Most of us have seen so many photographs of the Pyramids of Giza that we may feel we know them and don’t expect any surprises when we actually see the gargantuan tombs in person. I certainly didn’t expect to have much of a reaction when I saw them on my first trip to Egypt earlier this month.
In fact, seeing the Egyptian Pyramids wasn’t even my top priority when I arrived. I wanted to see Cairo, the fabled markets and crowded streets and the legendary River Nile. Even a visit to the Red Sea ranked pretty high on my list. I figured the pyramids would be another stop on my tourist path, granted an awesome stop, but I hadn’t given them much thought beyond that. Continue reading »
I saw him moments after descending from the bus before boarding the boat for the Temple of Philae in Aswan. It wasn’t the white stubble of his beard and close cropped gray hair that caught me. It wasn’t his erect posture in the flowing galibeyah gown or his flashing eyes or the smooth texture of his brown skin. It was the white cotton shirt in his hands.
Simple embroidery decorated the shirt pocket. A buttonless slit ran from near the pocket to the collarless neckline. Cut like a t-shirt but elegant in its whiteness in the desert sun, the shirt flapped like a flag in his brown fingers. Continue reading »
The gnarled, web-like fists of Rosa Santa Maria mystified me.
“It’s good for luck, and smells good in the home,” one shopkeeper said.
The overflowing barrels of dark red whorls?
“Hibiscus.” Continue reading »
In just about any tourist town the local markets sell trinkets, and one of the great mysteries of the modern world, perhaps even of the ancient world, is how so many shops can survive or hope to survive selling the same merchandise.
“Alabaster” pyramids, “jeweled” boxes, stylized cats, hookahs, sand paintings in vases, papyrus paintings, decorative plates, pharaohs’ busts, cotton head scarves and belly-dancing wraps, the list goes on and on. Almost every shop sells the same merchandise and their only hope for business is to befriend visitors without being pushy. Continue reading »
On his 40-year tour of the neighborhood many millennia ago, Moses passed this way and found a burning bush at the base of a mountain and heard the voice of God. I sat on the terrace of El Mawardy Café and saw my own burning bush atop the hill at the end of town. I don’t think I heard the voice of God but I did hear the Muslim call to prayer, the laughter of children getting a treat a few tables away, the honking of a car horn.
Maybe the voice of God was speaking quietly, because my friends and I were sitting across the street from where a terrorist bomb exploded in 2005, destroying an entire row of shops and killing many people. The shops have been rebuilt, the neighborhood is friendly, especially in the evening when the shadows soften the harsh sun and the lights of shops cast a festive glow over the streets. A crescent moon and resplendent Venus added to the spell. Continue reading »
“Felucca man, you want boat? Half hour, here—” the man rasped and gestured down a gangway as my friend Clark and I strolled along the Nile in central Cairo. He was about the fifth person to encourage us to take a boat ride, and of course it’s something we intend to do, for how can you come to Cairo and not ride a felucca? But we weren’t ready then, we just wanted to walk, take in the sights and sounds of the legendary river before heading off to dinner.
Cairo’s traffic roared by, then slowed to a crawl, all accompanied by the blares, beeps, honks, and screeches of a thousand car horns and the periodic wail of music from the boats moored to the riverbank. Even in February the sun had the intensity to scorch my face; traffic fumes reminded me that despite the breeze off the water this is a congested, challenging city. Continue reading »
I returned from a short walk around the neighborhood on my first day in Cairo and was drawn toward the bar and restaurant in the open lobby of the Intercontinental Citystars. I wasn’t hungry or interested in a drink, I simply felt like wandering and seeing what was there.
Then the sound of music, energetic strings and the fast rhythms of a tabla pulled me on. It sounded live, so I poked my head around a corner looking for the source. Sure enough, tucked into a corner of the lobby that opened onto the restaurant a quartet of women dressed in headscarves were playing. One strummed a 12-stringed lute-like instrument called an oud, another plucked a flat zither-like instrument, a third bowed a cello, the fourth beat a tabla. Continue reading »
How do you know when you’ve reached the tourist district? My first clue on my recent arrival in Cairo was the first sign I saw in English after miles of Arabic. In huge letters across the top floor of a shop were the words, “Carpet City.” Next door proclaimed itself “Fair House.” Both, I’m ashamed to admit, struck me as funny because they matched my preconceptions about Cairo: 1) we’d be hustled for carpets; 2) those hustlers would be certain to offer us a “fair” price. Continue reading »
I teach yoga at my son’s pre-school on Fridays and we always do Sphinx pose. We talk about the mythical half man, half lion creature and I will often ask if anyone knows where the real Sphinx lives. Last week I was able to add that a new pyramid was discovered beneath the desert sands in Egypt. The three- to five-year-olds weren’t that impressed, but I must say I thought it was exciting news.
The new structure is 4,300 years-old and archaeologists think it is the tomb of Queen Sesheshet, the mother of Pharaoh Teti, the founder of ancient Egypt’s 6th dynasty. Mothers were greatly revered in ancient Egypt: another great teaching moment. Continue reading »
Some time ago I was traveling via taxi from the Manila airport to the center of the city and was amazed that the traffic seemed to veer all over the road, unmindful of lane markings or what car should be where. To an American (me) it seemed complete chaos, but to the Filipinos it was smooth as could be. Everyone’s awareness was on the vehicles around them, not on their “right” to the lane they were in. Later, in the city, I was further amazed to see that when too much traffic flowed in one direction and there was room on the other side of the road, drivers simply crossed the center line and took over a lane or two, so traffic coming the other way had to squeeze over. Again, madness to an outsider, but it actually allowed the traffic to flow faster.
This sort of cooperative driving is common the world over, and is true in Cairo, as Anthony Bourdain discovered on a trip where he communed with Bedouins, felt most comfortable deep in the desert, and empathized with the millions of Egyptians struggling to get by. Things seem to work out one way or another when people cooperate, even when times are tough.