The Gilded Serpent presents...
Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival 2004
Day 3: First Look at Egyptian History
Travel Journal by Shira

June 24, 2004 marked the third day of my adventure in Egypt. The itinerary called for the tour guides to begin our introduction to the sights and history of Egypt: the Citadel, the Cairo Museum, the Ben Ezra synagogue, and the Hanging Church (a Coptic Christian church).

In the orientation letter before leaving the U.S., Morocco instructed the women in our group to wear quasi-Muslim garb for these tours:  scarves to completely cover our hair and cleavage, and long, flowing dresses, preferably ankle length.  We looked like quite a motley crew at the buffet breakfast - most people followed these instructions, but a few did not. Because I was there before and knew how conservatively the local women dressed, I chose to follow the instructions precisely.  My roommate Glee Jarvela also complied, wearing a hijab (head covering) from the web site purchased before leaving the U.S. with a tunic and pants set purchased at a sari shop in California (top photo).

With about 40 of us on the tour, it was necessary to have two tour guides, so they could break us into groups of 20 each.  This worked out very well - it was easier to have only 20 of us clustering around a single individual rather than an army. Our guides' names were Amani and Azza, both women. We all boarded the bus in front of the Victoria Hotel, the guides introduced themselves, and we were off.

Just to show you how intensive this trip has been, I'm writing this only 7 days after we went on the city tour, and I can't remember which we visited first - the Cairo Museum or the Citadel!  Yikes, at this rate my brain will be mush by the time I get home!

The Baladi Neighborhood
En route to our first stop, our bus passed through the baladi (working class) neighborhood around the hotel.  I took several photos of men going about their business to illustrate the type of everyday clothing that many of them wear.

Although these pictures show men wearing gallabiyas (ankle-length robes), men with white-collar jobs do wear dress slacks, dress shirts, and ties.  I didn't see any local men at all wearing blue jeans or shorts.  It seems to be the two extremes:  either suits (usually minus the suit jacket, which makes a lot of sense in the hot weather), or baladi garb. 

Most of the men in gallabiyas also wore turbans to protect their heads from the beating sun.  The men's gallabiyas came mostly in neutral colors:  white, beige, or brown, although I did see some in pale blue or green.  The turbans were usually white or beige, though again I saw some other colors.

The Cairo Museum
At the Cairo museum, our guides divided us into two separate groups, and each led us in a different direction.  The museum is absolutely fascinating, but unfortunately I can't share any pictures of it with you because cameras are not allowed inside.  The reason is because the light from a constant barrage of flashes can damage the antiquities, causing color to fade, fabrics to degrade.  The museum used to allow cameras with a "no flash" rule, but too many visitors disobeyed the rule, so they banned cameras altogether.

Our guide began by leading us to a table that was used for the mummification process and described how the process was done.  She took us to the exhibit of the artifacts from King Tutankhamen's tomb and described the most significant ones.  We visited a darkened room that showed off ancient jewelry. Some of us lingered an extra time in there just to enjoy the air conditioning. Our guide also led us to the exhibit of King Akhenaten, husband of the beautiful Nefertiti and the Pharaoh who attempted to move all of Egypt to monotheism.

Those of us who were willing to pay an extra fee were allowed to enter a special room which contained the mummy exhibit.  Most of the mummies in this room were either Pharaohs or their queens, and I recognized many of their names from the reading I have done about ancient Egypt.  The most famous of these was Ramses II, whom many historians believe may have been the Pharaoh of the Exodus.

The Citadel
The Citadel was built in the 12th century by Saladin, as a defense against the marauding Crusaders from Europe.  None of the Crusades ever actually made it all the way to Egypt, but if they had this fortress would have been ready for them. The stone used for the outer wall was "quarried" by cannibalizing the outer facing stones from the Great Pyramid. Perched as it is on the highest point in the entire city of Cairo, the Citadel can be seen from throughout the city.

Also at the site is Mohammed Ali Mosque, built by Mohammed Ali whom most historians credit as the father of modern Egypt.  Several women sit at the entrance to the mosque, and drape bright green ankle-length capes around any woman whose attire is considered "indecent" to be worn in a holy place.  "Indecent" could consist of exposing too much cleavage or too much leg.  (Tight-fitting pants would also invite draping in such a cape.)  At least one of the women in our group was required to wear one because of the slit in the back of her skirt that showed her knees and calves.

Because the Citadel strides the highest point in Cairo, it offers a breathtaking view of the city and the pyramids beyond. Unfortunately, it also shows just how gritty the air is. People with respiratory problems such as asthma typically find Cairo challenging. The population of the metropolitan area is approximately 18 million, and the millions of cars are not regulated by the types of emission control laws that exist in the U.S. In addition, sand blown in from the nearby desert hangs in the air.

The Ben Ezra Synagogue and the Hanging Church
In Old Cairo, the Ben Ezra synagogue, Coptic Christian churches, and mosques all stand side-by-side, like friendly neighbors. Following our visits to the museum and the Citadel, our guides take us to this neighborhood.

The Ben Ezra synagogue is the oldest synagogue in Cairo. Legend says it dates back to the time of Moses.

Near it, the Hanging Church (shown in this photo) is an ancient Coptic Christian church.  It is called the Hanging Church because it sits on a more ancient foundation.  This photo shows a grouping of pillars inside the sanctuary which represent Jesus and his 12 apostles. According to oral history, the Coptic church was started by St. Mark. 

Researchers using the Rosetta Stone to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics determined that the modern-day language used for readings in the Coptic church today is still the language of the Pharaohs, only now it is written in Greek. That discovery has allowed linguists to determine how the language of the hieroglyphics should be pronounced.

Following a day of sight-seeing, we returned to the hotel to freshen up and rest a bit. Those who felt up to a bit of adventure accompanied Morocco for a walk to a restaurant in the neighborhood named Alfi Bey which serves local Egyptian cuisine. Remembering the excellent chicken soup from my previous visit, I ordered that along with a beef kebab. Other people selected chicken, lamb, or vegetarian options.

Day 4: More Egyptian Monuments and First Dance Show

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First Two Days
Day 4: More Egyptian Monuments and First Dance Show
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