Our Adventure in Egypt, Part Four: Why the bazaar is an awful place
We had a very specific agenda that day. We were originally going to see the Pyramids and the Sphinx on this day, but we went on Thursday because of an interesting reason which I'm not sure is valid. According to Ghada, our excellent tour guide, we didn't go on Thursday to one of the sites - a mosque - because Krys was wearing a skirt with a small slit up the side. This would have scandalized the men at the mosque, so we skipped it. I say that this might not be valid because Egyptians, apparently, are notorious practical jokers, so Ghada might have been having fun with us and there was a perfectly mundane reason for flipping our schedule. We don't know; but the point was, we saw a bunch of religious sites on Friday, not Thursday. Our agenda was specific because we went to a mosque first thing in the morning. Why is that specific? It was Friday, the Muslim day of rest, and therefore later in the day people would actually be using the mosque and we wouldn't be able to get in. Similarly, we saw a church later in the day because Mass was going on early in the morning. It all fits together!
So we drove up to the highest point in Cairo, on which the Citadel stands (see this map for reference; we stayed downtown at the Nile Hilton, which is marked on the map, and the Citadel is to the southeast). The Citadel was built by Saladin in 1183. Saladin, of course, is featured heavily in the Crusades, so Ghada made me tell everything I know about him, and believe you me, that was ... well, enough, I guess, although I wouldn't go as far as "plenty." I know more than your average American, so I suppose I acquitted myself well and wasn't an ignorant Yank! Yay!
We entered the Citadel and visited the Mohammed Ali Mosque. Ali was another guy I was vaguely familiar with, but not as much as I was with Saladin. He was from a small Balkan region and came from a family of tax collectors in the service of the Ottoman sultans. He was so good at his job that the sultan sent him to Egypt, because those slug-a-bed Egyptians were lax about sending all their money into the imperial coffers in Istanbul! Once in Egypt, Mohammed Ali looked around, saw that the Ottoman presence was pretty pitiful, and decided to take over Egypt himself. Why the hell not? He did such a good job he ruled for 43 years (1806-1849) and the dynasty he founded lasted until 1952, when the Egyptians threw Farouk out and established, well, sort of a republic. The mosque is pretty cool, and freakin' huge. It's right in the middle of the Citadel, and dominates the landscape. We walked into the courtyard after removing our shoes. Yes, it's another place you can't wear shoes, although this is for (presumably) different reasons - it's a shrine, after all. In the courtyard is a gigantic fountain where you perform your ablutions - you can't pray without being cleansed, after all! Also in the courtyard is a pretty gaudy clock tower. It seems incongruous (the mosque was built in a Turkish style, as Mohammed Ali did grow up in the Ottoman fashion, after all) until you learn that it was a gift from the French. It was an exchange of gifts - the French got the obelisk that now stands in the Place de la Concorde. They got the better end of the deal, if you ask anyone: the clock broke in transit and has never worked. Isn't that just like the French????
Here are some more photos of the courtyard:
Inside the mosque, it was, well, typically mosque-like. It was very large and lavish, with the tomb of Mohammed Ali in one corner. We wandered around the interior for a while, stepping around the small clusters of people who were sitting listening to their various guides. We weren't allowed to use the flash on our cameras, but that did not daunt us in the least!
We left the Citadel and walked around the compound. We couldn't find our driver, because there were many, many buses and other vehicles in the parking lot. Ghada had to call Felipe on her mobile phone to find him. It wasn't surprising that she had a cell phone, because everyone in Egypt has a cell phone. You can't drink the water and you might hit a cow driving the streets, but you need a cell phone! We finally found Felipe and we were off, back into town! Our next stop was the Egyptian Museum, which you'll recall was right behind our hotel. The Museum opens at nine in the morning, and we got there after ten, so it was already crowded. We had heard interesting things about the museum - it is stuffed with beautiful artifacts, but many critics say they are poorly organized and displayed. Well, those critics are pretty much spot on. There is a great deal to see, but the museum is organized haphazardly and the descriptions of the displays are horrible - they are bereft of useful information and appear to have been typed sometime in the 1950s. It's a wonderful place to visit, but they need to update it. Apparently, there are plans to build a massive museum near the Pyramids where all the artifacts will be moved, but the bureaucracy in Egypt is apparently the same as the bureaucracy anyplace else, and Ghada told us the new museum might be done in 2010. She said it in a way that indicated we should not hold our breath.
The Museum was teeming with people, and Ghada took the lead, squeezing around tourists who had sort of congregated near the gates. I said this very often on our travels, but Americans might be the only people on the planet who respect the integrity of a good line. Europeans, I know from anecdotal evidence, are notoriously bad at lining up (despite the British having a great word for it, "queueing," which, I believe, contains the longest string of vowels in succession of any English word), and so are the Egyptians. The photographic evidence notwithstanding, it was quite the unruly mob scene to get onto the grounds of the museum. But thanks to our intrepid guide, we soon accomplished it!
Cameras are not allowed in the museum. Sorry! Apparently people are far too inept to turn their flashes off, so they just banned them all. Stupid tourists! However, it's not a terribly photogenic place - you know, lots of statues of pharaohs, some funerary things, and the King Tut room. The Tutankhamen room is actually very neat, but you've all seen the gold death mask - and yes, it's very impressive in person, but it's kind of like the Mona Lisa - a big build-up and a bit of a disappointment. You can get a lot closer to it than you can to the Mona Lisa, so that's good news, but I've seen it so much in books and on film, it certainly wasn't the highlight of the trip. And then, some guard stole Krys's gum! Yes, it's true. A guard asked Krys if she had any gum, and she proffered some to him. He took the entire package and said, "I take this?" She told him she wanted it back, but suddenly he didn't understand English. She managed to get two pieces of gum back, and he took the rest. What the hell? Is gum at a premium in Egypt, like Sergio Valente jeans behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s? Could Krys have sold her pack of gum for many moneys? Or was the guard just a thief?
Our trip to the museum finished, we headed back into the deepest, darkest part of Cairo, and visited the Hanging Church, which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It's called the Hanging Church because it is built without a foundation, on top of the remains of an old Roman fort. In one section of the church you can actually look through the floor and see the walls of the fort below. It's a Coptic church (Copts make up 95% of Egypt's Christians) and is done in the old-school style - one side for men, one for women, a three-section sanctuary, and lots of icons. Inside we wandered around checking out the beautifully intricate artwork all over the walls, which was still pretty despite the presence of scaffolding in the middle of the church and several plastic sheets covering up part of the church. Again, we couldn't use our flash inside, so our interior shots came out a bit shaky (we had no tripod, and with both of us suffering from the DTs ...). However, you can get a good sense of how nice the church is, even if they're not perfect:
The third leg of our religious tour of Egypt took us to the Ben Ezra Synagogue, which isn't used anymore. It was kind of neat getting there - we went back behind the church and through narrow alleyways - this is, after all, old Cairo - and past a bunch of merchants (ubiquitous as ever!) and under arches until we came out upon the synagogue. It was beautiful inside, as you might expect. No pictures were allowed, but it had lots of ornate carvings and paintings, a copy of the Torah in the center of the room, and beautiful altars. Ghada told us that there's only one synagogue operating in Egypt these days, as Egypt has only 110 Jews living in it. She said 100 were attached to the "embassy" (she didn't say which embassy, although I imagine it was the Israeli, which - somewhat surprisingly - has one in Cairo) and of the other 10, the youngest is 72. So I suppose they don't need many synagogues.
After the synagogue we went to a papyrus place and saw how it was made (and, of course, bought a few things) and Krys bought a cartouche necklace - she has a gold one, but she wanted a silver one. So that was nice. But then ...
Our last stop almost made me want to leave Egypt. Yes, it's true - we ventured deeply, darkly, into the deepest, darkest section of Cairo imaginable - the Khan el-Khalili bazaar. Why, good readers, was this such a horrible place? I'll explain.
I am not a haggler. I do not have the personality, nor the inclination, to bargain with merchants. I want to enter a place, look at things that have a set price on them, and decide for myself whether it's fair or not. I do not want someone to tell me that it's a price that is far above what it's worth, and then have me counter with something that's really, really low, and then we banter until we reach common ground. That's just not my nature. I don't like it, I don't want to do it, and I feel uncomfortable just reminiscing about it. It sucks, in other words.
The bazaar itself is very neat. It's right next to a beautiful mosque with a big square in front of it, and it's all narrow alleyways and twists and turns jam-packed with shops selling everything you could ever want in the novelty crap genre. The merchants are out in force, imploring you to come in, calling your wife beautiful (one thing they got right, at least) and calling you lucky for scoring such a hot woman (believe me, I know). Krys told the people she worked with that she would buy them something kitschy, and she found Egypt snowglobes in one shop (which was interesting, because she actually mentioned buying them snowglobes). So we had to buy them. Let the haggling commence! The merchant went ridiculously high, and we laughed. We got him way down, but still not to where we wanted him. Whenever we tried to leave, he practically blocked our egress. It was very intimidating. Of course, because we were rich Americans, everyone thought we could afford to pay through the nose. We ended up paying far too much, but I was just sick of the guy and wanted to get the hell out of there. Remember, haggling sucks in my world. I know we should have shopped around, but I imagine other places would have been as sucky. We left the store and managed to get back to Ghada, who was enjoying a drink at a small café next to the bazaar. We sat with her for a few minutes, and then we mentioned how much we spent on our trinkets. Ghada was aghast. She said this would not stand, and told us she could get us some of our money back, if we wanted. She said the merchant would hate her because she was Egyptian, and they don't like that, but we went back anyway. Krys talked to the merchant for a while, and we managed to get some of our money back, but we still overpaid. It left a really bad taste in my mouth. I swore that I wouldn't buy anything else on the trip. I did a pretty good job, I think.
We got back to the hotel and said goodbye to Ghada, who would not be coming with us on the next stage of our trip. She was an excellent guide, and we learned a lot of interesting things about the country and the people. She told us, for instance, that she, as an unmarried woman, cannot live on her own. Unmarried women are not allowed to live on their own, so she still lives with her parents. We asked her if she could live with other women, but even that is not an option. Despite the fact that Egypt is not, technically, an Islamic country, and the fact that Ghada is a Christian, it's still influenced a lot by conservative Muslim principles. Anyway, we had a great time in Cairo, and we missed Ghada on the rest of the tour. We did, however, have two more excellent guides.
Next: we head south into the desert, we come up with a marketing slogan for EgyptAir, and we see more tombs and temples than we can possibly handle!