Egypt Old & New
Egypt Old & New
By ROBERT N. JENKINS, Times Travel Editor
©St. Petersburg Times, published November 25, 1995
Editor's note: Times Travel Editor Robert N. Jenkins went to Egypt in October to view the origins of the pharonic antiquities that will be featured in "Splendors of Ancient Egypt" at the Florida International Museum in St. Petersburg.
Glaciers of sand flow between the gray and beige crusts of low mountain ranges. In great swatches, the desert stretches to the hazy horizon, softening the jagged hills with a tawny foam.
That layer may be only a few hundred grains deep, while the sand dune nearby is hundreds of feet high.
Viewed from the comfort of a jet plane, the desert offers no sudden sparkle from a Jeep's windshield, nor even an asphalt ribbon. There are no tractor furrows, no greenery, nothing that looks like life. Clouds cast shadows that break the desert's seamless flow to the horizon.
The thought of setting foot in this desolation, much less living in it, seems depressing. The idea of fashioning a civilization against the desert for more than 5,000 years is absurd.
That the civilization numbers more than 59-million souls -- a total increasing by 100,000 a month -- must be impossible.
The absurdities and impossibilities are obvious to visitors from a modern, Western society. For the past half of this century, Egypt has been struggling to advance from virtual colonial status through an ill-fated socialism to economic independence. But progress is slowed by a booming population, illiteracy, remnants of socialism and a workforce with roughly 70 percent of the people in agriculture, government or military service.
And the millenia of history pose a paradox: Millions of tourists yearly traipse past the stone temples and pyramids; thousands will begin visiting the Florida International Museum in St. Petersburg in about a month to glimpse a collection of Egyptian antiquities. But most Egyptians pay these antiquities no more attention than Americans give to Colonial Williamsburg.
Yet the Egyptian sites pre-date the American colonies by thousands of years.
People had been living in what is the site of present-day Cairo for nearly 14 centuries when Columbus reached the New World. The area was elevated to capital of Egypt about 640 A.D., following its capture by Muslim forces. Trade in spices made it a rich city during the Middle Ages; trade in cotton made it more wealthy in the 19th century, with French and then British financial masters overseeing the Suez Canal and control of the nation itself.
But Cairo is now much more than Egypt's political capital. It is the most important city in the Arabic world, its economic, religious and communications center.
It may also be the capital of contrasts.
So much wealth is concentrated here that new apartments with choice views of the Nile reportedly are selling for $2.5-million. Yet Cairo is among the most-densely populated regions of the world -- about 3,900 people per square mile -- the national per capita income is less than $60 a month, the streets are dotted with beggars, and perhaps one-fourth of the households in Cairo's sprawl are without running water or sewer connections.
The national government is desperately building communities miles from the capital. "For every acre of land they reclaim from the desert, they lose an acre to housing," says Dr. Robert Steven Bianchi.
(Bianchi is an American Egyptologist who has worked in the desert ruins and studied in the museums for much of the past 30 years. He will be the curator for the "Splendors of Ancient Egypt" exhibition, opening at the Florida International Museum Jan. 10.)
Squatters invoke common law to move into the aboveground tombs of Cairo's ancient cemeteries, creating the sadly infamous Cities of the Dead. Just beyond some of these grisly communities are tall blocks of fairly new government housing. All around are roads filled with rubbish.
Many multistory buildings in Cairo and other cities appear unfinished, their rooflines a gap-toothed row of raw cement columns spiked with protruding steel rods. It's ugly on purpose, for the law holds that no matter how many occupants a building has, it does not go on the tax rolls until the roof is in place.
Upscale neighborhoods, seldom seen by those on the standard tourist routes, stand out amid the mass of buildings. Typifying such contrasts, a busy commercial street holds a large home once occupied by the late President Anwar Sadat; it shares a courtyard with a town house that belonged to a wealthy couple. This latter building was opened in October as a museum displaying the former occupants' priceless collection of Monets, Renoirs, Rodins and other artists. The setting is spotless.
Nearby, everyday people live in nondescript apartment buildings side-by-side with crumbling hovels, all of them flying laundry from the balconies.
The wash dries in the winds that carry the Libyan Desert sand in from the west, the Arabian Desert sand from the south, the Sinai Desert sand from the east.
The apartment buildings, and Cairo's hundreds of mosques, its government office blocks, its commercial buildings, its tacky movie billboards and its stucco-plastered tenements are encrusted with dirt. Pollutants from cement and lead-smelting factories mix with the sand to coat the buildings, clog the air and the lungs -- a U.S. agency recently pronounced Cairo the most polluted city in the world. There is just an inch or so of rain per year, so the dirt is never washed away.
In feeble protest, uncountable thousands of parked cars wear dirty dust covers. Next to the traffic on busy overpasses, men sweep dirt and rubbish into wheelbarrows; in pre-dawn darkness, workers wash the black-and-white paint stripes on the narrow medians.
And in one of those instances for which we lack a comparison in American society, old men in their traditional galabeias (caftans) sweep the sand off the sidewalks, some using bundles of twigs for brooms. Whisk, whisk, they sweep slowly, giving the breeze just enough time to catch the puffs of dirt and blow them back up again.
"The 1967 war with Israel frightened the farmers along the Suez Canal into moving to Cairo, for the feeling of protection," an Egyptian-born Amoco executive remarked last month to a visiting American. "Before then, it was a beautiful city of maybe 3-million. There was no traffic, no pollution, no housing problems."
He was articulate, if nostalgic.
In a city said to have 1-million cars and trucks -- and maybe that many traffic cops -- donkeys pull carts laden with produce or crates of chickens. Every Friday, camels are sold at market here.
Cairo is a mapmaker's nightmare, a hodgepodge of broad boulevards intersecting a zillion twisting streets that mix centuries-old mosques, storefront food stands and featureless urban architecture of the past 50 years.
Tens of thousands of subcompact Renault taxis, all painted black and white, all with a sturdy luggage rack on the roof, flit like waterbugs. Drivers ceaselessly honk at each other, less to warn of crunchtime than to announce their general intentions. Tired buses scoot along, crammed with bodies.
Traffic lights serve merely as courtesy signals; even red lights don't always halt the flow. At night, many motorists drive without using headlights.
Drivers park across sidewalks, double- and triple-park on the broadest streets. Any stoppage in the traffic flow is a chance to lean in the window of a car to chat with its driver, perhaps sell a steering-wheel cover or a box of facial tissues.
Pedestrians are both cunning and brave as they cross the traffic: Ignored by the myriad traffic police in their variety of uniforms, pedestrians dart, stop, run, stop, weave, stop and trot through the moving vehicles. It is fascinating to watch, positively enervating to join in.
The best place in the city to relax is the cheapest, too: strolling the corniche, or sidewalk, along the Nile. Day and night, Cairenes walk and talk and fish by the gently flowing river, which appears deceptively narrow because islands split the river.
Despite the crush of humanity, or perhaps because of it, Egyptians seem not just courteous but friendly to each other and to tourists. Waiters are attentive, cab drivers who speak English initiate conversations, even museum and antiquities guards are likely to return your smile.
Compared to the city, the tourist-thronged ancient sites are true oases of calm and comfort. Yet the locals seem ambivalent about the majestic antiquities.
Some schoolchildren do take field trips to the monuments and temples, while families would typically visit during a national two-week holiday in January.
Asking Egyptians about their attitudes toward the Pharaohs produced a virtually identical explanation in two cities. As Cairo resident Ahmed Dabees put it, with a smile:
"They are our grandfathers, our great-grandfathers."
But another common view is that contemporary Egyptians treat the historic figures and their remaining edifices like a wardrobe: When the occasion warrants, they can wrap themselves in the ancients, but it's just as easy to ignore them.
Every day is market day in Egypt, and nearly every neighborhood has its streetside stalls. In an explosion of color, sidewalk vendors offer lemons, cabbages, potatoes, peppers, cucumbers, grapes, bananas, onions, tomatoes, round mounds of bread. The delivery of that bread is apt to come on a board balanced on the head of a man pedaling a bicycle.
Charcoal burning in hibachis and metal drums roasts ears of corn, white and sweet potatoes, and fish -- snacks for those who want to eat while they shop. From pushcarts, vendors sell rubber flip-flop sandals, dates, toiletries.
In Cairo's Midan el-Ataba, a traditional marketplace, some storefronts no wider than a one-car garage are stacked floor to ceiling with cartons of televisions, boomboxes, microwaves, even dust-busters. Around the corner, slatted wooden cages of rabbits, chickens, pigeons and ducks -- tonight's entrees -- are stacked atop each other.
Skinny cats slink among makeshift shelves that hold bowls of spices and woven baskets of dates and nuts. Sides of meat and strings of sausages hang open to the air, a temptation the flies can't ignore.
Teenage boys -- never girls -- move through the market crowds, in the Cairenes' markets as well as in the touristy Khan el-Khalili bazaar, carrying trays with glasses of hot tea. These are for the merchants and shopkeepers who can't leave their wares, or for their customers.
As common as the swarms of taxis are the small and dark cafes in which a glass of tea and the sisha, or water pipe, are centuries-old requisites for conversation.
It is a tradition for men only. Women have second-class status in this world. While "modern" Egyptian women may veil their heads (to give homage to Allah), and they may hold retail or clerical jobs, women also seem to be the only people caring for children, doing the shopping, washing the laundry in the ageless Nile.
An Islamic man may have four wives. Each of them must agree to his taking another, and he is to treat each woman equally. But they answer to him.
They both answer to the tenets of Islam. As do Christians and Jews, followers of Islam (about 90 percent of Egypt's population) believe in a single God, called Allah. After acknowledging Allah's unique omnipotence, another of the religion's five "pillars" is that prayers to Allah be made five times a day.
The famous call to prayer is made by muezzins, their voices now typically broadcast on public address systems. In Cairo, Alexandria and other large cities, every few blocks' stroll brings another amplified set of lessons from the closest mosque being played to passers-by.
Muslims do not "belong" to any given mosque -- they do not form congregations as Christians and Jews do -- so they may heed the muezzin call wherever it is convenient. But while most of these prayer sessions take no more than 10 minutes, this tenet is widely ignored.
"If you are working, to earn money to take care of your family and to give to the poor (another of the pillars), you do not need to answer the call each time," explains Mohammed Sherbinney, a guide and doctoral candidate.
The most important of the week's prayer sessions takes about two hours and occurs Friday (the Islamic Sabbath) at noon, but even then, contemporary Egyptians ignore the broadcasts to get in their shopping.
When families do go into the mosque, the men and women sit apart, the women either on second-story balconies or in areas shielded from view by screens. From among those attending, any man may be selected to lead parts of the service. Women are not chosen.
Twilight comes early to Cairo in the autumn. Shortly after 5, the suns turns from bright white to fiery orange. But as it lowers, the gray haze makes the sun darken and seem to widen at the middle.
The ancient Egyptians said the goddess Nut swallowed the red sun every night, giving birth to it again the next morning.
But it isn't Nut that swallows the sun; it is the desert.
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