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The Fayoum

Mary Ann and I recently visited the Fayoum area, just 76 kilometers outside of Cairo.

Some guide books call the Fayoum a semi-oasis. It has natural springs, but it also has many canals running from the Nile to irrigate the area. Therefore, much of the extensive vegetation in some areas of the Fayoum is due to the man-made canals rather than to the lakes. The Fayoum Depression is 70 kilometers wide and 60 kilometers long. The area includes the relatively uninteresting Fayoum city, a large natural salt lake, a few pyramids, other ruins, some farmland and recreational facilities. Fayoum is where many Egyptians go to get away from Cairo and just kick back to enjoy the lakes.

The term “Fayoum Portraits” refers to pictures attached to mummies dating from about the first century BC that were found most abundantly in this area. These mummy portraits, reflecting Roman and Greek influences, have realistic faces painted on boards, in contrast to the funerary masks associated with the pharaonic period, of which King Tut’s mask is the most well known.

During our visit we stayed at Zad Al Mosafer, an ecolodge in the village of Tunis in the far northwest corner of the depression. The area is popular on weekends and holidays for swimming, boating, horseback riding, and just relaxing. Tunis is an artist colony, with several potters actively working in the area. The lodge is quite rustic but comfortable and our room was outfitted with both mosquito netting and air conditioning. There is a canopied outside sitting area with dappled sunlight sifting through, highlighting a large number of plastic bags filled with water hanging from the rafters. Evidently, insects see a magnified reflection of themselves in the bagged water and are scared off. I don’t know whether it works, as we did still have a lot of mosquitoes to contend with.

We spent the first afternoon walking around exploring the area and visiting pottery shops. We were asked if we were interested in a boat ride on the lake, Birket Qarun. We were, and after some difficulty in trying to determine the cost, we decided to just live with the always vague, “No problem,” and, “What you like.” We realized then that we didn’t know whether we had signed on to a motor boat or a sail boat or something else. It turned out to be something else entirely – a row boat. There was just enough room for the two of us and Ali, our captain and oarsman. Ali provided us with a very pleasant trip around one of the bays of the rather large lake. We made a short stop on a sand bar and ventured into the marshes, where Ali had us looking for fish and birds. At one point, he reached into some plants and pulled up a trap with several small white fish flopping around. Evidently, he is also a fisherman.

We arranged for a desert safari on Friday to Wadi El-Hitan, the Valley of the Whales. About 30 miles into the Western Desert from the western edge of the oasis, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here are fossilized remains of some of the earliest forms of whales. The fossils of these whale-like creatures display vestigial limbs – evidence of life as and animals.

A four-wheel drive vehicle is recommended for the trip into the desert, but unfortunately the hotel manager could not locate one for Friday. He assured us that he had a car that could handle the terrain and a driver who knew the area.

The real trip starts on a paved road beyond the oasis into the desert, where two lakes, linked by Egypt’s highest waterfall (4 meters), form the basis of a recreation site for the locals. The road is sand-swept and from time to time a front-end loader is required to remove the drifts, much like snow removal in Wisconsin. After about 30 kilometers, our driver took a right turn and the pavement ended. The next 30 kilometers straight into the Western Desert were unpaved and fairly barren. At one point where sand had built up on the hard desert surface, our drive rlooked back at us and said, “So sorry.” He stepped on the gas and floored it straight into the sand drift. I’m sure the front end saw air, but we came down on the other side without getting stuck in the sand. So, this was why four-wheel drive was recommended. Eventually we came upon several sand-colored stone buildings that formed the base of the World Heritage site.

Our driver parked and invited us into the café for beverages before we started our hike. The entire site was, simply-put, sun-baked. The café had a sand floor, large holes in the wall for windows, and a stick covered ceiling that allowed for dappled sunlight to stream in. We sat on cushions on the floor, Bedouin style, around a low table and enjoyed a little Turkish coffee.

The main feature of this site is a three-kilometer-long hiking trail with displays of the fossilized remains of sea creatures that are more than 35 million years old. People come to Egypt to see the pyramids, because they are so unique and old. 5,000 years old – hah! That’s nothing! The trail is well-marked with 13 clearly identified and nicely explained exhibits. Mercifully, several of the exhibits have pleasant shady shelters with rustic seating. It is advised to start the tour early in the morning so that the trail can be completed before the intense heat of the afternoon sun makes it unbearable.

For me, this was the highlight of our Fayoum visit. I enjoyed the opportunity to spend a few hours hiking through the fascinating desert landscape. The 35- to 40-million-year-old fossils were just topping on the cake.

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The inside dining room at Zad Al Mosafer Ecolodge

Lounge and Outside Dining Room at Zad Al Mosafer Ecolodge

Sandbar in Lake Qaroun in the Fayoum Oasis

Our rowboat captain and his fish trap

Sand plowing on the desert road outside of The Fayoum

Lakes outside of The Fayoum

The last 35 kilometers of road are unpaved

Stylized fossil entryway.

Sign at entrance

World Heritage sign

The cafe at Wadi Al-Hitan

Enjoying the cafe before we start our hike

The official start of the hiking trail

Mary Ann wearing a headscarf for protection from the sun

The first fossil exhibit

Fossilized mangrove roots – evidence of a sea

More fossils

The trail into the desert

View from inside one of the shelters along the trail

The return hike

On our return we stopped at the highest waterfall in Egypt

One recent Saturday, the Binational Fulbright Commission Egypt sponsored a walking tour of Islamic Cairo for Fulbrighters and their families. Our tour guide was Dr. Tarek Sweilam, a native Egyptian, who earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University in the history, art, and architecture of Egypt and the Middle East.

Our day started with a tour of the Ibn Tulun Mosque, generally considered the oldest mosque in Cairo, having been completed in 879 AD. The minaret is unusual in that it features an external circular staircase. While the mosque has been restored several times over the years, it retains much of its original form. The courtyard is still the largest in terms of area of any mosque in Cairo.

We then proceeded to Bab al Futuh, a gate at the north end of the wall that surrounds Old City, and the entrance to Shari al-Muezz  (Muezz Street). This is one of the oldest streets in Cairo and the remaining sites on our tour are located along its path. It is a narrow meandering street along which we see towering minarets, arched entryways to old stone buildings, and merchants selling everything from fresh fish to hookahs for smoking shisha.

Bayt al-Suhaymi is the restored Ottoman-period private home of a wealthy Egyptian. Its high ceilings allowed warm air to rise and winds scoops built into the upper walls brought fresh air in to cool the rooms. Central courtyard gardens and marble floors added to the cooling features of the house. There were few, if any, functionally dedicated rooms (e.g. living room, dining room, bedroom). Rooms were used for what was needed at the time.

The Sultan Barquq Complex included not just a mosque, but also a khanqah for pilgrims to stay in, a madrasa (school) for the study of the Quran, and a mausoleum. Built in the 14th century, the impressive entryway consists of a black and white marble arch over a large bronze plated door.

The last mosque on the tour was the Sultan Qalawun Complex, which dates from the late 13th century and also includes a madrasa and mausoleum. The impressive interior features stained glass windows.

I hope these photos provide some indication of the exceptional art, craftsmanship, and architecture characteristic of Islamic Cairo. We were so very fortunate to have an expert like Dr. Sweilam to point out the architectural detail and explain the various influences of the Sufis, the Mamluks, and others.

Our day ended with a late afternoon lunch at Al-Azhar Park, with a commanding view of the Cairo skyline, the Citadel and the spires of Mohamed Ali Mosque.

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Western Christmas

As I stated in my Thanksgiving post, traditional western holidays here are little more than a date on a calendar and our memories. Christmas, though, was quite a bit more.

Since the population of this country is about 90 percent Muslim, there is little observation of Christmas on December 25. Nonetheless, the international community and the local Coptic Christian populations of Cairo and Alexandria seem large enough to justify economic recognition.

A handful of stores sell Christmas decorations; small artificial Christmas trees and non-religious items like stars, reindeer, snowmen, and Santas. The pastry shops have chocolate Santas, reindeer and snowmen and some really fancy cakes. (As an aside, there are a lot of patisseries here, perhaps a lasting relic of the days many French expats lived in Egypt.) I saw live Christmas trees for sale, but they were cedars, not pines. I have no idea what the selling price was. Finally, some shops, usually clothing stores, had a winter or Christmas theme in their store windows. Actually, it seemed more geared toward their winter sales. It is winter here and some days the temperature might not even crack 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Overnight lows are in the 50s and occasionally high 40s. So, winter clothing is big – boots, parkas, and neck scarves. Evidently, observing the secular aspects of Christmas is a convenient marketing theme.

San Stefano Mall (http://sanstefanograndplaza.com/index.html) was decked out in a winter/Christmas theme with traditional, but secular, Christmas music piped in – Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole. Mary Ann and I had dinner at a nice restaurant one night and couldn’t help but smile at the piped in music – “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.” The decorations didn’t materialize until maybe a week before December 25, so there wasn’t a long “season” here. Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7.

We walked through the Four Seasons Hotel and noticed that their Christmas trees were real pine trees. They also had a giant gingerbread house near their third floor restaurants. We treated ourselves to brunch there Christmas morning; interestingly, there was no Christmas theme. There was however, a flyer promoting a Coptic Christmas buffet as well as special New Year’s meals.

On a personal level, however, acquaintances of ours would make it a point to wish us a “Merry Christmas.”

Mary Ann got together with three German AFS high school exchange students to host a Christmas cookie party. Our friend Sarah, a Fulbright student, offered to help and to bake some cookies. They invited all the folks associated with AFS here: the current exchange students, the returnees, the host parents, and all the AFS volunteers. We managed to scare up items from a variety of places to give the house a Christmas look. I discovered a small artificial Christmas tree wrapped up in a bag on the top shelf of our closet. Once it had been decorated with a string of small white lights and some homemade ornaments, it looked quite nice. Another string of lights and a brightly lit folded paper star guaranteed that our balcony appeared festive among the darkened balconies of our neighbors.

We share some traditional Christmas treats with our guests: various holiday cookies, fudge, candies, a German stollen, and an Italian panettone Christmas bread. Mary Ann asked the German exchange students to talk about their family Christmas traditions and gave the Egyptian AFS returnees a chance to talk about their American Christmas memories.  Our 20 or so guests seemed to enjoy our American – German Christmas party.

New Year’s Observation

There were New Year’s Eve parties at some hotel restaurants, but other than that, there seemed to be little evidence of formal observation of the new year. We dined at a nice restaurant relatively early in the evening and then rang in the new year in our apartment, watching observations around the globe from our laptops. As midnight approached, fireworks started appearing in the sky coming from several locations in our neighborhood. For the next half-hour, we watched the informal fireworks display. We were reminded of the informal fireworks displays in Oshkosh on the Fourth of July that would go on sporadically for hours after the formal display ended. The difference here is that there were no official fireworks.

Coptic Christmas

We ventured out in a new direction on January 7, Coptic Christmas. The Green Plaza is a large mall, (http://www.ragabgroup.com/greenplaza/) anchored by a Hilton Hotel and a Carrefours grocery store. It includes a large cinema complex and two stories of small shops around an open courtyard. The mall seemed extremely crowded that night with many families and groups of young people enjoying the open spaces. What struck us was that most of the women were not wearing head coverings, unlike what we usually observed in most of Alexandria. Instead, many of them wore necklaces with crosses. Given that the mall was really packed, our conclusion was that it was popular among young Copts to spend Christmas night at the mall. I’d like to think the mall isn’t always that crowded.


Our Apartment decorated for Christmas


Christmas Party

Decorations on the balcony

Four Seasons Christmas tree and gingerbread house

Another Christmas tree in the Four Seasons

And yet another tree

Yes, a Halloween hat, No, I don't know why

Fireworks from the balcony

Cairo and Giza

We recently spent an interesting two days touring Cairo. Wednesday saw us in Tahrir Square in the morning, at the Khan Al-Khalili souq in the afternoon, and watching whirling dervishes in the evening. Thursday we visited the three pyramids at Giza, the Step Pyramid in Saqqara, and the Bent Pyramid and Red Pyramid in Dashur.

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Tahrir

During a visit to Cairo with a friend, we had a rendezvous with a college friend’s daughter, a young Canadian woman who has been touring the world with her boyfriend. Their hostel was just down the street from Tahrir, our friend wanted to see Tahrir, and Tahrir was quiet at the time, so we ventured into Tahrir Square to meet them. A man in civilian clothing at a barricade at the perimeter asked to see our passports. We obliged, he let us pass and wished us well.

The “square” is really a large rotary or round-about.  The formal name is Midan al-Tahrir. Midan refers to a large public space or field, so there are a number of “midans” in most cities. It is conveniently translated as “square” without any particular thought given to the actual shape of the public space. Midan al-Tahrir is usually a very busy traffic circle in Cairo.

We met Kathleen and her boyfriend outside the KFC, on an outside edge of the traffic circle, where a free clinic had been set up. Tents, tarps, and signs filled the center of the circle. People seemed to be milling around, with little specific activity. A few young Egyptian men stopped to talk with us, leading into long discussions about the protest and Egypt’s future. As we were all clearly foreigners, many people greeted us, welcomed us to Egypt, and inquired about where were from. A number of adolescent boys seemed to be there more for the spectacle than anything else, just taking pictures and asking silly questions.

After a couple of hours of talking, looking around, and taking photos, we departed for Khan al-Khalili.

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Khan al-Khalili

Khan al-Khalili souq, while sometimes dismissed as a tourist trap, is interesting because many locals still regularly do business there (although they’re not the ones buying the stuffed camels) and it has been a market area since the 14thcentury.  The outer edge, near the Hussein Mosque, focuses on tourists; further down the alley the goods are more mundane and the clientele is more local, women in hijab and many men in galabeyas. It’s worth a trip just for the architecture alone; this is the heart of old Cairo.

Mary Ann and Ann eating a sweet potato from the vendor just behind them.

Two significant mosques in the area are both worth visiting. The Al-Hussein Mosque, for a variety of religious and historical reasons, is considered very sacred. While one of the minarets dates from the 13th century, the remainder of the building was built in the 19thcentury.  Across the street is the Al-Azhar Mosque, a very old, large, and architecturally interesting structure which houses a madrasa that is considered the second-oldest educational institution in the world. Among its interesting features are a large courtyard and minaret with a double finial.

At El Fishawy's Coffee House

We grabbed falafel sandwiches for a late lunch and continued our wanderings.

Sahlab, a warm, sweet, milky drink that includes raisins, nuts, and coconut

Khan Al-Khalili

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Just Spices

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Al-Azhar Mosque

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Whirling Dervishes

Several years ago the Ministry of Culture established the Al-Tannoura Dance Troup, a traditional Sufi dance troupe which performs in the courtyard of a restored Ottoman era structure just down the street from the Al-Azhar Mosque. The dramatically-lit venue and performers’ traditional instruments and garb set the stage for an unforgettable performance. While the colorful dress of the whirling dancers may be less than authentic, watching someone with the ability to whirl nonstop for probably 20 minutes or more to the rhythm of traditional music makes for a memorable evening. No tickets were sold; it was a free performance. We were prepared to make a donation as we left, but there was no opportunity. There was no soliciting for donations and nothing being sold, this simply being an event provided free by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. The musicians and dancers perform two nights a week.


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Pyramids

We had been in the country more than three months and on Thursday we made our first visit to the pyramids. Mary Ann, forewarned about the touts who hawk souvenirs and camel rides, seemed to have been pretty well-satisfied with the nice view of the pyramids from our airplane window when arriving, but I really wanted to see them up close and personal. It’s Egypt – of course you have to go to see the pyramids! You must understand that Giza is a suburb of Cairo. It’s at most a ten US dollar taxi ride from anywhere in the city, and can be seen from many vantage points of Cairo, haze permitting.

This guy really wanted us to reide his camel

Anyhow, I don’t think there is anything I can add; they’re the pyramids. It was a pleasant day and we enjoyed walking around and even climbing up on them. The only disappointment was the aggressiveness of the souvenir vendors and the camel jockeys wanting to do business with us. Tourism is way down and they are economically hurting, so I am sympathetic to their plight. Nonetheless, I can’t support them all and it gets a little tiring to be constantly saying “no, thank you” (la’, shukrun). I know, I know, they’d swap places in a heartbeat. Enough said.

We had a car and driver for the day, so we made the trip to Saqqara, about ten miles south of Giza. The Saqqara complex is a large burial ground that includes the ruins of several temples and the Step Pyramid, which predates the ones at Giza.

Entrance into the pyramid for those with 100 pounds and who are not claustrophobic

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The Step Pyramid is in the background

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This is a policeman and if you blow the picture up you will see he is carrying a rifle

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The Bent Pyramid

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Thanksgiving in Cairo

Mary Ann and I stayed in a Fulbright-owned apartment in the Garden City section of Cairo, along the Corniche al Nil (main road along the Nile), near Tahrir Square, when we visited friends there for Thanksgiving. There was nothing here to remind us of our big American holiday — no sale flyers or promotions, no school events or activities, no television commercials, and, of course, no Black Friday shopping.

As we were settling in on that beautiful Thursday afternoon, we heard a commotion outside. Marching toward Tahrir on the sidewalk across the street was a group of about 200 protesters, carrying flags and chanting as they marched. Those on the periphery held hands to form a human fence, preventing the marchers from spilling out into the street. It was a young and peaceful group and our first encounter with Tahrir protesters.

Later that evening we walked from our apartment to another section of the city for our dinner engagement. We traveled even closer to Tahrir and, while there were people milling about, the atmosphere was more one of a carnival or fair than of a demonstration. Vendors hawked snacks and Egyptian flags and young men posed for pictures. Tahrir was about two blocks to our right; we walked to the left, crossed a bridge, and continued on our way.

Our hosts were the director of the Fulbright office in Cairo and his wife. They have a nice tenth-floor apartment overlooking the Nile. They somehow managed to acquire a Butterball® turkey and served up a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for us and four other guests. Knowing that we are vegetarians, they thoughtfully provided a delicious non-meat casserole, and of course we were able to enjoy almost all the rest of the many side dishes. It was really a very nice evening, with a fascinating group of other, quite international, guests.

With Tahrir Square once again torn by military violence against demonstrators, our memories of that peaceful day at the time of another American holiday seem really poignant.

Marching Towards Tahrir

The Spread

Vegetarian Thanksgiving Meal

A Satisfied Man

Safety

I just read that several travel agencies have, unfortunately, cancelled their flights to Egypt. I feel it is important to comment on safety in Egypt.

Egypt is safe.

The protests and demonstrations throughout Egypt are directed at the military government and security forces. While it may seem a bit surreal, the rest of the country goes about its business. People go to work, go to school, go shopping, and go on with their lives. I’ve only once seen a television in a shop tuned in to coverage of events at Tahrir Square, whereas they’re often tuned in to soccer events.

There was a confrontation at the police headquarters in Alexandria last night, resulting in scores of injuries and one reported fatality. Mary Ann and I were out doing errands last night and passed within a quarter mile of the demonstration. If we had not just been on-line checking the news, we would not have known anything unusual was happening nearby.

I don’t want to downplay the importance of what is happening or the tragic loss of life, but outside of the specific flash points, this city is as safe as any city of four million people. Cairo is equally as safe.

I will add one caveat. Groups gather at certain locations, like mosques and universities, and then they march toward a central location for the demonstration, for example Tahrir Square. In Cairo there may be clashes along the way as they pass a police station or some ministry building. So when one sees a large gathering, one simply avoids it.

In Alexandria last night our taxi was blocked by a large gathering in the street between the university and the library. We simply waited for the marchers to move along and then got out. Except as noted above, these marches are not violent. In fact the marchers are often cheered by shopkeepers and residents along the way.

Further, we have detected no anti-western sentiment here. None. Just the opposite, strangers often offer an unsolicited, “Welcome to Egypt,” as they meet us. Sometimes they just say it out of the blue as we pass on the street. Evidently, we don’t look like we’re locals.

Because tourism, usually 30% of this country’s economy, is way down, this would be a great time to visit Egypt. You can avoid the crowds at popular destinations and probably get a good deal on lodgings and transportation. There may be some inconveniences in getting around Cairo, but Egypt is safe and you could feel good, knowing that your spending would help many people who are just barely managing to survive in this already otherwise tough economy.

Silence of the Lambs

(Warning: graphic photos)

The Muslim feast Eid al-Adha commemorates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son. In Egypt this year, it began at sundown on Sunday, November 6.  As you all may recall from your Comparative Theology courses, God intervened and offered a ram to be sacrificed instead.

This feast is observed in a number of ways, including how one dresses and prays. It is also celebrated by a reenactment of that sacrifice. Those who can afford to are expected to sacrifice their best domestic animal. The tradition is that one third of the meat is kept, one third given to friends and family, and one third given to the poor. In large cities, of course, where most people live in apartments, domestic animals are scarce. Although, as an aside, for a large city, I do see a surprising number of live rabbits and sundry poultry available at street markets.  So the practice, at least here in Alexandria, is to buy an animal and have it slaughtered.

I was aware of the feast because, well, there’s no school that week. But, I was also familiar with the feast from the Muslim students who lived with us in Oshkosh. About two weeks prior to the feast, I was told me that this is a holyday when they sacrifice animals. So I thought it would maybe be like Thanksgiving where everyone has a turkey (except, of course, for those of us who are vegetarians). I suddenly started to see small flocks of sheep tucked here and there in the local market areas, not just here in Alexandria, but also in Cairo, even in Zamalek, the neighborhood where most of the embassies are located.

I don’t know where most of the slaughtering takes place, but at least some of it happens right there on the street. We had searched out a baker in one of the market areas the other night because we liked his croissants. As I looked across the street, I noticed a lamb carcass being skinned. In another market area, I noticed a beef critter of some type lying on the sidewalk, blood being washed away and young boys gathering around to watch. At this time of year there are many shops that have the cleaned and butchered carcasses hanging out front. So, at least some of the butchering takes place on the sidewalk in the market areas for all to see. This is an aspect of the feast that we hadn’t been aware of. So, we were careful about where we walked until after the feast, although, even then, we noticed carts with stacks of fleece being sold, some of it still a little bloody.

The feast, as I understand it, formally lasts for four days, but it seems like most people take a week’s vacation. I did. The feast is very much a family gathering that reminds me of Thanksgiving. Some Muslim friends, knowing we were vegetarians and that the traditional meal is very meat-heavy, let us know that we’d be welcome to join them, if we were up to it.

A more secular manifestation of the holiday sees masses of people going out on the town for an evening. This results in very crowded streets, a phenomenon we learned about the hard way.  As we finished a day of touring elsewhere, we walked from the fortress (Citadel of Qaitbay) on the western tip of the shore to the nearest downtown tram station. The streets and sidewalks were both congested and the very crowded tram was standing room only.

Street view of sheep in market area in Alexandria

Sheep in an empty "storefront" in Alexandria before Eid al-Adha

Sheep in Cairo during Eid al-Adha

Beef critter being butchered on sidewalk in Alexandria

Butcher shop in Alexandria prior to Eid al-Adha

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