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

5 Things That Make Egypt the Most Interesting Country Yet

I might say that Egypt is my favorite country so far as well, but that might be a bit of exaggeration and a lot of relief from the fact that we're going home soon… so I'll just use the adjective 'interesting,' and go from there.

Interesting can mean a lot of things. It can mean interesting as in "lots to learn about it." It can mean "slightly negative situations you're being polite about." It can mean interesting as in, "haven't seen this before."

So, without further ado, here's my list.

1. Temples and tombs. Having just come from Europe, where the majority of ancient temples/religious buildings are either bare and broken down, Egyptian temples are completely different. (Greek/Roman statues, the decoration of choice, have all been moved to museums, which makes the temples… boring. Churches are too well-known to provide any more interest.)

For one thing, every single inch is part of a relief. Sunken relief, where the shapes' highest layer is on the same level as the rest of the stone, but the outlines are carved into it, or raised relief, where the negative space has been pared down to create the relief, are everywher. Hieroglyphics abound. Some temples (and tombs) have the depiciton of religious scenes from the Book of the Dead, others telling of valor on the part of the pharoahs, and others being perfume recipes.

Apparently, it's really easy to read hieroglyphs— they're basically an alphabet (which is pronounceable) and symbols (which aren't). We could have learned, but decided not to (rather, we kind of forgot one should earn before reaching Egypt.)

Some of these reliefs still have the original paint on them. (The ones that don't were painted, once upon a time). To paint the walls, Egyptians would cover the sandstone with limestone and egg white, then paint the walls in black (powdered and burned animal bones), green (malachite), yellow (egg yolk), red (iron oxide), and blue (lotus). In some of the tombs of the Valley of the Kings, these colors persist.

Now tell me where else in the world you find this stuff. Angkor Wat has bas-reliefs everywhere, but I don't think they were ever painted, and they're not on every wall. Also, we'd seen the stories in India (it's all the Ramayana and the Mahabharata), so there wasn't the same impact.

2. Christian influence. Our first contact with Christianity in Egypt was at the St. Catherine Monastery, a few hours away from Dahab. This is the nice sid. We saw the Burning Bush, 6th century icons that survived the icon-destruction period, the church, etc.

But elsewhere, outside the monastery, there's the bad side of Christianity (as related to historical monuments). Christians came to Egypt, hid in the tombs of the pharoahs to avoid the Romans (who were persecuting them), and, from then on, they began defacing the Egyptian tombs.

Either the reliefs were pagan (so they had to be destroyed), or they looked like the Virgin Mary (so they had to be modified, i.e., destroyed). Faces have been carved out, legs have been chipped away at…

Egypt, of course, isn't the only place where Christians did this. Greece and Italy have also seen their monuments defaced for one reason or another (either because masterpieces looked like good collection items or, again, were pagan). The only things that survive in some places are things that look like members of Christian religion— winged beings, important historical figures, or the Virgin Mary.

And, of course, Christians weren't the only people to deface the temples. They just show up the most. Also culprits of destruction were the Ancient Romans, who'd sharpen their swords on the temple walls (at Habu Temple, near Luxor), looters from Ancient times, who came to get as many riches as they could find, incautious archeologists, and of course…

Tuthmosis III, whose aunt, Hatshepsut, kicked him out of Egypt so that she could be queen. She declared herself queen-king of Egypt, rationalizing her divine right to rule by saying that she'd had a dream in which her father, Thutmosis II, had blown on her and given her his blessing. To commemorate her father, she built the Temple of Hatshepsut in the Valley of the Queens.

When Hatshepsut died, Tuthmosis III moved into the Valley of the Queens and began removing every single one of Hatshepsut's cartouches to replace them with his own. Dad looked at the temple a bit and then he said, "What idiots."

3. Horse carriages. At first I thought this was just an Aswan thing, but it turns out that, with the exception of Sharm el Sheikh and Dahab, horses standing at carriages are everywhere. Their owners sit on the tongue of the carriage, holding the reins, and when they see you, they ask, "Carriage?"

90% of the time we say 'no,' so the owner gets down from the carriage, leaving the reins somewhere, and starts following after us. "Carriage?"

"No, thank you." Says the person in charge (usually Dad).

"Carriage, sir, you know how much?"

No reply.

"You know how much? Five Egyptian pounds, sir." There are six Egyptian pounds to a US Dollar.

We shake our heads, keep going. The price is actually about 20 Egyptian pounds, plus a little bit 'for the horse.'

"I'm honest, sir, five Egyptian pounds, sir."

One told us 20 Egyptian pounds outright. We hired him to take us back from hte Luxor museum, and when we got down, Dad gave him 25. He asked for 5 more pounds.

"Why?" asked Dad.

"For the horse." Said Ali.

"That's for the horse." Said Dad, gesturing to the money Ali held in his hand.

"Alright," said Ali, "Five pounds for me, then."

The horses range from well-fed and healthy to showing their ribs. Some have knobby knees. They all stand quietly, even without someone at the reins, until the driver gets on and asks them to start walking.

In Luxor, there's even a horse 'parking,' if you will— standing shelters with room for carriages in front. I'm pretty sure these are the stables (walls aren't required because it's so warm here).

Near Cairo, the only place you see horses and carriages (and camels) is at the Pyramids of Giza, which one tries to reach by car and ends up stopping every 10 meters because everyone feels the need to sell you a ride on a horse carriage or camel because 'you're not allowed at the pyramids with car.'

In one way, I can't figure what's better. The cars, which guzzle gas, make noise, pollute the air, etc, or the horses, who also pollute the streets (though, honestly, I always found the smell of horse lovely), but are much healthier for the environment. However, not all the horses seem healthy.

I'm not sure, therefore, which is the better solution for the environment (animals included).

Horse carriages or cars?

4. The Egyptian Museum. This is like… stepping back in time. The museum, opened in 1902, hasn't changed much since then. I think they've added motion sensors to one or two rooms, and they've definitely replaced the light bulbs with those long lights you find in the ceiling of all sorts of institutions like schools and hospitals. There aren't many guards in it— at the beginning the metal detectors don't even work (or, if they do beep, no one checks to see what's making the beeping noise)— at the end you're asked to open your bag to make sure you haven't just opened one of the very simple key locks (or broken the glass in one of the vitrines) and taken a priceless antiquity out.

Some, of course, are small enough to go into a coat pocket. Or pants pocket.

Yes, I was a bit shocked myself. It's a bit weird to be able to go just about anywhere in a museum chock-full of priceless, unique objects (there's 120,000 of them).

I accidentally stepped past a 'No Visitors' sign and got to go all the way to the end of a long hallway with lots of broken objects that are either in storage or awaiting movement to another location.

On the first hallway (I'd already visited most of the museum, bypassing the Mummy Room, which requires a separate ticket), I was stopped by a guy who was like, "You're not allowed back here."

"Sorry!" I said, and turned right back around.

"Ssss!" (the Egyptian version of 'Pst!') I turned back. He was moving a big wooden slat-thing and let me through.

However, I went back down the hallway on the other side, about two minutes later, then turned back and walked (that one was a dead end). At the end of this hallway was a family, who I'd seen before. The girl, a bit older than me, had her hands out to the side, her eyes closed, and she looked like she was in a bit of a trance. The father was running his hands just above her body, her head, her eyes, making all sorts of weird hand gestures that looked a bit like some magical ritual.

I wasn't sure what the protocol is when you end up in an abandoned hallway (it was full of pottery, both in vitrines and  just there, on the floor) with a woman who looked like she was meditating and a guy who's looks as if he's performing some arcane ritual. I looked around the hallway. The mother was acting as if this was completely normal, and she was examining the pots and jugs lying around, her hands behind her back.

I hung around, then asked the girl where she was from. She kind of blinked at me, then said, "Egypt."

"Oh." I said, "What was that?"

The mom suddenly became animated, "Energy meditation! He's an expert—" (gesturing to her husband) "in energy meditation. If you hurt anywhere, he can fix it right now."

I shook my head, half-wishing I could, but I thought I'd heard 'money' somewhere in the sentence, and I said, "I don't really hurt anywhere."

There's an awkward pause, and then I say, "Thank you," and walk back down the hall.

Seriously, though, this museum is full of everything. There's a flax rope found in one of the tombs (parts are basically disintegrated, but the parts that are still in one piece look as if they just came off the field). The placards— basically the descriptions of what everything is, are either yellowed with age, typed on a typewriter from 1902 (probably older— you can see SMUDGES!), written by hand in lovely calligraphy, or (and this is rare) new placards which are obviously printed on a printer.

It's fantastic. At some point though in the future, someone will realize that something isn't right, and they'll probably upgrade it to one of those museums which is fascinating, but has none of that history behind it. Of course, it's not good that people can lean on a sarcophagus or touch a statue's face from lack of guards, but that's the problem of personnel. Personally, I like the fact that nothing's organized, and that you can walk around and have to figure out yourself what's going on and why.

5. The metro. To reach our hotel from the Egyptian Museum, we had to take the metro. After buying our tickets, finding the train, and pushing through the crowd of people, we separated into two groups. Ioan and Dad went off to the rest of the train, while the rest of us went to the women's compartments. (I am so grateful for these compartments).

Women were pressed up almost to the line, waiting for the metro to come. We were all squished together when it finally arrived.

As the doors opened, a man carrying an enormous bag of papers thrust his arm up and tried to protect himself by the incoming sea of women. You know when an explosion goes off in a movie and the characters are thrown back in slow motion?

Well, the women are the explosion, and nothing's in slow motion. He pushed against the flow, managed to get through, and then the doors closed on one woman's skirt or purse strap. The train took off, and all of us waited for the next one.

Second train, an enormous surge of women into the car, basically not allowing the women trying to get out to get out. One looked really quite angry about the whole situation, but I think the rest of us, those trying to get in/deciding not to go in, were just laughing at the silliness of the situation.

Third train. As soon as the doors open, we're all squashed in, all the way to the doors on the other side of the car. We grab hand holds, prepared for the doors to close and the metro to take off, but more women push in, until we're literally packed together like sardines. Everyone is laughing, everyone is talking, and there's so many of us that when the train moves, basically no one budges from her spot.

It's like that for two stations, and then at the second one about three quarters of the people get off. From then on, it's just a normal metro car, as if there was nothing out of the ordinary.

Honorable Mentions

The friendliness.

The cats.

The Pyramids.

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