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Cairo October 23, 1999 - The Golden Age of Egypt

By Bob Van Leer

  4 Passageway(CAIRO, EGYPT, Saturday, Oct. 23, 1999) - The last two days were a whirlwind tour of ancient Egypt. We put in a day of sightseeing at Cairo Thursday and then flew 317 miles upriver to Luxor to see the Valley of the Kings Friday and then returned to Cairo on a 1:00 a.m. flight.

  We started Thursday for a visit to the old Arab quarter which looks like the setting for an old movie. Streets are narrow and crooked, lined with shops and stalls and alive with people.

  Later we went to the Mohammed Ali Mosque, built in 1836 and a copy of the St. Sofia in Istanbul. The mosque is 55 meters high, about 170 feet, and the same distance wide. It is called the Alabaster Mosque because everything up to 30 meters high, inside and out, is faced with alabaster.

   We were able to move freely inside the mosque, the only requirement was to take off our shoes. Our guide said the mosque is closed only Thursday afternoon for religious services. Dress requirements are minimal but there was a rack of green robes for women whose clothing was too skimpy - no shorts.

  After touring a couple of other mosques, we headed for the airport for a one-hour flight to Luxor, arriving in time for dinner at our hotel, the Sheraton Luxor. One item on the menu was fresh dates which I had never tried before. They were small, crunchy, very sweet, and good. At the Cairo airport we saw one of the Air Force 1 planes, labeled only "United States of America". From reading the papers, it was probably the plane for Secretary of State Madelaine Albright, who is touring Africa.

  Friday morning we drove west of Luxor to the Valley of the Kings, so named because about 65 tombs have been discovered in the valley.

  The drive is across the Nile valley through lush irrigated farm crops. I could identify corn and sugar cane but not some of the other crops. Where irrigation stops, there is nothing except brown desert. There is no transition zone.

  Our guide said the ancient pharaohs chose the valley for a couple of reasons. A mountain there is shaped roughly like a pyramid, and at 12 miles from Luxor it was a little protection from grave robbers.

  He said after the great pyramids the kings built smaller pyramids and had complex entrances to discourage looters. He said 16 kings are buried in the valley.


  The golden age of Egypt was 20 dynasties lasting through 1254 B.C. There was a thousand years of drift until Alexander the Great, a Greek, arrived in 352, B.C. There was a succession of foreign rulers that lasted until 1952 when an army officer, Gamal Nasser, overthrew King Farouk, who was a Turk and the puppet of Great Britain.

  We toured several tombs in the valley and the access was easier than the tombs at Giza, although still strenuous. In most of the passageways we could at least stand up. Most of the tombs are rather bare. The good stuff was either stolen or taken to the museum in Cairo. In one, wall paintings were as bright and fresh as new.

  At Deir el-Bahri there was a terrorist attack on Nov. 17, 1997. Our guide said 104 were killed and hundreds wounded by a band of six gunmen. The terrorists first killed the security guards, then the bus drivers and finally mowed down tourists including 40 Germans, 20 Japanese and several other nationalities.

  The terrorists escaped in the hills, but were cornered in a cave by Egyptian forces and all killed. Our guide said the gunmen were probably not Egyptian but were never identified. The incident did serious damage to Egyptian tourism for a while but the effect does not seem too permanent. I don't know how they compare with before, but the crowds at the tombs seemed large to us.

  We looked into a tomb in the Valley of Queens nearby and then returned to the city. Two huge temples are right in town, Karnak and Luxor. At one time we were told they were connected by a three kilometer walkway. The tombs are immense. Karnak was started in 2000 B.C. and used until 332 B.C. In the nearly 2000 years of use, a succession of kings added to and remodeled the temples.

  The construction is incredible with seated figures 30 feet high weighing 1200 tons and columns and obelisks. In one part of Karnak we walked through a double line of columns about 12 feet in diameter. Handling weights such as these is difficult to do today. It boggles the mind how the ancient Egyptians did this without power.

  The ruins draw cults. At Luxor we saw a circle of people, eyes closed and apparently praying while a woman moved from one to the next shining a flashlight on their foreheads for about a minute. Inside the tomb in the pyramid of Cheops we saw two women, one with what looked to be short lightning rods in her hands, pointing the rods at the tomb wall with bowed head.

  After dark we went to a light show at Luxor Temple before boarding a 1:00 a.m. Egypt Air flight back to Cairo. It was 3:00 a.m. before we were checked into rooms and our group of five was bushed.


  6 MarketSaturday afternoon we visited Kahn el Kalili, Cairo's great souk, or market. This is a city within a city of small shops selling every kind of merchandise imaginable, produce, spices, perfume, gold and silver, clothing and on and on. It is the Hollywood version of the oriental bazaar, but it's real. The sounds, sights and smells are overload of the senses.

  There is a main avenue of the souk and the only place where there are any vehicles. The few there crowd slowly down the street apparently servicing the stalls. Off the main street are narrower streets on both sides, too narrow for vehicles. Off these are still smaller streets and smaller ones yet go off of these. The passages get so narrow that it is difficult for two people to pass, yet they are public rights-of-way.

  Our host, Ahmed Meguid, led us through the maze. Without him we might still be trying to find our way out. Buying almost anything here is an exercise in patience. The marked price of an article, if it is marked, is only a starting point. Ahmed suggested making a starting offer of 25 % of that price and working up from there. A final price of 50% of the starting price seems to be the average range.

  We returned to our hotel, the Nile Hilton, for dinner and a wedding was in progress. The ceremony appeared to have taken place somewhere else in the hotel. Bagpipers marched down the grand stairway followed by the bride and groom, who in turn were followed by a double line of musicians with tambourines. After more ceremony in the lobby the couple and guests went to an upstairs public room for a reception.

  Traffic in Cairo is about as bad as it gets, although perhaps a little less than 10 years ago. At night many cars do not use their headlights. Some use only parking lights and some have no lights on at all. Ahmed spends most of his time in the U.S. now. He told us he rented a car to go somewhere, took it out into Cairo traffic and promptly turned around and returned the car.

  Tomorrow we will be visiting El Abram, the leading Cairo newspaper.

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