My time in Egypt has been extremely eventful and haven’t had time to write a blog entry yet. So this will be part 1…
I arrived in Cairo at about 4 AM on the Thursday before last. Upon stepping out of the airport I was bombarded by taxi drivers, all wanting to take me to my hostel for way to much money. Typical of anywhere in Egypt, as I learned quickly. I was able to negotiate a fair price with one driver. Just on the cab ride alone, I witnessed how beautiful Egypt is as the streets of Cairo are just deep with history and beauty. I made it to the hostel and checked in. Had a nap and wanted to explore Cairo a bit.
So I took a trip to Old Cairo. It was within walking distance of my hostel. Though walking in Cairo is a bit crazy. The traffic system borderlines on anarchy with few crosswalks or crosslights. So pedestrians just sort of cross when it seems safe, and assume cars will stop for them. Somehow it all seems to work though and I haven’t witnessed any accidents yet.
Old Cairo was bustling with pedestrians, cars, horses, donkeys and more, all traveling down fairly narrow streets filled with shops and food vendors. It was nice to walk around, as it seemed like an authentic view of Cairo. I felt like a foreigner, but not a tourist and barely saw any other tourists there, even though it is on all the tourist maps. There were a lot of beautiful religious buildings, many of them over one thousand years old.
The people were all quite friendly, even small children. They recognized I was a foreigner and would ask my name and nationality. Egyptians take their hospitality very seriously and are genuinely friendly people. Many of them really like sitting down with foreigners, having a cup of tea and chatting. Especially with Obama in office, many are very optimistic about improving international relationships and get excited to meet Americans, as they want Americans to like Egyptians.
It can be tricky though as some of them have other intentions for conveying their friendly attitude. Many of them are hoping to get money from foreigners, or ‘baksheesh’ which means tips. Egypt is an extremely safe country to travel in as the crime rate is quite low. However, many locals think of fairly clever ways to con foreigners into giving them money. They will see a foreigner and act like they want to become good friends. They will try and persuade visitors to let them act as tour guides. And often times they will take foreigners places and claim there are entrance fees in order for the foreigners to give them money, which they supposedly are using to pay the entrance fee, while really the foreigner could have gotten in for free. During my walk through Old Cairo I had several encounters with people acting as friends/guides to me. Fortunately I had been warned about this behavior and was able to avoid these situations quickly.
The next day I took my first trip into the Nile Delta. Compared to the other deltas I have visited on this trip, the Nile Delta has been relatively untouched by tourists. This may seem strange, as the Nile River south of the delta has mass tourism as well as the surrounding cities of Cairo and Alexandria. I was interested in visiting this Delta to get an understanding of why tourism has not been developed in the delta, as perhaps tourism is not a good option for all places. As the delta is off the beaten path, I needed to think of creative ways to visit it. The Lonely Planet had mentioned these barrages, which are river busses that leave from Cairo and go to the delta town of Qanater. I thought the trip sounded fun, and decided to take it. Fridays are the best day to take the trip as it is a holiday for most Egyptians, and therefore the barrages are the most crowded.
The boat ride itself was the highlight of the trip, more so than the town of Qanater. It was pretty full, probably almost 200 people, and I was one of the only foreigners, so the experience seemed very authentic. The ride was about 3 hours each way. On the deck of the boat, it is easy to sit back and take in the beauty of the Nile. But inside the boat, there was a DJ playing fairly loud Egyptian music, and many people dancing. They encouraged me to dance as well, and I did for awhile. It was quite fun and I really liked the music. However, as I was an American, they started playing hip-hop music in order to please me. But I actually preferred the Egyptian music.
People dancing on the barrage
The boat stopped in Qanater and I was able to get glimpses of delta agriculture and lifestyles. It is extremely fertile and the land has been farmed on for centuries. It is really no surprise that ancient Egyptians worshipped the Nile as it really is the life source for Egypt, as otherwise it would all be a barren dessert. On the boat ride back, I took a break from dancing on the way back and set on the deck observing bird life and recreation in the Delta. Quite beautiful, especially at sunset.
Nile Delta agriculture
The Nile Delta
Sunset on the Nile
The next few days, I wanted to do the tourists things in and around Cairo. I visited the Egyptian museum and was definitely impressed by the collection of mummies, tombs, statues, and other antiques. I especially liked the animal mummy room where there are mummified crocodiles, cats, birds, shrews and all sorts of other creatures. They didn’t allow photos inside though.
The next day was the pyramid trip. While pictures of the Giza pyramids may look like they are in the middle of the dessert somewhere, they are actually just in suburban Cairo. Anyways, I took a horseride around the Giza plateau in order to see the several pyramids and the sphinx. They were all definitely spectacular. I was also able to visit a number of the other pyramids, not in the Giza plateau including Dashur, Saqqara and Titi Pyramid. The tour also stopped in Memphis, which was the capital of Egypt for most of the Pharonic period.
The Great Pyramids
On the horizon
Step Pyramid at Saqqara
My first stop on the trip was Bubastis. Bubastis is the center where the feline deity Bastet was once worshipped. As most people know, I am a cat owner and lover myself. So needless to say, I had been ecstatic when I found out I could justify visiting a place like Bubastis as part of my research, which combined my personal interest with cats and my academic/professional interest in delta heritage tourism. Unfortunately, the Temple of Bubastis is pretty much just rubble now. Once reason why the Nile Delta is not commonly visited by tourists is that while the dryness of the dessert has helped preserve many other pharonic sites, the wetness of the delta has had the opposite effect. Regardless it was still worth the visit. And near the temple there is this cat cemetery where at one point hundreds of bronze statues of cats had been found. Anyways, they are working on a visitors center in Bubastis, though it will not be complete for one year. So obviously efforts are being made to preserve Bubastis, and tourism is being used as a means to finance this preservation.
Alex and Bastet at Bubastis
Cat Cemetery at Bubastis
The next stop was Tanis. This was also really exciting, as no other visitors were there. But at one point I had three ‘guides’ following me around wanting baksheesh, though I had only agreed to having one. Nevertheless, it was quite exciting. It is the archaeological site that is still being excavated. So it was really like witnessing Egyptology in the development phase. There were all sorts of cool blocks and statues lying around dating back to 1000 BC. Also, Indiana Jones fans may remember that it is the place where Indiana Jones had discovered the Lost Ark.
Statue of Ramses the second in Tanis
I actually had been quite surprised on how urban much of the delta seemed. Though it is full of agriculture, there are towns and cities throughout it as well, I supposed to support the industry. The last stop on the tour was Tanta, which is the largest city in the Delta. The main visitor attraction of the city (at least for those visitors interested in Sufism) is the large mosque dedicated to Moroccan Sufi Sayyed Ahmed al-Badawi. The mosque was stunningly beautiful, especially as it got dark out as the whiteness of the mosque really stood out. They allowed me to go inside the mosque and walk around while my driver worshipped. It was quite lovely. A few people seemed to think I was lost though as I kept wondering around, not sure which rooms it was ok for me to enter. But not knowing Arabic, I was unsure how to explain my purpose for being there.
mosque dedicated to Moroccan Sufi Sayyed Ahmed al-Badawi in Tanta
That ended the tour so I had dinner with my driver and he took me to the bus station and I took a few hour bus ride to Alexandria. I found a nice place to stay for the night and wandered around Alexandria that night and the next day. I liked the city quite a bit. It is right on the Mediterranean Sea, and has a nice waterfront. Alexandria has quite a bit of history with Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, the Great Library and more. However, many of the historical buildings have been destroyed, or are now underwater. So there is not as many sightseeing opportunities in Alexandria, compared with other parts of Egypt. But it is a nice place to relax and escape the business of Cairo. I would have liked to stay there a bit longer, but on my tight schedule, balancing research and sightseeing, I had to move on.
To be continued…