Tag Archives: egypt

Egypt: Cairo

Today we do the famous parts of Cairo: the pyramids and the Egyptian museum which includes remains from various burials, most famously Tutankhamen. (I always think of a cartoon: a pyramid door with a horn and the sign “toot and come in.”)

The traffic makes itself known again, making the journey across town take some time. But the pyramids appear suddenly behind other much newer and less grand buildings. That’s the first surprising thing: you hear that they stand right next to Giza but you don’t realise just how close.

The bus practically parks in the biggest of the three main pyramids. We and the hoards of other tourists get out.

I knew it would be busy but, even so, I found the numbers surprising. You couldn’t go very far without bumping into someone, and if it wasn’t a tourist it was a man on a camel demanding you take his picture. (The Egyptians had not come across camels when they built the pyramids, which I thought an amusing twist.)

Luckily behind the second pyramid was much emptier allowing some decent, people free shots and some peace and quiet. Up close they’re rougher than you’d imagine although still in great condition to say they’re 4600 years old.

Back in the bus we head up hill to see all three pyramids from behind. Many of the images you see on postcards are from here. It’s an iconic pictures and no less spectacular for it. And then we’re back downhill to see the Sphinx.

The Sphinx is actually missing some important parts (the beard especially) but, especially given its age, is still amazing. It’s odd to see birds nesting in its face! Turns out it was an “accident.” rather than remove an extra piece of sandstone they carved it, which is why the biggest pyramid does not have one.

In the afternoon we visit the Egyptian Museum. Without the guide I would not have got a lot out of this. The trinkets and statues are many and various but without the context they would have been only that. One interesting aspect was that the Egyptians went backwards: the early stuff was by far the most intricate and well constructed. The middle kingdom especially was very simple, although still impressive.

The next day I take a tour of the religious sites of Cairo. I start on the Christian (Coptic) side in an area known colloquially as “Old Cairo.” The Hanging Church is over a number of levels and was designed to survive attack by marauding Muslims or other invader. There’s an old painting (the Egyptian Mona Lisa according to the guide). Thirteen pillars hold up the pulpit, one for each person at the last supper. I silently think that one of them is probably not supporting its fair share of the weight, only to find that in fact one of them is coloured black to represent Judas.

Next stop is a Synagogue. It’s actually pretty old, although you’d never think so looking at it. It’s been restored so well that virtually all traces of the original are gone. Although originally a Synagogue it has spent some of its life as a Christian church.

It’s interesting that non-Islamic churches have survived the onslaught.

Lastly we visit two mosques. The first is mainly outside, the interior designed to catch sunlight all day. The imam stands at the front (facing Mecca). At the other side is another where a guy repeats the sermon for the people outside — an interesting workaround until the invention of the PA system.

The Mohammed Ali mosque is much more intricate, with several tall minarets a massive dome and… a clock tower gifted by the French we were told. Inside the ceilings were painted with incredible detail and the lead roof had kept it looking remarkable fresh despite being a couple of hundred years old.

The final stop was in a lively market, with people selling both every day essentials right through to kitsch trinkets such as mini-pyramids and stuffed camels.

Overall the chaos of Cairo provided a fitting end to my two weeks in the middle east.

Egypt: Alexandria

The funny thing about Alexandria is that the all the things that it’s famous for are no longer in one piece; it’s a city famous for what it was.

First stop are some Roman ruins, a small but well preserved amphitheatre. One spooky part is a spot in the middle where your voice gets amplified, you hear back anything you say with a slight delay.

Next stop: catacombs. These were the tombs of a rich, egyptianised Roman. Most interesting was some of the art work which combined Roman and Egyptian style, sometimes with errors (deliberate or accidental?), such as only three jars next to the mummy (there are supposed to be four for the internal organs of the deceased) and the dead having head-gear normally reserved for gods.

Last stop of the city tour was the fort right on the sea front. Built by Muhammad Ali — not the boxer — to keep out the Turks (unsuccessfully) it’s mainly interesting because it was built partly out of the original Pharos lighthouse — one of the original seven wonders which fell down in the 13th century during an earth quake.

Next we head out of town toward the hotel, but by avoiding a low bridge the bus gets lost. It takes us down lots of small streets, past various small, local markets and through neighbourhoods that see few tourists. The novelty eventually wears thin as the supposed thirty minute drive ends up taking nearer ninety.

And that was my very quick tour of the city. In the morning I was heading back to Cairo.

Egypt: Driving in Cairo

As we approach the capital I feel my life hovering in front of my eyes as the near-death experiences merge into one.

The bus continually lurched from lane to lane, overtaking on which ever side seemed the most convenient at the time, braking and accelerating heavily as obstacles loomed and evaporated. At one point we’re overtaking on a blind corner only to find a man in the middle of the lane carrying a tire towards a broken-down car. The look of horror on his face is going to stay with me for a long time. Our driver is unfazed and laughs as he flicks the bus over into the next lane. Honestly, I’m not sure whether it’s the best driving I’ve ever seen or the worst, but either way it’s surprising that you don’t see more Egyptian Formula 1 drivers.

Leaving the ring-road, things are slower but hardly safer. The whole system is a free-for-all. There’s no such thing as giving way to other traffic, you just move forward as far as you can, sound your horn frequently and loudly and manouver around obstacles as the opportunity arises. Whether it’s just badly designed or is considered to be a traffic calming measure, it seems that you often have to take a substantial detour just to make a turn.

This is inefficient on a whole host of levels1. It can take an hour to get from one side of town to the other and the distances are not that great. The bumps and scratches on pretty much all the cars are testament to how risky an endevour it is to tackle Cairo on four wheels. The most telling indicator, no doubt made worse my poorly refined petrol, is the air quality. It’s a while since I’ve been somewhere that has made my eyes water and given me a cough.

My first thought was, “how did it get this bad?” Then I realised that was the wrong question. Chaos is going to be the default state of affairs. A better question would be, “How did we get a largely effective ettiquette in the West?” Did we just make laws early enough in the development of the car that the rules became ingrained in the public psyche?

Secondly, how would you fix it?

This, in case you were wondering, is where the Darwinianism comes into play. A road system, at its root, is many independent and selfish entities all using the same resources for their own gain. Like a biological system, there are many scenarios that work but some work better than others. These different scenarios require different levels of cooperation, but this team-work has to benefit the individual as well or they’ll just look out for themselves.

How does this work on tarmac? Let’s say an Egyptian government brings in some new law2 that says that at a junction the first person there gets right of way — kind of the same system you get at four way junctions in the US. This works and is fair if everyone obeys the new law. If there is less than full compliance then reverting to the old, chaotic ways might actually be more efficient. In effect this would penalise law-abiding citizen who, in all likelihood, would eventually get bored and fall back on their old ways.

So could a “big bang” work? There are a number of elements working against it. Firstly, how do you inform everyone? Literacy rates are fairly low. Is there even a driving test? And even if you could get the whole population to understand, how would you enforce it? If the number of people disregarding the new law is sufficiently high then there is little that the Police could do about it. Could you give every road user a ticket and actually expect to collect the fine? Do all the cars have to be registered? Would all the details be up to date? I would suspect not.

So, what have we learned?

I think the only real conclusion that we can reach is: don’t drive in Cairo. Oh, and that I probably think too much.

  1. Actually, this is an assumption that I have not really investigated. []
  2. I’m assuming that there isn’t already one that is being ignored. []

Egypt: Mount Sinai

The alarm call comes much too early at 1am. I head down for some tea and then to the mini-bus for the short ride to the start of the walk up Mount Sinai, the location believed by the three major religions, to be where Moses received the ten commandments from god. No such grand scheme here: by leaving at this ungodly hour I should see the sunrise from the top.

The trek, lit only by torches, takes me up a camel path, past St Katherine’s monastery (which I’ll visit later in daylight hours), up, past various stores selling refreshments, up, past camel owners offering “taxi” rides to the top. Of course, I know it isn’t the top anyway. There are 750 (or more depending on who you ask) steps to the very top that the camels are not prepared to attempt.

People viewing sunrise from top of Mount Sinai, Egypt

I get to the top of the camel path with an hour before sunrise and stop in one of the three cafes for a warming hot chocolate and to hire a blanket — it’s been warm on the way up but now I’ll be sat still in the morning cold.

I stay a little longer than I should have as by the time I make my last push to the top there is no space for me to sit and I end up bobbing behind a couple of rows of people, trying to get a decent view.

Even lacking prime position the colours are beautiful and warm, the sight inspiring even without its religious significance.

Sunrise over Mount Sinai, Egypt

The walk down looks and feels completely different in the light. It seems longer (I heard 7km but it didn’t feel like a ten mile walk in total), the scenery unfamiliar.

Saint Catherines Monastery, Egypt

After breakfast I head back to the monastery. This is reportedly on the site of the biblical burning bush. It’s named after a saint who was tortured and died because of her faith, and was ushered to heaven by angels for her efforts.

It’s the longest continually running monastery (they claim) and has been up and running since the fourth century. Over that time, as I see in the chapel, they have accumulated considerable riches, with paintings and gold in every nook and cranny.

The burning bush, it turns out, is only descended from the original, but the setting is nice. Most of the place is closed for the public, leaving only the ossiary, which I skip partly because I’m not enthusiastic about seeing a pile of bones and partly because of the queue. There is also a small museum with illuminated documents dating from before icons where temporarily banned — making them virtually unique.

From St. Katherine’s I take the minibus to Cairo.

Jordan: Jerash

Roman ruins, Jerash, Jordan

I remember when I was at school doing history I loved the Romans. They were so advanced and yet had these brutal elements, a combination that I found fascinating. Even now I continue to be amazed by Roman ruins. Nothing we build now seems to last more than a few decades yet this massive, two thousand year old empire still has buildings standing.

So I’m happy that the first major site of my trip through Jordan and Egypt is Jerash. If I’m honest, it’s not a site I’d heard of before I booked this tour. I’m pleased to say that it would have been a mistake to miss it, though.

Roman ruins, Jerash, Jordan

I enter the site through a triumphal arch, which is located right next to the road and the rest of modern Jerash. It makes quite a contrast. The site is large, so eventually the sound of the traffic subsides.

Roman ruins, Jerash, Jordan

Some parts, mainly those near the gates, have been reconstructed. They are, no doubt, authentic but looking fairly new it’s not really the look I was expecting. For similar reasons I didn’t feel inclined to hang around and see the jousting. I was more drawn to the paths lined with columns, piazza’s and mosaics. Not as pristine as the reconstruction but amazing in their own way.

Certainly the most surreal part of the whole time at Jerash is when I reach an amphitheatre, where three men entertain us with drums and… bagpipes. Yes, you read that right.

Bagpipers and drummers, Jerash, Jordan

They play for about ten minutes, marching around the floor, saluting members of the audience and, generally, confusing the hell out of most of us. Bagpipes? Jordan?

Overall it’s an impressive site with much to see. But it’s only a fleeting stop as I next head south towards Kerak.