Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Egypt, part 1.

By the time we got in to Cairo, the sky was getting dark. We piled into a bus, checked in to the hotel, and departed for our dinner river cruise on the Nile. Just prior to heading off for dinner, we were joined by Khaled - he was to be our tour guide for the next five days. He has a masters degree in archaeology and Egyptology, so the man knows his stuff.

We arrived a little early for boarding the boat, so Khaled organised some shisha to keep us entertained while we wait. Modern Egyptian culture is still fairly influenced by the Ottomans. They were one of the big conquering nations after the Romans, and have left their mark in a collection of countries in and around the Middle East. One of the pastimes they brought with them, was shisha. Watching the smoking pipe make the rounds most definitely kept us entertained. There were the smokers, and a few people who have tried shisha before, who made the whole experience look easy. And then there was the rest of the group, most of whom had rarely or never smoked shisha or anything else before. Needless to say, there was a lot of smoke, and a lot of coughing. 

Our first stop was the Egyptian Museum. The front garden was filled with statues and a small pond containing Egypt's national icons - the lotus and papyrus plants. The inside was just amazing. The building was made in the late 1800s specifically to be the national museum. It is a massive building, filled to the brim with statues and artifacts covering so many thousands of years. Having Khaled there to walk us through was great - random old things got context, stories, and significance. Upstairs was the main treasure trove - the entire contents of Tut Ankh Amon's tomb. 

As a pharaoh, he was about as insignificant as they come. His tomb was tiny and contained far less than a pharaoh's tomb ought to.. but then, most had plenty of time to have their extensive tombs built and decorated, and have crafted and built extensive amounts of items to see them through to the afterlife. Tut died before he even hit 20, so they had 28 days to get everything ready and bury him. He's got a tiny, bare couple of rooms, and they pretty well just packed in all his possessions and left it at that. But his tomb got a little bit lost, so unlike most of the others that have been uncovered to date, it hadn't been raided by grave-robbers. No-one had plundered the treasures for profit, everything was found as it was left so many thousand years ago. So seeing all the items that made up a pharaohs life was pretty cool. And all the jewellery, and the ornamentation of the sarcophagi. So many things!

We then got some free time to look around, and visit the collection of royal mummies. Tickets were expensive, and mummies really all look the same, so I just wandered around looking at the rest of the artifacts upstairs. There were a heap of Roman mummies, so that was pretty cool. The Romans were always big on their cremation, but when they conquered Egypt, they decided that mummies were pretty cool, and started mummifying their dead. They made it their own though - they all had paper mache over the heads, decorated, with the faces painted on. The contrast of the Egyptian tradition and Roman art I thought created a really interesting aesthetic.

After the museum, we jumped back on our bus and went out to Giza.

Great Pyramids of Giza, Egypt.

Great Pyramids of Giza, Egypt.

So yeah, we rode camels around the Great Pyramids, and went inside the second one (with the outer layer still intact at the top). No big deal.

At the sphinx, we got our first major dose of my new favourite thing - gypsies! The term used was 'vendors', which is far too polite for them. Basically, anyone over the age of four will try to sell you things. They will swarm any tourist in an attempt to get money out of you. Fair enough, their country is pretty buggered at the moment, and they're just trying to make a living, but that doesn't make it any less annoying. I was already sick of gypsies from our encounters in Paris, and everywhere in Italy, but the Egyptians take it to a whole new level.

Our next stop was an Egyptian Cotton store. A lot of the girls got scarfs, a few of the guys got shirts, many people admired their reflection wearing a fez, and one guy took it to a whole new level by acquiring a traditional outfit, complete with what we will diplomatically call a floor-length shirt. We had our attractive headdresses from our camel ride, so he now officially has the best and most authentic Egyptian costume ever.

The final stop in Giza was a Bedouin perfumery. We had a traditional welcome drink - a selection of a Turkish-style coffee, fresh mint tea, and red hibiscus tea. There was some history, and a description of the production of essential oils and the brands for whom they supply oil blends (hint: it's most of them), as well as the sampling of a selection of fragrances. Rather than most fragrances, which are a weak solution of oils (either natural or synthetic) diluted in alcohol or other oils, ranging as high as 30% for an eau de parfum, all of theirs were pure essential oil blends. This has the advantage of lasting a lot longer on the skin (12+hrs). There was a pretty good discount if you purchased four bottles together (4 for 3), so there was much gift-shopping done, and many combined purchases. A small bottle (maybe 150mL, not really that small at all) wound up working out to about 150 Egyptian Pounds, or about $25. Which is a freakin' bargain. I purchased a bottle of lotus oil, which smells amazing.

We had some time to kill before we left, so Khaled organised some more shisha for us. This time we had five to share amongst outselves. There were many photos taken of people smoking and blowing out smoke.

Then came the most dreaded part of our trip - a twelve hour overnight train ride to Aswan.

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