When I was scratching my head about what to do during the two-week winter break of my school in Tarnow, I knew that staying in Poland was not a sane option. You see, by the start of December, snow and freezing temperatures silently told me that two weeks with nothing to do here would put me in a Ferrari in the fast lane to alcoholism and/or depression. So instead, I chose two glorious, sunny weeks in the powerful and ancient land of Egypt. In retrospect it was a fantastic choice, and I’ll do my best today to relay why my trip was such a smashing success.
To kick things off, everyone knows a junkload about Egypt because of its immortal hype that we gladly eat up from an early age. Personally, I was an ardent child Egyptologist and even dressed up as a pharaoh one day in the fifth grade, with kohl-lined eyes and the whole costume. Other people probably suspected me to be gender-confused miniature belly dancer, but I can tell you that for 6 wonderful hours in Mr. Halloran’s Dress Up Like Your Favorite Book Character Party, the Blood of Amun-Ra flowed within my heart like the mighty Nile.
Although my fiery obsession with animal-headed gods, tombs, and sacred cats ebbed away as I got older, I knew a visit to Egypt was one of those essential life destinations I had to see before becoming a mummy myself (I’m building my magnificent pyramid as I type this). Well, the chance came and I took it this January of 2013–and now I relate my adventure, abridged, for you all below.
I took a set of seamlessly-smooth flights down to Cairo from Krakow and then rendezvoused with my friend Shirley, an old CLU pal, at the airport. After a conversation-laden catch-up session in the taxi to downtown, we then met up with my other friend Nick, also a CLU alum, and one of his Egyptian friends named Moodi. The four of us had traditional Egyptian ‘ful’ beans and minced chicken at a Yemeni-Egyptian restaurant in the Dokki district of Cairo. We chewed grub and chatted for hours; all of these people speak multiple languages so they switched back-and-forth from Chinese, to Arabic, to whatever in a matter of moments. I threw in my two pence whenever I could, which was often enough, and we discussed a variety of topics including the ‘revolution’ and its aftermath. Moodi participated in the original protests and even camped out for 18 days in Tahrir Square. He was a bit disappointed with the revolution’s results, but was very proud of what he did and strongly stated that Egypt’s public has experienced an irreversible blooming of free speech. People are discussing politics and social issues like never before, and he argued that this is a momentous change from times when an errant sentence about Mubarak (the overthrown dictator) could land you a torture session in a secret jail.
After dinner, we got smoothies at a hectic juice bar called “City Drink”, in which the overworked men move like blurs putting drinks together for demanding clients waiting on the street and in their cars. It’s easy to see why the bar is so popular, as its drinks are the perfect cure for the muggy Cairo heat. I then went with Nick to his abode in the Sayeeda Zainab quarter of downtown Cairo and we crashed for the night.
Sights: Coptic Cairo, the Nilometer, the Egyptian Museum, and Tahrir Square
My first full day in Cairo was a busy one, filled with a smattering of sightseeing, touring, and round-the-city walking. I started off in Coptic Cairo, home to part of Cairo’s Christian population (10% of Egyptians are Christian) and a surprisingly-large museum on the history of Christianity in Egypt. The museum had an incredible amount of Christian heritage material from Egypt’s past—old crosses, bibles, vestments, etc.—and perhaps because of this I lost interest after about an hour of wandering through it. The museum was worthwhile to see, if at the very least for its fascinating tombstones which show a syncretic fusion of pagan beliefs and Christian motifs: crosses are in the shape of Ankhs, the ancient Egyptian symbol of life, and Anubis can be seen on some of the rarer stones.
Following the museum, I hit up the “Hanging Church”, so called for its suspended construction over other buildings in the preserved district. Both the Church and all the other buildings in the area have had so much restoration work done on them that they seem a little too artificial for the rough-and-tumble confines of Cairo, although taking a stroll through the still-used Church and its gaudy Christmas decorations was interesting. I also took a stop at the less-tended Christian graveyard, which featured battered-up mausoleums that could use some TLC.
My morning in Coptic Cairo was tailed by a stopover at the charming Nilometer, a medieval-era structure on the south tip of Rhoda Island that was built to measure the annual Nile floods via a large cylindrical chamber with gradations for measuring water. As the Aswan dam put a stop to annual flooding, the chamber is empty today and you can wander down inside on a sturdy staircase (Give the guard a little baksheesh—tip—it’s worth it).
I skipped lunch and instead had an intriguing afternoon at the Egyptian Museum near Tahrir Square. The museum is the Mother-Of-All Egyptian museums in the world and boasts 120,000 artifacts on display. Yet the elegant-looking but massive red building is simply too big and disorganized for any average Jane or Joe to make sense of it without some educated company. Thus, Nick’s Egyptologist-in-training Moodi came along with us to give a free but very helpful tour of the Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom’s greatest treasures (We didn’t have time for the New Kingdom). He used a bit of humor and question-asking to generate interest in the pieces he showed us, and I remember the sleek black statue of sexy man Tuthmosis the III and the anthropomorphized colossal statue of Queen Hatshepsut quite well. There was also an awesome painted sculpture of a seated scribe and a husband-woman pair seated together, but I’ve forgotten their names. Time was a-ticking so Moodi rushed me to the Room of Tutankhamun which was a real treat. This room should be an essential part of anyone’s memories of Egypt and the golden burial mask of the man is astounding considering the time and place it was made (3,300 years ago).
The last stop in my cursory tour of the Museum was the fascinating room of the royal mummies. I got to lean in close and check out the desiccated bodies of some of Egypt’s most powerful ancient rulers. Sexy man Tuthmosis III’s skin was still smooth, but all the mummies have squashed noses. I tried to imagine the resemblance between some of the mummies and their statues, but it was hard to put the bag-o-bones that is Ramses II into the towering demigod that he’s usually displayed as in his monuments. Still, it was freaking bad-ass to see them, especially Ramses II, who looks like he wants to wake up, stretch his arms, and continue his legendary 66-year rule.
Our night finished with a brief stroll through walled-off Tahrir Square, which has been barred off to traffic and by Jan. 13th had devolved into little more than a rag-tag camp of a few hundred people. There were still banners up and a few people still looked like they were full of revolutionary spirit, but the place honestly felt lackluster. Maybe even a bit sinister. Most of those present around the traffic circle (Remember, Tahrir is basically just a big intersection, not a park or anything) were teenagers looking for kicks, racing their motorbikes around or hanging out with their friends. Nick was skeptical of it all and I began to share the same suspicions when we watched a fat little teenager, maybe less than 14 or 15, manning a car checkpoint. The kid was letting a few cars in on a whim, pulling the barricade to the side as he pleased, and no police were in sight to actually regulate the flow. That’s another thing – the police are gone from the streets. They all basically withdrew following the revolution and some say they are waiting for enough social chaos to take hold that the people will demand them back. With no police and general anarchy round Tahrir, it was quite a disheveled sight to see.
The eventful day wasn’t over yet, though. We got an invitation to visit one of Nick’s friends from Sciences Po (Where Nick studied for his Masters) named Karim and headed over to his apartment with another friend named Bowdoin. Karim, who is a brainy half-Egyptian half-Austrian fellow, busted out some wine and snacks for us and we talked well into the early morning about the future of Egypt, and on a completely unexpected note, the dominance of English in American culture over minority languages that are brought to the States. Karim posited that through increasing Latin American immigration, Spanish could vie for acceptance next to English as a nationally-used language, but I was of the firm opinion that English has an uncanny ability through powerful media proliferation to eradicate competing languages not just in America but abroad as well, so Spanish will never gain a legal-political-social foothold in the country like it has in former Spanish colonies. All the while, we imbibed Karim’s choicest teas from Taiwan and another exotic destination in ritualistic breaks that gave us time to breathe and re-direct the conversation.
We stumbled out of Karim’s apartment at 3:00AM and went bed round 4:00. It was an extremely long day, but perhaps my best in Cairo!