Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Cairo: Mother of the World

 I'm back in Cairo again and it almost feels like home. Gertrud and I lived here for three years in the mid- 1990s and I have been here many times over the years.  It was the favorite of our seven Foreign Service postings, not because it was the most comfortable, but because we were so stimulated and broadened by the experience of living here. No place on earth has as many interesting layers of culture and history to be pealed back and examined, whether it be Pharaonic, Ptolemaic, Christian, Mamluk, Islamic, Napoleonic or other.  It is the largest and most important city in the Middle East and Africa and one of the world's oldest. Historians and writers have often called Cairo "Mother of the World" which I think is apt. http://www.yale.edu/iforum/Spring1996/cairoSpr96.htm

My first trip To Egypt was in the mid-1970s, following the Yom Kipper War (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yom_Kippur_War).  Egypt had been badly beaten by the Israelis and the US Government was in the process of re-establishing diplomatic relations. Hermann "the German" Eilts, a Kissinger protégé, was the colorful and gregarious charge d'affaires and soon to become ambassador. I was working for the Congress on a GAO team that was trying to help determine how the US could best contribute to Egypt's recovery.  The US Navy already had mine sweepers in the Suez Canal to clear mines and other ordnance so that Egypt could again start collecting the badly needed tolls which has long been it's biggest source of foreign exchange. PL-480 food aid was also arriving at the port of Alexandria and USAID was in the early stages of starting a development program. We also saw significant war damage, with the hulls of burned-out tanks and military vehicles still standing in the streets of Port Said and Ismailia.  Even today one can see the rusted hulks of tanks and vehicles in the Mitla Pass where one of the most decisive battles of the war was fought.

This visit is my first since the Arab Spring.  It is also the 3-day Eid al-Adha or feast of the sacrifice when many sheep, goats and cattle will be slaughtered and eaten around family tables in celebration. (http://matadornetwork.com/bnt/photo-essay-eid-al-adha-the-muslim-festival-of-sacrifice-graphic) 

           A Sheep waiting for throat to be cut during Eid Al-Adha

Outwardly things seem normal, although Tahrir Square still reflects the results of the long demonstrations and the nearby headquarters building of Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party is a burned out shell.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_Egyptian_revolution)

Tahrir Square after demonstrations, with burned-out shell of former NDP HQ in rear.  Egyptian Museum is center right.

Although most Egyptians are happy that Mubarak is gone, they are apprehensive about elections later this month. The Muslim Brotherhood will no doubt be heavily represented in the new government but isn't expected to be in the majority. The fear of secular-leaning Muslims and minority Christians is that Sharia law might be imposed.    

During our three years in Cairo, Gertrud and I had an apartment in the World Trade Center, which overlooked the Nile and the densely populated Island of Zamalek.  From our balcony we were able to observe much of the tapestry of Egyptian life including ancient felucca sailboats catching the Nile breezes and young Coptic garbage collectors, navigating the heavy and noisy traffic in donkey carts along the Cornish. Five times a day we also listened to muezzins call the faithful to prayer from surrounding minarets. In the beginning the prayer call in Arabic was clatter, but after a few months it became an endearing part of our daily life and we actually missed it when we left. In those days the call from each minaret was quite distinctive with some off on their timing by a few minutes. Here is a typical prayer call, comingled with the noise of the traffic (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eMxUGB-lSqo). 

Nile view from apartment of friends in Doki
A few years ago the Egyptian Government announced that to limit din and disruption, it would soon initiate a computerized, uniform pray call throughout the city, which would be at exactly the same time from all the minarets.  Today's prayer call does seem less noisy and hectic, so the plan must have been implemented. And many muezzins must have joined the ranks of the unemployed.

In this blog, I don't intend to give space to the pyramids, the Sphinx or the Valleys of the Kings and Queens, which are fully described on the Internet. However I will mention a few lesser-known places to illustrate how deep the culture is.

Many don't realize that some of the earliest Christians lived in Egypt and that the country is home to some of world's oldest monasteries.   Among them is Greek Orthodox St. Catherine’s, the best known due to its Mt. Sinai location and its reputation as the site of Mose's "burning bush."'http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Catherine's_Monastery,_Mount_Sinai).  St. Paul's and St. Anthony's Coptic monasteries in the Eastern Desert are from the same era, as are several in Wadi Natrun between Cairo and Alexandria ( http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/1827).  Wadi Natrun's Monastery of St. Marcarius the Great purports to have the head of John the Baptist among its relics. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monastery_of_Saint_Macarius_the_Great).
The Pharonic Temples at Abu Simbel are probably less known that the temples around Luxor although they caught the world's attention in the 1960's during the construction of the Aswan High Dam. The German construction company Hochtief, moved these 13th Century B.C. edifices block by block out of the bottom of a valley that would soon become Lake Nasser and reassembled them at a higher site that would be on the edge of the new Lake. The evening sound and light shows at Abu Simbel to the music of Aida are very impressive. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abu_Simbel_temples

The vast Siwa Oasis, near the Libyan border in the Western Desert is off the beaten path of most tourist itineraries but has an extremely unique and interesting culture, preserved over the centuries by its isolation. We observed strapped-on donkeys walking in circles to turn ancient presses that were squeezing oil out of local olives. Much of the Siwa olive oil as well as dates and bottled drinking water are sold in the markets of Cairo.http://www.siwaoasis.com/

Leaving ancient Egypt behind and turning to more contemporary memories of our Cairo years: they included a day and a night as guests of the US Navy on board the Aircraft Carrier Theodore Roosevelt while it transited the Suez Canal.  It was amazing to spend time on such a large ship and we were treated royally. Gertrud and I were among the lucky winners of an embassy lottery that was set up when the Navy invited 50 embassy staff to join them on this passage.  The men spent the night sleeping in bunks 4 levels high and the women slept in the dispensary. (http://www.navsource.org/archives/02/71.htm)

A visit to the battlefield of El al Amein where the Allies defeated General Rommel during WWII was certainly sobering. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Alamein). The British, Australian, Greeks, Germans and others maintain large cemeteries and memorials there and there is also an outstanding museum about the battle. The remains of Americans killed were transported to the US for burial.

In the 1990s, we could still drive from Cairo to Israel which we did a couple of times. On our first trip with Gertrud's brother and sister-in-law, we missed the turn towards Gaza and Tel Aviv after crossing into Israel and ended up on a military road running along the Egyptian border.  We were taken in tow by an armored Israeli military vehicle, which held us for about an hour while awaiting instructions.  It was late on a Friday afternoon and our escorts seemed a little anxious because Shabbat was quickly approaching. When guidance came, they quickly escorted us to the edge of the Negev Desert and turned us loose. It was a good time to have had a US diplomatic passport.

From Cairo we also traveled to Jordan to see Petra and Jerash and to Syria to visit Damascus, Aleppo, Palmyra, Krak de Chevalier, Malula and Homs. The latter has been much in the news lately due to the Syrian Government's harsh crackdown on uprisings.  

And to end this, we got to know the Egyptian actor Omar Sharif although I am not claiming we became good friends. While he spent most of his time outside Egypt, he lived in a nearly World Trade Center apartment when in Cairo and shared the same fitness center and pool.  There were a few times when he and Gertrud were the only ones in the gym, which opened up an opportunity for recognition and conversation.  A few days before we left Cairo, I was chatting with him at the pool.  When I told him that we would soon be moving to Barbados, he reminded me that he and Julie Andrews had made a movie together there called "the Tamarind Seed."  We had not seen it but we of course checked out the DVD later.   

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