Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Misr, the Land of Egypt

Less than 24 hours after sitting in Al Azhar Square, located in the heart of the bustling Cairo souq in the city's Islamic quarter, while eating some of the best falafel I've ever tasted, a bomb exploded about 15 yards from where I was sitting with my family, killing one French teenager and injuring more than 20 other tourists. This was the first news item I found out about upon landing at Dulles Airport from Cairo.

Until that moment, I had thoroughly enjoyed my week long excursion to Egypt, and happily reflected on it while I caught up on movies during my lengthy trip back to the States from the Middle East. Besides the highlight of spending time with my sister and future brother-in-law, Egypt was a welcome return to the comfort of the Middle East, where I've already traveled extensively (Israel, Jordan and Turkey) , combined with my experiencing, for the first time, the sites, food and culture that make Egypt unique. Cairo literally teems with people - the city is bursting at the seams with a population of 18 million inhabitants and, according to one guide book, 1,000 new immigrants a day. Cars completely ignore any sense of lane divisions, and crossing the road involves first closing your eyes, breathing deeply and saying a few prayers to your choice of higher authorities. (Surprisingly, we didn't witness any accidents during our entire stay.)

The sights and smells of Cairo are thrilling - downtown Cairo has a distinct French European feel, while the skyline of Islamic Cairo is dominated by minarets and a seemingly endless number of mosques. The Cairo souq is mostly a tourist attraction, but walking down the streets of the bazaar brought me back to the other Middle Eastern souqs I've visited in Turkey and Israel - all kinds of colorful trinkets peddled at overpriced "special tourist discounts," along with spices, clothing, and food, set to the soundtrack of Arabic music playing in various places around the bazaar. The style of dress in Cairo was also eye catching, from modern clothing to an infinite range of colorful hijabs, worn by modern Muslim women, and the more imposing burquas worn by women who adhere to more conservative Muslim values. And, of course, right outside of Cairo stand the pyramids, aptly described as one of the seven wonders of the world. Walking into the Red Pyramid at Dahshur was an Indiana Jones-esque experience and horse back riding around the Great Pyramids at Giza captured the pyramids' stark beauty and only increased my wonder that they were built so long ago, yet remain standing.

Outside Cairo, we visited Aswan, the center of Egypt's Nubian culture (Nubians are a mixture of African and Arab culture; ancient Nubia is close to modern day Sudan). Getting away from the hustle and bustle of Cairo was a huge relief on our senses, and the highlight of Aswan (and a highlight of the whole week) was an afternoon spent sailing down the Nile from Aswan to the first cataract (The Nile!! I can't believe I sailed down the Nile!), while Nubian ruins glinting in the sunlight as we floated by. We also traveled to Luxor and spent a full day exploring pharaohnic tombs and temples at the the Valley of the Kings, Deir el-Bahiri, Karnak temple and Luxor Temple. Something that astounded me in particular was the Jewish connection to Egyptian temple worship, manifested by the inner sanctuary of ancient Egyptian worship temples. Just like the holy temple built by King Solomon around 1,000 B.C.E., the inner sanctuary of the temples built by Egyptian pharaohs only a couple of hundred years earlier was referred to by the Egyptians as the "Holy of Holies," and only the high priest was allowed entry to make offers to their god.

Upon our return to Cairo, we visited the Egypt museum where we experienced the eery feeling of seeing preserved mummies, most of them unwrapped, of 3,500 year-old pharaohs. The bodies are incredibly preserved, and fake eyes have been inserted so it looks like the mummies are either sleeping peacefully or staring contendedly right at you. I was especially blown away by seeing the mummies of the pharaohs most scholars point to as being responsible for the Israelites' Biblical exodus from Egypt. (Ancient Egyptian history includes one reference to Israel, but otherwise didn't document the slavery of the Israelites. However, since writing history was really an exercise in self-promotion for Egyptian pharaohs, the Israelites could simply have been off their radar screen when they decided what to document).

As a tourist on a brief visit, it was hard to dig under the sunny expressions of "everyone gets along" that most Egyptians expressed to us regarding both domestic and international politics. However, several isolated conversations, as well as the bombing in the bazaar after I left, reflect street level discontent with the government's unwavering policy of honoring its peace agreement with Israel and refusing to intervene against Israel during the recent war with in Gaza. Given the almost universal attendance of men at Friday prayers and the public broadcasting of the imam's Friday sermons on the streets of Cairo, it's understandable how easily public opinion can be swayed by the the radical or moderate views of popular imams. We were also reminded during our travels that while Egypt is a tourist friendly country, it's not a democracy. Reading a English Egyptian paper gave us a sense of the propaganda that's used to bolster Mubarak's presidency. And, though many Cairenes life comfortably, we walked through neighborhoods, and saw many more from the road, that were characterized by overwhelming poverty and terrible living conditions.

Stepping off the plane to the news of a terrorist bombing only feet away from a place where I had blissfully munched away on a falafel, the crumbs of which I could still taste, was unnerving. While the news didn't detract from my experience, it added an unwelcome postscript to a truly fantastic trip. I prefer to reflect on the friendly exchange of Ma'al Salaam ("go in peace") that we enjoyed on a regular basis with the people with whom we interacted, on the incredible history and archaeological sites that Egypt features, and on the sweet tea that we sipped as we caught our breath before heading to our next destination.


At 2/27/2009 8:11 PM, Blogger Princess in Galoshes said...

Oh wow, that sounds like a really amazing trip. I'm so sorry the final memory had to be such a sad one. Egypt has always been near the top of my list of places to visit in my lifetime. It was fun to read about your experiences there.

At 3/05/2009 11:05 AM, Blogger Stephanie said...

What an emotional travel experience..and now I want some falafel.

Re. traffic, when I was in Cairo many years ago, I witnessed a car accident. Our tourist van hit a family on one of the many chaotic intersections with hundreds of pedestrians and cars, but no traffic signals. After falling to the ground, the family got up and waved. Then our van driver waved, and everyone moved along. There were no comments about blame, insurance or litigation as there would be here.

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