Team VA's Wonderings

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Rowley Birkin's Home Town-Cairo

Can't get the photos to load in the airport, so will do that back in blighty. Here's me signing off from Egypt

Day 83 Cairo
So the night minibus was an error in judgement. It was full, I sat at the end of three seats and my neck hurt and I couldn’t sleep. Worse things happen at sea and in case I know that I not meant for night buses. Trains yes, buses no.

I was feeling like I might have a little snooze when I finally got a room just before 10, but then the fun with Glasto tickets kicked off and I was sending texts and checking e-mails to get Sozz some details. So then when I had a snooze, there wasn’t so much daytime left.

I decided to do something a little different and went to the Mr and Mrs Mahmoud Khajil museum. Mahmoud gathered an impressive collection of 19th and 20th century art. Given that he was a noted politician of the 1940s, I was a little concerned as to how he paid for it, but he clearly left it to the nation. I’m not sure it’s that visited as a tout accosted me on the way and told me there was nothing down the road.

The walk was quite odd. Cairo was orange. It had a post apocalyptic feel. The sun was hidden and the visibility was a fraction of what is normal. With the right camera or some paints it would have been very beautiful. There were many people walking around, so I guessed that a bomb hadn’t gone off and it was probably the result of prolonged winds driving the desert into the sky. The desert is surprisingly close to a city of 20 million people.

A few of the paintings in the first room had Egyptian subjects, which was quite an interesting fusion with 19th century European style. There was definitely the feeling of a private collection-furniture, pottery, vases, miniatures and a great tapestry joined the paintings.

I soon came across a Gaugin. I really must find out more about him, as to me he went to the South Sea Islands, painted topless lovelies, shagged anything in sight, then died leaving a lot of half caste illegitimates and raging syphilis. His story convinces more than his painting.

This museum had many things I didn’t expect to find in Egypt. This was best exemplified by a Pissaro of a cricket match in Bedford Park-I’d have been surprised by that in Paris or the Long Room, let alone Cairo.

Two pieces had a room to themselves. This is quite unusual, I can only think of the Leonardo cartoon having similar treatment, but that is more to do with preservation. In a small collection it was a very cool way of giving pride of place. The first one was a Van Gogh. It wasn’t spectacular, but nonetheless it was a Van Gogh-I’ll guess it is the only one in Egypt. Across the hall, the second Gaugin received similar treatment.

Although the big name pieces weren’t top notch, there was an impressive lineup: Rodin, Monet and Degas joined the others. There was a very good room of Millets, which reminded me of my old dissertation on Joseph Israels.

The collection was a in a villa and was a good size: you could contemplate each piece. It was not a showy collection, but it was an enjoyable break for me. Something very different from most of the previous 3 months. A sorbet to clear to palette if you will.

Day 84 Giza
So yesterday I met Bell. Although she’d just flown in from London, despite the fact she’s Australian, we were essentially in the same boat: overnight travel, next to no sleep, early arrival at the hostel King Tut, hoping for the room to be ready. Alas no room. So we’d chatted for a couple of hours, then agreed to have a pyramid fest today. First stop Giza. You’ve probably heard of these boys.

As the car rounded a bend, there they were poking out above the suburb of Giza. It was quite strange. The pyramids predate the Valley of the Kings. They are from the Old Kingdom: Egypt has 97 pyramids, some of which are under mounds of sand. 90% are from the Old Kingdom. I suppose they are a different approach to preventing grave robbing: while the valley of the kings relied on subtlety and hiding the tombs, the pyramids feel more like a fortress. Temples and smaller pyramids for wives were around the main pyramid, but there was no comparison in size.

Before we got to plateau, we saw a poster for the latest Egyptian blockbuster

Motorbikes and Girls. Wasim, our guide, said it wasn’t very good.

We started at the Great Pyramid of Khufu.

This is the Daddy at 146m high, 10m higher than the pyramid of his son Khafre. The latter is the one that still has an amount of its limestone casing near the apex and is on higher ground, so it often looks larger. Had I gone on my own, I don’t think I would have paid the £100 to go inside the pyramid (and as the LP said £150, I doubt I’d gave approached the ticket office). I was glad I did. I have to say I couldn’t figure why you’re not allowed your camera: there are no paintings as in Luxor, just large stone chambers. While there may not be a lot to see, it is an interesting experience to be crouching (short legs good here) your way through something 4,000 years old. The first stretch was cave like: I suspect it was burrowed after the completion as the tunnels and stairs inside were beautifully regular and in one spot the ceiling soared up like a cathedral. There’s relatively little in there, given the size of the construction and essentially we were led to one chamber, although there was a very narrow passageway leading who knows where.

Then onto Khafre, which we didn’t go inside.

before a quick look at what may be the world’s oldest boat.

where you had to wear the old special shoes.

The boys are so big that you really have to stand back to get the overview

where it’s a great spot for silly false perspective photos.

Bell’s camera was better equipped to take them, so I may have to post later on that. With the pyramids’ size, it’s easy to forget the old sphinx.

which is in much better condition than I had expected

It was quite difficult to get photos without the crowds (we’d been fairly quiet at the pyramids, but the coach and school parties were arriving by now).

Naturally I managed to start a trend

A girl saw me and wanted one. Then Bell had one. I thought there was a little tongue in hers. I’m fairly sure there are still queues of people kissing the Sphinx. The Sphinx also provided one last recurrence of a well worn leit motif: the beard is in the British Museum (I think I shall have to blog my visit to the British Museum).

From Giza we headed onto Saqqara and Dahshur, home of the oldest pyramids. The step pyramid is the tomb of Zoser

and was designed by the architect Imhotep, who seems as famous as a Pharoah. Before seeing it I had been confused by the ‘step’ description, as I felt the pyramids at Giza were stepped on the outside. Of course those pyramids were originally clad, so that the exterior was smooth. Additionally, the ‘steps’ at Giza are just one block high. Here we see a design that in more akin to progressively smaller squares laid on top of each other. The shape becomes more pyramidal from the sand and rubble sitting on the steps. It is over 4 and a half thousand years old and is the world’s earliest stone monument. It is history.

There was a considerable amount of building around the step, but I felt most had been over restored. We did make our way into a stunning tomb, much larger than those at Luxor. I hadn’t seen green before and naughtily sneaked a flash free photo.

Finally onto Dahshur, where we went into the red pyramid

The red is the oldest true pyramid (the bent pyramid doesn’t have the shape, neither the step). There are 2 chambers at 12m and 15m high and you get to them down a 63m tunnel, which is long old way bent double on a steep slope.

You can’t get anywhere near the bent pyramid, which is in a military zone. Could you want any more convincing evidence that the pyramids were built by aliens? The shape

is due them having to adjust the construction as it develop stress problems half way up. I guess this was a learning pyramid.

There’s been a lot of talk on this blog about the seven wonders both ancient and new. Partly this is because I’ve visited 4 of each in the past 9 months. Today was the last one for now and I guess I need to declare a winner. You know it’s Petra. Still not been there?

Day 85 Cairo
So. Kinda done it all. At least all I fancied doing. I ploughed back through the book to see if there was anything else that I’d want to spend a day on. There were pages and pages on Islamic Cairo, although nothing that sounded essential. Or even that good. I took a potter round and there were some nice mosques, one stunner (which was too holy for me to be allowed in), some hussle and bustle, perhaps more of a sense of the real Cairo. Had I started here, I think it would have been quite a good scene setter. As I’m finishing here, it felt familiar. I guess it was a farewell.

I had a spot of dinner at a Chinese restaurant I had tried to go to the night before, when I thought it was closed as I couldn’t open the door. Turned out it was a sliding door. First time I’d had a beer on my own all trip, pretty good too. In the lift back up to hotel, I looked in mirror and smiled. What next?

That is a very good question indeed.

Day 86 The US Masters Preview, on BBC 1
Flight’s at 4, so cab at 1, lunch at 12, so not much is going on.

Today is all about Mike Weir winning the Par 3 tournament and being back home in time to see the masters preview.


  • beautiful pictures poll!

    greetz from tinne, the girl from belgium that you met at steward island in new zealand

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:02 PM  

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