City of a thousand minarets

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[Written Sunday afternoon in the Sara Hotel, Aswan.]

What's most distinctive about driving the expressways of Cairo by night, at least compared to the cities I've visited, is the number of minarets you see, all lit up from within in eerie greens and oranges, or from without by gaudy neon. What impresses you once you enter heavier traffic is how Egyptians can turn a three-lane road into a five-lane road just by willing it so.

We were punchy when we came off the plane from Rome. A travel facilitator from our tour company helped us acquire visas quickly and pass through customs, then our first day's tour guide, Shiko, took over and bustled us into a van. At 4:00 am, we were settling into our room at the Zayed Hotel, and we had only three hours of sleep to look forward to before the day would begin.

At 9:15 am, we hopped back into the van with our luggage and joined three Australian travelers. Our first stop was the Egyptian Museum. I would like to describe and lovingly linger over everything we saw and learned there, but that would take days. With this, as with the monuments and temples and other sights I will mention over the next few days, you can generally assume an inverse relationship between how cool and awe-inspiring something is and how many words I spend on it. You know what most of this stuff looks like already, and otherwise I'll never catch up.

Among the big things we saw at the museum were Tutankhamen's gold masks and sarcophagi, the actual mummies of Ramses II and many other kings and queens of ancient Egypt, a collection of various royal jewelry, and a replica of the Rosetta Stone (the original being at the British Museum). What's staggering about the Egyptian Museum is not just the major pieces but the sheer size of the collection. There are rooms filled with arcane classes of objects only an archaeologist could love, but when taken together the number of artifacts boggles the mind.

We crossed the Nile to Giza, and suddenly there were the Pyramids, right on the edge of the city. Somehow I always pictured there far off in a remote corner of the desert, but no, there they are just west of town. The first view is breathtaking, but even moreso is to stand at the base, or a few levels up, and look up toward the apex. The angle is dizzying.

William Shunn and the Curse of the Second Pyramid We didn't enter the first pyramid—not enough bang for the buck, according to our guide—but three members of our little group, me included, ponied up the 25 Egyptian pounds to enter the second pyramid. Laura, who can get claustrophobic, stayed behind. I didn't think that I got very claustrophobic myself—I've been fine in caves like Timpanogos— but something about the exertion of duckwalking down an angled shaft for fifty meters or more with no room to straighten up and barely enough room for you to pass people going the other way, then arriving at a chamber in the bottom only to realize there's still a similar incline up ahead of you, and then to emerge sweating and gasping into the hot air of the bare chamber at the heart of the pyramid—well, despite the high ceiling and comparatively generous dimensions of that room, I could barely control the panic that had arisen toward the end of the ascent, and I couldn't stay in that room for very long. The shafts down and up were bad, but somehow not nearly as bad as that room.

Fortunately, the trek back out didn't seem to take as long as the trek in. I've never been so happy to see sunlight. Laura managed to snap a picture of me at just my moment of emergence, and you can tell.

We took a camel ride out behind the third pyramid. Camels don't look quite as huge when they're lying on the ground as they do when they stand up. I don't think I ever realized just how big the things are until I watched one rise to its full standing height. The process of standing is a fascinating one, too, at least from a position perched atop one's back. First the camel stands up, then it stands up again, and just when you think you're as high as you're going to go, it stands up one more time. At the end of all this elaborate unfolding of legs, your seat is eight or nine feet in the air.

There was some excitement on the ride when Laura's camel bit Holly's, but no bloodshed or injuries resulted.

After the Pyramids, we hit the Sphinx, which is smaller than I had imagined, but no less impressive.

One thing that makes all this sightseeing less than perfectly pleasant is the continuous hassle from merchants and entrepreneurs of all sorts. Like the one that comes up and takes your hat and starts wrapping his scarf around your brow so you can be an Arab in a photo. Or the one that wants you to change his British coins to dollars. Or the one with all the dancing camel dolls, and on and on and on. The constant harassment is wearying, and you learn some sticky lessons before becoming expert and ignoring their advances.

No less wearying is the constant need to tip this person and that. We don't really begrudge the money—well, not much—but the constant confusion about who deserves tips and who doesn't, and how much, gets to be a burden very fast. Oh, the difficulty of keeping sufficient single-pound notes on hand!

A less than thrilling aspect of our Friday tour was our stops at a parchment "museum," a jewelry store, and a perfume factory. Ostensibly these were all educational stops, but of course they ended with a hard sell to purchase their products (in the case of the parchment museum, very hard). Not that the demonstration of how papyrus was made, for example, was not interesting. Does the tour company get kickbacks from the merchants? I don't know, but by the time we reached the third edumerchant, we had a bad taste in our mouths. This is too bad, because the highlights of the tour are very high indeed.

That evening, our guide deposited us at the train station where we boarded our 8:10 pm overnight train to Aswan. We ate dinner in our compartment, enjoyed a whisky in the smoky, shabby club car (I'm not sure why I assumed we'd have no alcohol in Egypt), then summoned our attendant Mohamet to convert our seats to bunks. With the door secured, we joined that club I was talking about earlier, entry to which requires no small amount of gymnastic ability in the cramped space. There will be photos and videos to come later of some of the things we did and saw on Friday, but not of that.

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This page contains a single entry by William Shunn published on May 26, 2008 5:37 PM.

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