Monday, June 9, 2008

Egypt Trip: Cairo, Pyramids and Nile

We left our home town in Hertfordshire in pouring rain, definitely a good time to fly south. Just over four hours from London sees us landing at Cairo airport.

Cairo is my least favourite African City. Driving from the airport to our hotel means crossing the City. The traffic is very bad. Our guide Medhat told us that traffic lights in Egypt were for decoration only; we thought he was joking, he wasn't, nobody stopped at any red light. I wondered what would happen if a Brit had collected a car and started driving in Cairo, the first set of traffic lights that were red he would have stopped - I wonder what the other motorists would do, probably all run into him. There is heavy pollution over Cairo, it looks like a blue/grey cloud lying over the City

It is so important to have a good guide in Egypt it makes the difference between really enjoying the history of Egypt or just tolerating it. We have had both. And Medhat was an excellent guide in every respect. Every time we have been to Egypt we have stayed at the Mena House Hotel. I would strongly recommend this hotel for several reasons. It is a first class hotel and it is right on the edge of Cairo. From your bedroom window you can look out on to the pyramids.

Mena House Hotel

The Mena House is a historic hotel. It was originally a hunting lodge that the Khedive Ismael had furnished to receive Empress Eugenie at the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Kings and poets have stayed here. It was renovated, and is now run by the Oberoi hotel chain.

Cairo has a population of more than 13 million and we were told that a baby wa born every 23 seconds. Cairo is the largest city in Africa and the Middle East. It was founded at the spot where the Nile valley widens into a flat, fertile delta. The most radical changes have come within the past ten years. In 1960 fewer than 40 percent of the Egyptian people were city dwellers. The city then had a population of less than 3.5 million. Today 80 per cent of Egyptians live in an urban setting; one out of every three lives in Cairo, and the population is doubling every 10 years.

Our first morning we left the hotel and in a few minutes were at the pyramids. There is an opportunity to go inside one of the pyramids. I tried this once but it frightened me going into a dark narrow passageway and I came out. Ralph has been in a couple of times and says it is very dark, very hot, and very steep, but well worth while seeing.

Medhat told us all about the pyramids. The entrance to the Pyramid was always on the north side, and the opening was closed by an immense stone. The builders were so clever that the stone could not be easily recognised. The Great Pyramid of Khufu was originally 480 feet high and incorporates 2.3 million stone blocks averaging more than 2.5 tons in weight. East of the Great Pyramid is the site of Khufu's mortuary temple, identified by the remains of a basalt pavement, north and south of which are two boat pits. One of the boats was excavated in 1954, when a complete dismanted river barge was found. Clustered around the three great pyramids are lots of lesser tombs, some of them small pyramids, originally laid out in orderly rows along the same north-south axis as the tombs of the pharaohs. These tombs were mostly wives of the pharaohs.

After driving to a viewing point where you get a view view of all the pyramids we drove to see the Sphinx which is just south of the pyramids. It is as beautiful as ever.

For a thousand years, the desert sands drifted over it, obliterating it from sight. Then Thutmosis 1V in about 1423 records a dream he had while still a prince. While he was resting under its shade, the Sphinx spoke to him, promising Thutmosis the kingdom if he would clear away the accumulated sand. He did so, and became a Pharaoh. In front of the Sphinx, in between its paws, stands a granite stele set up by order of Thutmosis 1V telling this story.

The poor Sphinx had its nose shot off by the soldiers of Napoleon's army. It also used to have the "standard" ceremonial beard - but that is now in the British Museum. Apparently the Egyptian Government are trying to reclaim it, to put it back but we were told the ordinary people like it as it is, they have grown accustomed to it as it is now, and to put a beard on it wouldn't look right.

I love the Sphinx, with its man's head and lion's body, signifying the wisdom of the one and the strength of the other. Gazing at it and reflecting on all the history it had seen over thousands of years, made one feel pretty insignificant.

We visited a papyrus factory and had demonstrated how paprus was made long ago. You can have your name made into cartouches and we watched the man doing the hieroglyphs which was really interesting, he did it so quickly.

It is worth going and seeing the step pyramid at Saqqarah which is the oldest known pyramid and the first great monument in the world to be built of hewn stone.

In the evening we went on a dinner cruise on the Nile. There was a good buffet, lots of choice and we ate our meal as we drifted up the Nile. After dinner the entertainment was a belly dancer. But the highlight of the entertainment was a Denora dancer. He did a brilliant performance of a "whirling dervish".

The next day we visited the Cairo museum. The museum was built in 1902 and holds the world's greatest collection of Egyptian artefacts. Medhat made the museum and the whole business of archaeology alive and interesting. King Tutankhamun's artifacts were wonderful, and quite spectacular.

The Tutankhamun exhibition is breathtaking. Tutankhamun, the boy king who died at about 19 years of age. He has become a legend for the variety and beauty of his funerary furnishings. As a ruler, he was insignificant, but he is now immortalised as the only pharaoh whose tomb escaped more than minor attentions of the grave robbers. Until 1922 that is, when the tomb was discovered by the British archaeologist, Howard Carter.

Medhat also told us the story of Thutmosis III. He hated his stepmother Hatshepsut who was made regent when Thutmosis was young. Thutmosis had Hatshepsut killed and then destroyed all records of her, he had her cartouches erased and replaced by his own. In her lifetime she had stood in his way, and she despised his natural mother, whom Thutmosis loved very much., After he had killed Hatshepsut he made his mother into an important figure.

We also saw in the museum statues of dwarfish figures. Dwarfs were household servants and were able to rise to high rank. The true pygmies came to Egypt from the interior of Africa. They were often put in charge of the household treasurer and accounts. Medhat said he thought that was because as they were dwarfs, they couldn't run away so fast!

It is worth getting to the museum as soon as it opens as after a couple of hours of its opening it gets very crowded indeed.

On our way back to our hotel we crossed over the Nile from the East bank which is Cairo to the West bank which is Giza and where our hotel is.

That evening we went back to the area around the Pyramids for the sound and light show. The show is very atmospheric. Since we were last here laser technology has been added to the show and it was very good and well worth seeing.

No comments: