Archive for April, 2008

Contradictory Cairo

Tuesday, April 1st, 2008

Cairo 169 Cairo. The last time I felt like this was in Beijing. Both are cities with long-enduring, breath-taking history, providing real insight into the development of important civilizations. Yet both cities impose a set of challenges for visitors, and the conflict and contradictions between the old with the new are evident every step of the way.

Cairo 233 One of my life goals has been to see the Great Pyramids, and that was a clear highlight of our time in Cairo. They are surprisingly close to the city, and we even had a decent view of them from our hotel room. We spent two days exploring them, both at Dahshar and at Giza, and marveled at their size, beauty, and the complexity and sophistication of their construction.

Cairo 118 Of our two pyramid days, we enjoyed the one at Dahshar more than the one at Giza (site of the Great Pyramid), although (or maybe because) it’s far less of a tourist destination. When we were at Dahshar, there were only a handful of other people there, while Giza was cram-jammed. Dahshar features the so-called Bent Pyramid, which is the world’s best demonstration of the way the pyramids used to look. The Bent Pyramid has part of its outer layer of smoothCairo by Gibson 032 limestone still in place (see above) so you can see their original form. Apparently, almost all pyramids were constructed originally with a smooth external layer, but it’s been removed from the other 106 pyramids still standing in Egypt. At Dahshar, we also went down into the center of the Red Pyramid, and found it amazing to work our way into the center of such a structure. Exploring this pyramid involved backing down a fairly narrow ramp (pitch of about 25 degrees) for a couple of hundred yards, then moving through some narrow, and at times low (about 3-4 feet) stone corridors into the inner chamber. While these pyramids aren’t as tall as those at Giza, being able to experience them in relative solitude was well worth the visit.

Cairo 195 We prepared for our visit to Giza by using pyramids as the basis for a couple of weeks of education on solid geometry. We deduced the formula for the volume of a pyramid (1/3 of the height times the surface area of the base, if you’re curious). We then took the measurements of the base of the Giza Pyramid, computed its height (which is tied to a math relationship the Egyptians favored), did some measurements of the stones used at the sites to estimate an average stone size (one cubic meter), and got an estimate for the density of limestone to arrive at a stone’s weight. Our estimate was that the Giza Pyramid weighs in total some 5 billion kilograms. We then compared notes with the best estimates made by Egyptologists, and our calculations were spot on!

Cairo by Gibson 164 At the Giza site, we walked around the different pyramids, took a camel ride across the surrounds, and explored the famous sphinx! We opted not to go inside the one open pyramid at this site, since the line was long, and the tunnels aren’t conducive to dealing with crowds. We also went to a small museum that houses a boat that was part of the original pyramid site (some 6,000 years old) that was discovered and pieced back together in the mid 1900′s.

Cairo 177 We also met with the head of Egypt’s Antiquities program, Zahi Hawass, author of many text books about the archeology and history behind Egypt’s pyramids. It was a fascinating hour, and really influenced and informed our perspective on the history here. He entered the field of archeology at age 19, and has become Egypt’s top archeologist, and fancies himself as a Harrison Ford “Raiders of the Lost Ark” sort of guy, complete with the classic hat (missing in the photo on the right). He struck us as someone who has done a great job of promoting Egypt and its archeological wonders.

Nile River 284 While in Cairo, we visited the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, which has some amazing artifacts from ancient Egypt. Included in their collection is the King Tut collection. As most of you know, the grave of King Tut is the only royal grave to be found more or less intact, with an astounding assemblage of jewelry, hieroglyphics, and sarcophaguses. We spent a few hours in the museum, and easily could have returned if our schedule permitted. The collection is second to none, and could actually grow over time, as Egypt is litigating against museums in other countries that have somehow managed to build collections of Egyptian artifacts that Egypt feels bleong in Cairo.

Cairo 055 We spent one morning visiting the older Muslim section of Cairo, including two mosques, the military museum, and an ancient aqueduct. The architecture was fascinating, and we also picked up on a fair amount of Egypt’s history, which is as long running as any in the world. Some of these buildings dated back to the Thirteenth Century.

Cairo by Gibson 290 We ended our stay in Cairo with an an afternoon at the Cairo Zoo. We walked into the zoo and soon found ourselves walking beside one of the zoo’s senior hands. He spoke broken English, but eventually we realized he wanted to show us some “behind the scenes” things at the zoo. We went to the hippo cage and he took us close to the hippos, got us some of the hippo food, let us feed and touch the hippos, and then asked for some Cairo by Gibson 233 money. We also spent time with the zoo’s fur seals, lions, African Elephants, and North American Black Bears. Each time, we crossed our fingers that we weren’t about to lose a family member. Sterling and Gibson, for example, sat on the back of a baby lion (left). And Sterling held a good-sized nut in her mouth and let a fully-grown Black Bear take it away from her with its mouth (above right) — her first kiss! And each time the zookeeper held out his hand, asking for some more money. It was a memorable afternoon on multiple fronts! The Cairo Zoo at one point was one of the best in the world, with a magnificent downtown location. Somewhat symbolically, it’s now fallen into a state of disrepair, and is a shadow of its former self.

Cairo by Gibson 075 Our true highlight of Egypt was meeting close friends of ours from Jamestown, Rhode Island, Jane Garnett and David Booth, and their daughter Taylor and son Oliver. We went out for dinner on a boat (a felucca, to be precise) that circled around the Nile. It was fabulous catching up with them, although the boating experience was a bit surreal. We were on the Nile for about 2 1/2 hours, but spent most of it in a tight circle of about 30 yards. Anyway, we all traded notes, laughed, and had a terrific time thousands of miles from Rhode Island!

Cairo 215 So, what are the challenges of Cairo? First, Cairo is an ugly, dirty city. At the site of the Giza Pyramids, the only survivor of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, there was filth everywhere. Seeing this magnificent pyramid in a sea of litter was sad beyond words, and a real diminution of the pyramid’s dignity. Cairo is cram-jammed crowded, with bumper-to-bumper traffic everywhere. Cairo’s air is quite polluted, and the city is just a mess. As if the noise, dirt, and bad air aren’t enough, the buildings are hideous and the landscape is largely barren and trash-littered.

Nile River 244 Is that it? Sadly, no. The restaurants in Cairo are divided into two sections — smoking and heavy smoking. I wish I were joking, but it’s just gross to eat in a restaurant here. Even if the food were good (it generally wasn’t), you couldn’t enjoy it because you’re constantly under attack from second-hand smoke, including the dreaded hookahs (twenty times the nicotine input of a cigarette). Of all the countries we’ve visited on our trip, the smoking was the worst in Egypt — Ugh! We stayed at the Four Seasons at Giza (not recommended, despite how much I like most Four Seasons), and they seemed clueless on many fronts.

Cairo 147 And is that it? Alas, not quite. After seven months of being amazed at how nice people have been in country after country, our streak ended for me in Egypt. I generally didn’t like the people here. We were constantly under siege by people, especially policemen, harassing us for money. It’s a coin-operated society. People were often rude, arrogant, clueless, or all of the above. There were some exceptions, of course, but not a whole heckuva lot.

Feel free to check out our photos of Cairo.