Again we’re moving in a block, eyes darting in all directions, reading the intentions of the people surrounding us. They know where they’re going, we have to huddle up so Mihai can look on the iPad to find the streets we’re supposed to follow to reach our hotel. We left Luxor early in the morning, boarded the train and passed the time people-watching, eating, working on the computer.
We even got an answer to the unspoken question “Why are so many broken windows on this train?” in the form of rural boys throwing stones at the crawling metal caterpillar. More than half of the time it just glides, we had time to notice how they were filling with bricks the space between armed concrete skeletons, making apartments. Or how men worked in the fields, watering the fields with the Nile, or the dump at end of the village with a dead cow in it.
|This one is from Cairo, but they look the same.|
We were late by three hours, it became dark, the names of the stations were written in Arabic and we had to get off at Cairo Giza, not the terminus station. Our fellow travelers were kind and said they will help us.
And now we have to get out of the train station’s maze, that is combined with the one from the subway, both of them melting in a conglomeration of taxis, van-buses, carts, market and people. We walk for a long time, the backpacks hunkering our shoulders, hoping that the next street is going to be the one that we need. The iPad says that we’ve passed our street, but we couldn’t have, still, we backtrack, we walk some more and eventually Mihai asks: we have ten more kilometers! We have no energy to spare in getting mad at the Google maps that tricked Mihai for the n’th time in reserving a room in a hotel close to a transportation hub, when in reality is a long way away. The man that helped us hailed a taxi and told the driver where we want to go. We crawl and dart, like playing Green light Red light, only with cars. There are no lines, people are walking between cars, it has a flair of India.
|Four on a motorcycle, weaving through traffic.|
The hotel, a cold and distant four star affair, looks nice but is noisy because of the traffic. Ear plugs to the rescue. Next day we eat a brunch from a very diverse buffet, with horrible imitations of European food (I think they rearrange the leftovers everyday like they are fresh) and lay low in our rooms until we can’t avoid it anymore: we have to get out to see the Pyramids. After all, they are the reason we are here.
We take a taxi and not long after, the driver pulls on the right: a guy wants to talk with us to offer us a guide or a camel trip. We decline and continue our way. In the middle of the heavy traffic there is another guy, making stop signs. The driver tells him something in Arabic, slows down, the other one jumps on the car, and we have to stop again, to refuse another camel trip or drive. “Cars are not allowed inside, you’ll need transportation, there is a big desert!” The scene will repeat itself with little differences three more times. The political scene doesn’t encourage tourists to visit this country, these people are hurt in their businesses and makes them bold enough to jump on people’s cars.
We’ve seen them through the smog haze, triangular orange grey flat shapes, surreal, dwarfing everything. Still we almost couldn’t see them when entering, because of the people “Camel drive!”, “Horse rides!” “Guided walks!” “Show me your tickets!”
Wow! Ginormous! It’s like I’ve become an ant in a world of sand-grey cracked legos stacked in pyramids. One row is almost my height (5’10’’). The first impulse is to climb it, but it is forbidden. People touch it as they’re having their picture taken with the Cheops pyramid. There are many people here, too many for my taste so we press on, toward the second and the third one, to escape the groups and the camel drivers. We are passed by uphill galloping horses, led by their master, while the two unfortunate men are afraid to sit in their saddles, afraid of the pain that for sure will come.
|This is not the ending he had in mind...|
Far away from the maddening crowd we enjoy their beauty, listening to the whistling wind. The distance, the sand dunes, the line of view, they all have their contribution. We’ve read somewhere that you can never see all of them in one line, it’s just a photo trick. But here we are, having them in a row, or in a line, or peeking one from behind the other.
|The three little ones are for the three queens of pharaoh Menkaure (he has the smallest pyramid)|
We could stay here for a long time, but we still have to see the Sphinx, so we make our way toward the exit, passing a half eaten horse carcass. We pity a group of tourists perked up on camels, moving slower than us and not having the liberty of choosing their path. At least they are safe from the dogs that have eaten the horse and are defending their territory. Armed with my day pack, I open a trail away from them (they look in our general direction but don’t move) and we pass the den: five yapping puppies (their mother is at some distance, head low, tail between her legs, pacing and surveying us, the others in the pack growling and barking.) As cute as they are, we don’t stop to pet them.
|Ileana took this picture.|
The Sphinx lies attentively in its own closed yard. Sanded, chipped, noseless, beardless (we’ve seen the beard in the British Museum) he looks ahead with serenity, not minding the people that take pictures and play games.
|The boulder in the middle is the Sphinx's head. The smog make everything hazy.|
|Ioan's view of the Sphinx...|
|...from his mom's shoulders|
Next day we take the metro and get down at Tahir Square. This is the place where the demonstrations take place, where people exercise their newly acquired right to express an opinion, different from the official one. The whole place looks dirty, there is an area with flags and banners, with empty chairs and carpets, just a few people manning the station. I guess some of the demonstrators have a job during the day, they will return in the afternoon. There is a faint smell in the air, pregnant, bitter...I can’t pinpoint it...burnt gun powder! Flashback of the Romanian revolution, an explosion 500 yards away, the orange light on the buildings, then a rush of cold air snapping my head backwards, forcing its way through my open mouth, making me deaf for almost an hour! I tell the children, but they can’t differentiate it.
We continue our way toward the Egyptian Museum, a pink and white building from the beginning of the 20th century. After three different security controls, we enter in a space that hasn’t changed in more than a hundred years. Labels in Arabic and French (from times when French was lingua franca), some typed, some handwritten give a minimal information about objects exposed in dusty wooden and breakable glass, fastened with rusted wire and sealed with lead! The treasures of Egypt, the most complete collection of Ancient Egypt artifacts, stare back at me with clouded eyes.
But we don’t have time now, we have to go directly to Tutankhamun’s room, to enjoy the mask and everything in there before it gets crowded. And there it is, in the middle of the room, in a secure glass casing, the child-pharaoh’s face, gold skin and enamel eyes. I could say he is serene, no worries, but if I look at him from the front, he looks bored and from the right side, he seems interested and eager to know more.
Maybe he is amused by the continuous stream of tourists oooohing and aaaahing at his jewelry and sarcophagus. His tomb was not the only one found almost intact, Yuya and Tjuya, his great-grandparents have their treasures exhibited and Psusennes I too. These rooms full of beautiful things, a crown, a scepter, a pair of gold sandals, are almost empty, herded tourists passing it by like muggles pass 12 Grimmauld place (an invisible house in the Harry Potter series.)
Having seen the most important things, we give ourselves a two hour limit to roam the rooms as we see fit, the liberty to look at what captures our eye and imagination. Big or small, with room to breath or crowded between similar objects, wood, metal, rock, earth, all hoarded. I even found the original of a copy that I’ve seen in the Luxor’s Nubian museum. Which one is better: the soft-lit copy with an inscription of its own, stating why it is an object of art, or the original bathed in natural light, in a dusty case, with no inscription at all?
|Picture from the internet representing the copy or the Nubian archers, each with its own height and characteristics.|
Though the vast majority follow the rules, the statues are not the same, their features are different. Akhenaten or Amunhotep IV, the pharaoh who worshipped just one god, Aten, the sun, breaks the mold with his elongated face and carnal lips. His wife, Nefertiti, has a bust, not so beautiful as the one in the Berlin museum. A stelae with three dancers looks modern in its fluidity of the rotating movement. Cheops, the one with the pyramid, has a very small statue, almost one inch tall. There is another statue, of a dwarf with his wife and their children. A robbing servant with a mustache has Indian features. Hatshepsut as a Sphinx! On, and on, and on... oh, how I missed being in a museum in which I could live, every day discovering its secrets! In this one we could get lost, like Maria did!
Eventually we got tired and we want to go home, the only problem is the crowd at the metro. We separate, the boys can take any car, we head for the women-only one. The first metro comes, we’re six bodies away from its doors. The second is right in front of us, but I have doubts it could take all three of us. A woman held her hand in front of me, saying no, we’ll get the next one. The robe of a young lady got caught in the closed door, she cries and hurries to rip the sheer fabric. Slowly, the metro moves away. Now there is an empty space in front of me and a worming mass behind. I turn sideways so as not to get pushed, squish to make room for the exiting women, and we’re thrusted inside. Giggling we look around: they are laughing too, holding their purses above their heads, talking excitedly and stealing glances at our uncovered heads.
Last day in Cairo we choose to visit the Coptic neighborhood, enclosed in a police barrier. We walk like in a daze, noticing the buildings, their decorations, the little vegetation, stores with decorated metal pots. The Coptic Museum requires cameras checked, no photos inside.
|Outside of the Coptic Museum with the Roman ruins next to the Egyptian flag, and behind them there are the spires of the Hanging Church|
We’re trying to make sense of what we see: cornices from ancient buildings, clothing, woven fabrics from the 3rd century, some of exquisite finery, a complete hymn book, from the same century, carved wooden doors from 600 AD, crosses that evolved from an ankh and icons.
|My hieroglyphs and drawings of different kinds of cross.|
In one of the rooms we see a woman, dressed like in the 70’s, barefoot, eating an apple, more dancing than walking, checking from the corner of her eye the cameras and then, taking pictures! Why her and me not? I take a picture of an icon that interests me, the next thing there is a male voice in Arabic over the sound system, the screech of a chair, steps and a guardian telling me not to take any pictures. “OK” and then I am upset, because I got caught and she didn’t (she was in the next room doing the same thing).
We get out and walk a little bit more and stumble over the “Hanging Church” built over the Roman gate used to access water. There is a courtyard, whose walls have new mosaics, stairs leading to another, inside courtyard, with pictures or paintings of all the Coptic patriarchs, from which we can enter the church.
In the floor there is a long glass window to see the gate. There are pews decorated with arabesques in the darkened wood and an ivory cross. Icons hidden behind glass, a pulpit built over thirteen marble columns, each with a different decoration, representing the Apostles (the black one for Judah), the Christians entering the church, crossing themselves and then going round, touching the walls, the icons, the drapes over the altar doors, in a counterclockwise motion. I follow them and stop to admire the finesse of an icon, when I smell something like frankincense, but not quite.
My mind races across memories, stopping in Meteora: Holy Relics! I look around and see a wooden box with glass walls, burgundy velvet inside on which there is golden embroidery and a small icon of Theodor Stratilat. I know this saint! I move around, there are more, St. Jacob, St. George that killed the dragon, St. Cosma and St. Damian, patrons of doctors, all in similar boxes and velvet, each with a different fragrance. This is an unexpected gift!
|St. George' relics, covered in prayers.|
What a wonderful way to finish our visit in Egypt. There are many other things to visit, but they will have to wait for a better political time and for us to recharge our depleted energy stores. Until then, I will miss the people and the Egyptian food. Thank you for everything! Shokran!
Maa Salaam Egypt! Good bye!
|If one's high enough, one can see a TRIPLE circular rainbow!|