Tuesday, January 27, 2009
I was sitting in the lounge in LAX on my way home from San Francisco two Thursdays ago when I got an unexpected email from my boyfriend asking if I wanted to travel to Cairo the following weekend with two of our friends. It took me about two seconds to respond. Yes! Of course.
I’ve wanted to see the pyramids for a long time, and Cairo has been high on my “places that are easier to get to from London than San Francisco” list for quite some time. Plus, after going to the disappointing and sparsely-artifacted “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of Pharaohs” exhibition at the 02 last year, I wanted to see the good stuff. Apparently, that could be found in the Egyptian Museum. I was set to go.
After a late arrival on Friday night, my friends and I checked into our hotel. We stayed at the Four Seasons, compliments of my banker friend’s generous corporate discount (one of the things I miss about my Goldman days!).
The following morning we woke up early and battled the fog to get to Giza. As we pulled into the parking lot in front of the pyramids, I was surprised to find myself right on the edge of the city. For some reason I always imagined the pyramids to be out in the middle of the dry desert, not right smack in the middle of a concrete jungle.
We spent the morning exploring the pyramids, climbing up and down long-empty tombs of kings and queens, over burial grounds of hundreds of thousands of “workers” (ahem, slaves), and across to the great and stoic sphinx.
We weaved our way through camels and horse carts, big stones and small rocks, and touts selling every kind of souvenir from bright blue clay scarab beetles to postcards of the very pyramids we were photographing. After stopping for a quick photo shoot with a camel, we headed back to the city center to visit the Egyptian Museum.
The museum itself was as full of ancient Egyptian artifacts as the pyramids were devoid of them. In fact, there were so many statues, sarcophagi, stones, and mummies stuffed haphazardly into one building that I continually mistook entire rooms for storage space.
It didn’t help that some people were using the exhibits as chairs and benches, including a museum staff member, who was taking a nap on a 4,000-year-old stone block. Other people seemed to be mistaking open coffins for trash receptacles for candy wrappers and beverage containers. This was to say nothing of the descriptions of the exhibits, some of which looked like they had been typewritten in the 1950′s and others of which were hand written in ballpoint pen on torn sheets of binder paper. Bizarre.
In spite of the curation, the museum was brimming with amazing historic artifacts. Not least among them were the contents of Tut’s tomb, which were laid out in a special room and infinitely more extensive and impressive than the meager collection that came to London.
Lunch that afternoon was at Taboula, a great Lebanese restaurant by the British Embassy. Following an afternoon siesta, we spent the evening at Khan El-Khalili, Cairo’s famous bazaar. We walked through narrow streets and twisting alleys full of vendors hawking everything from silver jewelry to ironic T-shirts. Our excursion finished with dinner at the Naguib Mahfouz Restaurant, followed by peach flavored shisha at the adjacent Khan El-Khalili Cafe. Both were run by the Oberoi, but the food and decor were a bit underwhelming and not up to the standard I expected from such a prestigious name.
Sunday was a marathon day of seeing the sights in Cairo. We headed down to Old Cairo in the morning, excited to see the Hanging Church and Coptic Cairo. Navigating labyrinthine alleys, we made our way to a synagogue and several churches that paid diligent homage to Saint George and his dragon slaying skills.
We walked through a Greek cemetery and Orthodox church, and finally reached the Hanging Church that we had heard so much about. It being Sunday morning, we couldn’t go inside, but it was still nice to catch a glimpse of the service in progress and hear the chanting of the liturgy.
From Coptic Cairo we headed to the Citadel, where we saw several mosques and had great views of the city below.
From there we moved on to the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, a beautiful structure with a huge square courtyard and a tower that we climbed for more views of the city.
Our short weekend in Cairo came to an end not long after, and we flew home to London to catch the very end of a day-long torrential downpour. It led me to my usual winter conclusion: I need to travel more.