Egypt was hands down the part of my trip I was looking forward to the most. We were in the unique position of being the first large cruise ship to make port in Alexandria since the revolution, arriving about a week before the country's first presidential election. There were definitely symptoms that it was a country in transition. There were mountains of trash alongside the streets because the sanitation department had been contracted by the old regime. Cars double and triple parked, eating up two and three lanes of freeways and major thoroughfares (making traffic some of the worst I've ever seen, and I've lived in Manhattan). One of our guides commented that some people take freedom to mean no rules. But the Egyptian people do want order. They were looking forward to the elections, to having a leader to take care of things like traffic cops and sanitation. Our guide also said, "Egypt wants to be free, but we don't know how." They don't have any practice with governing themselves. When your entire population is voting for the first time and there are candidates in the double digits, how do you decide who to vote for? One of our guides wanted "the good looking one" because he would represent Egypt internationally. I cringed at that criteria, but historians say taller, more attractive men have traditionally won elections in the States, so is she really so unusual in that desire?
One thing all our guides agreed on was a request to keep Egypt in our prayers. Even a guy trying to sell me something at the pyramids asked me to tell people to come to Egypt. That it's safe. For the record, I never, not for one second, felt unsafe or threatened while I was there. Tourism is their third (or maybe second?) largest industry and it's taken a big hit since people are afraid to go. I was glad I had an organized tour, but I didn't feel even a flicker of discomfort - so if you want to go to Egypt, don't let their difficult transition frighten you off (but do go with an organized group).
As I noticed when I was in China as well, there is a stark disconnect between the modern and the ancient cultures. (Which I suppose isn't surprising, I mean they had a few thousand years to grow apart, but still...) Modern Egypt is a predominantly Muslim place, with most women in the hijab (showing your hair is fast - what must they think of the topless beaches in Cannes?) and a culture where arranged marriages are still commonplace - though I'm told there is some dating *gasp*, particularly among people who meet on the internet (behold, the Power of Facebook!). Here's a snap of Fort Qaitbey, which is apparently the Alexandrian equivalent of lovers' lane.
Ancient Egypt, on the other hand, with their pagan worship and men in loin-clothes, was a horse of a different color. (What must the Muslim conservatism think of Cleopatra?) We were told, fascinatingly, that the oldest pyramids were not, in fact, built by slaves. See, in the Olden Days, the Nile would flood once a year - carrying all those nutrients in the water which would remain in the soil after the water receded and cause the impressive fertility of the region - but while the Nile was flooded, all those farmers would be out of work. The current historical belief (which I, being the skeptic that I am, give about as much credence as scientific predictions of what is going to happen five thousand years in the future) is that the Pharaohs used that seasonally available work force to build the original Pyramids - which was part of why it took a lifetime to build one. They were only working when the fields were swamped. Interesting stuff, huh?
Anyway, enough talk. Let's see some photos!
We started out at Saqqara, the step pyramid and the oldest pyramid in Egypt. My first pyramid!
Saqqara turned out to be one of my favorite stops. It was slightly less overrun by tourists and the Infamous Camel Guys, so you got to actually soak up the history a bit more.
Oh, the infamous Camel Guys. So, here's the deal. There are these guys at the Pyramids. With Camels. And donkeys. They try to persuade you to get up on the camel or donkey, or just stand in front of it and give them your camera to take your picture (Free! No Charge!) and then, to get off the camel or donkey, to keep it from wandering off into the desert with you, or to get your camera back, then there's a charge. So there are tons of camel guys, tons of donkey guys, and tons of guys trying to sell you postcards and nick-knacks. Ah, Egypt. When will you learn that people will actually buy your stuff and ride your camels fair and square if you let them come to you and are honest about the cost. And then they will recommend other people visit you, as opposed to the advice I got from my parents: "Under no circumstances do you get on a camel!"
From the Saqqara it was slightly north and into the future a few generations to the Pyramids at Giza. All the pyramids are on the West Bank of the Nile. The sun sets in the west and these were tombs. A Pharaoh's necropolis (or city of the dead) would be on the west bank, whereas during life he would live on the east.
After a photo taking frenzy at Khufu's (aka the Great Pyramid), we had a chance to actually go inside the Menkaure Pyramid, which is the smallest of the three. Our guide discouraged us from going in - it's a cramped stairway, you're bending over the whole way, when you get to the bottom there are no hieroglyphs, nothing to see - but it was the high point for me. I touched the inside of a pyramid. I had pyramid dust on my hands! Thousands of years ago, the people who built that pyramid walked that tunnel (or one like it). Inside the pyramid is the closest you can be to the people who created it. The architects of history. Everything else is just pictures. Inside is history.
After that it was on to the Sphinx, which swarming with the most aggressive and annoying hawkers and therefore my least favorite part of the entire tour. I would have loved to really take time to see the Sphinx, but we could barely look at it without someone stepping in front of you to try to get you to buy a scarf, a metal statue, a post card, something. But I suppose that's the case everywhere. There are hawkers on top of the Great Wall too. They're just easier to get away from...
On day two, we went to Fort Qaitbey, pictured above, where they were filming a movie about Napoleon's invasion of Egypt. Turns out Fort Qaitbey is important mostly because lost battles at that Fort led to all the many invasions over the years. Egypt really hasn't spent a lot of time out from under someone else's rule.
Then it was on to the Roman ruins. Yep, the Romans conquered Egypt too. If there was an Empire, at some point they put their footprint in Egypt. You know what I loved about the Roman Theatre? There's this part which would have been the "backstage" area in the original theatre. You go through this archway and there's a rickety old door (probably at some point put there by archeologists to keep people from tromping through their find as pieces of this site are still being actively excavated today) and beyond that is the backstage area... where there are no floors. You walk on these narrow planks above ten foot drops in this corridor. It was hella fun, and perhaps what I liked best about it was the fact that I would never be able to do that in the States. Somebody's ass would get sued in a flat second if there weren't guard-rails and nets and giant "Caution" signs. It's kinda nice to be free to break your neck. It makes the world feel more real, and less like a padded cell.
And then... oh, boys and girls, THEN... the Library at Alexandria. Now, obviously this is not the original library, since that one rather famously burned, but a modern repository of Book Awesomeness built a short distance from what is believed to be the original site. Still, it was like Mecca to me, you guys. All the books! All the knowledge! And art galleries and old printing presses and even one of the new-fangled Espresso print-it-while-you-wait Book Machines. It was beautiful and sparkling and glorious. An oasis in the rather chaotic surrounds of Alexandria.
The library got me thinking about monuments of words versus the physical monuments of the pyramids. Who left a bigger legacy to the world - Homer or the Pharaohs building the pyramids? How many great thinkers are remembered (those who don't start major religions, that is) a thousand or two thousand years after their deaths? What truly lasts? Ideas? Or castles of stone? Should we all be building pyramids if we want to leave a mark? Even if they're covered by centuries of sand, pyramids can be uncovered again, but once an idea is lost, a scroll burned, how can it be resurrected again? And once it's no longer relevant, what impact does it have? A pyramid always has impact, but a book, a song, those things are much more transient. Perhaps that's what makes them feel alive. The fact that they are fleeting. The pyramids are forever, but Giza was a necropolis. A city for the dead. Just a thought.
Up next... Turkey and Greece.