This day we started off a little late and had a few extra hours of blissful sleep. As wifi was hard to come by and I still wanted a break from home, I grabbed an Egyptian newspaper at breakfast and opened up to an article on, would you believe it, Agatha Christie! I found it ridiculously convenient that the one day I am in Egypt at the place she stayed at and wrote about, while I was reading one of her books, there was an article on the famed author. But there it was – discussing her work with her archaeologist husband on the Nimrud site that was destroyed in November by ISIS. They helped uncover the site and Agatha took many photos and kept things in order, even meticulously cleaning ivories found at the site with her own face cream! (I kept the clipping)
We started the day at a jewelry shop, government run so we knew it was decent, to buy our cartouche necklaces. The little man behind the counter had bug eyes on account of his very thick bifocals, but he was very kind and gave us hibiscus tea and handmade boxes for our necklaces. He was very proud of his shop and boasted of a visit by Queen Latifah – we saw the photo! Our guide Mona had one and told use all what our names meant in hieroglyphics. ‘L’ is bossy and my family all have at least one in our names, no wonder we always bicker.
A – powerful and strong
L – controlling and bossy
I – likes the straight way
S – independent
O – funny and adventurous
N – flexible (my family laughed at this one – yoga is not my strength)
So we put in our orders and shuffled along to the Cairo Museum. It is very grand on the outside with an old Roman-style front. Inside I was reminded heavily of the books by Elizabeth Peters. In her first Amelia Peabody adventure novel in Egypt the aforementioned goes to the Cairo Museum and notices dust on everything and the general shambles of the museum. It has improved, but just being in there made me nervous for the future of the artifacts. As someone from D.C. I am used to guards in each room with glass and ropes enveloping every artifact. Not here. There are few guards and children have every opportunity to wipe their grimy fingers over precious objects. The museum is filled with countless artifacts, most I think will head to the new museum when it opens (I hope with better security as well), and we wouldn’t have been able to navigate the place without our guide. Mona told us what the non-existent placards couldn’t – the significance of certain very significant pieces. We saw the Narmer Palette, a fake Rosetta Stone (England still has the original), royal mummies and King Tut’s royal treasure.
He had a lot of treasure by the way. He himself was wrapped in linen and then covered with gilded jewelry – including finger and toe caps – and the mask. Then placed inside a box, in another box, in another box. Then all that was inside four giant wooden boxes that stacked inside a hidden room of the tomb like Russian dolls. Plus he had countless walking sticks, furniture, jewelry, really just a stupendous amount of treasure. It was a dream to see it all. Later in our trip we saw Tut’s mummy and his tomb that all of this stuff fit into – still not sure how exactly. Remember, Tut died suddenly around 19 years of age, so all of this was made and put into a tomb with his mummified and gilded person, all within 70 days, which is how long the mummification takes. How much gold would be inside the now empty pyramids I wonder?
We also saw artifacts and statues from many other pharaohs, including another sphinx of Hatshepsut’s and the Amarna art. Basically, King Tut’s dad Akhenaten changed the religion and art during his time which resulted in bizarre statues and carvings – people were given odd potbellies, huge lips and drawn faces. But for once the pharaoh was depicted as a human and with human tendencies. Akhanaten and his wife Nefertiti are shown playing with their daughters for example. It was all rather alien and thus impossible to turn away from.
The mummy room was strange. It made these pharaohs and 3,000-year-old bodies really real to me. You still saw teeth and hair and nails. They were foul looking, shriveled and shrunken, but real people once. It was unbelievable. We saw Hatshepsut’s mummy too. She was found in a cache of mummies that had been saved from being stolen hundreds, maybe thousands, of years ago. The placard there read something like “an obese woman with bad teeth later found to be Hatshepsut.” Not very inspiring.
When we were in the mummified animal room though the oddest thing happened. As we are leaving from looking at the cats we heard a cat! We looked down the steps to the foyer and there was a cat…in the museum!
Aleck greeted us with street falafel – yummy and covered in oil – and we piled into the car to visit the Coptic churches next. Turns out Jan. 7 is actually when Christmas is celebrated here. Less than a month ago a church was bombed, but 15 days later it was all fixed and the President of Egypt, a Muslim, visited that church this morning for the Christmas service. That was pretty inspiring. And as it was Christmas, the locals were out tenfold in this section of the city attending church and prayers. So in a sea of Egyptians there we were, four Americans gallivanting through Coptic Egypt and getting more stares than I’ve ever taken in my lifetime. We must of seemed bizarre and out of place but for that it was all the more of an experience. We went into a synagogue because most churches had closed by then and walked on the original street level which is now almost 30 feet below the new street level. It was like being in the original alleyway and was incredibly old with painted wooden doors hanging off hinges, lines of clothing above our heads to dry and children running around us. It was local and real and visceral.
We went next to a very old Muslim mosque. We were in Old Cairo now and walked through an ancient gate to take off our shoes at the door of this place of Islamic worship. It was a sea of marble in the middle with a columned hall around in a large rectangle. Chandeliers hung from the ceilings and people milled about praying or taking photos. There were people from everywhere here all to worship in this one sanctuary. We waited to hear the opening prayer. This was an incredible thing throughout our days in Egypt – at 5 p.m. every evening you would hear one distant call to prayer and then the city would erupt into prayer and it would echo across the old buildings and then slowly dissipate.
We walked into the old shopping district then. Dodging cars we idled our way down the street, looking into shops, tiny alcoves in the bottoms of buildings all lined next to each other for what felt like ages. There were antique gramophones in this one, colorful lanterns in that one and hand-carved copper plates over there. There were offshoots of hidden sidelong streets covered in vendors and we slowly weaved our way through the old mosques where they would give water to passing people and animals back in the day. The mosques were lit up at that time of night and people walked around with their friends and family like any other place in the world.
Then we entered the bazaar – a strange organism of thin streets and walkways all covered in wares and shops. People didn’t know what to make of us because they couldn’t tell where we were from. They called to us in Spanish, then French or Italian and we answered ‘no, thank you’ in Arabic, which confused them even more. We saw the oldest coffee shop in town (aka hookah bar) and weaved our way through the bazaar, occasionally stopping to shop. We had dinner at the Khan El Khalili (the name of the bazaar) restaurant and it was very good. We were also very hungry!
On the way home we drove past a cemetery filled with mausoleums that are now filled with otherwise homeless people and now called the “City of the Dead.”
The next day we would visit the resting places of dead kings at the Great Pyramids.