Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Egypt: from Cairo to Hurghada

We left sub-Saharan Africa by plane, flying from Kenya to Cairo with a stop in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and a touchdown in Khartoum, Sudan. Cairo is a massive city,of 20 million people and traffic, noise and pollution to match. A clean air day in Cairo is worst than any of the worst dangerous ozone days in the states. It feels nothing like the Africa we left in Uganda and Kenya. Egypt is overwhelmingly Muslim (90%) and has become more conservative over the past 10 years. Most women at a minimum cover their heads, and many wear the full abeyya (black robe with head covering and only their eyes showing through a slit in the fabrc.) The Egyptian past is the history of the world’s civilization and has intricate overlapping civilizations melding and conquering each other. Its history starts in 4000 BC with the ancient Egyptian dynasties and the unification of lower and upper Egypt. It is followed by Roman and Greek history, the Mamluks (Turkish slave-soldiers), Chrisitians and Muslims the 7th century AD. Today Egypt is a modern country that is vibrant, alive with tourists and comerce. It has many problems, including a faltering economy and high unemployment, overpopulation, dissatisfaction with a longstanding regime, and tension between extreme Islamists and moderate muslims, but vibrant and alive with modern commerce and tourism.

We spent 5 days in Cairo, basing ourselves from our very budget hotel in the middle of downtown and explored from there. Cairo is most alive from the late afternoon until 3 or 4 in the morning and at night the city is so bright with street and store lights that most drivers don’t bother to use their lights. The traffic is thick and constant and despite traffic officers on most corners, cars keep coming and pedestrians play a game of frogger to get across. Luckily our time in Uganda prepared us for dodging cars. Everyone in Egypt smokes, all the time, and the most popular pastimes seem to be sitting and drinking tea or coffee and smoking sheesha, flavored tobacco smoked through a water pipe. We joked that you can sit down on any stoop, anywhere, and out of nowhere someone will run over to offer you coffee or tea. Men and women lead pretty separate lives and women do not hang out in the coffee shops.Most women are covered up, some so much so that they wear gloves and even a veil covering over the eye hole of the abeyya (head covering). The majority of the clothes stores however, have store windows with tight Western outfits, miniskirts, tank tops, leggings and very scandalous lingerie, all displayed next to conservative traditional black robes and head scarves. At first we thought the Western clothes were for tourists, but they are not: they are for these same women who can’t show an inch of skin outside the home but under those black robes, let me tell you, they are wearing some sexy underthings for their husbands!

Being the two voracious eaters that we are, we really enjoyed the food in Egypt in general, and especially Cairo after the long stint of bland African food. We found that the best food was always at small, hole-in-the-wall places that were down little alleyways and definetly not in the Lonely Planet. We ate a lot of taamiyya (like falafel but made from fava beans), baba ghanoush, tahina, flash fried mini eggplants and peppers. We tried fuul (mashed fava beans, tastes a bit like refried beans) which is the national food and koshary (rice and pasta mixed with garbanzo beans, fried onions, lentils and a vinegar-tomato sauce) both of which are very popular for being filling and cheap (50 cents for a meal). All the meat is delicious and grilled over open coals. In Cairo, we drank our weight in fresh juices that are literally the entire fruit pulped in front of you into a glass: sugar cane, mango, orange, carrot, strawberry, melon. We also ate our weight in desserts that Egypt is famous for, most of them fried or filo dough seeped in rose-water honey. Every meal was preceded and post-scripted with a Turkish coffee, thick grounds boiled with sugar and cardamom that is drunk in a shot glass. On almost every street corner there is a metal water cooler that dispenses cool water that is free and cups are provided—the water in Cairo was fine to drink, if a little too chlorinated, and it was so nice not to have to search for and horde water in bottles. Arab hospitality permeates the culture, and we heard that these coolers are often donated by wealthy families as a gesture and to help prevent dehydration,

We saw some of the usual sights: In Cairo we visited the Egyptian museum, a disorganized but ridiculously extensive collection of ancient Egyptian treasures, statues, sarcophagi (tombs) and mummies. The ancient Egyptians fine-tuned mummification and even kept their pets as mummies after they died. We spent a day at Giza, visiting the pyramids and the Sphinx. Giza is a suburb of Cairo, about 15 km south of the city, and the pyramids are a small island in the middle of cars, apartment complexes, businesses and all the pollution of Cairo. The pyramids are impressive and starkly beautiful, and the desert beyond them is vast and hot and flat. There are 3 of them and 4000 years has done little to chip away at them, although a mamluk Sultan in the 1100s tried for 8 months to destroy the smallest one, it only resulted in a tiny defect in one side. The touts that Egypt is famous for were in full-force at Giza, and we were assaulted by people trying to get us to ride their camels and donkeys, buy stone models of pyramids and scarabs, take a tour with them, take their taxi. They come at you from every side, “You want camel? You know how much? Very cheap. Come on, take my camel. Why you want to walk?” Many forceful La, Shukran (no-thank you’s) are needed to fight them off, only to run into another one a few yards away. Such was our experience in Egypt in general, and frankly the only thing that was difficult about being here. The touts are everywhere on the tourist track, offering felucca boat rides on the Nile, carriage rides, spices, alabaster Sphnixes, taxis, tee-shirts, belly dancing costumes, sandals….pretty much anything your average tourist needs, really.

The rest of our time in Cairo was spent touring different parts of the massive city. In Islamic Cairo we spent a day walking through old alleyways, and visiting some of the 100s of mosques, including the oldest mosque in Egypt, meandering through the famous Khan al-Khalili souq (market), seeing the gates of the old walled Muslim city of Al-Qahira, that became Cairo. We spent a day in Old Cairo which houses Cairo’s Coptic (Egyptian Christian) community, (10% of the population is Christian and the Copts were in Egypt before the Muslims took over) and the oldest and one of the only synagogues left in Egypt. We strolled along the Nile, had coffee and sheesha and played shesh-besh (Backgammon), got lost in neighborhoods, ate and ate again and walked miles through masses of people and cars. I even went for a run along the Nile one morning and quickly realized that this is decidedly not something that people do here, especially women. We both really enjoyed Cairo, despite its reputation for hassle, and found people to be friendly and welcoming and warm.

From Cairo, we took a very uncomfortable overnight train ride along the Nile valley south to Luxor where we spent 2 days seeing the Temples of Karnak and Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. Luxor is the ancient city of Thebes, famous during ancient Egypt’s Middle Kingdom and the monuments were amazing. Sleep-deprived, we set out for the Temple of Karnak, a massive complex that was expanded upon by several centuries-worth of pharaohs and now encompasses over 2 square km of columns and pylons (entryways to temples) and obelisks and statues and walls covered in hieroglyphics singing the praises of the pharaohs and gods. Luxor had a worse problem with touts than Cairo and we were more aware of the masses of tourists, groups of Eastern Europeans in inappropriate scanty clothing, Asians in hospital masks, Egyptian school groups, package deals through resorts, backpackers such as ourselves. Of course the guards in every part of the temple were on hand, offering to show us a “secret” part of the temple for a baksheesh. Baksheesh is a social lubricant in the Arab world, its how business and relationships happen, and its basically a little tip to help get things done and has been bastardized for tourists to the point where people will put their hand out after doing small things like opening doors, putting your backpack underneath the bus, giving you directions, or sometimes nothing at all.

Our second day in Luxor was spent on the west bank of the Nile at the Valley of the Kings. We took the people’s ferry over and rented bikes that we used to get 8 km into the desert hillside that houses the tombs of some of the most famous pharaohs and nobles and queens of ancient Egypt. We got to see 3 of the tombs, massive tunnels dug deep into the rock, leading to burial chambers. The walls of the tombs are decorated with drawings and hieroglyphics, detailing the instructions for the pharaohs to reach the afterlife. Many of the drawings still have the original color from thousands of years ago and although none of the treasure or mummies remain in the tombs (they were stolen by tomb raiders or are housed in various museums) the enormity of each project and the beauty of the art was humbling. We visited the Temple of Hatsehpsut, built into the rock, honoring one of the 6 female pharaohs to rule ancient Egypt and the Colossi of Memnon, 2 massive statues that guarded what is now thought to be the largest temple to any pharaoh that ever stood, but is now a ruin. The Collosi are covered with Roman graffiti, a reminder that tourists have been coming here for thousands of years to see Thebe's sites.All throughout, we barely scratched the surface of what there was to see and do. It seems that anywhere they dug in this Nile valley they found remains of ancient civilization.

We left Luxor on a bus for the Eastern coast on the Red Sea, a town called Hurghada where we were to catch a ferry that would take us to the Sinai peninsula where we would continue our Egypt adventure.

For the Picasa web album of Cairo and other pictures, click here.


  1. i am totally traveling vicariously through you guys! did you get a chance to ride a camel yet?

  2. my mouth is watering from the food descriptions. yum! sounds like a great leg of the trip!