Day II: Egypt

Was jetlagged last night and didn't get to bed till 3 or so. Naturallywoke up a bit startled at 10:00 and stumbled out of the hotel. As Iwas walking out the hotel doorman asked where I was headed and if Ineeded a taxi. I thought this was a good opportunity to test what hethinks the rate should be. He mentioned that for islamic cairo 25-30;which seemed absurd as the guidebook said 10-when I showed that tohim, he said "book lies" and also that I could take the hotel car for70. Oh well, needeless to say, I walked out and hailed one myself. Heagreed to 15(allright wasn't 10, but wasn't 25 either). Arrived atAl-Azhar, which is very much in the heart of everything--in asquare(midan) called midan al-Hussein. Its actually pretty nondescriptand melds into its surroundings, everything is pretty much sandcolored, in contrast to the colorful markets of course. It was foundedin 970 and the university(madrassa) in 988, apparently it is the placethat solidified the concept of large educational institutions, aka,mother of the concept of University.

Anyways, back to the mosque--itis easily identifiable because it has three different minarets made inthree different centuries (14th-16th). I entered the courtyard andfollowed some women who were heading right, assuming they were headedto the ladies section, but then noticed that they were entering thisarea that seemed like a large confessional, when I peeked in, therewas a scholar sitting and deliberating on some argument between a guyand a woman and these other women were getting in line to have theircase heard I guess. Entered the main prayer hall and noticed somewomen praying and said, hey why not. There were a few men restingduring their aytekaaf I guess. This caucasian woman also walked inwearing a black chador all the way down to her ankle. I struck up aconversation with her while we both were taking a few pictures, shewas from France and had been in Cairo for a month now. How is it thatthe Europeans can take these times off and make it work? Our conversation was cut short by a beggar asking us for money for her three children.

Let's take a detour as I guess I have not talked aboutsocioeconomics much. It pretty much feels like a third world countryentirely dependent on tourism, a bit poorer than India, but cleaner asit is less populated; although with the number of young people you seearound I am sure they are going through the same growth and issuesthat the other middle eastern countries are. Enough sidebar; I thenheaded out and right outside al-azhar was the mausoleum of sultanal-ghouri that had a beautiful mehrab, although a dude told me I couldnot take a picture. Next I walked through khan-al-khalili marketwhich is essentially what is depicted in all the market lithographsfrom ages ago, pretty much looks like that too except the mainpathways are all chalk full of trinkets for tourists-in-laid woodwork,papyrus, perfume glass bottles etc. etc. Although as you walk inwardsyou notice spices, jewelry, pottery, daily household things are allbeing sold this way to locals mostly. Interesting scenes, will justhave to share some pictures. The same on the mosques, I could keepwriting down the ten different mosques/tombs I went to but that wouldbore you guys. will share the pics with you, atleast from places Icould take them. The architecture of some of them is very differentbecause of the rich history as the Fatimids, the Ottomans,Ayuubids(Salauddin), Mamluks all were here at one point or the other,not to forget Alexander the Great and Napolean and the Brits... thatwill be explored tomorrow.

One impressive mosque/mousoleum/madrassa was that of Qalaun built in1279. Loved the intricate inlaid work, althugh was shooed out of themausoleum area, and the mosque area is very small. That is the casewith almost all these places, the actual mosque space is very limited,most of it is the madrassa or the mousoleum. One interesting thingabout Qalaun was that the complex had a hospital in it. It is the samehospital that was mentioned in Ibn Batuta's travel books from the1300s-nothing impressive, but cool that it was built that long ago.Another impressive building was the Mosque of Al-muayyad, seemedrecently renovated, had a very open courtyard, reminded me of theMughal mosques in India, was mostly empty except for this old Muezzinwho kept trying to charm us into a bakhsheesh.Oh, I forgot to tell you, during my wanderings into the mosques, Ibumped into this woman, Christina. At the entrance of qalaun she askedme how much I had to pay to get in, and I said I didn't, there is noticket to any of these places except one of the mousoleums. She saidshe was asked for an entrance fee at all the mosques and not allowedin a few. So, we decided to go together to a few of them and see what happens. She was not asked for tickets anymore and I could get herinto the female areas. Although in one of the mosques, she startedimitating my movements prayer and this woman stopped her and told hernot to do it. l understand how it might bother some people, but whatis disrespectful if someone tries to do what we do in prayer? Absurd objections I tell you. How is this not against da'waa(not that I amdoing any)? Also, one of the woman objected to my nail polish, but Ialways ignore that...

During the 4 hours or so that we were together Ilearned all about how Christina was this 50 year old from, BaselSwitzerland who had a freak accident where she fell on her head andwas in the hospital for 3 months or so, in the meantime her husbandleft her and it took her a while to get back to normal and startearning again to raise her 4 kids, one of whom died (oi wei, we haveit easy...). She is an artist working with modern media. She spentsome time in Cairo and realized that there are others less fortunatethan her and that helps her keep perspective so she keeps coming backevery few years. Another character that I met today was Mohammad Said;BTW, everyone around is Ahmad, Mohd., Abdul or Ali-bet you, use one ofthese and someone will respond with a 90% probability. Mohd. took usup the minarets of one of these mosques. It was a great experience tosee the whole city from the top. Reminded me of the view from theclock tower of a church in Geneva. Mohd. has been doing this for 15years (he was 28) and makes a living off the bakhsheesh he gets fromtaking people up. Said goodbye to Christina at around 5:00, she wasstaying at a hotel right around the area with her son and daughter.Near her hotel(in the same midan) saw the last mosque I had notcovered-the Al-Sayyadna-al-Hassan mosque.

Apparently this is where thehead of Hassan (the prophet's grandson) is buried. Although anothermosque in Damascus claims the same thing, but who is keeping track.This complex was fun though, a complete blast of all the senses, thewhole square had tables lined up from the neighboring restaurantsgetting ready for iftar and probably thousands of locals and touristsclamoring for space on the ground, along with humungous tourist busesand mopeds. Loudspeakers were blaring sufi chants intermingled withthe Quran and smells of spices etc. were emanating from the entranceof the Khan al Khalili. Ended up at the girls section of the mosquewhich is completely separate (the only one I came across today) and itjust so happened that the tomb(if a head(allegedly) is the only thingthere, is it still a tomb) was open from this entrance and got tocheck it out for like 2 minutes before the guys took over and theentrance was closed. Very colorful and impressive ornamental decor.The first masjid that I noticed the use of color to this extent. Hadto pay the guy to keep the shoes at entrance and didn't have change sohe kept the 20 saying, donations to the masjid. I hope so! All aroundthe mosque there were people with large mats(chatayees) and men andwomen sitting on them with some woman cooking rice and meat rightthere on what looked like camping stoves. Some people were alsodistributing pre-made iftars. I ended up making my way to one of therestaurant tables and had traditional iftar with kibbeh and otherkababs (pigeon was also served although I opted out of it...) And thishibiscus drink again, whose name escapes me... Anyways, after beingproposed at by one of the waiters, decided its high time to go forMaghrib. Returned to al-Hassan and prayed and sat there for a few.Remembered I had bought guavas with Christina as she had never tastedone and began eating one. This old woman noticed and came and asked mefor one and the two of us shared a non-verbal experience. Another funexperience was when Christina and I were in the redone mosque, thisyoung girl walked over and we communicated enough to understand thatshe was asking us if we wanted to buy shoes as she had a stall outsidethe mosque that she was manning(or womanning), we said no thanks withthe help of a few words from the guidebook and she was so excited tosee the book with Arabic and English side by side and asked where shecould buy one. She is apparently studying tourism oraccounting(couldn't understand which) at the Cairo University.Anyways, I got her address and told her I will mail a betterbook(perhaps an English-Arabic dictionary).Back at the rooftop. Mostly large groups of young people toinight.Feel like I am Jane Goodall witnessing the dating rituals of theaffluent Egyptians. They are in groups of 5-8 equally distributed,drinking chai/kahwa/water/bebsi and sheesha while Arabic pop isblaring. Some girls have an interesting way of not shaking hands withthe guys-they just give it a clap instead of holding the hand. Equaldistribution of hijab and non-hijab. Mostly all wearing fitting topsand jeans/pants.Anyways, as much as I love the breeze and the view of the Nile lit-up,I should head to bed so as not to start late tomorrow. One of my Bschool friends Mauricio also arrives tomorrow for the day. May shiphim to the pyramids. Will be meeting Sundus tomorrow(she had some workto finish before the eid holiday today), we are going to go on aboat(falluka) ride on the Nile, will explore the Citadel(build bySalauddin during the crusades) and the Coptic churches as well. If Ihave time will also go to the Islamic Art Museum, the book says itsperpetually closed, although the concierge said it may be open. Whoknows, perhaps the book does lie!Ma-as-salama,R


Travelogue: Day I: Egypt

It was an interesting start as I noticed that the Egyptian Museum is right behind the hotel. It is full of stuff that is basically anything and everything that came out of archaeological sites--Mummies, pottery, jewelry, tons of hyeroglyphics on boxes etc. Also had these carts that looked like horse-drawn carriages from Ben Hur. What was perhaps more telling was that it was pretty run down. It was 80 degrees out and the Museum has no AC or climate control of any sort
and you have rows and rows of Mummies and limestone stuff sitting around, some in boxes that the British probably built 100s of years ago when they invaded. Also, there is no description of anything, except that it is chronologically organized. That said, it was a more fun way of exploring a museum, you pretty much went to things that attracted you, read minimal descriptions if available, and also saw the more important things because you know where the tourist guides and 50,000 tourists are all gathered.

The guidebook surprisingly had a good description of stuff. There was very intricate Jewelry, I thought it was cool how they had figured out clasps, and colorful beads etc. thousands of years ago and there was such fine detail and exquisite craftsmanship. Another thing that they had were these pots(like vases) that had different heads of animals as their tops-there was a monkey, jackal, goat(I think) and snake; I bumped into a description on the wall that said that each of these signify which organ was taken out and put into these so that it wouldn't rot with the Mummy. One was for lungs, the other for Liver, another for intestines and I forget what the last was. They would place these with the Mummy so that when the soul came back for the
body to be reborn, it would know where to find these things. Genius! Although I wonder where it would find these among literally the million other things that were left with the Mummy. Not unlike the Terracotta soldiers I guess, although that was one and this was about
100 plus that we know of so far. That reminds me, it was interesting to see Chinese and Russian
tourists (and more fun, Egyptian guides speaking Chinese and Russian) for the first time. Also could hear Swedish, German etc.

Anyways. After 4 hours of this and smelling sweat and 5000 years of decalcification, decided
to duck out. Oh one more thing, everything was guarded by guards and other workers--there were three different uniforms, so I am sure it was different levels, but they were all dozing off or chatting with each other. At one point I noticed that all the workers in the blue uniforms ran out(like 15 of them) and this woman outside gave each of them like 100 Egyptian(EL, conversion rate $1=~5EL); wasn't sure what that was about.

Anyways, got out at about Noon and thought I should head to the Pyramids as it was close to afternoon opening time-tickets are given only twice a day in a limited amount. Guidebook said I could cab it for 20-25EL to and 40EL back and the ticket would be 100EL(could have
done it more cheaper with 4EL with their version of the Tempo, but didn't want to bother finding the getting off and on point as only the locals know where they are and didn't feel like practicing my Arabic, they do look at you a bit strangely that you are traveling alone). As I was walking out of the hotel lobby though, I happen to glance that American Express had a tour as well and it was all inclusive for 180EL-figured it was a good enough deal with English guide and airconditioned minibus and opted for that instead. It was me and 7 Swedes in the bus. The pyramids are in Giza which is across the Nile from Cairo. Its exactly like the Boston-Cambridge situation. Its about
a 25 minute drive from where I am staying. One thing you do notice as soon as you get a bit out the city is practically all the buildings are all unfinished. Redbrick, no plaster, iron beams open and sticking out. Read later that it is the way Egyptians evade taxes--unfinished building, will have to pay taxes when finished, so let's leave it perpetually in build mode. You would think govt would have caught on by now.

Anyways, the Pyramids are pretty much on a sandy plateau with limestone dug up all around. This complex had 3 main ones. Huma-i am sorry to say behind one of the smaller pyramids were three even more little ones and I was told that that was for the 3 main wives. Its basically a complex of graves essentially, if you think about it. With important people closer to the Emperor's grave-the largest pyramid, family next, nobles after and common folk somewhere out there. Anyways, apparently they were gilded with white limestone and gold and the tops had solid gold so the sun would make them glimmer but it has all been pillaged. One interesting thing the guide mentioned was that the limestone was now beginning to deteriorate because of a sudden, due to global warming, egypt is becoming humid and humidity is apparently the worst enemy for limestone. sigh! In one of the pyramids, you can crawl in. I tried, was claustrophobic and about to pass out from smelling sweat and walked back out. Apparently didn't miss much as there is just a burial chamber and no hyeroglyphivs or anything. The one in another town is more interesting I was told.

There was the usual hoard of touristy gimmicks with camel and horse rides that you have to endlessly bargain and trinkets. Saw the Sphinx next, same complex. Apparently when they were done digging up all the limestone around the pyramids to make them there was this mound of bad quality limestone left, it looked like a lion so they shaped it like one and put the pharoah's head on it. It used to be colorful and gold with a beard but no more. The beard is apparently in the V&A museum. After about 2.5 hours we were done walking around and ended up at a genuine papyrus store as a last stop. I got a good bargain on a market scene because the owner noticed I was fasting(didn't order drinks); gave me a couple of pieces free and the market scene at 1/3rd the marked price. I am sure he still made a profit, but it was the gesture. On the way back through the crazy traffic, noticed that a BMW stopped on the middle of the highway and
about 10 people rushed to it and the guy gave them all money. The ones that got hold of the money were arguing with the others to share. The guide explained that it is the rich distributing zakat this way in Ramadan. Very inefficient and demeaning way I think, but hey, if it works... Maybe that is what the woman at the museum was doing as well.

Came to the hotel right in time to take a quick shower before heading out to hunt for iftar. The concierge pointed out a place on the map that was walkable distance and traditional Egyptian food. I walked over and got thoroughly lost for half an hour or so as there are no street signs that make sense(perhaps its the map). Could hear the Maghrib azaan so bought fresh mango juice from a store and broke the fast, a passerby was distributing dates to everyone so took one of those and noticed the sign for the restaurant right in front of me, but it was closed. Most people around were breaking their fast with food they took out of lunch boxes-looked like rice, meat, peas and carrots, bread, stuffed peppers and lentil soup. Anyways, the most crowded places at this time were KFC and Hardee's, full of families, young couples, all dining on fried chicken. Found one restaurant but the clientelle looked almost all male, so decided to walk back to the hotel and opted for the pre-fixe iftar at one of the hotel restaurants. Drank like three bottles of water! Was so tired that came to my room and crashed. Woke up an hour and a half later and am now at the rooftop restaurant/tapas place. Although the menu has nothing spanish on it. The weather is great-70 degrees pbably with a breeze. Am staring at the nile all lit up. Families, other tourists, arabs, all hanging out smoking sheesha. Had some foul(red beans) and Kharoub(like hibiscus tea-a special ramadan drink) and am now thinking of retiring to bed.

If you have read this far, I commend your patience. Tomorrow, Islamic
Cairo and Al Azhar University. Meet with a friend of a friend, sundus,
for iftar.