Archive for the ‘ Egypt ’ Category

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The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise  distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.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