Sunday, October 10, 2010

Dazed and Confused in Cairo

First impressions of Cairo: sprawling, massive blocks of clay. At least that’s how it looks from the air. All the buildings look dirty, until I realized they are just coated in a layer of sand. I guess there’s no way to prevent that! My guide told me that sometimes they don’t finish the outside construction of a building and focus on the inside instead… meaning the inside can be opulent, while the outside looks like a hovel.

There are minarets poking into the sky everywhere where I look. A 180 degree head swivel takes in at least 15 at a quick count. It’s noon and a Friday, so the call to prayer is echoing from all angles. It’s not synchronized, so it’s more a mish-mosh of chanting, some clearer than others until you move out of ear shot. Groups of men are gathering in alleyways and under bridges to pray. I thought they were just kneeling in groups to pray anywhere, but I find out later that anywhere there are groups, there is a mosque. It’s a fascinating sight and I wish I could take a picture, but that’s probably not a good idea.

There are a lot fo woman wearing hijabs (headscarfs). Some, but not many, are wearing full black abayas, which cover their entire face except for their eyes, which are elaborately made-up (in case you were wondering, burqas cover the entire face, including the eyes, which look through a mesh screen.) But many more than I expected are wearing western clothes. There are more men wearing the long white galabays… but even if that weren’t for religious reasons, I’d say they would wear them anyway because of the heat.

Egypt is the hottest place I’ve been to date. Hotter than Greece in August. Hotter than Sydney during a 105+ heat wave. It’s hot. And while it’s a marvel that ancient Egyptians built all of this… I’m more amazed that they did it in this heat. Because really, it’s everything I can do not to throw up from the heat. It’s that hot.
Luckily, my first stop is indoors: the Egyptian Museum, a labyernith of stone fragments and statues and sarcophagi. My friend Mona, who is graciously hosting me in Cairo, arranged for a guide, Nader. He’s baby faced, both energetic and a bit lazy, and immensely friendly.

That helped offset my fatigue and the lack of air conditioning in the museum. Some of his words were quite honestly buzz in my ears. But he did pass along some neat tidbits. Ie: How do you know if a statue of a pharaoh was made while he was alive or dead? If he has one leg forward and a straight beard, it was made while he was ruling. If his legs are together and his arms are crossed over his cheat, is was made after he passed into the afterlife.
The highlight is of course the half a dozen or so mummies… all with their hair and nails intact. A bit creepy and nightmare inducing. I’ve never seen a dead body before. Yes, I realize these are 5000+ years old, so it’s not quite the same thing. But the level of preservation is amazing, making the bodies look like they’ve been a dead a much shorter time.

For those of you uninitiated in the mummification process, allow me: First, they remove the eyeballs (which they later replace with crystal or stones that look shockingly like the real thing), then they stick a hook up the nose and drag out the brain bit by bit. They throw the brain bits away, because they thought the brain was a useless organ. Then, they remove the stomach, intestines, liver and lungs. Those are put in 4 separate jars, that usually get their own mini-tomb. And then the body is left for 40 days at a slant to drain out all of the fluids. Yes, 40 days. In the heat.

King Tut’s tomb artifacts were also on display. I didn’t think I would be that impressed, as I had already seen the exhibit in New York with my very own Egyptian guide (thanks Amir!)  I guess it shouldn’t be any surprise that the good stuff was in Cairo. He was buried in a painted, wooden coffin that bit his shrunken body (it’s smaller after all the fluids are gone), then that was put into 2 or 3 more slightly larger coffins that were gold and silver and ornate. Then those were put into 4 boxes, one silver, the other gold, painted, etc. Sort of like a nesting doll... Egyptian style.  The largest box, which is what Carter saw when he discovered the tomb, is about 12x12. So, enormous… given it’s use.

Overall, the museum provided a good base for what was to come.

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