This portion of my recent trip is excerpted from my private blog. It's looo-oong, and may contain references you won't get, but I didn't want to write a separate trip report. More later...
For many years, I taught art history. Chapter 5 of the textbook we used was on the art of ancient Egypt. I'd never cared for Egyptian art when I was in college, sitting in a dark room with dozens of other sleepy undergrads, so I wasn't too enthused about teaching it myself. The students chose which chapters they wanted to study for the semester, and they invariably chose Chapter 5. I think it had to do with the mummies, and watching scary movies about mummies. At any rate, I learned to appreciate Egyptian art and history and became pretty enthusiastic about it. So our two-week winter break became my Chapter 5 tour.
I hate guided tours, and tour groups, so I asked the travel agency Lady Egypt to put together a private custom itinerary. My request included all the major sites with an Egyptologist guide, the Egyptian museum, a Nile cruise, and maybe a night camping in the desert. It did not include camel rides, tour buses, belly dancers, hot air balloon rides, international chain hotels, or a guide yapping at me all day. I was pretty specific about having plenty of time for photography without rushing off to see something else. Lady Egypt really came through, and made Chapter 5 come alive.
It was quite chilly and sometimes downright cold in Cairo. Mohammed, the rep from the agency, met me as soon as I set foot in the terminal and immediately took my passport to get my visa. That was the first clue that I was to be babied throughout the trip; I was hardly allowed to touch my bags, my passport, or my tickets. It felt really weird being treated this way but I imagine they get a lot of people who aren't accustomed to traveling independently.
My guide the next couple of days in Cairo was Ibrahim. He spoke excellent English and was very experienced and knowledgeable. He would get pretty worked up talking about the current situation and the evil Mubarak regime. If there are any Mubarak supporters left, they are keeping a very low profile, as I never met any. Beginning chronologically, our first stop was Saqqara, the site of the pharaoh Djoser's famous and innovative step pyramid on the west bank of the Nile, sacred as the necropolis for the culture. It is acknowledged as the first pyramid in Egypt, and the first monumental stone structure in history, dating back to the 27th century BCE. The colonnaded entry to the complex was just as interesting and was new information for me, consisting of rows of limestone columns shaped like bundles of plants or tree trunks. Off in the distance were more, later pyramids, one of which had been started at an angle of 52 degrees; the builders realized at that angle, the pyramid would be impossibly tall, so the angle was changed to 47 degrees, giving the structure a bent appearance.
I scribbled notes furiously, trying to keep straight which way is Upper Egypt (it's south, going upriver), Lower Egypt (north, heading to the delta), the colors and shapes of the pharaohs' headdresses of Upper and Lower Egypt, and the various icons associated with each.
Knowing my interest in textiles, Ibrahim had the driver stop afterwards at one of the numerous rug-weaving schools in the area. With tourism in the dumps, several schools had closed. I got to watch several male students knotting double warps at their looms, while others clipped and shaved the pile of their carpets. There were some really nice, simple contemporary designs of natural colored wool that I liked, but they looked too much like something you'd get at Bed Bath and Beyond. The showroom of course was a feast. Ibrahim stayed discreetly out of sight while the salesman, who sure had my number, brought out dozens of lovely carpets. I finally settled on a silk and wool one with lotus motifs, and he threw in a camel bag for free that I liked.
After a quick stop for sandwiches of shish taook, we headed to Giza. We traveled alongside canals full of garbage and egrets. The streets were very interesting--in a city of 20 million, there are still numerous donkey carts being used to transport all sorts of things--produce, building materials, huge bundles of fodder. I was shocked to see how built up the city was adjacent to the pyramids. How do all those tourists get their pictures taken looking like they're in the middle of the desert?
The young vendors were extremely pesky here. I could not have a moment alone without them shoving things in my hands, in my bag, on my head. I finally escaped to the van and we drove around to the back of the complex, and that's where the classic views were. There was a shocking amount of trash and cigarette butts around, and Egyptian parents allowing their kids to clamber all over the buildings.
The Great Pyramid of Khufu, aka Cheops, is truly magnificent and worthy of its iconic status. The blocks were enormous, and I tried to imagine it with its original cover of polished limestone, shining from a distance. Cecil B. de Mille, among many others, apparently got it all wrong about its construction. Modern research indicates that the people who built the pyramids were not Hebrews, and were not slaves. They were skilled workers--they would have to have been--who were apparently well-fed and lived in comfortable conditions.
The Sphinx was a surprise; it looked smaller than I'd imagined, and it was sitting in a deep excavation; old photographs show it buried in sand up to its chest. The crouching lion effect was more detailed than I'd expected.
On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a papyrus "museum," a museum in the sense that you get to see a quick demonstration of how the paper is made, then you take a more lengthy tour of the gallery of stuff for sale. It was interesting to see the plant and how the stem is cut into strips and soaked. It becomes very soft, almost pulpy. The strips are laid perpendicular to each other and then pressed. I dutifully followed the attendant around after the demonstration and looked at the work for sale, some of which were reproductions of ancient tomb paintings, while others were wholly original designs from the oil-on-velvet school of art (e.g., dreamy pictures of Akhenatan and Nefertiti). Needless to say I resisted buying anything there.
The next day we took a tour of Old Cairo. I was a bit disappointed not to hit the museum first, but on second thought anything after that would've been a letdown. Ibrahim kept remarking on the fact that Muslims, Christians, and Jews coexisted peacefully for centuries, and indeed, we visited a mosque, a Russian Orthodox cathedral, and a synagogue. He pointed out a number of cross-references among the religions--a Star of David in the ceiling of the mosque, Arabic script in the synagogue, Islamic motifs in the Orthodox church. The Sts. Sergius and Bacchus cathedral is alleged to have been built on the site where the holy family took refuge for several years, and it is considered a sacred place still.
Afterwards I plunged into the famous Khan Al Khalili souk but the sellers were too pushy. I couldn't make eye contact or even glance at stuff without being pounced upon.
This brings me to the inevitable discussion of safety in Egypt. There is a tremendous amount of anxiety and handwringing on the travel forums regarding whether to go or not. The images from Tahrir Square are familiar to everyone by now. The square is still occupied, and there is an occasional demonstration, but the activity is limited to that small section of Cairo and has not spilled over to other parts of the country. The desperation within the tourism industry is almost palpable. One statistic said that normally Egypt receives some 14 million visitors a year, and that number was down 30%, in a country where tourism employs some 12% of the population. Despite the pushy vendors, I never felt uncomfortable or unsafe walking alone or going to a restaurant at night. Many people made a point of welcoming me to their country, and the restaurants seemed especially grateful for my business.