IMPRESSIONS OF EGYPT - JULY 1995
In July 1-15 of 1995 my wife, son, daughter, and I spent two weeks in Egypt as part of an exchange program that was sponsored by the Egyptian government. Egyptian doctoral students worked on their dissertation at Whittier College, and their advisors were invited to visit Egypt. Since this was a unique opportunity to go, I paid for my family to go along too. In this journal I will share some impressions of Egypt.
THE SPAN OF HISTORY. In Whittier, history spans 100 years. In Boston it was 350 years. In Rome I was impressed with 2000 years. But Egypt has 5000 years. Over those years Egypt has been influenced by various cultures, and elements of those cultures remain today.
PHARONIC EGYPT. Most impressive, of course, were the pyramids of Giza, at the edge of the desert on the outskirts of Cairo. I had to crawl on my hands and knees through some of the tunnels to ho inside to the burial chamber.
Elsewhere in Cairo we toured a reconstructed Pharonic Village, where modern Egyptians enacted scenes from ancient village life. Some Egyptians in rural areas still live in mud-brick houses like that today. And there are wooden donkey carts with wooden wheels hauling watermelons all over Cairo.
After nine days in Cairo, we flew to Abu Simbel to see the temple with the giant statues of Ramses II. The temple was going to be flooded by the lake behind the Aswan Dam, so it was cut into 2000 pieces and reconstructed on top of the cliff. Since the temple was originally set into the cliff, they built a fake mountain behind the temple, with a concrete dome inside!
We then took a 4-day cruise on the Nile to Luxor, where we visited the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. Because the pyramids had been looted, later Pharoahs tried to hide their tombs underground. But all those that have been discovered had been looted except for the tomb of King Tut. Many tombs had beautiful wall engravings with ancient paint still vibrant.
GREEK INFLUENCES. After Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, the Ptolemaic rulers wanted to legitimate their rule. So they built temples along the Nile with wall engravings depicting themselves as Pharoahs making offerings to the old Egyptian gods. We visited some of these temples on our Nile cruise, which we loved; it had great food and interesting passengers from all over the world.
ROMAN INFLUENCES. Most famous, of course, was the love affair between Anthony and Cleopatra. Most visible, however, was a huge Roman aqueduct which divides the oldest part of Cairo from the rest of the city.
COPTIC INFLUENCES. The early Christians lived and worshipped in the Ptolemaic temples, and their cooking fires blackened the ceilings. They felt that the Egyptian gods were false idols, so they chiseled away the gods' images, defacing many of the wall engravings. In Cairo, one of the oldest Coptic churches was located on the site said to be where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus stayed during their flight to Egypt.
ISLAMIC INFLUENCES. Most extensive, however, were the Islamic influences brought by the Arabs in the 8th century. We visited many old mosques in Cairo. The Muslims believe that all religious images are blasphemous, so they have no statues or paintings of gods or saints. Instead, their art is based on geometric designs, flowers, and calligraphy using quotes in Arabic from the Quran. These elements are combined together in beautiful designs. The most exquisite examples were in the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo.
Most interesting, however, were the streets of medieval Cairo near the oldest mosque. Here people lived and worked as they had for centuries, making furniture by hand, casting metal, roasting corn, as well as drinking tea and smoking water pipes in sidewalk cafes. But now the cafes have a TV!
FRENCH INFLUENCES. When Napoleon came in the 18th century, his soldiers used the Sphinx for target practice, but the nose had previously been damaged millennia before. More importantly, his soldiers discovered in the town of Rosetta a stone slab containing the same message written in hieroglyphics, demotic (a priestly language), and Greek. This allowed scholars to translate the hieroglyphics which had been undecipherable for thousands of years.
BRITISH INFLUENCES. After the French came the British, who stole the Rosetta Stone. It is now in the British Museum in London, along with other ancient antiquities from around the world. When we visited there back in 1991, I felt that other countries (like Greece) were justified in their outrage that the British had taken so many things, but I also realized that if these things were not in the British Museum they might have been destroyed or lost to private collections instead being on public view.
RUSSIAN INFLUENCES. During the Cold War, Russia supported Egypt while the U.S. supported Israel. Some of the concrete apartment buildings we saw in Cairo were reminiscent of the apartment buildings we had seen in Moscow in 1991.
AMERICAN INFLUENCES. Among the medieval streets was a shop selling or renting videotapes of American movies! At one of the exclusive sports clubs, where my doctoral student coaches basketball, half of the people were wearing traditional Arab clothing but the other half were wearing black Levis jeans.
MIXTURES OF CULTURES. Throughout Cairo there were mixtures of elements of all of these cultures. Driving in traffic in an Italian Fiat, we passed donkey carts, Toyota minivans, and Mercedes Benz sedans. Most striking, however, was the ancient Jewish Synagogue said to be on the site of where Moses was found in the bullrushes; it had Arabesque designs with Hebrew script instead of Arabic. So it was both Arab and Jewish at the same time.
FRIENDLY PEOPLE. My doctoral student treated us royally, driving us around Cairo in his air-conditioned car (it was 100 in Cairo and 120 in Luxor -- it's better to go in the winter!). Wherever you shop you are invited to have tea or soda, and then spend time bargaining. Whenever I would look at people they would wave and say "Welcome to Egypt." But the highlight of the trip occurred when I was walking on a bridge across the Nile in the center of Cairo. I stopped to watch some young people who were dancing to a boombox. They invited me to join them, and a large crowded gathered around to watch, blocking a lane of traffic on the bridge. Finally, a policeman came and asked us to move along.
BARGAINING. It is common to bargain for goods on streets and even in stores. When you look at something, the seller assumes that you are going to buy it, the question is not whether but at what price. Typically you offer half the asking price, the seller comes down and you go up until you meet at about 3/4 of the asking price.
However, on the Nile cruise, there was a tendency for tourists to be in competition to see who could get the best deals. In this frame of mind, I was bargaining with a young seller and left on a water taxi and he followed me to not lose the sale, which took half an hour. Afterward I felt guilty that I taken so much of his time when he could have been making other sales, when the amount we haggled over was only 2 dollars which meant little to me but more to him. It is best when both seller and buyer feel good about the sale.
Near the end of the trip I was in a store and saw a gellabia that I liked. That is a long cotton garment that is worn in the dessert. When I asked the price, he said 180 of the currency that I have forgotten. I thought that was too much, since I already had a gellabia. So to stop the bargaining I made an unreasonable offer of 25 and left the store. He followed me a block away, and said, okay 25! I don't know if he lost money on the sale, but he wasn't willing to give up a sale!
It was an amazing trip that I will never forget.