Monday, May 28, 2007

The end of Egypt and Bulgaria

Having run about Cairo, we met a friend's college pals. The expat community is chummy in Cairo, and they welcome travelers with a relaxed interest and antique charm. My friend Nevine took us out and around and we visited a beautiful restaurant on the nile. The next day, we visitedthe Pyramids, Sphinx, Step Pyramids in Sappho and Memphis. The nile valley is much like the Egypt Museum. Hyrogliphs and statues are everywhere. Papyrus and papyrus painting institutes are also everywhere. The nile floodplain is a lush tongue of land sitting between rocky, desert ridges. Sand literally pours down to the edge of plantations and forms a night/day stark/lush boundaryline. Date palms line the edge of fields and (away from sitting water and canals) the air carries the warm, slightly sweet aroma of subtropical agricultre.

The pyramids are astounding. I saw them from a distance at first, as they slowly emerged in the landscape through the smog. In one of my favorite old movies, a depressed and lost character says, "Ive seen the pyramids and the other wonders of the world. They aren't so wonderful." His wise uncle replies, "Then you haven't really seen them." Before leaving Bulgaria, I had been afraid that my recent apathy towards antiquity (which is completely out of character for me) would poison any enthusiasm I had for the wonderous sites I would see. I've kept this odd numbness secret for awhile because friends and family would know that it is a symptom of discontent and perhaps depression. I can understand where the character could catch this sort of touristic blindness and I was afraid that it was happening to me. Petra might have overwhelmed my historical senses, but the pyramids reanimated my intense love of history and archaeology. These have been mysterious wonders for nearly all of written history, and it struck me that I was about to join the legions of travelers that, through centuries, have made the same journey. The enormity of the Great Pyramid and its neighbors makes one forget that they were man-made. Seeing grown men scamper up its blocks like puppies on stairs reminded me how small each of us is in the shadow of history.

While wandering through the pyramids, a sandstorm hit Giza. Although it was mild, the conditions were difficlut to bear. Dust got into everything. If the eyes were at all opened, even but a crack, dust stung them incessantly. Tears turned to mud at each end of the eye and breathing, though through cloth, tasted like dust. Describing the conditins do them little justice; I do not want to ever experience a major sandstorm.

I entered a pyramid at Sappho. The heiroglyphs were nearly perfectly preserved, and still showed the individual scratches of their authors. On one wall, one passage was repeated ad nauseum throughout the inscription. The sarcophagus was still there, opened and eerily empty. Heiroglyphics decorated its inside, which was big enough to lie down in (about 6 feet long and 2 1/2 feet wide). The tombs in Sappho are intricately carved and painted. Many aspects of life and personal character along the nile are depicted, from special ritual to daily life, war to sex, slave to god. I hadn't heard how extensive they are. That night, from Cairo, we left on a train to Aswan. More on that later.

I have been very busy in Bulgaria. When I returned to Bulgaria, I had my work cut out for me. Reports and project proposals had already started coming into my email for peer review and advice, and my own project entered its implementation period. Over the first week after I returned to Bulgaria, I was up late nearly every night working on something and up early for a meeting or deadline. I went to sofia to see a friend off at the airport and deliver the second edition of my Bulgarian folklore books to eager customers.

Friday, May 04, 2007


Having arrived in Sharm-El-Sheik, we checked into a hotel (Hostel for me and Trevor) and walked through the spotless and artifical lamp-lit streets. The famous resort is like a dimented mixture of Las Vegas and Disneyland, with waterfronts. Many of the beaches are privately owned by the adjacent resort-hotels like Movenpick, Hilton and Radisson. After dinner at a Lebanese restaurant (where rolls were baked in an oven next to the tables and served piping hot, seconds from the oven) we prepared for a hike up Mt. Sinai.

Mt. Sinai, where Moses was supposed to have received the 10 commandments from God, is in the middle of the Sinai peninsula, surrounded by little more than desert, camels, Bedouin and a steady stream of tourists. We arrived at the base about 1 AM and began the cold, slow trek to the summit. Just after St. Katherine's Monastary, our guide told us to be quiet in order to keep from disturbing the camels. Throughout the valley, camels were visible in the moonlight. There were so many that their silhouettes appeared as far as the eye could see. We were later told that there were approximately 300 resting there every night. Along the way, Bedouins sold trinkets, camel rides and food at the trailside or in scattered stone huts. After 3 1/2 hours of hiking, we reached the summit. Dawn broke over far ridges and bathed the surrounding mountains in a soft, gentle blanket of light. The landscape of Sinai is some of the most rugged, parched terrain that I have ever seen, however, in that auroral glow, it seemed rather welcoming.

We visited St. Katherine's Monastary after our descent from the peak and visited what was presented to us as the burning bush. The bush, as the legend goes, has been flowering since it burned before Moses. The monastary was built around the holy ground and has been expanded and rebuilt since then. There is a mosque in the monastary as well as a church. Most of the existing buildings at the monastary are several centuries old at least. The monastary sits in the base of a stark valley and contains a garden of palms and vegetables.

After returning to Sharm, I went with Trevor to check in to a reed hut at Shark's Bay, a cove community east of Sharm. After check-in, we rested on benches and sunbathed. We ordered a beer (rare and expensive in the middle east) and walked carefully out on the coral reef. Multi-colored fish and other marine animals darted to and fro in the shallows beneath the waves and curiously peeked out from small caves and tunnels. After awhile, we met in town and had coffee and a good dinner (shwarma and shisha). The next day we gathered in Sharm to relax and wander the bazaars. It was our last day on the sea and we wanted to soak it in. I headed off alone into the city and had a dinner of spicy salad and flaky flatbread. After a night plagued by mosquitoes, we departed for our flight into Cairo and a day at the famous Egypt Museum.

The Egypt Museum in cairo is perhaps the most packed archaeological museum I have ever visited. It is also the most disorganized and cluttered academic institution I have ever seen. Artifacts are placed everywhere and are often unlabeled. Packed artifacts are labeled and placed in the middle of its hallways on the lower level and some that are in the middle of study or preservation serve as benches for the tired egyptian student. Currently, a world-class building for the new museum is under construction in Giza, near the Great Pyramids. The Tutankhamen exhibit was at home and I was able to gaze at the rich sarchophagi and the famous burial mask. I had seen so many pictures of the mask and I was so framiliar with the outside that I looked up into the mask from below. The flaws in metalwork and hammer strikes are still visible on the inside of the mask. The cobra on the top of the mask has a body that extends back to the occipital region, winding back and forth all the way. The museum was filled with artifacts dating through the Pharaonic times to Roman rule. Curiously, I did not see exhibits of artifacts from mideival or more recent Egyptian history. Nobody ever seems to think about the major role the land played in the crusades, the Nepoleanic or more recent World Wars.

Next entry....Egypt to Nubian territory, long bus rides and my recent Bulgarian adventures.