Port Said & Cairo, Egypt
On April 8 we docked in Port Said, a city at the Mediterranean entrance to the Suez Canal. Port Said was built in the 19th century to house the workers and administrators who built the canal, so there is nothing very old there. You may have read about this city over the last 6 months, during which it has witnessed a number of demonstrations that have resulted in dozens of deaths. The trouble started with a riot at a soccer match in which a number of people died. Then a couple of dozen people were sentenced to death for their roles in those riots, which stimulated demonstrations that turned violent. More people were killed during the demonstrations, and more people have been given death sentences. So Port Said has been very volatile and we were pretty convinced we wouldn’t make this stop. But we did, and we learned later that ours was the first cruise ship to stop here since January.
Well, there is little to see in Port Said (and Holland America was urging passengers not to go into town by themselves), so we opted for an excursion to Cairo to see the Pyramids & have lunch on a boat in the Nile river. It was another long & exhausting day (about 12 hours altogether, 3.5 hours each way on the bus) but well worth it. All the buses going to Cairo went together in a convoy, with police accompaniment (men with guns in each bus & trucks carrying men with rifles driving along side). Police protection of tourist groups has been standard in Egypt for some time (their police have a special tourist division), since an incident in the 90’s when several dozen foreign tourists were killed by terrorists. As we drove out of Port Said we passed soldiers & tanks posted at intersections, presumably to discourage any more violent demonstrations (or probably any demonstrations period).
We drove south parallel to the canal to Ismailiya (another city that has had a lot of unrest), then west to Cairo. Along the canal we saw villages, vendors & irrigation canals, of which there is a sophisticated system.
We passed the “peace bridge” (I think that’s what the guide called it) that connects most of Egypt with the Sinai Peninsula, which was financed jointly with Japan. Also interesting were the large pigeon roosts that resembled giant beehives that are kept by many farmers in this area. The Egyptians eat the pigeons (called “squab” when they appear on your plate) and they also use the pigeon guano that collects inside for fertilizer.
As I said, we were traveling on a road that paralleled the canal just a few hundred yards away, with farms and fields between. Occasionally we saw ships traversing the canal that looked like they were going through the fields because we could not actually see the canal from our vantage point. Because the land is so flat & the water levels in the Red Sea & the Mediterranean are within about 5 feet of each other, the French were able to build the Suez Canal without any locks. This made it easy for sea life in the Red Sea to migrate into the Mediterranean & thereby changed the ecology of the region. The canal is not very wide, so ships convoy south in the morning & north in the afternoon.
From Ismailiya we turned west, and the land very quickly turned to desert. More than 90% of Egypt is desert like this. We were told that the Egyptian desert is so dry (less than 2” of rain per year) that even cactus doesn’t grow in most of it.
The population of Egypt has increased by several times over the last few decades, with the result that housing has become scarce & very expensive in the city. So in recent years housing developments have been going up in the desert outside Cairo, where middle class people can now afford more than a small apartment. We were told that Cairo is now the 3rd largest city in the world with some 20 million people.
Ironically, there was a huge housing bubble in Cairo when everyone was building housing projects (that look pretty much like slums) for the expanding population with the result that it was overbuilt & contractors just stopped work in the middle of their projects. Cairo now has a large number of incomplete buildings that are nothing more than eyesores. Traditionally there has been another kind of uncompleted building, in which a family would live on one or two floors, then when the children grew up they would add floors above for their families. At one time leaving rebars sticking up from your house gave you a tax advantage because such uncompleted buildings were not subject to property tax (we saw this in Peru last year as well), but the government got wise to this & now property taxes apply once electrical service is added to a building. You will notice that these buildings all look pretty much alike, and there are huge swaths of them in the eastern part of Cairo through which we passed.
So now we came to Giza, where the Great Pyramids are. When they were built the Pyramids were on the west bank of the Nile, the opposite side from the city of Memphis. This was because the Egyptians believed that the sun died every night and was reborn in the morning, so the direction of the sunset was the place for death. For many years Giza was in the desert isolated from the city of Cairo but the city has expanded in recent years to the point where our first view of the Pyramids was while passing through nearby residential neighborhoods.
There are three large pyramids at Giza. The great pyramid of Khufu (called Cheops by the Greeks) was the largest structure in the world for many centuries and is the only one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world still standing. His son, Khafre (Khephren to the Greeks), built the second pyramid, which is smaller than Khufu’s but looks bigger because it is situated on higher land. It still has some of the outer facing of smooth stone at the top which once covered all of these pyramids but was apparently carted away at some point to build newer buildings (this is a common fate for ancient buildings in this part of the world). The third pyramid is a good bit smaller than the other two (but still pretty big). The engineering of these buildings is quite extraordinary for their time; for example, the sides of the Great Pyramid are equal in length to a tolerance of 4 centimeters!
Of course the visitor spots at the Pyramids are loaded with vendors & camel men. We were warned that they are basically crooks. One favorite ploy is to agree to let a tourist get up on a camel for a picture for a couple of dollars or a short ride for 5 dollars, then demand $50 or $100 to let them down. If you refuse they may lead the camel out into the desert where you are totally defenseless. This actually happened to a couple of men on our tour; one of them was able to negotiate the dismount price down to $5 from $100, which he paid. The other one got off (since he was back in the bus) but I don’t know how. They all crowd around you, demanding that you buy some piece of junk, or asking you to take a picture with them (after which, we were warned, they would demand compensation). It was irritating constantly having to argue with these guys (they were all guys) when you only have a short time to see the Pyramids.
So then we moved to a spot where we had a little time to get up close & personal with a pyramid. We chose Khephren’s pyramid because it was a shorter walk & looked most interesting with the stone facing still on the top part. Some of the characters in Agatha Christie’s Death On The Nile climb to the top of a pyramid, but that is not allowed any more. There is one place at Khephren’s pyramid, however, where you can climb up a couple of levels, so I did. The stones are about 4 feet high, so you have to climb just with your arms. Not easy for an old guy, but your intrepid adventurer managed it. Mark Twain says that he paid three locals to help him climb to the top of a pyramid: two of thm would pull his arms from above while the third pushed from below. He also said one of them ran down the pyramid, up another one, then back in 5 minutes on a bet, then did it again. The first story might be true, but believe me the second one is not possible!
Nearby was the Great Pyramid. You could see Cairo in the distance (Giza is high ground). Near one of the great pyramids there were three much smaller pyramids for (you guessed it) the wives. We were told that there are more than 400 pyramids in Egypt, although none of the others are this big.
Modern scholars have concluded that, contrary to popular belief, the pyramids were built by skilled volunteers rather than slaves (and certainly not by the Israelites, who came to Egypt long after they were built). Recently uncovered are a necropolis nearby for people who helped build the pyramids and a town for workers. I’m not sure whether these pictures are of those excavations or something else on the site, but for what its worth I’m including them.
Next we visited the Great Sphinx. A sphinx has the head of a man and the body of a lion, which symbolizes a combination of wisdom & strength. There are a lot of sphinxes in Egypt, but not like this one. It is not only huge but impossibly old (some think it predates the pyramids). For many centuries it was covered by sand. Originally it would have had a beard, & there is a legend (which our guide said is not true) that its nose was blown off by Napoleon’s troops taking artillery practice. Mark Twain said he saw a tourist climb out to the head of the Sphinx with a hammer & chisel to obtain a souvenir (his travelling companions seem to have taken pieces of most of the interesting sites they visited), but he was unable to chip off a piece, thus emphasizing how much this statue has survived over the centuries. Anyway, its really is interesting, and its almost impossible to take a bad picture of it, so I will burden you with several of our better ones, from all angles.
After an all too brief visit to Giza we drove to the Nile for our lunch cruise on the river. This turned out to be a very short trip up and back on a relatively uninteresting stretch of the river, on a boat full of hokey ancient Egyptian style decorations, with a buffet meal that couldn’t hold a candle to the one in Alexandria the day before. If we don’t look particularly happy in these pictures, that is why (plus the fact that we spent more time in a gift shop than we did at the Sphinx).
Notice the super tall palm tree on the side of the Nile in the next picture. Its not real: its a cell phone tower. These were all over town.
The lunch boat also provided entertainment. First a belly dancer, then a guy with a colorful getup who performed a whirling dance. He was not a whirling dervish, because they dress in white and their dance is a religious rite, while this guy was very much an entertainer. The belly dancer later posed for pictures behind diners & they tried unsuccessfully to sell those pictures to the diners.
After lunch we began the long drive back to Port Said, again in convoy with the other buses & police escort. Passing through Cairo we saw colorful fruit stands, folks sitting in cafes and a surprising variety of animals right in the city.
One thing I should mention before leaving Egypt is the way Egyptians dress. Many men (though far from a majority) dress in long robes called galabiyyas, like the shepherd above is wearing, though often in darker colors and sometimes with a small hat. We were told that, although it looks hot to us, this is actually a time tested method of keeping relatively cool. Most women wear scarves on their heads, although our guide in Alexandria told us that this is more fashion than religion. She said if she were in the United States she wouldn’t wear one; she probably doesn’t know that such scarves are now fairly common in large American cities. She told us that young women color coordinate their scarves with their more western looking clothing, and after she said that I noticed this quite a lot. So, while I’m not sure that I am entirely buying the idea that this is nothing more than fashion, I am sure it is true for many women.
So, after the long drive your exhausted travelers arrived back at the ship. As I mentioned at the beginning, this was the first cruise ship in Port Said since January, and people were genuinely happy to see us. Many waved & smiled at us in the bus, and at no time in Egypt did we see any sign of hostility (although folks on a different tour in Alexandria said they did – must be something about them, I’m sure). The Egyptian economy is very dependent upon tourism (it is their fourth leading industry), and they are anxious that the news focus on the unrest in the country not discourage people from visiting. Anyway, our visit was enough of an occasion that there were bands there to serenade us upon arrival and before departure. But before the ship left for Israel, we had a new towel animal to accompany us.