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Impressions of Cairo – a belated description of our trip to Egypt

Egyptian sunset - pyramids in background

Luxor temple at night

Sunrise at Abu Simbel

Flew in over the Adriatic and then the Ionian sea, dotted with the isles of Greece. Watched the distant suggestion of a shoreline gradually resolve itself into the African coast and then suddenly there was the Nile Delta below us.  As we began our approach to Cairo we saw the green/blue of the delta, sharply delineated by the encroaching sands of the Sahara and got our first thrilling glimpse of the Giza pyramids. Like symmetrical sentinels and just as immutable as a trio of mountain peaks rising from the sands they provided us with our first taste of Egypt. Far exceeding our expectations, even from this height the pyramids were imposing, anchoring Cairo to the Western Desert and recalling Shelley’s words ‘Look on my works ye mighty, and despair’

Contrary to expectations the Cairo airport was modern, clean, well signposted and well organized. Discovered later that this terminal, Terminal       3, had only opened 5 weeks before and was at present handling just half of the passengers it was designed to accommodate.  Before we reached Immigration we were met by a bevy of masked officials who courteously but firmly lined us up and checked our temperatures before allowing us to proceed,

I was relieved to be smilingly pronounced ‘very good’.  Security checks were relatively quick and painless and we were soon reunited with our luggage which had been booked through from Calgary.  After a brief concerned phone call to our Cairo rep who appeared to be missing we were warmly welcomed to Egypt and, together with an initially fairly taciturn  Australian couple, made our way to our bus.

The 45 minute trip through Cairo to our hotel, the Le Meridien Pyramid on the outskirts of Giza, presented us with a kaleidoscope of impressions. Past numerous official buildings and apartment blocks, past mosques and citadels and aqueducts, past unidentifiable buildings which appeared to be slowly returning to the basic elements of sand and rock from which they were constructed, we finally crossed the Nile, its banks lined with impressive hotels from a colonial past, and left Cairo for Giza.    All the way accompanied by a cacophony of hooters, interweaving vehicles, including donkey carts, with no apparent regard for traffic laws [This despite the ever present, occasionally armed, white clad policeman],  We were, however, informed that, being a Friday afternoon, and the start of the weekend, the roads were relatively quiet.  Although the prevailing colours of the city are sand and ochre there are a  surprising number of trees, bushes and small, grassed areas bordering the roads.

The hotel itself, despite the stringent security precautions, proved to be luxurious and the staff welcoming and friendly. There were only two blatant shortcomings. One was a lack of coffee making facilities in the room, which necessitated an early morning visit to the dining hall. The second was that, despite numerous exhortations in the brochures to contact room service by pressing the service button on the room telephone, this particular button was conspicuously absent.

Started the day with coffee on the veranda where we watched the pyramids slowly emerge, phantom-like, from the mists which cloak Cairo in the mornings.

At the Egyptian Museum we obediently followed our guide from artefact to artefact as he described and explained. Although I think we all suffered from incipient  information overload by the end of the morning, his enthusiasm  was infectious and his knowledge of his subject commanded respect.

The highlights of the visit perhaps –  the golden mask of young Tutankhamen and the treasures recovered from his tomb [and the unhappy realisation of the riches denied to the world by the ancient, and not so ancient, tomb robbers].  Also the familiar, and unmistakable features of Ramses’’ mummy, and Akhenaton, the first monotheist in Egypt, who left the banks of the Nile and travelled 200km to find virgin land in which to establish his new religion,  After his death his cartouche was ripped from his  sarcophagus  by those who were angered at his attempts to overthrow the old gods, leaving an  empty space on the golden form which denied him entrance to his second life.

As we waited in the gardens for the rest of our group, we listened to the haunting sounds of the call to prayer, although the pleasure derived from  listening to this evocative voice of Egypt and the Muslim world was later dimmed by the information  that today it is all done through loudspeakers.

Afternoon visits to the worship centres of the ‘people of the Book’, a Coptic Christian Church, a Jewish Synagogue, and a Muslim Mosque. The Coptic Church  – the Hanging Church – was built across two lookout towers  on a  Roman Fortress – Babylon. This is the oldest Christian Church in Egypt in  which people still worship. The Church is beautifully decorated with inlaid wooden panels, carved pillars and pews and hung about with pictures of saints, including the Coptic Mona Lisa.

The Church of St Barbara,  which contains the crypt where Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus are said to have hidden for 3 months, was not as ornate, but climbing down to the original level of Cairo and walking through a winding road past ancient wooden doors to the church transported us back through time.

An overall feeling of sterility pervaded the synagogue which was bought from the Christians. There was little sense of history.

(Quote of the day: ‘Do you want a husband, I’m a good husband. 1000 camels each.’)

The Mosque and Citadel of Saladin were not only interesting in their own right but the citadel provided a panoramic view of the city. The Mosque has beautiful domes, whose efficiency as loudspeakers our guide demonstrated, and intricate, and very dusty, chandeliers. Sitting on the mat in the middle of the Mosque we were treated both  to a history of the area and a detailed analysis of the present political and religious state of Egypt, according to Saeed, our guide.

Beer at the poolside that evening, enjoying the cool breeze, and dinner at the Nubian restaurant serving Lebanese food then off to bed.

First stop the following day was a closer acquaintance with the pyramids we’d been admiring on our doorstep. Cheops and its flanking counterparts as awe-inspiring in reality as in imagination, but the Sphinx, carved almost as an after thought out of flawed rock,  recently restored and viewed from an elevated platform  failed to fulfil our expectations.

The Papyrus museum yielded a demonstration of papyrus making and the opportunity to purchase artwork before setting out by bus to Saqqara and the great step pyramid of King Zhoser, the ancient ruins of which date back an unbelievable 5000 years.  From there to a resort to eat before boarding our train and then our cruise ship for our journey southwards to Luxor and beyond, visiting the Valley of the Kings, Queen Hapsetut’s temple, Abu Simele and many other wonders only heard of, and, until now,  not seen.  But that’s another story.

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October 19, 2009 - Posted by | Travels | ,

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