It's official: I'm in love.....with Egypt, and I'm highly considering moving there and never coming home. Well, not really. But I'd be lying if I said I haven't considered it. There are literally no words to describe to you how unbelievably beautiful, exotic, exciting and amazing Egypt is. If it isn't on your travel list yet, add it immediately! Better yet, add it to the top! Trust me. It was quite possibly the best 7 days of my life.
Brief Warning: this is a long post! But I promise it's worth it!
I left for Cairo about a week ago from Amman. Cairo is just a little over an hour away, so the flight there and back was a breeze. The city itself is seriously ginormous. I knew Cairo was huge, but it was much bigger than previously thought. It just seemed to go on and on and on! Cairo could certainly give NYC a run for its money in regards to city size and population. Cairo is home to some 20 million people and growing by the second. The city is always buzzing with activity, the streets are always filled with people, and cars are always honking. It was definitely more of a big city feeling in comparison to Amman. In fact, Amman feels like a mere desert town in the shadow of Cairo's monsterous size. But really, it's hard to compare any city to Cairo. The amount of rich history and culture the city has is almost mind boggling. Some parts of the city had some European flare because of the architecture; some parts had a very modern-day big-city feel because of the endless amounts of US and European restaurants and stores; some parts had a very ancient civilization feel (i.e. around the pyramids, sphinx); and yet other parts were very sad because it was so run down and filled with poverty. It was wild to see so many different influences present within one city.
As beautiful and diverse as Cairo is, there was a slight downfall present in the city: the issues of pollution and trash. The pollution, well, it's pretty awful. It was actually quite shocking during our flight into Cairo because we could clearly see the dense fog of pollution hovering over the city. I didn't notice it as much when we were on the ground, but at certain heights the pollution became visible again. Guess that's what happens when you shove twenty million people into a city. As bad as the pollution was, the issue of trash there is almost worse. I don't know how else to put it other than there is trash literally everywhere. It's actually very sad. It's almost like the city can't handle how big it's growing, so it just continues to slowly destroy itself. I really hope for the sake of Cairo's beauty and rich history that efforts to clean the city up take place or else I'd hate to see what it has become 20 some years from now.
Regardless, Cairo is an absolutely stunning city. An oasis of greenery, palm trees, flowers, and parks. Plus, how could I forget... the Nile! The Nile runs almost straight through the city and is, in a sense, the icing on the cake. As beautiful as the river is, it is apparently very, very, very dirty. We joked all week that we were going to sneak out one night and swim up and down the Nile. We though, hey, if Kramer can swim laps up and down the Hudson River like that episode of Seinfeld, then why not us? Well, our question was quickly answered. Just do a bit of Googling on the matter and see what you find. It's not pretty. Nonetheless, it was great to finally see some greenery and water in a city instead of the same ole sand and dust I see on a day to day basis in Amman. I think I was starting to go a bit crazy over the bland color of Jordan.
We stayed in a hotel in Giza, which was a great location. We couldn't see the pyramids from our hotel, but we were right smack dab in the center of everything. Tahrir Square, Cairo Museum, and the Nile among others were all about a 10-20 minute cab ride away, give or take with traffic. On that note, traffic is seriously unreal. Let's just say that rush hour doesn't exist in Cairo because every hour is rush hour. I swear, Cairo never sleeps! The endless amount of traffic is really only the one thing I wasn't a big fan of in Cairo. I don't know about you all, but I consider myself a bit of a road rage professional and well, I don't think driving around Cairo would be good for my health. Sitting in cabs or in our case a tourist bus for what seemed like hours on end was a bit frustrating at times. I did, however, have plenty of other opportunities to risk my health and well-being simply by crossing the street.
Follow these short steps and you, too can risk your life by crossing the street.
1- Imagine a very busy road - Nicholasville Road in Lexington, if you will.
2- Imagine that road really busy - I'm talking the hours of 4-6pm busy.
3- Got it? Okay, now imagine crossing that street with cars driving full speed at you.
4- Scared yet? Alright, now imagine doing that several times a day.
5- Congrats! You've just successfully imagined what it's like to cross your average, every day Cairo street.
Call me crazy, but I loved it. Risking your life simply by crossing the street is a rush. Crosswalks don't exist in the Arab world - puhlease, those are for amateurs. Basically, you just gotta be aggressive, jump out there and hope for the best. Sounds scary, but trust me, it's fun.
The first couple days we covered most of our touristy stops. We visited the city's Citadel, several beautiful mosques, the pyramids, sphinx, and the city's outdoor bazaar (market).
I've gotta say, I was a big un-enthused when I learned that we'd be spending our first day in Cairo at a couple mosques and the Citadel, but it turned out to be one of my favorite days. Two of the mosques we went to - Mosque of Muhammad Ali (no, not the boxer) and Mosque of Sultan Hassan - had stunningly beautiful architecture. Between the two, the Mosque of Sultan Hassan was my favorite though. It had beautiful ceilings and archways, and displayed all of these light fixtures that hung from the ceilings. It was gorgeous - I could have laid their all day! Plus, one of the imams (the men who read the prayers and sing the call to prayer) sang us some of the prayers, which I also loved. He had a beautiful voice, which echoed throughout the mosque. A very cool experience.
The beautiful lights that hung from the ceiling
The imam who sang for us
After a couple other stops we made our way to the city's bazaar, which was hands down one of the coolest places I've ever been. I swear, the bazaar is exactly how you would imagine it. Very exotic, filled with all sorts of things to buy: scarves, jewelry, candles, spices, hand woven bags, nuts, vegetables, and just about any and every souviner you could ever imagine. Plus, its cheap! And you can bargain for anything at almost half the price of what they offer it for. We spent hours wandering up and down different alleys of the bazaar and bartering with Arab men. I absolutely loved it. Plus I got all my Christmas shopping done! Definitely worth the trip over to Cairo if you're looking for cheap but fun Christmas gifts.
Stole these from a friend of mine because I loved the images she captured!
Next up on the list of places to go, and the place I most anxiously waited to see: the pyramids. I honestly don't think I will ever, ever forget the moment I first saw the pyramids. It's a moment that I hope and wish all of you will be able to experience for yourselves one day. There are literally no words to describe how I felt when I first saw the pyramids. Utter amazement is about all I can come up with. Everyone has heard and read about the magnificence of the pyramids, but I promise you they are so much more magnificent in person than you could have ever dreamed. First of all, they are HUGE! So much bigger than I thought - they literally tower over the city. It is truly incredible how they were ever built in the first place. The rocks used to construct them are monsterous. Those poor slaves, I have no idea how they did it. The Great Pyramid is 42+ stories high and made of 2,000,000+ stones. It's truly incredible. I now know and understand why they truly are 1 of the 7 wonders of the world.
HUGE stones that make up the pyramids
I learned some interesting things about the pyramids while I was there, too. Apparently, the way the pyramids were constructed is still a mystery to modern day architects and scientists. I don't know all the mathematics of it all, but apparently it's nearly impossible to construct them the way they are. Definitely worth looking up more on if interested. Another very fascinating fact about the pyramids: if Pangea really did exist way back in the day and all the continents of the world came together, those three great pyramids would literally be located in the center of the world. Right smack dab in the center. How crazy is that? Pretty creepy if you ask me. Mom is convinced that aliens had something to do with it, but I think that's the Discovery channel overdose speaking (Mom, put down the remote).
To top off the trip to see the pyramids, we also took camel rides!! I have been thoroughly looking forward to riding a camel and I must say, there's no better way to do it than in Egypt with the pyramids in the background. At one point the pyramids were to our left and the Sahara desert was to our right. I highly considered hijacking my camel and heading into the desert for some T.E. Lawrence-esque adventures, but then I got thirsty and decided it probably wasn't the best idea.
We also made our way over to the sphinx, which is located right in front of the three pyramids. Although much smaller in comparison to the pyramids, the sphinx was also very cool to see. How they managed to carve that out of a big chunk of rock is beyond me.
All in all, that day was pretty much a dream come true and is a day I will never forget.
But, only a couple days into the trip and still lots to do, there was no time to stop and reflect. So the next day we woke up at the crack of down and traveled 3 hours north to the port city of Alexandria, which sits right on the Mediterranean Sea! Although very different from Cairo, Alexandria still has that distinct Egyptian flare. Alexandria has just as rich of a history, too, and was once home to the infamous Cleopatra. The city was much smaller in comparison to Cairo, and seemed to be a little less polluted, but then again we only spent the better part of a day there. It definitely had a different feel to it, and was very beach-town-esque. People seemed a little more laid back and the city wasn't nearly as busy as Cairo. We had some great seafood for lunch and wandered around town for a while.
The only big things we did that day was visit the city's library and the beach. The Alexandria library is the oldest library in the world! ...well, it was before it burned down. I wasn't really paying any attention during the tour (oops) so I managed to miss a bunch of pertinent information regarding the library, but I do know that it burned down a long time ago and they don't really know what it used to look like. The new one in its place was still very cool though. I could get used to studying there by the Mediterranean Sea every day! The library houses a lot of important documents of all sorts, and is also the only library in the world to house a list of every single internet website that has ever existed. I'd hate to have that person's job but still pretty cool, huh?
Other than that we spent most of the afternoon posted up on the beach of the Mediterranean. Is there really any better way to spend an afternoon? Don't think so. We drank tea, had some argeela, watched the sunset and then made our merry way back towards Cairo. Solid day if you ask me.
The days following Alexandria all kind of run together. We did a lot of cool notable things and then some things that aren't really worth noting. So, for times sake, I'll hit on a couple of my favorite things and some things about post-revolution, post-Israeli embassy attack, and post-Coptic Cairo clashes.
We passed by the Israeli embassy many times (rather what was the Israeli embassy) which was very interesting to see given recent events. An Egyptian flag now hangs where the Israeli flag hung and the burn marks from the recent attacks on the embassy were visible. More interestingly, however, was the Saudi Arabian embassy. Apparently, there were many suspicions of secret relations between the Israeli and Saudi embassies, which sit right next to each other. There have been fears of an attack on the embassy, so the embassy is now surrounded by a mass amount of soldiers with large guns. It was pretty crazy to continually drive by the embassy and see all these soldiers toting around their AK47's. I wanted to take a picture so bad, but I figured snapping a picture of a bunch of Arab men with large guns probably wasn't one of my better ideas.
I managed to spend a lot of off time at Tahrir Square, which was also very cool. Tahrir Square, of course, was the center of much of the revolutionary activity that took place last January. Very few people can say they've been to Tahrir Square the year of the revolution, so we took full advantage of the opportunity. A lot of nights a couple of us would just wander around the area, grab some dinner and sheesha, and call it a night. It was exciting to hang around an area of such recent regional and international importance, and yet very sad at the same time to be in an area where so much violence and death took place. Tahrir itself is a very busy area, full of lots of restaurants and businesses. In fact, looking back on it, you would almost never know that Tahrir was the center of the revolution to begin with. Just goes to show that life in a big city like Cairo must go on.
Buildings around Tahrir
I must say, as amazing as the pyramids were, and as relaxing as Alexandria was, my favorite day by far was the day we spent at Cairo University touring campus and talking with students. The campus was beautiful and the students shared a lot of pertinent insight with us about life in Cairo.
I can't say I was surprised, but students at CU were definitely much more liberal than students in Jordan. I saw significantly less female students sporting niqabs and burqas on campus (or throughout the city on that note) and many students spoke nearly perfect English. I don't know if its just more exposure to Western influences or what, but I definitely got a more liberal vibe throughout campus. CU is home to a diverse amount of students as well, which is highly influential on the student body. Many of the students I spoke with were originally from the Gulf states or elsewhere, and now live and study in Cairo. In fact, most of which had very little interest in returning to their home states, which are far more rigid and traditional in comparison to Egypt (I mean, can you blame them?) I thought it was a very cool example of the effects liberalization and globalization have on youth populations around the world.
Of all the students I talked to, however, I particularly enjoyed chatting with a male student named Ali (fitting, eh?). Ali was 22 and a senior at CU, (aka the mirror image of me) so we had a lot in common to chat about (i.e. what to do with the rest of the our lives... the question of the hour). What I enjoyed most about my time with Ali, however, was the time we spent discussing the Arab Spring and his involvement with the revolution last January.
Ali was there in Tahrir square the day the revolution began on the 25th of January. He told me that the revolution (which actually started in Alexandria, not Cairo) had peaceful beginnings. He received word of the peaceful-intended demonstrations via Facebook and through word of mouth. In fact, he told me that he marched into Tahrir Square that day with absolutely zero intention of using violence. Things as we all know, however, took a turn elsewhere. He explained that the police were the first to use violence against the crowd that day, and that clashes thus erupted. He said that he could have never imagined that day resulting in the way it did. Many people were killed that first day, but the worst of the violence had yet to occur - Friday, January 28th, or "Black Friday" as he called it, was the deadliest day of the revolution. Over a thousand people, most of which were young men, died that day by the arm of his government. Ali told me he was tear gassed by the military and witnessed several men get shot. I could tell it was a tough memory to talk about, but I admired his courage to openly talk about that difficult time. It was an incredibly striking story to hear from a student my age. The size and impact of the revolution in Egypt really came full circle for me then, and it was a conversation that I will always remember.
I learned a lot from my conversations with Ali, as we continued to chat about a myriad of topics, from Mubarak to Entourage, however, nothing stood out in my mind as much as that conversation about Tahrir square. The power youth populations have had within Egypt and really, around the world, was a powerful thing to realize. I was so grateful to get to know such a kind young man and hope that our paths might cross again one day. (Stop rolling your eyes...I'm corny, I know).
So, on a lighter note...
We made a trip to the Cairo Museum during our last couple days, as well. I wasn't allowed to bring in a camera though, so no pictures to report unfortunately. Lucky for us, King Tut was in the building so I had the opportunity to see all his riches...and there were plenty to see. The museum itself was huge and was filled with hundreds upon hundreds of sarcophagi, ancient ruins, jewels and all sorts of other ancient artifacts. We went through an exhibit of mummies, which was also really cool. It was crazy to see how well preserved the mummies are - I could still see the hair and fingernails on most! The museum was a little overwhelming because there is so much in it though.
For the record, museums in the US are far more advanced than the one in Cairo. For example, in DC we have Dorthoy's red shoes from the Wizard of Oz and the Muppets in huge displays and behind thick glass, but in the Cairo museum - where there are literally millions upon millions of dollars worth of irreplaceable artifacts and jewels, and oh yeah, the mummies of ancient royalty - all the items are just placed in your every day run-of-the-mill wooden key and lock boxes. Granted, it'd be a lot harder to steal a big chunk of rock with ancient Egyptian inscriptions or a big ole sarcophagus versus a little pair of shoes. But still, I thought it was pretty comical.
As sad as I was that the week was quickly nearing the end, I couldn't have asked for a better way to spend my last night in Cairo: on a boat on the Nile at sunset. We packed some dinner, boarded a sailboat, and hit the high seas. It was absolutely GORGEOUS! We watched the sun slowly set and the city lights of Cairo come to life. It was a fitting end to an absolutely perfect week.
A long recap of my week, I know, but Egypt needed it! It was the trip of a lifetime and an absolute dream come true. I'm extremely grateful for the experience and hope to find myself back in the beautiful city of Cairo sooner rather than later.
As for now, I'm busy wrapping up my Arabic classes and will begin my research full time in a little over a week. I'm heading out for some more adventures this weekend and will be traveling around Jordan to Dana, PETRA(!), Wadi Rum, & Aqaba. Looking forward to it! Lots more to report in the coming weeks.
Miss you all and hope everyone is doing well back in the states.