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Classic Cairo

January 18, 2011

After seeing the pyramids at Giza, the Egyptian Museum, the Citadel, City of the Dead, and walking around various neighborhoods, we decided to go see more pyramids, specifically at the less-visited sites of Saqqara and Dashur (the Step and Red Pyramids).

It is pretty much impossible to get to these places on your own – you have to either take a taxi, go on an arranged tour, or do what we did, and have your hotel arrange for a driver for the day.

It struck me again on the way out of town – the buildings look so much like the apartment buildings we see here in Ukraine – what we call the “Soviet-style” construction. The shape and height are similar, and as in Ukraine, each has clotheslines outside their windows or balconies. The two big differences between them though – in Cairo there was an air conditioning unit attached to each apartment (I would say it is a necessity there) and in Cairo there were also multiple “dishes” on top of each building. It was somewhat surreal, to drive by all of these buildings and see just how many dishes were on each roof. I mean, is it not possible to just have one and share it? Probably not. it makes for an interesting skyline in any case. The other possibility of things you see on roofs in Cairo is rubble – like they had taken down a floor and just left the rubble there. Who knows where it came from.

So we started at Saqqara with the museum – it is small but tells the story of the site, which was really very interesting. During our walk around the Step Pyramid (which is undergoing pretty extensive restoration), we saw/heard the men trying to get people to sit on a camel, walk two minutes, get a photo taken, then get off the camel. The guy was trying to charge people 100 pounds for this – eek! One person had him down to 60 pounds. This made me feel much better about what we paid to ride our camels for nearly three hours at Giza.

So we wandered around the area, saw a few tombs, then checked out the granddaddy of the tombs – the Mastaba (Tomb) of Ti. Our driver did not particularly want to go there, but I insisted. We had a good walk to get there (I had once again long since removed my sandals, because of the fine sand) but it was so worth it (photos from the tomb on Picasa).  It was great because it was far, far less crowded than Giza. As a matter of fact, no one else was at the tomb at the same time as we were. Does the idea of a tomb creep people out? It was beautiful, and the art was still pretty intact. The “officer” said I could take photos, and I told him I did not want to pay again, since I had already paid entry fees to Saqqara. I did end up paying, but a minimal amount, for 10 photos. So worth it.

After the Mastaba of Ti, it was off to the Red Pyramid at Dashur. I had read about this pyramid, where you can, according to this guy, climb into it if you are “an Indiana Jones-type explorer.” It talked about how steep it was to get to the entrance, then about the smell. All of this was true (also photos on Picasa). We had to climb up the pyramid to the entrance, then down a rather narrow and short shaft, to a large room, through another short passage, to another room, up some stairs to…another room. Apparently the tomb room. It was hard to fight a feeling of “is this it?” when I got to the final room. Perhaps I was expecting more art? Something other than just an empty room. Though the knowledge of being inside a pyramid was cool – and a far more meaningful experience than going inside the Great Pyramid, which is also empty, but smaller from all accounts.

My legs still hurt from the climbing though. And the guy was right about the “ammonia smell”. It got worse the entire time. Where the hell does it come from, anyway?

Behind the Red Pyramid is the Bent Pyramid, which no one can enter or even go near (I used my zoom lens to get a photo). Interesting story behind the Bent Pyramid – It changed its angles, which is what gives it what one writer called “its wonky shape.” It started at 55° up to 154 feet. The angle then was changed to 43° from there to the top of the pyramid (almost 344 feet).  This change occurred apparently because it had, during construction, started to become unstable. So instead of wasting work that was already done, the architect just changed the angle.

After that, we were kind of done with tombs and pyramids.

Interestingly enough, out in the area of Saqqara, we passed a good number of carpet-making schools. We did not stop to investigate their programs, as we are both “employed” at the moment, but it is good to know that there is something to use as a back-up plan in case I need it.

Back in Cairo. We decided to see the Mazaher musicians that night. Onto the Metro again, and I joined a line of women for a ticket window. Turns out that window was closed, and they were all reaching over to the next window – basically line-jumping, perhaps because they did not want to wait in line with the men? For whatever reason, there I was and followed suit. After helping two women in front of me, the guy did not want to sell me a ticket – he motioned for me to get in line. Well, no. I said, in English, “you sold tickets to them, you are going to help me too” or something like that. He may not have understood exactly what I said, but he understood my tone of voice, and sold me my tickets. Victory!

Victory, however, quickly turned to defeat in dealing with the Metro in Cairo. It is maddening. We wanted to go to dinner on the island of Zamalek, then take the Metro back to another station. We searched, in vain, for the way to get to the “yellow” line to go to Zamalek. This line is on maps. This line is represented IN the Metro stations.

This line does not exist.

Apparently, the line has been “under construction” for the past 25 years. Yep. Progress moves rather slowly, I guess. Terry did not want to believe this, but after talking to a number of different people, he did. So we never did get to Zamalek for dinner – we had koshary instead. And an eclair for dessert. All’s well that ends well but…what’s the deal with putting a non-existent Metro line on maps? That’s just not right.

Off to find the Makan center. Once again, this fabulous information I had said it was “right next to the XYZ Metro station.” Hah.

We wandered around the block, thinking it HAD to be nearby, and it was. But we still had to be directed to it, as it was not what we expected. Calling it a hole in the wall would be kind. Yet we really wanted to see this group, which was described this way:

Makan is a small venue just south of Downtown Cairo, in an area known as Mounira. It is part of the Egyptian Centre for Culture and Art (ECCA), that aims to record, preserve and present traditional African music in Egypt, making it available to a wider audience.

Makan is famous for its Zar performances every Wednesday. Zar was traditionally a healing ceremony, in which the participants use powerful, arrhythmic drumming and chanting to exorcise demons and drive out disease. Women play an important role in this process.

The Mazaher ensemble that perform at Makan are some of the last remaining Zar practitioners in Egypt, and their style is drawn from different forms of Zar music. They are consummate performers, and the atmosphere is a curious mix of the intimate, the light-hearted, and the intense.

As well as the Mazaher ensemble, Makan holds a night every Tuesday called Nass Makan (or “People of Makan”). This is a fascinating blend of folk music, including gypsy music from the Egyptian delta, musical styles inspired by the Zar, and Sudanese singers and musicians.

Whatever you think of the authenticity of performing a “healing ritual”, Makan is definitely a memorable night out, and well worth a visit if you get the chance.

Well, who wouldn’t want to go? It was worth the trouble to find it though. Not expensive, and the proceeds for a good cause. We were not the only ones who had been told about this, as there were a number of tourists there. I was respectful of the no flash photos rule – unfortunately, others were not.  So I got some not great photos by following the rules…I wonder how the photos turned out for the people who did not? Oh well.

So ended Wednesday.


One Comment leave one →
  1. Mom permalink
    January 18, 2011 2:47 pm

    I admire your bravery and stamina. Going inside a pyramid? Not me! (I would have panicked at the first turn.) Good for you to do it and have the experience. It’s wonderful reading your blog entries about your trip.

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