Sunday, January 11, 2004

It's Sunday afternoon. We've spent most of the day hiking through Islamic Cairo, looking at mosques built during Crusader times, from about 1000 to the 1500s. We visited an Ottoman house recently restored by the government -- only 150 rooms with gardens, courtyards and separate quarters for men and wome, and all decorated with the most beautiful wooden and marble carvings, Islamic arabesque, frame and meander floral and geometric designs mixed together.

The traffic continues to amaze us. Some 16 million people live in Cairo. These people are masterful drivers. They drive with grace, not paying attention to signals, and pedestrians weave in and out of heavy traffic going 50 miles an hour as if they were dancers. Yet we've seen no accidents.

Our new hotel, the Victorian Hotel, is very quiet, a holdover from British colonial days, and our breakfasts sumptuous. Imagine a breakfast of fresh croissants, hot coffee or tea with milk, English style, then add eggs or cereal, with breakfast beans (called fool, very traditional), pita with sharp cheese. . . oh, I almost forgot, sweet rolls, green olives, lots of very fresh tomatoes and cucumbers (like we eat during summer only), and halvah (if you like it) or for that final taste treat, a bit of baklava. Ah, truly, life is rough!

Yesterday, we spent about five hours hiking around the pyramid complex at Giza. The pyramids seem much larger to me than those in Mexico, and I realize how very little we learn from photographs! When I read of how many tons each pyramid block weighed, I imagined how very huge each block was. Here, the blocks seem more manageable, but the overall size of the pyramid is truly overwhelming, a man-made mountain, awe-inspiring. Often photographed as an individual icon, the pyramids actually fit into a large funerary complex. For example, along side the largest pyramid, that of Cheops, sits three smaller little crumbled hills of pyramids which once honored his several wives and daughter.

The three major pyramids are lined up precisely, but of different sizes. What surprises me is how often we think of the pyramids as a major symbol of Egypt, yet they really were built by a father, son, and grandfather, over the space of about 150-200 years. The reign of the pharaohs lasted several thousand years, temples from many different dynasties dot the Nile; these seem a more lasting testament to pharonic culture, yet the pyramids still mystify us. Walking around the Sphinx was a real pleasure, and I did take many magnificant pictures. The most impressive of all, though, was the solar barque, the boat intended to ferry the ka-soul of Cheops to the afterlife. This amazing boat, (large enough for 24 people and their families) has been completed reconstructed and housed in its own museum. Wow!

At the pyramids we saw many Bedoin camels, all decorated with flamboyant colors. These animals are amazing -- such long, straggly, awkward legs; yet they can run like the wind, and their cries are so evocative. Traders also offered us horse rides on beautiful horses; we learned quickly how to say no in Arabic! We hiked our feet off and learned new words for sore feet! I'm slowly learning to be comfortable in very crowded streets and to duck the traffic. All is well here in the land of perpetual sun.

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