Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!


Our Adventure in Egypt, Part Four: Why the bazaar is an awful place

On Friday, 10 November, we got started bright and early (as usual) and dove right into the deepest, darkest depths of Cairo itself. Okay, they weren't so deep and dark, but we did drive all over Cairo checking things out!

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!

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Our Adventure in Egypt, Part Three: The Giza plateau

Sorry for the delay here - Thanksgiving and all, you know how it is (unless you're not American, of course). I wanted to do at least a day for each of these posts, but the last one ran long (not in the length of it, but the length of time it was taking me to get it posted), so I figured I'd devote one whole post to the Pyramids and the Sphinx at Giza. They are, after all, pretty iconic.

One of the thing many people don't know about the Pyramids is that they're pretty much in Cairo itself. On television, they're always artfully photographed so that they look like they're in the middle of the desert, but they're not. The suburbs come, quite literally, up to the feet of the Sphinx. The Egyptians have simply gone around the site, too - on the west side of the Pyramids is a relatively new apartment complex, and I'm sure in 50 years or so the site will be completed surrounded by apartment buildings. Why preserve the past when 36% of your population is under the age of 14? We have buildings to erect!

We drove up the hill to the site and were immediately blown away. It's a bit of a cliché to say that you can't appreciate the Pyramids unless you see them in person, but that's only because it's true. Their sheer size is enough to take your breath away. But we'll get to that. First we checked out the solar boat of Cheops, which was discovered in 1954. They think it's the pharaoh's funerary boat, but who really knows. Anyway, considering it's made out of wood, it's pretty damned impressive that it stayed preserved for a good 4500 years:

This last picture is looking down on the model of the boat. It hangs from the ceiling, and you have to climb several stairs to get to the walkway around it. No shoes allowed, either - they gave us shoe coverings for our feet so we wouldn't scuff the parquet! Ghada told us it was so they don't have to clean the floors, either - we do it for them!

Then it was on to the Pyramids. Again, unless you're Graham Hancock, you believe the Pyramids were built by the Fourth Dynasty kings, Cheops, Chephren, and Menkaure, who lived around 2550 B.C. If you are Graham Hancock (and I have read one of his books on the subject, and I'm certainly not in a position to say he's wrong or right, so we'll just let smarter people sort it out), you think they were built by a lost civilization 10,000 years ago. Whatever. They're freakin' big. And massive. And overwhelming. Seriously. They are just magnificent structures, with perfect lines and a wonderful, powerful presence. As the proverb says, "Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids." Not that's a proverb!

So here are some pictures:

This is Chephren's Pyramid, the second biggest one. Chephren, respecting his father, built a smaller pyramid ... but placed it on higher ground, so it looks bigger. Oh, that wily pharaoh! The cap on top is made out of limestone and used to cover the entire structure. That must have been something, to see it gleaming in the sun.

These are the Cheops' Pyramid, looking straight up and then the side. It doesn't look too impressive until you realize that each block of stone is about as big as one of the Fiats that zip around Cairo's streets. Then it's amazing.

There's me and the missus. No, we did not get our pictures taken from a perspective that allows us to put our hand on top of the pyramid. We're not, you know, morons.

You're allowed to go into the Pyramids, and we chose to go into Chephren's, because apparently going into the Great Pyramid requires you to be underground twice as long, in a more cramped environment, to see essentially the same thing - an empty chamber. It was a good thing, too, because Krys got really claustrophobic and I got really freakin' hot. It's kind of interesting, though, although the "burial" chamber is a disappointment - as I mentioned, it's completely empty, and there's not even anything on the walls like in later Egyptian tombs. There is, however, graffiti - Belzoni, the great explorer, Egyptologist, and all-around dirty rotten thief, signed it in 1818! That guy behind us somehow glommed onto us and led us through the Pyramid, even though it's kind of difficult to get lost as there is only one passage. He had a flashlight, so I guess he was sort of useful. Of course, we tipped him - that's all he cared about!

Here's a nice picture of Krys with the Pyramids behind her. The next two pictures show just how close Cairo is to the site. As for the last one, well, I just found the idea of Tourism Police humorous.

Then it was onto the Sphinx. The Sphinx is also pretty neat, even with the scaffolding erected on its right flank. As usual, we had to run the gauntlet of merchants selling things to even approach it. Running the gauntlet of merchants without buying anything and saying "shukran" (Arabic for "thank you") over and over should be an Olympic sport!

This last picture is the causeway that runs alongside the Sphinx. It's all part of the huge complex of Giza, which is pretty impressive (there's a map at the link to the Great Pyramid above). Those Egyptians should could build a massive complex out of granite and sandstone!

After visiting the Sphinx, we visited a perfume shop, where the proprietors, like the carpet people, tried to get us to buy something. Neither Krys nor I are big into perfumes, but it was an interesting stop. We met the owner, who went to college in the States and was very friendly. We had a nice discussion with him about Americans and their reputation around the world, and he told us that most people (in Egypt, at least) don't hate Americans, they just hate "that guy." He didn't even use Bush's name, which we found humorous. He actually thanked us for the results of the election. We should have told him that Nancy Pelosi is, in her own way, as crazy as Bush, but we didn't want to rain on his parade.

Then we headed back to the hotel. On the way we ran into a huge traffic jam, which we believe had to be the result of an accident and not the usual Cairo logjam of cars. Felipe, our driver, decided to plunge off the main route and into the dark underbelly of Cairo! It's amazing: you take one turn off the main road and the roads are dirt. Dirt, in a major city. So we struggled through the maze of dusty streets, dodging (I kid you not) chickens and cows on the road, and Felipe got lost pretty quickly. Luckily, there were plenty of men sitting around doing nothing who were more than happy to give directions. So we made many twists and turns, I dozed off a few times (it had been a long day), Krys saw a dead horse on the side of the road (more on that later), and we finally made it back to the hotel. The car drive back was almost as exciting as the sights we saw!

So those are the Pyramids, the symbol of Egypt. They weren't the coolest thing we saw, but they were the most staggering. Considering that modern engineers are a bit mystified as to how they were built, it's pretty neat. I'll finish with one more picture of Chephren's Pyramid:

Next time: we see some religious stuff in Cairo and enter the bazaar, which was, well, awful. Read if you dare!

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Our Adventure in Egypt, Part Two: Cairo and its environs

As I do these posts, I will tend to ramble about things that have nothing to do with the sights we saw. You know how I am. So, today's topic, before we begin our journey around Cairo, is tipping.

Egyptians like the tipping. Egypt is very much dependent on the tourist trade, and the service, I must say, is impeccable. However, the tipping becomes a bit ridiculous. You have to pretty much tip every person you see. That taxi driver who didn't run you over on the street? Tip him. That old woman who tried to sell you a chicken and didn't hurl it at your head when you declined? Tip her. The pilot who decided not to crash the plane into the pyramids? Tip away! I'm only kidding by a little bit, mind you. I don't mind the tipping at all, but after a while, I made Krys do it. Yes, I allowed my wife to emasculate me - I'm the man, I should do the tipping, right? Well, I suppose. But I got annoyed with it, because I couldn't get change. Egyptian pounds go about 5 to the dollar (it's something like 5.5, but 5 is close enough). So we just divided everything by five to figure out how much something cost in the only currency that matters, American dollars! Well, soon after we got there, I decided I would never buy anything ever again, because I just hate haggling so much (I'll get to the bazaar in due time). So the ATM gave us 100-pound notes, and when we got change, we got 50s and 20s. 20 pounds, in case you're not keeping track, is about 4 dollars. I didn't mind tipping some people 20 pounds, but not others. We kept having to track down places to give us change to get 10s and 5s, but get this: we couldn't find a lot of places who offered change. What the crap is up with that, Egypt? All these reputable places - hotels, mostly - said they had no change for us. So we were stuck with all these 20s for, say, a guy who maybe moved out luggage five feet, from the car to the lobby of the hotel (and our luggage has wheels, so it's not like it's difficult). I realize I'm quibbling over 2 dollars, but remember: you tip everyone you see. That kind of stuff adds up, and I realize that I'm a rich American and should shut up, but it's was actually tiresome figuring out what to tip everyone. And the one time I tipped poorly, the guy actually gave it back to me, which really pissed me off. I didn't mean to tip him so poorly, I just wasn't thinking. So I'm sorry, but it is, after all, just a freakin' tip. I'm sorry your currency under 5 pounds is basically worthless, and I'm sorry the socialist practices of your government for the past thirty years has ruined your economy and it's only recently you've been trying to pull out of it. It's not my fault! I think we tipped pretty generously, but it was exhausting. That's why I made Krys tip. She didn't mind.

All right, more socioeconomic observations later! Thursday morning, the ninth of November, dawned bright and early. We went downstairs and met our guide for the next two days, the supremely excellent Ghada. We pronounced it "GET-a," but the "gh" at the beginning actually has a subtle "r" sound to it that comes from deep in the throat. Stupid Arabic! She was a fantastic guide, and we had a wonderful time with her. Of course, we had a grand time with our other two guides too, but Ghada helped us immensely through the daunting streets of Cairo. We met our driver, Felipe, who was also quite excellent. If you tour Cairo, you really need to have a good driver, because of the aforementioned traffic issues. We hopped in the van and took off like a shot. Whoo-hoo!

We drove south along the east bank of the Nile. After a while we crossed the river and headed into what I would politely call the seedier sections of town. In reality it looks like a war zone. From our window we saw many apartment buildings made out of brick that were unfinished. It was weird - they were three or four stories high, and then on the roof were columns that looked like the foundations for another floor, and then, sticking out of the columns, all this rebar. It was like the workmen just walked off the job one day. We could never get a clear answer from any of the guides as to why the apartment buildings were unfinished. Ghada told us that they would add floors when the people had more children. Mourad (our second guide) said it was because the Egyptians were just plumb lazy. Maybe they ran out of money? All over Egypt, we saw rebar. It's the national symbol!

Soon we were out of the city and into the suburbs. We drove south for many kilometers (metric, remember?) until we turned west. Soon we arrived at the first of many, many tourist destinations: the ancient capital of Egypt, Memphis.

You'll have to forgive me if, along the way, I don't really go on about the history behind all these various sites. That's what the links are for! We were generally overwhelmed by all the information, and I know I will forget something. I'll try to explain some things when I can, but these posts are more about more mundane matters, such as our ongoing battle with the French and the Mummy's Curse (more on both later). And, of course, tons of pictures. Like these:

Here's Ramses II. Ramses II is freakin' everywhere in Egypt, even when he didn't actually build the thing he claims to have built. Ramses, apparently, liked putting his cartouche on temples that earlier pharaohs had built, because he, well, was a jerk. But this is apparently actually him.

Here are two views of the Sphinx at Memphis, the second largest sphinx in Egypt (no points to anyone who knows what the biggest one is).

This is Ramses again, inside the museum. I'd tell you about the significance of why his left leg is forward, but I can't remember and it's not that interesting anyway.

This is the area right outside of Memphis. It doesn't quite capture the weird juxtaposition in Egypt of ancient monuments quite literally next to modern housing. We'll see better examples later. The museum, meanwhile, was typical of what we would see in Egypt - lots of very neat artifacts, not very good explanations of things (thank God for Ghada, who told us a great deal), and scary bathrooms. For men, of course, that's not that big a deal, but I think this was the last public bathroom (or, you know, "water closet") Krys used while we were there. She had joked about bringing toilet paper with her, and the very first bathroom she used, she was glad for her preparedness!

After leaving Memphis, we were off on the road again. You may have heard of the weird phenomenon of Egypt and the Nile. The Nile used to flood twice a year (until the 1960s, when the Aswan High Dam was completed) and leave ridiculously fertile soil where it flooded. This area along the river is still ridiculously fecund, and packed full of palm trees and other vegetation. You may have also heard of the divide between this fertile strip and the desert, and it really is remarkable to see. We drove for a few kilometers, and then, suddenly, we were in the desert. No gradual dissipation of the trees. Just tall palms, and five feet away, sand. It's uncanny. Suddenly we were among the dunes and rocks with absolutely no green anywhere. And we had arrived at the Step Pyramid of Saqqara.

The Step Pyramid is an early example of pyramid-building, leading to the big ones at Giza some years later (unless you believe Graham Hancock). It's a bit tilted and not at all as impressive as the big ones, but it's still pretty amazing. It's built in the middle of a temple complex, which is entered through this corridor:

There are a lot of neat things to see around the complex, so I'll just show some of the pictures we took:

This is my Indiana Jones picture. Those black dots near the top are men, who were digging for something. It reminded me of the scene in the first Indiana Jones movie where they're digging for the Ark of the Covenant and the sun it setting behind them.

After leaving Saqqara, we made an unannounced pit stop. We soon learned that our tour guides more than likely steered us toward certain merchants in order to get us to spend money there. Shocking, I know. We went to the Akhnaton Carpet School, where we watched a carpet being made. It was pretty fascinating, actually - the workers were making them by hand, zipping through the knots on the loom. We saw how they get silk from silk worms. It's kind of an interesting process. Then, of course, we went up into the showroom, where the salesguy showed us all sorts of neat-o carpets. Krys really wanted a carpet, but she agonized over the decision. First we looked at woolen ones, and we could afford a bigger one. Then we looked at silk ones, which were much nicer but far more expensive. We probably could have gotten a smaller one, but Krys really liked a couple of the bigger ones. Finally she decided to get a woolen one:

I thought it was a pretty good deal, but ever since then, not unlike a female, Krys has agonized over it: "I should have haggled!" says she. I tell her to take the male perspective: it's over, move on. We have a nice rug!

So we left the Akhnaton Carpet School and headed north. I was going to post more about our day, but I've been rambling too long and the Pyramids at Giza deserve their own post. So we'll just leave us at the Peace II Restaurant in West Cairo, where we ate a rather tasty lunch at the buffet, and the owner gave us extra meat because obviously we weren't appreciating the full taste sensation of the restaurant's selection! Egypt, as I may have mentioned, is big on service.

Next time: pointy buildings and a lion with a dude's head. What were the ancient Egyptians smoking????

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