Travel Tales

Egypt - Epic proportions of History and Geography

Egypt, SphinxOur ship docked in Alexandria, Egypt, then we took a three hour drive to Cairo to visit the Giza pyramids, and sail on the longest river on earth: the Nile. Egypt owes its existence to the famous Nile, which provided arable, and therefore habitable lands for nearly 7,000 years. The farming began when its inhabitants began digging irrigation canals. This neophyte agricultural society supported a long line of pharaohs, divine kings which were supposedly descended from the gods.


Egypt, Pyramids and camelsThe pyramids were built as tombs to preserve their life after death, and still stand imperiously as a reminder of a bygone era full of mystery and power. They were built, "not by slaves" as our guide told us, but by "paid workers" each flood season to labor on these grand projects, preserved for thousands of years due to an arid climate and dry soil of sand and silt.

The cardinal points of the pyramids were systematically determined by astronomical observations, aligning them precisely with the North Star. This work was done during the Nile's inundation so that flood waters could allow boats to carry massive granite columns and heavy blocks of limestone close to the building of the pyramids. During the inundation period, when farmers were unable to work, the rich pharaohs would employ them to build their pyramid tombs for their immortality. I tried to place a knife between each massive stone of the Giza pyramids, but the tightness was incredible. They seemed glued together but cement was not used. A marvel of engineering when America was in the Stone Age. The mysterious Sphinx sits silently guarding these three tombs. Nobody seems to know what it is doing there, so it is assumed it was built to ward off evil spirits.

In the photos, these pyramids look almost romantic with their grandeur, but when I got up close to them, the broken glass, camel droppings, trash everywhere, and dust whirlwinds suffocating me, forced me to click away and return immediately to the bus. Police armed with automatic weapons were highly visible, as was our tour bus security guard with a couple of guns sticking out from under his jacket. Our buses traveled in a convoy for safety, stopping off at check points as the local police wrote down our arrival times. The private security guards were constantly in touch with each other by two-way phones. I felt secure, but at the same time, a little nervous.

I cannot understand why the Egyptians do not bury or burn their garbage; it simply sits blowing around in the streets which forced me to cover my nose and mouth with a scarf to avoid the stench and bacteria. Sanitation does not seem to be of importance to them. The traffic congestion has to be one of the worst I have seen in the world. Traffic rules seem to apply to whoever is the biggest bully. Horse and carts travel on the same clogged roads as jay walkers, auto accidents and motorcycles, all enmeshed in a bottleneck squeeze. The largest vehicle pushes through first sometimes leaving only a couple of inches between vehicles, which caused me to pull up my knees to my chest and cry out OMG! I held my breath as our bus rapidly passed cars as they screeched to a sudden halt, while I covered my eyes! OMG! Am I still in one piece? I took several photos of bloody car accidents, which I will not display here.

sarcophagusThe Valley of the Kings has more than 60 royal tombs, including that of the boy king: Tutankhamoun, which contained his solid gold sarcophagus that held his mummified remains, currently on display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

But it was Cleopatra who impressed me the most. Co-regent of Ptolemaic Egypt from 51 to 30 BC, associated with ancient Alexandria, famous for her intelligence and political shrewdness, and mostly remembered for her love affair with Marc Antony in the East Harbour Palace, which was later submerged due to an earthquake. It was discovered in 1996 by a team of French marine archaeologists.

Cairo is the capital of Egypt, with a population of about 13 million people. Most Egyptians are of mixed races, descending from Egyptians, Berbers, black Africans, Arabs, Greeks and Turks; and are about 90% Sunni Muslims, with a small portion being Coptic Christians. Arabic is their spoken language. The well educated also speak English or French.
They engage in agriculture with their main crop being cotton; along with petroleum and metals.
I was amazed to see how easily early papyrus was made by pounding the liquid from the stems of the plant, soaking them in water for several days, scrapping the outside of the stem and crisscrossing these flattened stems into a square, and drying them under a press for two months. This method produced an ivory-colored material they later painted on. The brown colored material was produced by immersing the crisscrossed papyrus in water for a longer period of time.

Tourism and the Suez Canal also bring them sources of foreign exchange. Handcrafted cotton, Egyptian alabaster and copper are also popular souvenirs. But always barter - it's not only expected - it's great fun.

cartoucheI bought a gold cartouche spelling my name Alinka in Egyptian hieroglyphics, which starts with a bird for the letter "A". A lion for "L". The "I" is like a chevron. The "N" is a form of a snake, but they don't have a "K", so they use the "C" which looks like a basket. Therefore, I am a bird, lion, chevron, snake, basket and bird. (My husband quite agrees with them!)

Egyptian history is so rich and complicated that I will not offend the Egyptologists by attempting to condense thousands of years of history into just two pages. My notes still are hieroglyphics to me as I attempted to write and draw what the guide was telling us in a roller coaster bus armed with uzis. (Not recommended for the faint of heart!)

The Suez Canal connects the Mediterranean Sea, which I sailed for two weeks, with the Red Sea, and is level with no locks. Port Said was founded in 1859, and is a fueling place for ships. There were only about 25% Americans on board this cruise and some of them bought the red and white checkered headgear wearing it to the ship, except for the Texans. I noticed the other cultures were not so amused. I was still in cultural shock as we boarded the ship, and decided I could never live in such a culture which abuses women and is cruel to their animals.

I will never complain again about the high cost of our trash collection. Egypt may have had a colorful past, but it needs a more stable future. The poverty is overwhelming. Where is all that oil money going? Certainly not to help their citizens.

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Alinka Zyrmont

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