First thing I noticed as I left the plane and entered the non-air conditioned gateway to the terminal was that Cairo is really-hot. The second thing I noticed was that the Egyptian passport control and baggage processes were very efficient. After zipping through both immigration and baggage claim I quickly located my Coptic Christian Guide and driver to begin the commute to the Le Meridian Hotel in downtown Cairo.
Once outside the airport and driving through the city I was shocked by the amount of trash and filth in the streets. I’m not talking about a few scattered pieces of paper or soda cans. The trash and garbage lining both sides of every street ranged from 6inches high to mounds of several feet. The city is disgustingly filthy.
After checking into the hotel and dropping my bags, we drove on to the Egyptian Antiquities Museum. I spent the next two hours touring the museum, viewing many of the artifacts I have seen only in books and magazines. The museum would have been a fantastic experience except that it is un-air conditioned and sweltering. I found it very difficult to concentrate on the information my guide was sharing while stewing in my own juices. The good news for future museum visitors is that a huge new modern building is almost finished and the museum’s artifacts will soon be moved over to the brand-new air-conditioned facility.
I have included photos of some of the more interesting exhibits on display. Unfortunately, many of Egypt’s most important treasures have been looted long ago by everyone from the Roman’s stealing Obelisks to relocate in Rome and Istanbul, to Venetian merchants stealing the bones of Saint Mark to market Venice as a tourist destination, to Napoleon stealing entire ships worth of precious antiquities, to the Brits stealing anything not nailed down including the famed Rosetta Stone, to the Germans stealing the 3400year-old- Bust of Queen Nefertiti.
Egyptian Antiquities Museum
After, sweating my way through the museum we headed for the old souks and spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening wandering through the pedestrian lanes and alleys of the old quarter and stall after stall of food, spices, clothing, leather, jewelry, and art. The highlight of the visit to the souks was the time spent at an outside café in front of a fan sipping on a nice tall glass of Hibiscus tea.
I had never tasted Hibiscus tea and thought the ice-cold concoction was the best thing I had ever drank. It was sweet, light, ice-cold, and refreshing. I spent the rest of my time in Egypt ordering Hibiscus tea hoping to recapture the magic of that moment when I thought I had finally tasted the nectar of the gods – only to be disappointed with every subsequent glass. My amused guide finally told me the first place was famous for the amount of sugar they used to make their tea. Turns out Hibiscus isn’t the secret ingredient to producing celestial nectar, it is the 5 pounds of sugar in the tea!
I was supposed to spend the evening at Wekalet El Ghouri Caravansary next to the Al Hussein mosque watching a Whirling Dervish Performance. But once I arrived on the scene and found out I had an hour wait standing knee deep in garbage surrounded by people that had not bathed in days and accosted by a line of beggars I said screw it and headed back to the hotel. I am quite sure if I had stood there for an hour in the heat, stench, and filth I would have eventually recreated the scene from the 1980 movie Airplane where the character played by Lloyd Bridges punches out beggar after beggar as he makes his way through the airport.
Day 2: Giza
Next morning, we headed to Giza for a full-day tour of Giza and Mastaba. Our schedule included visits the Great Pyramid of Khufa and other Giza Pyramids, the Solar Boat Museum, the Sphinx, Valley Temple, the Mastaba and a papyrus paper-making demonstration.
Photos of the Sphinx simply can’t do the monument justice. The mythical creature with the body of a lion and head of a human is enormous. The face of the Sphinx is believed to be the likeness of Pharaoh Khafre minus his nose and beard which are missing due to either wear and tear of time or from Napoleon’s bored troops using the face for target practice
The Great Pyramid of Khufu is the centerpiece of any Giza tour. You can’t look at the six-million-ton structure or marvel as you walk deep into the interior and not wonder how the hell they built this mammoth pyramid. I always thought that all the pyramids were built by slave labor but my guide assured me they were actually built by eager volunteers wanting to be viewed favorably by the gods.
Next to the Khufu Museum is the Solar Boat Museum. The solar boats were built as ships to send the dead Pharaohs into the afterlife. The boat in the museum was built for Pharaoh Khufu and first discovered in its own tomb aside the pyramid and reassembled for the museum. The boat is suspended in the museum and can be viewed from all angles while walking along three floors of catwalks constructed around the suspended ship. The boat was built without a single nail and was held together by rope and knots. (photos attached of both the pyramid and the solar boat)
Pyramids were reserved for the Pharaohs but other nobles were also buried in the proximity of the pyramids in Mastabas. The Mastaba is a flat-roofed rectangular tomb with inward sloping sides made with mud bricks. They were used before the pyramid era as tombs for the Pharaohs and throughout all three kingdoms for nobles (Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms).
We finished our visit to Giza with a papyrus paper-making demonstration and an interesting visit to a family enterprise where they make marble tables and dishes inlaid with other colorful minerals. To make papyrus paper you use a sharp knife to strip the papyrus reed into very thin half-inch wide strips. The strips are then soaked in water (six days for white paper and 10 days for brown paper). The soaked papyrus is then put into a press for three days and is then ready to use.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the marble working demonstration. They begin by taking the raw marble and shaping and polishing it. They then draw patterns onto the surface of the marble in the shapes they will later etch into the surface (flowers, geometric designs, and animals). An artist then cuts the marble just deep enough to hold the colored minerals that are shaped to make the patterns in the marble surface. I took a lot of photos of the process and am including them with this blog. I was so impressed with the workmanship I purchased a small table and shipped it back to Florida.
Working with Alabaster
After a full day in the hot sun traipsing through the desert looking at pyramids, mastabas, the Sphinx and the Solar Boat, I still had a little energy and spent the evening on a Nile River Boat Dinner Cruise and Show. Which turned out to be a total waste of time. The food was dreadful. The scenery along both banks was just an industrial wasteland. And the entertainment was not very entertaining. And to cap it all off – the belly dancer wasn’t even a raven-haired Egyptian – she was a blond woman from New York!
Day 3: Alexandria
My next day was spent on a day trip to Alexandria to tour the Serapeum, Roman Theater, Roman Baths, Roman Villas, Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa, Roman Triclinlum, the 15th Century Qaitbay Citadel and the Alexander Library. The highlights of the day were the Catacombs, the beautiful mosaics in the Roman Villas, and the Citadel. Photos of all the sites as well as Alexandria street and souk life are attached.
The temple dedicated to Serapis was destroyed by the Romans in 391 but a few of the original pieces like Pompey’s Pillar and two large sphinxes are still standing amongst the ruins. The Sanctuary or Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa are located within walking distance of Pompey’s Pillar and is the largest Roman burial site in Egypt. The catacombs have three tiers of burial chambers/tombs and the architecture is Greco-Roman.
The 15th century Qaitbey Fort/Citadel on the Corniche Road sits on the site of the former Pharos Lighthouse one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The lighthouse was destroyed by an earthquake in 1303. The fort built by Mamluke Sultan Qaitbey to fortify the port used the rubble from the destroyed lighthouse to construct the walls of the Fort. The fort is in remarkably good shape and I enjoyed exploring its many chambers and taking in the view of the Mediterranean from the rooftop lookout.
Alexandria Souk Scenes
Alexandria Souk Scenes
Catacombs of Alexandria
Pompey’s Piller and Sphinxes
Next up was a visit to Kom el-Dikka which translates into “Mound of Rubble”. This ancient Roman site was just another mound of rubble in central Alexandria until they began clearing the mess to construct new housing. But once they cleared the crap off the top in 1947 they found the ancient ruins of a small Roman theater, temple, and the ruins of several wealthy Roman era villas containing mosaic flooring including one known as the Villa of the Birds. (Photos attached)
The mosaics in the ruins of the villas are beautiful works of art with designs using floral and geometric patterns and a bird motif that look remarkably good for being nearly 2000 years old. Perhaps the best example of first century A.D. mosaic art is in the Villa of the Birds.
The next day was dedicated to exploring the Pyramids, Mastabas, and sites of Memphis, Dahshur and Saqqara – colossal statue of King Ramses the Second, The City of the Dead, Step Pyramid of Djosser, Bent Pyramid, and the Red Pyramid. The highlights of this day were the inscriptions and artwork in both the pyramids and mastabas. I’ve included photos of scenes of both everyday life and the life of the royals.
The Step Pyramid is particularly interesting in that it was the first pyramid and, also the first large stone building in history. The pyramid was not built all at once but rather in stages as rectangular Mastabas one atop the other. The structure is considered a great stairway which King Kjoser would use to climb to join the sun god Ra in the sky once resurrected, was built by Imhotep perhaps the greatest architect of his time.
Memphis founded in the 1st dynasty in 3100 B.C. was the first capital of the united Egypt. Before the unification, there were separate Kingdoms in the North and South. The Northern Kingdom was protected by the Cobra and the Pharaoh wore a red crown. The Southern Kingdom was protected by a Vulture and the Pharaoh wore a White crown. Today little remains of the 5000year old capital but a fantastic Open Air Museum.
The museum includes the remains of granite statues including Ramses II Seated Statue, the Triad of Memphis, the Sphinx of Memphis, the limestone Two Column Bases. Naos Statue, Statues of Ramses the Great both standing and laying. Photos of all the statues are included.
The Open Air Museum
City of the Dead
Dahshur, Asaqara, and Memphis Day
Next, I visited and entered the Bent Pyramid (built in 2600BC) in Dahshur. The pyramid began with a 54-degree inclination from the desert floor then the top section (above 150ft) the inclination drops to 43 degrees making the pyramid look bent. It is believed the inclination was reduced after the structure began showing signs of instability during construction and the change was made to avoid structural failure and collapse.
The Bent Pyramid represents the transition from the Step Pyramid to the smooth-sided pyramids. The polished limestone exterior remains mostly in-tact. I entered this pyramid and reach the 4600-year-old chambers through a narrow 253foot very steep 45-degree tunnel. The climb down and then back out to the pyramid temple was hot and claustrophobic, with 4600-year-old stale air but very interesting. It was fun playing tomb raider but I was glad when I reached the fresh air and sunshine as I climbed out of the steep tunnel. And with my exit from the tunnel, I drove back to Cairo to prepare for my last day in the old City.
My final day in Cairo was spent visiting the old Coptic Christian and Islamic Sites. The sites I visited included the Church of Abu Serga, Fort of Babylon, the Hanging Church, Ben Ezra Synagogue, Masjid Amr Ibn Elas Mosque, El Sultan Hassan Mosque, Al-Rafi’l Mosque, Citadel of Cairo and the Mohamad Ali’s Mosque.
Through the ages, the Egyptians have worshiped many gods. The ancient Egyptians of the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms worshiped multiple gods but Amun-Ra was considered the king of the gods and goddesses. When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC he was welcomed as the son of the god Amun and as a smart politician accepted the old religion building and expanding temples to the old Egyptian gods. Later the Romans also saw the utility of allowing the local population to continue to worship the old gods and built and expanded the temples of the old gods.
In the first century AD, Christianity began to take hold in Egypt and by the 5th century, the Ancient Egyptian civilization and religion was coming to an end as the Coptic Christian faith replaced the old pagan gods. The Islamic conquest of Egypt began in 639 and today approximately 90% of the country is Muslim with the remaining 10 percent primarily Coptic Christian.
One interesting and amusing legend involving the coexistence of the two faiths involved the 10th century Egyptian ruler Al-Moez Ldin Allah. During his reign, Muslims, Coptic Christians and Jews all lived in relative peace. Allah would invite the Coptic Christian Minister and the Jewish Rabbi to visit his court and talk with him about their religions. One day the Rabbi told Allah that the Christians believed their faith could move mountains. The king brought the Christian minister before him and asked if they truly believed their faith could move mountains.
The Christian minister affirmed their faith could move mountains. The King challenged the minister to move Mount Mokattam and prove their religion was real. If not, the Bible’s teachings were false and the king would destroy all the churches in Egypt and every Christian would have to convert to Islam or move out of the country.
The minister went to the Coptic Pope and told him of the challenge and to seek his council. While sleeping the Mother Mary came to the pope in a dream and told him to look for a man with a clay water jar and he would show him how to move the mountain. When he awoke, the pope found the man with the clay water jar just outside his home– a very devout Christian by the name of Simon.
According to the legend, Simon asked the entire Christian community to pray with him to move the mountain and the mountain moved.
The king was so moved by the miracle, he immediately converted to Christianity. That is the Christian version of history. The Muslim history books only say that Al Moez Ldin Allah Al Fatmi lost his mind and became a Christian. Regardless of which version of history you buy the mountain is no longer connected to the part of the mountain, the old Citadel sits upon.
The Citadel sits upon a high sandstone hill and can be seen from most anywhere in Cairo. The Citadel was built Saladin between 1176 and 1183 to protect Cairo and Fustat from the Crusaders. Since its original construction, every invader has added to its formidable defenses.
Citadel of Cairo
Many of Cairo’s most impressive Medieval sites are contained within the Citadel’s walls. The sites inside include the Alabaster (The Great Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha) Mosque, Al-Nasir Muhammad Mosque, Suleiman Pasha Mosque, Harem Palace, the Egyptian Military Museum, the Carriage Museum, the Stripped Palace (Al-Qasr al Ablaq), and the Suleyman Pasha Mosque.
Most of the Coptic Christian sites, as well as the historic Ben Ezra Synagogue, are located within a very small area of the Christian Quarter. The highlights of the Coptic sites include the Hanging Church, the Church of St. George, Church of St. Barbara, the Coptic Museum.
The most famous of the Coptic landmarks is the Hanging Church. The 7th century-church is called the Hanging Church because it is suspended over an area that was once a Roman gatehouse. You enter the church through a decorated gate and mosaic-lined courtyard and then climb 29 steps to the church’s portal. Inside the church, you find an intricately carved wooden screen over the front sanctuary, a marble pulpit and flickering candles highlighting ancient icons.
The 4th century church of Saint Barbara sits above a cave believed to be where the Holy Family (Joseph, Mary, and Jesus) is believed to have stayed after their flight to Egypt. The church originally named for two martyrs is reached through steps that take you below street level.
Beneath the church in the crypt the faithful drop scraps of paper with written prayers into the cave which is believed to be a healing shrine.
The round Greek Orthodox Church of St. George was built in the 10th century upon the northern tower of the Fortress of Babylon. The church is the seat of the Greek Patriarchate of Alexandria. The church features a relief and artwork depicting Saint George slaying the dragon and defending Christianity. Photos of both the Coptic Christian and Islamic Sites are attached.
Coptic Christian Quarter
As it turns out I happened to be in Cairo during a major religious holiday. There were both sheep and cattle in temporary pens throughout the city being stationed for sale to be slaughtered and sacrificed on the prescribed morning. That morning turned out to be August 10 while I was in the Coptic Quarter and witnessed the ritual slaughter of a sheep in front of an ice cream shop mid-day. The shop owner’s young son did the honors and was rewarded by smearing blood on his forehead and hands. He then placed his bloody hands on the front wall of the shop and left his handprints as some sort of token for good fortune. Photos of the animals in temporary pens and the bloody handprints attached.
Day 6: Luxor
Next morning, I flew to Luxor for my final few days in Egypt. Luxor was the site of the New Kingdoms (1400 BC) and the fabled Valleys of the Kings and Queens. Luxor is just over 300 miles and a short flight from Cairo and in ancient times was known as Thebes. Luxor sits on the east bank of the Nile and during the Middle and New Kingdom times of ancient Egypt was the capital of the Pharaohs.
The highlights of my visit to Luxor included the Luxor Temple, Karnak Temple, Temple of Hatshepsut, the Valley of the Kings royal tombs, the Valley of the Queens tombs on the west bank of the Nile, Colossi of Memnon, and Medinet Habu.
My first stop was to the Temple of Hatshepsut built to honor Amon-Re (Sun God) and the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut. As I approached this temple built at the base of a limestone cliff, I was in awe of both its grand scale and the incredible artistry of its architecture and statuary. The temple is designed as three tiers of porticos with massive statues, pillars and hieroglyphs. (Photos attached)
Temple of Hatshepsut
My next stop was to the Valley of the Kings – the final resting place of dozens of New Kingdom pharaohs. The Valley holds over 60 royal tombs including the tombs of King Tut, Ay, and Ramses VI. All the tombs sit beneath a large pyramid-shaped mountain named Al-Qurn. The pharaohs of the New Kingdom abandoned the building of Pyramid tombs and built these much less conspicuous but still elaborate funeraries to thwart future grave robbers.
August may not have been the best time to visit the tombs or for that matter Egypt at all. June through August is extremely hot, but if your schedule is inflexible like mine, be sure to carry plenty of water, wear a hat, sunglasses, and lather on plenty of sunblocks.
One other practical tip involves photography. Photography in the tombs is supposed to be forbidden but if you tip the tomb attendant he will not only gladly allow you to take photos but will recommend what are the best points to photograph and will also offer to take photos of you inside the tomb (one even insisted I wear his turban for the photos lol)
Next I visited the Valley of the Queens containing over 75 tombs of queens, princesses and princes. The highlight of the Valley of the Queens is the tomb of Nefertari which requires an additional ticket. Many of my photos of the most elaborate and vibrant tomb wall paintings were in the tombs in this valley.
One of the most impressive sites in Luxor is the Karnak Temple Complex. The complex has several temples, two obelisks, a forest of 70foot high columns, hieroglyphs, and a sacred lake that was used for special pagan rituals. The 3700-year-old complex is the second-largest religious site in size in the ancient world (only smaller than Angkor Wat in Cambodia). The complex highlights include the White Chapel, the Hypostyle Hall, Festival Hall of Obelisks, and the Obelisk of Queen Hatshepsut.
I toured the Temple complex during the day and decided to come back for a laser light show at night. I enjoyed the temple by both daylight and moonlight but could have done without the overproduced laser show. The voiceover was overdone to the point that rather than dramatic came across as comical. Photos of both my day and night visit attached.
Two miles southwest of Karnak sits the Luxor Temple. This temple is smaller and newer than the Karnak Temple and was constructed over a one hundred year period in 1400 BC by Pharaohs Tutankhamen, Horemheb, and Ramses II. An avenue flanked on both sides by lines of sphinxes runs from the Karnak Temple to the Luxor Temple paralleling the Nile River.
The Luxor Temple consists of a courtyard with halls and chambers beyond. In one hall is a shrine to Alexander the Great who the Egyptians thought was the son of Ra. The most impressive feature of the temple is the colonnade of 14 decorated pillars 52feet tall. Other features include enclosed halls on both sides of the hall decorated with scenes depicting war and festivals, huge statues of pharaohs, and one remaining obelisk (the 2nd one was stolen by the French and now sits at the Place de la Condcorde in Paris). Photos of the temple and wall/column art are attached.
I am also including photos I took on a boat trip up the Nile, several beautiful sunsets over the Nile and a beautiful full moon over the Karnak Temple and my hotel.
And next blog up is Jordan one of my favorite countries on this 9-month journey.