Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Day 5: The Lighthouse of Alexandria

Or anyway, where it was.

We left the palace grounds and headed back to the old section of Alexandria. We were driving on the same road we'd come in on, which was right along the shoreline. This city has some amazing contrasts. For one thing, there are some truly lovely buildings, both very new and old but well maintained along this primo stretch of coast, but they're cheek-by-jowl next to structures that look like they should have been condemned back in the Nixon years. It's hard to imagine why they're allowed to take up such valuable real estate, though to be fair, these buildings are maybe 20 feet back from an extremely busy street and it would be terribly disruptive to tear them down and build something else. Maybe nobody can get a permit!

It was pretty late afternoon when we pulled up at the quay where we could see the Fort of Quaitbey, whose foundation is where the Lighthouse (Pharos) of Alexandria was up until the 1300s. The pier was full of tourists, both Western and Egyptian


but it wasn't crowded and the air was so nice, with a cool sea breeze. Daddy and I took turns taking our pictures in front of it



and I took pictures of some Alexandrian cats for my cat-loving brother:



I saw some of the vendors feeding them, and I bet the tourists do too, so they're pretty plump for feral cats. Living by water can't hurt either - here, fishy, fishy!

Everywhere you looked, there was something to see:





And here are our guides and bus drivers in their most characteristic moments, grabbing a chance for a smoke:


Just as the sun set we got back on our buses and headed for Cairo. The drive was long and kind of horrible because 1) we still remembered how nice and roomy the train seats had been, 2) it was dark out so there was nothing to look at, 3) the springs in the bus were kinda shot, so we were bouncing a lot [which did great things for the handwriting in my travel diary, let me tell you], and 4) there was some kind of horrifying traffic jam as we got near to Cairo. Mercifully, we stopped about halfway at a place called - no kidding - Omar's Oasis, for a potty break. Once again, we found that when our itinerary read "Dinner on your own", it was code for "You won't have time to eat"!

Day 5: Lunch at the Palace


The Montazah Palace, to be exact. This was the summer residence of King Farouk, from which he fled when he abdicated, and it now houses the a couple of hotels and a pretty classy restaurant - I think it was called the Helnan Palestine - besides being a presidential residence. After lunch we spent some time enjoying the gardens.


This palace is right on the Mediterranean, and there are these little beach houses lining the shore:


They have red tile roofs and miniscule gardens, and they couldn't look more Greco-Roman if they were on the Adriatic or the Aegean. There's not much room at all between them. Ihab says they used to be for guests of the royal family, but now they're rented on 5-10 year leases to the highest bidder. Hmmm, something to do with the lottery money...


Day 5: The Library of Alexandria

Our next stop was a sort of bus driver's holiday for me: we were driven to the Library of Alexandria. Not the original, of course - that's gone and nobody really knows quite where it is, though the Alexandrians claim the new one they've built is just a couple hundred yards from the old site. This one has only been open since about 2002.

The facade is pretty nifty: they've decorated it with letters and words from every known language.


Once inside, they arranged for us to have a tour. The guide took us to the reading room first. They did a nice job with it, filling it with columns that evoke ancient lotus-capital columns

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and creating hundreds of "scroll niches"


that really function as sound baffles. The huge slanted windows let in enough natural light that they need very little artificial lighting during the day. The Egyptians are extremely proud of this place, which was built to house something like 8 million volumes, though they have only a tiny fraction of that number now.

We were given about 45 minutes of free time before leaving for our lunch, so I decided to try to contact civilization via that Internet thing. There's a desk you can go to to get an hour on a computer - they give you a slip with the location of your PC, and the person who is on it gets automatically alerted and logged off a few minutes later. Sounds like what I do all day, except on a larger scale and with better software. They ask that you not do email on them, but I finessed the restriction a little tiny bit - I went to the Stow-Munroe Falls Public Library web page and did an interlibrary loan request, but instead of typing book info in the online form, I typed a note to my colleagues. When I got back I found out that the person who processes the requests read the note and enjoyed it, and then DELETED IT AND DIDN'T PRINT IT OUT OR SHARE IT AROUND THE DEPARTMENT! Really! What's wrong with these people!

Here I am next to the statue of Demetrius Phalereus, who suggested to Ptolemy Soter that maybe he'd like to have a library.

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The only bummer was learning, almost at the moment we were leaving, that they have a special "library professionals tour" that I could have gone on, where they take you behind the scenes to see the nuts and bolts. If only!

Next, lunch at the Palace!

Day 5: Alexandria

We got out in Alexandria and immediately noticed a difference in the air. Cairo has a distinctive smell, dusty and sharp - it's quite polluted and smoggy - and dry, at least by my standards though it's wet for Egypt. Alexandria, however, was actually muggy, and often there's a tang of salt in the air. This city feels quite Mediterranean, in fact - which it is, having been built by the Greeks and occupied by the Romans.

In fact, our first stop was a Roman amphitheater


dating to the fourth century AD (we pooh-pooed these newfangled ruins - only 1600 years old? That's yesterday!) which was discovered in the sixties by some folks who were planning to put a public park on the site. It has to be frustrating - there you are, laying out where the playground and the sandbox are going to be, someone gets his foot stuck in a hole and lo and behold: another @*&%%! ruin. The antiquities guys come out and dig up a Roman amphitheater complex, and now where are we gonna put the swingset? C'mon!

This amphitheater was very lovely indeed, and I fooled around sitting on the bleachers and pretending to go to a show.

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The view was quite fine


though it looks like the stage would have to have been pretty small.

There was also a bath complex with comfy marble bathtubs. Dad admired the wavy-marble pillars:

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Day 5: The Train

Happy Halloween! (Oddly enough, Cairo had a distinct lack of jack-o-lanterns today - just one extra advantage of being in another country entirely...)

Today started early - they all do. This is not a restful vacation! (It's pretty awesome, though!) We were up at 5:30 and first in line for breakfast thanks to the Early Bird who lives in my room. After eating our usual sumptuous meal, we squirreled away pockets full of pita sandwiches, bananas, and other self-contained edibles. We were heading for Alexandria on the train, and were forewarned that lunch would be quite late, so providing ourselves with noshing opportunities was a high priority.

We boarded the train slightly before nine AM. The train station in Cairo has an old-fashioned prettiness, though I was again on the wrong side of the bus to photograph it. There were quite a number of commuters boarding the train, but as usual Grand Circle had sent advance scouts ahead to procure our tickets so we didn't have to wait in line. We just boarded our car for a non-stop ride.

The train was quite comfortable, with roomy seats in stark contrast to the cramped bus seats we are now used to:


The area around the train tracks was quite built up, even once we were out of Cairo proper, and we noticed several interesting things as we rode. For one thing, we were riding past the most awful, rickety looking concrete or brick tenements, but most every one of them has columns of rebar sticking out the top like they'll be back to put the top floor on as soon as they raise the funds. On the other hand, these buildings look like if you added any more weight to the top the whole assemblage would collapse into rubble! Also, not many of the buildings we passed were painted - what's the point? They'd be sandblasted by Mother Nature soon enough, plus coated with enough dust to obscure any colors - but occasional ones were faced with colored tile or even constructed out of tinted concrete. Because I was taking the opportunity of the train ride to write up the previous day's events in my trip diary, I forgot to take photos of this (*doh!*) but at least I wrote it down!

A little further on, we went into "farm country". The fields here are divided into narrow strips and grids by irrigation canals, as of old,


often with adjacent strips planted in different crops like a strip quilt. We saw a lot of cabbages! Also sugar cane, palm plantations, orchards - apricots? and much unidentified greenery. Maybe one strip in ten will have standing water on it. The owners of the field in the photo had a tractor, but most of them seem to use human labor, supplemented with water buffalo and donkeys - it's pretty common to see a huge pile of plant material with an itty bitty donkey trotting underneath like a mobile haystack.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Day 4: The Carpet School, or Child-Labor-R-Us

Tired but happy, we piled back onto the bus for the last jaunt of the day: on our way back to Cairo we stopped at a carpet school.

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Here, the workers weave gorgeous Persian-style rugs out of wool, cotton, and silk, mostly for the tourist trade. As is apparently the case in most rug factories like this, the workers in question are actually kids.

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Faouzi told us that it's sort of an apprenticeship system, and it makes the difference between survival and starvation for their families. The kids go to regular school half the day, then come here and learn to tie very small knots


according to a pattern a lot like a cross-stitch chart, but a LITTLE BIT finer.


Apparently adults' fingers are too large to tie the tiny little knots. Then the kids trim the plush even with a razor knife - though the rugs are re-trimmed by machine to a final finished length, if I remember correctly.

After we toured the workshop we were taken up to the showroom. I forgot to take pictures, but it was really something spectacular. I got drool on several of the rugs - the only problems were 1) I hadn't measured my rooms so I didn't know what size rug would be good, and 2) I really hadn't budgeted for one anyway. Sigh.

This was the first night that dinner wasn't included, but it was also the day that we learned the profound truth: on the days dinner is not provided, you won't have time to eat anyway. We were so pooped by the time we got back to the hotel that we just went to our room and collapsed. We'd brought some little food things - a package of almonds, stuff like that - and that was our dinner. It was plenty!

Day 4: Sakkara

At this point, the folks who hadn't purchased the optional Sakkara tour went home to the hotel, while the 3/4 of us who were in it for the long haul went off to lunch before beginning the 45-minute drive. Ihab and the blue bus won the coin toss and got the afternoon off, so the Blue Groupies who were taking the tour were distributed among the other buses. We are temporary Yellows, under the aegis of Faouzi.

Boy do I feel sorry for the folks who chose to go home - the hotel they took us to (I think it might have been called the "Maradiani") served us the best single meal I had on the whole trip. I don't plan to make this entry totally food-centric, but I have to say it. It was a buffet, like most of our lunches, but everything was delicious. The thing I liked was that they had a lot of Egyptian food in addition to more western dishes. Hummos, tahini, babaganous, fresh warm flatbread, chicken shawarma - now I'm hungry. Faouzi told us all to be sure to try the "om ali" which is Egypt's answer to bread pudding. Yeah, and I think Egypt wins that discussion! Om ali is what you do to use up the leftover PUFF PASTRY, and it's absolutely delicious. A recipe can be found here in case you are interested.

Then we piled back on the bus and hit the road. 45 minutes later we pulled up in front of the Step Pyramid of Djoser, which is the earliest major building built out of stone. (All those mastaba tombs built earlier were constructed out of mud brick.)


This was one of my favorite sites. There weren't that many vendors, it was less crowded, and they gave us a bit more free time. I wanted to walk all the way around the pyramid, but we didn't have quite enough time for that.

You go into the pyramid complex through the mortuary temple. I love the details that we learned about this complex. For example, we were told that the fluted appearance of the outside wall mimics mud-brick construction:


The ceiling of the entryway looks like logs or reed bundles


and there are fake stone doors, complete with fake stone hinges at the other end of the entryway!


Just inside the entryway is a colonnaded hall, whose columns also look like reed bundles, which is what they would have held up the ceiling with in a mud-brick house.


Interestingly, the architect, Imhotep, wasn't sure if free-standing stone columns would stay upright since this was the first time anyone had used them, so he "chickened out" - if you look at the sides of the columns away from the walkway, you'll see that Imhotep tied them into the walls.


Inside the complex wall, there's a huge square of sand. We sat down on a little wall while Faouzi gave us the rundown on how the step pyramid evolved during Djoser's reign.

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and then we had some free time to explore. We climbed up to a kind of overlook on top of an old wall:


from which we could see all the way to Dashur where the Bent Pyramid (middle) and the Red Pyramid (right) are.

There are a lot of other tombs in the complex, too:


I just like the way all those steps look!

Because it's so sandy here, as we wandered closer to the Step Pyramid itself, we used these rickety little wooden walkways to keep us out of the sand. Look at the picture of Faouzi and you'll see them. One of the guys on the tour remarked that OSHA would take one look and shut this whole place down in about ten seconds!


Close up, the Step Pyramid is kinda wild. Because stone building was new, they didn't use big blocks like we saw at Giza. They cut about a zillion little mud-brick-sized blocks instead.



Day 4: The Sphinx

It was a busy day, no?

Our next stop was one of the major attractions of our trip: The Sphinx. Again we got on the bus for a drive, but there's no bus parking near the Sphinx so they dropped us off a couple of blocks away. While we were walking, I was struck by the huge number of schoolkids, apparently on class trips. Puts the planetarium to shame! "Field trip next week, Sayid!" "Oh Mom - do we hafta see the pyramids again?" Actually they all looked like they were having a great time.

Then we rounded the corner and saw:


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Wow! I wish we'd had time to get a closer look at the temple complex but we were kind of short on time. This site was also lousy with vendors, and you couldn't walk two steps without being presented with some merchandise. Dad bought three T-shirts for $10 from a guy in a U of Michigan hat!

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This was almost his favorite thing on the whole trip; he sent the photo to everybody he knew who went to Michigan, with snarky commentary.

Day 4: The Solar Barque

Back in the bus for a quick jaunt to the back side of the Great Pyramid!


The hole there is where somebody tried unsuccessfully to break in.

Here we had to choose: whether to go into the pyramid or see the Cheops Boat. Dad and I decided that 1) we had no intention of walking down a steep 100-yard slope bent over halfway, and 2) we were really interested in the boat already.

This boat was found in the 50s, disassembled into maybe 2000 pieces and buried in a huge pit out behind the Great Pyramid. The pit was sealed with huge slabs of limestone.


Archaeologists think this boat may have been used to bring the king's mummy across the Nile for burial, but it is probably primarily ceremonial: the king was associated with the sun god, so he needs the boat for his soul to journey on its path across the daytime sky.

Some years later, excavators ran across another pit. Since they had better technology by this time, they pumped in a blanket of nitrogen, then ran in an endoscopic camera, and said "Holy cow, it's another boat!" In a lot of art, these boats come in pairs, one for the daytime and one for the night, so that makes sense. They resealed the second pit, leaving its boat in situ.

The excavator who found this boat then spent 20 years putting it back together piece by piece. All the pieces were there - it was like a boat kit.

The Egyptians built a museum to display the solar barque (boat). The ground floor is right over the pit, and there are also models of how the boat is built. The construction is pretty cool - the entire thing is held together with ropes, almost like it was sewn together:


The reassembled boat is on the upper level. This is one of the best designed museums I've seen to display such a large object. You climb a staircase and circle to the right of the boat, looking up at it:



then climb a little more and go around the other side more or less at its level:

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(by the way, note the big steering oars at the back - the one on the right is the only wooden part that rotted or something and had to be replaced. You can just see the original oar on the platform below.)


then go up more stairs at the other end to see it full on:

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It's utterly beautiful, and it's maybe 4400 years old.