Egypt 3: Luxor

Abby had booked us a private tour for the day so we woke up early, had a relatively decent hotel breakfast, and went to the lobby to meet our tour guide. We saw one of Abby’s colleagues from the conference in Cairo, who had also come to Luxor and was waiting for her private tour guide as well. Sure enough, the tour operator in Cairo had seen that two parties of Americans had wanted a private tour of Luxor, and she had put us together. Fortunately, Abby’s colleague Devinia was very nice and we all got along.

We drove out to the Valley of the Dead on the west bank of the Nile. (The east side is the side of the living, the west side is the side of the dead. The valley itself had been chosen as the burial place for the kings because one of the mountain peaks formed a natural pyramid.) The guide, Mohammed, was very knowledgeable, and he started by simply explaining to us in detail what we were going to see when we walked into the tombs – what key hieroglyphics meant, how the tombs were structured, what the figures on the wall represented – so when we walked in to each tomb, we understood what we saw. (Guides are not allowed in the tombs, to avoid stopping the flow of traffic.)

Suitably armed, we first went into the tomb of Ramses IV (who ruled 1151 BC – 1145 BC). No photography is allowed inside the tomb, so you will have to believe me when I tell you that the walls were resplendant with color – bright yellow plaster covered with hieroglyphics in red and blue, drawings of gods, men and animals in browns and whites and greens – everything was bright and crisp, especially considering that these things are more than 3000 years old. We then went into King Tutankhamen’s (ruled 1333 BC – 1324 BC) tomb. Because Tut died at 18, his tomb was barely finished: a long staircase down, then a small anteroom and the main burial chamber, with a small storage room off to the side. This was nothing like Ramses IV’s tomb, which had a long entry corridor, a magnificant burial chamber and large storage room, and was richly decorated. In fact, according to our guides, the workmen began to build each Pharaoh’s tomb as soon as he came into power, and they kept working on them until he died, at which point they had 70 days to finish the tomb while the body was being embalmed. However, it seems that they hadn’t been working on Tut’s tomb for 9 years, so who knows. Anyway, Tut’s tomb did include the mummy in a glass case, which had just been installed some weeks before, so we were fortunate to see it.

We then went into the tomb of Ramses I (ruled 1292 BC -1920 BC), which, after the tomb of Ramses IV, was not especially beautiful, and then the tomb of Ramses IX (ruled 1129 BC – 1111 BC) which, unlike the others, had hieroglyphics painted at the entrance. We were allowed to take pictures of these. One of the surprising things we saw were red and black lines on the plaster: after the tomb was carved out and the plasterers had covered the walls, the artists would draw the hieroglyphics to be carved into the plaster red ink. The master artists would then make any needed corrections in black ink. We could still see some of these ancient “proofreader’s marks” on the walls.

Throughout the tour, we were given about 10 minutes in each of the latter three tombs after we’d had our “orientation visit” in the first one. We assumed that Mohammed was keeping us to a timetable to keep us on track for the day; yet when we left the Valley of the Kings for our second stop of the day, he let us take all the time we wanted. This stop was an alabaster “museum” near the valley entrance – one of many – which of course turned out to be a gift shop but with a demonstration of how alabaster pottery is made in front to give the enterprise some educational value. Real alabaster is beautiful – it’s a translucent stone with veins of color, so it’s especially good for holding candles, but it also is can make lovely statues and plates and such. Between the three of us, we ended up dithering there for an hour before we settled on (and haggled our way through) our purchases. Mohammed made no effort to rush us on our way, and in fact urged us to look at each shelf of goods carefully. I have no complaint with him receiving a commission on any sale he brings into the shop, but he was willing to sacrifice our time at the antiquities for a few bucks. Again, I could feel the hand attached to the long arm of the Egyptian tourist industry feeling its way into my pocket.

We then proceeded to our second stop, Queen Hatshepsut’s temple to the sun god Amun-Ra. Again, Mohammed gave us a detailed explanation of what we were going to see (and also told us a fascinating story of how he and his siblings found a burial chamber with six mummies in it under their home when he was a kid). Queen Hatshepsut ruled from 1473 BC to 1458 BC, and was the second and most successful woman to have ruled Egypt. At first she served as regent for her step-son Thutmose III after the death of his father, Thutmose II, but the boy then disappeared and Hatshepsut took the throne herself. She justified her rule by proclaiming her own divinity, claiming that Amun-Ra had impregnated her mother. When she died and Thutmose III took the throne, he had many of her faces and cartouches chiseled out of the temples and monuments she had built. Some people can’t take a joke, I guess.*

Queen Hatshepsut’s temple; two photos of statues of the Queen, all restored; other statuary in the side courtyard.

Paintings of the gods Horus, Anubis, Osiris; Abby and me.
The Collosei at Memnon; ancient graffiti the leg of on one of them.

From here it was on to the Colossei at Memnon, two sixty-foot statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III. They are all that remain of the temple he had built for himself during his reign (1391 BC – 1353 BC). While they were not the inspiration for Ozymandias, they could just as well have been … The statue on the right was ruptured during an earthquake in 27 BC. Afterward, people could hear it “sing” every morning: as dew evaporated within the cracks, the vapor caused a low moan or whistling to emit from the statue. The statue became known as an oracle and was famous throughout the known world at that time, but in 119, Emperor Septimius Severus repaired the statue, causing it to cease its singing.

We drove home, and after a rest, decided to walk into the souk before heading off to the evening’s main attraction, the Sound and Light Show at the Temple of Karnak. The souk was more of what we’d experienced in Cairo – each hawker standing in front of a gaudy pile of statuettes, cheap hookahs, costume jewelry, scarves and shirts with his come-on of “Hello, Madam!”, “Come look!” and so on, and it was just too depressing, so we walked into the locals’ area to escape. We saw vegetable stands with the biggest vegetables we’d ever seen – cauliflower the size of soccer balls – butchers, piles of spices, barbers, men sitting in front of a cafe television set, and almost everyone ignored us. This was the fascinating stuff that I realized I could never capture on film, not without being incredibly conspicuous and rude (and possibly getting beaten up).

The Sound and Light Show was overlong and cheesy, but the setting itself was astonishing. I’ll describe it in the next posting; suffice it to say for now that the Temple of Karnak is on an unimaginable scale. Devinia left us after the show, and Abby and I went back into the souk for a cup of tea, a shisha, and more punishment at the hands of the traders. However, Abby had to buy gifts for her co-workers, and we were lucky enough to fall into one scarf and shirt store where the salesman was polite and laid-back, so we had our sole successful and enjoyable shopping experience in Egypt.

*I saw Thutmose II’s and III’s mummies at the Egyptian Antiquities Museum. The preservation was incredible, even the eyelids and gums were still intact.

Egypt 2: Cairo, next day

One effect of Cairo’s vast size (described in the previous entry) is that the Pyramids are much nearer to the city than I expected. In a somewhat Baudrillardian way, I’d come to Egypt with an already-developed experience of the Pyramids as lying in a wind-swept desert, watched over by a dramatically silent Sphinx. The reality is much different: we drove out of center Cairo toward the Pyramids on Friday morning, and within 15 minutes, we were there. It’s as though the Pyramids were in the middle of Arlington. I shouldn’t overstate my complaint: the Pyramids are more than 4000 years old and, city or not at your back, they are an amazing sight. Still, with the hawkers, the souvenier shops, parking lots, and a new planned city being built just over the sand dunes, there’s something anti-climactic about it.

The “classic” view of the Pyramids.

Cheops’ pyramid is 445 feet high.

Abby against the blocks; she’s about 1-1/2 layers high.

A camel rider.

The Sphinx as I’d always imagined it.

Another view of the Sphinx, as it actually is.

I try to out-serious the Sphinx.

Another camel rider. These guys are here to pose for tourists and to overcharge them for camel rides, but they look great.

While there, we entered Cheops’ pyramid, the oldest and largest of the three, to see its burial chamber. The chamber is reached by crawling along a low path and then up a high-ceilinged, narrow, upward-sloping walkway. Although the exterior of the Pyramid is weathered and crumbling, the stones of the inside walls are still flat and smooth, joined along perfectly straight lines. It is truly remarkable to see how fresh, exact and polished the interior walls are; the burial chamber itself looked like it could have been built twenty years ago.

Throughout all of this, we received very detailed explanations of the Pyramid complex. This is because we had the same guide as yesterday, but he’d received my feedback from the tour company and was now on his best behavior. I’ll admit that we weren’t thrilled to see him again, but at least he knew that we weren’t the average customers.

After taking our photos, and also after being hit up for bakshish by a tourist police officer in exchange for his taking additional pictures of us (we said no), we left the Pyramid complex and drove to Memphis. Memphis was once the capital of Egypt, but now it is just a dusty village with a small antiquities museum. The most impressive piece was the status of Ramses II, shown below.

We then went to Sakkara, where the oldest still-standing pyramids are. We began the tour by going down into the tomb of one of the nobles, where our guide gave us a very detailed explanation of what was on the walls and how the tomb was organized, and then he brought up my complaints of the previous day. It was a little uncomfortable, especially since we weren’t going to get into a heated discussion in the middle of a tomb, but we managed to resolved the issue if not amicably, then politely. We then went down under one of the smaller pyramids to see the burial chamber, and then to the main pyramid of the complex. This pyramid was built around 2400 BC, and so is more “primitive” than the main pyramids in Giza, but it is the best-preserved one of its type; many others have dissolved back into the desert over the centuries.

The pyramid at Sakkara

Detail of the brick construction

Horses at the site, with another ancient pyramid in the background (there are about seven in all)

You can see the pyramids at Giza from Sakkara; this is the view I’d expected to see

We then drove back past a horrific traffic accident, which reminded us of how dangerous it is to drive in countries where there isn’t a long tradition of road safety*, and ate at a tourist restaurant that the guide took us to – overpriced but with excellent fresh pita.

Finally, we caught the flight to Luxor. The taxi ride took us onto some elevated highways that crossed over a series of other elevated highways; at one point, I think we were about six stories in the air. When I wasn’t marveling at the sheer unnaturalness of that situation, I was being a voyeur, since from that height, and with the buildings pressing up against the highway, I could look into peoples’ windows. I saw some very Hopper-esque sights: a woman seated at her dressing table in a high-ceilinged room, fastening the clasp of her necklace; the family at dinner with the TV on; simple apartments decorated only Arabic prayers (I assume) written on tablets hung on the walls. It was like the back alleys in the Khan al-Khalili market, a peek into people’s private lives. While we were at Sakkara, we heard some American guy say to a local in a truly artistic, sensitive, and extraordinarily pompous manner, “I don’t travel for the sights, I travel to meet people like you, the real people.” Abby and I couldn’t get away from him fast enough to start mocking him savagely, but there actually is something to traveling just to see what day-to-day life in the rest of the world looks like.

*Abby has made the excellent observation with regard to Tirana that, since this was a country that didn’t have widespread private automobile ownership until after 1991, people didn’t grow up watching their parents drive safely, so they drive like they walk, with no sense for the rules of the road. Having seen Egypt, Uganda and China, I think the situation is not dissimilar: safe driving involves a whole mechano-politico-cultural infrastructure of education, enforcement, road and car maintenance, and the recognition of what two tons of hurtling metal can do to a body.

Egypt 1: Cairo

(Abby had a conference in Cairo, Egypt from 5 November to 8 November, so we decided that I would join her on the 7th, do some touring on the 8th, then we’d see Giza on the 9th before going to Luxor for the weekend.)

What does one say about Egypt? Cairo, the city of mysterious back alleys, of the Pyramids at Giza, of the mosque of Mohamed Ali; Luxor, the capitol of the ancient New Kingdom and site of the Valley of the Kings; Steve Martin performing “King Tut” on Saturday Night Live, the Bangles singing “Walk Like an Egyptian”, all of that. There’s a stereotypical pose where you stand with one arm held out in front, bent upward with the hand bent at the wrist and pointing forward palm down, while the other arm is in back, bent down with the hand again bent at the wrist and the palm facing upward. I think this summarizes our experience pretty well: the one hand pointed toward the magnificent sights, the other held out for bakshish. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

With their black and white paint, the taxis reminded me of sheet-metal pandas, except for their oversized, ancient luggage racks.

Cairo is a city of somewhere between 17 and 20 million people, depending on who you ask, crammed into about 82 square miles (although, with nothing but desert around it, it is constantly expanding). By way of comparison, New York City has about 8.2 million residents in 322 square miles. I’d been told that the traffic in Cairo was worse than it is in Tirana, and that’s an absolute truth. The taxis drive at break-neck speed, narrowly missing each other by centimeters as they dash for a sliver of open space on the crowded streets, creating third and fourth lanes of traffic between the two lanes marked on the asphalt. Our taxi rides were a bit like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride except without Disney’s protective benevolence. For all the craziness of Tirana’s traffic, the fenders and bumpers of Albanian cabs don’t bear a fraction of the scars that the Egyptian cabs do.

The Mosque of Mohamed Ali, shown from the place where all the tourists photograph it; a view of the Mosque interior; and the Pyramids viewed from the Citadel.

My first full day in Cairo, I went on a tour (with a tour guide) of the Citadel and Mosque of Mohamed Ali, the Hanging Church and Church of St. Sergius, and the Egyptian Antiquities Museum. Quick history lesson: the Citadel was built by Saladin to protect Cairo against the Crusaders, who never made it that far; however, it didn’t stop the Ottomans, who conquered Egypt in 1517. In 1801, the Ottomans sent a governor, Mohamed Ali – who was Albanian, by the way – to oversee the territory in the wake of Napoleon’s retreat. He began to modernize the territory and expand it as his own personal fiefdom; after repeated clashes with the Sublime Porte that drew in the international powers, Ali won control of Egypt in 1840. His dynasty lasted until King Farouk was overthrown by the popular revolution of 1952. Ali turned the Citadel into his palace and built a mosque, seen in the photos here.

The Hanging Church (also known Saint Virgin Mary’s) is a Coptic Christian Church which was built in the 3rd century. It’s called the Hanging Church because it is built atop a Roman fortress, so the nave is actually suspended above a passageway. You wouldn’t know it to look at it, however; you can only see below through a glass-covered hole in the floor. One interesting aspect of this church for me was the columns on the altar: they are all different, each representing one of the Apostles. The black column represents Judas.

From the Hanging Church we went down a series of alleys into the Church of St. Sergius, where no photography is allowed. The church was built on one of the sites where the Holy Family is said to have stopped during their travels through Egypt. As we were standing inside, my tour guide kept getting telephone calls. It turned out that her sister had just given birth, and she had to rush off to Alexandria. She therefore handed me off to her husband, also a professional tour guide, when we arrived at the Egyptian Antiquities Museum. Here is where the day – to use one of Abby’s favorite Australianisms – went “pear-shaped.” The Egyptian Antiquities Museum is an enormous institution with over 160,000 pieces, so the guide told me he could only show me the highlights. Fair enough, but he still whipped through them in about one hour. I saw the coffins and jewelry found at King Tutankhamen’s tomb, the enormous statue of King Ramses II, mummies – it is amazing that you can still see the eyelids, ear cartilage, and lips on the faces, they are so well preserved – and numerous other pieces, but it was a rush job, with fairly quick explanations. At one point, he walked off and I stayed a minute to look at something else, and had to run to catch up with him. I ended up staying on my own for another hour and a half to look around. There is so much to see: richly decorated mummy cases, the various statues and artifacts that were buried in the tombs, household items of the pharoahs, Greco-Roman pieces. The building really is fascinating, but one of the problems of the Egyptian Antiquities Museum is that for all the pieces in the collection, very few of them have labels, and the labels that do exist are ancient themselves; some of them are even handwritten. As a result, you often have little idea of what you’re seeing, which makes it more of a curiousity shop than a learning experience.

What do these two things have in common?

Feeling disappointed – or more honestly, cheated – that the tour was done by 1:00 on a supposedly “all day” tour, I returned to the hotel and Abby called the tour arranger to complain. I then went across the street to the Zoo to walk around while Abby finished her conference. An employee at the gate saw my camera – which apparently is Egyptian for “sucker” – walked up alongside me, and offered to show me around. I wasn’t interested at first, but he told me that there was a two-month old lion cub, so I decided to follow. He got one of the lionkeepers to open the lion house, which had already closed (this cost me 5 Egyptian pounds bakshish, or about a dollar) and we took pictures with the lions; then he got another employee to open the house where the cubs were, and we posed with some of the cubs (10 Egyptian pounds, after all, this was special); and then he took me to the ostrich pen (another five), the peacocks (yet another five) – at this point, I tipped him a few more pounds and told him I’d had enough. When he began to argue for more money, I handed him twenty more, which was less than he wanted, and told him respectfully – but forcefully – that I appreciated his efforts but I hadn’t asked for any of this, so he should be happy with what he was given. At this point he backed off and offered to continue the tour for free, but I was few up with Egyptian tour guides at this point, so I walked off on my own. Besides, you can’t even go into a public toilet without having someone hand you two sheets of toilet paper and ask you for a tip, so I think “free” would have still cost me money if I’d accepted.

After I returned from the zoo, Abby and I decided to go to the Khan al-Khalidi market. After another wild taxi ride, we were deposited in front of a warren of buildings and alleys. It was amazing, not least for all the merchants shouting “Hello! Come look!”, “Best price, what do you want?”, “American? No charge to look!”, and so on. Really, it becomes infuriating that you simply cannot be left alone without someone trying to take your money, be it a zookeeper or a tchotchke seller; and in most of the cases it’s not as though the merchandise is particularly attractive or high-quality. Case in point:

Admittedly, Abby was able to find some clothes for her nieces that were decent, and there were shops with carpets and spices and jewelry, but there was also a lot of tourist shlock, most of which is made in China. We ended the night in the El Fishawy coffee house, which supposedly has been open continuously for 200 years, where we had a coffee and a hookah and chatted with a Swedish guy while waving off a stream of kids, old women, and middle-aged men selling wallets, cigarette lighters, and packages of Kleenex.

One of the more exotic-looking shops in the market; a more typical view of towels and clothes for sale; one of the shops we encountered when we left the main market area and slipped into the back alleys where actual Egyptians shop; the El Fishawy coffee house.

I’ll post all the trip’s photos to the Flickr account shortly.

What It’s Like (Part 4)

(Written too self-consciously in the style of a New Yorker “Talk of the Town Piece.”)

The U.S. green card lottery is one of the most popular contests in Albania. Each month, some scores of Albanians learn that their application has been approved and, pending a clean criminal history, they will be awarded a green card from the U.S. State Department that allows them to move to Worcester (Massachusetts), Detroit, Philadelphia, or any other American city to seek a more prosperous life than any of them could find here. The U.S. green card lottery may be a major culprit in the brain drain that is affecting Albania, but for the individuals who win, it really is the golden ticket to a better life. Or, as Frank Sinatra might have sung, “if I can make it here, I’d be an idiot not to try to make more of it somewhere else.”

Sad, then, that other Albanians have turned the green card lottery into another cottage industries. It is not just the army of sidewalk consultants guaranteeing to prepare a winning lottery application (“Have you checked off box A? Have you listed everyone in your family, whether they live with you or not?”) who are the problem, but possibly a freelancer inside the Albanian Post Office. Every month, the newspapers print the names and addresses of the green card lottery winners, almost exactly as they appear on the envelopes – city addresses listed down to the street, and rural addresses listed by the general post office of the village. The U.S. Embassy, out of respect for privacy, does not publish this list. This suggests that someone at the post office might be sorting through the mail to distinguish the thick envelopes from the thin ones – in the same manner that high school seniors can tell whether they’ve been accepted to which colleges by the size of the response envelope – and then selling the names and addresses to be printed publicly.

Exactly who is behind this is not clear, but not only does it violate Albanian privacy laws, it leaves the winners open to a particularly heavy real-life version of spam – “hey, would you marry my sister so she can come with you”, “how much money would it take for me to buy your identity”, or worse, “I’ve never met you, but if you don’t give me $50,000 right now, I’ll mess with your records so that you never get a final approval.” In a country where everyone wants a better life, it’s sad that there are so many people willing to deny each other the same thing in the process.

MONTENEGRO: The Mini-Series. Part 4: Back before we knew it

I’ll finish up our Montenegro adventures of last month quickly, since I now have to get on to the Egypt trip. We woke up early, had massages at a nearby spa, and started driving south back to Albania. On the way, we decided to stop at a resort town called Ulqin (“ul-CHIN”), or as the Montenegrans call it, Ulcinj. Ulqin was a majority-Albanian city during the days of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, but due to the insistance of the Montenegrans, and the general carelessness and cynicism of the European ambassadors who decided the new borders in London and Berlin, Ulqin ended up as Ulcinj – after the Montenegrans first invaded northern Albania and then insisted on reparations before they’d leave. (The whole story of how the borders were drawn is fascinating. Albania, as the least politically developed entity in the region, repeatedly got the short end of the stick, and in the eye.)

Today, Ulcinj is a favorite resort for Albanians, and the Albanian influence is obvious as soon as you enter town. We first noticed that the signs were in Albanian as well as Montenegran; we next noticed that the cars were parked in every direction along the streets and that people generally drove like idiots. Finally, when we walked down to the beach, there was a lot of litter. Sad to say, the town bore all the markings of Albania, except that it was spookily quiet, like a fairground after the circus has left town. We didn’t stay for lunch.

Latest on the job front

(This is going to be one of those semi-introspective blog postings, so those of you looking for exciting tales of travel or government collapse can get up and go to the fridge.)

I had an interview on Saturday afternoon with the new Chief of Party for a USAID-funded contract on local governance, and the results were not encouraging. The projects will focus on municipal revenue generation (sale of underperforming assets, fee development, etc.), spending plans, efficiency improvements, and the various legal and regulatory underpinnings all this will entail. While there may be something I can do for the contract over the next three years on at least a short-term basis, that fact that I’ve never had the title of “Revenue Manager” or “Budget Analyst” or “Staff Attorney” makes me less than ideal for these kinds of contracts. Management consulting as a generalist makes you a “smart, capable guy”, but it seems that international consulting firms need to be able to put you into one of the boxes they have to fill in order to get the work done.

Also, international consulting seems to be a chicken-and-egg game: you can’t get the job if you don’t have the international experience, but (unless you join the Peace Corp) you can’t get the experience until you get the international job. The fact that I’m able to volunteer for assignments may give me a leg up, but it also might not.

So what am I doing, then, to pass the time? The most consistent project remains the Special Friends of the National Gallery. The Friends remain largely the work of one American who is dedicated to supporting the arts, and after three years, she and the other members still have not been able to fashion the Friends into a coherent organization. There is no formal board structure, no budgeting, no strategic plan, and a continually unclear relationship with the Gallery. It’s not clear, for example, whether the Gallery has any responsibility for programming specifically for its members, or whether the majority of the staff even know why we keep showing up once a month. The lack of forward, strategic thinking is a shock; today, in response to the first questions about our ability to finance the rest of our season, I created a financial forecast that, based on some pessimistic assumptions, shows that the new artistic/social evening series is a huge money-loser. It seems that no one had thought to check that before now.

Fortunately, there are ways to even out the balance sheet, but while a small number of members (since there aren’t any official leaders) see the need for some planning, other participants are happy to leave things on an informal basis by which they bring their friends to the Gallery now and again but don’t develop financial support for either the Gallery or the organization itself. There’s no clear structure for decision-making and direction-setting, and those of us who are trying to lead and create a true Friends organization don’t always find the rest of the group following. Admittedly, this is how democracy goes, and we may just have to scale back our ambitions – and keep reaching into our own pockets as needed – as a result. Still, I’m disappointed. I’d say there’s something very “Ladies’ Sunday Auxiliary Garden Club” about this, except that those clubs are usually very well organized.

What It’s Like (Part 3). Ugh.

Google Earth doesn’t capture the ground-level of view of stony, muddy, paths penetrating through broken clusters of what is essentially Mediterranean slum housing … nonetheless, I took Cooper up into a warren of alleys in the hills behind Selita today and found an electric substation. The most interesting parts of Tirana often aren’t the prettiest. Our house is in the upper right corner of the aerial photograph, where the yellow “thumbtack” is.