This weekend several of us went to Cairo, which for me was my first time in the city (aside from quite a few hours sitting in the airport on arrival day). Because of continuing political tension, we were asked to stay out of downtown, but fortunately for us, Cairo is an absolutely enormous city, and there are plenty of things to do and see outside of the downtown area. After just one weekend there, I would absolutely not say “I have seen Cairo.” It is a city that will require at least a few return visits.
First on the agenda, unsurprisingly, were the Pyramids. Since I was about 8 the pyramids have maintained their position firmly atop my to-see list, so I was completely overwhelmed with excitement, so much so that I woke up in time for our hotel breakfast despite getting in around 4:00 am the night before from a cafe. I squealed from the backseat of the taxi when I caught my first glimpse of the pyramids looming from afar, and my excitement only increased as we approached. The pyramids are truly incredible. I hate using superlatives on here all the time, but let’s be honest: it’s the pyramids. They are among the seven wonders of the world for good reason. The fact that they have been standing in the same place for over four and a half millenia is incredible on its own, not to mention the feat of engineering before all of the technological advances we have now.
I expected my visit to the pyramids to consist of that sort of awe. I was a bit surprised, however, to find that a visit to the pyramids also provides many lessons in modern Egyptian culture. We kept asking our coordinator whether we would have a tour at the pyramids or just wander on our own, and her seeming lack of concern on this matter confused us. Once we got to the complex, it made a lot more sense. Egyptian tourism has suffered a lot from the revolution and its aftershocks (or continuation depending on whom you ask), so there are quite a lot of very gregarious and insistent tour guides at the pyramids. I am not entirely sure how we ended up with Ramadan, but essentially he found us and began whisking us around the complex with no promise on our part to pay him at all. The ultimate goal for him, which he ended up fulfilling, was to get us on his camels and horses when we eventually decided to ride around the pyramids. Four of the students with us paid to go inside the Great Pyramid, but claustrophobia got the better of me and I remained outside with one of the girls who had been to the pyramids before. We walked around taking pictures, and were approached every other second by someone offering us camel rides, postcards, or souvenirs. Some of these people were quite insistent, and would follow us for a while after our refusal.
Once the others emerged from the Great Pyramid, we decided it was time for the obligatory camel ride. There were six of us, and Ramadan recommended that we take three horses and three camels, and switch halfway as many people find the camel ride uncomfortable. I started out on a horse. We had all gotten settled on camels and horses and had just started to leave for our ride when a group of apparently quite angry men came running after Ramadan and screaming. I still have no idea what this argument was about, but it got rather violent and spooked the camels, which in turn spooked the students on the camels. The eventual resolution was that those of us on horses switched to different horses and then set off. I am not completely sure how long our ride took, but I think it was close to two hours. We took hundreds of pictures of all conceivable angles of the pyramids, and of course ourselves on camels–the required profile picture for anyone studying abroad in Egypt. It struck us how differently the Pyramids would be run if they were an American attraction. For one thing, our guides would certainly not continually be encouraging the camels and horses to go running faster with completely inexperienced riders on their backs. Secondly, they wouldn’t have allowed us on horses without leads. I personally don’t imagine you would be able to approach and touch the actual pyramids if they were American (okay, yes, technically I saw a sign that said no climbing, but no one was adhering to it and I witnessed no attempts to enforce it). You go to the Pyramids to recall the splendor of Ancient Egypt, but that doesn’t mean the experience is without a dash of modern Egypt as well.
On Saturday we toured City of the Dead in Cairo with an extremely knowledgeable tour guide. I knew basically nothing about it before hand, so I was not sure what to expect. It is essentially an oddly quiet neighborhood in Cairo that is filled with lots of mausoleums, but where people also live in order to take care of the dead. The tour lasted from 9 am until 2 pm, and being the dork that I am I loved every minute.
That does not get to everything I did in Cairo this weekend. Honestly some of my favorite parts were when we were just wandering through streets packed with vendors. I am not sure how common this is but in our wandering we witnessed two fairly intense fights breaking out. The first started near the Attaba metro station. From what we could tell, it began between two women, but quickly a crowd joined in and it escalated rather violently. In about a minute flat one of the original women had upended a huge area of the market, and the ground was covered in sweaters, shoes and assorted other wares. Later on, not too far away, a fight broke out between some men by a fruit vendor, and one had the brilliant idea to break a coconut over his adversary’s head. We amused ourselves on the hour long wait before the train left Ramses Station in Cairo by creating the back story of these two (in our version) connected fights, and I am fairly sure it may be the outline of the next great literary gem.
I feel like this post is getting quite long, and I don’t want to bore you. On another note, please let me know if you have any questions for me about my experience so far in Egypt. There are so many aspects of life here that differ from my life in America, and sometimes it is hard for me to determine which of them would make for interesting blog posts, so if there is anything you are particularly curious about please ask! Until next time!