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Cairo was never a capital or even a city of ancient pharaonic Egypt but today it is the largest urban area (founded about 970 A.D.) in the Arab world and in Africa, and the 16th largest metropolis in the world at about 30 million. After Akmed (Medo), my Great Safari tour representative (www.greatsafaris.com) picked me up at the expansive and modern new Cairo airport, the teeming traffic on the Loop Road on the way to my the luxurious Fairmont Nile Hotel was a realization of osmotic driving. The cars, buses, transports, trucks, and even horse-drawn carriages seemed to know automatically the intentions of every moving metallic object around them. No need for lane changes, it was one wide snaking macadam path that surprisingly never jammed up during rush hour.
The “City of a Thousand Minarets” is called al-Qāhira my many modern Egyptians or sometimes Masr, the name of Egypt itself. If global warming is true, then its elevation at 75 feet may someday make it part of ancient history, no doubt inundating the underground metro system.
The first Step Pyramid — Saqqara.
There are two iconic symbols recognized in ancient Egypt: the lotus flower (Lower Egypt – the Nile delta area) and the papyrus plant (Upper Egypt and the Nile Valley to Aswan). Cairo Is situated at the long Nile papyri root where the stem meets the fan-like delta.
Cairo had just experienced yet another sand storm prior to my arrival, and the next day my Great Safari Egyptologist and guide, Tarak, took me to Saqqara (or often times Sakkara or Saqqarah), where the attendants were scooping out the sand from the museum steps. Saqqara was the oldest necropolis (cemetery) in Egypt, serving the Pharaohs and non royals of nearby Memphis, the first capital of the Old Kingdom during the Sixth Dynasty (2345-2181 B.C.). The six layer stone cake was the first step pyramid, planned and built by the Pharaoh architect Dioser (Zoser); the benches are called mastabas). Located about 20 miles from downtown Cairo, the archaeological site is about four by one miles, with a huge walled ceremonial center south of the tomb which was used for over 3,000 years. The tomb is named after the tribesmen who once lived in the area, the Beni Saqqar, a nomadic Berber people.
A page out of history — glyphs.
About 16 other Pharaohs built tombs near Saqqara and as the heat of the day built up, it was a relief to follow a tomb guide named Mohammed into the belly of a dilapidated 5thDynasty (2494-2345 B.C.) tomb down a long gangway where it was considerably cooler. A stone sarcophagus rested peacefully amongst the walls of magnificent and legible hieroglyphics. If a glyph has a circle carved around it then it signified the name of a Pharaoh, stated Mohammed, tracing several with his finger on the reliefs.
Great Safaris includes tickets to the entire archaeological monument while you are on tour of the World Heritage Sites; the museum tickets make a colorful souvenir for scrapbookers.
Our driver, Rufa, was parked in the shade of a palm, and then it was a short drive to the first capital of Egypt — Memphis, now an open air museum that you can stroll through at leisure. The once high walled capital was district number one in the Pharaonic governing system, called nomoi; there once were 22 districts just in Upper Egypt. Memphis or Menefer was about 2.5 acres in size during its heyday, due to the fact that it was basically the Pharaohs’ home. Each of the 22 nome was ruled by a provisional governor called a nomarch, who all had the ear of the Pharaoh. Back then the chief god was Horus.
Ramses II ruled Egypt for over 60 years.
The huge statue of Ramses II was best viewed from the second story of its pavilion. The magnificent tower of stone once stood as a testament to the longest living Pharaoh’s far reaching power. One hand clinches a scepter, a symbol of that power, but also served as a seal to the rest of the sculpture to keep his arm from breaking off. If arriving by camel caravan and seeing the gigantic greenish limestone edifice you would have known who ruled the land.
Memphis was founded by Pharaoh Menes over 5,000 years ago. Near one end of the site is a canal dug thousands of years ago to bring water to the crops and homes; the water courses are called Nile arms today. Memphis had a port called Peru-nefer, which served as a distribution point for commerce and trade. The god Ptah was a protector of the numerous craftsmen in the workshops in the area; the Ptah temple was called Ai-gy-ptos by the early Greeks, hence the name Egypt.
Papyrus dates back 5,000 years.
Later in the day we pulled off the Loop Road to a papyrus factory. Ancient painted papyrus scrolls are on display at the Cairo Museum; at the factory many of the images are carbon copies of single sheets of the ancient images; no photos are allowed in the factory to protect the artisanship or in the museum to protect them from flash cameras.
Papyrus was gathered and the outer shell striped and the pith pounded into a fiber and then aligned together and cross-hatched and squeezed under a press for weeks to squeeze out the water. The sedge (Cyperus papyrus) once grew wild the length of the Nile Valley but with modern agriculture it is only grown in the Delta today with harvests and planting controlled by the government.
In ancient times the Pharaohs controlled the secret manufacturing of papyrus, the world’s first paper. It was used across the Mediterranean for proof of exchange of goods. The first cultivation of the weed dates back to the First Dynasty (3100- 2890 B.C.) in Egypt; it was also used for mats, ropes, mattresses, baskets, and even in boat construction. The magnificent artwork at the factory blazed off the dun colored paper, and in fact, the papyri (plural) at the Cairo Museum are as crisp as the day they were drawn, documenting the daily life of the ancient people. The enchanting bright pigments are brought forth to a special glow, much more enhanced than on animal skins or parchment.
Later the Arabs produced common paper from wood and plant pulp, but papyrus was used well into the Byzantine Empire. The ancient Greeks coined the word papuros and used synonymously with bublos or books. The Pharaoh had a stranglehold on papyrus, which they called pa-per-aa (that which is of the Pharaoh) or sometimes as wadi, I guess because it grew in the marshy wadis of the Nile. The ancient Egyptians used papyri to create the Egyptian Book of the Dead, medical manuals, folk lore fables, and other texts. Papyrus is still used as paper today in many areas of Africa. While I toured the factory gallery, Tarak was sipping sweet tea and reading the local papyrus, I mean paper!
The medieval Citadel of Saladin.
The following day we visited the Saladin Citadel of Cairo, an Islamic fort under the brow of Mokattam Hill overlooking the metropolis and the Nile and the soccer stadium, churches, and minarets. The citadel was built as a bulwark against the invading Crusaders by the Ayyubid ruler Salah al-Din (Saladin) between 1176 and 1183 A.D., who eventually expelled the Christians from the Holy Land. Near the medieval crenulated angular walls and circular towers is the magnificent Mohammad Ali Mosque built between 1828 and 1848. Ottoman ruler Mohammed Ali influence ran from 1804 after Napoleon’s forces left the region after six years, up to 1954 with the arrival of Gamel Nasser. The site is often called the Mohamed Ali Citadel, a memorial to Tusun Pasha, Ali’s second son who died in 1816.
The magnificent Mohammed Ali Mosque.
After we placed plastic bags over our shoes we were free to roam inside the giant dome, back-lit with stained-glass windows and peepholes that allowed the fused light to bounce off the colored tiles giving the interior a bluish glow, a living witness to Allah. There are two other mosques at the Citadel, the 13th/14th c. hypostyle Al-Nasir Muhammad Qala’un Mosque dating back to the early Bahri Mamluk period, and the 16th c. Mosque of Suleyman Pasha, first of the Citadel’s Ottoman-style mosques.
The citadel is also home to many magnificent museums, including the Al-Gawhara Palace museum, the National Military Museum, the Police Museum, and the Carriage Museum. The magnificent courtyard houses an intricately carved pavilion in its center, left behind by the French.
Search for bargains in Cairo’s Souk.
When visiting a major city, you have to go shopping, and in Cairo the old souk, the Khan el-Khalili, or Cairo Bazaar, in the Islamic District, offers bargains from around the region. Yes there are Aladdin lamps, woven rugs, tea and coffee houses, silversmiths, leather traders, Egyptian cotton shirts, and trade goods, but they no longer arrive by camel caravan. Since the Arab Spring tourist travel has damped down the souk and I think the vendors would dicker down to the last Egyptian pound. I purchased nice ceramic bowls, a silk scarf, and other touristy items.
Not just tourists shop the alley ways, Egyptians dine at the numerous restaurants after visiting the spice vendors. Tarak took me to the restaurant where the Egyptian Nobel prize winner in literature, Naguib Mahfouz, whose novel Midaq Alley (1947) was set in an alley in the Khan el-Khalili. The souk emerged around 1382 as a caravanserai for weary tradesmen during the Burji Mamluk Sultan Barquq, but was known as the Turkish bazaar during the Ottoman Empire.
A traditional spitfire grill.
Cairo has a wonderful international mix of cuisine choices, but Tarak and I dined at a traditional Egyptian restaurant where I was served lamb kabobs, roasted chicken, the most succulent eggplant (baba ganoushe), Stella beer, and strong Arabic coffee. It was approaching the Christian Coptic Easter and as a follower Tarak fasted from alcohol and meat and chose a vegetarian fare that included a fresh salad, olives, tomatoes, and legumes. We both enjoyed the homemade bread cooked in traditional ovens by the women I noticed on the way into the shady trellised retreat.
The pink stucco-like Cairo Museum was built in 1901 by the British and has welcomed tourists since. A new museum is planned near the Giza Plateau that would include modern interactive displays, light shows, and more room to house the stored relics and treasures in the basement and those unearthed regularly in the burning sands. It was a walking narrative tour, with Tarak divulging his vast knowledge about each display, but keeping it brief and stopping only at the major artifacts; there were too many to visit on one tour.
I saw a replica of the Rosetta Stone (the original is in the British Museum); the only known statue of the Great Pyramid builder, Cheops (a paltry 2 inches high) found in 1903; pottery, amulets, and servant totems; and assorted carvings and statues of nearly every known Pharaoh. The famous statue of the beautiful Nefertiti is in the Berlin Museum, but a lesser known one resides in the Cairo Museum.
An additional ticket is needed to visit the mummy section of the museum, which is highly guarded, with the wraps under wraps beneath climate controlled glass boxes. My favorite displays, and everyone else’s too, were in the second story King Tut rooms. His famous golden mask seemed to want to speak out from the ages; his falcon winged necklaces were crafted with filigrees of detail; the smallest of his burial boxes was there, but his mummy still resides in his tomb in the Valley of Kings in Luxor. Luckily on my Great Safaris tour I did visit the lost chamber discovered in 1922. Through recent DNA analysis it was determined that Tut was not murdered but suffered a rare form of malaria, but the boy king was probably killed in a chariot accident while hunting; his numerous bows and arrows were seen not far from his walking sticks, thought to be crutches. His many magnificent chariots on display were begging to be driven – awe inspiring but rickety, ready to be hooked up with twin steeds right off the chariot showroom!
The desert vastness is punctuated by pyramids.
No trip to Cairo is complete without a jaunt to the Giza Plateau for a neck craning look-see at the pyramids. Tarak and I laughed about the possible alien connection in their construction, but it is thought that Cheops (Greek name was Khêops – also known as Khnum-Khufu) constructed his stone mausoleum over a 20 year span during his rule (2589-2565 B.C.) in the Old Kingdom’s 4th Dynasty.
guards the pyramids.
His diminutive statue in the Cairo Museum is a testament of how little is known of the builder of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. A few papyri references came to light about him in the old necropolis of Giza, but not enough for a solid portrait of his rule, except that he may have been a tyrant. Tourists still get their photos taken on camels at the pyramids, just as in the Victorian age when Mark Twain was snapped on one. King Farouk’s hunting lodge is nearby, now an administration office.
To the west stretches hundreds of miles of undulation sand wilderness, one masterpiece that often blows across another.
The Sphinx used to look east into the rising sun, but today it has a view of the Pizza Hut across the road, quipped Tarak. The Mamluks shot off its nose in centuries past with a cannon, but the limestone quarried lion/Pharaoh head still strikes a reckoning to those that doubt who had the supreme power in Egypt. It is thought that the Sphinx was carved long before the pyramids during the Pre-Dynastic Period (5,500-3100 B.C.). Not long ago secret chambers were discovered under the Sphinx that housed the most complete but disassembled after life boats to carry the Pharaohs to the other world.
The luxurious Fairmont Nile Hotel.
For more about Cairo visit www.cairo.gov.eg
The team at Great Safaris (www.greatsafaris.com) transformed my itinerary into a world of adventure, mystery, and curiosity — and fine dining and superb accommodations, such as the beautiful Fairmont Nile hoel overlooking the Nile.
Without Great Safaris’ tour hosts, drivers, and guides I think I would still be circling around on the Loop Road! Great Safaris’ staff has over 38 years in planning complex Africa trips under their turban, including other countries in Africa, the Seychelles, Jordan and more. They have negotiated the best airfares as part of your tour, and everyone knows and respects them. They recently won an award from National Geographic for best flying tour of Namibia and Botswana. At the helm of Great Safaris is Dave Herbert, a pioneer in Africa tourism, who grew up in South Africa.
— Feature and photos by Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine.