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Barry Pollack's "Going Places"

Cairo and the Pyramids

In the fall of 2005, I flew into Cairo from another ancient city, Athens. This is my first and final impression of Cairo, Egypt - too much sand … too many people … too much religion … and lots and lots of antiquity.
Cairo has so much "past" that its future seems a nebulous afterthought. It was officially founded in 969 AD as "Al-Qahira" (the Victorious) by the Fatimid dynasty who established it as the Islamic capital of Egypt. It came to be pronounced "Cairo" by its British overlords centuries later. But there were great civilizations here long before it was called Cairo. Four thousand years earlier and until the Christian era, three dozen dynasties of Egyptian pharaohs ruled here. Just west of the city is Giza (ancient Memphis), the site of the great pyramids and the only surviving wonder of the Seven Wonders of the World. When the great Greek historian, Herodotus, visited Egypt in the fifth century BC, the pyramids there were already 2,000 years old. The Virgin Mary and Jesus sought shelter in Cairo when they fled Roman persecution in ancient Israel. After the pharaohs, Cairo came to be ruled by Greeks, Persians, Romans, Arabs, Ottomans, French, and the British - until its new independence after World War II. The ancient part of Cairo is not only the pyramids and the Sphinx but its Islamic history as well, with Saladin's Citadel, and innumerable great mosques such as the Mosque of Mohammed Ali, Al-Azhar, Amr, and Al-Hussein.
Cairo is one of the largest cities in the world - the largest in Africa and the Middle East. It has more than 16 million inhabitants, with the accompanying horrors of traffic, noise, pollution, and poverty.
The Koran is omnipresent here, seemingly suppressing any other spiritual or intellectual pursuit. Other than a newspaper, I saw no one reading anything else but the Koran. Storekeepers read between attending to clients; customs officials read at their desks; taxi drivers had the book on their front seat. And their mosques were full. This is a country full of religious fervor.
My final "first impression" of Cairo was the desert - the Sahara to be exact. And if not for the Nile, that runs through the city, it all would be inhospitable sand.
Our flight from Athens arrived in Cairo at about 3 a.m. and yet the city streets at that hour seemed to be bustling. Many of the roads were sand or dirt clogged; the buildings decrepit; the people extremely poor. It was a long ride from the airport in the north of the city to its southwestern border next to Giza along a road our driver called the Avenue of the Pyramids. Our oasis was the Mena House Oberoi Hotel. The Mena House was built as a hunting lodge in the 1860's and converted to a hotel in the 1880's. It has undergone serial renovations since and has been one of Cairo's first class hotels for decades. Most of the other quality hotels lie along the Nile closer to central Cairo. The Mena House is old but well kept with classic Arabic décor. Its fame arises because it is also immediately adjacent to the great Pyramid of Khufu or Cheops, just a few hundred yards away. When we arrived, before dawn, it was too dark to see the pyramid. I don't know, but if I had a pyramid in my backyard, I'd light it up like Vegas at night, or at least like the Washington Monument. But when I awoke at dawn, there it was, the Great Pyramid of Khufu, rising above the main building of Mena House. I sat on my patio and stared at it as if it was the house - or pyramid - next door.
Nearly 5000 years old, the Pyramid of Khufu was originally 481 feet high or as high as a 40 story building. It was the tallest building in the world until the 19th century. Each of its four sides is 756 feet long and within 2 inches of the same length. Over two million blocks of limestone and granite made up its construction with the average block weighing 2.5 tons. And each side is oriented almost exactly with the four Cardinal points.
It is a dazzling sight today. But once, polished white limestone covered the core of the current stepped stone foundation and its apex was capped with gold. Originally built as a royal burial chamber for a god-king, it is understandable that it became a holy site for millenniums.
Although we had an official tour arranged for our visit to Cairo and Egypt, it did not begin for another day. So, we elected to begin our exploration of the Pyramids of Giza by heading off - on our own. Just outside the Mena House's entrance, the third world status of Egypt becomes evident. The roads leading to this "Wonder of the World" are ill kept - lots of rubble and broken or non-existent sidewalks. There are dozens of white uniformed security guards by the entrance to the archeological site. Most seem to be doing nothing. Perhaps part of a government make-work project? The ticket booth for the pyramids was a small crumbling concrete bunker, although there was construction going on nearby for a more tourist friendly and attractive entrance. Endless desert looms beyond the pyramids. As you walk around the pyramids, you of course step in sand - along with lots of camel and donkey dung. The Great Khufu Pyramid is a fantastic sight - a towering pile of great limestone blocks erupting from the desert. And, just a few hundred feet away, there are two more "great" pyramids, Menkaure, the smallest, and Khafre - just ten feet shorter than the Khufu pyramid with the monumental Sphinx at its entrance. These are three great pyramids of Giza (and the Sphinx) built by three pharaohs - Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure - during a period of just about 100 years in about 2500 B.C.
Everyone at the plateau of the pyramids is trying to make a buck. Some are legitimately selling cards or souvenir trinkets. Some clearly pursue less savory tactics. "Ticket, please," some non-officials demand, trying to get you to pay them for information you don't need. Even the uniformed guards urge you to pay them to photograph you or have you photograph them. Camel drivers with blackened teeth and classic desert garb hustle you for a ride or offer to pose for a dramatic picture. Others push gifts into your hands - like "lucky scarabs" - hoping you'll pay for them later. But, despite the bothersome hustle, I did not feel threatened or unwelcome and could understand the desperation of poverty here.
We turn our heads every now and then to avoid mini sand storms. Having seen photos of the Pyramids and the Sphinx countless times before, it is almost spiritual to be finally standing here. I wonder how long the already vandalized and weather worn Sphinx's face will continue to survive sandblasting. If it was in Paris or New York, I think it would be encased in a plastic dome. But it has been here for 4500 years, I guess it will last a few more.
The entertainments of Cairo are limited. There are the belly dancers and there are whirling dervishes. I had seen belly dancers before. I had never seen a whirling dervish.
The Whirling Dervishes trace their origin to the 13th century Ottoman Empire. They are Sufi's, a mystical offshoot of Islam. Their dance is a sacred ceremony where the dervish spins his body in a precise rhythm. While it is dizzying to watch and imagine, the dervishes apparently overcome dizziness and enter into a whirling trance.
We met with a private driver in the evening to take us to the Whirling Dervish Show across town. His car was grossly uncomfortable. We sat so high in his bizarrely reupholstered back seats that our heads touched the roof. I had to crouch down to look out the window and observe the passing sites. But the ride was an adventure as we seemingly careened through streets packed with cars, and buses, and old vans, all sardined with people, with an occasional donkey cart moving amidst the rush of motorized vehicles. Makeshift cafes were set right in the middle of crowded streets with men smoking hookahs. There seemed to be a dozen near miss accidents and pedestrian collisions. None happened. Six Flags doesn't have as exciting a ride.
After driving through this chaotic and maze of a city, we arrived at a gaudy brightly lit façade that led to a park-like outdoor stage and exhibition area. There were a lot of tourists and lots of security. They hustled the locals away to make room for us. Searchlights nearby swept the sky as if this were a Hollywood gala. And for Cairo, it probably was.
I anticipated a brief, amateurish performance. After all, we were set to watch a show sitting on tiered rows of dirt at an outdoor theatre. And then the magic began. About a dozen Egyptian musicians with drums, flutes, finger cymbals, and strange string instruments meandered onstage and began to play a haunting Arabic melody. And then a single male dancer stepped out several wearing large round skirts that spun like a kaleidoscope as he twirled around, and around, and around, and around - for about 30 minutes. We were nauseous just watching him - but it was astonishingly beautiful. After the "dervish" pulled one spinning dress after another over his head, he finally stopped and we gave him a standing ovation. And then, three more whirling dervishes appeared and began their dance. The show lasted about one hour and the audience was "entranced."
Our ride back to the Mena House was just as precarious as our going. Our driver was anxious to procure as much business from us as possible. He offered to take us on a drive through the cemetery at night. It seemed a little ghoulish. But, ancient Egyptian family tombs were built with a room for visitors to rest. In this desperately poor city, whole families of otherwise homeless people have made these crypts their homes. And the cemetery, known as the "City of the Dead," is a living community.
Early the next morning, we met with a small group of other American tourists to begin our official tour of the city. Wafa, a cherubic fiftyish woman, was our Egyptian guide. She did not wear the traditional head covering as most Egyptian woman did but declared that she was thinking about it.
Our first stop was again the Giza Pyramids. Wafa explained more of its history and I was glad to have another day to be astonished.
There are separate fees to enter the burial chambers of the pyramids. You enter a long single-body wide narrow tunnel with low ceilings that require the "explorer" to hunch over much of the time. The trip into the depths of the pyramid is claustrophobic and you are surrounded by tons of granite blocks set there by people who built this without a level or an engineering degree 5000 years ago. At first you gently descend, and then ascend again, until finally reaching the middle of the base of the pyramid where the pharaoh's burial chamber lies. The long ago looted burial chamber of Khafre's Pyramid was an empty room with a plain granite sarcophagus at one end. The walls were bare. A French woman was pressing her back against one wall and starring up. I leaned next to her.
"Can you feel the energy?" she asked me.
Now, a lot of people believe in pyramid power and I can't imagine anyplace more powerful than the real Egyptian pyramids. But what is this power of the pyramid? Here's what some suggest. Hyperactive people will feel more tranquil; the lethargic more energetic. The body's toxins will dissipate. Some may feel a sense of weightlessness; others a distortion of time - either speeding up or slowing down. Some achieve a transcendental state. Some have vivid dreams. Pyramid power makes people and things more perfect.
"Do you feel it?" the Frenchwoman asked me again.
We were deep under millions of tons of granite blocks.
"I don't think we're getting enough air down here," I replied and quickly made my way back into the sun.
We re-boarded our bus and drove to a hilltop overlooking the pyramids where dozens of camels and their (sic) jockeys awaited the tourist crowd. We each boarded our own stead - Camelus dromedarius, the Ship of the Desert, the one humped camel. The camel kneels down on all four knees to allow you to mount and then it gets up somewhat precariously, standing first on its hind legs and then on its fore legs. Our mini-caravan trekked through the desert with two teenage camel jockeys pulling us all along. I felt very Lawrence of Arabian. In the distance you could see half a dozen more pyramids. Wafa pointed out the "Bent Pyramid," which begins to rise at its base at the same angle as other pyramids but then angles inward. Egyptologists consider this to be the first pyramid because prior to it the pharaohs were buried under box-like mounds called mastabas. Grander burial sites were then created piling one mastaba atop another to form a pseudo pyramid like Djoser's Step Pyramid in Saqqara. This evolved, as stone work advanced over a period of 400-years, to become the smooth surfaced great pyramids. We stopped for a moment to take pictures before the Great Pyramids of Giza - just us aboard camels, the pyramids, and sand. The best photo op ever.
The underlying tensions between America and the Arab world were never far off. As we spent the days driving about Cairo in our tourist bus, we had a jeep full of white uniformed security guards accompanying us. Another armed security guard sat up front in our bus. Maybe more make work jobs. Maybe not. But I don't think the Italian tourists were similarly guarded.
No tour of Cairo is complete without the requisite "Buy Egyptian" stops. We were taken to one of what seems like hundreds of papyrus museum stores in Cairo. Papyrus is the ancient Egyptian paper made from reeds. There was a quick demonstration of how papyrus is made, testimonials as to how this particular store makes "authentic" papyrus with government approval, and then we were set free to consider buying papyrus paintings. Then we were taken to a perfumery. No brand names here - just bottles filled with the scents of every fruit and flower imaginable and available to adjust in strength or mix according to your desire.

The most prominent site in Old Cairo is the Citadel, a hilltop fortress originally built during the Crusades by Saladin. The most dramatic building within the fortress walls is the Mohammed Ali Mosque, styled after the great Blue Mosque of Istanbul, and built in the late 19th century by the Mamluk King of Egypt, Mohammed Ali. From the ramparts of the Citadel, there are great views overlooking Cairo - unfortunately diminished by a perpetual gray haze that blankets the city, a combination of auto pollution and desert dust.
Coptic Cairo is also part of the old city. There, in narrow alleyways behind the remnants of walls of an old Roman fortress, are ancient holy places. We saw the wood roofed, somewhat gaudily decorated Coptic Hanging Church and the Church of St. Sergius which is below ground level and allegedly sheltered Mary and Jesus in a cave below the altar. And near those churches is the Ben Ezra synagogue. There are no active synagogues in Cairo today and this was just a museum reminder of the former presence of Jews in Cairo. Most all fled to Israel in 1948.
Other than the pyramids, I found the most interesting stop in Cairo to be its Archeological Museum. This is an old museum with the best collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts in the world. There are great pharaonic statues, room after room of sarcophagi, and mummies of everything - men, women, children, mammals, fish, and reptiles. But the best of the museum is the Tutankhamen exhibit. If you have seen the Tutankhamen touring exhibit in the U.S., you saw a pittance of what the Egyptians have on display in Cairo's museum - gold leafed tomb rooms, one inside the other; an outer coffin of gold and precious inlays; a smaller inner one of solid gold; a golden face mask crown of the boy king; and an endless display of golden jewelry - necklaces, bracelets, finger and toe covers. There are also ornately carved stone containers for his organs and sculpted miniatures of his subjects and workmen in a variety of tasks.
The Cairo Archeological Museum is a grand museum with a great antiquity collection. But it is not air conditioned and with the usual shoulder to shoulder crowds, the place can be intolerably hot in summer months. Its bookstores are large closets with barely enough room to peruse their offerings and a haphazard cashier system. Wafa informed me they are building a new and modern archeological museum near Giza. They desperately need one.
On our last day in the city, we headed off to Cairo's Bazaar, the Khan al-Kahalili, where vendors in tiny stores on narrow streets sell their wares - gold, silver, craft goods, and souvenir trinkets. On the way, we passed a round museum building with tanks and military aircraft out front. This, Wafa explained, was the "6th of October Museum" which celebrates the Egyptian victory over Israel in what the Israelis call their victory in the 1971 Yom Kippur War. I guess every nation has its own definition of "victory."
You can enter the bazaar from one of several streets next to the Al-Hussein Mosque. This is the holiest mosque in Egypt. Non-Muslims are forbidden to enter. Inside is kept a relic - the head of Al-Hussein, grandson of Mohammed. After the Prophet Mohammed died in 632 AD, his kingdom was controlled by the Umayyad clan. However, Mohammed's son-in-law, Ali, claimed to be his rightful successor. Ali's son, Al-Hussein, led a revolt against the Umayyads. He was killed in the Battle of Kerbala, Iraq. Moslems today are divided into Shiites, who believe that Al-Hussein was Mohammed's rightful heir, and Sunnis, who believe the Umayyads are the rightful successors.
We picked one of the streets to enter the bazaar. If you dare to peruse the wares of any vendor, you are immediately accosted by a host of salesman. It is best to keep your eyes straight ahead. As we extended further into the bazaar's street, we became virtually trapped as the crowd thickened, became more stifling and malodorous. And, there was no place to flee, no side streets, no openings between vendor's booths. As we ricocheted through the crowd, men and women carrying ridiculously huge bundles atop their heads pushed by, others carried towers of Egyptian "pita" bread, and even an occasional vehicle made its way through this fleshy kneading mass. We finally came to a large cross street with bumper to bumper traffic and found ourselves completely lost in Cairo. There were no taxis, no police, and no other tourists. And so, reluctantly, we turned around and returned along the same path and gauntlet.
We came to rest at an outdoor café in front of the Al-Hussein Mosque and sat down to watch the passing crowd. Here was the scene: White jacketed tourist police holding hands to keep together in the surging, anarchic crowd. Western dress was rare - except for the police. Most of the men wore the traditional Egyptian gown-like garb called the gallabia. A few were turbaned. Most women adhered to religious tenants requiring them to wear modest garb. A few wore the tent-like burqua with a full face veil. But most wore the hijab, a loose dress topped by a headscarf. Crowds of women with their small children gathered around them sat on the marbled entrance of the mosques while their husbands prayed inside. A zealot occasional moved through the crowd yelling "Allah … something." And in hand, the passersby fingered Moslem "worry beads," carried Korans, smoked cigarettes, and of course, talked on cell phones. I heard Arabic, French, Italian, Greek, and English yelled across the courtyard.
The cacophony of the Cairo Bazaar was bizarre, at once grating and - like strange music - curiously beautiful, as was the city itself. I was full. But it was not easy to digest 5000 years in just a few days.