'I think therefore I am.'  Descartes            'I AM THAT I AM.'  Exodus.3.        'I am what I am.'  La Cage aux Folles

02 February 2011

Cairo and Egypt

Praise to the city, the country and the people.
Near the head of the Nile delta, Cairo was founded in 969CE by the Fatimid dynasty as capital of Egypt. In 1517 it became part of the Ottoman Empire, fell to Napoleon in 1798 and to the British in 1801. The vast city of Cairo with its minarets was revealed to me like a dream.  Covered in inches of dust swept in from the desert it thrives with life and bustling masses. The drive from the airport through excavations, past the city of the dead, inhabited by squatters and into the market streets was truly entering another world. The bustling streets overflowed with broken sewers, donkey drawn carts of vegetables, honking vehicles and strangely dressed crowds heading dangerously in every direction. Little prepared for the newness and intensity of need, I felt uncomfortable as in no other city. Almost too scared to venture out I had been ill prepared by the dangers prophesied in the travel brochures. The confidence of the people and the practiced, over-friendly forcefulness of their salesmanship took me unawares, caused a quick depletion of the contents of my wallet and instilled a protective caution that created an unnecessary barrier for the remainder of my trip. The traffic never ceased honking - a national sport? I was also amazed to see that street stop-lights were taken as a recommendation not a law. Loitering bell-boys, taxi drivers with their family, hovering waiters and a massage from the owner of a perfume shop filled my first few hours.
Obviously the pyramids draw you immediately to the outskirts of Cairo. As I sat in the back of my vehicle, bumping along dirt strips avoiding the donkeys and children at play, the first misted dimly lit glimpse of the triangular silhouettes through the trees sent shivers across my body. They are truly awesome. I was however, surprised to see them but a few hundred metres from the suburbs. No doubt the angle of most photographs gives an impression of a desert setting but the near neighbours must listen nightly to the two booming laser shows, which must not be missed. Hear chariots rumble across the plateau, see underworld ships sail up the changing colours of the pyramids as history echoes from far flung depths. 

I returned the following day to explore the pyramids in the light of the sun. Into Khafre's tomb I struggled, bent over as I breathlessly made my way down into the centre of the pyramid. The tunnel is no more the just over waist high and I suffered for two years with a chipped spine, not navigating as easily as I should. Many were taking their turn to lie in the sarcophagus which sits dead centre in the complex, but resisting an old Egyptian's encouragement I declined. Of course he demanded a tip for his unsolicited advice.
  "Soldiers, forty centuries look down upon you."  Napoleon 
"Man fears time, but time fears the Pyramids."  Arab Proverb
As my first visit to an Islamic culture it was gracious of my guide to explain so much of what has been largely unfamiliar to me. We sat on the carpets inside the Mohammed Ali Mosque barefooted and discussed the wisdom of Mohammed and the beauty of the place. Each morning I was awoken to the call to prayer which is unavoidable and each evening I wondered if the traffic would ever stop.
The shopping is a trap, the museums unbelievably vast, the food unfamiliar but good, the people as varied as anywhere, but I did find it amusing how I was everyone's new friend. The constant compliments as to how nice I was, particularly from anyone with something to sell, initially flattered my ego until I realised just how much money I spent. What a sucker I am for the joy of finding just how observant people are to recognise my intelligence. It was probably worth the thousands I spent to receive so many 'sincere?' compliments. How wonderful was the experience offered me by the people of this place of wonder.

Egyptian Travel
Although earlier Greek historians had visited and written about the ancient sites of Egypt, tourism really began after Alexander the Great assumed control. For the next 500 or more years people journeyed to see the monuments and tombs of what was already an ancient civilisation, Emperor Hadrian being just one who left his name on the monuments when he recorded his visit on the Colossi of Memnon. Some 2000 pieces of graffiti inscribed on the walls of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings date from ancient Greek and Roman visitors and later Coptic inhabitants who lived in the tombs already opened. After a respite of a thousand years or so interest was reignited in searching for Egyptian artefacts. Napoleon brought experts to record and plunder the riches of the Nile. Among his followers was Vivant Denon who wrote what can be agreed to by any tourist, especially myself.

"I found on this occasion, as on all others, that a visit to Thebes was like the attack of a fever, it was a kind of crisis which left behind an impression of indescribable impatience, enthusiasm, irritation and fatigue."

In the early days of exploration the adventurers, artists and amateur historians even set up camp, lived and partied inside the tombs, destroying much of what had survived for 3000 years in their attempt to record or remove. It was not until the days of Lord Carnarvon that the artefacts began to remain the sole property of the Egyptians. Tourists still flock to the monuments and still their presence is destroying what has yet to be discovered. I have been a tourist, but on a couple of occasions I did refrain from entering fragile sights.
The Step Pyramid is the first and the least crowded and beneath it stretches a maze of 3 miles of corridors and 400 chambers.
The Philae temple built by the Ptolomies was taken apart and moved to avoid the rising waters created by the Aswan Dam.
Colossi of Memnon stand at the entrance of what was a great temple for Amenophis III. Emperor Hadrian left graffiti here. The Colossi of Memnon at Thebes was mistakenly identified as such by the Greeks. They were the giant statues of Amenhotep III at the entrance of his now destroyed Temple. Memnon (left above)was actually the 'brazen-crested Memnon, a comely man' according to Odysseus, King of the Ethiopians (Susa in the East not Africa) who came with a great force to help Troy against the Achaean invaders, and was killed by Achilles. At his death his soldiers turned into birds.

As Egypt crowds itself along the Nile it is easy to say one has done this country from one end to the other. It is the only choice one has except for a possible short foray into the desert. There is a certain incongruity in sitting atop a cruise boat on water sipping a beer, while looking at the desert or an ancient grand temple while the people who yell at you from the shore appear to be in poverty, but tout their wares from an expensive overstocked market. I wanted to relax and enjoy the country, but I could not understand it. However as time creates distance between myself and the actuality of my visit, I find that memories become sweeter and the gratitude for being able to do it is increasing. The nature of their existence was different from my own, but my stay was too short.

During my visit, apart from the temples and monuments at Luxor/Karnak, Edfu, Com Ombo, Esna, Philae, Aswan, Giza, Memphis and Saquarra I managed to explore the tombs of Ramses 1, VI & IX,  Prince Amonher Kopechef (son of Ramses III), Queen Tyti and Hatshepsut's Memorial Temple
Around 6 million years BCE the earliest river through Egypt is known as the Eonile. It flowed through a canyon whose walls were up to 3,000 metres high. Possibly the Mediterranean Sea did not exist then and the source is unknown. At 5 million years the waters of the Mediterranean Sea rose, filling up a basin reaching as far as modern Aswan and brought an end to the Eonile. At 3 million years a second river, the Paleonile began to flow through Egypt, and is thought to have started in  equatorial Africa. It eventually dried up. Around 600,000 years ago the Protonile started and created interwoven channels. It ran to the west of the modern Nile. In 500,000 the Prenile replaced the Protonile further to the east, and began carving out the river valley existing today. Its water discharge was the largest of any of the Niles, before and since.
My interest in Egypt has always existed and now it has intensified since walking amongst the sacred temples of one of the earliest civilisations on earth.
Looking back on my visit I now crave to return. This time with more confidence, more financial backing and with more time to understand.

I have 17 other posts that relate to my love of Egypt. Check under Topics on the right here.
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