Our tour guide explained that the Egyptian culture is non-violent and there is very little real crime beyond simple theft. However, we were very impressed with the constant presence of security personnel and security precautions. The Four Seasons hotel had a security scanning door between the outer entrance and reception area, and they manned it with two people, one equipped with a hand scanner. Since we were always carrying a camera or something metal, it buzzed every time we walked through it. They just smiled at us every time -- we assume it was because we do not have a terrorist look about us.
Khan al-Khalili Market/Bazaar
The biggest, or at least most well-known, market in the Cairo area is Khan al-Khalili. Our tour guide wanted to include it as a full half day of touring, but we nixed that since we heard there is no point in having a guide to walk through a bunch of shops. We hired a hotel car to take us to the market. On the way over we had our after-the-fact-humorous communications (see Mooses). The driver told us that traffic would be bad around the market so we would not be able to get a taxi there so he should wait for us. We had no idea if he was right (he was) so we said ok. As it is standard tourist fare, he suggested not buying anything at the market -- he would take us to a 'special place' where the merchandise is real and the prices are the best (no question that he would also get a commission). We walked around for an hour along the maze of narrow alleyways filled with shops, but did not buy anything. We did have a traditional Egyptian drink (karkadey) at the Fishawy cafe in the market -- this famous cafe has been open 24x7 for over 200 years!
Felucca (sail boat on the Nile)
We enjoyed a private sunset sailboat cruise on the Nile. We reserved the hotel-recommended boat and rented it with a captain for an hour to enjoy the river. The boat could have supported 15 people, but it was just the two of us.
Nile Pharaoh Dinner Cruise
One of the 'must-do' tourist activities is a dinner cruise on the Nile. The hotel highly recommended the Nile Pharaoh. It was quite cheesy with lots of Egyptian decorations, marginal buffet food, music, belly dancing, and spin dancing, but we had a good time.
We hired a private tour guide and driver (Image Tours) through the hotel for two days to do most of the major tourist sites. The following describes what we saw during the organized touring.
The Great Pyramid of King Cheops, built around 2600BC, is the biggest pyramid and is flanked by two smaller pyramids built for his son and grandson. It is 146m high, and took 2.5 million limestone blocks, each weighing ½ - 20 tons, in addition to large 80 ton granite boulders. No one knows for sure how they completed the top levels since the rock would be so heavy to lift to that level. Some believe it would have taken a ramp 4k long to drag the rocks to the top, but they show no evidence of such a ramp. Our guide was careful to point out that the pyramid and other great structures were not built by slaves as we thought, but by hired workers.
We were told that only the first 150 people each day are allowed into the pyramid (at additional cost, of course), so we got there first thing in the morning. Entering the pyramid was quite an experience, and not for the claustrophobic. Most of the walk/climb to the upper burial chamber was through long ramps only 3 feet high by 3 feet wide. With about 20 people doing it at the same time, some very slowly, it was quite an effort in self-control.
The pyramid rock is much rougher on the outside than we expected -- the outer smooth shiny layer was removed (stolen) hundreds of years ago, so we are not sure how the glossy pictures we've seen make the pyramids look so smooth. The authorities quit letting people climb the pyramid a few years ago, so we did not get to climb to the top, which would have been a challenge given the huge rough rocks.
The Egyptians believe very strongly in symbols and have reasons for almost every design detail for their structures. The placement and positioning of their pyramids was critical. They had to be on the naturally raised land to be closest to the sun, their openings faced the north towards the star that never dies, and their shape represented the rays of the sun.
Sphinx and Tomb
The Sphinx is in the same area as the great pyramid and is flanked by a tomb. Our immediate reaction to the sphinx, as is every tourists (our tour guide stated) was "it's so small". (it is actually 50m long and 22m high). When you get close, it is still very impressive given that it was carved from a single rock in the quarry where it rests. Most statues are carved from rock taken from a quarry, while the sphinx was carved in the quarry itself without moving any rock. Some of the paint on the face of the sphinx still exists after these thousands of years!
Our organized tour included a camel ride near the Great Pyramid. We each had our own camel (named Michael Jackson, and Allibaba) with a guide walking in front to lead the camels and take pictures. The point of the ride was really just for the experience and pictures since the path was around construction areas, a parking lot and a cemetery to get to a good view of the pyramids. The 20 minute ride was plenty long enough -- it was like a concentrated rocking of a boat. We hear that the camel journeys where you trek for days use 'long ride camels' that are much easier on the rider.
We went to the Egyptian Museum, where thousands of ancient Egyptian artifacts are stored, including everything from the tomb of King Tutankhamun (King Tut), and a room with several real life mummies of kings, queens and noblemen/women. The museum was the most crowded museum we had ever seen. Thousands of people were waiting in line to get through the security scans outside the museum, and thousands more to funnel through the security scans at the gate inside the museum. We had to cover only the major attractions since we wanted to spend just a couple of hours there, and it would take days to cover everything. Even going against the flow and seeing everything in a different order than the large tour groups we were wrestling through crowds to see almost everything. Without the guide we would have been lost and clueless, given the enormity of it all.
We paid extra to enter the small mummy room to see the preserved mummies and to get away from the crowds. Guides were not allowed in, no photographs could be taken, the number of entrants was restricted, and silence was required while in the room. This all was supposed to add to the experience and show respect for the dead. Of course, when we were in the room there was a guide loudly explaining everything to a small group, lots of talking, and someone even snapped a photograph! Even so it was amazing to see how well preserved the mummies are after so many thousands of years. We had learned from our guide and from the mummy room book some of the details of the embalming process. The dead were embalmed to best prepare them for the afterlife, where it was expected that they would spend eternity, if they passed certain tests and had a body capable of supporting the returning soul. They removed all internal soft tissue from the dead, except the heart, which they believed contained the soul. To do this without defacing the body, they would suck the brain out through the nose, and suck the gastrointestinal organs (including the lungs) out of a hole cut in the pelvic or lower area. Pretty disgusting, but quite imaginative. They had slanted embalming tables with a funnel in one corner where they would work on the bodies to drain all the fluids. It was very interesting to hear how much they knew about the make-up of the human body and the techniques they had perfected, yet they still believed the heart, not the brain, was the ruler of the body.
Although many of the artifacts in the museum are enclosed in glass cases, many more are within reach of the visitor. We were appalled at how many people touched the thousand-year- old pieces, especially when an obviously disreputable guide had her hands all over an ancient statue.
We found that one of the unfortunate consequences of going on an organized tour is that the guide always builds in time to take you shopping in shops from which they clearly get kick-backs. We were taken to the 'Jewelry Institute' under the pretense that it was the only place the Four Seasons recommends because we could trust that their gold was real gold, that their precious stones were real precious stones, and that their other tourist crap was real tourist crap. We are not sure whether the Four Seasons knows anything about this place but our specific tour guide admitted she gets a commission. One nice feature of these places is that there was none of the annoying direct pressure to buy everything they have. Their pressure is very subtle but it is definitely there. We were also taken to the 'Papyrus Institute', also under the pretense that their paintings were the best and the papyrus paper was produced by hand just like the ancient Egyptians did for the writings that have lasted for thousands of years. We have to admit that we did buy some items, felt like we paid too much, but appreciated that we were not harassed by all the vendors in the crazy markets. When our guide wanted to take us to a carpet factory we told her 'no way'. But then she said the tour we had paid for (we learned this lesson the hard way!) included time for this, so she would just show us how the carpet was made. Well, of course, after seeing how it was made, they insisted we accept a free drink, that just so happened to be in the showroom. We got out of there quickly, surprised at how high the 'best, no-need-to-negotiate-prices' were.
City of Memphis
We visited the city of Memphis, where there was huge statue of King Ramses II. There is also a long history of Memphis including.... The only real value of going to Memphis was to see some of the Egyptian countryside.
Sakkara (city of the dead)
Sakkara is an ancient cemetery done to ancient Egyptian standards. The first pyramid, a step pyramid, was done here, as well as some of the earlier pyramids before they perfected the art of building pyramids. We also explored a nobleman's tomb where the hieroglyphics and art on the wall was almost perfectly preserved. the home of many tombs
The Citadel is a huge fortress-like structure on the edge of Cairo that provides a great panoramic view of Cairo, built and enhanced for 700 years starting in 1100AD. The main tourist attraction is the huge Mosque de Mohammed Ali. We hung out in the huge mosque (after removing our shoes) and received a lesson on the history of the mosque.
Coptic Cairo is the center of Egypt's Christian community and the oldest part of modern day Cairo. It is believed that there was a small settlement there as early as 6,000BC. At one time there were 20 churches in a 1 square kilometer area (only 5 remain today, though). We also visited the Hanging Church built on the Water Gate of Roman Babylon, believed to be the oldest place of Christian worship, dating to 400AD.
The Great Miscommunication (aka "Mooses")
Because we have laughed about this incident so many time since it happened, we decided to include it as an extreme example of our frequent foreign-language non-communications. This one took place between Dan and the hotel driver taking us to the big bazaar, Khan al-Khalili. We typically just nod 'uh-huh, yeah, hmmm...' a lot when faced with serious language issues, but in this case the driver was anxious to talk to us, maybe to practice his English, so Dan was willing to "fall on the grenade" (actually, most speaking in Cairo was addressed to Dan, vs. Kristen, the woman:). With much effort he communicated that there was lots of traffic around the bazaar, that it would be hard to get a taxi, and that he should just wait for us there. We learned that asking him to repeat himself, for us to repeat ourselves, and for us to listen closely was the only way for us to communicate. Here is the next exchange:
Driver: Are you #&!#%@^ to #%*$#$% near the #*^$!#(^?
Driver: Are you going to #%*!#$% on the coast?
Dan: To where?
Driver: %$(%$*, it has great &*_&*_* and diving.
Dan: No, we are not going there. What do they dive from? A diving board, or a cliff, or what?
Dan: Yes, dive. From what?
Driver: Ahhh, &*$%$&+# underwater.
Dan: Ohhh, that kind of diving. Sorry. No, we are not going there.
Driver: They have mooses *)#$#&*^ there too.
Driver: Yes mooses?
Dan: Mooses, near the diving?
Driver: Yes, they have mooses.
Dan: Hmmm, ok, you know we have mooses in the northeast United State.
Dan: Yes, mooses.
Driver: Ughh, you have mooses, too?
Driver: How do you have Moses?
Dan: Oh, Moses! No, we do not have Moses, sorry.
Driver: Ughh, sorry my English no good.
Dan: No, I am just an idiot!
Since this exchange we have referred to many other miscommunications as 'mooses' and laughed out loud each time!
As early as Cape Town (3 weeks earlier) we had tried to organize an A&K guided tour of Cairo, thinking that it would be better to organize it with a reputable company than do it when we got there. However, we had many communication problems with the different A&K offices, so we ended up with no plans whatsoever. We made reservations at the Four Seasons in Giza on the Nile, figuring that a nice hotel could help organize tours. We also organized transportation from the airport via the hotel, to not deal with the expected hoard of tourist-seeking taxis at most airports.
We flew from Johannesburg to Nairobi to Khartoum, Sudan to Cairo. Because of our commitment to never again use Egypt Air (see Nairobi-Getting There), we had a short stopover in Sudan, during which we were not allowed to leave the plane.
When we arrived at the airport around midnight, the airport was extremely crowded. We quickly saw a gentleman holding up a Four Seasons sign, and the Four Seasons airport manager immediately identified us, whisked us to pay the $15 each for visas, to fill our forms, then through customs, pick up bags, past the masses of people, and into the limousine. There were at least a thousand people, most dressed in the white garb from Ramadan travels, waiting in line to pass through customs, but we were guided through a 'special' passport checker with no line. We could not have tipped him enough for that special service.
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