Christmas in Cairo

If you were wondering whatever happened to Pinky and Perky, I can confirm that the porcine duo are alive and well and pursuing a lucrative career in the Cairo lift muzak industry.  Their rendition of We Wish you a Merry Christmas accompanied us to our room on arrival at the Mena House Hotel.

We arrived on 25 December, and any idea we had of escaping from Christmas by visiting a predominantly Muslim country had already been dispelled by the staff at the exchange offices at Cairo airport, who enthusiastically wished all their customers a Merry Christmas.  The mini Santa’s Grotto outside the main entrance to the hotel selling chocolate chip cookies and other goodies, and the large Christmas tree in reception continued the festive theme. 

This was our first visit to Egypt, and with only 4 nights (and three whole days), we had a fairly hectic schedule.  Two morning excursions, to the Egyptian Museum and the Pyramids respectively, were included in the price of our holiday and we took advantage of the optional afternoon excursions that followed these.  We did not however choose to go on the optional full-day excursion to Alexandria on the third day, as one of the attractions of the holiday had been the opportunity to relax in the historic Mena House hotel, which had been built to accommodate dignitaries attending the official opening of the Suez Canal.

Although we had arrived at the hotel late at night (I was surprised by the amount of traffic we encountered at 1.00 a.m.), we had a fairly early start for our visit to the Egyptian Museum.  Regrettably, every other tourist group in Cairo appeared to have had the same idea, as there were large queues at the entrance.  These were not helped by the fact that we were required to put our bags through an x-ray machine both at the entrance to the Museum grounds and at the entrance to the Museum itself.  These were to be the first of many such machines we encountered on our brief stay. The machines were for bags only; cameras were pushed over the top. Our local guide, Caroline, took us around the highlights of the museum at a cracking pace, in some cases having to shout to be heard above the other local guides.  It was something of a relief when, after visiting the Tutankhamun exhibits, which were as crowded as one would expect, we were given free time in which to explore.  The display of items from the tomb of Yuya and Thuyu (Tutankhamun’s grandparents), the most spectacular finds in Egyptian archaeology before the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, were well worth seeing, and could be appreciated in peace.  We noted as we left the Museum at lunchtime that the queues at the entrance had virtually disappeared.  It is a shame that the arrival of tourist groups could not be staggered more effectively.

The afternoon was devoted to ‘Islamic’ Cairo, the medieval part of the city.  According to the Lonely Planet guide, the Ministry of Culture has now designated this area ‘Fatimid Cairo’ after the dynasty that conquered Egypt in 969 and made Cairo its capital – they fear the word ‘Islamic’ might frighten away the tourists.  After lunching in a restaurant in the Khan al-Khalili – a vast market and shopping area originating in the fourteenth century where it is possible to buy anything from the usual tourist tat to wholesale lengths of cloth – we were taken to the Citadel.

The Citadel

Saladin commenced the building of the Citadel in 1176, but it was later enlarged by the Mamluks, who took control of Egypt in the thirteenth century, and by their successors, the Ottomans. The most striking building on the site is however the Mosque of Mohammed Ali, the Albanian soldier who declared Egyptian independence from the Ottoman Empire early in the nineteenth century and founded the royal line that endured until 1952. This mosque is supposed to be based on Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and therefore takes the form of an early Christian basilica.  Removing my shoes in order to enter the courtyard, I wished I had worn thick socks, as the tiles were freezing cold. This was an interesting contrast with the mosque in Lahore, where I had almost fried my feet in similar circumstances.

Although our hotel was literally in the shadow of the pyramids, it was an early start again the next day, supposedly so that we would be in time for those of our party who wished to go inside the Great Pyramid to buy tickets, as only 150 tickets are sold each morning.  Unfortunately, we were not quite early enough.  There was a bitter wind blowing.  Fortunately, we had checked the weather forecast before we came, and packed woolly jumpers, but some of our party were shivering in t-shirts and shorts.  Behind the Great Pyramid was the Solar Boat museum.  Five cedarwood barques were originally buried in pits along the eastern and southern sides of the Pyramid.  They may have been used to bring the mummy of the deceased Pharaoh across the Nile.  One of them was excavated in 1954 and it has been restored and encased in a glass museum for protection.  In order to preserve the boat, it is necessary to don protective footwear to enter the museum, which would be fine, if they provided each visitor with two overshoes of the same size. As it was, I had to contend with three inches of surplus canvas flapping on my right foot and threatening to trip me up on the stairs.  The boat is amazing.  It is hard to believe that it is over four and a half thousand years old. After inspecting the exterior of the two other pyramids at Giza, and visiting the Sphinx, which was smaller than I expected, we travelled to the ancient capital of Memphis.

Solar Boat Museum

There is nothing much now to be seen of the ancient city of Memphis, but the museum contains a colossal statue of Ramesses II, together with other statues of the pharaoh and various other items, including a granite sarcophagus with a lid that does not fit (exhibited separately), which are displayed outside. 

The museum was the scene of two of the funniest incidents of the trip.  A couple of women in the party were telling our guide Caroline about the Ramesses historical novels, and how well- researched they were.  ‘They tell you all about his early life, and his relationship with Moses and everything’ one of them said.  ‘But Ramesses II wasn’t the Pharaoh of the Exodus’ she replied, referring to an inscription dating from the reign of another Pharaoh, and the fact that Ramesses II’s mummy in the Egyptian Museum showed no evidence of his having been drowned in the Red Sea. In fact, the academic world has not yet come to a consensus on the identity of the Exodus Pharaoh, and is unlikely to do so any time soon, but the two women looked crestfallen.  ‘You’ve just ruined my holiday!’  Meanwhile, Neil was attempting to take a photo of one of the statues of Ramesses.  From a distance, I saw one of the tourist police approach him. Perhaps he was standing where he should not have been, or was it that he did not have the right kind of ticket to allow him to take photos?  No, it appeared that the policeman wanted his photo taken.  Having admired the image on the digital camera, the policeman then showed Neil the hieroglyphics on the back of the statue.  His colleague then offered to take a picture of him and Neil.  Once this picture had also been admired, Neil managed to make his escape.   At first, I had been surprised by the number of tourist police at all the sites.  Later I realised that they were there not to protect the sites from the tourists, but the tourists from attack.

Just down the road from Memphis, was Saqqara, the site of the Step Pyramid of Pharaoh Zoser, the earliest stone monument in the world.  Maybe it was because the weather had warmed up, or because the site was less crowded, but I found this site far more impressive than that of the Pyramids of Giza. To my disappointment, our only view of the Bent Pyramid of Snofru, an early attempt at a true pyramid, whose builders had to change the angle halfway up,  was is the far distance.  Still, at least I did see it.

We could have taken the opportunity on our free day to return to the Egyptian Museum or to explore Cairo further.  Although the hotel was 18 km from the centre of Cairo there was a bus stop outside the hotel gates, and no shortage of taxi drivers either.  We opted however for a relaxing day spent reading in the hotel gardens, from which there is an unnervingly close view of the Pyramids.  The highlight of the day was lunching in the garden restaurant, where we could watch the excellent local bread being baked in an outdoor oven, although we could have managed without the piped accompaniment from Pinky and Perky (yet again).  It was something of a relief to spend a day away from the crush of the tourist crowds.

Mena House Gardens

This visit to Egypt came as a total contrast to our previous trip, to Albania, where we had most museums and archaeological sites completely to ourselves. Although I am pleased to have seen the Pyramids and the Egyptian Museum, and understand the importance of tourist income to the economy, from an entirely selfish point of view I have to say that I preferred the Albanian experience. Part of the attraction of the Mena House had been to experience something of what it must have been like to travel in the past, before the days of package holidays.  The public rooms looked much as they must have done eighty years ago, and the old photos of the hotel and pyramids (including one with a Zeppelin overhead) helped, but somehow the tour of Albania seemed more evocative of how it used to be.

I visited Cairo in December 2003

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