Our time in Cairo
03.05.2012 - 05.06.2012
“May 2nd, 2012 – 5 people are killed in the Abbisaya district of Cairo as protests against the military council continue.” We watched the news anxiously in our Tunis hotel room, 4 hours before we were scheduled to leave for Cairo. With little chance to change our flight, and with our hearts set on exploring Egypt, we boarded our plane in Tunis with bated breath. For all we knew we were entering an active war zone. The plane flight was normal, and we arrived in Cairo airport with little hassle. We were met at the airport by the driver we had organised, who drove us through swerving, veering and honking traffic to our hostel. Where was the fighting? The rioting? The military blockades or rows of armed soldiers? In reality, Cairo is a city of almost 20 million people (only 2 million less than the whole of Australia!) sprawled along the banks of the Nile. Despite the incidents reported in the Western media, most people in Cairo continue about their daily lives. Although we were still on our guard (after all, our hostel was walking distance from Tahrir Square), our worst fears had not been realised. Cairo itself is a chaotic city, pulsating with life at every turn. The snarl of traffic and the smell of fumes is constant. The streets are lined with stately buildings, remnants of French and English colonialism, but with their facades blackened by car fumes and falling into a state of disrepair. At times it feels as though nobody is really in control of the city, and you can really see how it could descend into the violence seen on the news. Cairo is in a constant state of anarchy already.
The next morning, with our total number of riots encountered still at zero, we decided to get our Egyptian sightseeing under way. No visit to Cairo would be complete without a visit to see the Pyramids. Of course 'The Pyramids' which everybody knows are only a few of the hundred odd pyramids dotted around Egypt. With an appetite for some Egyptology, we decided to hire a driver and extend our pyramid experience beyond the generic. We started our tour at the 'Step Pyramid' at Saqqara, the oldest pyramid in Egypt. As we explored the site, we got a glimpse of the effect that the Egyptian revolution has had on the local tourist industry. The area was mostly deserted (pardon the pun), with only a few small groups of tourists wandering around the site. Usually, the area would be packed. Following Saqqara, we continued our pyramid day in chronological order to see the 'Red Pyramid' at Dahshur, the first true pyramid ever built (no steps here). Aside from the impressive structure itself, the 'Red Pyramid' is also one of the best sites to explore inside a pyramid. After climbing almost half-way up the pyramid, we entered a small tunnel leading into the side of the monumental structure. The tunnel sloped down, tight and claustrophobic, 60 meters inside, until finally we were standing in the middle of the pyramid. The chambers inside are huge, reaching high into the pyramid. It's easy to imagine these rooms being filled with treasures. Following on from the site of Dahshur we finally set our sights towards the Pyramids of Giza, site of the Sphinx and probably three of the most photographed structures around! Of course, there is a good reason why these pyramids are so famous. The exact means of their construction is still a matter of debate, but what is sure is that they are huge. In fact, the largest pyramid (The Pyramid of Khufu), was the tallest free-standing building on the planet for almost 4,000 years, until 1311 AD when it was replaced by an English church! The pyramid project employed around 10,000 people at any one time, a feat of manpower which was never replicated in Egyptian history. It's staggering to consider that these structures were built with only the simplest of technologies, and yet still stand as some of the greatest buildings ever constructed. Truly an amazing feat of engineering.
With such a wealth of history Cairo is not short of pieces to fill a museum, and the museum of choice is the Egyptian Museum. To say the place is overwhelming is an understatement. With two floors of Egyptian paraphernalia shoved in every nook and cranny there would have to be tens of thousands of pieces on display! An attempt has been made to order the collection, which is now in vaguely chronological order, but sifting through the whole collection is still a monumental task. The pride and joy of the museum is the Tutankhamen exhibit, from the tomb of the world famous, yet relatively unimportant boy Pharaoh (he was only 19 at his death). Although his stint as Pharaoh was short lived, he gained fame in the 1920's when his tomb was discovered in near perfect condition, treasures and all. Although much of the King Tut collection does travel from time to time (we actually saw most of it in Melbourne) the solid gold death mask remains in the museum, a truly magnificent object and a reflection of the wealth of the Pharaohs. Of course, you don't have a death mask without a mummy, and the museum has those too. The mummy rooms, hidden amongst the hundreds of sarcophagi and statues, are rather austere; filled with glass cases each housing the body of a long dead Pharaoh. Staring down at the body of a person who ruled over an empire thousands of years in the past is a surreal feeling, especially when you can still see much of their hair and fingernails! Much of the ceremony and grandeur surrounding the death of a Pharaoh was designed, amongst other things, to write their names into history for eternity. These small, shrivelled corpses still inspire a sense of awe, much as they would have when alive. With people coming from all around the world to see their bodies and admire their constructions, it would be safe to say that the Pharaohs have achieved a piece of immortality.
Although Cairo has more to offer, we decided that our fortunes lay outside the capital. We never once felt in danger as we walked the streets of the capital, but we couldn't help but feel that the situation could change at any moment. We set our sights south, towards some of the most impressive remnants of the Egyptian empire. We booked a ticket on the overnight sleeper train to Aswan. On our last day, we encountered our first (peaceful) street protest, a sign that things are still not quite right just yet.
Some observations from Cairo:
1. No matter where else you've been before, crossing the road in Cairo is a hair raising experience.
2. People will spin you the most elaborate tales just to get you into their shop.
3. You will be offered multiple camel rides at the Pyramids. Sometimes it's fun to count how many times you have to say no!
Next stop...Aswan and Luxor
P.S: At the time of writing Egypt seems to have descended, once again, into the depths of revolutionary fervour. The weak sentencing of Mubarak's sons, the dissolution of parliament and the contentious election results have been a real set back to the people's aspiration for uncorrupted democracy. We've watched these events with a real sense of frustration and sadness. We met so many ordinary Egyptians who were really struggling with the drop in tourism, and just wanted things to go back to normal. Sadly it seems that time is still far away.