To the land of the pharoahs.

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Cairo, Egypt

I hate getting up early. I’m not a morning person, never have been, never will be. It’s unnatural for humans to be up so early. The Muslims don’t think so; their first call to prayer goes out at 4:30am, which is exactly when we woke up.

Grumble-bumming down the elevator to reception, sit around a bit and then throw bags into the cab to get to the airport. We had an 8am flight to Bahrain, a short wait in transit and then a connection through to Cairo, Egypt. We were really the only ‘travelers’ on the flight to Bahrain, lumped in with local looking types and ex-pats or business types. Bahrain is on DFAT’s ‘Reconsider your need’ list so a short transit is about all we’d entertain. All I can say is that from the air there’s a bunch of those lego type flat roofed white mud-brick houses in amongst a vast desert.

We were certainly a curiosity, middle-easterners and middle-asians from all over, stared and gossiped, intrigued by their fair skinned counterparts. A smile and a wink goes a long way… to getting you in trouble sometimes. So we simply kept on, ignoring it.

Cairo is 3-odd hours from Bahrain so time to take in a movie and some in flight service before Rebecca, from her typical window-seat position, nudges me and says..

‘Look.. the Nile’.. and so it was. Like a blue snake cutting through the glare of the white sand and arid mountains. On it’s edges, green and lush vegetation, but narrow enough to form only a small border. Zones of mud-brick houses, square and uniform like scattered lego pieces start to enter the landscape until they seamlessly converge to form a city.

On the ground, it’s a similar story, taxi drivers seamlessly converge on us as we emerge from the airport. Guys in nice leather jackets, sweaters and amazing mustaches ask us ‘how much you want to pay..?’
We secure a ride and soon become one with the horrendous Cairo traffic.

‘Welcome to Cairo’ says our driver.

It takes us close to an hour to fight through to Giza, on the east bank on the Nile. The winding back streets in Giza are a quiet retreat from the noise and dust of the rest of the city. Those lego block houses from above don’t retain much further personality and add now the relentless dust and filth from the streets in a generous coating to the outside. Then multiply, and multiply and multiple. Relief is the enclosing trees on leafy avenues of Giza punctuated by little tea shops full of Egyptian men in white gowns sharing a yarn and a shisha.

King Hotel is in amongst the leafy streets and we secure a room on the 4th floor. We have a day to simply explore the local streets. We don’t actually get that far, we’re accosted by tour guides who have a pretty shmick routine down. Something about how they work for some government department out of a shop called ‘Rosario’ and out of respect to us, he’d like to explain what tours he has available. We get a couple of these characters so the walk becomes more about dodging anyone who might be smiling at us or shouting the bone cringing ‘Hey where you from?’ ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie’.. to make matters worse, the Egyptian men are reputedly not known for their customary behavior toward foreign women and despite her modest dress, Rebecca gets a lot of ogling stares and a few comments like ‘Oh My God..’ and ‘Lucky Man..’ I can’t argue with the truth.

That night we assemble in the restaurant to meet the people we’d spend the next 17 nights with. We’re met by a young, trendy Egyptian guy called Mohammed Ali, sporting a radical puffy vest and yellow t-shirt. He’s incredibly welcoming as he outlines the itinerary for our time in Egypt. People go around the table and introduce themselves and we’re instantly relaxed as it seems like a pretty cool group of people. Having never done a tour before we were a little worried at the prospect of a bogan invasion. Intrepid does typically carry a lot of Australians.

There’s a dull orange glow as we wake the next morning. We’re due to see the pyramids but overnight a dust-storm has blown in. We can barely see across the road. Instead there’s this fine haze of orange filling the air. We gorge breakfast and jump in the van to give it a shot at the pyramids anyway. It’s Friday, the Muslim worlds ‘day off’ so the roads are vacant, an absolute blessing given the conditions and Cairos typical traffic grind.

Everything is covered in dust, even the prolific date palms that do their very best to break up the monotonous camel colours of everything in Cairo, the buildings, the mosques, the roads and pavings, even the people.

Our first glimpse of the Great Pyramid is that of a giant, (certainly well beyond my expectations of size), orange shadow. There’s two more pyramids in there behind it somewhere but they’re hidden from view by the curtains of dust. We step outside the van and even the air is cold at the absence of the sun. Grit gets in your every exposed orifice and powders your hair in a fine coating making it feel like straw or a horse-tail.

‘Now…’ Mohammed says

‘If you want, we can go inside.. or we can instead go to the Cairo Museum first, see how the weather plays out and either go this afternoon or go in a weeks time when we return. We have recently experience democracy here in Egypt so let’s practice some..’

He really was a brilliant guide.

Fortunately being a Friday we have the luxury of moving around relatively quickly so democracy calls to pull the pin and we board the bus and instead head to the recently troubled Tahrir Square, to which the museum faces.

The National Democratic Party Building is tucked in just behind the museum but it’s a burnt-out, inferno-torn wreck. Charred windows and a hollow inside a poignant reminder of Egypts current political turmoil. The tents and banners of Tahrir square still prominent and marking the home of protest, now an everyday occurrence.

Despite the proximity of the pyramids to Cairo, Cairo was not a Pharonic city. The foundations were laid by the Islamic Fatimid dynasty from about 970AD. The capital at the time was Memphis some 22 kilometers south of Giza. Calling Elvis. The city was largely contained within citadel walls but grew and soon expanded. It wasn’t really until the late 1800’s when French educated Ismail Pasha came to power and flowered the city with touches of European flair.

The Cairo Museum is universally famous. But it’s a kind of an unfair head-start isn’t it? There’s some 100,000 relics to see tucked in behind the facade of a salmon pink colonial stye building. Across the square the gutted shell of the Ritz-Carlton looks over, in the throws of renovation. Mohammed arranges for these wireless walkie-talkie headphone systems, and we’re lead through security into the museum. The place is really kind of like if your grand-mother had a mansion and a bunch of old cabinets and antiques. She’s quite old so she can’t dust the place and she’s widely forgotten what most of the antiques are.

You do need a guide here because most of the relics are haphazardly strewn about the place, often within the clutches of ice-cream stained fingers. Carvings in stone from nearly 4000 years ago could be mistaken for a nicely fashioned stone resting seat.

But the other stuff, the stuff Mohammed points out and can explain, is truly mind-blowing. Relics from the old kingdom of Egypt, like the statue of Kahfre, face of the Sphinx, seated at a throne, with a condor on his head. The style turns vastly more alien when you step into the Armana room, full of work commissioned by Akhenaten, father of Sun God worship from the Middle Period. Giant statues of him and his wife Nefertiti, with these long faces and hollow chins,
bulbous eyes and cat-like noses. Their bodies are both feminine in shape with broad hips; and their arms crossed over their chests. Like most kingdoms, their legacy is quickly erased and subsequent dynasties eradicated their single Sun God religion.

But the main draw of the museum is most of contents of the 1st floor, extracted by Henry Carter in 1927 from the tomb of Tutankahmen, in the Valley of The Kings. Remarkable for the extravagant use of gold and the undisturbed contents. Typically the 67 discovered tombs of the Pharaohs had been looted almost as soon as they’d been completed, by the construction workers. This occurred so much in ancient Egypt that the construction chiefs would blind-fold the workers and put them on donkey’s who commonly remembered the path to the tombs. Problem is, come night-fall, the workers would hunt down the transit donkeys, jump on-board and have them lead them straight to the treasure. Ironically it was a donkey who discovered King Tut’s tomb when it fell down a submerged staircase, right to the front door. Inside, the tomb contained a babooshka doll of sarcophagi, one inside the other, each inlayed with gold carvings, until finally the inner sarcophagus of the king is revealed, beautifully inlayed with gem stones and gold to the most intricate detail. The jewel of the chest, the death mask, on display in the center of the room, staring it’s hollow stare to every tourist who looks into it. I’d last glanced into it’s eyes on a school excursion to the Art Gallery in Swanston St, Melbourne when I was 8 years old; it was nice to see it on it’s home soil. Even if the soil was everywhere.

After a dusty lunch and coffee, we’re back in the van and on our way to the Coptic and Islamic relics of Cairo given the dust hasn’t cleared. The Pyramids would have to wait.

So it’s to Babylon we go. The area now is a fusion of religions with the Coptic Church of Saint Sergius and Bachus, the Al-Azhar mosque, dating from 970AD and even the Ben Ezra Synagogue.

‘Are there ever any issues, with everyone worshipping so closely?’ I ask Mohammed.

‘No.. in Egypt we respect the right for people to worship their Gods’ he replies. Dubious for now, but okay.

The Coptic Church has amazing tapestries and painting dating back to.. they’re fashioned in this kind of Greek Orthodox style. The church itself has a low ceiling, plenty of candles and arabic style carpets on the floor. There’s a beautiful pulpit and worshippers going up to the painting of Saint George, kissing their fingers and touching it.

The mosque is just down the road, past a towering block of apartments with a horrible lean into the next building, seemingly moments away from full collapse.

‘The current government has eliminated some of the building regulations so people are making places like this.. also, people know that you don’t pay government building tax until the building is completed.. so all over you will find buildings that are not finished’

And he’s right. Typically there’s re-enforcement steel protruding from concrete pillars on buildings with the apartments directly under them occupied and lived in. It became a regular sight once pointed out.

We get to the mosque, remove our shoes and the girls are given green cloaks to wear. They look like forest elves. There’s a broad worship area that opens out to a massive courtyard with a bell-shaped wash area. Beyond that there’s another carpeted worship area. We sit down and Mohammed explains to us the 5 pillars of Islam. And as he does, the afternoon call to prayer rings out, echoing through the vast open areas of the mosque. It’s a profound moment.

We’re due to leave that night by train but the stories going around are 1. There’s protesters lying on the tracks.. 2. The trains derailed.. 3. There’s a broken-down train on the line ahead. Whatever the reason, we’d rallied at the station for nothing because the train didn’t arrive. We spent 2 or so hours sipping tea to abate the chill in the air. Mohammed gets on the phone and seconds later has arranged flights to Luxor (flights to Aswan are full), with a connecting mini-bus. The flight leaves at 5am so we make a hasty return to the hotel, picking up 2 dozen falafel sandwiches on the way.

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