The East

Land of the Pharaohs – Lost in Antiquity

 

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And so I return to Cairo. Having spent much time sightseeing two weeks ago, we decided that this time round we must visit the pyramids at Giza.

This wasn’t my first trip to the pyramids, flashback to 2007, undergraduate archaeology student, smells fear and laugh in it’s face etc. etc. Fast forward to 2013 postgraduate archaeology student and boyfriend in a taxi driving up to the pyramid complex. One thing to watch out for is men standing outside the actual complex forcing your driver to “buy” parking spaces (which of course aren’t parking spaces for sale). One man jumped out in front of our car and we almost had an accident, no police in sight. Our driver dropped us off at the ticket office instead , 100LE to enter the complex and a further 100LE for the Great Pyramid (Khufu). After a quick security check we were through and what a sight to behold! Three spectacular examples of the achievements of man standing in a row before our very eyes.

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Here comes the frustrating part. Unfortunately there weren’t many tourists visiting the pyramids therefore we became the victims of constant harassment for camel, horse, carriage rides, papyrus, postcards and cheap souvenirs (made in China) merchants for the entire trip. It’s a tricky situation. They try to make a sale, you say no. They ask “maybe later?” and politely you say “maybe later” back. They follow you for 15 minutes and you try to sway them off your track. You get frustrated at the questions “where are you from? ah I lived in… (insert country of origin here – any will do, they’ve lived there)” “Your wife looks Egyptian…” “guess how much for camel ride…” and you start to raise your voice in hope that the final stern “no” means no. Suddenly you’re the bad guy because you’re the “rich” tourist who won’t take camel rides to pay to feed half the camels in Cairo. It’s a sad situation, a nation that thrived on the tourist industry must result to aggression, begging and blackmailing tourists for a camel ride.

Another thing to watch out for is the selling of tickets to enter smaller pyramids and mastabas. You should only have to buy your tickets at the ticket office and not at the entrance to smaller sites other than the pyramids. I knew this from my previous visit but I saw a group of Korean tourists paying to enter a temple that should have had free entry. Still I couldn’t see a single police man in sight.

Two other things to watch out for: young Egyptian men racing their horses up and down the pathways (extremely dangerous) and the rubbish dump which the site has turned into. I would advise you to bring a plastic bag to collect your water bottles and rubbish into as finding a bin on the complex was a challenge on its own.

Just as I began to lose hope in the pyramids, we entered the Great Pyramid and made our way up to the Queen’s chamber. It was warm, sticky, dark and magnificent. Due to my fear of small spaces I held back but my boyfriend ran around like a schoolboy, it was heart warming to see him discovering these ancient wonders with inexperienced eyes.

Entering the pyramid was definitely the highlight of the trip as walking around the site was completely ruined by merchants. It’s a shame that the Egyptian police and authorities are incapable of preserving what should be considered a national treasure and a symbol of the potential of Egypt. Egypt has a long way to go after the revolution, I only hope that this wonder of the world isn’t eventually lost in antiquity once again.

 

 

Saladin’s Cairo and a Day Trip to Alexandria

The Cairo Citadel is one of Cairo’s most splendid examples of Medieval Islamic architecture. High up on the hill tops, overlooking the bustling city, the Qala at Salah ad-Din boasts the most spectacular view of Cairo below and the pyramids at Giza in the distance. The Citadel was built by Ayyubid Saladin, the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria, famously known for his battles with Richard the Lion Heart in capturing Jerusalem during the Crusades.

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The Great Mosque of Muhammad Ali – an Ottoman (Turkish) mosque built in the Citadel, it towers above all other mosques in the Citadel and Cairo. I was very pleased to leave the heat of the sun outside as I entered the mosque. One only needs to look up in order to face what to me would represent the heavens, the beautiful gold gilt decoration of the five domes and especially the central copula. The interior is engulfed by dark blues and golds, truly immitating the heavenly night skies. I was particularly taken by the Turkish minarets, like two spears piercing the blue sky above. In the courtyard stands the most beautiful Baroque style ablutions fountain. Islamic students sat hidden amongst the pillars of the covered courtyard, perfectly shielded from the harsh sun rays. I felt a sense of peace, tranquility and architectural harmony which I haven’t felt since my trip to Venice.

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Wondering through the Citadel I came across (rather excitedly) my first Mamluk mosque, the Mosque of Sultan Al-Nasir. I love Mamluk architecture and I’ll hopefully be making connections between Western Gothic architecture and that of the Mamluks of Egypt during my academic research. I walked into this mosque and the first thing that hit me was the unbelievable amount of space that was dedicated to the courtyard. The muqarnas (though not gold gilt but naturally wooden) and crenellation speak for themselves. The black and white ablaq transported me back to a Medieval Cairo which I could feel surrounding me whenever I closed my eyes. Looking up and out into the courtyard I caught a glimpse of the Muhammad Ali Mosque.

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I haven’t been back to Alexandria since a brief visit in 2007. During my undergraduate studies a picture of Alexandria was painted by my lecturers as a Greco-Roman religious, cultural and academic center, the great city founded by Alexander the Great, maintained by the Ptolemies and Cleopatra as well as the initial seat of the See of the Coptic Egyptian Church. I pictured Roman roads and the Temple of Serapis in their splendor. Alexandria today is very much a post-revolution city. Though not as busy as Cairo, Alexandria’s backstreets are packed with locals doing their daily shopping in bazaars and markets. If Cairo isn’t attracting the throngs of tourists it has been used to over the years then Alexandria doesn’t even expect tourists at all. Locals were fascinated by us, touching my clothes and asking to shake our hands, repeating the simple English they must have learnt at school. Never before have I experienced such a warm welcome!

The Great Library which once housed some of the most important works of literature in Antiquity stands tall, modern and empty. I had the library to myself and the strange mix of contemporary Islamic architecture, pyramids and Greco-Roman style blend together, working in aesthetic harmony.

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The most splendid attraction in Alexandria is the corniche. This waterfront promenade took my mind back tothe waterfront of  Rio de Janeiro. The water is beautifully clear and fishermen spend their time fishing and taking in the sea air. It was refreshing to taste the salt on my lips as I walked along the promenade. As I walked along I imagined what the lighthouse that once stood in the location of the Citadel of Qaitbay would have looked like.

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Towards the end of the afternoon we made our way to the location of what once stood the temple complex known as the Serapeum. The pagan god Serapis was introduced by Alexander the Great as a new god, a combination of Osiris and Apis in  humanized form. Serapis the syncretic god would bring together the Ptolemaic Greeks of Alexandria and the native nation of Egypt. Not much stands of the Serapeum today as it was destroyed by Alexandrian Christians in the 4th century AD. Today the only surviving remnants of the complex exist underground and above ground a collection of columns, headless sphinxes and other such finds from late Antiquity are on display in the heat of the sun. The same can be said for the remains of the Greco-Roman catacombs which are a 5 minute walk away from the temple complex. We weren’t allowed to take pictures at the catacombs so the splendors beneath the ground were enough to any aspiring art historian or archaeologist in awe. Hopefully once the country stabilizes more will be done to present cultural heritage to the nation as well as to tourists.

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What to Wear in Egypt

I’m sure many who have traveled to Egypt can relate to the (at times) tricky subject of what to wear when there. To be honest with you it really depends on where you go and what time of year you’re there. Either way, I’m sure those seeking advice on this topic would appreciate some helpful hints.

Firstly I’ll talk about the varying regions of Egypt and how this can affect dress code. If you’re visiting a resort such as the Red Sea resorts or Sharm el Sheikh then you don’t have to worry so much about what to wear. Seaside resorts are catered for Western guests. One thing to keep in mind is the heat. Wear cotton and linen and if like me you’re prone to burning then wear a hat or cover your shoulders. It can get particularly cold at night so carry a shawl around with you in the evening.

It’s a whole different story when you get to the cities, such as Cairo. Egypt is a Muslim country and though they don’t expect you to cover up or wear the hijab, it’s decent to show some respect and modesty by not letting it all hang out! If you don’t mind and decide to go out in denim shorts and a vest, don’t be surprised if people stars or make comments, it’s not the social norm. It can get very hot in Cairo so the trick is to wear light colour, cotton and linen. Steer clear of synthetic materials.

When visiting a mosque, Old Cairo or even downtown, dress conservatively. Low necklines should be avoided ladies, make sure there is no chest or lower neck on show. Cover your arms with a long sleeve cotton top, white and cream are your best friends. Carry a big bag around with you so you can keep a scarf (pashmina) with you at all times as you must cover your hair when inside a mosque. If you’re visiting various mosques in one day then wear shoes that you can easily slip off and carry in your hand as shoes are not permitted inside mosques and you can be charged to put your shoes and socks away.

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I always wore a white tunic top with a high collar and long sleeves, you’d be amazed at how much attention a girl can get for wearing a thin t-shirt in more conservative areas. I mostly wore baggy boyfriend jeans or a long black skirt when visiting mosques. I wouldn’t suggest wearing high heels as the streets are dusty and uneven. I wore my Swedish clogs by Lotta From Stockholm. They’re secure, comfy, sturdy and cute and I absolutely love wearing them. When I wasn’t wearing these I wore simple open toe sandals, the pair I’m wearing in the picture I bought from a shoe shop in Zamalek for 140LE which is around £15, not bad for real leather.

You can buy Lotta From Stockholm clogs via their website (they even come nicely wrapped up like a present!):

http://www.lottafromstockholm.co.uk/

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The bag I’m carrying is a 14 inch Cambridge Satchel in Navy. I chose to take my satchel with me because it’s sturdy and has buckles to secure it shut, which I believe is safer than a zip bag. Plus I can wear it across my chest and hold it in front of me when walking through busy streets. Take a look or purchase a Cambridge satchel online, they even come in various colours:

https://www.cambridgesatchel.com/

There are more relaxed areas such as Zamalek (which hosts some great sheesha bars and restaurants), Maadi and Garden City which aren’t so conservative. I felt comfortable wearing skinny jeans, maxi dresses/skirts and short sleeve t-shirts. I would still advise ladies not to wear mini skirts or anything too figure hugging even in these areas. T-shirts are fine though even the most relaxed and Western dressing Egyptian girls tend not to expose their shoulders.

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V-neck, batwing top and palazzo pants are both from Zara. These trousers are incredibly comfy and airy. The clogs are the same as before, Lotta From Stockholm. I do love my clogs! I found that Christian areas were less conservative. I was comfortable wearing t-shirts and clothes that didn’t cover me up as much in Coptic Cairo. I would suggest covering your shoulders when entering a church though this a custom when entering most Christian religious sites around the world.

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I’ve recently developed a love for jewellery from Tribu a small boutique in Camden Market, London. Tribu source some of the finest and most delicate pieces from the East. The shop assistants are at hand to explain the history and symbolism of each piece, whether it be a tree of life pendant or a Hand of Fatima ring. The brass piece I own was originally a bracelet which I hung on a chain. The bracelet cost £25 and the chain cost £12, they have various sized chains to pick from. The second piece is gold plated, the Buddha cost approximately £30 and the disk was £75. I love them both equally. They are minimalist yet classic and different from anything you’d find in a chain or high street store. You can find Tribu stalls tucked away in the heart of Camden Market in London. Or alternatively, check out their website:

http://tribu.co.uk/

Lastly I’ll mention Alexandria. Alexandria appears to be far more conservative than the last time I visited the city back in 2006. I would definitely suggest covering arms, chest and legs at all times and especially when visiting mosques, Pompey’s Pillar and the Roman catacombs. Pompey’s Pillar and the catacombs are in a small district of Alexandria some 20 minutes out from the main train station. It can feel a bit extreme whilst walking through the small winding streets, Alexandrias staring at you and pointing you to the catacombs, small children trying to shake your hands and chasing after you down the street. Though it’s heart warming to see how welcoming these people are it can also be very in your face for the first time visitors to Alexandria. I loved every minute of it! Egyptians are warm and welcoming people and I only hope for the best after the revolution.

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Look Up, You’re in Cairo!

 

When in Cairo, look up. The land of the ten thousand minarets shows off its finest in Islamic Cairo. After getting lost in the bazaar behind El-Azhar Street, we finally found ourselves walking down the medieval streets of the city.

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Al-Azhar Mosque

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Ottoman Mihrab

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We were lucky enough to complete our tour of the mosque as the call to prayer began. And so I continue my exploration of all things Cairo…

 

 

 

Fire in Cairo

 

I arrived in Cairo yesterday and spent most of the day sleeping (the warm sun and arriving in Cairo at 4am put me in a hazy blue mood). Today I decided to dedicate my day to Coptic Cairo and the national museum.

We had breakfast at a kitsch little cafe in Zamalek, I was suddenly taken back to Paris, to the little cafe Milk in Montmartre. Auntie Lou Lou’s must be Cairo’s first kitsch anything. The cute interior with gingham lampshades and pots of plants were adorable. The little seven dwarfs-esq cottage at the back is a clever play with space. I had a caramel latte and a spiced apple and sultana crepe, a little early to be devouring a dollop of ice cream I know but it was fantastic. I would definitely recommend!

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Next stop Coptic Cairo

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These are my lovely new shoes from Lotta From Stockholm but I’ll discuss them in my next post when I talk about the tricky issue of what to wear in Cairo

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These last few were taken at my favourite all time place, the Hanging Church in Coptic Cairo, it’s just behind the Medieval Fort and the Coptic Museum. Nearest metro stop is Mariam Girgis.

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Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take photos at the national museum. Cairo isn’t the same place it was back in 2006 when I last visited Egypt, the tourist industry has taken a crash and considering it produced the largest percentage of industry income, I can see that the revolution has hit hard. Vendors and tour guides were desperate to grab tourist though apart from the Korean tour group, we appeared to be the only target.

Here’s something I was fascinated by, the old Democratic party building where Mubarak’s officials ran the country. The building was destroyed during the revolution. It stands next to the national museum and is what I believe a new form of national heritage and pride, it marks the start of change and hopefully the beginning of better things to come.

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