28/05/2010 – HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME!

The day of my 40th birthday I arose at around 1:30am and headed bleary eyed to reception to collect our take out breakfasts (which included a whole cucumber!?!), meet the two fools we had persuaded to make the journey with us and wait for our 1:45 am pick up for the 2 day trip to Cairo. A seven hour drive lay ahead of us.

A huge air-conditioned coach turned up, complete with on board toilet and lovely driver who had a fridge full of much needed ice cold drinks. After several stops to pick up other travelers, and some random “colleague” of the tour guide who hid in the toilet when passport control came aboard to check we had the required visa, we settled down to try and sleep through the rest of the journey. Trying to sleep on the bumpy, bendy Egyptian roads with their “interesting” driving rules is an experience all in itself, but we somehow made the 7 hour journey in one piece and arrived in Cairo a little frazzled but ready for the day ahead.

CairoAfter being introduced to our Cairo tour guide and Egyptologist, we launched straight into our first sight of the day, the Citadel and Mosque of Mohammed Ali. No, not the boxer guy, the original Mohammed Ali. The original citadel here was actually built in the 12th century by Salah-al-Din, know in the west as Saladin, however most of what remains, including the huge Mosque was built and fortified by Mohammed Ali in the 19th century, and he is buried here.

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(The Mosque as we approached it, the citadel, mosque close up, the citadel again)

CairoThe mosque has two parts, the first part is open to the skies and features a very out of place looking clock. This clock was given to Mohammed Ali by King Louis Philippe of France, and in return France were sent an obelisk. The clock, though very fancy looking, worked for a sum total of three days and the stopped and has never been got to work since. The obelisk, however, still stands proudly in the Place de la Concorde in Paris, France.

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On entering the mosque you must ensure your knees and shoulders are properly covered, being a seasoned traveller in more reserved countries, I had worn a short sleeved t-shirt and brought along a sarong to cover my legs with. Those less forward thinking were draped very unflattering blue, I hesitate to call them dresses, but can find no other word.

CairoCairoOn entering the enclosed part of the mosque, you must also remove your shoes. The domes are beautifully painted and carved and my photos don’t do it nearly enough justice. Here we learned a little about the Muslim religion and the way in which they worship. This is the first time that I have entered a mosque and it didn’t have the quite the calm, tranquility and quiet that I associate with Christian places of worship, or indeed Buddhist temples, that I have entered. This was probably due to the fact that the pace was packed, both with tourists and locals, it being a Friday, the Muslim holy day. It did strike me, however, as a place of business, though the walls, both internally and externally were very beautiful, the remainder is very plain. No furniture other than an altar, none of the rich adornments that you see particularly in Catholic churches. It is clearly meant as a place for the serious business of praying, not showing off your wealth, and seriously they take it with the call to prayer heard 5 times a day.

CairoCairoThe mosque being part of a citadel, meant that it was situated high above the city, and so on leaving we were treated to panoramic views of Cairo. The Pyramids could just be made out in the distance, but the heat haze of the desert meant that there was no clear view, and the camera didn’t really capture them, but I didn’t get some great shots of the sprawl that is Egypt’s capitol city.

CairoCairoOur next stop, was the Musuem of Egyptian Antiquities wherein is housed, other pretties, the haul from Tut-Ank-Amon’s tomb, the only tomb to be found undisturbed, and so complete with the treasures of the boy king. No photographs are allowed inside the museum, but there are various pieces in the museum garden you could roam around freely.

CairoThe museum holds well over 100,000 pieces which include not only pharoic artifacts, but Roman and Greek too. The guide showed us some significant pieces and then led us to the floor I had been impatient to get to. Since learning of them as child in primary school, being maybe 6 or 7, I have had a fascination with the ancient Egyptions and Tut-Ank-Amon in particular. The first holiday that I booked and paid for myself was to Egypt, some 17 years ago. On that occasion, though I visited his final resting place in the Valley of the Kings, I could not afford the trip to Cairo (although we did almost take the train there, which is a whole other adventure). At last I was about to lay eyes on the famous mask I had waited 34 years to see.

It did not disappoint. It's millenia old beauty is indescribable and my eyes welled with tears as I stood before it, gazing at it for the longest time, then tearing myself away to look at the other possession that had been buried with him. What a way to celebrate my 40th year. Before we left the museum, I returned to the room, to walk around and see the mask one last time.

As I mentioned, Tut-Ank-Amon's tomb is the only one to date that has been found intact and completely undisturbed, the relics found take up 12 rooms in the museum. Exactly how they managed to cram all that stuff in the smallest tomb of ever, I really do not know. The body, mummified and covered in priceless jewelry was placed in sarcophagus, which was then placed in a series of 4 ever increasing boxes, rather like a huge Russian doll. All these are displayed along with the offerings, gifts and possessions of the boy king, statues, thrones, beds, urn's, if you can make it in gold and cover it in priceless gems, it's there. Everything and more that he would need on his journey to the next life. I plan a similar burial for myself.

The other highlight, was the mummies that have been found relatively recently and placed in temperature controlled cases in a room at the museum. Thirteen mummies lay there, including Ramses II (statues of whom can be found all over Egypt) and the recently discovered Hatshepsut, whose temple is one of the wonders of Luxor. It is intriguing and a little creepy looking at the fairly intact bodies of these thousand year old rulers. People of another time, another civilization, many of whose secrets remain undiscovered, and scientific progress we are only now discovering for ourselves. Hair and fingernails remain intact as does the skin, blackened by the mummification process. It is hard to believe that these bodies have lain at rest for thousands of years, and one has to wonder if their beliefs of a passage to another life after death, preparations for which took their own lifetime, included their bodies being on display for 21st century westerners to view.

CairoCairoAfter the museum we visited a local market, we weren’t too interested in shopping, so after a cursory glance at the trinkets, we stopped for a drink with the tour guide and watched the steady stream of people heading to another fabulous looking mosque.

Our final stop before lunch was a papyrus factory and shop. Here we were offered tea and shown the method of preparing the papyrus leaf and turning it into the first known paper. They also showed us how to tell the real papyrus from the banana leaf that is sold by street vendors. After the demonstration we wondered around the shop which held papyrus artwork from some of the top artists in the field, we spent rather a lot of money there.

CairoCairoNext up was lunch at TGI Fridays on the Nile. Not my venue of choice and I found the food was bland, uninteresting and clearly pre-made and frozen. The cocktails were nice though and we drank a toast to my departing youth before checking in to our hotel. The rest of the afternoon and evening were ours to do as we liked with. Most of us decided to take the optional excursion to the pyramids for the sound and light show.

Having had little sleep that day, and being very old now, we decided to test out the beds and take a nap before the evening’s activities, so we arrived at the minibus that was to take us to the pyramids feeling revitalised and ready for the next adventure.

Cairo is further north than Sharm and so a little cooler, but, like the rest of Egypt, it is a city that comes alive a night, after the intense heat of the day is over. The roads were busier and more um… interesting.. to travel than in the day. We arrived unscathed and saw the pyramids up close for the first time, towering over us in all their glory.

CairoCairoThey don’t seem much, these triangles of stone, but if the immensity of them alone doesn’t impress you, then the precision with which they have been built should wow you at least a little. Perfect triangular masterpieces, built before our current technologies were even dreamed of, perfectly aligned with the belt of Orion without the use of a satellite aided telescope. And if even that doesn’t impress you, just their majestic beauty, standing solitary in the desert, 3 monuments to a time long past of which so little is still known, must touch any person who has even a hint of an imagination.

CairoCairoAs the night fell, laser beams lit up the pyramids, and the disembodied voice of their guardian the sphinx (who speaks perfect English, by the way), regaled us with tales of their origin, aided by laser-beam pictures which spread across the pyramids and the walls of the temple below.

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And that was my 40th birthday. Way better than my 30th which was mostly spent in a drunken stupor, and hard to top, but I will try in another 10 years.

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