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Archive for the ‘Touring Egypt’ Category

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

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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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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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Rosetta

Our good friends wanted to treat us to a fish dinner and we, of course, accepted. They drove us to one of their favorite places, Rashid, a city about 40 miles to the east of Alexandria, but still on the western side of the Nile delta

Date Palms

Outside of Alexandria, the road crosses farmland and marshes and then travels through acres and acres of date palms. The palm trees stand in orderly rows, much like Christmas trees in the northern U.S., only very much taller. We could see huge numbers of mostly yellow, but also some red, dates hanging on these trees in large bunches, in various stages of ripeness. Produce stands all over Alexandria have overflowing boxes of these same types of fresh dates for sale.

Rashid is better known internationally as Rosetta, home the famous stone that was the key to unlocking the meaning of Egyptian  hierogylphics. Unfortunately, the original stone is housed at the British Museum in London and Rosetta only has a replica, as does the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Rashid was important at one time as a shipping port, but has been replaced in that category by Alexandria. Clearly fishing is still an important industry here. We were told some of the boats we saw there venture as far as Libya, if they have the appropriate fishing license. Its location along a wide section of the Nile, with colorful fishing boats tied up along its banks, makes Rashid/Rosetta a picturesque city.

Broad sidewalk and quay in Rosetta

Somewhat rusty brightly painted fishing boats were tied up alongside the broad sidewalk abutting the quay along the Nile, while smaller boats ferried passengers and produce across the river. We were surprised when our friends picked a nice spot along the river and employees from the fish market across the street began to bring tables and chairs across the street to provide a place for us to dine. Our friends had purchased fresh fish from them, and then had them prepare all the meal: fish, rice, baba ganoush, spicy pickled vegetables, salad, bread, and beverage. As seems to be the custom everywhere, we enjoyed a cup of tea after the meal.

Dinning in Rosetta

My only disappointment was when a fish market employee cleaned off our table prior to delivering tea. He picked up two of our aluminum cans and threw them onto the quay. I can only hope that the fish market has someone clean up along the quay regularly.

This was a very pleasant and scenic outing and another opportunity to spend time visiting with our friends and learning a little more about Egypt.

Our meal

Some of our fish

More of our fish

Our waiter crossing the street

Produce to be ferried across the river

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We just got back from a three-day trip to Cairo and now I feel like a local Alexandrian.

Cairo was interesting, but hard to get around in. I’d compare it to spending three days in Manhattan and not being able to speak much English. We took a morning train on the 13th, went to an in-country orientation on the 14th, and stayed at a Fulbright apartment for both nights.

Traveling from Alexandria in the early morning, wesaw more of the countryside than we did on our previous road trip, because there were no roadside establishments, just farmland. Outside Ramses Station in Cairo we were met by taxi drivers wanting 50 pounds Egyptian (50 £E) to take us to our destination. The difficulty was that we were western looking, couldn’t speak much of the language, and, worst, we had no idea what a fair fare should be (but knew it should be substantially less than 50 £E.) So we wandered out into the street thinking we could do a little better; but it was hot and we really didn’t have a clue. Fortunately, a few bystanders speaking a little English flagged down taxis and tried to negotiate for us. We finally agreed to pay 20 £E. That was probably too much, but only about $3.25 USD. So, seriously, what do you do when it’s hot and humid and you don’t speak the language? One of the compounding problems was that the apartment was on a street behind the Marriott, so that was the landmark we gave the driver. Of course he just assumed we really wanted to go to the Marriott, which charges a ridiculous amount for their rooms, so we must be rich. Nonetheless, we did end up where we were supposed to, and eventually somebody showed up with a key.

The Fulbright apartment is in the Zamalek section of Cairo, an island within the city, much like Manhattan, although a lot smaller. While exploring the neighborhood, we discovered that it is home to many embassies. We passed the Sri Lankan, Algerian, Tunisian, Dutch, and a few more embassies that I can’t recall. That, of course, means that there are nice shops and restaurants in the area. We saw our first Egyptian liquor store here; a place called Drinkies, really, Drinkies, where we bought a bottle of South African Merlot. We enjoyed a beer with our dinner at L’Aubergine, a pleasant restaurant with a number of vegetarian options. It was our first alcohol since we arrived in Egypt over three weeks ago.

As slow as Alexandria traffic is sometimes, it’s slower in Cairo, which is surprising, as it seems there are no longer any donkey-pulled carts in Cairo, unlike Alexandria. Cairo offers more goods and services, like coffee shops with Internet connections and liquor stores. Just down the street from the Fulbright apartment is a place called Beano’s, with relatively expensive but very good American-style coffee and wifi for less than $1 USD an hour. Alcohol seems to be relatively readily available, at least in this neighborhood. There seems to be a lower proportion of women with head coverings than in Alexandria. That may be just because there are more foreigners, and more people in general, but it definitely leaves a different impression. It appears to be a significantly more cosmopolitan city.

It was pleasant to get up on Wednesday morning and go to the coffee shop for coffee, breakfast, and checking our email. The orientation was at the U.S. Embassy and it didn’t seem that far away, so we thought we would walk. While it really wasn’t that far away as distance goes, it was hot, too hot to be walking that far. The embassy is in a complex that includes other embassies, like the British one, so we wandered a bit before we found it.

It was good to get to better acquainted with other Fulbrighters whom I had initially met in Washington, but Mary Ann hadn’t met before. There were about a dozen students, only four professors, three spouses, and the dad of one of the other profs. The orientation covered basic safety and security topics. The most interesting presentation was by four of last year’s students who were still in country. The formal policy is that, when you see a protest, don’t go near. Their most important advice was to not take part in any of the protests. Regardless of how one feels, this is their revolution; it really needs to be free of foreign influence.

As we departed the embassy, we observed protesters demanding the release of an Egyptian cleric imprisoned in the United States for plots to blow up New York City landmarks, the “blind sheik.” Evidently, this is an ongoing thing, but I counted only 12 protesters; this is a city of several million people. It was however, midweek, during the working hours. They were pretty much ignored.

A very nice catered dinner was provided for us at the 10th floor apartment of the local Fulbright Program director. We enjoyed wine and hors d’oeuvres and a nice opportunity to get to know the others in a more social setting, with wonderful views overlooking the Nile. (Alcohol two nights in a row – this is the big city!) Many of the students had majored in things like Arabic or Middle Eastern studies and are doing research in related fields. Most of them speak some Arabic, some are fluent, and many have been to Egypt before. In general, they seem to be having a lot easier time getting around than the professors do.

Thursday found us doing some computer business at the Fulbright office in the morning and then walking to the Egyptian Museum. This was the tourist part of the trip. We had read that this museum is often extremely crowded, but we found it to be very manageable, no doubt because of the recent decline in tourism. Because many of the exhibits are not well-identified or described, visitors are often advised to hire a guide, which we did. It was an excellent decision; our guide was very knowledgeable, pleasant, and spoke English quite well. We spent three hours with him and it was money well spent. Being that close to 4,000-year-old artifacts is a thrill. The Tutankhamen exhibit was the highlight, particularly the famous gold funerary mask. Our guide pointed out two or three empty glass cases that had housed exhibits stolen during the protests in Tahrir Square last winter and the windows in the roof where they had entered. (Photographs are not allowed, sorry!) But I’ll bet you can see pretty good photographs elsewhere of almost everything we saw that morning.

Getting around Cairo is so time-consuming that the museum was our only bona fide sightseeing for this trip. The pyramids will have to wait for another day.

 

Taking a taxi to Ramses Station for our return to Alexandria was interesting. I thought I had done well to bargain for 10 £E, but then the driver got in the car and turned on the meter. As an important aside here; generally speaking, there are two types of taxis in Cairo, black ones and white ones. The black ones are older, run down, and without air conditioning. The white ones are newer, nicer, have AC, and, of course, are therefore a bit more expensive. Traffic was incredibly slow and bumper-to-bumper most of the way; it was good to have air conditioning. Not surprisingly, when we go to the train station the meter displayed 15.5 £E. That’s about $2.50 USD and that driver earned every cent of it, earlier bargaining notwithstanding.

Negotiating Egyptian train stations at first seems daunting, but it turns out to be really easy, thanks to the kindness of strangers. Walk onto a platform, and look around. Inevitably, someone comes over, asks where you’re going in English, and tells you where to wait. Since the tickets have the car number and seat number in both Arabic and English the rest is easy.

As we got off the train in Alexandria, we were again offered taxis for exorbitant fares, but this time we knew what to do. Drivers asked for 50 £E; we knew the fare should be about five £E, ten max. We just took the nearby tram for the equivalent of four cents each and felt like we were locals, heading home after a trip to the big city.

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