Day 199: Cairo and other old stuff

Well, we keep being a city behind with this whole writing thing. As Claire acknowledged in an earlier post, we are moving at a whirlwind rate that is a severe shock to our sensitive systems. We find that when traveling for extensive periods, eight months or so for this stint, it is advisable to go slowly and to extend our touristing over lengthier periods of time or we tend to burn out. Well, this last month has been an exception: we packed as much Russia into ten days as we could, did a pretty respectable amount in five days in Cairo, and are now in Kenya for two weeks.

As a result of the current schedule, family members and various blog readers have understandably lost track of us because of each visit’s brevity. But we really were all these places. And not, as one blog reader dreamed, making all this nonsense up and perpetuating the scheme by spending our free time taking pictures and video in upstate New York.

But why so briefly you ask? Why go at all? A few reasons, really:

1. We really really wanted to. We have tried to visit Cairo multiples times now; one trip was diverted to S. Africa and another to Morocco.
2. Lara was born here and she wanted to get back to her roots. This was not really an ancestral visit as much as an acknowledgement of the fact that her parents had once been more exotic and had lived in an extremely cool city. She wanted to see exactly what type of trouble her father dragged her mother and brother into. About a year old when they moved onto other desert climes, she reportedly spent her first visit to Cairo focusing on breathing, drooling and crawling.
3. We know lots of people who have volunteered here over the years, and who have reported back interesting things.
4. It’s old. And we like old things.

So when we were planning things for this spring, and realized we’d only be able to meet the infamous Kelly in Kenya on the 2nd of November and that we did not have an extensive visa in Russia, we decided to add in a layover of sorts.

We are not about to espouse extensive views on Cairo, as we were only there a few days. This was sad, and it meant that our entire experience in Egypt was limited to this particular city, bypassing things like the upper Delta, Alexandria, Luxor and everything beyond these well-known destinations. But, since we are frustrated by the approaches-too-soon nature of every flight to a next destination, we have determined for group morale that this trip of general traveling is really just a way to scout for locations we would like to visit again in depth. So we got what we needed, and a return to Egypt is certain.

We did tourist-y things in this cosmopolitan city. We saw the pyramids, including the first stone monument in the world, the step pyramid at Saqqara, as well as the infamous Giza trio. Pyramids are weird is our final conclusion. They really are just massive three-dimensional triangles in the middle of the desert. At least Saqqara was in the middle of the desert; no one told us that the Sphinx and his?her? neighboring Giza pyramids have been contemplating a busy Egyptian suburb for the past few centuries. It was weird; cross a gate and it is 5 thousand years ago; leave again and you’re in the middle of the city. It was disorienting, but strangely compelling to see how very well these eras have survived into the modern world, despite the equivalent of rock cancer currently attacking poor Sphinxy.

We had been told not to expect much, had been lectured on how these icons always seem smaller and less impressive in person just like celebrities and old clothes. We were beyond pleasantly surprised. We even did the uber-expensive (after fighting with old student cards, words, baksheesh, and batted eyelids for the student discount) trek inside The Great Pyramid. It was brief, but the massive side of these internal structures was unbelievable. The tomb at the end was appropriately creepy, at least it was once the 5 year old screeching Spanish kids (Ai! Ai! Hola! Hola!…at top volume) left, and the air was hanging over us and pressing into our lungs with the weight of its age.

The next day, continuing our streak of good natured tourism, we hit up the absolutely massive Egyptian museum we had first thought was the American University, a major map-reading blunder we happily caught on camera before we realized our idiocy. It is large; but more imposing than its size is the shocking amount packed into it. Claire wandered around commenting on how it felt like a grandmother’s basement with everything piled in haphazardly, while Lara went about a foot between variations on the exclamation of “I nearly knocked that over! Claire! I nearly knocked it over! It’s priceless…and look, I could pet the thing! No really! Look! Look!” It’s pretty uninteresting in the retelling, but we really could have made the entire Egyptian museum a third-grade “hands-on” learning experience if we had wanted to.

At the pyramids, particularly Saqqara, we had been shocked at how very very up close and personal you could get with beyond ancient frescoes with their paint still fresh upon them, but this museum was a bit much. Looking through the glass cases you would see where someone had apparently taken a Sharpie and written a catalogue number on the pricess artifacts, including the ‘keystone’ of the museum, the Narmer Palette that represents the uniting of Upper and Lower Egypt. A fairly uninteresting looking carving on a gray rock, the image is interrupted by the slightly crooked number written on the top by some unsteady hand. Lara burst out inappropriately and offensively (as she is apt to do) “Not to be snobby, but it’s like my people can’t be trusted with their own artifacts.” This is surely an unresearched and incorrect statement, but it certainly felt true at the time.

Another problem with us/the museum was the nearly complete lack of signs or markings explaining what you are looking at. Though Claire did take a whole semester of Mummies for Dummies in college (though she does point out in her defense (?) that this was one of the classes she scheduled at the same time as another class she actually attended), we remained unsure of such important topics as the key differences between the Middle and Old Kingdoms. Happily, having moved on from our horrible Trans-Siberian guidebook, we now used a fairly informative, though brief, summary of what was going on to orient ourselves. On some level, however, there continued to be a baseline information/intelligence hurdle that we could not quite get over. For example, when the guidebook directed us to start by finding the “three black shist triads” in order to begin our tour of a particular room, we blinked at each other waiting for the other to say “ah yes, it’s all so clear!” before spending fifteen minutes narrowing down our options based on the distinction “black” that we had actual understood.

It was trying. But on some level, the stuff we were seeing did speak for itself. Continuing her tradition of highly varied and insightful comments, Lara wandered through cursing to herself and the surrounding non-English-speaking tourists occasionally: “@#$@#$. That’s just so @#$#@$ old.” It was almost as if she’d never been in a museum before.

Highlights included: King Tut’s death mask which people may have seen, because we feel it has been on tour recently. The jewelry sections (we are girls occasionally) and the pictures of the tombs as they had first been discovered. These black and white photos shed some light on the state of the museum: the ancient Egyptians went to a lot of trouble to prepare their people for the afterlife, but that does not mean that the valuable things were not thrown in haphazard apparently. By whenever they had been found something had happened in there to keep things preserved, but also in complete disarray.

It was another exhausting, but amazing day. Claire and Lara both became well-intentioned Egyptologists on the spot, a point of research interest sure to last until we actually do anything in Kenya besides arrive at the hostel. As we pointed out wandering around, the ancient Egyptians put a remarkable amount of effort into preparing for the afterlife, and they did in some way achieve it. It was heartening to see how honestly impressed and affected all the tourists, ourselves included, wandering around seemed to be. Everyone seemed to becme childlike and full of exclamations and curiosity again. And if that, rather than impeccable curating, is not the point of a museum, we don’t know what is.

No comments:

Real Time Web Analytics