentary rock in an infinite variety of agonizingly angular shapes and sizes. This eastern portion of the peninsula gives way to the undulating and flat central desert and an occasional tall hill that looks like a monumental castle of golden sand. It is simply beautiful out here. No wonder that folks who know The Sinai but who live elsewhere long to return.

Cairo: Madrassas and Mosques and Markets

Along the crowded boulevards and then down the side streets and alleyways lie uniquely Egyptian Arabic school buildings and medieval mosques.

In the Al-Hussein district, some of the mosques are almost a thousand years old and still welcome the faithful to prayer. Exterior walls are tan and black granite stripes with cupolas and balconies, columns and arched doorways and stained glass windows Interior ceilings and walls are decorated with multi-colored geometric granite designs or painted ornamentation of gold and blue and yellow.

I love wandering down the noisy narrow streets where traditional craftsman are pounding out copper and steel pottery and religious articles. The little shops are overflowing with glass hookahs and brass and silver bowls. Merchants are welcoming and women walk about with their wares piled high on their heads. This is a vibrant neighborhood in a vibrant and expanding city, the capital of Egypt, considered by many to be the capital of the Arab World.

And finally, The Nile, yes the broad and powerful Nile River flows through the heart of the sky-scrapered city and north to the Mediterranean Sea.

Giza

Giza is a suburb of Cairo. And what a suburb! You drive down a small street and then another small street and then, wham! Shazam! Just beyond the buildings and shops, a Pyramid! And the Sphinx!

If you have seen the Pyramids you know their size. If you have seen pictures, what you imagine is quite correct.

From the distance a Pyramid looks big. Tall. Imposing. But when I actually walk up to the base and look up and up and up, the Pyramid is gigantic. The biggest one is 146m or 483 feet tall -- as tall as a fifty story building. It took me almost an hour to stroll around the base. There was one spot where I could safely climb up a few meters.

The Pyramids are made of large rectangular rocks that are ingeniously layered on top of each other. How do they stay up there and not collapse on themselves? I don't know, but I did spot two good hints. On one wall, the inner architecture is exposed, revealing triangular buttressing deep within the structure. Is that the answer? And during my stroll I noticed that the Pyramids are built on a natural formation of solid rock.

Compared to the Pyramids the Sphinx looks tiny, but it is a mesmerizing and enigmatic sculpture that has stared out on the desert sands for centuries. The face in my opinion is African and possibly the likeness of Khafre, the pharaoh who thought of carving this one piece of limestone into a fearful creature with the body of a lion and the face of a god wearing the royal headdress of Egypt. The Sphinx is known in Arabic as Abu al-Hol, Father of Terror.

There are busloads of tourists and everyone is jockeying for the best spot for a photo with Abu. No matter. I am happy to see the Pyramids along the Nile. And I see not the terror, but the smile on the face of the Sphinx.

Luxor: Temples and Tombs

The guidebook gushes with the following descriptive terms for this 4000 year old city of ancient Thebes: "staggering ancient splendor, extraordinary, compelling, spectacular, massive, and strikingly graceful." * For once I agree 100%.

My first stop, and my favorite, is the Luxor Temple. The temple is filled with wall writings and pictorial carvings and enormous statues of the Pharaohs: Amenhotep III, Tutankhamen, Ramses II, Nectanebo. Even Alexander the Great and various Romans (Marc Anthony?) added their touch. In the 13th Century, the Arabs built a mosque in an interior court.

"Karnak is a spectacular complex of sanctuaries, kiosks, pylons, and obelisks, dedicated to the Theban gods and the greater glory of Egypt's pharaohs." * The entire area covers about 1.2 square kilometers. My wandering and climbing and gazing and wandering some more is an epic ordeal in the hot sun. But a worthwhile ordeal. And at the very beginning and at the very end is the sphinx-lined path that provides both inspiration and resolution for my day with the man-gods.

What's the plural of sarcophagus? I stared at a few, surrounded by bright and colorful wall paintings, deep underground in The Valley of The Kings, in the dusty, barren and dramatic Theban hills.

The Next Time

There are sixty tombs in The Valley of The Kings and dozens more in The Valley of The Queens. The Colossi (I guess that's the plural for colossus) of Memnon and the Temples of Seti are nearby. Much further south in Egypt is Lake Nasser and the Temples of Abu Simbel. In the north is Alexandria and in the west, The Western Oases (plural for oasis). And in Cairo, the Cairo Museum. Ali said it is the best museum he has ever seen.

And back in The Sinai there is the Suez Canal, Mt. Sinai, and Sharm el-sheikh, the Egyptian version of Miami-Las Vegas, so says the guidebook.

If I had been less impulsive I could have seen more tombs and temples, the Lake and the Canal. I could have planned a cruise on the Nile and a dive in the Sea. I could have planned a proper trip to Egypt. One week is insufficient. It's a big country.

There will be a "next time" to The Middle East, in sha' Allah. I must return to Jordan to see Sama and Ishmael and Ali and Taghreed and, of course, my dear Manal.

Despite the indifference of the officials, everyone says the Syrian people are warm and welcoming. Then there's Libya. I promise to avoid Iraq and Iran for the moment, although Iran is tempting.

And finally, this evening, I am on my way to Tel Aviv for what I hope will be, G-d willing, the first of many visits to Israel.

Osama, my cheerful, talkative driver in Luxor, charged me fair prices. He took me to tea and to lunch before I left. I will be happy to see him again. And the staff at The New Pola Hotel is also excellent. The sweet young cashier at the rooftop swimming pool is shy and then friendly. And beyond the white-rigged sailboats on the green-fringed Nile, the rooftop view of the setting sun is just as you would expect. Egypt is charming after all.

And yes, the food is good, especially the morning buffet of eggs, salad, olives and all the hummus I can scoop up with my pyramid of pita. Have you ever had halvah for breakfast? What a rush!

Tisba 'ala khayr,

Jan


* "The Middle East." Lonely Planet. 2006.

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