This is not Club Med, that’s for sure. But Egypt is obviously full of wonders – it’s got the stuff I’ve dreamed of seeing for as long as I can remember. You want mummies? They got ‘em. Tombs? Scads. Oh, and the best, cheapest meal I’ve ever eaten.
We visited temples and tombs. We saw Hatshepsut’s mountainside funeral temple, with most of the references to the woman king scratched out by her cranky stepson. We floated on the Nile in a felucca, the Egyptian sailboat. We went back to the temples at Karnak during the morning and got a chance to see its massive columns in full sun. We hunkered down and descended the hundred meter tunnel to the tomb inside the red pyramid at Dahshur (just next to the bent one). This journey requires pretty good quads and a willingness to shuffle and squat deep into a very narrow cave. The place also reeks of ammonia. Our guide Mina said that this was the byproduct of the embalming fluids from the mummies. It’s possible that it’s also just pee. If you have any problems with claustrophobia, don’t do this. If you have trouble bending, don’t do this. If you don’t like the smell of several thousand year old embalming fluid (or pee) don’t do this. Of course the tomb was raided thousands of years ago. At some point, the pharaohs realized that the pyramids they were building were gigantic billboards that read, “steal my stuff here.”
They finally got the memo at Luxor, where they hid their booty deep underground in the Valley of the Kings on the west bank of the Nile. Of course, with the exception of Tut, almost everything from these tombs was looted and is gone forever. Our buddy Bob tells us that there are around twenty tombs that are unaccounted for just in Valley of the Kings. For all we know, they’re right there near the other sixty some-odd tombs. In fact, Howard Carter’s team discovered King Tut’s tomb entirely by accident. I’m told that one tomb was discovered by an Egyptian donkey, which stepped into a hole to its knee, revealing an ancient wonder. Someday, someone will make a discovery that will put the Tut stuff to shame. Won’t that be exciting?
We wandered around the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, which may be the world’s worst museum with the world’s best collection. It’s a jumble of stuff with not much rhyme or reason, but what stuff there is! Here’s a hallway full of painted burial caskets. There’s a gallery full of Tut’s jewels. What is half this stuff? Who knows? Sometimes you’re lucky and there’s a yellowed piece of paper with a brief description that was typed on an actual typewriter decades ago. Turn a corner and there it is – the King Tut exhibit. You may have paid twenty five bucks to see a small portion of it on one of its world tours. Well, here’s all of it – the famous golden head and everything – almost hiding in the back of the museum. It’s kind of like Egypt itself – chaotic and disorganized, but dazzling if you give it a chance.
You never know what you’re about to discover. We were led by a clever tout through Islamic Cairo – a warren of alleyways where all manner of commerce is conducted. He took us into the back room of a printing shop that was churning out Korans, we visited a guy making lamps with a rusty old acetylene torch (surprise, surprise, they were for sale!), and we ended up in the spice market. This stuff may be fascinating to tourists, but the alleys were packed with locals, most of whom (but not all) greeted us with a smile or a wave. This was not Disneyland Cairo, that’s for sure.
The three main pyramids at Giza are all that, but you have to work at it a bit. They used to be out of town, in the desert, a few miles from the city’s border, but the city has been built out to meet the pyramids. It’s a little weird. You approach these epic structures from a crowded parking lot that now sits on the edge of town. But wander to the far side of the pyramids, the part that still touches the desert, and you can look at these amazing monoliths as people have for thousands and thousands of years. Just a few million stones stacked on top of each other and a world of sand. Every few minutes a camel walks by. I could have just sat there all day and just looked at it.
We packed in a ton of stuff in Egypt. Here’s a rundown of the sites:
- The sound and light show at Karnak
- Luxor Museum
- Habu Temple (Funeral temple of Ramses III)
- Deir al-Madina (temple built for themselves by the workers who constructed the tombs of the Valley of the Kings)
- Karnak Temple
- Luxor Temple
- Valley of the Kings
- Al-Deir Al_Bahari Temple (King Hatshepsut’s funeral temple)
- Edfu Temple
- Kom Ombu Temple (Temple built to appease the Nile crocodiles. I have a feeling it didn’t work.)
- Aswan High Dam
- Unfinished Obelisk (they spent six months carving out a gargantuan piece of pink granite, but it cracked, so they left it there)
- Philae Temple
- Egyptian Museum of Antiquities
- Pyramids of Imhotep and Saqqara
- Red and Bent Pyramids at Dahshur
- Giza Pyramids
- Ibn Tulun Mosque
- Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church (where Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were said to have lived after they fled Bethlehem)
- Ben Ezra Synagogue (Oldest synagogue in Cairo. Not sure if they can get a minyan.)
- El-Tanoura Sufi Troupe (Otherwise known as Dervishes – one dude spun for over half an hour without tossing his cookies. Better than the Istanbul Dervishes by a lot.)
You may have noticed that I have not said anything about the food. In general, the cuisine borrows heavily from the countries along the Mediterranean. There’s baba ganoush, tabouli, hummus, some very good falafel and the like. I love that stuff, but you can get it anywhere. I did eat a stuffed pigeon, which tasted a bit like duck.
What I’d never seen before is this wonder of wonders called koshery. Our houseboat landlord Dan turned us on to this, and my life may never be the same. Koshery is street food, served at stalls and in very humble restaurants all over Cairo. It’s a bowl of assorted grains – a mixture of rice, lentils, tiny macaroni tubes, hunks of broken spaghetti, and bits of toasted spaghetti that resemble Spanish fideos. Dr. Atkins is surely spinning in his grave. It’s topped with this out of this world tangy vinegary tomato sauce, crispy fried onions, a bit of garlicky oil, and a fiery hot chili paste that will sear your soul if properly applied. On our first night back from Luxor I navigated myself across our busy street, found the koshery place, managed to communicate my order to the fellow at the register, and figured out how to retrieve my order from the guy at the counter. That stuff is stressful, but oh was it worth it. The total bill for two orders? Twelve Egyptian Pounds, or $1.68. A dollar sixty frigging eight. For you humanities types, that’s eighty four cents per order. We had so much left over that we ate it the next morning for breakfast with a poached egg on top, and I can’t remember ever being so happy. I can’t wait to get back to the states and start making koshery. In fact, I dug up a recipe online, and here you go. Someone out there make this and tell me how it was.
Egypt was a marvel. It was exhausting, frustrating, wondrous, and very, very illuminating. We are glad to leave – there’s only so much of this you can take at one time – but I will never forget the people we’ve met and the places we’ve seen. I’ll be back, inshallah.