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Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris – In transit, again: My overnight flight from South Africa was the best one yet, first class was almost empty. In fact, it was just me, a French businessman and – oh, right – supermodel Karolina Kurkova (who boarded shortly before takeoff – sorry guys, I didn’t take a picture of her).
Finally, fewer people at the Air France pajama party. It was a great flight, I again got a decent night’s sleep and when we landed in Paris I went to the Air France arrivals lounge and even took a hot shower and had some breakfast. I had about 4 hours to kill before my flight to Cairo.
Later that night, arrival in Cairo
I had been forewarned about the crazy taxi drivers in Cairo but nothing quite prepares you for the horn-honking, lights-flashing, Arabic music-blaring, daredevil-like experience provided, at a reasonable cost, by your average Cairo cabbie. There are no marked lanes and apparently no hard and fast rules for driving in Cairo. And if there was a posted speed limit somewhere, I’m fairly certain it wasn’t the 130kph my driver was observing. I reached for the seatbelt only to find it was broken so I closed my eyes and hoped for the best.
Miraculously, we arrived at the Westin Cairo in one piece. When we pulled up to the hotel, the taxi was carefully circled by bomb-sniffing dogs and the cabbie questioned in detail before we were allowed to proceed up the drive to the front door.
The driver apologized profusely for the delay but I was happy to wait a few extra minutes for the sake of security. Eventually, I checked into my room, which had a lovely view of the River Nile, and turned in for the night. Big day of sightseeing planned for tomorrow.
Touring the Pyramids and the city of Cairo
For my brief stay in Cairo, I enlisted the help of a company called Casual Cairo Detours owned by Debbie Senters, an American who has lived in Cairo for many years. Debbie’s company specializes in private tours of the city and can also provide an Egyptologist as your guide to enhance the experience. I had arranged to have a full day with an Egyptologist and then an evening tour of the Khan al-Khalili market for some shopping with Debbie herself.
At 8:00am, my personal Egyptologist, Nora, met me in the lobby of the hotel. She had a car and driver waiting and we headed out to our first stop – the Giza Plateau, home to the infamous pyramids. As Nora explained on our drive, nearly 5,000 years ago Giza became the royal burial ground for Memphis (then Capital of Egypt).
In less than 100 years, the ancient Egyptians built the three pyramid complexes to serve as tombs for their dead kings. The king’s close family and the royal court were buried in satellite pyramids nearby. The Great Pyramid is the oldest and largest of the three and was built during the 4th dynasty by King Khufu. The other two pyramids belong to Khafre (son of Khufu) and Menkaure, successor to Khafre.
We arrive first at the Great Pyramid and Nora shares what is known about the life of Khufu and the construction of the pyramid. A number of tourists are in line to enter the pyramid through a small hole in its north side but Nora advises against this since it is an hour long walk down crouched corridors and can be very uncomfortable for so little to see inside.
Instead, she wisely suggests waiting until we get to the second pyramid to go inside. This one has a much less expensive entry fee and is only a 10 minute uncomfortable walk but gives you much the same experience as the larger pyramid. We buy a ticket for me and she holds my camera (which cannot be brought in) while I go inside.
She was right, it is extremely uncomfortable to navigate the tiny corridors and you have to crouch down to a squat for almost the entire walk – there is a short reprieve in the middle where you’re able to stand upright. As she said, there was little to nothing to see inside, just stone corridors so I headed back topside.
Been inside a pyramid? Check.
A Camel Ride Around the Pyramids
When I emerge, Nora asks if I want to do a camel ride while we are here since this pyramid is a good place to do it. I had planned to do that (loosely following the “when in Rome” theory) so I figured this was as good a time as any – if there is a good time to ride a camel.
We walked over to a man and his son with two camels. Nora asks the man to give me the nice one since I was a little unsure about this whole idea. My “nice” camel took one look at me and made what I can only describe as a very loud roaring sound. This is the nice one? I immediately decide I don’t want to meet the other one.
With a little coaching from the owner, I climb aboard the sitting camel. For a brief moment I’m thinking, this is okay, nothing to it. And then the camel stood up. I quickly learned two things about camels:
1) They are much, MUCH, taller than horses.
2) They are NOT AT ALL amused by your presence on their back.
So, off we went, with the owner’s son Hassan (who was probably about 10 years old) leading the way with the rope and pulling the disgruntled camel dutifully along. Nora smiled and told me to be brave; she’d be here when I got back.
The ride was actually quite nice, it takes about 30 minutes (all you really need on a camel) and they take you out through the desert to a higher point where you can take great pictures of all three pyramids and then they bring you back. It’s all very “Lawrence of Arabia.” It’s just you, the camel, the desert and the pyramids.
Hassan stopped the camel at a good point for pictures and I obediently handed down my camera. He took several great pictures and then decided the camel needed to sit down to get the best shot of the pyramids behind me (he may be only 10 but, hey, he’s an artist). He tugged on the rope aggressively until the camel finally obliged and sat down for photos.
Hassan began to walk away to take the picture, at which point the camel decided to remind us who was really in charge and promptly got back up. Oh crap. I hold on for dear life as Hassan scolds the camel until he relents and sits back down. I idly begin to wonder if Hassan has any first-aid training.
But we eventually make it back safe and sound and now I have finally made the camel happy, I am leaving. Nora and I head to our final stop at Giza, the Sphinx. Standing guard at the approach to the Pyramid of Khafre, the Sphinx is the earliest known monumental sculpture of ancient Egypt.
We access the Sphinx by walking through the adjacent Valley Temple of Khafre, one of the oldest surviving temples in Egypt. Nora points out a number of things inside the temple including an up close look at how the enormous stones were stacked on top of each other without using any glue in between in such an intricately sturdy way that they still stand to this day.
The Cairo Museum
Our tour of Giza complete, we move on to our next stop, the Cairo Museum. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo houses the world’s largest collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts including the wealth of the tomb of the boy king Tutankhamun.
When we arrive I am instantly thankful that Nora is with me to guide me around and show me the highlights, the place is enormous and there is so much to see. Nora expertly guides me through the most interesting exhibits and provides a thorough and colorful history of each.
The second half of our tour is devoted entirely to the second floor which houses all of the artifacts recovered from King Tut’s tomb by a British archaeologist in the early 1900’s. The second floor also features the museum’s more than slightly creepy “mummy room” where you can see actual mummified kings. The room is kept really cold but that wasn’t the only reason it gave me a little chill.
When we left the museum it was around lunch time and Nora suggested we grab something to eat on the way to our final stop, the Citadel. I agreed and said I’d go with whatever she suggested since I wasn’t very familiar with Egyptian food but was excited to try it.
She took me to a falafel stand – which I thought was a good idea as I had at least heard of falafel. Nora did the ordering and the pushing through the crowd to get to the counter. I stood in the back and tried my best to blend (tricky when you’re the only tall blond in an Egyptian falafel stand).
Finally, with food in hand for us and our driver we headed to the car to eat lunch on the ride. Nora had purchased two things for me to try; the first was fuul (mashed fava beans with lemon juice and olive oil in a baladi – flat brad, like pita bread). The second was a falafel, a deep-fried patty of fava bean paste and green herbs also in a baladi with lettuce and tomato. They were both great and it was a relief to know that I would not have to starve while in Egypt.
We arrived at the Citadel which was built in the 12th century and also includes the Mosque of Muhammad Ali built 700 years later. This stone fortress dominates Cairo’s eastern horizon and has magnificent views over the city. Nora led me into the mosque after we had both removed our shoes and we settled down on the carpet for a while as she pointed out the significant areas of the mosque and gave me some history on the Muslim religion.
It was fascinating to hear her discuss Islam and how she lives her daily life. I really enjoyed our conversation and the articulate way Nora was able to educate me in something so different from my own culture. It definitely gave me a more favorable impression of the Muslim culture than the one I’ve had since 2001.
The Cairo Bazaar – Khan al Khalili
After leaving the mosque, we drove back into town to meet Debbie at a café in Khan al Khalili. This bazaar is described as an “Aladdin’s cave” of spices, perfumes, jewelry and souvenirs. The three of us had tea at a café and then Nora left me in Debbie’s capable hands to navigate the winding corridors of the bazaar for some serious shopping. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to shop for but it had to be small enough to fit in my tiny suitcase, maybe some silver jewelry?
So she took me to her favorite silver shop and we were graciously welcomed by the owner who greeted her by name and offered us lemon drinks. I managed to pick up a couple of things including a bracelet for myself and a couple of gifts. My prized acquisition (which the owner threw in for free thanks to Debbie) was a sliver cartouche (sort of an oval shaped charm) with my name spelled in Egyptian hieroglyphics. It took an hour to have it hand made so we continued our shopping and returned to pick it up later.
As we wandered the bazaar I was glad to have a local with me as the shop owners there can be very “intrusive” on your personal space. It’s a constant barrage of men standing outside their shops trying to draw you inside. I bought a few more things with Debbie’s expert guidance before thanking her for a perfect day and calling it a night.
Next up, a few days at the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el Sheikh.