Cairo, Egypt


Cairo, Egypt

 map 10 cairo
map 10 – Cairo

About Cairo

Cairo was founded in the 10th century and has something like 18 million people. It’s huge. Beautiful hotels rise next to old neglected buildings. Smog hangs over it like a dirty blanket. Dust settles on everything and is not removed except at street level. Giza is a suburb to the south of the city and stretches into the desert to abut the ancient Great Pyramids and The Sphinx. Eventually it will probably even encompass them.

Sat 14 Nov 09

0530hrs: Early rise. Take some photos around the marina in the early dawn light. Still and calm. Beautiful time of day really.

0600hrs: Andy, Roger, Maurice and I meet up with our driver Mohammed outside the main gate. He’s in his early 30’s with a dark complexion and full bushy black beard. He’s also a practicing Muslim as evidenced by a curious mark on his forehead quite common among Egyptian men, which comes from touching their forehead to the mat on the floor while doing prayers. Another taxi is also waiting and will be travelling with us. Mohammed’s father will be driving this one. Two Brits from Dwanty, a Nauticat 55 and two people from Full Flight, an approx 40 ft vessel similar to Jenzminc stand by ready to go.

The trip to Cairo takes roughly two hours including a stop for fuel along the way. Our driver refuels with gas at 45 piaster’s a litre (approx 9 cents AUS). 100 piaster’s makes one Egyptian pound (£) which is about one-fifth of an Aussie Dollar i.e. 20 cents.

Right: an unusual house on the way to Cairo. There are some elaborate houses but they’re not common.116 unusual house

Our route follows the Clearwater Canal in a westerly direction then south to Cairo following the extremity of the Nile delta. We find Ismailia is a sprawling place with most of the area between the Nile River and Ismailia being urbanised, industrial and agricultural for at least half the distance to Cairo. We never really run into any large patches of desert. There are always people and buildings.

On the outskirts of Cairo our taxi blows a rear tyre. Our man Mohammed is now driving and handles the car quite nicely bringing it to a smooth halt on the side of the road. Pulls out a jack and changes the tyre in pretty quick time while cars whiz by inches away, and so we get underway again.

117 flat tyreLeft: Mohammed changing a blown type using a 2-ton jack near Cairo.

Traffic is chaotic and most of the drivers mad. A two lane highway can accommodate three or four cars abreast. Just give a beep if you intend to pass someone. If you need to push in just wave to the other driver. Don’t use an indicator, or else just leave it blinking. Later that night we decide that headlights must be considered an unnecessary drain on power, better conserved for the liberal use of the horn. Yet despite the apparent chaos, traffic seems to flow well without any major jams, even if the cars stop at intersections literally inches apart fender to fender at all kinds of converging angles.

Maybe the area we’re travelling through is one of the poorest in the city, but it doesn’t leave a very good impression. It’s sometimes hard to determine whether some of the buildings are actually being torn down or going up, giving the area a somewhat bombed out appearance. Rather slummy looking. They seem to be mostly apartment blocks some of which are quite high, or high rise flats. Additionally, most buildings have an unfinished appearance with metal reinforcing rods poking up into the sky waiting for concrete columns to be put in to support a new floor. Perhaps a taxation thing.

The business centre of the town seen from a distance doesn’t offer much in the way of scenic views through the smog which blankets the city in a thick layer. Dust is thick in the air. Despite this the overall impression improves once into the city proper. It’s much cleaner in the streets than anything we’ve seen in Egypt so far. Some of the buildings in parts of the city look quiet nice, vibrant with colour and modern looking. What a pity they’ll probably just be allowed to run down. Am getting a definite impression that it must be bad luck, taboo or something to put a second coat of paint on anything. Cairo could be such a beautiful place at least in the more modern parts of the city if they just kept the paint up to it.

The Pyramids

The Great Pyramids have stood for 4,500 years. There are three of them along with smaller attendant pyramids for royal wives, and tombs of various princes and nobles, plus The Sphinx. The mummification of bodies and erection of the stone monoliths was not a fascination with death. It was a religion where the Pharaoh was believed to be a son of God. His immortality provided an ongoing link to keep the people in the good books with God.

All up there are 80 pyramids in Egypt. The age of pyramid building actually only lasted a few hundred years starting in the 27th century BC. The pyramids of Giza were erected some 100 years later. Pits were even dug into the bare rock to hold the Pharaoh’s Barque (boat) which was to take him to the afterlife. All entrance passageways face north, tomb chambers face west to the Kingdom of the Dead, Mortuary Temples face east towards the rising sun.

The Sphinx is carved almost entirely from one huge piece of limestone. It’s 50 metres long by 22 metres high. During the Ottoman Empire the Turks used the Sphinx for target practice. The nose and beard are now in a British museum. Restoration work can be seen underway on the site.

Approx 0800hrs: Go straight to the Giza area of Cairo where the Great Pyramids are. As we approach we can see the top of one suddenly appear through gaps among the roofs. Urban creep has reached into the desert so far that the pyramids are just on the edge of the city. Large numbers of tourist buses, mini vans and taxi’s are lined up in a huge car park. Hundreds of people move or mill about near the entrance. Police in their thick black woollen uniforms with shiny buttons and berets are thick on the ground everywhere controlling things, even riding around on camels.

118 urban creep Right: a human-eye view of Cairo from the Great Pyramid showing the effect of urban creep.

It isn’t too hard to work out what to do or where to go, but the situation could benefit from some simple signage. There is none except for a price list. It costs £60 to enter the area. Other tickets are optional if you want to go inside any of the three pyramids, or enter the boat museum where a boat once used to bring the big sandstone blocks down the Nile to the pyramid site has been restored. Tickets to respective venues are only sold at particular windows, none of which are identifiable and sometimes manned or not. No credit card facilities, just cash please. People trying to buy more than one ticket are being turned away to stand in another line and hope that it’s the right one. Other people stand around with confused looks. Entrance into the Great Cheops Pyramid is closed so we opt to enter the second one which cost 30 Pounds.

119 souvenir sellersLeft: some of the souvenir sellers inside the gates

Once inside the entrance gate we encounter a barrage of highly skilled hustlers, self appointed and unwanted guides, people selling souvenirs and camel rides. In fact everyone is on a hustle and they’re very good at it. The main angle is to shove a cheap Arab type headdress into your hands which you instinctively clasp to stop it dropping. This is their “gift” to you. You are then expected to give a gift back, anything up to £200 ($40 AUS). The one –sided dialogue might go something like this:
“This is free … for you. It is my gift to you … Welcome to Egypt”.
“No, no, no, I do not expect anything from you Sir, it is my gift”
(pretends to start walking away then comes back)…
“Where you from?”
“Good! G’day mate!” (atrocious accent)
“Sydney? Melbourne?” A blank look if you mention Darwin, Adelaide or Cootamundra.
“You look like an Egyptian … yes … I like you …  I give you special price £200 Pounds … please don’t tell anybody”

Or they may do you some favour like taking your photo posing with a camel using your camera. They have a finely tuned method to make you feel bad if you don’t accept their help or gift. Try to give their gift back and the response will tug at your guilt strings….
“Why do you not accept my gift? It is free for you … I give it to you … you don’t want it?”… “Why ….? “ (plaintive question).

Even a Policeman offers to take my photo against a backdrop of the pyramids then starts rubbing his fingers together in the universal sign for money. Although I must say he’s more discreet and cautious about it.
“Sorry mate, don’t smoke”, seems to work and I can leave the area feeling confident he won’t chase me.

The three Great Pyramids were built by Cheops, his son Chephren and his son Mycerinus. The Egyptians refer to them as the father, the son and the grandson. The first pyramid Cheops is the oldest and largest in Egypt at 146.5 metres high. It was built in 2,600 BC and used 2.5 million limestone blocks. It took 10 years just to build a causeway from the river to bring boulders to the site, 20 years to build the pyramid itself and cost 100,000 lives. It originally had a solid gold cap on the top which would have been awesome to see. Cheap at half the price I suppose according to the standards of the day.

The second pyramid Chephren is almost as large as Cheops and still has part of the original alabaster casing at its peak but which is slowly falling away. The third pyramid Mycerinus is only 62 metres high but was originally cased with solid granite rocks forming a smooth wall that shimmered in the sun. Today there are only a few layers of the granite facing rocks left around the base. Either they never finished the pyramid or the stones have been taken away over the ages and used elsewhere.

 120 pyramids 121 great pyramid
Pyramids from left to right – grandfather Cheops, father Chephren, son Mycerinus and the remains of a small pyramid for one of the royal wives. The Great Pyramid itself is the only one of the seven ancient wonders still intact. It was originally covered by casing stones that are no longer there. It was the tallest man-made structure for over 3,800 years.
 122 second pyramid  123 third pyramid
The pyramid of Cephren is the second biggest in Egypt. Local guides say the pyramid was originally faced with alabaster stone. The pyramid of Mycerinus is the third biggest in Egypt. The sarcophagus that was in here ended up at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea when the ship carrying it to England sank.

One of the so-called guides approaches me. He likes me too because I look like an Egyptian (with my blue eyes and caucasian skin). On learning I have a wife and two daughters he hands me four stones called scrabes which will bring me luck; one for my wife, one for each daughter and one for the baby. I didn’t mention anything about a baby. Maybe Delma and I will become grandparents soon.

A man calling himself Mohammed (are all Egyptians named Mohammed?) comes up identifying himself as the caretaker of the third pyramid.

Yeah right …

All officials usually have some kind of uniform. Egyptian workers often wear clothes that generally look like bags of potatoes tied in the middle. Mohammed the Guide on the other hand wears one of those simple white frock smocks, carries a stick and has glasses. He promises to show me a secret entrance only discovered three years ago.

Yeah right …

He then starts reeling off lots of facts and seems to know what he’s talking about, enough to pique my interest so in the absence of an official guide or guide book, plus the prospect of some photographs I wouldn’t otherwise get, ask him how much.
“Up to you Sir”
“£50 then?”
“Okay” (downcast eyes, shuffling feet … he’s obviously disappointed 126 a secret entranceand I’m probably starving his family).

Right: A guide leading the way to a “secret” entrance. A young lad hovers around on a camel hoping to sell a ride.

Takes me around the back of the third pyramid talking all the while about various things as we walk past them. He takes me to an area where a ramp, according to our guide, had been built from the Nile River along which the rocks were pulled by buffalo. Remnants of the ramp can still be seen quite easily. He gives me some tough grassy type of material he says is the base for a type of grease used on the slope of the rock ramp to slide the big rocks. He says it took between 26 to 34 years to build each pyramid because the workers were only available for four months of the year due to Nile flooding and harvests and religious festivals.

 124 causeway  125 entry door
Remains of a ramp that was built down to the Nile River. Buffalo were used to drag the big stones up to the work site on one of the pyramids. This is allegedly the door through which they brought the Pharaoh’s mummy. The scale of the limestone rocks can be seen by the man standing at top left of the doorway.

We then visit an area of flat basalt rock slabs that were used to grind the softer sandstone, and then look at some huge granite rocks lining the base of the third pyramid. They originally covered the entire pyramid, shaped to make a smooth sloping surface that shimmered in the sunlight. Everywhere we go hieroglyphic writing is carved into door frames and walls. My guide explains some of the symbols. We finally look at one of several deep holes carved out of bare rock in which a timber boat with a curved hull had apparently been placed to take the Pharaoh to his afterlife.

 127 basalt grinding pad  128 hole
Flat basalt rocks like these were used to grind the softer sandstone blocks by rubbing them back and forth until smooth. The hole which originally housed the Pharaoh’s barque which would take him to the afterlife.

Mohammed tells me the ancients used to use the Lotus flower to make a perfume for the mummified body of the pharaoh because it lasted three days. The Pharaohs’ Queens also used this particular perfume.

136 lotusLeft: The lotus flower from which perfume was made for the ancients over 4,500 years ago.

During all this a young lad mounted on a camel hovers nearby waiting. Finally I’m asked if I’d like a camel ride up to an adjacent ridge where I can get the best photos.
I decline.
Much chagrin.
I decline.
In all the tour takes about half an hour and I have to say was well worth it to the extent that I give him £100 instead of the agreed £50.
He still wants £200.
“Okay – Welcome to Egypt – thank you Sir”.

Go looking for Roger and Andy and meet them coming back from the second pyramid after they’d been inside. Andy tells me not to bother but I’m curious. Front up to the entrance with ticket in hand but can’t get in with a camera. Have to go find Mohammed the Taxi Driver to look after my camera for me. He’s not far away. In fact he chased me back across the rocks and dust to the car park. Give him the camera and retrace the trek back to the second pyramid.

Right: The limestone rocks were ground to join with absolute precision. Their size can be judged by the man standing at bottom right.130 rock joins

After passing through the entrance there is a small tunnel of about one metre square that requires bending over horizontally at the waist. It leads down for about 100 metres or so into a small chamber where you can uncoil, then another small tunnel leads upwards into a high vaulted room with bare walls and a large sarcophagus at the end, the bottom of which can’t be seen because it’s too dark in there. Nothing else of interest. Turn around and head back, sidling past the continuous line of expectant sightseers coming the other way.

Find Mohammed and get my camera back. Meet up with Andy and Roger and join Mohammed who takes us on a tour of his own. Visit some of the minor tombs in the area which belonged to royal wives, princes and nobles. They usually consist of a few rooms; an ante chamber, a burial chamber and a prayer room. Some have figurines carved into the walls, others just have hieroglyphic writing carved into them. The rooms would have once been filled with earthly possessions to make the after life comfortable.

 129 minor tomb  131 covered barge
Inside one of the smaller tombs in the area. A fully restored barge the ancients used to carry the large blocks up the Nile River is housed in it’s own museum here.

Notice some of the female tourists while walking back to the cab, lots of young and not so young wearing tight jeans showing much of their maidenly charms. Mohammed grabs me by the arm in the friendly manner that Egyptian men seem to have with each other but decidedly unsettling for a westerner. He proceeds to tell me he would like to marry one of them especially if she was blond with green eyes. But I do think he was just joking as he looks around at the passing parade of European talent. It’s unfortunate that so many people in a foreign country just simply don’t respect the local sensitivities. There can be no doubt a negative message about westerners in general is being sent to middle-eastern religious eyes.

Meet up with Maurice and drive over to the Sphinx. Hundreds of people, so many it’s not possible to swing my arms without hitting someone. There’s some sort of concert going on with huge speakers belting out Egyptian rock music. A bloke starts speaking over the microphone thanking Nestles chocolate and other sponsors, droning on and on. Police everywhere again. All armed. Several of them standing around in positions where you would expect perhaps one policeman to be in Australia, if at all. Walk down to the wall surrounding the Sphinx and take some photos. Don’t go inside the enclosure.

Right: Several hundred people visit the Sphinx every day. It stands 22m high.132 sphynx

Get back into the cab and we take off through Cairo to go for lunch, followed closely by the second cab with the other group of yachties. On the way Mohammed explains that a big football match will take place in Cairo tonight. Egypt is playing Algeria and needs to win to get into the finals. That explains the Egyptian flag draped over the top of the taxi. Hyped up revellers in taxi’s and even buses drive alongside tooting horns in a bip, bip, barp, barp, barp cadence. Soon several cars are tootling along all pumping away at the horn including Mohammed. Men drive past in other taxis waving flags and pumping arms into the air. Mohammed rewards this by again bip barping away on the horn. Time and time again. Even cars going the other way pick it up and carry the collective noise away into the distance. People are hanging out of windows and balconies waving flags, walking along the streets banging drums and cymbals and chanting.

 133 street scene (2)  134 street scene
Left and Above: Cairo street scenes

We pass groups of large Police trucks surrounded by armed policemen standing around. Other police are manning various guard posts in two’s and three’s. Yet more can be seen standing around singly but within shouting distance of each other. All are armed, some with automatic weapons. Obviously the Egyptian Government is not taking any chances. Another reminder if one was needed that terrorism has been felt here before and that the country has real enemies close by.

The Cairo Museum

The famous Cairo Museum houses more than 100,000 relics and antiquities from almost every period of ancient Egypt from the Old Kingdom through the Greco Roman and Roman Empire periods. It is also the home for the treasures of King Tutankhamen.

Mohammed parks the taxi in a car park near the Cairo Museum and near to a statue on a pedestal of General Montgomery staring down the avenue. Monty seems to have an excessively long right arm. Perhaps it’s just the angle. We walk for several blocks past beggars, shoe polishers and shisha smokers to a restaurant. Walk up the narrow stairs and seat ourselves in a smallish room at a plain wooden table with plastic tablecloth and wooden chairs. The meals are almost westernised and quite good, costing the grand sum of around $10 AUS each including drinks and lunch for our driver Mohammed.

Right: Statue near the Cairo Museum believed to be of General Montgomery of WW2 fame.135 montgomery

After lunch a man collars us in the street and entices me into his shop. It’s a perfume shop so I ask about the lotus flower perfume. He pulls a small numbered clear bottle half filled with some liquid off one of the shelves, takes out the cork and rubs some perfume along my arm with a wick telling me it’s from the Lotus flower. It’s really quite a lovely aroma. Apparently this same perfume was used by nobility around 4,500 years ago. The shop owner tells me that wearing this perfume brought the wearer luck, love and happiness.

Yeah right …

The other yachties leave for a hotel to stay the night in Cairo while we go to the Cairo Museum. This costs £60 entrance fee plus negotiating a security scanner at the front gate, then another scanning at the main entrance door to the museum itself. Once again I’m told we can’t take cameras inside and have to go back outside to find the relevant office in the garden. After exchanging the camera for a numbered wooden token am able to enter the museum.

This place is simply wonderful. Lots of sarcophagus’ and artefacts but once again it could be better presented. Faded typed paper notes pasted into the corner of display cases can be hard to read in the subdued lighting, and there doesn’t seem to be any particular progressive timeline order. Displays are housed in elaborate separate sections but it’s pretty much up to hired guides to give you more details about what you are looking at. The whole place is pretty much a big maze spread over two floors. Take a bit longer in the Tutankhamen display. The amount of gold in there is awesome. No wonder about the level of security needed.

137 museumLeft: Entrance to the Cairo Museum. It has 107 halls filled with artifacts from pre-historic, pharaonic and roman periods, and includes the treasures of Tutankhamun.

About an hour or so of looking at stone coffins, statues, jewellery and weapons is enough for me, especially in the absence of any detail about how the ancient Egyptians lived their daily lives. Go outside to wait for the others. Grab a coffee from a mobile cart and wish I hadn’t. Bloody awful. Sit down and an Egyptian man comes up and sits down beside me:
“Where you from?”
“Australia … Sydney? Melbourne?”
“Darwin?” (blank look).
This chap speaks very good English and admits to being a tourist guide. Says he speaks several languages and his name is not Mohammed or Achmed. It sounds like Wiley – as in Wile E Coyote. Wants to know if we have pork flu in Australia. He’s surprised to learn it’s actually called Swine Flu. Do I need a guide? No?

Lots of tourist type people just standing around. They’re quite easy to identify. None of the Egyptians wear shorts and all the women, even girls wear full length clothes. There’s at least one young group of tourists with Aussie accents across the way.

1600hrs: At the appointed time we leave the museum and walk out to the main road in time to see Mohammed waving enthusiastically across the road. Problem is how to get across there without becoming Egyptian mulch under the constant stream of cars. A middle aged man sees our problem and simply walks out waving his hand, and the cars flow around him enough to encourage us to do the same. That doesn’t mean they actually slow down. Manage to get across the road okay and return to the taxi.

On the way back to Ismailia we skirt Cairo heading in a north-easterly direction. The pleasures of Horn Beeping has not lost any of its tempo. Patriotic displays among the population are keen and constant wherever we go. Pass by the stadium where the big event is to be held later tonight. Even though the match is hours away the crowds are dense. Police in even thicker numbers run around blowing whistles the sound of which is lost in the din, and wave urgently at vehicles to keep moving. Mohammed points out the dais alongside the road where Anwar Sadat had been assassinated, while keeping the horn blowing in between making mobile phone calls.

Once clear of the city we start to see more open stretches of desert. Nightfall comes down. Stop on the way back to refuel then again later and buy some mangoes at a roadside stall.

1800hrs: Return to the boat. Mohammed’s fee was originally set at £200. We each feel he deserves more and give him £100 each totalling £400.
“Wow, wow, wow”, he says. “If you need anything, anything, just call me”.
He then takes off to watch the football game on TV. Perhaps tomorrow he’ll repair or replace his blown tyre. Andy tells us that it hadn’t been fixed in Cairo and we’d come home without a spare. Roger says he has the goods on me being extra friendly with Mohammed at the pyramids. I simply remark, “When I was in the Army on operations we never left our mate’s behind!”



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