I’m in Cairo, Egypt. The land of Sphinxes, pyramids, huge red deserts with seemingly endless miles of flowing sand dunes and a people which can boast the longest continuous civilization in the history of the world. As I walk down the streets of downtown Cairo, I stare up in awe. Beautiful 1920’s New York style 10 story gray and white buildings with massive pillars, huge windows, and terraces tower above me and line the sides of the road for as far as I can see and a statue of someone famous stands tall and proud at the intersection roundabout. The air is cool and the breeze flows through the buildings like it would through a valley, gently soothing me as I walk.
“This place isn’t as hot as I thought it would be,” I think to myself. And of course – it is only 8:00AM, and that is how the desert is. Hot during the day and very cold at night. But even so, the heat is a different heat. A dry heat and a calm heat. I mean, you know it’s strong and you know you should drink a lot of water – but it doesn’t force you to plan your day around it as you can easily withstand the midday sun. It’s not like the Indian heat, which is more like an evil tyrannical dictator commanding you to stay indoors from 10:00 – 3:00 and punishing you severely if you disobey. No, I would prefer the Cairo heat any day.
People meander down the streets and go about their days. Most women have brightly colored head scarves and the pinks and neon greens catch your eye as they walk by. Former Soviet Union style taxi cars zip by and slow when they pass so they can lean over and ask you where you want to go. Shade can easily be found under one of the many trees lining the sidewalk and two jolly Muslim men take the opportunity to chat beneath the healthy cover. Arabic is everywhere and it is impossible to read just about anything, including addresses, but no matter – someone is always willing to help you out with the little bit of English they know. People here are prideful and busy, but they can always find time for you – but you must always be careful of those who offer their services, “No charge, friend! Follow me!” You may find yourself paying a commission for something you didn’t really want. Down the road, two more men walk casually into a massive and beautiful mosque, with huge pillars topped with a moon shooting up to the sky. The sweet musky smell of incense and spices wafts by with the cool breeze.
But the sun will soon heat up and I want to see the pyramids, so I need to hurry. I flag down a taxi.
“How much for the day? I want to see the three main sites.”
The taxi driver thinks for a moment and pulls out a pen and a paper.
“100 Egyptian pounds ($16 dollars),” he writes on the paper. Excellent. I hop in and we are off.
Cairo zips by my taxi and I stare out in wonder. The gentle Nile, the worlds longest river, snakes through the city and vegetation protects it from the city – green insulates the river and the city (still, very green) provides the second layer of defense. And the architecture is incredible here. It really is like the building style developed until 1929 and then was stunted. Even new buildings look like something from Ghost Busters and it provides a distinct character to Cairo that I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world.
We pass the Muslim Quarter of the city and I am in awe. Hundreds (maybe thousands) of mosques line the streets – large onion shaped spires and massive pillars peak out from the mass of buildings with the symbol of Islam proudly displayed. To my right, I see a mountain (or is it more like a cliff?) with seemingly thousands of tiny houses painted before it like something out of a movie, and above, some sort of a castle, overlooking the “soldiers”. Next comes Coptic Cairo: the Christian area of the city. We fly past churches and synagogues, old black robed and bearded men walk with solemnly with massive crosses around their necks. Beautifully decorated cemeteries are a common sight, and the architecture of the churches makes my heart beat in awe. Never before have I been so thoroughly impressed with buildings as I have here.
We soon zip past old Cairo – dilapidated old half finished buildings lie on either side of the raised highway, which allows you to peak in to the squalor. I’ve never seen so much trash in my life and it seems like hundreds of buildings have sprung up in the middle of the landfill. It’s quite different from the Cairo I first saw which is squeaky clean, I can tell you that much. Children play in the trash and others pick through it. Most ignore it, but there is no denying that there is a lot of it. I would like to wander through the mess.
The taxi continues on, we leave it behind and get closer to the pyramids. Ahh, yes! There’s one! A triangular peak juts out from amidst the buildings. There’s another! I can see half of two pyramids lying on a sand hill from the crop of buildings before me. We slowly descend on the highway a bit and I lose sight of the ancient wonders.
My taxi driver looks at me and smiles. “Very soon!” he proclaims.
A lot of people don’t realize how close the pyramids are to downtown Cairo. They aren’t very far and all it takes is a 20 minute taxi ride to the edge of town to get to them. But unlike back home, where cities and towns blur and blend and it’s hard to distinguish where one starts and the other stops, in Cairo, there is no such difficulty. When you arrive to the end of Cairo, you have some pyramids and then sand. Miles and miles and tons and tons of sand. Nothing more…just more of nothing. And so, when you finally arrive, it is indeed a bit of a shock. The buildings suddenly stop and a mile out are the pyramids, majestically overlooking the city they have watched developed over the past 3000 years. Quiet observers, they have seen much. If only they could talk…
Well, they don’t disappoint. My taxi pulled up to the first pyramid and I hopped out and headed for the ticket counter. I paid my for my ticket, passed through a metal detector and was stopped by a jovial guard. He put his hand on my shoulder and looked into my eyes.
“You have any knife?” he asked.
“No sir,” I reply.
“No gun?” he asked.
“No sir,” I reply, nodding my head.
“And no bombs?” he asked, in a more serious yet completely joking way.
“Not even one,” I reply, nodding my head with a smile.
“Welcome to Egypt. Enjoy the pyramids,” and with that let me loose to explore.
I spent the day wandering around, snapping pictures, visiting tombs, fending off touts offering “free gifts” (which they then demand payment for) and camel jockeys attempting to coax me into going for a ride, marveling in awe and the superstructures before me, and of course, sweating.
At Giza, there are three main big pyramids and a few smaller ones. Interestingly, the pyramids are actually a few meters shorter than they were when they were built because people have spent the past few thousand years removing the bricks to build their houses. One of the smaller pyramids actually has a huge gash in it and a man explained to me why. It turns out that when the Turks invaded Egypt, they wanted to destroy the pyramids and so they tackled the smallest of the bunch first. 8 years later, they had only dented the surface of one and so they gave up. Now that is craftsmanship!
I really wanted to go inside of one pyramid to see what it was like and I paid for the ticket and entered. Pyramids are mostly solid stone with a very small passageway (through which you almost need to crawl) leading to two main chambers, barely 50×50 feet in the middle. It’s quite interesting that they built such massive structures and the only hollow parts are those two rooms. It is an incredible feeling to stand within, examining the hieroglyphics etched into the walls with the knowledge that hundreds of thousands of tons of solid brick completely surround you. Back outside, I wandered around a bit more and visited a building housing a massive boat that they found buried in a tomb which had been left so the pharaoh could get around in the afterlife. It had been found dismantled and they carefully reconstructed it and put it on display. It stretches over 150 feet and is completely original – and more remarkably, uses no nails to hold the parts together, only rope. It was pretty remarkable to see something so old yet looking nearly new before me.
Later that day, I also visited Saqqara: the site of the world’s first “pyramid”, which isn’t really a pyramid because it is made up of many steps. The pharaoh wanted to make something new instead of little clay tombs and so he came up with the step pyramid – and it was this design which led to the pyramids in Giza. It was all pretty remarkable.
I’ve been traveling with a few Americans and have been having a great time. We met on the plane and have stuck together ever since, even though I am staying at another hostel very close to theirs. I haven’t traveled with too many Americans on this trip mostly because I haven’t found many, but those that I have found are usually too caught up in the fact that they are the only Americans traveling to be any fun. But these guys are great (a couple from Wisconsin and a guy from New York). I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as much as I have in the past few days. So the first day we arrived, we went and saw the Cairo museum (which is incredible) and then went and saw the sunset at the pyramids. They wouldn’t let us in because it was after 5:00pm, so we went to a 4 story restaurant right in front of them which allowed us to see over the gate and watch the sunset while enjoying a few nice beers. It was then off to get some dinner at an Arabic restaurant, and then off to bed. We walked home and observed Cairo. This place is incredible. It’s alive during the day, but it is even moreso at night. Families are out at all hours of the night, even past midnight on weekdays, wandering around and having a good time. I’ve never seen anything quite like it in my life. Perhaps it’s because it’s so much cooler than in the day. The next day we rented a taxi and went and saw the pyramids. I’ve described them above – they were incredible. For lunch, we stopped and had some of the most incredible food I’ve ever eaten. Arabic food is simply incredible.
That night we went and saw belly dancing. We didn’t want to see the expensive shows at the hotels because…well, they are expensive, so we went to a cheesy club in the heart of downtown Cairo. It certainly was an experience, I can say that much. The girls didn’t know how to belly dance very well and the entire night consisted of an Arab attempt at stripping, but without any of the clothes coming off – and in very modest dress. We all just made jokes the entire night.
Yesterday, we spent the entire day wandering around Coptic Cairo. The architecture of the houses, mansions, churches, cemeteries, etc., was breathtaking. I took lots of pictures. After that, we went to the Citadel to see Sufi dancing. I can honestly say that this dance show was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen in my life. It consisted of a bunch of guys with drums, flutes and bells dancing and spinning, and guys coming out in brilliantly colored multilayered dresses (I guess you would call them that) who spun around in circles the entire time. As they spun, the dresses caught in the air and would rise up. They would disconnect them and the air would make them rise higher, over their heads and they would do all sorts of moves with them. It was breathtaking and there is no way I could ever describe completely what I saw. Simply phenomenal. Best of all, the admission was completely free! I don’t get it, we would have paid for this show and actually, these guys tour the world and charge quite a bit for international shows.
So here I am today, getting ready to see more of Cairo. I’ve never seen a city that has so many different things and regions and stuff to see. I’ve seen cities that you should spend a few days in to get a feel for it, but I feel like I could spend a month here and still not see it all. There is just such an incredible amount to see and learn about. This place has such a remarkable and distinct history. It has such an incredible feel and atmosphere to it, to top it off. I am floored.
Today I will wander around a bit more and then take off for the desert tomorrow. I want to see the desert and may take a two day four wheel drive trip through the black and white sand deserts. Get ready for some incredible pictures. Then it’s off to south Egypt to see Luxor and Aswan before heading to Sanai.
The only annoying thing about Egypt is that although it is filled with friendly people who really want to help you out, it is also filled with just as many touts and con men pretending to be your friend and “help you out”, but who are really just taking you around to collect commission off of your purchases and get you to take a look at their “shops”, which are really not theirs, they just want commission. It is very difficult to distinguish between those genuine and those not, but in general, I’ve found that if they say, “no money”, they generally want money. I’ve got quite a few experiences that I’ll share when I do a summary post of Egypt. But this post is long enough as it is, so I’ll spare you for the moment.
But I love this place. It took me by surprise – and what a pleasant surprise it has been.