Egypt

Jordan – At the crossroads

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Jordan is a peaceful and law abiding country. Here traffic rules are made to be broken. No matter if the driver is a hot blooded young stud with 6 cylinders under him or a doddery old codger chugging around in a clapped out Toyota – the rule of the road is mob rule!

Unlike the drivers in Egypt, the Jordanian drivers are quite circumspect about using their car horns. So travelling around the streets is comparatively a quiet affair, but nonetheless entertaining. When stopped at traffic lights, it is quite common that one or two vehicles will streak by through the red light, without any concern for oncoming traffic, pedestrians or livestock. At roundabouts which are numerous, drivers merging will edge onto the roundabout and then come to a halt in front of the oncoming traffic and sit and stare when a driver blasts the horn. Pedestrian crossings are non-existent, and if they are marked on the road they appear to be for decoratative purposes only. Lane markings on the roads and freeways are not used to separate the traffic into lanes as everyone drives right down the middle of the line. Camels, donkeys and sheep have right of way. Camels are treated with the utmost caution. If you are unlucky enough to hit one, it will end up sitting in the front seat with you. Then there are the trucks – big ugly oil-dripping, fume-belching monsters that rule the road. You will often see these pulled up on the roadside, with the driver getting out his prayer mat to observe the 5 times a day call to prayer. They certainly need Mohammad in the front seat with them the way they drive.

My driver is Fadi; around thirty, darkly handsome, softly spoken and with the largest and most impressive eyebrow (note the singular – his is a monobrow) I have ever seen. This dark, lustrous growth crowns his eyes like a toupee for the face. Jehad my guide makes very witty observations and comments about Fadi’s eyebrow thatch which Fadi takes in good spirits. Fadi is happy to enter into the banter, making self-deprecating comments as well.

Jehad is another kettle of fish altogether; he is well travelled, has modern and moderate views, speaks several languages and is politically aware and very voluble in his opinions. I sit in the back listening to Fadi and Jehad chatting in Arabic; instinctively I know when the conversation has strayed onto politics. Everywhere I go in Egypt and Jordan – politics is hot.

As a young man Jehad left Jordan and lived in Rome for a number of years where he studied hospitality and then worked in hotel and restaurant management. He met his wife who is Australian, then left Rome for a new life in Brisbane. After a few years and one daughter later he found that he was missing his homeland and needed to return to Jordan and now lives in the capital, Amman.

As we drove along, we enjoyed many interesting conversations about the life, lifestyle and the politics of the Middle East, and Jordan in particular. It seems that most people in Jordan and Egypt are concerned about the right wing Islamic fundamentalists becoming more powerful and influential. This is not a direction that most educated people want to go. They see Saudi Arabia is exerting more pressure to introduce draconian Sharia laws that will make life intolerable for most women in Egypt and Jordan.

Traditionally, the veil has not been part of Jordanian and Egyptian culture; however, many more women are adopting the veil or being made to wear the all-black dress covering the face, feet, hands and eyes. They appear like a black apparition walking along the street. As I sit in the cool air con of the car wearing short sleeves and jeans, I can’t imagine how hot and uncomfortable this outfit would be.

Life in the middle east is difficult; clashing political views, democratic reform is hard fought, equality for women is not enshrined, a hash and water deprived landscape, autocratic governments, equal education and employment opportunities for all unheard of. This being said, everyone I came into contact with was a pleasure to meet; proud of their history and culture, warm and welcoming to a stranger, generous and kind. I would certainly encourage everyone to make the journey and be wowed by the fantastic sights, the great food, the rich culture, the people and the heart and soul of these ancient lands where mighty conquers made their mark, crusaders were vanquished and where Moses is buried. This is an ancient and wondrous land.

Categories: Egypt, Food, Wine and Cooking, Jordan, Language, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Jordan, Petra and Other Desert Delights!

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In comparison to Egypt, Jordan is a country that trades on one amazing ancient monument – Petra. And what a monument this is.

Petra from the Greek, meaning ‘stone’ is an archaeological city that is famous for its rock-cut architecture and water conduit system. Established possibly as early as 312 BC as the capital city of the Nabataeans who were an ancient people of North Arabia. They had a loosely controlled trading network which centered on strings of oases that they controlled on various trading routes that linked them. Trajan conquered the Nabataean kingdom, annexing it to the Roman Empire, where their individual culture became dispersed in the general Greco-Roman culture and was eventually lost.
Pliny the Elder and other writers identify Petra as the capital of the Nabataeans, and the centre of their caravan trade. Enclosed by towering rocks and watered by a perennial stream, Petra not only possessed the advantages of a fortress, but controlled the main commercial routes which passed through it to Gaza in the west, to Bosra and Damascus in the north, to Aqaba on the Red Sea, and across the desert to the Persian Gulf.

Petra is a symbol of Jordan, as well as its most visited tourist attraction and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985. The site remained unknown to the Western world until 1812, when it was “rediscovered” by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. It was described as “a rose-red city half as old as time”. UNESCO has described it as “one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage” and one of the “28 Places to See Before You Die.”

As you approach Petra, your anticipation mounts as the impressive eastern entrance leads steeply down through a dark, narrow gorge (in places only 3–4 meters wide) called the Siq (“the shaft”). This natural geological feature formed from a deep split in the sandstone rocks and serving as a waterway which can be treacherous during heavy rain as you can be caught in a flash flood and swept away.

The gorge is deep, with vertical stone cliffs that soar upwards blocking out the sun which is only able to penetrate to the floor of the gorge as it passes vertically overhead. It is a cool, quiet place. After about a 2 kilometer walk, you approach the end of the gorge and you see before you, a bright sunlight area, the size of a football field and surrounded by high sandstone cliffs.

Your breath is taken away by the immense stone carved structure before you. There stands Petra’s most elaborate ruin, Al Khazneh (popularly known as “the Treasury”). Hewn into the sandstone cliff many centuries ago. This was not a place for storing the King’s wealth but actually a tomb where he would rest for eternity and enjoy the next life.

There are a number of other tombs in the area that are not as elaborate as the Treasury, however impressive nevertheless. These tombs reflect the social status and the wealth of the individual who commissioned their building. Some are just small burial niches, others are more substantial, with carving and decoration on the outside. The very wealthy were able to afford elaborate tombs that are guaranteed to impress and insure a comfortable passage to the afterlife.

Jordan is a country that is 75% desert and the remainder is semi-arid and sparsely populated. The significant minority group is the Bedouins. These ancient nomads call the whole of the Saharan desert home and easily travel across borders with scant regard to passports and immigrations laws. Some have adopted a semi-permanent lifestyle where they live in small towns and villages for part of the year, but regularly return to the desert with their tents and camels for extended periods of time.
Wadi Rum, also known as The Valley of the Moon, is cut into the sandstone and granite rock in southern Jordan, 60 km to the east of the Red Sea port of Aqaba. It is the largest wadi (valley) in Jordan. The name Rum most likely comes from an Aramaic root meaning ‘high’ or ‘elevated’. The stone mountains have been carved by sand and wind erosion for thousands of years, forming amazing and fantastical shapes on the rock face of the mountains. This gives the mountains the appearance that they are melting like a dripping ice cream cones on a hot day. The colours of the rock are fantastic, rich and varied; black, red, warm colours of orange and ochre, creamy whites to vibrant yellows.

I spent the afternoon with Atala – a local Bedouin who supplements his income by taking tourists out into the desert and making them a cup of tea over a small brush fire and showing them his skill of driving in powdery, slippery sand and over rocky dunes. I feel like I have stepped back into time. I ride alongside Atala in his 4×4, hearing stories about Bedouin life in the desert, and how the ancient trader’s caravans used Wadi Rum as a major route through the centuries; trading myrrh, frankincense, and other precious cargos from Asia to the Middle East.

Atala is dressed as traditionally – he is wearing a loose long-sleeved grey gown that falls to his ankles over a pair of loose cotton pants, on his head is the traditional head-dress of a red-and-white checked head scarf (the keffiyeh) secured by a rope coil (agal) around his skull. The red-and-white keffiyeh is a symbol of Jordanian heritage, and is strongly associated with Jordan. The Jordanian keffiyeh has decorative cotton or wool tassels on the sides and it is believed that the bigger these tassels, the more value it has and the higher a person’s status. It has been used by the Bedouins and villagers throughout the centuries and was used as a symbol of honor and tribal identification. The scarf can be tied in a variety of ways and reflects the personal style, as well as, serving a practical purpose to protect the eyes, ears and mouth from the sun, wind and sand. British Colonel T. E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia) was probably the best-known Western wearer of the keffiyeh. He wore a plain white one with agal during his involvement in the Arab Revolt in World War I.

Atala’s handsome face is deeply bronzed from years spent in the desert’s sun and wind. There are lines that crease around his eyes when he smiles and then you are dazzled by his brilliant white teeth. I am not sure what the secrets of his dental hygiene are, and how he maintains such radiant teeth as I note how much sugar he pours into his tea. Teaspoons are not part of local etiquette and he measures out the tea leaves by generous handfuls and the sugar in the same way. He is amazed that I prefer my tea without any sugar.

Gazing at him I, am unsure of his age – he is either incredibly young and has weathered badly, or, of more advanced years and looks fantastic for his age. I suppose he is somewhere in between. A father of 7 children – the eldest is 12 years old and the youngest is 2 years old. No doubt there will be one or two more to follow. The Bedouin place great importance on having children, and in large numbers, as this is an investment in their future and security in their old age.

As the largest minority group in Jordan, the Bedouin receive certain advantages from the government. However the Bedouin place an importance on self-determination and managing their issues inside the tribe. If there is a transgression within the community, they will seek the counsel of the headman to determine the appropriate course of action and appropriate punishment. As a nomadic and free-spirited people the worst punishment that can be metered out is home detention. To enforce this punishment they do not need high-tech monitoring devices – such an electronic ankle bracelets but simply they shave half the culprits moustache off. The moustache, to the Bedouin is a major feature and they are particularly vain about their luxuriant growths. Any self-respecting Bedouin would not be caught dead without his handsome moustache – let alone half a one.

Vanity is not only the prerogative of the men. The women too use cosmetics as Atala showed me. He found two pieces of a particular stone and rubbed them together vigorously. This formed a brick-red powder which he carefully spread over my cheeks in large round patches. He stood back and admired his artistic endeavours and was certain that I would make a good bride price. However, desert life for me is far from comfortable; living in sheepskin tents, milking camels, surviving the elements – searing hot in summer, and bone chilling cold in winter, horrendous sand storms that can block out the sun for days and cover anything that stands in their path.

The Bedouin are to be admired for their pride in their culture and traditional way of life. Harsh and as hard as it is.

Next blog – more about Lawrence of Arabia….

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The Queen Who Became a King

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This is remarkable story of a Queen who became a King is quite unique, even in the amazing and fanaciful world of ancient Egypt. Queen Hatshepsut meaning “Foremost of Noble Ladies” (1508–1458 BC) and is generally regarded by Egyptologists as one of the most successful pharaohs, reigning longer than any other woman of an indigenous Egyptian dynasty. Women had a high status in ancient Egypt and enjoyed the legal right to own, inherit, or will property however; a woman becoming pharaoh was rare. Hatshepsut had been well trained in her duties as the daughter of a pharaoh. During her father’s reign she held the powerful office of “God’s Wife” a term often allocated to royal women.

Her accomplishments were many including a number of expeditions to other counties such as Ethiopia and Somalia. She directed many construction projects in her reign, possibly more than any other previous Middle Kingdom pharaohs. She was often depicted as a man waring a false beard, or in the guise of a lion with a human face and wearing a false beard. She was referred to by both male and female pronouns depending on the situation but was regarded politically as an “honorary man.” She married her half brother when she was around 12. He died young and she assumed the role of regent for her infant stepson. She ruled for 21 years when Egypt was a powerhouse in the region and enjoyed an extended period of peace and prosperity. Her legacy was almost lost to history, because on her death, her stepson undertook to obliterate any trace of her reign.

As soon as a pharaoh ascended to the throne work commenced on his burial tomb. The longer the King’s reign, the grander the tomb became in its decoration and the size. A walk through the Valley of the Kings, and to a lesser scale the Valley of the Queens, reinforced the importance that the Kings and Queens placed on preparing themselves for the next life. For a period of nearly 500 years from the 16th to 11th century BC, tombs were constructed for the Pharaohs and powerful nobles of the New Kingdom (the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Dynasties of Ancient Egypt). The valley is known to contain 63 tombs and chambers (ranging in size from KV54, a simple pit, to KV5, a complex tomb with over 120 chambers). The Valley of the Kings was the principal burial place of the major royal figures of the Egyptian New Kingdom, together with those of a number of privileged nobles. The royal tombs are decorated with scenes from Egyptian mythology and give clues to the beliefs and funerary rituals of the period. Almost all of the tombs seem to have been opened and robbed in antiquity, but they still give an idea of the opulence and power of the Pharaohs.

I visited the treasures of Tutankhamen in the Cairo Museum which was amazing in its fantastic opulence. He reigned for only a short period so his tomb was a relatively small size in comparison to others. I can only imagine the wealth and splendor that was inside the larger burial chambers and tombs of Pharaohs whose reigns were significantly longer and more powerful than the boy king.

On November 4th 1922, Egyptologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun, the most complete and well-preserved tomb of any of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs This is what Howard Carter said on making the discovery “…as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment – an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by – I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things.”

Here are some interesting details about the boy king who has fascinated people since the discovery of his tomb.
• Tutankhamun was only eight or nine when he became ruler of Eygpt.
• Tutankhamun was only King for about ten years before dying in his late teens. It was estimated that he ruled from 1333 BC to 1324 BC.
• Over the years, scientists have used available technology to determine the cause of Tutankhamun’s death. The two most popular theories about his death are that he suffered a blow to the back of the head, either accidentally or deliberately (in other words, murder), or that he broke or fractured his leg which became infected – an infection that led to his death possibly only days later.
• Tutankhamun may have married one of his step-sisters. It is thought that Tutankhamun’s father was Akhenaten. Akhenaten was married to Nefertiti, who bore him six daughters. Akhenaten also had a lesser wife, Kira, who is believed to have given birth to Tutankhamun. It is thought that Tutankhamun married Ankhesenpaaten, one of the daughters of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. Confused?
• Tutankhamun’s remains are still contained in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor, Egypt.
• His famous burial mask is on public display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The famous gold mask that rested on the pharoahs mummy weighs ten kilos (22 lbs) and is made of gold.
• Cat scans on Tutankhamun’s body in 2005 revealed that the King was about 5 foot, 8 inches tall (180 cm). He was of slight build but was well nourished.
• Approximately 3500 artifacts were found in King Tut’s tomb. It was the first, and to this day the only, royal tomb in the history of Egyptology to be found practically untouched.

The final jaw dropping Egyption experience came at the Great Temple of Ramses (c.1290-1224 BCE) in Abu Simbel. This amazing edifice is carved out of the actual mountain side and is about 38 meters long and 31 meters high. The temple is dedicated to the most important gods of the New Kingdom, Ptah (the creator god of Memphis), Amun-Re (the great god of Thebes) and Re-Harakhte (sun god of Heliopolis), as well as to the Pharaoh, Ramses II himself, whose reign may have lasted 67 years.

The four colossi, including statues of Ramses II, are more than 20 meters high and about 4 meters from ear to ear. They sit impassively guarding the entrance to the temple staring out over Lake Nasser. Their faces are expressionless, giving no trace of the amazing engineering feat that was undertaken to save them and the temple from the rising waters of the new dam.

They and the temple, were carved up into small blocks, carried to higher ground and then reassembled above the high-water mark. Not only were the statues and temple moved but the engineers carved up the mountain that they were carved from and moved it too with the temple inside.

These temples, sat close to the Nile and were probably once brightly coloured and cut into the natural rock. After eleven centuries of oblivion, these temples were rediscovered in 1813 when Johann Ludwig Burckhardt saw by accident the upper parts of the colossal figures. In 1817 Giovanni Battista Belzoni found the entrance, partially freed from the sand. In the following years these temples were often partially covered by shifting sand.

Today, visitors see the reconstructed temples now relocated on higher ground (60 meters directly above their earlier position) after the heroic international rescue efforts to save these treasures from the damming of the Nile and the creation of Lake Nasser. Unlike visitors of the past to Egypt, today’s visitors must adhere to a strict code of conduct including no photography inside the tombs and chambers, or touching of the relics. I was amused to see that many great monuments in Egypt have fallen foul to graffitists. Not today’s baggy jeans and skateboard riding “street artists”, but wealthy well-bred and young noble-men of independent means, making the Grand Tour in the 1800s. On discovering these ancient edifices, many took this as an opportunity to carve their names and dates of their visits into the statue, column or obelisk etc.

Did you enjoy my trip to Egypt? Please leave a comment below…

Next blog – Petra Jordan – A Wonder of the Ancient World

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Wonders of Ancient Egypt

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The pyramids at Giza are just a stone’s throw from the chaos and hustle of the busy metropolis of Cairo and all its craziness. Luckily my room at the Oberoi Mena House Hotel has a verandah where I enjoy cups of tea while gazing in awe at the Great Pyramid which is just a few hundred meters away. This, and five other nearby pyramids stand as testament to amazing human endeavor and the powerful belief in preparing for the afterlife. The Oberoi Mena House hotel was built in the mid-1800s as a pleasure ground for royalty, the rich, and the politically influential. Nowadays, it appears just anybody can get a room here – including me.

The Great Pyramid dominates the skyline at 138 meters and is the tallest of the six pyramids at Giza. It took tens of thousands of men to build over a period of 23 years for the pharaoh Khufu (aka Cheops). They used 2,300,000 building blocks, weighing an average of 2.5 tons each (although some weigh as much as 16 tons). Up to about 600 years ago, beautiful smooth blocks known as “casing stones” covered the entire exterior of the pyramid, encasing the whole structure, before the Arabs began to tear the stones off and recycle them for other uses. The ancient writer, Strabo, said: “It seemed like a building let down from heaven, untouched by human hands.” It has been calculated that the original pyramid with its casing stones would act like gigantic mirrors and reflect a light so powerful, that it would be visible from the moon as a shining star on earth. At present, only a few of these stones are left in position on the apex of the second pyramid.

At Giza, you can also see the wonderful Sphinx crouching on his paws and gazing off to the distance and wondering if the British Museum will eventually return his beard to him. Standing 20 meters high and 72 meters long, the half-man, half-lion colossus of stone was sculpted 4,500 years ago. It was almost lost beneath the desert sands of Egypt as the desert winds piled sand upon him. Many a traveler and explorer paused on their journey to rest in the shadows of the sphinx and did not know what lay underneath its covering of sand. However, today he is fully uncovered and you can walk around him and marvel at his handsome solemn face.

As a precursor to the great pyramids at Giza, in 2611 B.C. the first pyramid was completed, this being the stepped pyramid of Saqqara. It rises in six stepped layers and stood 62 meters high. It was the largest building of its time and a marvel of its day. Up until then, buildings had been constructed out of mud bricks. Imhotep, the architect was also a physician, priest, and founder of a cult of healing and was deified 1,400 years after his lifetime. Not only did he work out how to quarry stone, but he built a magnificent complex that includes several tombs, a remarkable colonnade of columns, and several other smaller pyramids and ceremonial courtyards.

In the tomb of Ptah-Hotep – an important high priest and nobleman of his day, the wall decorations are stupendous. In this tiny room, there are the most wonderful depictions in raised relief on lime plaster of everyday life. It is awe-inspiring that the artist’s skilled carvng brings to life scenes with amazing detail and movement of the figures. There are scenes depicting hunting, fishing, dancing, farming, exercise, personal care (even the ancients had time for a manicure and a pedicure), scenes with birds, fish, animals of all descriptions, flowers, insects, trees and all aspects of fauna and flora of the day. Standing there, I was dumbstruck that these carved reliefs are as crisp and as beautiful, if not a little faded, as when they were created 4,500 years ago.

The first true straight sided pyramids ever built are in Dashur. During the construction of the first pyramid things did not quite go according to plan. As the pyramid grew taller, the architect realized that the base was too small for the height and so had to correct the height by slightly rounding the sides and making it smaller. His second attempt was a triumph! It was the first true straight sided pyramid ever built and has been the inspiration for Pharaohs for many generations after.

What a different city Luxor is compared to Cario; the traffic is manageable, the streets are wide and clean, the standard of housing seems vastly better, there are trees and green grass, and the view across the Nile is to lush fields and plantations. However, the drivers are still addicted to their car horns and so there is a constant cacophony of hooting, honking and general car mania in the streets.

How many times can one express the surprise, pleasure and amazement when in Egypt? Every place I visit I cannot help uttering; Wow!, Oh my God!, Amazing! and other breathy phases of wonder. Luxor Temple is one of these places and is not to be missed.

Built in the 8th Dynasty around 1550 BC, this complex boasts some extraordinary buildings of its day including large dramatic columns, a fantastic obelisk (one that escaped Napoleon’s pillaging) and detailed wall decorations. As the centuries passed successive conquering forces made their impression on this place. There are traces of early Christians who left their imprint of a wall fresco and an alcove with an altar. Then later, Islam arrived and a mosque now sits on top of the Christian artefacts.

Even though the beauty of this temple ranks up there with the best, it is surpassed by the vast and super dramatic Temple of Karnack just down the road. Karnack is not a place for collective worship, but rather a house of the gods; only the temple’s priests and the high nobility were allowed to enter the inner sanctums. This is an astonishingly huge complex of temples, courtyards and a variety of buildings which date back to 3200 BC. It is amazing for the fact alone, that approximately thirty pharaohs contributed to the buildings, enabling the site to reach a size, complexity, and diversity not seen elsewhere. Few of the individual features of Karnak are unique, but the size and number of features is overwhelming. The deities represented range from some of the earliest worshiped to those worshiped much later in the history of the Ancient Egyptian culture.

One famous aspect of Karnak, is the Hypostyle Hall in the Precinct of Amun-Re, a hall area of 50,000 sq ft (5,000 m2) with 134 massive columns arranged in 16 rows. 122 of these columns are 10 meters tall, and the other 12 are 21 meters tall with a diameter of over three meters. These glorious columns are all heavily carved with scenes; of the King of the day paying homage to a variety of gods; scenes of gods giving the king the benefit of their deity such as wisdom, strength, sexual prowess etc. The colums are topped with capitols in the shape of papyrus or lotus flowers. They are abundantly decorated in hieroglyphics telling stories of the King’s ascendancy, conquests and battles, and his importance and wealth.

In some places, which are not exposed to the weather and the sun, you can see the vivid colours that these walls and columns were once painted. Using colours derived from minerals such as: black from charcoal or soot, white from crushed animal bones, red from the crushed bodies of female scale insects (carmine) or red ochre, blue from Lapis lazuli, and green from malachite. With this limited palette the artisans created a wondrous spectacle that only the king and the high priest ever saw.

Adding to the artistic endeavors successive Kings added to the Temple of Karnak by initiating various works and additions to be completed, such as, a small limestone sphinx from Tutenkhamun. The most impressive addition, is an obelisk erected by Queen Hatshepsut (1473 -1458 BC). It is 97 feet tall and weighs approximately 320 tons (some sources say 700 tons). An inscription at its base indicates that the work of cutting the monolith out of the quarry required seven months of labour. Hatshepsut raised four obelisks at Karnak, only one of which still stands. The Egyptian obelisks were always carved from single pieces of stone, usually pink granite from the distant quarries at Aswan, but exactly how they were transported hundreds of miles and then erected without equipment, such as block and tackle, remains a mystery. This was a gigantic engineering feet commissioned by an amazing woman.

More of her story in the next blog – The Queen Who Became a King…..

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Cairo – Chaos, Cars and Commotion

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The landing at Cairo airport will be the smoothest ride that I will experience in Egypt over the next ten days. The roads are choked with traffic day and night and the condition of the roads is precarious. Peak hour starts at 5.00am and continues until 2.00am the following morning. That leaves a window of three hours where the roads are virtually un-clogged by cars, vans, trucks, donkey carts, motor bikes, horse-drawn wagons, pedestrians, bikes, scooters, buses and anything else on wheels or foot. This clammour and chaos, I am assured by my guide Ahmet, is normal, except for Friday which is a holiday and Cairo’s streets are amazingly quieter, even serene.

We leave the airport and pull onto the ring road that skirts this vast city of almost 20 million people. No one in their right mind would actually try to cross Cairo in a straight line. One could be hopelessly lost amidst the endless traffic jams, accidents and the maze of streets, alleys and no-go zones.

I soon learn that traffic rules are largely non-existent and drivers are notoriously unpredictable. Driving here is not for the faint hearted. I feel sorry for any new car salesmen as there are no new cars on these roads and new car sales are certainly not an economic benchmark of the Egyptian economy. All the cars are covered in dings and dents, rusted and in various stages of dilapidation and disrepair. When an Egyptian car fails to proceed it is often left where it stopped. I saw a police car that had 2 flat tyres, a missing back window and it generally looking rather dead – it had obviously been abandoned when it last failed to proceed.

Public transport is virtually non-existent. There is a bus fleet which is totally inadequate to service the enormous population of non car-owners . Official public transport is supplemented by a vigorous and entertaining fleet of private vans that ferry people around the city for a fixed price on a fixed route. These buses are mainly white VW Kombie vans of an indeterminate age (Moses was a boy when they rolled off the assembly line). They have a myriad of amusing and colorful decorations inside and out. The seats have been rearranged to make sure there is a maximum payload of at least 12 people in the back. This number can be stretched by including a few more customers in the front with the driver and children being accommodated on knees. This ancient fleet putters around the streets with their engine panels propped open – I suppose to aid the cooling of the engine in the searing heat of Cairo.

The vans’ decorations are a reflection of the owners’ personalities and can range from bumper stickers that are placed anywhere, to aerials (the more aerials, the better the radio reception possibly?), a variety of colorful bobbing, bouncing and eye-catching dash ornaments plus an abundance of geegaws that hang from the mirror. The driver is usually hunched over the wheel with one arm hanging out the window with a cigarette hanging from his fingers, the other hand grasping the wheel and constantly honking the horn. This “horn language” can vary from a friendly toot (Hi!), to a series of peeps (I see you – can you see me?!) or a strident series of long blasts (Get-out-of-my-way-you-mug!).

Traffic blockages are a way of life. There are very few traffic lights or traffic policemen. The traffic flow does not move at a steady pace, but in bursts of speed and then inexplicably it comes to a complete grinding halt for a protracted period. Intersections are locations for vigorous horn blowing, hand gesturing, and if irked sufficiently, verbal abuse. There does not appear to be any traffic code other than “he who is bold – wins”! Everyone pushes their way onto the intersection, and then slowly, inches forward by either giving threatening looks to other drivers, or encroaching so close to another vehicle that a scrape of metal is inevitable, unless the other driver backs down. A traffic policeman can sometimes be found in the midst of this melee waving his arms around in vain.

Added to this mechanical stew are the pedestrians. They cross the street anywhere, any time and in any number. The old, sick, the infirm, mothers and babies, men with loads on their shoulders, school children – all throw the dice of luck and venture off the curb and into the unknown. Their lack of fear is a marvelous thing to behold. I am amazed that the gutters are not running with blood and that there are not piles of bodies and wrecked cars on every street corner.

Cairo’s skyline is a wreckage of a different kind. Many buildings are in various states of construction or demolition. It is hard to tell the difference between the two. New buildings are mushrooming up everywhere but remain unfinished with no windows, like rows of missing teeth. There are gaping holes in walls, reinforcing bars sticking out of the roofs as if they are the quills of an irate porcupine. The concept of a finished building with running water, completed bathrooms, windows, doors and walls is entirely unecessary when seeking to fill it with inhabitants. Numerous apartment buildings are let in a variety of unfinished states and the residents no doubt, pay exorbitant rents to live in such squalor.

The pressure on Cairo’s resources to constantly support the veritable tidal wave of immigrants from the country areas is a major problem. Some 95% of Egypt’s population lives in Cairo or the delta region. These families are forced into living in incredibly cramped, overcrowded and desperately poor conditions. As more people arrive, the levels of poverty increase and the standard of living is just appalling for the masses. The evidence of this is everywhere: pollution and garbage in the streets, the river and the irrigation channels choked with domestic garbage and industrial waste, filthy streets with a few street sweepers making futile attempts to clean the garbage from the roadways, buildings once beautiful and functional, now in a state of serious decay and decline.

The limited fertile agricultural land that surrounds Cairo, and other cities and towns is being overtaken by dodgy and often illegal housing development. Hope remains high that the revolution of the Arab Spring, and the downfall of the oppressive regime of the Mubarak dictatorship after thirty years , will see a change for the better. However, change cannot come soon enough for millions who are desperately poor and oppressed.

Vestiges of a once grand and mighty Egyptian empire are to be found in the ancient sites and museums. Already, I have been swept away by the amazing scale, magnificence, artistry, engineering prowess, splendor and incredible genius of these ancient people going back over five thousand years to around 3,500BC.

Stay tuned for the next blog – Wonders of Ancient Egypt. It will take your breath away….

Categories: Egypt, Language, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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