Friday, June 1, 2007

Sheep Market

These pictures were taken on a side-street in Cairo on a sunny afternoon in May 2007. The sheep market is located on a corner of two market streets. It is open on two sides. There were about 12 sheep for sale on this particular day, and a bunch of friendly children who told us everything that we ever wanted to know about their animals.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Nile Cruise

We went on a river cruise on the Nile tonight. We shared dinner onboard while watching many traditional forms of dancing including Sufi and folk dancing.

Monday, May 21, 2007


We spent the evening getting a tour of Al-Azhar mosque and shopping in Khan El Khalili.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Old Cairo Tour

Today we went on a trip into Old Cairo. We took a guided tour of a historic mosque, several churches and a synagogue, as well as some other significant religious sites. The tour was conducted in both Arabic and English.

The tour of Old Cairo was fascinating. We visited the Amr Ibn El-Aas Mosque <> (which is the oldest mosque in Egypt), the so-called "Hanging Church <> ", the Monastery <> and Church of St. George <> , the Church of St. Sergius <> (Abu Serga), and the Ben Ezra Synagogue <> (which is Egypt's oldest and dates to the 9th Century). The historical background, cultural significance and architectural characteristics of each site was covered in detail in Arabic by our tour guide. This was definitely a tour worth taking.

Al-Zamalek and Al-Ahli Match

Today we went on a visit to Coptic Cairo. We visited the Amr Ibn El-Aas Mosque (which is the oldest mosque in Egypt) the so-called "Hanging Church", the Monastery and Church of St. George, the Church of St. Sergius (Abu Serga), and the Ben Ezra Synagogue (which is Egypt's oldest and dates to the 9th Century.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Saqqara Pyramids

Today we took a tour of the Saqqara Pyramids. We went bus to the site where we started our guided tour of the complex, presented in both Arabic and English.

The Saqqara Pyramid site is definitely an impressive location. We enjoyed visiting all of the tomb sites that were open today, learning about the meaning of the different heiroglyphs, learning to recognize the different rulers and their cartouches, and learning some new Arabic
vocabulary along the way.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Saqqara Pyramid Site

Tomorrow we are going on an all day tour of the Saqqara pyramid site.

Here is a good link describing what we'll be seeing there.

Pictures will be posted ASAP!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Pyramids on Camelback at Sunset

video from this day available here:

We arrived by bus on a dusty street in what appeared to be a small village in the middle of nowhere. Concrete buildings in various states of disrepair surrounded us. Arabic graffiti written in bold colors, large script, small script, ostentatious lettering with brightly painted outlines, or simple one-line messages written in black spray paint brought the drab, crumbling walls to life. Colorful messages to all who could but read them, they were meaningless to your average tourist, not unlike the hieroglyphics pondered over by awed and weary visitors to the pyramids for centuries. Once cracked, that code conjured up from the ground incredible visions unimagined for over two millennia. What will our story be to future travelers when we are all reduced to dust, as the sphinx stands guard against yet another age of explorers and new questions?

Children in various stages of undress ran through the narrow, dusty street. Dirty faces, healthy smiles, careful glances. "Who are these foreigners among us?" Their looks conveyed a simple understanding of this world that I could never fully comprehend, even if I chose to stay here, as an outsider in a world of insiders. They ran and they laughed. The motion picture of which I was now a part slowed to a crawl as their movements and gestures etched themselves into the crevices of my mind with a clarity that I seldom experience. Watching them was like being under the influence of a deliciously hypnotic drug. Happy and unassuming, with an insight beyond their years into the hidden truth of the world and their place in it, I sensed that only they had a true grasp of what it really meant that I was now standing in their world, so far away from mine.

Sharing the street with us were many indifferent looking horses and camels. Each was standing or resting in its place, randomly chosen in the middle of the street, waiting patiently for a rider to climb on board so that they could begin the trek that they had learned so well from countless rides given to visitors in the past. Grunts, groans, and snorts greeted us as we waited for our guide to negotiate an agreeable price with the camel drivers and horse owners.

Of course I was the one who was in need of the hammam before our hour long expedition ("hammam" is the word for restroom or bathhouse in Arabic, which is almost exactly the same as the word for pigeon, which is "hamam" with only one "m"). I was invited to climb on board one of the drivers' personal camels to get a ride to a suitable location. He climbed on in front of me and advised me to hang on. Good advice, because after a brief moment of unanticipated G-forces and an even briefer sense of impending doom, we were 9 feet above the ground meandering towards the village, around the corner, into an entirely alien world. Whether you imagine a futuristic scene of a desolated earth after a nuclear holocaust, or a simple 18th century Mexican city that has been under siege for a month, you still will not quite be able to recreate the backstage secrets that met my gaze in the ten minute trip that followed.

Hollowed out concrete shells of buildings. Old men smoking shisha pipes that appeared to have been in use since the days when the peaks of the nearby pyramids gleamed golden in the morning sun. Ragged squares in buildings. Crumbling grey and white chunks of rubble hanging from what once had been window frames, now framing far off looks in the eyes of old women who had experienced... a wholly different kind of life.

Smiles faded as my camel pushed forward through the narrow alleyway, at a slight trot now (if camels can trot). Energetic conversations changed to silently muttered chatter. Expressions aimed at my driver questioned my intrusion. 8 year olds galloping by on ponies - 10 or more in one noisy herd paying no heed to my arrival. 20 year old men hurdling by on powerful stallions in boisterous pairs. All noticed me. None acknowledged me. This was not a place custom tailored for a tourist.

We stopped in front of an edifice that looked like all of the others, and my guide started hissing a sound that sounded just like what a spider from
Lord of the Rings should sound like. A spitting, gurgling hiss that communicated to the camel that the time had come to kneel down to the ground. First the front legs went down in a great dipping motion that had me clamoring and struggling to grab hold of the saddle horn behind me to keep from tumbling over the body in front of me, blocking an embarrassing fall to the ground below. Then the camel's back legs went down slowly and steadily in one motion that left us sitting comfortably on the ground once again.

I was led up a very narrow stairway past several empty, undecorated concrete whitewashed rooms, to a small, unassuming restroom that looked like it hadn't seen much use since it had been built in this location in the 1940's. Who lived here when these buildings were new? Had they ever looked new? Was there a real use for a western style restroom in this neighborhood? Was this the only restroom between this location and the place where my friends were waiting on their camels? Questions raced through my mind, but I quickly did what I had to do to ensure an enjoyable desert journey and returned once again into Mohammed's watchful gaze outside in the open corridor. In a heartbeat we were back on our mount, loping now to Mohammed's quick clicking sounds made to tell the camel that faster was better.

When we approached the end of the dirt passage at the outer edge of this camel-driver-village, I saw that my friends were already making their way into the desert. Mohammad hastened our ride towards them, and soon we were ambling across the sands looking out in the distance over the Nile and the
Cairo skyline in one direction, and the imposing forms of the pyramids in the other.

At first this adventure seemed completely unreal, as if we were sitting on the back of a mechanical bull in front of a blue screen in a movie studio filming a clip that would later be mixed with a clip of some stunt actors on an actual camel in the desert beneath the pyramids. Eventually, a sense of reality settled upon us, and we were off in no particular order, headed in what seemed to be no set direction, loosely organized as a group that stretched over a quarter mile across the blowing sands. The camels settled almost immediately into a more comfortable pace, as horses passed by ridden by children and by grown-ups at a full gallop, apparently from all corners of the Arab world. This must be an incredibly popular place for enthusiasts of all ages to bring their horses and ride into the sunset shadows of history.

It wasn't long before my guide dismounted the camel and allowed me free reign over my fate. My camel stubbornly refused to speed up, except ever so slightly when I copied the clicking sounds that Mohammad had used to coax it just a few minutes earlier. The fact that I didn't have the switch that he had used to prod the camel forward probably made a difference.

It is really something to listen to the silence of the desert. It used to whisper secrets to me in the stillness of childhood nights. The rustling of a kangaroo rat or the slithering of a sidewinder resounds like a trumpet in the crisp, black air that is pierced only by a spectacular display of stars. Imagine the symphony created by the galloping hooves of Arabian stallions racing towards you at top speed across the sand, passing by in a blur of dazzling color, and then disappearing, trailed by a golden strand of rising dust, disappearing into the distant hills.

What had seemed to be a journey without direction soon revealed itself to be a loosely organized trek to a singular meeting point at the top of a large rise in the sand. I heard whistles coming from the dark forms that could just be made out on the top of the ridge in the orange light of the setting sun. This was the second meeting point for the camels and their riders, and the animals all knew where they were expected to go. My camel made his way slowly towards the incline. It chose just the right spot. (My attempts to get it to veer towards the hill and my friends before it was ready failed humorously, and I think at least one person took some pictures of my futile attempts to act like a real camel driver.) Carefully making its way over the Martian surface below us, it ambled readily over the rocks and crevices towards the crest of the hill.

Once at the top of the rise, everything was in motion. Animated chatter filled the air. Many groups of tourists, horse riders, camel drivers, and locals had gathered together at this spot. The pyramids rose in the distance glowing a dusty pinkish orange in the fading light of day.

At the very moment that my camel and I reached the summit, an amazing sound filled the air. The sound can only be conveyed if you've watched The
Dark Crystal. Do you remember the mystical, wonderful sound of the UrRu Mystics as they sounded out their strange harmony together before being reunited with their Skeksis counterparts? If so, then you will have an idea of the sound that weaved its way into my soul as I crested the bluff overlooking the pyramid capped landscape to the left, accented by the Cairene skyline forming a crescent off towards the right.

At once, at a hand-stroke of the gods, voices rang out. From every corner of the horizon a melodic harmony rose up to the heavens. A call worthy of God's ear, something unearthly. Something absolutely Holy. It was the sound of a hundred muezzins, maybe more, from every mosque in
Cairo, calling the faithful to prayer. The azan is sung out more than spoken. The tone carries more meaning than the words. The dedication and the love spills into the air and soaks into the pores. Tears came to my eyes. I was humbled in the midst of this overwhelming barren richness. For an all too brief moment, I stood in awe of a world where mystery mixes with modernity, where secrets dare adventurers to dream, and where a true devotion and an ancient wisdom stand firm against the winds of change.

Camel Ride at Giza, Sound and Light Show

We spent the evening on camels and horses in the desert near the pyramids. Next we watched the Sound and Light show at the base of the Giza site.

The view of the Giza pyramids in the light of the setting sun last night was stunning. An unexpected bonus was the echoing, melodic sound of at least dozens of muezzins intoning the azan (the call to prayer) all at once from every corner of Cairo, as we sat atop our chosen animals with the pyramids rising majestically on the horizon.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Lunch at the Happy Dolphin Restaurant

The seafood selection at "The Happy Dolphin" was impressive.
No happy sea creatures in this bunch!

View of downtown Cairo from the Happy Dolphin Buffet Restaurant.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

American University in Cairo Book Sale

Today there was a book sale at the American University in Cairo, which happens to have an amazing selection of English titles. There were a few notable bargains in the Arabic language department, and a friend and I picked up about 3 items each.

We also went shopping at the local "Sunshine Market" which has many items at about 2/3 the cost that we were paying at the other market which we had discovered previously. I was taking pictures of many of the Arabic food labels in the store and had fun explaining to the manager what I was doing. He was wondering if I was planning to sell goods to Egyptian grocers from the states. I explained my student status, and he seemed to lose interest quickly enough.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Citadel, Cairo Military Museum, Local Movie Theater

Today we went on a tour of the citadel and the Cairo Military Museum.

This evening we ate at a recommended restaurant, Abu Shakra, and went to watch a movie (Spiderman 3) at a local theater.

As far as Islamic architecture is concerned, today's tour was by far the most impressive yet. The citadel is one of the more outstanding examples of Islamic military architecture in the world.

The Mohammad Ali Mosque was simply breathtaking. There is no way to convey the expansiveness and the beauty of this location in words or on film.

The military museum was impressive with its exhaustive review of Egyptian military history from pharaonic times to the present. The weather was much more cooperative today than it was earlier in the week for our felucca ride.

All in all, another good day in Cairo.

Citadel, Mohammed Ali Mosque, Military Museum

Today we went to visit the Citadel, Mohammed Ali Mosque, and the Military Museum in Cairo.

Here is a good website that I found describing much of the history of the citadel:

The military museum:

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Fishawy Coffee House - Khan El Khalili Market

According to the local lore... Fishawy Coffee House in Khan El Khalili has been open 24 / 7 for the last 240 years without every closing its doors.

The front of Fishawy Coffee House

Shisha-Guy delivering our shisha pipes.
Shisha at the oldest continuously operational coffee shop in the world... Priceless.

The beverage guy delivering our water and tea.

Our water and tea tray.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Felucca ride on the Nile River

We left at about 6:30pm for a felucca ride on the Nile river. Unfortunately, the weather
didn't cooperate, and we found ourselves in the boat on a windy evening; we even had a bit of rain. The weather improved before the trip was over though, and was actually quite pleasant as we were being steered back across the Nile to the boat dock.

The felucca ride was followed by dinner at a local restaurant, Al-Ezba, where we shared a wonderful Egyptian dining experience that had an authentic flavor and feel to it.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Felfela Restaurant in downtown Cairo

A few of us went downtown tonight to wander around the area near the American University.
We ate at the Felfela restaurant in downtown Cairo. I recommend that restaurant highly.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

First Night in Cairo

The first night that we arrived in Cairo was such a jam-packed experience that I'm not sure that I can do the story justice. You have to imagine police everywhere, hundreds of people packed into the reception area looking towards the customs inspection area, and a lot of speaking in Arabic going on.

The guy who met us at the airport was right there with a big sign that had my name and our school's name written clearly in English, with bold black letters. He was very friendly and immediately helped us all to get our visas. We had been instructed to bring exactly $15.00 (a ten and a five) because getting change would be difficult. Luckily I had two tens because they didn't want to take the first one that I offered them as it was a bit crinkly and less than perfect. We were guided to our luggage pickup location and then handed off to another person who guided us through the throng of eager welcomers to a place outside where we were led by a third person to our bus. The sheer number of people waiting at the airport was unlike anything that I've ever seen in any public space at any time in my life.

The variety of clothing types, the rich and multi-colored fabrics, the chatter in standard Arabic and several different dialects all at once was at once overwhelming and enchanting. There is a unique scent in the air that is not at all unpleasant, just identifiable and special.

The ride in the bus was really extraordinary. We seemed to be going at light speed through a maze of cars, motorcycles and pedestrians. It reminded me of being in a school of small fish that had just been rushed by a group of predators, who themselves were being chased by even larger meat eaters. Motorcycles with Kentucky Fried Chicken and Chili's placards written in Arabic and English, as well as the less recognizable homegrown delivery restaurants, mixed effortlessly with the hordes of black and white taxicabs, private cars driven by jaded-looking older women, and souped up BMW's driven by hip looking twenty-somethings wearing finely tailored suits.

All were driving without stopping or even slowing down at all for the pedestrians who were crossing the tumultuous streets constantly, weaving slowly through the non-stop traffic, seemingly oblivious to the chaos all around them. The drivers didn't pause once, not for the women and children, not for the ambulance wailing close behind. We heard the approaching siren blaring, and eventually a voice over a loud speaker from the ambulance repeating over and over in Arabic: "Move towards the right! Move towards the right! We have injured! Move to the right!" Our taxicab driver explained in dialect that nobody who leaves in an ambulance in Cairo with serious injuries lives to see the hospital, "because, as you can see, the traffic in Cairo is a catastrophe."

We arrived first at the apartment where the women who are with us would be staying. The bus stopped on the side of the street where it joined with another side street. The woman who was responsible for getting us settled into our new homes got out of the bus and motioned for a few of us to start unloading the women's luggage. Visualize this, there were two rows of cars parked along the right side of this street where we stopped. We were stopped basically in what was still a moving lane of traffic, and the only way to get the women's luggage out was to dig it out from under all of the other luggage and pass it out through the back window of the bus, where the bus driver and I would catch it while standing in the street, all the while waving off every car that passed us while the drivers honked madly and swerved unsettlingly into the traffic that was still streaming by at full speed in the other lane.

I now know that a human version of Frogger exists. It starts at about level 140, and you only get one quarter to play. The situation on the roads is absolutely insane. Sometimes I actually want to catch a cab (of which there are always 15 in view either pulling up next to you trying to get your attention, or driving by) just to get across the street.

On that note, I saw an Arabic cartoon version of "The Mummy" today. When the mummy turns himself into a whirlwind and is coming after the archaelogists' sidekick to capture him, the sidekick says to himself "Oh my god, I'd rather ride in a taxi than get caught in that evil wind!" That just about sums it up.

Our initial introduction to our apartments left us in awe of what is possible here with what we would consider to be a relatively small amount of money. They are posh and expansive, with fancy furniture and antique looking hard wood cabinetry along every wall. We have 3 large apartments for our 8 students, and each apartment has 3 large bedrooms, a living room, a "receiving room" a large dining room, a full-size kitchen, a master outside porch overlooking our neighborhood, as well as a private porch attached to each bedroom. Wow! We were blown away.

By the time we got to our rooms we had been traveling for over 25 hours, counting all of our flights and layovers, so we were ready to sink into our large, comfortable beds for a short night's sleep, ready to begin class first thing Sunday morning at 8:30am. (The work week here goes from Sunday = Thursday.)

I awoke at 4:40am that first Sunday morning to the beautiful sound of two muezzins singing out the call to prayer from two different locations, one very close, and one off in the distance. It seemed that they were purposely harmonizing with each other from miles apart. The sound was purely magical. That first call was followed by calls from gradually more distant locations, until about 10 minutes later, the last gorgeous notes rose gently into the air, replaced by the lively and energetic sounds of the waking birds. More bird sounds than I've heard in any city at one time, more birds than I heard on those first misty, deep green Virginia mornings that enchanted my teenage self two decades ago.
So passed the first night, and the last week has been seven days filled with more firsts than seconds. There are stories to tell, and memories to last a lifetime.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Tour of Alexandria

This morning our group departed for Alexandria at 6:15am During the day we visited a roman theater, the catacombs, the citidel, the beach palaces, and the Alexandria Bibliotheca library.
We returned home at approximately 10pm after having spent a long day and enjoyable day out.

Alexandria Library

One of the modern Alexandria Library's 10 floors. The ancient library contained somewhere between 40,000 and 400,000 manuscripts depending on which source you believe. (Numbers as high as 700,000 manuscripts have been cited, but the sources for that figure are unreliable and date from long after the original library's destruction.) The actual cause of the original library's destruction is a topic of much debate among scholars and historians. A website that presents a fascinating look at the evidence can be found here:

This is a picture of part of the outer wall of the library. The picture does not do justice to the imposing and impressive structure itself, but it can give you an idea of what it looks like.

Alexandria Roman Amphitheatre Ruins

A good view of most of the Roman amphitheatre in Alexandria.

An example of some of the tilework still visible at the site of the amphitheatre in Alexandria. There is an even more impressive example of tilework nearby in a place known as the "Villa of the Birds" that I wish I had known about, but unfortunately I didn't find out about the other site until the next day when I was doing some more reading about this location.

Muntazah Truck

A cool looking truck that passed by as we were touring the Muntazah Resort near the palace in Alexandria.

Qaitbay Citadel in Alexandria

Our first view of the Qaitbay Citadel in Alexandria from the entryway.

The mosque in Qaitbay Citadel, considered to be the oldest in Alexandria.

The beautiful tilework on the floor of Qaitbay Citadel Mosque

A view of the woodwork of some of the inner windows of Qaitbay Citadel.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Coming up... Qaitbay Citadel in Alexandria

Stuffed Pigeon at Al-Omda's

Al-Omda is a word used for "Mayor" in the smaller towns and villages in Egypt. This restaurant had been recommended for several things including the ful, koshari, and the atmosphere. One thing that hadn't been recommended for this specific restaurant was the stuffed pigeon. It was the first time any of us had ever seen it on a menu before, so we had to try it. It was a bit greasy for my taste, but the koshari was indeed impressive, as was the ful. I think that I'll have to try the stuffed pigeon at the restaurant that was actually recommended before passing judgement.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Riding a Camel at Giza

My camel finally did agree to pose with me in front of the pyramids, after which it threw a bit of a snorting fit and became uncooperative when asked to kneel down to let me off its back. When sitting on the back of one of these amazing creatures, it becomes easy to imagine trekking across the desert for hundreds of miles. They are incredibly tall and powerful animals. The Arabian Dromedary Camel (with one large, visible hump although they also have a smaller, underdeveloped hump which is often overlooked) can travel 115 miles in 12 hours (that is the record speed and probably would not result in a happy camel if you tried to force one to do that more than once in a week). I've heard that camel drivers never sleep with their camels close by because they have a habit of taking their revenge on their owners if they're tied up nearby while their owners are sleeping. More than one rider has met his fate being trampled to death by his otherwise faithful servant.

A nice link describing the dromedary:

And... an interesting account of travels in the Middle East:

Sphinx Guest House

I had to include this picture because across the street from where I took those lovely Sphinx pictures, you can see the Sphinx Guest House. Next to that... a Pizza Hut, and what you can't see in this picture... a McDonalds.

The Sphinx

My first sighting of the Sphinx from the window of our bus.

An amazingly tranquil and ancient sight.

These pictures were the last that I took before turning around and immediately tripping over a large rock that was sitting on the sidewalk just beside me. I fell flat on the ground and broke my camera. Luckily it still works as long as I'm holding my batteries in place.
(Insert grumbling sound here.)

Giza Camels

Camels and Drivers waiting for business near the Giza Pyramids.

The camel next to me had a really great nose job. It had stars around its nose.

My camel was very reasonable until we made it walk past the pyramids so that we could get a really good picture (on the way once I've copied it from my friend's computer). After that it became quite disagreeable. Unfortunately, in all of the excitement I forgot to ask the camel's name.

Solar Boats

This is just one of 5 solar boats found near the pyramids. There is so much to tell about them. I'll have to update these pictures with comments after my trip.

Giza Pyramids

There are 9 pyramids total at Giza.
The three largest are for the Pharoahs, and the six smaller ones were for their wives.

The Great Pyramid of Khufu

One of the smaller ones built for one of the queens.

Giza Pyramids

Our group toured the Giza Pyramids. The group arrived at the pyramids at approximately 9:15am and were taken on a tour of the 9 pyramids and the Sphinx located there. The tour guide gave the tour in both Arabic and in English. The group ate lunch together at a buffet restaurant, after which we went to a papyrus shop where students were shown how genuine papyrus is made. This demonstration was also given in Arabic and in English. Finally we visited the Golden Eagle Bazaar, where we were given the opportunity to bargain for their selections from a wide variety of gold and silver items.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Arrival in Cairo

We arrived in Cairo tonight.

1st Day in Cairo

Our Apartments:

These are the shared rooms in one of our 3 apartments. Each of us also has a large private bedroom and a private bathroom as well.

Sunday morning breakfast. Apple Juice in Arabic.

And next... The Tourism Police and the Giza Pyramids (Coming soon to a venue near you.)

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Welcome to Skunk in Cairo

This blog will be used just for pictures from my May 2007 Cairo Trip.

Welcome and enjoy!