Egypt was a bit of a mixed bag. We had an excellent tour guide, going on a ship’s excursion was clearly the right thing to do, and the Pyramids were … themselves, than which nothing more needs to be said. On the other hand, if Egypt’s not a third-world country, it’s got to be close to one. The guide told us that most people in rural areas were desperately poor, with families having 10 children and living in one-room houses along with their animals. We docked in Alexandria, which is the second-biggest city in Egypt in its own right. There was an excursion which toured the city, and I’d have loved to see its new library, but on our first trip here it was clear that the thing to do was to tour the Pyramids and the National Museum. The buses were there promptly at 8:15, when we’d been told to meet them, but did not depart until 8:45 or so. The reason for this was not any lack of organization but because all the buses had to depart together in a convoy escorted by soldiers including an armed one on each bus. This was a bit disconcerting – last time we had an armed guard it was to visit the DMZ in Korea, and that one is still technically a war zone! (The Korean war ended in a ceasefire, not an armistice – but it’s now a ceasefire that’s held for 50 years.)
The drive to Giza took about three hours. The country we passed was greener than expected, fields rather than deserts. We saw many animals still used to work the fields – camels, horses, donkeys, and buffalo – as well as many of the small one-room houses and some curious tall cone-shaped buildings, usually in pairs, that turned out to be pigeon-cotes. The guide, Heba, told us that the pigeons are raised for food. She also told us that 70% of Egyptians work for the state; I’m still not sure how you can run an economy that way.
I saw much of our day in Egypt through the lens of Elizabeth Peter’s Amelia Peabody mysteries and it’s amazing how much hasn’t changed in the hundred years since the setting of those books. Apologies to any readers here who haven’t read them, but they’re the source of much of what little I know about Egypt. (Peters herself is an Egyptologist, so the settings are reliable.)
As we came to the Pyramids we were a bit dismayed at the thick smog over Cairo and Giza that meant we wouldn’t be able to take pictures against a blue sky. It was somewhat better on the rise where the Pyramids stand, but I’m not overfond of air that I can see, and by the end of the day everyone on our bus was coughing. (Or maybe that was from when the woman in the seat in front of us, who had been reapplying her make-up all day, switched to putting on perfume.)
At the Acropolis, there were people everywhere but they didn’t bother us, probably because they weren’t trying to bother us. The majority of them were tourists and the Greeks there were either tourists themselves or were working in the Acropolis Museum. At the Pyramids, on the other hand, we were accosted every minute. “Take a picture of me! Hello, what’s your name? Excuse me, excuse me, lady! Come for a ride on my camel! Give me your camera, I take a picture of you!” The tour guide had warned us to be firm, and we were, but it was like brushing off flies. There were always more of them. Even some policemen gestured us to come over to them (the rules on where we could walk changed every minute according to who was trying to get money from us), told us to give them our camera to take a picture of us (we gave it to them because they were uniformed police) and then asked for money. There were people selling things everywhere: camel rides, horse-cart rides, wood statuettes of cats or pharaohs, small agate pyramids, postcards, headdresses, scarves. There were also police everywhere, to keep the vendors from actually grabbing tourists and making off with them. I was channeling Amelia Peabody and being firm with my “No, thank you”, but it’s also true that the many vendors were bothering Ted much more than me – this seemed to be a gender thing, so we surmise that it’s either because of the Muslim prohibitions about contact between the sexes or because they expect the man to be the one with the money.
After we left the Pyramids themselves, the bus took us to a plateau where we could see the three in line for a photo opportunity (and a chance to buy even more stuff) and then we went to the Sphinx. The vendors weren’t quite as importunate here, though the sightseeing crowds made it difficult to get good photographs. No matter what people do, though, the Sphinx and the Pyramids themselves have a majesty that cannot be lessened by the ants swarming at their base.
In addition to Amelia Peabody Emerson, I seem to be channeling the Romantic poets this trip, for some reason. At the Acropolis, I kept hearing Keats: “Thou still unravished bride of quietness / Thou foster child of silence and slow time…” which was actually just what it would have been like, without the tourists. At the Pyramids, I was hearing Shelley instead: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings / Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” That’s not quite what it was like, but I kept be struck by how sure the ancients must have been of their beliefs, to spend their whole lives and the resources of a whole country to prepare for their afterlives. I wonder if it ever crossed their minds that they might be wrong.
Next, we were taken to a local hotel (part of an international chain) for a lunch buffet, then to a shop which sold papyruses (real papyrus, according to the guide, “not like the fakes sold at the Pyramids”) and one with jewelry, including gold cartouches with your names in hieroglyphs, for which the guide had taken orders earlier in the day (we were wondering how much kick-back she gets). I avoided the gold cartouche, being fairly sure I’d never wear it, but we did get a papyrus with our names written in, for later framing. It should go well with the Aboriginal painting from Australia we have. (This is where Elizabeth Peters’ books didn’t help – I had a bit of trouble resisting a pair of Nefertiti earrings like the ones John Smythe gave Vicky Bliss, though of course these were copies.)
We finished up with a trip to the National Museum. The collections there are astonishing and huge, but the Museum as a whole is not as rewarding as the one in Athens. It is much better than at Amelia Peabody’s first visit in the 1880s; apparently then the collections were jumbled and no one was sure of exactly what they had. Now every item is numbered and it’s clear a lot of thought has gone into grouping them. On the other hand, only the more important pieces are labeled with any information and the lighting is very poor – they’ve only just started keeping the Museum open past 5PM, and it’s mostly designed for natural light only. Fortunately it was a cool day, because we were told the museum also isn’t air-conditioned. (They’re building a new larger one in Giza.) It was frustrating touring it with the guide, because it was noisy and crowded and I couldn’t hear her very well or see what she was talking about. Unfortunately the guides all seemed to be taking people to the same pieces, because we were always in a mob, yet other parts of the Museum were relatively empty. It might have been more enjoyable to go off on our own, but we’d probably have missed the chief treasures by sticking to the less crowded parts. I explained to the guide at one point that we’d left her to wander about a bit because we couldn’t see or hear in the crowd and she asked ME if I just didn’t like museums. Humph. (Actually, I just don’t like crowds.) A few minutes later by Tutankhamun’s sarcophagi I asked her about the exact relationship between him and Akhenaten, the heretic Pharoah (he was Tutankhamun’s father-in-law). She was unable to explain how in that case Tutankhamun got to be Pharoah – I think he was a nephew.
The Museum was the last stop on our tour. On the way back, we paralleled the Nile for a good way; the guide pointed out that the most expensive real estate was by the river. The Four Seasons was there, but none of the apartment buildings we saw looked like anywhere I’d want to live. The odd thing, after all the poverty we’d seen, was that we spotted a few rowers on the river and they were in Empachers. (A single starts at around $8000.) There were a surprising number of animals in the city: cows and goats grazing, horses and donkeys putting carts with vegetables for sale. The center of the city has terrible traffic (it was probably rush hour), and our bus driver steered very tight corners, often only a foot or so from another vehicle or a building. We actually got through all the traffic relatively quickly, due to our police escort. They even had the sirens on for a lot of it until we got out of the most crowded areas.
Once it got dark, the ride back was long and dull and most people slept. We got back to the ship around 9PM; fortunately they’d deciding to have the dining rooms open from 6-11 instead of the normal dinner seatings, so we didn’t have any trouble finding food. We’re very glad we got to see the Pyramids, the Sphinx, and the National Museum: we’re just not quite sure if we want to ever come to Egypt again.