Archive for the ‘ Egypt ’ Category

The Museum that is Luxor


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2011. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise   distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.

_____________________________________________________________________________ abstract:Luxor is where Egypt showcases its antiquities. In what is called the largest outdoor museum in the world, the monuments to life and afterlife in ancient Egypt are on display. There are temples to worship gods, temples to worship pharaohs, and tombs of pharaohs so designed as to enable them to travel after death with gods in the underworld. The monuments were built over many centuries in this long-lasting pharaonic religious capital. Their remaining walls, columns, statues, and reliefs stand as witness to times long bygone. Even the scars they bear tell tales. They have been damaged by invaders from Persia,Greece,Rome, and Arabia. The town that hosts them is now a Muslim community. It has its own evolving story as it is overshadowed by all the fuss of the glamorous ruins it contains.


“Tourists no longer stay overnight inLuxor. They stay on the cruise boats that bring them fromCairo, or come toLuxorjust for a day by bus, to see the ruins of antiquities,” my host said wistfully as he drove us from the airport on the Suzanne Mubarak road. I was lucky to stay at his hotel in town. This gave me the opportunity to see what was left in the town ofLuxoritself, neglected by the crowd that came only for the temples and tombs of ancientThebes. The hotel’s few other guests were mostly low budget travelers. Young Romanian men doubled up in rooms that went for less than $30 a night. The hotel billed itself as “a three star hotel but with the feel of a five star hotel.” It was cozy. One night after dinner, the owner asked us how we liked the food, then he brought out his new chef. The lad of twenty-something lined up with his crew of three in their chefs’ white hats, a bit awkwardly, as we applauded them. The street in front of us was divided by an island. Shrubbery had been planted on the island. Amidst them were some big plastic mushrooms, presumably to remind you of the marshland of the Nilenearby. The temperature on this October day, however, hovered around 100 degrees; the pavement shimmered in the sun. The bigger hotel on the other side of the street seemed empty. The quiet of the street was broken by the click clacks of caleche, horse driven carriages, more often than the occasional passing cars. At dawn I was awakened by azan, the call to prayer, broadcast on loud speakers in the neighborhood mosques. I walked on the balconies that rounded the floor where my room was located to see who else was up. There were no lights on in any of the nearby buildings. My host was generous. Our hotel room was free. We were third party beneficiaries of his favor to a mutual friend who told us “he owes me for the favors I did for him.” The friend, Ahmed, laughed over his bowl of cereal which he had brought with him for breakfast due to “his conditions;” we ate the local bread and cheese. An expatriate Egyptian, he was here to “give back by helping finance” a modest sanitation project undertaken in cooperation with the local government. He had just come from Alexandria where he attended a bigger “charity-cultural event,” presided over by Mrs. Mubarak. Ahmed showed the picture he had taken with her. He was pleased when I joked that he was becoming Mr. Egypt in the U.S.

My group had a similar mission inAswanand Ahmed had invited us to learn from his experience inLuxor. That is how I got to meet the governor ofLuxor. The governor was famous as he had been in charge of creating “the world’s biggest outdoor museum” in the miles of treasured antiquities here, contained in the fabled Temples of Karnak andLuxor, the tombs of theValley of the Kings, and the Colossals of Memnon. A shiny late model big black BMW was parked at the entrance to the governor’s office but he was surprisingly without pretensions. He received us promptly, standing in the middle of the room and shaking hands with each one. Muscularly built, he still had the erect bearing of an army general. This former career also showed in his straight forward manners. We sat down to business immediately. He spoke in excellent English. He made a brief reference to his efforts to “improve tourism,” and his determination to turn the nearly two mile long “Alley of Sphinxes,” which connects the temples ofKarnakandLuxor, into “an all pedestrian road.” He quickly moved to the needed “health projects” inLuxorwhich were the agenda for this meeting. This was past eight in the evening. The governor works late. An aide came in and, inexplicably, turned in the television set that was on a corner of the office. Nobody looked that way. A few minutes later, the aide entered again and whispered something in the governor’s ear. The governor had one phone on the other ear; soon he had a phone on the second ear as well. We paused. When we resumed we concluded the agenda for tomorrow. The governor called in another aide. As the latter stood, conspicuously respectfully, taking notes on a pad, the governor issued several instructions to implement the agenda. I tagged along for some parts. The next evening we met the local notables at a dinner given on behalf of the governor. One was a woman physician who was running for the national legislature. This was the election season and I had noticed her face among the posters around town. Someone commented that the governor was immune to voters’ vagaries as his position was not elective. The venue was a garden restaurant which, coincidentally for us, featured a Nubian house  from the Aswan area. I was attracted to a green soup on the menu. “It is from the plant we call melokiyah; the soup from this mallow plant is called Jew’s Juice here,” the man sitting next to me said. He had once served as the press attaché at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington. “Incidentally,” he continued, “it is in the ruins of the Temple of Merenptah near here that the only mention of Israel in ancient Egyptian texts has been found. In that “Israel Stele,” Merenptah, who became the Pharaoh in 1213 B.C., says that he defeated the Israelites.” An American-Egyptian food historian sat on my other side. She pointed to karkady (hibiscus tea) that was being served now with lots of sugar, the way the Egyptians like it: “Sugar cane is unique to Egypt; other Mediterranean countries did not have it. It came from Persia.”  That was the only reference I heard inLuxor to the long Persian occupation ofEgypt (525 BC- 404 BC, and two shorter periods later), historic as it effectively ushered in the end of the Pharaonic period. The former press attaché invited me to see “the first library of Egyptology” that had been recently opened inLuxor. It boasted of having “10,000 books.” Not surprisingly, it is called the Mubarak Public Library. Mrs. Mubarak is the chair of its board of directors. At the entrance was a picture of the President himself, about three times life size and that many times younger than he actually looks now. In the shiny lobby of the library we walked down a few steps, dodging a poorly designed overhang, to enter the auditorium. A heavily accented British announcer told us about the glory of ancientThebesin a video production full of sound and images. Then we stepped out to examine the work in progress on the Avenue of Sphinxes just in the back of the library. It was dusty and dry there. Only one pedestal had kept its sphinx in the immediate vicinity, but there were more on pedestals in the distance as the Avenue cut through the town. I saw other parts of this Avenue the next day as we drove to theTempleofKarnak. My tour guide was highly critical of the demolition of the buildings and neighborhoods that the project for the recovery of the Avenue required. “People were forced to leave their homes, communities have been torn apart, and churches have been destroyed.” She pointed to a church that, she said, was next to go. She was a Copt. Her people, early Christians, see themselves as the immediate successors of “ancient Egyptians,” she said. Indeed, Copt is “the Western pronunciation of the Arabic Qibt, which is derived from the Greek word for Egyptian aegyptios,” she continued. The Coptic language, which is still used in religious ceremonies, is rooted in both Egyptian hieroglyphs and Ancient Greek. Its alphabet was founded on the Greek alphabet but it has seven characters taken from hieroglyphs. The Coptic calendar is “based on the ancient Egyptian calendar,” the guide said, “it has the same months but seven days in a week instead of ten.” Constituting about 10% of the population ofEgypt, the Copts are the only significant religious minority in the country. They have played an important role in tourism from the West. MyLuxor tour guide was well known by her colleagues, one of whom told us that her grandfather was the best tour guideLuxor ever had. “He was legendary for his love and knowledge of antiquities. He used to refer to himself as ‘the George of the time before Christ’.” The more recentLuxorthat has been fast changing was best recorded in the photography of another illustrious Coptic native son, Attaya Gaddis. His works, beginning from 1907, are on display in his studio’s original location under the veranda of theOldWinterPalace. That Palace was once a favorite of King Farouk. When I visited it, affluent guests were at the pool-side which was cooled by big fans. Gaddis’s grandson showed me some of his old photos, including one that was taken as the famous treasures were being brought out of the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. One of Attaya Gaddis “specialties,” I was told, was photographing British soldiers as they arrived inEgyptduring World War Two. His family has maintained their special relationship with the British. The British Consulate inLuxoris the family’s tenant. Ahmed pointed out a special group of British citizens who might need the Consulate’s assistance today. They were older widows who come here “to marry young Egyptians. They don’t mind if their Egyptian husband has other wives. They pay for the husband’s expenses. They are called ‘working wives.’” On the street not far from my hotel I saw examples of them sitting on a chair in front of their stores. I walked into one souvenir store, called “San Karas Bazar (sic),” attracted by the signs in its windows: “Hassel (sic) Free Shop,” and “50% Descound (sic).”  The young salesclerk indeed left me alone to browse. He was busy reading a coffee-table size book. The book was a school text on Egyptology. George, as he called himself, told me that he was studying to be a tour guide. George and I sat down and compared notes about the history ofLuxor; he had no customers during this time.
Touring the town of Luxor, I was conscious of the fact that I was at the periphery of what mattered in this place as far as the outside world was concerned. “Luxor” was only one of the outer layers. It was the name that the Arabs gave (after the 7th century) to what the Greeks (332-30 BC) had called Thebes. The Romans who came between those two foreign occupiers (30 BC-396 AD), had built a military fort around the smaller of the two existing ancient Egyptian temples, now known as the Luxor Temple. Luxor is Arabic (Al-Uqsur) for “fortifications”. The Arabs’ name for the other temple here,Karnak, also connotes the “fortified settlement” which they perceived from seeing its imposing columns. These two temples, however, were “houses of gods” built by Pharaohs, mostly between 1550 and 1069 B.C., in their mostly religious capital of Waset. The decline of Waset mirrored the demise of Pharaonic rule when the split between Lower (Nile) Egyptin the north and Upper Egyptin the south became irreparable. Foreign powers took control, beginning with the Persians, followed by the Greeks, and then the Romans. Early Christians built their churches in the temples, carving crosses on the walls and erasing reliefs of the pagan gods. Toward the end of the 4th century, when the occupying Roman Empire adopted Christianity, ancient Egypt finally died. In particular, the knowledge of the “pagan” hieroglyphs that transmitted its culture was lost for more than a millennium. Luxor became a large village primarily known for its 12th century Muslim “holy man,” Shaikh Abu al-Haggag. Aside from his mosque, mud-brick settlements clung to the once mighty stone temples. “Egyptomania” changed all that. Napoleon arrived in 1798 and decided to revive Egypt’s greatness. The publication of the Description de l’Egypte, a collection by the scholars who accompanied him, revivedEurope’s interest inEgypt. Exhibitions of mummies and other funerary artifacts from the Theban tombs madeLuxor a subject of increasing curiosity. By 1869 when the first large group of tourists was brought toEgypt by Thomas Cook,Luxor was a popular destination. My interlocutor, George, now smiled. He would pass his exam in Luxor’s history, I said.
Temple of Karnak
The sign at the entrance to the Temple of Karnak tells you the names of the pharaohs who contributed to its construction over 1,500 years. Beginning around 2000 B.C., Karnak, together with the smaller Temple of Luxor connected to it two miles south by the Avenue of Sphinxes, evolved into the largest religious complex ever built by man. Their ruins occupy an area large enough to contain ten cathedrals in the heart of the town ofLuxortoday. The sheer size of the many columns still standing in the Karnak Temple dwarfed the tourists present from many countries on the day of our visit. We were soon lost in the jumble of walls, monolithic stone obelisks, and statues, covered with hieroglyphics writings and pictorial freezes. It was hard to make sense of it all, even with the help of our tour guide. We tried nonetheless, because they were invaluably informative about ancientEgypt. Karnakand LuxorTempleswere dedicated to the local deity Amun who was elevated to dominance among all ancient Egyptian gods during the reign of the local, “Middle Kingdom” dynasty. The Templesremained the religious capital of Egyptthereafter, deemed to be The Most Esteemed of Places (Ipet-Sut). As depicted in some of the reliefs in theTemples, Amun had eventually absorbed the aura of another major deity, Ra, the god of the sun, henceforth assuming the combined name Amun-Ra. He shared his “house” inKarnak, however, with two other gods: in addition to the “Amun Enclosure,” theKarnakTemple has two smaller Enclosures, one for his wife, Goddess Mut, and the other for their son, the Moon God Khonsu. The Amun Enclosure is connected to the Mut Enclosure by an Avenue guarded by ram-headed sphinxes. Ram was Amun’s sacred animal. These Sphinxes “were built by Ramses II, whose statue stands between the paws of each sphinx. The Egyptians thought of sphinx as guardians. The main attractions in theTempleofKarnakwere in the Amun Enclosure. Just outside its entrance was a ditch showing the canal that connected this place to theNile. There were also mud piles and brick walls next to the unused stones. These were for a ramp of the type employed to drag the stones delivered on theNileup with rollers for construction of the several pylons (truncated towers) of the Enclosure.

Inside the first pylon was theGreat Courtwhich is the largest area of the Enclosure. On one corner of the Court were the three chapels that held the sacred barques (boats) of Amun, Mut, and Khonsu, used during the Opet Festival which was the main religious annual event held in the Temple. “TheKarnakTemplefollowed the basic design of other temples of ancientEgypt,” our guide said. There was a processional way that passed through a series of courts and led to the sanctuary. After the second pylon we saw a statue of that pylon’s builder Pharaoh Ramses II, in the typical pose of arms crossed at the wrist. Between his legs and on his feet stood a smaller statue of his daughter, Bent’anta. We walked to a great hall with many papyrus-shaped stone pillars. “There are 134 of them,” the guide said. This Hypostyle Hall (with a flat ceiling) symbolized a papyrus swamp, which were common along theNile. “When theNileflooded, during summer, this hall with its columns was submerged under water.” On the back of the third pylon there was a freeze of the pharaoh sailing the sacred barque during the Opet Festival that took place in theNile’s inundation season.  In other freezes scenes of “victories over enemies, Lebanese, Canaanites,” were depicted. In the court after the fourth pylon, the famous female Egyptian Pharaoh Hatshepsut had erected two obelisks in honor of Amun. Thirty meters high, these monoliths fromAswanwere the tallest obelisks at the time; and the one still standing is the tallest surviving obelisk in Egypt. Its survival is paradoxically due to the efforts of her stepson and successor pharaoh, TuthmosisIII, who wished to eradicate all signs of her reign. He “wanted to destroy her obelisk but the God said no, so he had a sandstone wall built around it and that has preserved it,” our guide said. This obelisk, nevertheless, showed signs of partial obliteration of Hatshepsut’s images. The guide showed us the other Hatshepsut obelisk that was on the ground. This obelisk had several carvings of Amun. In one a pharaoh was kneeling before him. “That is Hatshepsut in the double-crown of Pharaohs, and Amun is crowning her” our guide said. In another, Amun was depicted holding Hatshepsut who was wearing the “white crown” this time. “Note that Hatshepsut is wearing a false beard and the kilt that male pharaohs wore; she was trying to enhance her legitimacy as a king since Egyptian kings were commonly male” the guide said. She added “and note that the beard is straight which means that the person depicted here is alive, while the dead pharaohs were depicted with curled beard”. Further, past the sixth pylon we came to two huge statues of Amun and the goddess Amunet. She was an early consort of Amun who was later overshadowed by Mut, but “remained locally important inThebesas a protector of the pharaoh,” our guide said. We were now at the entrance to “the Sacred Barque Sanctuary,” the very core of the temple where the Amun resided. It has since been redecorated by the Greek Philip Arrhidaeus (323-317), Alexander the Great’s half-brother, and successor inEgypt. Behind the sanctuary was a huge “Festival Hall” with carved stone columns patterned after tent poles  and beyond that was the “Botanical Garden,” so called because its walls were covered with of reliefs of fauna and flora that the pharaohs found in Syria and Palestine. Freezes of lotus, symbolizingLower Egypt, and papyrus, symbolizingUpper Egypt, were on the walls throughout the temple. The Botanical Garden was followed by the SacredLakewhere the priests of the temple bathed daily for ritual purity. On the bank of the lake we saw a giant stone sculpture of a scarab. The dung beetle was considered sacred by ancient Egyptians as the earthly symbol of heavenly cycle. “They believed it pushed the sun through the sky in the same way it pushed a ball of dung on the ground,” our guide said. She pointed out a small crowd of tourists gathered around the stone scarab. “They go around (yutoof) it because some guides tell them this brings good luck.” That evening I joined the throng that watched an extravaganza of light and sound aboutThebesstaged in an amphitheater setting beyond theSacredLake. As entertainment it was kitsch. As a learning experience it was disappointing. Like many tourists I had come many miles toLuxor. I searched for at least a rudimentary understanding of ancientEgypt. TheKarnakTempleproved that the task would be tedious. My notes seemed pedantic. I could see no alternative, however, but to continue. Incomplete and disjointed as my observations would turn out to be, they reflected on the shreds of the past that existed before me. They opened a door even if they might fail adequately to explain the contents of the room. My studied impression of what I would see had a distinct value not available except through this on-site visit.  

Temple of Luxor

Man-faced sphinxes protected the two sides of the nearly ten- meters wide, straight road that connected the Temple of Karnak to the Temple of Luxor three kilometers away. The entrance to the Temple of Luxor was flanked by two huge standing and one seated statues of Ramses II (1279-1213 B.C.), who added this part to the temple, which was begun by AmenhotepIII(1386-1349 B.C.). An even taller obelisk  stood like a sentry to the left. The obelisk, with a design — maximum height for minimum base — calculated to catch the first ray of the rising sun was meant to dramatize the illuminating and life-giving power of the sun-god Ra. It marked this place as a temple of Amun-Ra. (The Luxor obelisk once had a pair on the right side of the entrance to the Temple. That is now standing in Place de la Concorde inParis, following a tradition that went back to the early Roman Emperors. As devotes of Mithraism, those new solar rulers of the Mediterranean moved ancient Egyptian obelisks and erected more of their own in Alexandria and Rome,  including one in theVatican’s St. Peter square.) The first court in the Temple of Luxorhad walls with reliefs depicting scenes of the pharaoh “making offerings to the gods.” As your attention was drawn to the lotus capitals of the court’s rows of double columns you noticed an incongruous structure. It was the 12th century Mosque of Abu al-Haqqaq jutting up on the southern side. As soon became apparent, this was not the only foreign intrusion into the Temple’s ancient Egyptian architecture. Beyond a colonnade of papyrus columns, there were walls on the left side with reliefs dating from 1400 B.C., depicting in detail the procession in the Opet festival. The pharaoh was shown joined by nobles and common people. There were even acrobats  and drummers  among them. Next was a court with a flat ceiling supported by four rows of eight columns each. This lead to the core rooms of the temple. The first chamber had been the sanctuary of Amun, but the Romans had since painted it over with the images of their own leaders . On either side of it were the chapels of Mut and Khonsu. After a four column antechamber, where offerings were made, one could see the “Barque Shrine of Amun. Alexander the Great had since rebuilt this one. Reliefs on the walls portrayed him as an Egyptian pharaoh, receiving the “double crown” of unified, Upper and Lower,Egypt. The Temple of Luxor was developed as Amun’s southern ipet (harem), his private quarters. It was the abode of Amenemopet, the ithyphallic Amun of the Opet, as his image with an erect penis indicates. It served as a central focus of the Opet celebration, when the statues of Amun, Mut and Khonsu were transported here from their home in theTemple ofKarnak to be reunited with the statue of Amun of Opet, to symbolize fertility and rejuvenation.  This entailed an elaborate procession that took two to four weeks during theNile’s flooding season. The priests carried the cult images of the three gods on their shoulders along the Avenue of Sphinxes. The pharaoh was the high priest and the ceremony reaffirmed his close ties with Amun and thus enhanced his authority. My guide pointed out other evidence of the pharaohs’ efforts to associate themselves with Amun: their names. Thus, “Tutankhamun’s name which contains Amun means ‘the living image of Amun’; and his grandfather’s name Amenhotep II means ‘Amun is content’.” Names were important. The majority of the hieroglyphic inscriptions which you see in these temples are basically repetitions of the names and titles of gods and the pharaohs,” our guide said. “The loss of one’s name meant elimination from history. So the Pharaohs went to great lengths to protect their names. They wrote their names in a rectangular fortress wall known as serekh. This later evolved into the oval-shaped cartouche, which is French for cartridge.” She pointed to a rare set of statues of Tutankhamun and his child bride and said “Ramses I erased Tutankhamun’s name and replaced it with his own cartouche.” The names of those Pharaohs have long lost their aura of divinity and power. A part of their Opet ceremony, however, survives in Islamic Luxor. It is reenacted during the moulid (birthday celebration) of Abu al-Haggag, the holy man who brought Islam here eight centuries ago. A highlight of this three day festival is pulling a felucca boat through town and around the Mosque in theTemple ofLuxor.


The Governor of Luxor sent a van to take us to the pharaohs’ Funerary Temples and Tombs on theWest Bankof theNile. The few miles we drove by the river to the bridge that crossed over from theWest Bankwere surprisingly verdant .  The driver and Mohamed, from the governor’s public relations office who accompanied him, were disciplined. Both refused our repeated attempts to tip them.  They were not tour guides. We picked up a staff of the antiquities office at the ruins of the first funerary temple we visited. He barked some disjointed references to the “Memnon” and left us soon, seemingly as frustrated as we were with our inability to communicate with each other. His exact role remained undefined. What we were seeing were the Colossi of Memnon, the two largest monolithic statues ever carved, each from a single block of stone fifty feet high and weighing nearly one thousand tons. They were so called by the ancient Greeks who mistook them as belonging to the legendary African king, Memnon, who was slain by Achilles during the Trojan War. In fact they were only part of the largest funerary temple ever built by a pharaoh. AmenhotepIII(1390-1352) who developed theLuxorTemplefor worshiping the god Amun, constructed this funerary temple as a place where he himself would be worshiped after death. Over time the adobe material used in the temple dissolved as it was flooded every year, and its stones were removed by later pharaohs for their own projects. Both of the Colossi are statues of AmenhotepIII, but figures of his wife and mother are carved in front of his throne along his legs. Excavation, which we saw was still continuing, has revealed the existence of six sets of other massive statues, and also, behind this temple, theTempleofMerenptahwho became Pharaoh in 1213 B.C. It is here that the “Israel Stele” was found. Back in the van, we were stopped by an American woman, riding her bicycle on that hot road, who asked directions to an antiquities site. Mohamed pointed to some houses on the hills across the road. In broken English, he explained that they were mostly 300 year old structures which might have to be removed eventually since they had been built on top of the Tombs of the Nobles, so as to uncover those relics of antiquities. This was a controversial project as the current residents of those homes complained that their community would thus be broken even though they were promised better housing in the new settlement several miles away. Like the biker, we continued the rest of our visit that day without a tour guide. We were now in an area so secluded that the early Christians founded a monastery here. Deir al-Bahri (the Monastery of the North) was also where Pharaoh Montuhotep II (2055-2004), had built the first funerary temple in this region. What attracts tourists today, however, is another funerary temple which it inspired: the majestic Temple of Hatshepsut, built five hundred years later. One reason for the attraction is the dramatic setting. The backdrop for the temple is the lion-colored limestone cliffs that rise about 1000 feet from the desert plain. They hug a monument partly carved from the cliffs that oddly appears contemporary today. This, however, was the work of ancient Egyptians who called it Djeser-djeseru (Most Holy of Holies). Located at the site of an old shrine to Hathor (the Goddess of Love), it directly faces theTemple ofAmun atKarnak across the Nile. The legend about the Pharaoh who built this as a funerary memorial to herself is no less dramatic. She isEgypt’s only female pharaoh, unless one counts the Macedonian Cleopatra who took the throne one thousand years later. After the death of her husband, who was also her stepbrother, Hatshepsut became the regent of his only surviving son, a minor, from another wife. In fact, however, she ruled as a Pharaoh herself for thirty years even after her stepson reached majority, now as his co-Pharaoh. This she could do because of her royal lineage, on her mother’s side, from past pharaohs. The lineage, however, is believed to be also responsible for the decision by her stepson, TuthmosisIII, to order that all references to her be wiped out after her death, so as to ensure the succession by his own descendants who did not have the same royal lineage. Hatshepsut’s names and images had been erased in this temple; as they were also in the Templeof Karnak. The Christians’ defacing of the “pagan” reliefs has caused additional damage. What remains in the Templeof Hatshepsut, however, is still impressive and informative. Some statues of her stood at the pillar of the Temple A custodian in the traditional galabeya dress who spoke no English took me to see Hatshepsut’s disfigured image, standing next to her husband Tuthmosis II in the Chapel of Anubis (the jackal-faced god who protected the dead), at the end of the north colonnade on the first floor. Other reliefs here showed Hatshepsut’s divine birth. In one Hathor was depicted as a cow with a crown of horns and sun’s disc (in her guise as the sun god’s daughter)  licking Hatshepsut’s hand [50]. In another Hatshepsut was shown drinking directly from Hathor’s udder. In yet another relief Hatshepsut was in the presence of Horus, the god of the sky, who was depicted as a man with a falcon head. On the left side of the entrance we saw reliefs of men carrying myrrh trees for incense used in temple ceremonies. The trees were from Punt, a land whose exact location is still not known. “This is a scene of celebration because people were able to bring henna fromSomaliaand make money by selling it,” a fellow tourist who said he had studied these and adjacent reliefs told us. There were more recognizable scenes in the other reliefs nearby:  a pair of obelisk was being transported, from the quarry inAswan.

Valley of the Kings

As he erased signs of Hatshepsut’s reign, Thutmosis IIIwas making sure that he would be well taken care of after his own death. His tomb down the road from his late stepmother’s funerary temple is one of the most elaborate in the Valley of the Kings. Thutmosis has remained in good company there. The tombs of 63 Pharaohs have been discovered in the Valley so far. On the day I went there, these tombs had many guests. We boarded the tuf-tuf (windowless little electric cabins) to go from the visitors’ center to the tombs which were on both sides of the Valley, a dry canyon enclosed by limestone hills. The Al-Qurn (the Horn) mountain peak dominated the area. One could visualize the sun setting behind it, making this the appropriate site associated with the afterlife in the imagination of ancient Egyptians. The other appeal of the isolated and narrow Valley was that the tombs and their valuable contents could thus be better protected, especially against the thieves. To that end, ThutmosisIII, who was among the pioneers here, chose a nearly inaccessible location for his tomb. The design of his tomb was also exemplary in attempting to thwart would be thieves. We walked on a path off the main road that cut through sharp limestone rocks, climbed a steep staircase, and crossed a deep ravine to reach the entrance to the tomb. Inside there was a long passageway with a series of angles ending in a bridge of planks, over a steep ditch, at the other end of which was the antechamber of the tomb. Behind this was the oval burial chamber. It contained a cartouche-shaped quartzite. This was ThutmosisIII’s sarcophagus. His mummy was not here; it had been moved toCairo’sEgyptianMuseum. Instead we were greeted by a custodian. He was now spending most of his life in this 150 feet deep hole. He was friendly and in good spirit. A fan was moving the otherwise stagnant air. The walls in the corridors and chambers of the tomb were decorated with scenes from the imagined underworld of the afterlife and the pharaoh’s existence in it. There were boats, musicians, and images of gods and demigods. The blue color of the ceiling in a chamber recalled the sky. These decorations depicted what was described in the ancient Egyptians’ Book of the Dead, a collection of works that included The Book of Gates, The Book of Amduat (that which is in the underworld), and The Litany of Ra. This collection was about the journey of the dead souls who accompanied the sun god on his “sacred barque” through the darkness of the night (the land of the god Osiris), with each segment of the time guarded by a separate demigod. To reach rebirth at dawn, the pharaoh had to know the demigods’ names to get past them. The decorations we saw were to provide the pharaoh with visual help toward such knowledge. The pharaoh’s tombs were also stocked with food, drinks, provisions, and treasures which they would need in the underworld. None of that was left in Thutmosis III’s tomb or the tombs of two other pharaohs I visited in the Valley of the King, Ramses IIIand Ramses IX. The explanation for this was provided as early as the eleventh century by Nasir Khusraw, the Persian traveler from Marv, Central Asia, in his book Safarnameb (The Book of Travels), who among other places inEgypt visited Qus, nearLuxor, in 1050:

“The Sultan had a servant  … who was the commander of the mutalebiyan and was very rich and wealthy. Mutalebiyan are those who search for treasures and buried treasures in the holes of Egypt. People come from the Maqreb (Islamic countries west of Egypt), and the lands of Syria and Egypt and everyone toils in those holes and rubble of Egypt and spend fortunes. And there were many who found treasures and buried treasures, and many who incurred great expenses and did not find anything. For they say that in these locations the pharaoh’s wealth are buried. And if one finds something there, he must pay one-fifth to the Sultan and the rest will be his.”

The fabled treasures of Tutankhamun were found in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings in the twentieth century, but they have been taken to Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. His mummy was left in its coffin in situ, but Tutankhamun’s tomb is not remarkable otherwise, our guide assured us. We could not see for ourselves as that day Tutankhamun’s tomb was among those “being serviced for maintenance” based on a rotating program. Instead we went to see the house of the famous archeologist who discovered Tutankhamun’s treasures in 1922. It was a few miles away. In the middle of barren land a pleasant garden hosted a domed one-story adobe . Howard Carter lived here. He spent six years searching and digging for the tomb of Tutankhamun. The man who financed his work, Lord Carnarvon , almost gave up on him. Carter did not give up. He found what he sought in a last attempt. Tutankhamun’s tomb was in the only hitherto unexplored area, covered by his crew’s hut. I sat  behind Carter’s desk in his house marveling at man’s dedication to discovery. _________________________________________________________________ This article, entitled “ The Museum that is Luxor”, was published on the following website of on February 28, 2011, with related pictures:

Cairo’s Present is in the Past


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2011. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise  distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.



In a sense, all that we can know is only about the past. The present becomes the past as soon as the  proverbial ink used to write about it dries upon the page. This piece about Cairo in October 2010 is, of course, no exception. It might have value in shedding some light on the dying days of what is now ancient regime  –the handwriting was already on the wall. But it is about a more enduring distant past.


e narrow opening of a brief tour which inevitably allowed only episodic observations. abstract: The story of today’s Cairo is writ in the past. It is not just the Pyramids and the Sphinx of ancient times, it is also the monuments of Cairo’s Islamic history that make it so “now”. Here lie the double-tale symbols of the Sunni-Shiite clash and co-existence, as well as the fault lines of both “extremism” and “moderation” in a resurgent Islam that now preoccupies the concerns of much of the world. The visitors who flock to see the likes of Tutankhamun’s jewels are at peril of remaining innocent for ignoring all others that Cairo has to offer. This is my glimpse of the whole panorama thorough horough the narrow opening of a brief tour which inevitably allowed only episodic observations.



He sat in warm-up clothes and tennis shoes in the seat next to me on the plane. His smile that solicited a friendly response made his face pleasant. “I am returning to Egypt after twenty years,” he said in halting English. He had been “in business” in New Jersey, but was now retired. He showed me his American passport as though it was a trophy for a proud accomplishment. He was going “home” just for a visit. He stared into the distance as he said “my sisters will be at the airport”. He was almost giddy in anticipation of seeing changes that he knew had taken place in his absence, but almost nostalgically wishing that things had remained mostly the same as he remembered them.

The map selection on the monitor before me began with a page showing a plane with an arrow on its right pointing to “Mecca, 6345 miles”. In the row next to me a woman wearing the head scarf of Egyptian Islamic hejab (clothes of modesty) began her prayers soon after the plane took off, by holding her hands open before her face and whispering under her breath. Her two small daughters chatted in colloquial English, their little pink carry-on bags loose under their feet.

“Our flight will be a little over eleven hours,” the announcer said. “We will arrive on time in Cairo,” she assured us as the plane shook violently in the turbulent sky.


“There is my name,” said the man to his woman companion. They stood near me as we were about to disembark in the terminal from the bus that transferred us from the plane on the tarmac. The man was pointing to one of several signs held up inside the terminal at the Cairo airport. Travel agents were welcoming their VIPcharges and whisking them away before we went through the passport checkpoint. There were also two windows for the Bank of Egypt here. The experienced tourists rushed toward them. You paid $15 and got the slip that the passport officials honored by giving you the visa to enter Egypt.

The information desk in the arrival lobby told me taxis were metered. “Just walk outside. Taxis are there.” Outside, the road was divided by a barrier. A taxi spotted me immediately and stopped in the slow traffic on the other side of the divider. We negotiated the fare, shouting across the barrier.  No metering. Now he wanted me to cross over the barrier. He had come over and taken hold of my bags. The taxi looked battered. The Cabby threw my luggage in the back seat. I sat next to him. He put his seatbelt on. “Where is mine,” I asked looking for the my seatbelt. We communicated largely in sign language. “You don’t have one,” he indicated, “only the driver.”

We started on the long, perilous drive toward my hotel. The driver paid no heed to the lines dividing the road into lanes, or to other drivers who similarly challenged colleagues in their battered little cars.

The Cabby now turned the radio up full blast. The music was contemporary Egyptian rap. Several CDs were on the dashboard. “Do you have any Abdel Wahab,” I dared start a conversation. “Who?” I repeated: “Abdel Wahab, or Umm Kulthum?” It took a few seconds for him to figure out my different pronunciation. “How do you know these people,” he asked incredulously. “No American knows them.” I had told him that I had come from America. Those were famous Egyptian singers of the past. He respected them but today he did not have any of their recordings. He laughed and continued our conversation in another direction: “Bush very bad; Obama very good.” I asked him about the President of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak. He looked at me, then he turned his head and spitted out of the window. “Mubarak very bad.” I persisted. “How about his son?”  (He is rumored to want to succeed Mubarak.) “Gamal Mubarak very good,” the cab driver said.

He expanded his role to guide to landmarks of Cairo as we drove forward, pointing out mosques and other major monuments. “Qahira Jadid,” which meant New Cairo, he pointed to an area. To encourage him to concentrate on driving, I told him that I would give him a big tip if he got me safe to the hotel. He may have appreciated the incentive but did not show it in his actions.



I showed the receptionist my “Hilton HHonors” card and requested a room on the opposite side of the noisy street, as I had been advised to do by the travel agency that had made the reservation for me. The young man played with his monitor a few minutes and said “I have a room for you. It is on the second floor.” I asked if he was giving me the side I requested. “The room is on the street side. If you want the river side, I will look.” He did and then said “I have a room on the 21st floor with a river view and breakfast included in the executive floor. If you want it you have to pay extra.” After much negotiation we settled on a compromise.

I hauled my luggage through the smoke-filled lobby, crowded with foreign tourists. My room had two balconies. They overlooked a scenic part of the Nile . I opened the door and went out to a balcony to enjoy the view. The smog and noise proved too much of a challenge. I went to bed for some sleep after a very long flight from San Francisco.

At the Terrace Café serving breakfast, one of the several hosts soon claimed me. Without a word, he took me to a table next to the window hidden behind a pole. A little while later he came back and asked: “All OK?” I gave him a tip. He thanked me. When I was about to leave, he said: “When tomorrow?” I said between 7 and 8. He told the waiter to “reserve this table” for me for the next few days.

I asked the concierge to show me the best way to walk to Cairo’s famous old bazaar, Khan-e Khalili. He said it was too far, “take a taxi!” Then he turned to tell an American guest that he had no map of the city in English, only in Italian and French. I showed him the places I wanted to see on my map.  He smiled. He said:  “The prints are too small. I can not read them.”  He continued, “but go out left,” and then he named some streets which we could not find on the map. I went on my own and asked directions from several helpful passers-by.

Islamic Cairo

In the tomb chamber of the Mosque of al-Azhar I took off my shoes and sat on the bench when I saw two men doing so. I put the shoes down. A mosque’s attendant came toward me quietly, picked up my shoes, made their bottoms face each other and then put them down. This was the respectful way. Elsewhere in the mosque three men were lying on the carpeted floor, half-asleep.

In the Shrine of the Mosque of Hussein across the street, I took off my shoes and put them down the way the al-Azhar attendant had taught me. A man sitting on the floor motioned sternly that shoes should be left outside. A higher degree of respect was required in the mausoleum of Hussein, the Prophet’s grandson. I took my shoes out and came back. I then proceeded to take pictures of women in their special section that was on one side of the Shrine. No one objected to this.

Nearly all the women I saw on my walk that day wore the Islamic hejab. Only two did not. I thought they were Christians. My tour guide later said it was just that way in the part of the town I was visiting. In his section of Cairo, Heliopolis, “fifty percent have no hejab; women can choose,” he said.  His wife and one daughter wore hejab; the other daughter did not.

The Hussein Square that connects al-Azhar mosque to the Hussein mosque is called the heart of “Islamic Cairo” by tour guides. Bookstores displayed religious texts on their overflowing counters that extended into the streets. Tour buses lined up on one corner of the square. Tourists crowded the souvenir shops and restaurants that lined the other corner. They had been told by their guides that the Hussein Mosque was not open to non-Muslims. I did not see but a few Western tourists in al-Azhar mosque which they could enter. Like many other aspects of Islam, their knowledge of the rich history of this square remained non-existent or, worse, confused.

“My policy is to explain Islam to tourists. Al Qaeda is not Islam or Egypt.” I listened as a guide addressed his American tourists.  “Islam is peaceful and tolerant. It says that you can’t force belief. You must say ‘I believe.’ Most of my customers don’t know this.” He went on to attribute Egypt’s current economic problems to “9/11″. He said: “Al Qaeda hurt Egypt the most. Its number two man, al-Zawahiri, is an Egyptian. Even before 9/11, they decided to hit the tourists. They killed three tour guides, my colleagues. This was to split Egypt from the US.”

As to the Hussein Square, the guide simply said that it was built by “the Mamluks.”  The Mamluks are often the default answer of Egyptian guides to the tourist who is inquisitive about the country’s Islamic history. The guides describe Mamluks as the “slave dynasty,” as though assuming that such exoticism would satiate the questioner’s curiosity.

The Mamluks who ruled Egypt from 1250 to 1517, however, were not all the same or from the same dynasty; they were of Turkish and Kurdish origins. Only the leader of each branch might have once been a warrior owned by a ruler; he then rose in the ranks and eventually seized power for himself. The Hussein Square existed long before the Mamluks. It was the heart of the Fatimid Cairo.

Shiites and Sunnis

Its history, in fact, provided a good opportunity -generally missed by the guides- to comment on the Sunni-Shiite relationship, which is a current topic of intense speculations in Western media. The Fatimids were the first Shiite state in the world (after the five years of Ali’s Rashidun Caliphate in the 7th century)  and the only Shiite dynasty of Egypt, from 969 to 1171, when Saladin Ayyubid (of the Crusade fame) re-instated the Sunni domination of Egypt.

Today, the 90% of Egyptians who are Muslim are nearly all Sunnis. It is remarkable how they make use of the old Shiite institutions in the Hussein Square. Egyptian notables attend important religious events held in the Hussein Mosque; while al-Azhar is the mosque of the sheikh who is the supreme Sunni theological authority in Egypt. Al-Azhar was built in 972 by the Shiite general, Qaed Jawhar who conquered Egypt for his master, the Fatimid Caliph, al-Mu’izz.

He named the mosque after Fatemah, the daughter of Prophet Mohammad, whose honorific Shiite title is al-Zahra (Shining). Fatemah is especially honored by the Shiites for her staunch defense of the right of her husband, Ali, as the true successor to the Prophet, against Abu Bakr, who is regarded by the Sunnis as the First Caliph.

It was also Jawhar who in 973 laid the foundations of the city of Cairo, on command of al-Mu’izz, upon whose arrival in the city it was named al-Qahira (the overpowering -as he overpowered, gahr, the army of the Baghdad Caliph) al-Muizziya. The Fatimid Caliph wanted this new city to surpass all others in the world. Seventy five years later it was far along this path, as the earliest reliable description of the new Fatimid capital, in Nasir Khusraw’s  Safarnameh (Book of Travels) , indicated. That Persian speaking  traveler, from Marv in Central Asia, who lived in Cairo for more than a year, reported seeing “five and six storey buildings,” “20,000 stores,” eleven jama” (including Azhar), “fifteen mosques,”  including one, Amr ibn al-‘As,  that  never had “fewer than 5,000 worshipers,” attended with scholars and ‘”teachers,” innumerable caravanserai,  garmabeh (public baths),” and a “royal palace”  which “was said to contain 30,000 persons,” all  in the new city -actually the twin cities of Qahira and “Mesr (Metropolis)” to its south, which were less than one “meel (Mile)” or “one thousand steps” apart, yet connected.  Nasir who was the scholar-traveler nonpareil of his age, gave this judgement about Cairo at the end of his “2,220 farsang (league),” or more than 12,334 kilometers, trip around the Islamic world:  “It became a city the likes of which are few.”

Soon Cairo was considered more magnificent than the capitals of the two other rival contemporary Islamic Caliphates: the Abbasids’ Baghdad and the Western Caliphate’s Cordova. It now boasted a large madrasa (school) as a part of al-Azhar jama’ (complex). Built in 998, this Shiite school would eventually become, ironically, the renowned Sunni University that is now unrivaled as such in honor and importance.

The Fatimids built the Hussein Mosque on the site where their Caliphs are buried. The only mausoleum existing here today, however, is the Shrine (zarih) of Hussein which is attached to the Mosque. It is claimed that Hussein’s head is buried there.  This defies history as Hussein was killed in Karbala and more likely rests in the Hussein Mosque in that Iraqi city. The veneration of Hussein in the Sunni Cairo is especially notable because his martyrdom in the battle of Karbala against the Sunni rulers of the time (on Ashura, 10th of the month of Muharram, in 680) is the defining emotional narrative of the enmity between the Shiites and Sunnis. That enmity is central to the current narrative in the West emphasizing the obstacle to Islamic unity. Cairo ignores these and the fact that Hussein was the son of Fatemah Zahra.  Instead he is honored as the favorite grandson of the Prophet. The marble slab at the side of the mosque’s entrance quotes a hadith, reporting a saying by the Prophet: “Hussein is from me and I am from Hussein. May Allah love whoever loves Hussein”.

Historiography by Sites

The Fatimids have come back to Cairo after several centuries. The current head of their world-wide community, Karim Agha Khan, was allowed by the Egyptian government to convert a vast area which was previously used as a garbage dump into the city’s biggest park. Aptly called al-Azhar Park, its immaculately mainlined grounds are a favorite of ordinary folks for pick nicking. The affluent consider the elegant restaurant here as one of the best in town. We were taken there for lunch on the patio with an unobstructed view of the Citadel that Saladin built. Like him, and the Fatimids, many other conquerors chose to build their own new city in this metropolis.

This tradition goes back to the first Muslim conqueror of Egypt, Amar-ibn al-A’as, who in 640 AD built Fustat (Camps), complete with an Islamic complex (jama’), named after himself. Of that complex only the foundations of its Ibn al A’as Mosque remain in the area now called Old Cairo.  Such as they are, however, these foundations, like other Cairo monuments, bear witness to a colorful history shaping today’s Egypt.

The tradition of building new “cities” in Cairo continued in modern times. The Garden City district was established during the British domination of Egypt. Its special attraction was the security it offered to wealthy Cairoans because of the proximity to the British Legation located here. These days tourists are turned away from its leafy and charming streets, which are interrupted by roadblocks and other security measures, to protect the American Embassy in the age of anti-terrorism.

In the early 20th century the Gezira (island) in the middle of the Nile was developed with parks and gardens and a new choice residential neighborhood, Zamalek. in 1962 President Gamal abdel-Nasser, who was a leader of the Non-aligned bloc during the Cold War, built Gezira’s Cairo Tower , the city’s tallest structure,  partly to make a statement by using the U.S. aid money intended for him to purchase American arms. During the administration of his successor, Anwar Sadat, Mohandeseen, on the other side of the Nile from the Gezira, was developed as the favorite of the new, Westernized middle class. The current president, Hosni Mubarak, has favored Heliopolis which is on the northwest. His residence and office are there. The Egyptian elite has followed him.


The complex relationship of this elite with Mubarak dominated the political news in the days I was in Cairo , mid-October 2010. Mubarak is the third of the nationalist Free Officers group, led by Nasser, to rule in Egypt since 1952, when they deposed the Albanian dynasty’s last king, Farouk, ending his British protectors’ domination. I noticed the army’s continuing influence in politics in such anecdotal evidence as former generals being appointed governors of Egypt’s provinces (such as Luxor and Aswan), and the favorable opportunities afforded the officers’ children.

Mubarak has won the last five presidential elections with the help of his political party. He may well run for a sixth (five year) term in 2011. A new group onFacebook, calling itself the May Movement, had just emerged to support his candidacy. The elections for the national legislature were also to take place soon. The tamed Islamist Muslim Brotherhood had announced that it would contest thirty of the seats. Equally notable was the activities of the non-Islamists opposition which consisted of two groups, the Movement for Change and the National Assembly for Change. They, and many “independent” journalists, were staging a protest against the dismissal of the editor of the Cairo daily, Al-Dustour, after he published an article by the opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei (the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency).

“Change” was the key word in this opposition movement. “People are tired of Mubarak,” as my tour guide, the son of an army colonel, summarized. “Even members of Mubarak’s cabinet have been in office for decades. People want new, fresh faces.” The guide anticipated this change to happen inevitably because “Mubarak who is in his 80s is too old and in poor health.” The problem was that “if Mubarak dies, the president of the People’s Assembly, the Lower House, will succeed him, as Mubarak has always refused to appoint a Vice President who would, otherwise, succeed according to the Constitution.” In that context, the elections to the People’s Assembly had an added significance this year.

Daily life

Posters for the candidates were on display in the area still called Central Cairo (wust al-Balad) where ordinary Egyptians grappled with the more pressing problems of daily life. Not far from the Abdeen Palace where the formal Presidential events are held, I walked up the steps of the colonnaded courthouse which a plaque said had been built during the Mubarak administration. It was “Southern Cairo’s First Level Court”.  Inside, there was a spacious lobby with courtrooms on both sides and a grand staircase  that led to the upper floor. In the crowd, some men were in suits. One was standing at the door of a court room . I asked him if he was a lawyer.  He said yes. We had a conversation in English. He said he had “a client now coming from prison”. I asked what kind of case this was. He said “drugs; young.” I asked if his client was a drug dealer.  When he said yes, I asked if this problem was prevalent. He said: “Like everywhere, like the U.S.” I took some pictures. When I tried to take one of a court which was in session, two guards got up from their seats and motioned “No!”

There were many guards of all stripes in Cairo.  Some with weapons were manning flimsy protective stands, especially at government office buildings. There were not many soldiers.  Traffic cops, however, were ubiquitous and, to all appearances, largely ineffective.

“Cairo is the safest place in the world,” our tour guide said. “You can walk all over even after midnight; there is no danger.” I took up the challenge. Late at night, I went walking on the 26th of July Street. Outdoor Vendors blocked not only the sidewalks but parts of the street , causing even more congestion in the busy traffic. This was the season when dates ripened; fresh dates were in abundance. There were also vendors of bananas, and bread, and various kinds of clothes . Every block had at least one, sometimes more, coffee shops where men sat and drank tea, smoked shisha (water-pipe), and played backgammon .

I saw no women in any of those coffee shops.  There were, however, want adds on windows of some other stores for young “good looking”  women sales clerks willing to work “at all hours” . The showcase in a photo shop posted pictures of women customers with provocative writings in English. One said “love forever,” and the other: “With You I forget Any Thing”. The owner came out of the photo shop to protest my taking a picture of those photos. Other people, on the other hand, posed and invited me to take their pictures. One was a man who asked “Where from?” When I said “America,” he signed thumps up and said “Obama good; Bush bad.” Then he stumped out under his foot the imaginary face of the former President.

Many shops had Islamic writings on their portals:  Allaho Akbar (God is Great), Besmellah (in the name of Allah), Alhamodlellah (Allah be praised), sometimes in their vernacular meaning of praise employed for their products.On the sidewalk next to the local mosque two women were sitting on the cloth spread on the ground. They motioned me to go inside  the mosque. My tour guide later said the lack of violent crimes in Cairo was in part due to the dominance of Islam as the enforcer of the community moral code.

In the midst of this Islamic world there was one store that displayed bottles of alcoholic drinks at its windows. Its name, Simon Cafeteria, indicated that it was owned by Christians. Around the corner on another street was the walled campus of the Armenian National School.  There were also three flower shops on this block. They had bright lights but were surrounded by rubbles around them. A hazardously unfinished building next to them was occupied by stores open for business.

I saw a convertible car pulling up to the entrance of a hotel nearby. A just-married couple came out of the lobby followed by a small entourage. The bride wore a western-style bridal dress and coiffured hair. As the womenfolk ululated, she got into the car. Her husband sat next to her and the car drove into the uncommonly windy night. I went into the Westernized hotel for a bite to eat.

A band of three musicians and a woman singer played in a large lounge outside of the bar-restaurant. They were from Lebanon, I was told. Their audiences were women and men of Egyptian upper middle class who sat in upholstered chairs smoking shisha. Their western clothing was more frumpy than chic.


Foreign relations


In the bar, a man came and sat at the table next to me. He said he was from Saudi Arabia. I asked if he was here on business. “No. I am here to drink,” he said. It soon became clear that “here” was Cairo, not just this bar.  He explained that he had “a flat” in Cairo where he would come for a week at a time “just to drink.” He said: “In my country if I drink I will go to jail.” Later, I met a young American couple in that bar. They also were in Cairo “for fun” that was denied where they lived. That was Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. He was a solider in the American armed forces there; she was a clerk at the American base. “Do you ever go swimming in the Persian Gulf,” I asked. “No. The water is very warm, full of debris, and it is shallow for a long distance.” I asked if they knew how life was off the base. He responded that other than the American money given for “leasing” the base, “the main source of income for the Bahrainis is prostitution. They come from Thailand and the Philippines; and some from Europe. The Saudis are the big clients.”

In the lounge, I ran into Abdul-Aziz. He also had a flat in Cairo. He was an Egyptian but his permanent home had been Baltimore for some time now. He was drinking and smoking a cigarette. “My American wife would kill me if she saw me.”  This was bad for his heart problems. He laughed: “I come to Cairo to be able to do what I like.”

The suave Egyptian Ambassador whom I met for lunch with   friends the next day ate very little. Her figure fit elegantly in her fashionably professional dress. “I don’t drink myself,” she said, “but the drink of choice for my daughter and her friends is now hard liqueur, not wine.” She pointed to her colleague at our table: “He, on the other hand, is a connoisseur of wines. It is not unusual for him.” He smiled the modest smile of a diplomat: “I am a Coptic.” Between them, these Ambassadors managed a large part of their country’s official relations with the United States. I hoped for some enlightening response then, when I asked how they saw the prospects of the current new initiative to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian disputes, which was sponsored with great fanfare by the U.S., Egypt, and other “moderate” Arab States. I should have known better. The Ambassador’s answer was the carefully crafted familiar one: “The problems are complex but we are hopeful.”

The subject of the “initiative,” however, had already created a journalistic “scandal” in Egypt when handled less adroitly by the eager sycophants at a State controlled newspaper. The feature story in that newspaper had a picture of President Mubarak in the White House leading President Obama and Prime Minister of Israel into the negotiations room. When other, more objective photographic sources, revealed that in that scene, an enfeebled Mubarak was, in fact, dragging behind those men, the newspaper defended its doctored picture by saying that Egypt had always led the efforts to bring peace to Palestine. The cause of this episode was the Egyptian regime’s sensitivity to hints of Mubarak’s failing health.

Antiquities celebrity

The imposing Museum of Islamic Art with its rich collection hardly receives any visitor. This is despite major recent renovation of the Islamic Museum’s galleries. The government is also undertaking a restoration of the neglected historic buildings of Islamic Cairo. No less a figure than Zahi Hawass of the world of Egyptian antiquities chided our tour guide for not showing us the work that had already been done in the Mamluk era district. The guide later dismissed such work, which he said was only a jama’ consisting of a mosque, a madrasa and a sabil (a facility providing fresh water for the thirsty passer-by).

As to Zahi Hawass who had made him lose face before us, the guide said, he is only after publicity for himself. “Zahi is known here as ‘I, me, and myself’,” the guide said. I heard this description of Hawass also from some others in Egypt. “Hawass is very good in public relations,” they would add grudgingly. “Zahi is the media man. That is his forte. In that sense, he is good for Egypt.”

Indeed, Hawass has made himself the face of Egyptian antiquities in the outside world. Other officials make fun of his trade-mark excavation hat. “He copied it from Indiana Jones,” they say mockingly. “He charges $40 to sign one for the souvenir seekers.”

The tour guides in Cairo call themselves Egyptologists. The ones I talked to had studied the subject in the university. They regarded Halim Nureddin as the man of substance in the field. “He was my professor at Cairo University,” one of the guides said. “Zahi is all show.” Halim Nureddin used to have the job that Zahi has now: Secretary of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. I asked the guide who was Hawass’s patron in the government. He answered “it is not President Mubarak, but his wife. Her favorites are, first, the Minister of Culture (Farouk Hosni) and then Zahi. If the former had succeeded in his recent attempt to become the Director General of UNESCO, Zahi would have replaced him as the Minister of Culture.”

The guide said Zahi was still engaged in digging. “His goal is to find a monument like Howard Carter (who discovered the famous tomb of Tutankhamun).”  An older guide, Abdel Wahab, praised Hawass while revealing yet another aspect of his reputation.  He told us that he had gone digging with Hawass for 6 years. “At the beginning he gave me a hard time; he is a though man but a nice man. His hat and his clothes are American, unlike the old times when archeologists wore British clothes.”

Zahi’s excavation hat sits on a cabinet above his chair at the conference table in his office. “That is my chair,” Hawass yelled at me as I sat myself in the chair. He was sitting at his desk, still looking at documents before him. I had gone with an American group whom he received at the request of an acquaintance. We had been kept waiting some twenty minutes beyond our appointment time because, as his aide explained, “government auditors were in his office.” The aide said that this was a routine visit by the auditors. When we were finally ushered into his room, Zahi did not get up to greet us; he just raised his head looking inquisitively at us as we said our greetings. He then told us “You sit at that table!” The conference table was at one end of a rather modest office. In between were some sofas. A young western woman was standing in this buffer zone.

I said “I am sorry,” as I removed myself from the chair in question which I had not thought was Hawass’s since it was the furthest removed from his desk. He joined us after busying himself some more with his files. Upon finally sitting at our table, he turned to the member of our group next to him and said, abruptly, “Why are you here?”  Before she finished her response, Zahi barked “Who are you? Where are you from?” This treatment was then administered to each one of us. We proceeded to introduced ourselves. “I am a lawyer from San Francisco,” I said when my turn came. “Lawyer! You make lots of money.” I said “Not enough.” He responded “All lawyers say that.”

Someone asked about the hat. He said “the Chinese are making many of them which are selling well and the proceeds will go to children’s causes.” He chuckled: “George Lucas was here and asked why his hat did not sell well?” Hawass relished out-marketing the creator of Indiana Jones.

The phone rang behind the desk at the other end of the room. “Get that phone, Megan,” Zahi commanded the young woman who was still standing in the middle of the room. As she could not find which among the several phones was ringing, Zahi shouted angrily “the last one, Megan!”  There was a hush for a moment until Zahi turned his attention to us. Someone now asked about the progress in the construction of the new Grand Egyptian Museum being built to relieve the hopelessly overburdened Egyptian Museum of Cairo. Hawass said work is continuing despite some delay due to the recent world wide economic problems.

The new museum is an integral part of Hawass’s  commendable efforts toward the goal of collecting and showcasing Egypt’s finest antiquities in that country itself. He has been tireless in asking other countries to return such pieces of Egyptian heritage to Egypt. It is to that end that his admirers may justify his otherwise unusual behavior.

Museum of antiquities

Egypt banned the export of antiquities in 1835, and twenty years later established the Egyptian Antiquities Service. Its program to retrieve its ancient artifacts already taken abroad has met resistance. As our tour guide put it: “All have refused, except Israel which since two years ago, in accordance with the peace treaty, has returned some artifacts;  but it has kept the jewels.”

Regardless, the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities still has the largest and finest collection of such artifacts in the world. The collection has long outgrown the spaces of its 1902 building, and its facilities are antiquated by modern standards. It lacks climate control. I noticed that the artifacts were generally in old cabinets with little or nonexistent descriptive labels. What everybody wanted to see, however, were well known as many of those pieces had been taken to exhibits at various museums of the world. Among these was the collection of treasures from the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, especially his gold death mask with jewels used for eyes and eyebrows, the gold throne with inlaid semiprecious stones, his wardrobe, and his funerary couches. I noted a statue of Tutankhamun in black, the color which, as our guide pointed out, was an attempt for identifying the Pharaoh with Osiris, the god of regeneration.


The shortage of housing in the bustling Cairo of recent years has expanded its suburbs southwest so that the metropolis is now virtually connected to Giza, the once separate town where the Pyramids are located, literally in the desert. The Pyramids were, of course, made possible by the prosperity that Egypt experienced in the middle of the third millennium before Christ.

All three which are here, as well as the earlier Pyramid in Saqqara, several miles south, were built in the span of about one hundred years, a very short period in the nearly 3000 years of Pharaonic Egypt. Egypt has produced only these four big Pyramids. What is more, the three in Giza were built, successively, by one Pharaoh, his son, and then his grandson. Thereafter, the Pharaohs chose tombs dug in the hard-to-reach canyons like the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. Those were deemed to be more secure against theft.

Pyramids were the Pharaohs’ tombs. It was learning how to use stone in construction that made it possible to build the pyramids high. This could not be done when mud brick was used for those royal mausoleums. The only surviving of the “Seven Wonders” of the ancient world, the Pyramids are impressive monuments, inevitably making the viewer wonder how and why they were built. “They built a sand hill and rolled the rock stones to the top,” our guide said. Excavations, which continue, have yielded other information. Large groups of farmers were mobilized for the labor during the flood seasons. “As the meaning of the word in ancient Egyptian indicates,” our guide said, “the purpose of a pyramidber (house) ra (god) meat (road) — was to enable the Pharaoh’s journey after death to join the gods.” The Muslim Arabs who came later simply called it by its geometric shape: “haram (pyramid)”.

After being duly awed by size of the Pyramids, there was not much else to do here. In the distant past tourists as well as the locals used to attempt climbing to the top. The tallest, the Great Pyramid, is 146 meters, after having lost nine maters to the wind. “I knew a local man who climbed it many times,” our elder guide said. Climbing is now forbidden.

You could enter the Pyramids. “Entrance to pyramids was always in the middle of its north side,” our guide said as he pointed out the opening . “But there is not much to see inside.” Originally, however, the walls inside the burial chambers were inscribed with texts to help the Pharaoh in his afterlife journey. These earliest writings, called Pyramid Texts, were from the “Book of the Dead,” and included maps, images of gods and demons, and the correct manner of addressing them.

Outside the Great Pyramid, we saw piles of sand and rubble. “These are called Queens Pyramids. They are the tombs of the Pharaoh’s women,” our guide said.

For some tourists a bonus in visiting the Pyramids was riding a camel in the surrounding desert. There were guards on camelback  to make sure that hustlers were not close to the Pyramids. But not too far away we found Ragib who was holding up a sign which said “Welcome to Egypt.” He, our guide said, was “a good man.” His family had been in the business of providing tourists with camels and horses for over twenty years. They had several camels ready for hire today. They also displayed a picture of Ragib with President Obama when he visited here. “Nice man,” they said of Obama. “They say Obama is very popular here,” our guide interpreted.

The pharaoh himself intended to ride a boat in this desert after his death. We saw a solar barque of cedar wood which had been buried in pits near the Great Pyramid for the pharaoh who had built that Pyramid. Not far from here were the empty country palace of the last king of Egypt, Farouk, and the yet to be finished building of the Grand Egyptian Museum. All shimmered incongruously in the light of the bright sun and sand.

Down the hill was the earlier part of the path in the deceased pharaoh’s journey. A funerary temple facing us, we were told, had “a passageway leading to the Pyramid and was connected on the other side by a covered causeway to a valley temple on the bank of the Nile.” That was the route that pharaoh’s body took to his tomb in the Pyramid.

In front of the funerary temple was the Sphinx . It had the body of a lion and the face of a man. “Lion means strength, and the man is the face of Khafre (Chepren), the pharaoh who built the second tallest Pyramid here. The funerary temple and other parts of the complex built by his father, Khufu, have not yet been found.”

The funerary temples were built so that the ancient Egyptians could worship the pharaoh after his death with daily rounds of offering.  The Sphinx is called Abu al-Hol (Father of Terror) in contemporary (Arabic) Egyptian. Its function was to scare away would-be thieves from the tombs and their temples. Because efforts to provide such security failed, later pharaohs built their funerary temples away from tombs, as in Luxor.

On the day of our visit, the mood was celebratory, not fearfully guarded or funerary. The stage had been set for an outdoor production of Aida, Verdi’s opera commissioned  for debut at the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Today’s production, we were told, had been  sold out. Instead we saw the spectacle of several high school girls in colorful clothes , visiting on a field trip. “They are from the town of Mansura in the north,” our guide said.  They were pretty. “Mansura is famous for the beauty of its woman and men” our guide explained. “They have golden hair, and blue eyes and green eyes. This is because the French stayed there for some time. It is near where they discovered the Rosetta Stone. While there the French married many local women.”

When one of the students went to sit next to her mother on the bench, I noticed that the mother hid her own beauty under a black meliyya, the head-to-toe garment that only allows an opening of slits for the eyes.


This article, entitled “Extremism Alongside Moderation: Cairo’s present is in the past”, was published on the following website of on February 23, 2011, with related pictures:

Aswan: A thousand years later

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2011. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise  distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


abstract:Aswan is a rare place. It’s a living community amidst the ruins of old settlements. It was a strategic gatekeeper at ancient Egypt’s southern frontier. Yet it absorbed the very people it aimed to keep out. The Nubians of the south are now almost indistinguishable from the Egyptians. They were the early Christian converts in this corner of the world who were later integrated by intermarriage with the Egyptian converts to Islam. In this largely Sunni city, the legacy of the Shiite Ismaili rule still competes with those of the Romans and Greeks. All of these relics are ingénues compared with what is left of the Pharaonic age. In the ruins of Abu one finds the magic of this place. Like most things in Egypt, it is theNile. It was here that people looked for answer to the question that mattered to them above all: how bountiful would the River be in the year ahead? The Nilometer measured that. The divinity that the inhabitants prayed to was the God of Inundation. The past has largely stayed in Aswan, yet it has changed. I looked at the present face of Aswan in its streets, bazaars, institutions, and schools, all the while comparing notes with my predecessor of a thousand year ago, Nasir Khusraw, who recorded his observations in his celebrated Book of Travels.

Train trip

In the year 1050, Nasir Khusraw was in Qus, near present day Luxor, planning to go to Aswan, as we did now. In what became the best travel book (Safarnameh) of the age, he wrote of the two alternative roads for the trip: one on land across a desert which had no water and the other on a “sea of water.”  Nasir (from Marv inCentral Asia) chose the second. Most tourists today do the same: they cruise down theNile. We decided on the alternative. Instead of riding the camel as Nasir would have had to do, however, we went by train.

The porter who carried our luggage in the train station was not afraid of live lines in the tracks which he crossed with abandon; we used the overpass to go to the appropriate platform. There we sat on wooden benches waiting for our train. It did not arrive at the anticipated time. We were given no information about the reason and the expected length of the delay. In search of an explanation I began a conversation with local fellow passengers. Within an hour we were into rumors. In the next forty five minutes fantastic stories filled the vacuum left by the absence of facts. Then our train arrived, just as inexplicably; it effectively stopped the maturing of the budding conspiracy theories being bandied about.

In the space between the train’s cars which we boarded a man sat next to the luggage stowed away on two shelves. We added our luggage ourselves, but this did not stop the man from asking for an unearned tip. The cars were non-smoking, air conditioned, and had comfortable chairs. I had a view window. We went through dry but irrigated fields fed from water canals running parallel to the tracks. TheNilewas not far but it was often not visible. The fields were sometimes fenced in front with short mud and straw walls. The hot sun burned through the haze. Palm trees appeared occasionally, pregnant with ripe dates. Soon on our side to the west irrigation stopped in most places. Hilly, baked, light brown desert occupied the space. This was the Great Sand Dune Sea, matched on the east of theNileby the Eastern Desert. The bounty of theNiledid not extend far. The train plodded quietly as though it was a modern equivalent of the camel.


“We reached a town called Aswan,” as Nasir had written. “The country of Nubia is four leagues away,” he wrote, and Aswan was “greatly fortified” and “always had a defending garrison” so that “if someone from Nubia had bad intentions, he could not succeed.” Indeed, at the timeAswanmarked the border between Islamic Egypt and the NubiankingdomofMakuriain the south.  The people of Makuria were black and Christians, as Nasir noted. They were converted by missionaries sent in the sixth century by theByzantine Empire.

In Aswan, as Nasir had also noted, “facing the city, in the middle of the Nile, there is an island, like a garden, and in it are date trees, olive trees, and other trees and much farming.” I could see that island, called Elephantine, from the Aswan train station. That is where I stayed that night.

Next day at 5:40 in the morning, I sat at the edge of the huge pool of my modern hotel that seemed to cascade into the Nileat the other end. The sky was dark blue, the color that also hued the water. I was accompanied by a small animal kingdom. Three black birds hovered overhead. A smaller bird swooped down to the bank of the pool. Five persistent flies on my body were faster than my attempt at swatting. A cat appeared, soon joined by two more. Presently, they lost interest in me and went hunting for mice in the patch of garden on the corner of the pool which was adorned by hibiscus flowers. Beyond, little faux “oriental” domes of the adobe color villas of the hotel were half-replicated by the converse hollow of the satellite dishes on the roof. I was waiting for the earth’s orbiting to take it below the sun. At5:50the sun began to appear. It was partially blocked by a billboard foisted high inAswanon the east bank of the Nile. As the earth and the billboard moved lower and northward, the sun’s full force blinded me. It was at first red, then it turned molting white. It was big, foreboding, commanding. The hills behind me came alive. The water’s blue turned lighter. The temperature inAswanthat October day in 2010 reached 110 degrees.


The ferry over the Niletook me back to Aswan. A man who said he “knew” me because he worked in the restaurant of my hotel insisted on being my guide. When I resisted this offer of unwanted help so often dealt the tourists in Egypt, he protested a distinction, “I am not Egyptian, I am Nubian”. We were on Sharia as-Souq (Market Street). The Souq (market) was the institution that gave Aswan(from old Egyptian swenet meaning trade) its name. This was where ancient Egyptians and Nubians came to trade. As Nasir recorded, the Egyptian merchants brought “beads, combs, and corals,” and took Nubian “slaves”. In the Souq, Nasir also saw “wheat and millet” fromNubia which, he noted, were “both black”.

Today a shopkeeper in the Souk called out to me: “You look Egyptian. I have the right scalp hat for you.” The Aswan Souq that I saw was mostly one long and narrow alley. Its roof consisted of a series of retractable pieces of cloth that served as a protection against the sun. They appeared decorative as banners, but the main colors here were supplied by the merchandise. I counted 18 different colors in exotic spices displayed in one typical store. They had inspired the colorful baskets, a signature Nubian handicraft, hung for sale at several other shops.

The Souq, however, is not a museum store; it is where the people of Aswanshop for everyday needs. I examined three kinds of saffron being offered –Egyptian, Nubian, and Iranian. A salesman in another store showed me what he called the “Nubiatea,” the dried hibiscus flowers, used to make an all Egyptian favorite drink, karkadai. He also had lemon grass. Produce and fruit were sold in several stores. In season were tomatoes , green peppers, string beans, squash, potatoes, bananas, and pomegranate. A baker proudly showed his pita bread, his whole face and garment covered with the white flour used. The butcher had no problem attracting customers. Men in full length Egyptian robes, galabiyyas, and women with head-dresses lined up to buy meat. The shoe store had sandals in multiple colors to sell. Arabic music blared from a small canteen that sold sodas . It co-exited with a mosque that faced it directly on the other side of the alley.

Another mosque served the faithful just outside the Souk. Its signs showed separate prayer rooms for men and women. Here, out on the street, the local Kentucky Chicken franchise offered delivery on motorcycles. Coca cola provided the awning for a convenient store run by a pretty woman, whose last customer was an equally handsome guard. A few steps further, a store boasted the name of its “interior decorator”. Not far away was the big Coptic church in Aswan. The Copts were also conspicuously visible and active where Western tourists stayed. My big hotel and its upscale stores were run by them.


The Muslims have ruled in Aswannow for several centuries, and the early relics of their presence were in the IsmailiCemeteryhere. Some tombs go back even to the 9th century Tulunid dynasty which preceded the Ismaili Fatimids. Aswan was an important center of the Ismailis whose reign continued in the person of a local amir (Kanz al-Dawla) for sometime even after they lost power in Cairo. The vast Cemetery  is mentioned in the guidebooks as a major tourist attraction in Aswan. On the day I visited, it had no other visitors. The mausoleums over the tombs were distinct in architecture with their domes built on a square shaped structure. They were in various states of disrepair.  The shrine of Zainab here did not fare much better, although it is named for the daughter of the Shiite first Imam, a most venerated woman who the Ismailis deem to have been the first to issue summons to the Shiite community (da’wah) upon the martyrdom of her brother Hussein inKarbala.

The contemporary head of the worldwide Ismaili community, however, maintains a park across the Nile where his predecessor and grandfather Aga Khan III, and his wife, Begum are buried. The Aga Khans, who received this title of “commander” (of militia) from the Shah of Persia in the 19th century have been the recognized leaders of the Ismaili community at least since 1817, when the first Aga Khan from Mahalaat, Iran, asserted his claim to be the 46th Imam of the Ismaili community in the world.

The Ismaili community in Iranwas formed by Hassan-e Sabbah, known to the world for training a group of assassins for his political goals. He had come with his army from Egyptto northern Iranaround the year 1090, after his faction lost out in the internal struggle between the Fatimid princes in Egypt. Like Zainab, and Nasir Khusraw, Hassan-e Sabbah was an Ismaili da’i, committed to spreading the gospel of Ismaili religion.

In that retrospect, the Aga Khans “return” toEgyptafter nearly nine centuries in diaspora was not unusual. Spending most of that period inIran, Aga Khan I and his close associates moved to British controlledIndiawhen the British government showered him with rewards, including a pension, for using his cavalry to helpBritainin the Afghan War of 1841 and 1842, and the conquest of Sindh in 1843-44. His grandson and eventual successor, Aga Khan was knighted by the British. Among his great friends was another British favorite, King Farouk ofEgypt. It was during Farouk’s rule that Aga Khan III established a residence inAswan, as he found the post-partitionIndiaafter independence less hospitable. “He lovedAswanbecause he found its hot climate to be good for his medical problems,” my tour guide said.Aswanbecame his favorite wintering place. The family built a white villa in the garden on the western shore of the Nile from Aswan. After Aga Khan died in 1957, his wife continued to allow people to visit the garden until she died in 2000.

The concierge at the hotel discouraged me from trying to visit their Mausoleum. “It is closed,” she said, “only Ismailis with special permit could visit it.”  Mr. Saleh, however, said he could arrange a visit. “No problem,” he said, he “had been a guide here for many years.”  At the appointed time, however, he came sad with the news that we could not visit the Mausoleum. He said “I don’t know, but Aga Khan is a Baha’i or Indian and it is only for them.” When I explained that the Ismailis were a Shiite group, many of whom had lived inIndia, he was further confused. He thought I had come for pilgrimage to the site. He did not know why the Mausoleum was closed. He asked the captain of the felucca that was now taking us on a Nile cruise and reported that “Egyptians went to the Mausoleum for picnicking in its gardens, and as is their custom they played music and danced there. Karim Aga Khan, the current leader of the community ordered the Mausoleum closed because he considered such conduct as being a disrespectful use of the place.”


Mr. Saleh was a teacher I had met at a high school inAswanwhich we visited in connection with a cooperative project involving an American city. We were received at the entrance and led thorough a courtyard to the office of the school’s “Director of Administration,” at the other end.  Mr. Hussein, the Director was carefully frugal with the few English phrases he was certain he could use without mistake. For help, he brought in his favorite English teacher, Mr. Mohamed. As Mohamed began to give an introduction about the school, Mr. Hussein interrupted him, barking “what about Chemistry,” wanting Mr. Mohamed to describe the school’s chemistry program. No sooner had Mr. Mohamed responded to this command than Mr. Hussein barked again, “what about drama?” It was at this point that Mr. Saleh came in and interrupted Mohamed’s speech and derailed Hussein’s choreography.

Saleh went right through the length of the room and took a seat next to the leader of our visiting group and began an animated conversation with her.  He was loud and clearly much more comfortable in speaking English than his colleagues. He cut quite a figure with his untied tie crossed over his chest. The hapless Mohamed fell silent. The meeting collapsed into bilateral chatter. The school Director looked helpless in restoring the semblance of order. He concluded that he had no choice but to say “let’s go and visit the classrooms.”

We went through the halls of the school’s three-story building. The walls were covered with sayings, mostly in Arabic and many from the Qur’an, extolling the virtues of learning. One framed script also featured an ominous looking raised sword at the bottom. Another showed various versions of Islamic scripts, penning Mohamed, the name of the Prophet. They included sols, naskh, kufi, farsi, but not the tughra script. I asked Mr. Hussein for an explanation. He had none as he had not known what tughra was: the script used by the Ottoman Turks who ruled Egypt until as late as the 19th century.

We visited an English literature class, a Chemistry class, and a Math class, for the second and third year high school students. The class size was about thirty. Students wore uniform. The boys had white shirt and pants. They took the rows to the left of the blackboard. The girls sat in the rows to the right. They wore shapeless grey pants and tops that covered all their bodies, and white head-scarves that covered their hair and fell on their shoulders. I noticed two who were not wearing head-scarves. “They are Christians,” the teacher explained, but added “some Muslims also don’t wear head-scarves.”

The students did not all belong to the respective classes where they were assembled for us. When one was introduced to us as having been to theU.S.for some time and I asked him how his experience of going to school in the US compared with here, he began his answer by “I actually am not in this Math class.” He was one of the “exchange students,” who had spent a year in theU.S.He said: “In the States you could take elective classes; here you mostly have to take the courses required. It is much harder here. But even in journalism class I took in the States, I learned a lot.” A teacher said: “we have had exchange students from the U.S., as well as Malaysia,Italy, etc.”

In the English literature class a Sonnet by Shakespeare was written in chalk on the blackboard. The teacher was a wiry woman with a head-scarf and glasses. She walked swiftly back and forth in the aisles shouting questions at students in accented English, smiling. “Who was William Shakespeare?” A girl raised her hand. The teacher quickly recognized her by pointing to her. “He was a writer,” the student said. The teacher praised her but pursued her for more. The student added: “He was the greatest writer ofEngland.” The teacher corrected her “not justEngland, but the whole world,” and moved on both with her walking and questions. “What did he write?” She now recognized an eager boy with his hand up. “Plays,” he said. “Good,” the teacher said, “can you tell me the name of one?” The boy said “Hamlet”. The teacher was ecstatic. “Now who knows what a Sonnet is?” A girl volunteered. Helped by the teacher, she gave a definition, including the number of verses in a Sonnet: “fourteen”. Mr. Saleh who was with us could not contain himself any longer. He started reading the lines on the blackboard, slowly but with the tone of one who had done this particular drill many times. Mr. Saleh explained to me that he had been teaching English for twenty years. “I have problems with the Director because I tell him that I know much more than he does.”

I asked the students who their favorite English writer was. Two answered. One said “William Shakespeare.”  The teacher was pleased. Another said “Charles Dickens.” The teacher said “yes”. I asked the student why. She said “because he wrote with emotions.” Someone in our group asked if the students knew any American writer. Students and their teachers knew Hemingway. I asked if they had read Mark Twain. Students and teachers looked puzzled at the unfamiliar name. I explained that Mark Twain was one famous American writer I knew who actually wrote about his trip to Egypt. They had not heard of him.

In the chemistry class, a ragged table of elements hung next to the blackboard . Someone asked if any student could give the chemical formula for salt. A student raised his hand: “NaCl” I asked about the formula for water since we were by theNile. There was a grunt from nearly everyone: so simple. “H2O,” someone said. “OK, who won the Noble prize in chemistry this year?” The reaction was just the opposite. The silence was finally broken by a girl standing outside the classroom: “Two Japanese and an American.” Someone now asked if the students knew what they wanted to be “when they grew up.” A shy girl said “a Doctor.” The teacher explained: “Her father is a Doctor.” Another student also said she wanted to be a Doctor. When asked why, there was a momentary pause. Mr. Saleh rubbed his fingers, indicating money. But the student said “because I want to help the people.”

The students had small notebooks with long-hand writings on the desk in front of them. The highest technology in evidence was that table of elements. I asked if they used computers in their studies. A teacher replied to me that there were computers in the school. They showed me a room across the hall. “That is the lab,” they said. It was dark and from the outside it looked like an old fashioned chemistry lab. At lunch I sat next to the Deputy Director of the Ministry of Education’s office inAswan. Education is the charge of the central government. He had just been appointed to the position and said that he had big plans to improve education inAswan. He talked about the Intel project for using computers in teaching, launched inCairosome six years ago. Hopefully, it would reach Aswan soon.

The Deputy Director’s wife was not coming fromCairotoAswanfor another two weeks. In the meantime he was usually “eating at home, cheese and some ready to eat food from outside.” The next evening I met him at a dinner the Governor of Aswan gave for our group. In the lobby of a venerable hotel, the Governor greeted us with a warm handshake. In his fifties, he was handsome with a winning smile.  Once he exhausted his limited English, he relied on the head Director of Aswan’sNubianMuseumto offer more pleasantries and to understand ours. The Director sat next to the Governor at the dining table. The officials from other departments of the Aswan Governorate flanked them in strict protocol. The man from Education did not rank high; he was at one end of the table.

Our group was seated across the table from them. At the appropriate time we presented the Governor with the gift we had brought for him. He thanked us, and then with a signal to his group, the Governor got up and led a march of his whole party to our side. They bore gifts for each one of us.  The almost military demeanor was a reminder of the Governor’s background in the army. He had risen to the rank of a general. This was not the only instance I saw inEgyptof how its military used its alumni in a tentacle of political influence.

Nubian Museum

The Director of theNubianMuseuminvited us to visit the Museum. He assigned his deputy to show us the collection. The failure of the projector frustrated his efforts at a more elaborate video exposition in the auditorium. Adjacent to theFatimidCemetery, the Museum is in a modern building inspired by traditional Nubian structures. In 2001 it was awarded the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, established to honor concepts that responded to the needs and aspirations of Islamic societies. It is in fact a place to showcase the history, culture, and art of the Nubians much of which was lost whenEgyptbuilt the High Dam on theNilethat flooded their land in the 1960s. Most of the artifacts saved from the flood through a UNESCO rescue program are now in the Nubian Museum. On the two occasions I visited, however, its vast halls were almost without any other visitors. Tourists prefer, instead, to go far to see the Nubian temples, especiallyAbu Simbel, transplanted to locations near their original sites which are now under water.

Exhibits in the Museum provide sketches of life inNubiafrom 4500 B.C. to the present. A chart on the wall close to the entrance shows the fluctuating fortune of Nubian rulers throughout history. Various pharaohs were Nubian in origin. The pharaohs of the XII Dynasty who ruled from 1991 BC to 1786 BC originated from theAswanregion. The Nubian Khushite King Piye took control ofEgyptin 750 BC and established the XXV Dynasty. These “Black Pharaohs” ruled for the next 75 years. A case in the museum exhibited a replica of wooden black Nubian soldiers in military formation found in a tomb in Asyut, Egypt. As the sign said the Nubian soldiers fought “side by side” Egyptian soldiers.  The dominant influence of Egypt in the Lower Namibia, as the Aswan region is called, had caused the Nubian elite to embrace the cultural and spiritual customs ofEgypt, venerating its gods, and wearing its clothes. This was illustrated in the bust of “King Taharka” the most important of the Black Pharaohs in the museum. As the sign under it said, it showed “him idealized to conform to the Egyptian canons. ”  Our guide pointed out his broken nose and said “his rivals did this defacing to prevent his return from the dead, as the ancient Egyptian beliefs held.”

Down the hall was another example of Egyptian beliefs adopted by the Nubians. In a glass case, as the sign said, was a “statuette of the goddess (of motherhood) Isis suckling the young god Horus (her son).” This “symbolizes the idea of motherhood in Ancient Egypt.”  “Later,” the sign continued, “the Coptic artist used this notion to represent the Virgin Mary suckling the child Jesus.”

Another bust of a man spoke of the durability of customs and protocol. It showed the man’s left hand placed across the chest . He was the “warden” of a palace in ancientEgyptnearly 3,800 years ago. That gesture was “a mark of politeness and respect,” the sign under the bust said. “This is still the mark of respect inEgypt,” our guide said.

The Museum’s exhibits of the more recent history of Nubiawere several dioramas dominated by a replica of the saqia . This was the local word for the “Persian Wheel, the ox-driven system of lifting water from open wells, which I had seen as far east as India. A sign next to it explained its significance for the survival of the arid Lower Nubiaduring the “Hellenistic times.” “The impact of the introduction of the saqiya (saqia) on Lower Nubia settlement was very great, allowing the cultivation of large areas of land…. the population and wealth of Lower Nubia increased dramatically while those of the southern provinces declined.

Nubian villages

The Museum’s dioramas also included a model of a Nubian house, and a scene of mannequin Nubian men and women in traditional clothes, with the men playing local musical instruments.  Outside the Museum I could seem Elephantine Island in the middle of the Nile where there were two living Nubian villages with live people. I went there.

The villages are called Siou and Koti. I entered by walking into a colorfully painted Nubian house on the edge of theNile. A pleasant man greeted me and said this house had been in his family for seventy five years. “Its name, Baaba Dool, means grandfather.” After the construction of the Aswan High Dam, the house had to be modified “because of the change in the water level,” he said.  There were souvenirs for sale here, bread baskets, fans, and containers, “all locally made by my family from date palm and straw.”  He invited me to go to the roof terrace for a view. He pointed out another house across the little square that also belonged to “the family.” In between the two houses, there was a place for “the sheep.”

It was past 10 in the morning. A rooster crowed. I started to walk through the narrow  alleys  of the village.  A large woman in bright red dress said “Hi.” A man was pushing a barrel of hay . I asked “for what?’ He put his hand to ears and said “baa!”   Three Women were washing clothes outside a house. One stretched her palm to me and asked for “baksheesh”. I went inside a small grocery store which had coca cola but no bottle of water. On the television screen, a man was reciting verses from the Qur’an. The owner of a “cafeteria” invited me in to buy a meal.  At the entrance to another shop, a man called Ahmad Saber had his name, both in Arabic and Hieroglyphic, framed in a cartouche, the way the pharaohs did to protect their names. I visited a house which had turned its upper terrace into a small museum of local flora and fauna called Animalia . From there the garden below looked lush green.

Down in the alley, a group of women were sitting on the steps of a house, chopping greens in preparation for the family lunch. The sight of a tourist aroused a now familiar reaction. It was not just that they asked me for baksheesh, one woman even prodded her four year old son to extend his hand out to ask for his share. Around the next bend I saw the result of such training: a boy not older than three was flying solo. He was all by himself asking response to his silently stretched arm aimed at me. Presently, however, the sight of a goat grazing in the pile of garbage in the alley distracted him. Forgetting me he ran happily after the goat .

Ruins of Abu

Long before these Nubian villages there existed on the Elephantine Island a settlement called Abu. Indeed, it gave its name, meaning both elephant and ivory in ancient Egyptian, to the Island. The Egyptians built a fortress here around 3000 B.C., and later it also played a significant role in the ivory trade with Africa. It remained a trading center throughout the Pharaonic period. Furthermore, it was the cult center of Khnum, the God of Inundation and later worshiped as the creator of mankind, as well as his wife Satet, the guardian of the southern frontier, and their daughter Anket. Their worship did not stop until the 4th century when the occupyingRoman Empire established Christianity as the official religion.

I continued my walk from the Nubian village to the ruins which told that history. European teams still excavating here have turned the site into an outdoor museum. There were, however, few helpful signs. I only had a custodian who spoke no English to help guide me by gestures. His best was to impersonate Ramesses II, as he sat on the column bases remaining from a restoration of the KhnumTemple  undertaken by that XIX Dynasty Pharaoh. He put his feet where there were marks depicting big feet on a stone base with Ramesses’s cartouche written on it.  We saw reliefs depicting the ram-headed Khnum himself. What remained of the Temple of Goddess Satetwas more impressive. Columns with torus (convex) molding held up the heavy roof. There were hieroglyphic writings on them. This was a temple rebuilt by Hatshepsut, the Egyptian female pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty. On this day a group of western women all in  simple bright red garb were here, some sitting on the ground. They were silent and respectful as worshipers are. One seemed to be praying. My custodian guide motioned that I should be quite but he could not explain who those people were.

In the midst of the Ruins of Abu there is the Aswan Museum. Its old wing recalls the times of British dominance in Egypt, as it was the residence of Sir William Willcocks, the architect of the old Aswan“Low” Dam of 1902. The collection here is an incoherent mix of dusty looking artifacts, quaintly marked in brief hand-written signs. The Museum’s modern wing, added in 1998, is a bright space where the discoveries of the Swiss and German archeologists are on display with full explanatory signs in computer fonts. Of special interest to me was a 3rd century BC “verdict of a judicial collegium”  on papyrus in “hieratic,” a cursive form of writing developed from the hieroglyphic script. The area still under excavation just outside the Aswan Museum is revealing layers added to the ruins of the old Abu settlement by a succession of future occupiers, especially the Romans and the Greeks.


On the edge of this area, at the bank of theNilewas the most strategic of the sites. Here were several Nilometers made to measure the level of theNile. The oldest dated from the XXVI Dynasty (685-525 BC), the last native Egyptian rulers of the land before foreign occupiers — Persians, Greeks, and Romans– arrived. I walked down the Nilometer’s stone stairs to a small basin which collected the water of the Nile. The maximum level of the water reached here was crucial. It was an indication of the probability of a bountiful harvest.  If the Nilometer recorded a high level of water at this frontier of theNileinEgypt, the pharaohs could demand higher taxes from their subjects.

The Romans built a new Nilometer of their own only a few steps away. This served the same purpose for centuries to come. Nasir Khusraw who visited it a thousand years before I did left us the following report.

“Around (late June) the water of the Nilerises to twenty arsh (about 18 inches) above its level in winter as it gradually increases day by day. In Egypt they have built measuring tools and markers, and there is a functionary with a thousand dinar salary to record that increase. From the day that the water starts to increase, he would send heralds to the town to announce that today, God, the exalted and glory be to Him, increased the Nile so much. Every day they would say how many asba (fingers) it increased. When it reaches one gaz (about 18 inches) they give good tidings and rejoice until 18 arsh (a total of 27 feet) is reached. That 27 feet is the agreed goal. That is to say when it is less than that they call it deficiency and feel sorrow and disappointment and beseech God and give to charities. When it exceeds that level they rejoice and celebrate. Until it reaches 27 feet, the Sultan’s taxes would not be levied on his subjects.”

This article, entitled “A thousand years later -Aswan: Jewel of the Nile”, was published on the following website of on February 28, 2011, with related pictures:


Letter from Cairo


                        Copyright© Keyvan Tabari 2004. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari. ________________________________________________________________________

The Pita Seller

I was  sipping tea  in the alley that doubles as the outdoor serving area of Fishawi’s Coffeehouse in Cairo. A boy of about seven passed through, pedaling small loaves of freshly baked pita bread, shammy, held in a tray on his head. I asked for one. Showing his fingers, he wanted five Egyptian pounds. He could not break my twenty pound note. The customers next to me did not have change either. An Egyptian man walked by and noticed my problem. He picked a pita from the tray, gave it to me, and paid the boy one pound. I thanked him and held out my money. He waived his hand to say his was a gift. I learned later that the price of the pita was only two-tenths of a pound. From such scenes I have formed my impressions of Cairo, which I visited in the first five days of April 2004.

Fishawi’s is located in Khan al-Khalili, Cairo’s old bazaar. Although both are recommended by guide books, neither is a tourist trap. The bazaar is a center of local trade and the coffeehouse’s customers are mostly local . I was sitting on a bench softened by a thin cushion. Around me were men, and a woman, smoking sheesha, the water pipe. Every so often, a waiter would bring hot coals in a small brazier to stoke the pipes. On the wall opposite me in the alley, next to an oval mirror, was the door to the coffeehouse. The building looked authentically old, fitting between its neighbors. I went in. A few customers were inside. There were two rooms, not very big, with wooden and worn furniture, but still charming.

Khan al-Khalili was established in the 14th century and seems not to have changed much since. I looked at the medieval archways where people lived and worked. The shops sold goods that must have also been in demand several centuries ago. I thought of the frequent complete overhauls of shopping centers in California and the changing fads in their consumer products.  The day before, I had seen the farms outside Cairo as we drove to Memphis, the earlier capital of Egypt. They seemed as ancient as the ruins of Memphis and its sphinx and statues of Pharaohs, and the nearby pyramids of Saqqara.

Relics of Religion

Our group sat on the carpeted floor in the cavernous prayer room of the Mosque of Mohammed Ali. The guide pointed to the European clock in the courtyard. “That was the gift Khedive Mohammed Ali received from France in return for sending the Paranoiac obelisk that is now in Paris,” she said -as I would closely paraphrase such sayings in quotes here. The clock has never worked, having been damaged on delivery. “What a bargain!” she said.

It was the history of Islam, however, that the guide wanted to talk about now. When she got to the Sunni-Shiite differences, she explained that the Sunnis believed Mohammad was the prophet and “the Shiites believe that Mohammad was the prophet too, but have very high respect for Ali.” She paused and gave me a meaningful glance.  The two of us had a discussion on this subject in the morning part of the tour, when I was her only client. Her characterization of the Shiites was different then. She had said that the Shiites, unlike the Sunnis, did not believe that Mohammad was the prophet, “They believe that Ali was the prophet.” I offered that the Shiites would be surprised to hear this as they clearly believed that the prophet was Mohammad, and Ali was merely the first Imam. I did not expect that our exchange would modify the guide’s views. She had told me that she belonged to the Borhani religious group that studied Islam carefully. She may have now simply allowed for my presence. I wondered if how she described the Shiites in the morning did not more accurately reflect the general view in Egypt.

“There are no Shiites in Cairo,” our guide said; this, in a city that was founded by the Shiite Fatimids in the Tenth Century. The guide explained that the Fatimid dynasty’s reign was ended in 1171 by the Sunni Saladin, of the Crusade fame. The Sunnis have since dominated Cairo. One of the most venerated sites in the city, however, continues to be the Mosque of al-Hussein where the Cairoans believe the head of Hussein, “the prophet’s grandson,” is buried. There were more worshipers around Hussein’s shrine than in any of the other major Mosques I visited. Although in Cairo they may not mention it, for the Shiites Hussein, their Third Imam, is the symbol of their grievances against the Sunnis. His “martyrdom” in the battle of Karbala against the ruling Sunni Khalif is annually commemorated as the defining tragedy in the Shiite history.

Islam appeared pervasive in Cairo. At a grocery store to buy a bottle of water, I had to wait in line with two other customers while the owner prayed on the floor. I saw overflowing crowds of men praying on the street sidewalks in front of small mosques. Taxi drivers hung verses from the Koran on their rear view mirrors. Most women wore the Islamic headdress. This was by choice, as I also saw Muslim women without such headdresses. I asked one such woman, a guide, if I had heard correctly that a tourist police was asking her why she was not wearing the Hejab. She looked at me offended and said that I misunderstood, and that nobody had a right to tell her what to wear. Nobody dressed immodestly. To meet boys, my guide went to the coffeehouses, but she sought calm and serenity in a mosque.

The shrine that contained Hussein’s relic was in a rectangular room. Two third of the worshipers were women, but they were packed standing in only one side of the room, separated from the men, far fewer in number, some of whom comfortably lounged on the floor and the chairs in the other three sides. I had already seen this disparity in the Al-Azhar mosque . Its vast courtyard was lined with many rooms. As we were crossing it, my guide pointed to one room where some women were praying and said that was set aside for women. I asked, “Which room is for men?” The guide looked at me with a smile of incredulity, his hands stretched out with palms up. “The whole place is ours,” he said.

In conversation with me the Cairoans would invoke Islam as the guide for political as well as moral conduct. Even their hope for a favorable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian problem was cast in the millenarian promises of the Koran.

In the old quarter of Cairo, I visited a 9th century synagogue with a well in the courtyard which was claimed to be where the Pharaoh’s daughter found the baby Moses. The Jews also fled here in the 6th century when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Jerusalem temple. No Jew worships at this synagogue now. The nearby Hanging Church, however, is an active center of the Coptic community that lives largely in its own neighborhood, separate from the Muslims. Pictures of visits by all of Egypt’s Presidents were in conspicuous display in the church. Fifteen percent of Egyptians are Coptic, my guide noted. The next day, as I was walking by the Nile, a young man who said that he was a Coptic Egyptian made himself my uninvited company for a few blocks.  After learning that I came from the U.S., he said “I hate the Arabs”.  I gathered that he was referring to Muslim Egyptians.

I recalled that two years before, in New York, a friend had taken me to dinner at the house of a wealthy émigré Jewish Egyptian family. One of the sisters, not present, was married to a well known Coptic Egyptian. The conversation was mostly about the Arabs, not complementary, but the focus included Palestinians as well the Egyptians since one of the guests had just come from Israel with stories about the terror of the Intifada. Now I was walking some distance south on Giza’s Sharia el-Nil, a broad boulevard. The sidewalk was occupied by sheep herders with their flocks. They looked biblical. Call it kitsch, but I imagined Abraham.

Quiescent Politics

The former Shah of Iran is buried in Cairo’s Ar-Rifai Mosque under a simple flat tombstone. There is a royal Iranian flag in the otherwise empty room with its elegantly ornate walls. In a room two doors away lies the body of the Shah’s former brother-in-law, Farouk, the last king of Egypt. The Shah was given sanctuary in his last days from the vengeful wrath of Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution.  The Egyptian revolutionaries had shown greater tolerance by allowing the return of Farouk’s remains from exile. When they overthrew him, the king was despised by his subjects for the same reason the Shah was denounced by his: despotism in collusion with foreign powers.

Politics seemed quiescent in Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak has now been in office for more than two decades, but there was no picture of him, neither a banner extolling his virtues in the streets of the Capital. Nor, on the other hand, did I notice any evidence of an organized opposition to him. “It is so hard to make a living now that people are left with no energy for political activity,” one Cairoan explained. Such sentiment toward Mubarak as was expressed to me was favorable. Even the grooming of his son to succeed him was approved. The son’s benevolence toward the youth was noted: “He organizes computer classes for them.” Mubarak was accepted also because “there is no one better on the scene.” The Cairoans complained about the increasing poverty and the widening gap between the rich and the poor, but they did not blame the President for those problems.

Mubarak was credited with being “smart,” and appreciated for keeping Egypt out of un-winnable wars. In reaction to the American invasion of Iraq, unpopular among Egyptians, Mubarak had declared that he would not stop anyone who wanted to fight with the Iraqis but would not sacrifice Egyptian soldiers against the overwhelming American power.  Two Cairoans related this to me approvingly. They also agreed with Mubarak’s rationale for not intervening militarily in the Palestine conflict: “How could you fight them when they have nuclear bombs?”

The tariff sign  I saw at the Cairo Zoo differentiated among “the Egyptians, the Arabs, and the Foreigners.”  The other Arabs are neither foreigners nor Egyptians. The headquarters of the Arab League is a prominent building in the center of Cairo. One Cairoan told me, however, that the other Arab countries were unreasonable in expecting Egypt alone to carry their burden. When I heard that there would be a huge demonstration provoked by the recent Israeli assassination of the Hamas leader, Ahmed Yasin, I went to the campus of Cairo University which has a grand plaza capable of accommodating thousands. I found, instead, only festive small clusters of engineering students in nice suits and dresses, celebrating their graduation. Across town, in the elite American University of Cairo, which is near the barricaded American Embassy, students were playing basketball.

A short distance from Cairo University is the Embassy of Israel, a relic of the Camp David Agreement of 1978. These days, the Cairoans’ hostility toward Israel is so intense that, in conversation with me, it extended to all Jews. The United States, one said, is believed to be controlled by the Jews.  The disappointment with America has been accentuated by the U.S. occupation of Iraq: “while Saddam may have been bad, the Iraqis should be left alone in deciding their own affairs,” I was told. “Even if one assumes that democracy is good, it cannot be imposed by foreigners.” The Cairoans stressed that they distinguished between the American people and the American government. Their anger at America, however, was such that one said “Ben Laden is a hero here because he was able to hurt America.” I reminded them that far from hurting Egypt, the United States was giving it billions of dollars annually in foreign aid, more than any other country save Israel. One Cairoan dismissed this aid as going only to those friendly to the U.S. in order to enable them to stay in power. The other considered it as simply owing to Egypt for its entering the peace agreement with Israel. Perhaps no amount of aid could adequately reduce resentment against the U.S.  The Cairoans’ sentiment seems to be derived more from a sense of dignity and pride: they feel outraged and humiliated by what they perceive that Israel and the United States are doing toward other Arabs.

Being a Tourist

As my taxi approached the pyramids of Giza, I was trying to make out their outlines in the smog that engulfed Cairo that day. Suddenly, I saw several young men running toward the car. The driver did not stop; he left four of them behind. The fifth man, however, opened the back door of the moving taxi, jumped in, and seated himself in the back. I was sitting in front as passengers do in Cairo. Not quite understanding what was happening, I yelled at the new arrival, “What are you doing here? Get out of my taxi.” He shouted back several phrases, including “I am with the government.” I said I did not care and he had to get out. The vehemence of my protest finally made him leave. My driver then confirmed that the intruder wanted to be my guide for the pyramids. I fended off several other such would be guides, while I viewed the two bigger pyramids from the outside and walked toward the third one, the Menkaure. Here I was met by another man who offered to take my picture. Before I knew it he literally forced me over a camel. The beast got up, my picture was taken, and I paid the man. At the entrance to the Pyramid, an official tourist police stopped me and said that I could not take my camera inside. As I was trying to figure out where to leave the camera, he grabbed it and told me to follow him. We went inside the pyramid. He led me down to all the corridors and storage rooms, pointed to where I should pose and took my picture. When we returned to the outside opening he gave back my camera. I tipped him well, as he sternly warned me not to tell any one outside about what he did for me.

The would-be guides of Cairo were already notorious for their hassle at the time of the visit by Mark Twain. They usually approached me by asking “where you from?” which was then followed, regardless of my answer, with “welcome!” Soon thereafter, they made their pitch, persistently. When I declined their invitation to visit a store, they would reproach me, “just five minutes to look, not five dollars.”  The position of a guide with an established tour company is a coveted one. A carpet salesman who claimed he knew four languages -and spoke English well- disclosed that his career goal was to become a tour guide. Enrollment in the school of tourism, I was told, requires high grades, second only to those for medical school.

I found that a good guide book served me as well as any tour guide. Indeed, the great value of Cairo’s popular tourist attractions was the direct sense of awe they induced simply because they were so venerably old and monumentally huge. Detailed description almost distracted from this enjoyment.

The pyramids and the sphinxes are located in stark desert settings. Cairo’s Museum of Antiquity is only a slightly less harsh environment for its magnificent artifacts. They are warehoused rather than displayed. I saw no docent or museum guard. Cleaning crews were throwing buckets of water on the floors and moping under the feet of visitors in the galleries.

Life pulsated through the splendid architecture of medieval Cairo. I exchanged pleasantries with men who were buying lunch from a street vendor just next door to the 9th Century Ibn Tulun Mosque, which still provides the worshipers tranquility in its enormous courtyard of simple grandeur.

The buildings that were Cairo’s attempts in the 19th century to imitate European cities looked tired but still charming, in the Talaat Harb square. Groppi’s, once a gathering place for tout Cairo, was now only a half empty patisserie. Café Riche ignored its past as the locus of Nasser’s hatching his coup and, instead, boasted of its literary heritage with an imposing picture of the Nobel laureate, Naguib Mahfouz, dominating those of lesser luminaries. A far more modest Ali Baba Cafeteria , in the Tahrir square, which Mahfouz regularly visited, was more like a place at which to conjure the tales  of his Cairo trilogy. The Cairo opera house which once premiered Verdi’s Aida now made no overtures to foreign visitors; my hotel concierge tried several days in vain to find out the current program.

The River

What is truly inspiring and beautiful in Cairo is the river Nile. It is majestically wide, and surprisingly not crowded with vessels. It is cleaner than expected. The Nile is the view coveted by the new fashionable high rises. On its banks, especially on the Corniche el-Nil, lovers promenade. An hour at the sunset in the ancient sailboat, Felucca , is the most sublime experience in Cairo. In the near stillness of this old water one peers into history. I was lucky, because on that night there was also a full moon on the opposite side of the sky.


Belly dancing is Cairo’s signature night entertainment. The show began around eleven, as we were being served dinner. The menu was not limited to Egyptian cuisine -which I did not find especially creative with its heavy use of tomato sauce. The warm-up acts consisted of two bands of three performers . They were all singers; one also supplied the music by a synthesizer. Each group performed for about an hour. The songs were all Arabic. The belly dancer came on the stage at an hour and a half passed midnight. She was accompanied by eleven instrumentalists. Her dancing was more athletic than the belly dancing I had seen in the West. She changed her gorgeous colorful costumes several time. She did not come down from the stage and nobody went up to plant money on her body. She danced for nearly an hour. Egyptians stay up late for their fun. I noticed that at least three in the audience were talking on their cell phones as the show went on. I wondered what urgent matter had to be attended to so early in the morning.

The performances of the belly dancers as well as the singers struck me as too repetitive, excessive, and overwhelming. I was reminded of the arabesque in the visual arts of Cairo. It was tempting to project this notion also into my observation of the life of ordinary people in Cairo. In this view, the chaos of the Cairo traffic -cars, pedestrians, and donkey driven carts competing for the same space- was merely an exaggerated version of the same patterns. Western tourists could escape this unfamiliar environment by retreating to the modern world of their mostly new hotels. This cultural transition was always a strange experience for me.

In the prism of my hotel, Cairo looked different. Opulent and luxurious, the hotel was a bargain by Western prices. It was staffed to the brim. Apparently all Egyptian, except the senior managers, they spoke nearly impeccable English. The service was deferential and effusive. Everybody seemed to have learned my name, and to use it when speaking to me. I had never seen such courteous and efficient concierges. My requests were accommodated almost instantaneously and confirmed in beautiful, typed cards which were promptly slipped under my door. I indulged in savoring the cooling pool. There, I was corrupted by the pampering of never fewer than three attendants. Each asked about my welfare and catered to my ordinary needs. Further, unsolicited, each brought me, separately, such quaint perks as bookmarks when they saw me reading. I never use bookmarks.  Unable to refuse the overwhelming hospitality, I was left pondering what to do with them. It occurred to me that such problems only arise in the “friendly and moderate” Egypt that is depicted in some Western media.

This article entitled Letter from Cairo was published on the Website of Protocol Professionals, Inc.  in 2004, with the related pictures.