“YOU ’ RE E N G L I S H ? ”
We glanced at each other then shook our heads
Another head shake. There had to be a way to escape this persistent market vendor. Avoiding eye contact, we glanced around the brass pots that lined his shop in the 600-yearold Khan el-Khalili souk, searching for a quick exit.
There it was. We’d spent two days in Cairo trying to look as nationalistically anonymous as possible. No logo-bearing t-shirts. No ball caps. No Nikes. With rumors of anti- American feelings preceding our visit, we were trying to remain inconspicuous as we traveled through the magical land of the pharaohs.
The shopkeeper’s face lit up beneath his kafiyah. “America is number one!” Our cover blown, we nodded our thanks and turned again to peruse his wares. It was an experience we would have again and again over the following week, discovering Egypt to be a place where American tourists are not just welcomed, but embraced.
There have been several deadly incidents involving tourists in Egypt starting in the late 1990s with the assassination of tourists outside a bustling ancient temple near Luxor, followed by the firebombing of a tourist bus at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and attacks at the Al Hussein Mosque, the Sixth of October Bridge, the Citadel, and even here, at the Khan el-Khalili bazaar, in April 2005. But we soon learned that the government of Egypt — not to mention the people whose livelihood depends on tourism — has taken anti-terrorism to heart. Egypt’s tourists are fiercely protected by an array of military and police forces, with armed personnel seen at every public place. Even with enhanced security, however, tourism numbers remain down.
Not that the crowds weren’t there, but we found they were primarily the local population. Africa’s largest city, designed to accommodate 2 million residents, today is home to 16 million people swelling to 18 million during work hours. A curtain of dust and smog often hangs over the city, blurring but not blocking the view of the river Nile and of the bustling city that’s called the “Mother of the World.”
Our next stop was the Egyptian Museum. Guarded, like many buildings in Egypt, by an x-ray security machine at the entrance to the grounds and another at the door, the museum is one of the country’s most significant. The collection is massive; only 15 percent of it is on display at any one time. Even so, to look at all the items on exhibit for 40 seconds each would mean a 15-month visit on a 9- to-5 schedule. With that in mind, we headed to the display for which the museum is best known: the Tutankhamen Collection. In the coming days, we’d see King Tut’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings but, first, we visited the collection of 1,700 artifacts that ranged from funerary furniture to alabaster canopic jars that held the royal’s viscera. The centerpiece of the collection is Tutankhamen’s splendidly decorated gold coffin.
Later, at the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo, we learned how the Egyptian ankh symbol, with its looped upper segment, evolved into the modern day Christian cross. From there, we headed to Islamic Cairo, a part of the city settled over a millennium ago. To the sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to midday prayers, we entered the busy Citadel where the minarets of the Muhammad Ali Mosque are a landmark of the Cairo skyline.
The classic Islamic architecture that surrounded us at the mosque, with its intricate geometric patterns, set the scene at our next stop as well, although its ornamentation was not its most unusual aspect. Here, in the heart of Cairo, the cemetery known as the “City of the Dead” is notable not for its deceased residents but for its living ones. Its ornate tombs have become de facto suburbs, their shady chambers serving as housing for many poor families. Warned about pickpockets and thieves that also use the tombs as hideouts, we warily stepped in for a look, only to be met by waves and friendly shouts of “ hello, hello, hello.”
Our anticipation growing, we left downtown Cairo to visit the famous tombs that have brought travelers to Egypt for hundreds of years: the pyramids of Giza. Known as El-Ahram in Arabic, these icons of ancient Egyptian civilization sit on the western edge of the city and, for more than 4,000 years, have provided the final resting place for kings Cheops (Khufu), Khafre and Menkure.
The first pyramid to come into view was the Great Pyramid, the oldest and, with its 2.3 million limestone blocks, the largest of the three. Drawing closer, the majestic scope of the pyramids became even more apparent, as we marveled at the enormous stone blocks rising into the sky. We could imagine earlier visitors scrambling up the giant blocks to pose for photos, a practice now prohibited. No matter. Even from ground level, the pyramids still inspire awe from the most jaded traveler.
Our first stop, though, on Giza’s sandy plateau was the mysterious Sphinx. Called “Abu al-Hol” (Father of Terror) in Arabic, this mysterious monument with the body of a lion is topped with a face believed to be that of Khafre, the son of Cheops. Today, that likeness is somewhat difficult to distinguish as centuries of desert sandstorms, sun and rain have taken their toll. Not all the damage is from natural forces, however. Napoleon’s French troops reportedly used the monument for artillery practice, destroying the Sphinx’s nose.
After taking photos of the Sphinx, we headed to the pyramids, dodging the camel drivers who, one after another, offered rides around the famous tombs. That would come later. For now, our destination was deep inside Khafre’s pyramid. Second in size but just as prominent as the Great Pyramid, thanks to its higher location and limestone cap (at one time, all three of the Giza pyramids were covered in smooth limestone), Khafre’s pyramid is the easiest of the three to recognize. Standing at its base, looking up at the stair-stepped blocks rising 470 feet into the sky, we marveled at the vast effort it took to design and construct.
At any one time, the interior of one of the three major Giza pyramids remains closed to visitors due to increased humidity levels caused by human breathing in the chambers and also to remove any graffiti that may be present. During our visit, the Great Pyramid, with its complex array of slanted corridors, secret passages and small shafts through the thick rock, which some speculate were aligned with celestial constellations, was closed to the public. So instead we ventured deep into Khafre’s pyramid.
It might not be as great as, well, the Great Pyramid but a narrow doorway at the base of Khafre’s pyramid promised mysteries to be found in the limestone depths. Unlike the tombs of the Valley of the Kings, which are covered with colorful hieroglyphics that have survived the ages, the tombs of these pyramids were simple. Still, something beckoned us.
We headed into the dim passageway, bent at the waist as we descended into near darkness. Along a slanted stone corridor just wide enough to squeeze past visitors making the return journey, we walked until we reached a subsidiary chamber, thought to be a queen’s burial chamber. Unadorned, the limestone room with its peaked ceiling was a place of quiet reflection (and a space to ease our aching backs).
From there, we headed to the main burial chamber, again a plain space but with a central focal point: a black sarcophagus carved from granite. Like other tombs of the region, it had been robbed of its riches centuries ago. We sat in the dimness and contemplated not only the brilliant civilization that created these remarkable edifices but also the tons of granite and limestone above us. Even for non-claustrophobics, being entombed, even briefly, in the belly of the pyramid gives one pause.
We turned and headed back up the narrow walkway, bent at the waist and starting to feel like ancient Egyptians ourselves by the time we reached fresh air and bright sunlight.
As our eyes adjusted to the glare, we saw nearly two dozen young schoolgirls, each in identical uniforms, waiting for us as we stepped from the pyramid. In careful English, the tallest asked, “Are you American?”
Here we go again. “Yes.”
They all smiled. “What food do ou like?” another inquired, each yllable arefully pronounced.
We told them how much we enjoyed the fuul and shawarma we’d eaten earlier in the day. They grinned.
One of the youngest in the group stepped forward. “How old are you?”
We answered and their brows collectively furrowed, searching their newly learned vocabulary for numbers that, sadly, were in the upper reaches. Finally deciding we were somewhat older than themselves but younger than the pharaohs, they all smiled. “Welcome to Cairo.”
INFO TO GO
The official site of the Egyptian Tourist Authority, http://www.egypt.travel inclu,des travel suggestions for Cairo and surrounding areas including transportation to Giza, Luxor and other sites of Ancient Egypt. Details on how to obtain an Egyptian visa before your trip are also covered.
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