Reflections on Egypt
February 24 — March 5, 2006
There are two kinds of vacations; one where you relax in pleasant surroundings, and the other, where you are stimulated in new surroundings.
Egypt is a vacation that requires work, concentration and stamina.
The rewards are great. Now, three days after getting back, I still dream of it, see visions of the carvings and paintings in temples and tombs, have become familiar with Goddesses like Isis, and Hathour and the funerary temple of Queen Harshepsut, the only female pharaoh.
And then there are the gods, so many I can't keep them straight, Osiris and the great pharaoh Ramses II. The art is beautiful, graceful, stylized.
What is stunning to our contemporary minds is that these monuments to the Gods and to the pharaohs and their families started to be built 3,000 before Christ. This was a sophisticated civilization, capable of great art and architecture. We still don't understand how they built the pyramids, how they carved out the tombs, and how they worshipped their Gods.
They believed in life after death, and much of their wealth, energy and creativity were focused on the afterlife. In a way, they were wrong of course, they didn't need the treasures they were buried with, but in an ironic way they were right. They have achieved immortality because we have re-discovered them, and those that have been discovered, like Tutankhamen, have a new life in our imaginations from the beautiful objects that were buried in his tomb.
One can even be saddened by the knowledge that he died at 19, perhaps killed by the High Priest who succeeded him. His golden facemask is beautiful, innocent. We saw many of his treasures in the Cairo museum, a dusty rambling structure (was it the sand storm outside or the pollution that created the haze?) that was packed with tourists. Little clusters everywhere with their own interpreters in many languages, each having to jostle to take a turn to stand by a precious object and listen to the explanation.
From the first day's visit to the museum, I learned that this would not be a trip of quiet exploration. This was a trip coping with crowds, everywhere. I learned to accept that, but at first it was a shock. More Europeans and very few Americans, lots of Swiss-Germans, Italians, French, Germans, and other Arab countries. A real Mecca, still, for the rest of the world. As our guide said, every school child had learned about the pyramids, and here they were to be seen. The draw is powerful and universal.
What is the fascination? I tried to think about that. The fascination with death, which we still have, only in different forms as we struggle to constantly prolong life. The knowledge that this great civilization was conquered and declined, disappearing for hundreds of years, until archeologists began to rediscover it in the 1890's. Civilizations rise and fall, not a new idea, but one that is so strongly reinforced by this experience.
This civilization, like ours, tried to protect itself, both from natural phenomenon (Hapi the Nile God, who pushes the waters of the Nile, Moot, the master of the sky, too many to know.) and from invaders. We were told that until the age of 16, Egyptians wanted to be buried with the female Gods, because they could protect them.
Some of the carvings on the walls and columns depict battle scenes, show prisoners being shackled, beaten, and marched off, bound together. The faces of the prisoners are often filled with fear, or resignation.
On one wall, filled with carvings and hieroglyphs (not deciphered until years after the discovery of the Rosetta stone _-a whole language almost lost forever) we were told to look for a carving of a doctor tending to a soldier's knee, and with the aid of a flashlight, we found it. So human, so poignant.
And we found a guard, sitting idly, waiting for his shift to change. These artists could portray both Gods and sometimes ordinary people. Hard to identify with the Gods, but not with these people.
The experience made me question the idea of progress-we don't necessarily get better and better over time, we can lose what we have, and in the case of Egypt, almost completely.
There was so much to see, so many temples to visit, that some experiences melt into others. What was thrilling to see were, of course, the pyramids? Enormous, up close. They suddenly loom up in the sky. The line between the town of Giza with dwellings, and the dessert, with the three large pyramids is sudden. The land goes from green to dessert in an instant.
And there is the sphinx in the middle, inscrutable, and I couldn't help wondering what she looked like before her face was partly destroyed. Another observation, subsequent leaders and conquerors destroyed the work of the past leaders. They hacked the faces and hands and feet of pharaohs they did not like to make them unrecognizable-and even that speaks to us now-the destructions of one civilization, one person, one ruler, of another, out of jealousy, competition, wanting to erase the memory.
What amazed both of us was the temple of Abu Simbel, lifted piece by piece from the banks of the Nile to protect it from flooding. Enormous work, gigantic figures, making man so humble in comparison. It was a great achievement then, to build them, and a great achievement now to rebuild them.
Lake Nasser, formed by the flooding of the Aswan dam (built with Russian help) is more enormous than I had dreamed. Goes on forever, the dimensions of the project are hard to fathom without seeing it in person.
Sometimes there was so much to see and absorb, that I focused on a small section, a graceful, slender carved out foot, a bird in a box, one of the hieroglyphics, with a little more time I might have been able to read them, a bit.
Most of the large works celebrated battles, or else appeasing the Gods, or steering a boat to the afterlife. One could spend years becoming a knowledgeable Egyptologist, and they don't necessarily agree with one another. There continue to be different interpretations, discoveries.
There are tons of temples, tombs, still buried. They don't have the money to do it all, and can't relocate all the people who are living above the sites. Under every house, in some areas like Giza, there are archeological sites.
The boat we cruised on, Sun Boat IV, was very comfortable, held 80 people, our party was 21. Just about the right size. When we did cruise on the Nile and looked at the shore on either side, it sometimes seemed as if we were in biblical times-farmers in the field tilling the soil by hand, donkeys pulling carts (saw that in Cairo as well and in the smaller cities) carts laden down with green alfalfa, brilliant tangerines, bananas. Arabs tending goats, sheep. Saw a flock of sheep in the middle of Cairo.
The city is jumping, polluted (when we first got there was a sandstorm and we could see very little), bursting with traffic. There are traffic lights but they don't let them work, they are continuously blinking yellow and at intersections, it's each car for himself, and each pedestrian, Had difficultly crossing the street from the hotel to the quay by the Nile. Had to make a run for it, when there was a brief break. No one slows down.
Lots of black and white taxis everywhere, all beaten up and dented. Then there are vans, which pick people up and stop anywhere to let them off, including in the middle of traffic. About half the men wear Arab robes, gray or black, and many wear turbans. In the hotel, saw several sheiks, or assumed that that was who they were: they wore white and the white Arab headdress, had to remind myself at first that this was not a costume party.
We had a bus, with an armed guard on board and a police car following us. Ever since Luxor. when 58 people were killed by a terrorists group at Luxor, including many Swiss, the Egyptian government must have gone out in full force to prevent anything from hurting their tourist industry again. Police and military are everywhere, but they look pretty lackadaisical. I didn't think they could really protect us - but perhaps their presence was a deterrent, but not for suicide bombers.
The first night in the hotel I was a bit anxious and had trouble sleeping, because the Semiramis Intercontinental was clearly one of the 2 or 3 top hotels in Cairo, and attacking it would make a strong statement. But then, I decided to relax and slept rather well most of the time. One can get used to lots of things, including AK 47's being hoisted around.
Most of the security was not very serious-lots of metal detectors, at the hotel, at the sites, at the tombs and temples, but most of them were not working. I suspect they profile for their own people-they just let us go through. The only thing they were strict about was a camera when we couldn't take pictures.
The contrast between the splendor of ancient Egypt and Egypt today is great. People must ask themselves, how could we have had such a great civilization and look how we are today. There is visible poverty outside of Cairo. It's hard to know which buildings are lived in and which are abandoned. People seem to live in many abandoned half finished structures. First the guide pointed out some unfinished buildings and said they were illegal, built on farmland, and that's why they were not finished. Then he said that buildings were not finished because the owners didn't want to pay taxes, and if there is no water and electricity, no taxes.
But outside of Cairo, and even some parts of Cairo, it seemed that more than half the buildings were unfinished, hollow eyed structures, With a window here and there. Children and mothers walking around. I never could find out how they lived there.
There is an incredible continuing population explosion. Everyone gave us a different figure for the population of Cairo-17, 18,19 million. We were told the country of more than 60 million adds a million every 9 months. In Cairo, the guide told us, people have two or three children, in the countryside, 10 or 11. They will never catch up at that rate.
There is an air of decay and neglect throughout Egypt except in the nice hotels and restaurants. Maintenance is not part of the value system, but perhaps that is because of the poverty, or perhaps because it is not a priority.
The exact opposite of Switzerland, where everything is maintained and works and is spotless.
It is a dreary looking city. The most beautiful structures are the mosques who’s decorated spires and graceful domes are interspersed throughout the city, which is 90 percent Muslim, all Sunni. It is not supposed to be a radical form of Islam, though it is likely that the radicals are all in jail. All the women, except those who work in the airport and hotels and restaurants, wear headscarves, or the veil. Occasionally a woman who is completely covered in black, with only her eyes showing, but she may not be Egyptian. Hard to get a sense of the role of women in Egyptian life. They are getting educated, but the guidebook said 40% of the population is illiterate.
Did hear the call to prayer, which is issued five times a day. Particularly noticeable at daybreak and at dusk. Friday is the prayer day for all Muslims. Sunday is not a holiday. Did see one person praying on the flight from London to Cairo, blocking the aisle. If necessary, a Muslim can pray anywhere.
We walked around a bit on the Sunday night after our arrival and saw lots of couples walking hand in hand, arm in arm, talking with one another, along the Nile and over the bridge. This must be the meeting place. Perhaps it's ok to have a date out in public. So much I wanted to ask and couldn't know.
Did have one good conversation with our guide, Wal-id, a Muslim, though he said he was brought up Catholic. Had gone to school in the US, high school, Had traveled a lot because his father was a diplomat, his wife half Swiss and half Egyptian, an international family. Very proud of Egypt and its great heritage, tried to explain Islam to us (in the mosque Mohammed Ali) at some length but most of us could not fully focus on it.
At our lunch conversation, in a lovely restaurant, which had once been a palace, just before we went to Giza, we asked him some questions, though he said he did not like to talk politics, but once started, it was clear that he loved to talk politics.
As for 9/11 he felt Bush instigated it-was not a highjacking by terrorists. I asked him if people believed that Jews had staged the twin towers, he said everybody believed that. Had no use for Condoleezza Rice of Madeleine Albright. It was a discouraging conversation, but I decided not to argue because I was more interested in his thinking than in mine.
And he is an educated man, constantly working with foreigners. He brought a passion to his work, which was great, really loved a lot of the structures and the art works. I appreciated when he pointed out Isis and Hathour sitting on a birthing stool. He said they practiced birth control then, too bad not now.
The only other Egyptians we talked to were the vendors who were everywhere and very aggressive. After every visit to a site, we were carefully steered to walk in front of the bazaar route. Everything was colorful, and all the vendors were ready for their attack. The only slight difference was with the Nubians, near Aswan, who had beautiful faces and a more gentle demeanor. They once were a large empire, our guide told us, they were always smiling and very friendly; he was right. Our guide in Cairo was Sammeh, who was most accommodating.
Walking past the bazaars we were torn between stopping to look and moving on, eyes straight ahead. The minute you stopped, you were held captive. Some had funny lines which they had practiced, "Where you are from?"
"Ah, America is number one. Come here, let me show you." and he tried to get you to come into his stall.
One told me," You look Egyptian."
Another said with a big smile, "You are my mother."
They tried every language, German, French, Spanish, knowing just enough to
make a strong pitch.
The funniest line I heard was from an Arab who held up three little carved statues and said, "Three dollars for the whole schmear."
The joke amongst our group was the phrase, "one dollah, one dollah, just four for one dollah," and if you explored further, it was always more.
John, I belatedly discovered, is not a good bargainer. In a rush for the bus, he paid the asking price for two "galabeyyas"-the long gowns. Dare not write down what that was. [I did not particularly like bargaining either, because I felt I was arguing over so little, and most of these people didn't have very much. So I understand John. It was impossible to know the real value of things-they always asked an astronomical price at first. ] We wore the garb for Egyptian night on the boat, and hokey as that sounds, we had a great time dressing up. Everyone got in the spirit of it, took lots of photos and danced and had great food. The other people were all pleasant, except one mean spirited handicapped retired biology professor from Columbia, who cursed those who tried to help him negotiate some steps. No one who we felt particularly close to, but all nice to talk to. The main topic of conversation was other trips they had taken with everyone comparing notes. Some were young middle-aged couples that had made a lot of money and were now busy figuring out how to spend it.
The only other conversation I had was with a group of school children leaving the Karnak temple. They wanted to speak Engish. One boy in particular was very friendly, and asked "You like Egypt?" and when I said yes, he looked very pleased. So much for diplomacy.
We were real tourists when we rode a camel together. The hardest part was when the camel stood up and sat down again. A fairly bumpy ride and I held on to the saddle for dear life, and John held on to me. Have pictures to prove it. Some people thought their camels smelled, ours must have just had a bath, but it did look pretty mangy. Did see police riding camels near the pyramids and some of the other sites. Still a good means of transportation. Of course if you want to take a picture of a camel and a policeman, or with its Egyptian owner, it's "one dollar."
One of the nice parts was sitting at a table on the deck and watching life along the river. I had to tell myself once in a while that I was on the Nile and this was Egypt. Did see two women washing in the river. Imagined Moses in the bulrushes.
But so many tour boats, hundreds of them, which you only noticed when we
What was beautiful were the sailboats, feluccas, they only have one sail, very graceful, very ancient. Went out on one but it was very touristy and he didn't put the sail up, we were towed by a motorboat, supposedly because there was not enough wind. When we got on board, one of the men played a tambourine, typical Nubian music, and we danced in a circle. Felt very authentic, but then a few minutes later, out came the trinkets, for sale. This was their life, so one can't be offended. You can always say no, which I tried to do at first, and then relented, and now, I am glad I did.
The next to last night in Luxor, by chance, through Emily Mason, Wolf Kahn's
wife, we made contact with Susan Osgood who is doing drawings of the figures and spends 6 months of the year here (summer is impossible). She invited us, through the director, and an elegant slender older woman named Carlotta, with the body of a goddess, to stay for dinner with the staff at Chicago house, affiliated with the University. They 'v existed since 1924, and do important archeological work, trying to help save the temples which are threatened by ground water seeping up from the Nile and embedding salt crystals in the sandstone, which makes it crumble, due to climate change, flooding of the Nile to grow sugar cane, and neglect. It was fascinating and such a pleasure to meet them and be in their midst, people dedicated to discovering and preserving the past and giving us information which we hungered for. A marvelous experience.
I feel changed by the trip. A different perspective on history. A partial knowledge, which leaves me dissatisfied. A greater sense that nothing is certain, nothing is permanent, no matter how deep the tomb, or how high the pyramid. Future generations will loot and destroy. What is great in one generation, is gone the next. Back to living for the moment, the day.
On our last day went to Old Cairo, and a small synagogue that was built in the 4th century, previously a church.
A pathetic, one small room library in the back, with man sitting at a table reading, and a by the door saying that Mubarak had dedicated it.
Moses is supposed to have been in old Cairo. Mary, of course, and Joseph.
I used my imagination as best I could.
Mubarak greeted us with his photo on a billboard, no words, on the highway
coming from the airport.
He is not as omnipresent as the Russians were in the Communist days, but he
definitely is there. Always clearly recognizable. The people at Chicago House did not complain about him, see him as a benign ruler, trying to move to democracy. They work well with the Egyptian antiquities people.
Wal-id is afraid of democracy, too much too soon. Hard to know what will happen next. One book I read called it a powder keg. It did not explode when we there, thank goodness, but someday it might. In the meantime, it's a great place to visit, but would be very difficult to live. A sense of sadness, that the best is past combined with a sense of wonder at how glorious it was. . The ancient art is copied everywhere in contemporary advertising and on buildings, part of the popular culture. Egypt airlines has a God on its tail, which may be Osiris.
February 24 — March 5, 2006