Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Best Museum in the World

We left Luxor on a 10 hour train ride. The train came late and was getting later and later, it seems that it stopped more than it moved. We had first class. Periodically the conductor came to clean up the car of the scores of guys that didn't have tickets. It was an open layout, we observed the people. Foreign tourists were not allowed to travel on day trains in Egypt. It was the rule for a long time, and we have no idea if it is still on the books, we went to the train station, got the first class tickets and pretended that we know what we are doing. We did it so we could see the country, save some money and also because we were not in the mood for another night on the road. We were the only foreigners. Why wouldn't they let foreigners on day trains? Hard to tell, I doubt that there is an official explanation. The train had third, second and first class cars, the one we were on had some uncracked windows. Most others were broken, a mistery that would be solved in an instant, just a couple of hours into our trip. A very loud noise came from Ileana's side. She ducked, a rock had just hit and broken her
window! I was shaken for a few minutes, fortunately the windows are built well - even broken they hold together. I take that in a linear country like Egypt where everything happens on just a narrow strip around the Nile, the only distraction that the children have is to throw rocks at the train. At night the children might be sleeping and the tourists would be safer. The only other reason why they might not want foreigners during the daytime is that they would see how miserably poor and dirty the country is. But if they would really care about that it might be just easier to clean it up.
Luxor train station

First class in an Egyptian train

Ileana's window after the violent attack

Egypt sightseeing

We didn't go as far as Cairo, we got off in the suburb of Giza, I chose a hotel close to the pyramids. It took maybe a couple of hours to find our hotel, just 5 kilometers away from the train station, but in a neighborhood of several million people. It was a four star high rise, advertised with one name that nobody knew and in reality having a long Arabic name that cannot be pronounced or remembered. Anyhow, compared to our previous hotel experiences in Egypt this was nothing. The place was decent and a room was $35 per night. Supposedly from the terrace we could see the pyramids, but they were a little far, the air was too dirty.

Modern Cairo
We spent four nights and three days. With our plan made to get to Romania in a few days, it was almost like a duty. We had to see what we had to see and nothing more. I also had the desire to keep my family safe and Cairo was again the scene of some violent confrontations. It might be a magnificent city but we made it really simple. One day at the pyramids, one day at the museum and the last one to be decided. Between visiting the first pyramids at Saqqara, much older and smaller than the more famous ones and visiting the Coptic city, we chose the later. The city is surrounded by walls, well limited within the confines of the much bigger muslim Cairo. There were armed guards all over, but there were few people and the soldiers were getting bored. The Coptic religion is close to ours, it is orthodox Christian and one of the oldest unchanged Christian churches in the world. The Coptic museum attempts to present the culture and the history of these people. It was brand new, with the latest technology, clean, well displayed exhibition rooms and beautiful gardens. Even so, it was hardly exciting, we were done pretty quickly. We didn't see any exquisite artifact, the history lesson was almost boring. We moved a couple of blocks down the street and entered the hanging church. Now that was something that was worth the whole trip, a little gem full of old icons and relics. It made our day and instead of going to visit the other coptic attractions we decided that we had enough and were ready to return to the hotel. The two cab trips and the next day transfer to the airport were all we would get for now of the modern city of Cairo, but we didn't feel like we missed much.
The expensive, modern and boring Coptic Museum

The interior garden in the Coptic Museum

Coptic City

The Hanging Church in Cairo



By the way, returning to the hotel from the Coptic city we took a cab. The price we agreed on was 40 Egyptian pounds, I gave him two bills of 20. I looked back to make sure that the kids don't get off in the traffic; a moment later the driver was handing me back two bills of 25, saying that I gave him too much and I should give him some change. I pushed his hand back, laughed, and got off shaking my head. In a split second he had substituted the real money with some old bills without any value and expected me to fall for it. I guess he wouldn't try it if it wouldn't work most of the time. As for me, it is not this incident that I'll remember.

We saw the pyramids! We left our hotel early in the afternoon, got a cab in front of the hotel. The driver started the meter and got in the traffic. A couple minutes later somebody jumped in front to stop the car, came to the driver and started to talk with him in an agitated manner. He pointed to us. The driver explained: he is not allowed to take us to the pyramids, we should get down there and take a camel. I said no thank you, we should go further, as far as the car can go. For the next 10 minutes, this repeated numerous times. We understood that the driver could not drive over the people who stopped him, he could not avoid them, we had to play the game. Everybody had a similar script. We are not allowed there, the car cannot get in, the only choice is the camel. The driver got better at diffusing the attacks by referring people to me, even blaming me for my close-mindedness. I got better at getting rid of people, pretending we are not going to the pyramids, we don't speak English or using other various tactics. Twenty meters at a time we advanced toward our destination, the driver left us 100 meters from the ticket booth. I apologized for the inconvenience we caused him and gave him a good tip. Poor guy. We charged through the mob, got our tickets and took the path toward the first pyramid. But we were blocked again by people demanding to see our tickets that supposedly were not good. I laughed out loud and refused to show them any ticket, even saying we don't have tickets. It worked, it took them by surprise and they were out of arguments, how do I dare not show them the tickets? Of course, they were not officials, just touts trying to convince us to take a camel or a horse ride. We passed the first block and slowly, very slowly, the harassers started to ignore us, just like we've ignored them. We started to look around us and came face to face with the first pyramid, then the second and further away in the background, the third one.

What's to do and see at the pyramids? First, people get in, walk through dark narrow corridors up or down to the burial chamber. Then they get out, wonder out loud what got them to do that and swear not to ever do that again. Second they take a horse ride, a convenient way to try something for the first time in their life and get a memorable experience. The handlers have no safety gear or requirements and a weird sense of humor, they have fun running their horses as fast as they can and enjoying the screaming and yelling of the terrified tourists. Groups of tourists also can get to take their picture next to a camel. Usually their guide makes an arrangement with a camel owner, I don't know how much his cut is, but he will urge his group to pay $1 each per picture. Still, by far the most common form of entertainment at the pyramids is the camel ride. The tourist agrees on a price and gets on the camel. After a while the handler demands much more to lower the camel. After noisy quarreling, sometimes begging, sometimes pleading and crying, the tourist ends up throwing a bunch of banknotes or the whole wallet at the camel handler and the camel bends its knees and lowers the rider to a safe height.

We witnessed all of these but did not get to experience any of it first hand. We settled conveniently in the minority, walking around, looking around and just enjoying the view of the pyramids. Further more we were the only people that actually walked away in the desert to get a better view. Suddenly alone we got to have the whole place in an unusual, magical way. The three main pyramids and the score of smaller ones lined up in different, interesting ways, as we were trying to get a better picture. Hesitant, I looked at my wife and asked her: "Is this really the best place we've seen so far?" She smiled back at me, confirmed that it is and we both felt a similar combination of exhaustion and quiet satisfaction. We've covered the whole world visiting everything left and right, we dodged all the road blocks of the last few miles, fended off the aggressive camel herders and the noisy tourist groups and we got here. It was an extraordinary achievement, but for a moment the weight of this whole trip came over me, I couldn't rejoice, I was surprised by my blasé reaction. For a split second a million images passed through my eyes, from the wonders of Asia, the beauties of Australia and Africa and the treasures of Europe, and this was here all along, some pyramids from 5000 years ago. Why did we bother to travel the long way, but even more, why does the humanity bother at all now and why did it bother for the past 5000 years?

The sun was getting ready for setting. We watched in the distance the buses pulling away and the hordes clearing up. Soon it seemed that we were the only one left. Only then we realized how far we are from the main road and that we are in danger of being closed in without even seeing the sphinx. We started to hurry, crossing over the dunes. We stopped for a little for the children to marvel at the decaying carcass of a horse. We took a little detour to avoid a pack of hungry aggressive dogs. We eventually made it on a path and saw the sphinx, we found a guardian and asked for directions of how to access the enclosure. He was not a guard, he was a policeman, so he really wanted to help, but he wanted a backsheeh first! Sorry, come on! In the last few minutes we got in close to the sphinx, we took some more pictures and started to walk toward the exit, along with everybody else.

Nice wallpaper in the studio!

Taking an unusual picture of the pyramids


No jealousy here, my nose is cutter... 

But we couldn't just leave. We turned around every few steps, we looked some more, from different angles, and with every minute we witnessed a different hue of sunset. They locked the gates in front of us and still we stayed a minute more. Eventually out in the street, we decided to stay some more, entered an almost empty Pizza Hut and found a table with the view of the pyramids and lingered an hour more until it was dark...


You never knew that Pizza Hut can be so good
After a lot of research we decided that we are not going to take chances and we are leaving the cameras in the hotel. The website of the Egyptian Museum was last updated in 2003 when they had a special fee for photography, but since then they decided that they just keep all the cameras at the entrance. We took a cab to the subway stop and a few stops later we were in Tahir Square.
Tahir Square, in between clashes
There was some movement and some noise as we got out of the subway but we oriented pretty fast and took a side street out of the plaza. Burned down buildings around us, a few hundred meters away we entered the busy but safe grounds of the Egyptian Museum. Constructed in 1902 as a magnificent neoclassical building that was to house the treasures of ancient Egypt, the museum long surpassed its capacity and is described as a mess even by its fans and curators. The country leadership took a keen interest in its collections and displays and political decisions affected the experience, including the "no photo" policy. Famously, the first president of the republic, regarded the exhibition of the mummies as indecent or disrespectful and he forbade that. But soon he changed his mind when he realized how much rich foreigners would pay for that, so the mummies are displayed in several rooms in the museum with a special entrance fee that is double the main ticket. We asked each other and realized that we have no special interest in the mummies, we'd rather save the money and focus on the most important art exhibits. Ileana Ruxandra took the lead and through the lateral stairs forced us not to stop at all and go to the best end, Tutankhamun's treasure. But as we entered the building, I was shocked. I was walking almost backwards not being able to take my eyes away. A strange feeling got hold of me, "this is the most amazing museum I've ever seen." The experience cannot be properly described. Our six hours there brought indescribable joy and awe mixed with the feeling that still haunts me that it was not real, something so good doesn't really exist, maybe it was just a well done Hollywood set or an elaborate virtual reality computer program! It gave me such a high that maybe it should be illegal.

How does someone decide which is the best museum in the world? One way could be to do what we did, go around the world and see them all. It is a lot of work, it is expensive, I cannot recommend that, it might not be a realistic approach. Another way could be to search on Google. You would get the usual million of results, basically lists made by various travelers or articles from magazines. The lists are decent, they account for the typical variance in individual taste and interests and occasionally the Egypt Museum would make it in the top ten. I see their point, but they are all wrong! I struggled to figure a way of transforming my subjective feeling into an objective, indisputable argument. I have it. There is a website, http://www.hillmanwonders.com/, an older guy who visited more than 100 countries and travelled more than a million miles (1.6 million kilometers) starting a list of the best wonders of the world in 1968! He says he is the "world's leading wonder authority" and I do believe him. On his site he has short descriptions of 1000 places and a ranking of the top 100 wonders of this world. There are six museum listed, Egypt Museum at number 34, Louvre at 41, Metropolitan at 47, Ufizzi Gallery at number 61, British Museum at 89 and Hermitage at number 94. He is right and then I understood. The Egyptian Museum is not just that, it is a wonder in itself. It is the classical monumental building with 100 huge rooms. It is Alladin's cave, with countless blinding riches and narrow dark dusty corridors full of spider webs. It is an exhibition of typewriting styles and papers, shelves and cabinets that have been in use in the last hundred years. Behind a column you can find unopened crates that nobody knows what might contain and a few meters away the most modern case and sensors around a piece returned from Metropolitan a few years ago. There are a few exhibits that are labeled with decent explanations but the most fantastic are nearby, statues or sarcophagi from 3000 years ago without any explanation whatsoever. I doubt that anybody knows what most of the objects represent and that makes it much more exciting. Every few steps we found something beautiful and amazing. We started with the mapped, labeled attractions. Obviously, the Tutankhamun room is the best, the most fantastic thing that ever existed. The main room is small, the walls are covered in dirty blue cloth so full of dust that some have traced their name in it. It might take a few minutes to dust it, but it looks like nobody has ever thought of that. It doesn't matter. The 120-kilogram gold sarcophagus or the funeral mask spark through all the dust, undisturbed. We visited the adjacent rooms and then spread around moving at our own pace but in the same general direction. Occasionally we ran into each other and had a chance to share some discovery. Supposedly there are 120,000 objects exhibited, we might have seen most of them, but it wasn't too much. There was some chronological order that gave some logical sense and the occasional treasure with a brief explanation punctuated our tour and helped us progress through the 3000-year Egyptian history. Distractions became attractions, the guard and the curator going around with a list and changing the lead seals (!) on some case doors or a team of 11 people moving a small vase. There was a guard with a post-it note with something on it, a couple of others watching him, seven women, some nicely dressed and some from the cleaning crew plus a very courageous man who took a dust cloth and after putting the vase on a shelf, stepped up on it and stretched to get behind some glass panes and clean the dust. I watched him for a few minutes amazed at the risk he was taking, up above some exhibits, stretching his hand to reach further behind some little 3000 year old objects. Then, more then ever, I felt the pain of not being able to photograph, that is the kind of shot that you don't believe even when you see it. Not to mention the incredible Egyptian inefficiency, 11 people immobilized for 20 minutes to dust one shelf! To top it all, at the end, to get out, we had to open our bag so they could check that we didn't grab anything to take home!
The Egyptian Museum

It might sound bad, but I am glad that they never got going with the plan of opening a much bigger, modern site for the Egyptian museum. With the revolution and the mess that will encroach this country for the next 20 years, I am sure they'll never have time and money to modernize this place and as long as that won't happen it will remain without question the best museum in the world.
Sculpture at the airport. Good Bye Egypt

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