Egypt Tour

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Memphis, Sakkara and Zoser's Pyramid

The Citadel and Alabaster Mosque

We met with Sayla (our guide for the day) around 9:30 a.m. on March 23 and rode out towards Giza, through Cairo and into the countryside . It was beautiful – over 20 varieties of date palms, small villages, and aqueducts. Our first stop was Memphis, or at least what has survived of it from 2700 BC (the pre-dynastic period). There was the Apries stele (a large inscribed stone with early not quite hieroglyphs), a statue of Ramses cut from solid stone and about 40 feet tall (or long, when you consider that it’s lying flat on its back). The rather barren looking site has an attractive sarcophagus of stone with wonderful carvings of Horus and Anubis , and the famous "alabaster" sphinx with Queen Hatsheput’s face. Alabaster, it is not, it looks more like sandstone but must have had a very white pearly appearance when it was first named. It did have some really great hieroglyphs and carvings on the base and was in very good condition.

From there, we rode onward to the oldest site, Sakkara, to see Zoser’s pyramid. We wandered through the 12 "mene" (room) tomb of Zoser’s chief architect. The walls have elaborate raised relief drawings that illustrate daily and family life, the taxation process, dwarf goldsmiths (because they couldn’t run away too fast), a workshop, a collection of "spirit" boats, travel instructions for negotiating the underworld, servants, a wide variety of animals (fish, fowl and cattle) and larger than life size reliefs of the entire family. Most of the rooms were finished – the practice was to never quite finish because it might suggest you wanted the occupant to die. The central hall had a dozen large square columns and much of the original colors were still visible. Zoser’s pyramid appears to be crumbling badly, but his altar (with peepholes to view his statue) was built from Giza limestone and is still in good condition. There were large courtyards being reconstructed on the site, as was the entrance that consists of two rows of 40 columns. These are said to be the first columns known to use the fluting design and were oddly attached to walls for support.

The next stop was the Ikhnatoun Carpet School. They employ 100 children from eight years old and up (from Sakkara) who work two hours per day five days per week and get four hours of schooling each day. This continues until they grow too large or turn thirteen and is the only school that they will have. The boys usually continue in the trade, but the girls return to family life. We bought carpets to support the cause.

The ride back took us through more of the rural countryside and provided a nice view of the pastoral lifestyle outside of Cairo and Giza. Our last destination for the day was the Citadel. Built in 810 AD, it was attacked by the Crusaders, occupied by Mameluke sultans and Ottoman celibates, and housed the country’s mint. The stairs along the Citadel lead up to the Mohammed Ali or Alabaster Mosque (built by the Greek architect Yussuf Bushnaq) in 1830-57. It is truly impressive in size, with two slender 270-foot minarets, an arcaded courtyard, massive prayer hall with 170-foot high dome, four demi-cupolas and four small cupolas (one on each corner). The inside is dazzling – almost the Rococo style of our old movie theaters, lots of mosaics in floral and geometric motifs. When asked how she felt about segregation of the sexes during prayer, Sayla explained that they used to pray together but the women preferred to be separate. It seems that during prayer, everyone must bend over with heads to the floor and the view (as well as the odor) was not appealing to the women.

We adventured out into Cairo for dinner. Felfela was recommended by both of our guides and was started as a vegetarian restaurant 34 years ago. We enjoyed a "typical" Egyptian dinner sitting next to a garishly painted stucco waterfall with a bird on a nest, conch shells, stalagmites and unnatural greenery. It was totally silly! Our dinner included fuul (a red bean dish laced with garlic, lemon and tehine), fatta (falafel with lots of minced garlic), takka (small grain white rice tossed with garlic toasted and seasoned bread crumbs), yogurt, lamb "trotters" (shanks slow cooked with garlic and herbs) and a mixed grill of kofta (kefta), and lamb pieces. This was all accompanied with the domestic beer, Stella. We finished with a lime infused Turkish coffee. It was an excellent sampler of what the locals preferred cuisine can be.


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