A Visit to the Giza Pyramids and the Sphinx

February 22, 2013

I’m scheduled to start teaching a corrosion course in Heliopolis, a suburb of Cairo, Egypt, tomorrow morning. Flying in a day early allowed me to adjust to the time difference and to see some of the Cairo area today.

The food in the hotel where I will be staying and working is delicious, as you might guess by looking at the pictures below.

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Dinner–koftas (ground meat), kebabs, rice and vegetables, salad not shown

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Breakfast including sausages, ful medames (mashed fava beans), roasted tomatoes, and pita. Note the yogurt and the dish of fruit.

You probably haven’t had the chance to try ful. Here’s some of what Wikipedia says about ful: In the Middle Ages, the making of fūl was monopolized by the people living around the Princess Baths….. During the day, bath-attendants stoked the fires heating the qidras, huge pots of bath water. Wood was scarce, so garbage was used as fuel and eventually a dump grew around the baths. When the baths closed, the red embers of the fires continued to burn. To take advantage of these precious fires, huge qidras were filled with fava beans, and these cauldrons were kept simmering all night, and eventually

all day too, to provide breakfast for Cairo’s population. Cookshops throughout Cairo would send their minions to the Princess Baths to buy their wholesale fūl.

Fūl is prepared from the small, round bean known in Egypt as fūl ḥammām. The beans are cooked until very soft. Other kinds of fava beans used by Egyptian cooks are fūl rūmī, large kidney-shaped fava beans, and fūl baladī, country beans, of middling size. Fūl nābit (or nābid) is fava bean sprouts, fūl akhḍar (‘green fūl’) is fresh fava beans, and fūl madshūsh is crushed fava beans

At nine this morning we drove through the center of Cairo, crossed the Nile River into Giza on the west bank of the river, and eventually climbed the hills to where the pyramids and the Sphinx are located.

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Lessons learned from my very interesting tour guide, who majored in tourism at Cairo University in Giza:

Pyramid is a word combining the ideas of a house for the dead. Pyramids were to the west of the Egyptian cities. Memphis was the capital thousands of years ago and was on the east side of the river towards the living (rising) sun and pyramids were on the west side (dying sun).

Before the Aswan high dam in Upper Egypt (hundreds of miles upstream—south of Cairo) was completed in the 1970s the Nile would flood the region near Giza making a lake miles wide. The flood would arrive in June and last about two months. The large stones for the pyramids were floated on barges from the hills to the east in present-day Cairo across the lake/river to the plateau where the pyramids were built.

In the 1970s the annual flood on the Nile, which produced this “lake” in the Memphis (old capital)-Cairo (modern, only 1000 years old, capital) area stopped happening because the lake behind the Aswan dam was filled. That allowed the city of Giza, which goes down to the river, to expand to the point where it has more than 3 million people living where annual floods happened until recent years.

The ancient Egyptians were approximately as tall as present-day Egyptians, meaning that they ate very well. Modern Europeans and Asians are much taller than their ancestors, and this is due to the fact that their diets were less abundant. Egypt was the granary of the ancient word. Since the completion of the Aswan dam Egypt has gone from a net exporter of wheat to a net importer.

On the way back to Heliopolis and my hotel we drove through downtown Cairo along the banks of the river. We headed away from the river for one block so that I could see Tahrir (liberation) square, but we stayed about a block away because we didn’t want to be involved in the demonstration-du-jour. I was told that for the last two years there is always a demonstration.


Trying Not to become the “Ugly American”

February 23, 2013

There’s a saying that polite people never discuss religion or politics. Yesterday I violated both of these—first by accident and the second time when my guide and I had a personal conversation before we rejoined our driver and my travel escort provided by the local corrosion society.

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My hosts took me to the world-famous pyramids in Giza yesterday. I met a group of young Syrians when I asked the bystanders which country the man on the camel came from. His friends wanted me to explain why the United States isn’t “helping us.” I tried to answer diplomatically, but I wondered why these young men of military age were sightseeing in Egypt, where they have moved, instead of “helping themselves”–I don’t see a reason for young Americans to risk their lives for young Syrians who aren’t.

Before we left the Sphinx, my guide and I had a personal talk. He had already told me that, about 10 years ago, he had been a journalist and, because of what he wrote, spent about six months in jail. He also let several other comments slip, e.g. when I mentioned that Egypt’s President Morsi has a PhD in materials (Southern California) and had been an engineering professor at a California university and was replaced by a man I know from Iran (PhD from Ohio State). I got the impression he doesn’t support the current administration (kind of like half of you don’t support the current President in the US and the other half didn’t support his predecessor).

The result of our conversation is that I was told that many people feel the current administration (supported by the Muslim Brotherhood) is not allowing the people to form an opposition by holding elections, passing a constitution, etc. too fast–before the people have enough time to understand what democracy means and organize politically. This is essentially the same idea that I read on the first evening I was here when I read a local English-language newspaper opinion article which expressed this, and other, ideas.

I was also told that much of the problem is due to the high illiteracy rate in Egypt, and this means communications with many people are very difficult.

Egypt has been a primarily-Muslim country for over a thousand years, and it was a Christian-majority country before the Arabs arrived over a thousand years ago. I was told that some of the possible opposition was between different Muslim groups. Shia vs Sunni differences are, I was told, about politics and not about religion. I was repeatedly told by my guide and several others that Egypt has always been a tolerant society, and religious differences don’t matter—at least to the majority of educated people. I was also told that the uneducated may be misled.

My guide told me that he is Muslim, but he emphasized that Egypt (and he) feel that inclusion of all religions is the Egyptian way. He discussed the idea that Copts, most Egyptian Christians are Copts (about 10% of the population), are a very comfortable part of the community. While I have met several Copts in the US, the UK, and elsewhere, with the exception of this one man who told me he is a Muslim (I don’t know if he is Sunni or Shia) I haven’t been told what religious community anyone else belongs to— and, as a politcally-correct American, I would never ask—just like I would never do so in the US.

Most of the above ideas came from me trying to remember to listen and to not suggest ideas and lead conversations.

I have been impressed with how friendly the people I have met are, and with how concerned they are that outsiders (me) have a favorable impression of their country. These feelings are common wherever I go, but here in Egypt, at least for the first two days, I get the impression that the people I have met, even more than in other countries I have visited, want outsiders to like and respect them. This American does.

Last night I had a meeting with my corrosion society host, who will work with me this week. He was pleased that I know Dr. Venice Gouda, an Egyptian chemist whom I interviewed for a job in California. He knew that Dr. Gouda had returned to Egypt and became a member of the Egyptian cabinet before she retired. He did not recognize the other name I offered, but that may be because I said his name incorrectly.

I’m glad I’m here, and appreciate the chance to travel and learn while being paid to do so—LIFE IS GOOD.

6:24 am Cairo time—my body clock is still confused.


Robert’s Work is Done and he Becomes a Tourist in Cairo

February 28, 2013

Yesterday was the fifth day of the class I was teaching, and class was over after a four- hour final exam. All participants stayed until the end for photo sessions with me and other members of the group. The man from Thailand was congratulated on his plans to visit Luxor in Upper Egypt before returning home. I think he made several new friends here in Egypt and will return for more corrosion courses here instead of in China, which he did not enjoy.

My hosts then took me to lunch at an upscale restaurant in the Star shopping mall, which has many international shops as well as food courts with Hardees, Burger King, etc. The upscale hotel at the edge of the mall is a Holiday Inn. The two members of my class that stayed at the Holiday Inn (one from Thailand and one from northern Egypt) thought the Holiday Inn was a very nice hotel—nicer than the one we used for our classes, which was a four star hotel.

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Malls are great places for people watching, and it is obvious that this is the place where young people gather to hang out and chat with members of the opposite sex. I think I’ve seen the same behavior in other countries to include the US, but it was still fun to watch.

My hosts asked me what I wanted to eat, and I replied that I would enjoy whatever they ordered, but please make it as Egyptian as possible. We thus avoided some very upscale Lebanese restaurants in the mall, which are becoming popular with affluent Egyptians. We went to a famous Egyptian restaurant that has moved to this suburban location from downtown Cairo. I didn’t understand the name, but it means “Father of —.”

My lunch started with “birds tooth soup”—it had a form of rice that supposedly looks like birds teeth and was delicious. My main course was duck, not something I would have chosen if I had looked at the menu, but it was also delicious.

This morning I had ful (fava beans) and fruit for breakfast before we drove to the Egyptian Antiquities Museum, which is one block from Tahir Square where the Revolution was centered two years ago. Demonstrations are still being held in the square, and various organizations have erected tents for the comfort of their members who demonstrate. We just parked our car a block away and went into the museum area. On the way several buses unloaded some tourists, and my guide told me they were Russians. He said he can tell nationality by body language. They were not a group that gave me a favorable impression, unlike the various groups of Asian tourists who were dressed conservatively and acted very politely. I think Russians must learn their manners from watching teenagers on American TV.

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Cameras are not allowed inside the museum, so I had to check mine. I did notice several people using cell phone cameras inside, and I also noticed one woman being reprimanded by a guard for doing so. I think he made her delete all pictures, or perhaps he deleted them for her.

The exhibits in the museum are overwhelming—too much to see in one day, or even to understand in one week. My guide helped me understand some things, and here are some notes on ancient Egyptian culture I didn’t know:

  • Early Egyptians believed in resurrection, and kings (pharoahs) had to pass a test in order to reach the desired afterlife. If they flunked, they went to something that we might call hell.
  • Red wine was “converted” into the blood of some “god”—although I don’t remember which one. This was a legend before Moses and Jews were in Egypt and persisted long after they left.
  • Many people, including peasants (farmers), were mummified, just not as elaborately as the Pharoahs.
  • The Copts of Egypt are considered the first Christians (at least here in Egypt), and I found the mummy shrouds of the Copts very surprising and interesting. The face cloths on these Coptic mummies were very interesting.
  • ROTC in college taught me that armies didn’t march in step back in colonial times, but I saw two displays—one of Egyptian swordsmen and one of Nubian archers—with every foot forward. These displays were models of real soldiers about 18 inches high and were thousands of years old.
  • Standing statues indicated living people, and kings always had their left foot (over the heart) forward. The left foot forward was because Egyptians thought the soul was located in the heart. I think this idea is still reflected in our culture on Valentine’s Day.
  • Sitting statues were of dead people.
  • The largest crocodile I ever saw was a mummy. It was a least 20 feet long. The river perch mummy was about five feet long, and the display explained that for some reason, eating these fish had become taboo, which is why this one had grown to such enormous (for a river perch) size. Until today I didn’t know that animals were mummified except as “food” for dead pharoahs.
  • The word mummy means black—the pitch applied to the outside of the cloth wrappings gives them their name.
  • A cat queen (body of a woman, head of a cat) was called Sekhmet. There were other “gods” that were part animal, e.g. the numerous Sphinxes that I saw, and one legendary animal had was a combination of three animals.
  • Japanese TV was filming the jewelry collection in one of the King Tut exhibits. That was also interesting to watch—especially watching the Egyptian tourists watching the Japanese camera operator and the man manipulating the images on his computer screen.

Four hours in the museum was overwhelming, and I rejoined my guide who waited outside while I looked at the King Tut display, which is very extensive even though Tut was a minor king. It is believed that some of the artifacts stored in his tomb were from other burials, but, unlike most tombs, his was not robbed during the thousands of years before discovery around 1920.

They next took me to the old Arab quarter. We parked across the alley from the oldest mosque in Egypt, which has been expanded beyond the military fort that it was originally. When the Arabs came to Egypt they established a camp nearby, but Shia Moslems from Libya (converted by Muslims who by passed Egypt and went to Libya by sea) wanted a Shia presence in Egypt. They moved east and built a fort/mosque on the hills over the Nile. This became Cairo, which is barely a thousand years old—new for Egypt. The Arabs later moved to the nearby village of Cairo, and Cairo has been growing ever since then.

We took a pedestrian tunnel under a busy street and emerged at the Arab quarter, the oldest part of Cairo. The mosque behind me in the picture below contains the head of the grandson of Mohamed. I don’t remember why his head was moved to Egypt, but it has been in this mosque for over a thousand years and it is a site for many Shia pilgrims from Pakistan, Malaysia, and other countries who might prefer this pilgrimage to one to Mecca, more popular with Sunni Moslems.

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After seeing the sights of the market (souk) my escorts took me to an open-air stall where the prices were fixed and supposedly half of what I could have bargained for. I chose some gifts, and we drank hot tea, but we only looked at the refreshments that were offered by the sales people that my escorts are showing you in the picture below.

Almost next door was where we had lunch. My guide ordered for me and we had “Egyptian pizza.” Mine was filled with meat, sausage, chopped peppers, and some onions. This “pizza” had a bottom and a top crust. While we were eating alongside the pedestrian lane I saw an interesting man delivering bread to nearby restaurants. Egyptians prefer cats to dogs as pets, and one of my hosts started sharing his pizza with a stray cat. This attracted several other cats, to include the one who sat between my feet waiting for food to drop or be handed to him.

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Once lunch was over we drove back to the hotel. These are some of the sights from the window of our Hyundai as we drove along:

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Election campaign posters for candidates running for positions with the journalism or the lawyers organizations here in Egypt. The posters were around a polling station and across the street from a KFC franchise.

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Chevy trucks and cars are common in Cairo, almost as common as Hyundai and KIA, and much more common than Japanese or European brands. The Chevys are made in Korea, now that GM has purchased Daewoo. I am told by an owner of a KIA that the new Korean Chevys have quality problems and aren’t as reliable as the older Chevys, but he didn’t know where the previous supply was manufactured. Once I noticed this made-in-China motorcycle I saw several more as we drove around.

The lady crossing the street behind the motorcycle is wearing a head scarf. I was told that more younger women are wearing the scarf as a sign of modesty. Some of the scarves are beautiful. While this lady is dressed like the majority of women I saw, I also saw young women with tight-fitting jeans and T-shirts with Western slogans on them wearing headscarves. Some older men and women wore traditional robes, but most people I saw had conventional Western (or international) clothing from the shoulders down. I was told that some Christian women wear head scarves and some Moslem women (young and old) do not. One of my escorts told me his wife wore a scarf sometimes and did not at other times. He did not understand why she would decide to wear or not wear—it’s a woman’s decision in Cairo. After working with this man for a week, I still do not know if he is a Muslim or one of the ten percent of Egyptians that are Christians. He did tell me that his father expects him and his three grown siblings to show up at grandpa’s house every Friday so the extended family can have time together on Friday, their only weekend day. He also told me that when he tries to get his kids and their cousins to quiet down and behave, that grandpa reprimands him and tells him to let the kids play. This in one grandfather who appreciates noise and activity.

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The sign on this building changes every minute and indicates that Egypt now has almost 90 million inhabitants. I asked and was told the sign is on a government building, but I don’t know what offices are responsible for this.

I finished typing this message sitting in a food court at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. It is something to do during my four-hour layover. I’ll be home around midnight on Friday after leaving the hotel in Cairo at 4 a.m. Cairo time. It will be good to be home, but I had a wonderful time during my stay in Egypt.