Today’s installment takes us to the Egyptian Museum in big, bad Tahrir Square, through that self-same roundabout, across Cairo into the City of the Dead and to a Mosque built over 800 years ago, as well as to a few other places I may or may not get to.
I can’t decide if I recommend reading any further today, actually, because today was so much weirder than yesterday and definitely contained less iconic stuff (although King Tut’s shit is pretty well-known). It did give me an eye-opening view of what the city is like from street level, that’s for sure.
The more I see of Giza and Cairo, the more I understand just how different from the cities I’m familiar with this place is. The poverty, the wreckage of unfinished and partially-finished buildings, the attitude of everyone towards their automobiles… everything. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m really here and not watching it on a movie because it falls that far into cliche. Today I even saw a three-sided hut full of goats – right on a main street by a traffic circle. In a lot of ways, Cairo is a 3rd-world city – there’s no other way to describe it.
For some reason, that surprises me.
Perfect example from driving into Cairo from Giza this morning – people walk around on the elevated freeways like they’re park sidewalks, and these ubiquitous minibuses stop to pick them up if they can possibly jam another person in. I’m just now starting to recognize these quasi-official 12-seat buses that usually hold at least 15 for what they are. The people-on-the-freeways thing really puts me in the mind of some post-apocalyptic free-for-all. Horns really mean nothing at all due to over use – everyone manages to ignore the noise, which makes the honkers do it even more.
Anyway, the Egyptian Museum was yet another one of those absurd places where you’re not allowed to take pictures, which I hate. The prohibition here is especially dumb since the gift shop was ransacked during the January/Feburary revolution and hasn’t re-opened. So they’re trying to force me to buy shit that’s NOT FOR SALE ANYMORE. Geh. Whatever. I can get pictures online if I must. Look to the right for a perfect example of a shot I could have taken.
I was amazed at how many sarcophagi there were on display, even after I did some quick math (figure 4000 years of Pharaohs, maybe 25 year average lifespan, and you’ve got 16,000 caskets just for the head guys, not to mention the lesser royalty, wives, generals, etc…) and understood that there really must be quite a few of these things around, it was still impressive to see the things stacked three high in rickety wood-and-glass-enclosed shelves.Â Most places where there was a seam in the glass, the problem was solved by badly-applied clear packing tape. No lie. The disdain for some of this stuff is amazing. Then again, they’ve survived thousands of years, so they’re likely to make a few more years. It’s not like they’re likely to get wet.
And the King Tut stuff was really cool – you could feel how excited the archaeologists were at having had an intact tomb to pore over. Kid was only on the throne 10 years (and was 19 when he died), so it’s not like he did much, but we know a lot about him because of the way he was found. Apparently, his mummy is actually on display down in Luxor, but they have just about everything else here in Cairo – including all three nesting sarcophagi and all the jewelry and such. Even his desiccated innards were strewn about the place. King Tut is so important to the Egyptians that they installed air conditioning for him – the only room in the place below 80 degrees.
After I spent a couple of hours in the Egyptian Museum, I hopped back into the car with Rameses (he of the dinner recommendation yesterday) and we did a quick turnabout through Tahrir Square (where there are still a few sad-sacks camping out in a tiny traffic circle). It was under massive construction – a new subway station, total renovations on a huge Nileside hotel, so those guys didn’t care about the revolution. The only thing that looked revolutionized at all was the building hard against the nile-side of the museum – used to belong to Mubarak, so they burned the shit out of it and now it sits empty – a burned-out shell.
What you can’t see in the above picture (I took a few, but you can’t really decipher what’s going on) is that the City of the Dead is so named because people apparently live with burial chambers for the dead, sarcophagi, in their front yards, alongside their houses, wherever. It’s creepy. And absurdly poor. For some reason that I couldn’t quite understand, King Muhammad (Muhammad Ali, as Rameses called him) chose this spot to as his burial ground as well. Of course, he’s inside a giant tomb in a well-appointed building that looks for all the world like a converted mosque, although Ramses said it wasn’t. In the above picture, you can see the front dome of the building.
In the picture just here on the right, the street is behind and to the left of the camera, and the breezeway leads to the dome that you can see in the bigger shot. Inside the building are the king’s seven wives, at least one son, and 42ish ministers, generals and the like who were suspected of plotting to overthrow the king. So, he had a banquet at his home, invited all the conspirators and killed them. Then, he inexplicably had them buried just a couple of rooms down from where he was planning on laying forever.
Anyway, it was about here that I saw the goats in the street thing. I couldn’t get a picture because I was too busy gaping at the absurdity of the stereotype. I swear if a genie with Robin Williams’ voice popped out of a bottle and offered me wishes, I couldn’t have been more enthralled at the kind of world we’re living in than I was right then.
Honestly, it’s amazing.
At the oldest mosque in Cairo (which I assume he took me to because he doesn’t know anyone at the Alabaster Mosque), we parked right out front (because parking laws? nonsense!) and wandered in. Shoes off, sure. I met a couple of guys, and one of them brought me material on islam – I’ve gotta take a picture of the cover for you – it’s spectacular. I don’t think the literature is going to make it home with me, but it was nice of them to try. I got a brief overview of Islam, although it was nothing I didn’t already know, and took a few snaps, but couldn’t really do the place justice. The only walls were the external walls of the mosque, everything else was pillars and roof. Very cool design for a place that never sees winter. Also, there were a ton of folks just sprawled out on their backs – I’m pretty sure they were asleep. It seemed like a great idea at the time.
Last, but not least, we stopped at a pharmacy so I could buy SPF (the weakest they had was kids’ SPF36, so I bought it. Otherwise, it was 50+). Then Rameses took me to a place to look at cotton because i had casually mentioned that I was interested in pricing linen pants while I was in a cotton capital. I didn’t like anything there, but at least I looked. He’s 0-for-2 with getting me to buy shit thus far. But I might take him up on his offer to take me to Alexandria on Tuesday, so there’s that.
The day out ended with a bill of just under $100 for the driving around, entrance into the museum, mosque and the burial site. All together, it was just about worth it, definitely because I would never have gotten to the city of the dead on my own, and probably wouldn’t have even gone to a mosque, actually. Tomorrow, I plan to do a whole lot of nothing all day – I’ll pop in and out of the sunshine with my SPF and write and relax. Maybe I can get to the bazaar (the Kahn something) tomorrow, although I’m not really interested enough to involve myself in the family matters and businesses of another cab driver/businessman.