Finally the tour officially starts! We met the group (only 22 in total!) at 8 a.m. Our logistics guide Mohammad went over the plans for the next few days. We don't actually get on the boat until tomorrow, after we fly to Luxor.
So today was an official tour of two of the main spots to see in Cairo: The Egyptian Museum and the Mosque of Mohammed Ali (no...not that one; the Egyptian one!).
As most of us probably know, the British and French carried off many Egyptian antiquities over the years. But a Frenchman Auguste Mariette oversaw the building of the Egyptian Museum, which was completed in 1863. the current building, still designed in the French Style, opened in 1902
There are over 270,000 items that are contained in the Egyptian Museum (not all are on display). We saw many amazing examples of carved stones (pillars, figures of all sizes, hieroglyphics, etc.) covering a period of several thousand years, the oldest being from around 3,100 B.C. Here are some examples:
One item we did not see (though there was a poster of it) was the Rosetta Stone, which is in the British museum in London.
One of the major holdings of the museum are the 5,500 items discovered in King Tut's tomb, the only Pharaoh's tomb that has ever been found and opened intact. Almost 2,000 of these are on display,
Here are a few:
Unfortunately, the most famous, the solid gold Death Mask, as well as a number of other golden pieces, are in a special room where no pictures are allowed. We remember going to the King Tut exhibit at the Field Museum in the 70's, so we may have seen it there as well. Here is an internet picture:
The other big attraction at the museum are the mummies of many Pharaohs, which have had their heads, arms, and feet unwrapped! On many you can still see the teeth, hair, and finger and toe nails. Pretty creepy. Again...no photos are allowed in these rooms, so here is one you may have seen before. It is Rameses II:
Here are some photos of long papyri scrolls found in some of the tombs. Again, these are the original colors!
Finally, two relics born in the mid-20th century A.D.
Next, we had a quick lunch at the Ritz Carleton, which is right next to the museum.
Culture note: So far, in every restaurant, they have asked two questions. One we used to hear all the time; the other which we have never heard. First, they ask "Smoking or non-smoking?". Remember those days? The other: when Wayne orders a beer, before they pour it from the bottle, they ask "Foam or no foam?"!!!
Then we drove to the other side of the city to see the Mosque of Mohammed Ali. It is actually part of the Al-Qalaa - the Citadel - which was originally built in 1176 by Salah ad-Din (known in the West as Saladin). The mosque itself dates from the 19th century. It is commonly known as "The White Mosque" (to compete with "The Blue Mosque" in Istanbul), since much of its outer walls are covered in alabaster. Alas, the constant wind-borne sand coming off the desert, and recently, the pollution from so many cars, has turned the surface to brown.
The courtyard features a large clock which was a gift from King Louis-Phillippe of France in exchange for the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde in Paris (sounds more like a pay-off than a gift!). Oddly, the clock was damaged during shipment to Egypt and has never been repaired! The tower was covered in scaffolding, so no photos here, but maybe that means they are finally fixing it!
The inside of the mosque is very dark. Since it has a huge dome, and four half-domes, it was hard to see, let alone photograph, the beautiful ceiling. But it was nowhere near as beautiful as Hagia Sophia.
And, even though people must remove their shoes (as in all mosques), the carpet was very dirty. This may be due to all the tourists, but perhaps also partly due to the droppings of the birds which were flying around!
The location of the Citadel was originally chosen because it is on the highest point in the area. As such it gives a tremendous view of most of Cairo:
Notice that, even though we are much farther away from the Nile, we can actually see the Pyramids better here than from our 17th floor hotel room.
And this gives you a pretty good image of our impression of Cairo. Though our guide says it is called "The Paris of Egypt", we have found it to be smoggy, monochromatic, crowded, and gritty --reminiscent of parts of Casablanca. We did not see any "grand buildings"; they may have been here but perhaps we were just overwhelmed by the unbelievably crazy traffic and hub-bub. It's hard to say. We did see some fountains, parks and statues but the traffic was predominant. Perhaps there is more here than we have seen. Perhaps......
Speaking of tourists: Our guide Ossama told us that before the uprisings in 2011, tourism made up 75% of the national revenue. Immediately after those events, tourism dropped to almost zero. It has been slowly rising since, but is nowhere near what it was. This is evidenced by our group being only 22, while the ship can accommodate 84. He has also told us several times already how good the security is. "If it is a 10 in other places, it is 11 here". This is to make us feel safe, of course, but also so that we can go home and spread the word to other potential travelers. We have seen such measures before, and sadly, they are now all too normal. I don't know about you, but having to constantly go through x-ray and metal detectors at every public building and hotel does not make us feel safer. It just highlights how crazy our world is. All that said though, we have not felt any less safe here than anywhere else we have been (including places in the U.S.).
So ends our first stay in Cairo (we return next Monday). Our next post will be sent as we float UP the Nile (yes...it actually flows south to north, as Africa is higher in the middle than at the northern / Mediterranean edge).