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november 15, 2004 -> ancient, transient and eternal: egypt

* Standing beneath the Great Pyramids of Giza, I peered through the haze of dust and exhaust towards a jumble of shoddy red brick and concrete flats at the edge of the dunes.  A barrier had been erected to keep the low-income dwellings from slowly advancing towards the pyramids.  The great, honking chaos of Cairo was invisible beyond the miasma.  Annoying touts on camels kept pestering us with the same lines: I will give you 10,000 camels for your wife; this is my camel, his name is Michael Jackson; camel ride, camel ride, camel ride?  It is impossible to be unimpressed by the Pyramids.  Their age (4500 years), their size (the largest is almost 500 feet high), their pitch (51 degrees), their symmetry (the sides of the base differ by only a few inches) - every descriptor is a superlative.  Once the Pyramids have been seen, however, it is difficult to be impressed by modern Egypt. 

* Ninety percent of Egypt is desert.  Only a thin ribbon of arable land – never more than 20 kilometers wide – parallels the Nile on its journey from the Sudanese border.  Just north of Cairo, the river fans out into the countless watercourses and extreme fertility of the Nile Delta.  In this tenuous band of habitability live 96% of Egypt's 76 million people.  Nearly 17 million live in Cairo (the name comes from ‘Qahera,' meaning ‘victorious'), the biggest city in Africa and the Muslim world.  Egypt's fortunes are tied the Nile; its agriculture, its textile industry, and its tourism.  Yet water quantity and quality are already serious problems.  Everything ends up in the Nile: trash, sewage, fertilizers, you name it.  The river is full of bilharzia, a dangerous parasite that can kill its human hosts if untreated.  Despite obvious environmental constraints, Egypt's population continues to grow at over 2% per annum – by 2020, the population will likely exceed 100 million. 

* After the Great Pyramids in Cairo, the tombs and temples of Luxor are the most famous tourism sites in Egypt.  Most of the sites are from the New Kingdom (1550 – 1070 BCE), when the capital was shifted to Thebes, several hundred kilometers south of Cairo.  Luxor is also the starting point for most of the Nile cruises, which motor upstream towards Aswan and the great temple at Abu Simbel.  An unbroken line of large cruise ships stretches along the east bank of the Nile.  Some were immaculate and luxurious, most looked tired and tatty.  The Temple of Karnak, with its stone forest of enormous pillars, is mind-bogglingly large.  The columns are wider than the distances between them; as you walk, long rows and diagonals of open space suddenly appear and disappear.  On the undersides of the capitals - shaded from sun and rain - the original colored paintings are still amazingly bright.  Every stone is graven with images of the gods and the pharaohs, many as beautiful and sharp as the day they were carved.  Giant ‘colossi' of the pharaohs gaze confidently ahead, a crook in one hand, a flail in the other.  For a few hours, everyone plays at being an Egyptologist: “Oh, and there's Ra.  Yes, and that's Anubis.  And there is Ramses II again!”   

* Karnak lies on the east bank of the Nile.  On the west bank is another collection of temples and tombs, including the Valley of the Kings – site of the famous 1922 discovery of King Tut's tomb by Howard Carter.  We took the local ferry across Nile, hoping to save some cash by visiting the sites using local transport.  We managed to see everything we wanted to, but with a great deal of hassle, and far too much exposure to the fierce 100-degree heat.  The Valley of the Kings is – even by Egyptian standards – overcrowded.  Each tourist is allowed to visit three tombs only, and must choose among a dozen or so.  Visiting King Tut's tomb is an expensive (but irresistible) extra.  Masses of tourists block the entrances to the tombs as they listen to their guides drone on about dates and dynasties that will never be remembered.  The structures of the tombs are similar – a long entrance corridor that eventually slopes down to the burial chamber – but the extent and quality of the paintings and carvings along the walls and anterooms varies dramatically.  In the burial chambers sit massive stone sarcophagi.  Carter found Tut's sarcophagus inside four nested containers of gilded wood.  The sarcophagus, in turn, contained three nested coffins: the first of gilded wood, the second of wood with inlaid glass and semiprecious stones, and third of solid gold.     

* On our way to Siwa, we were lucky enough to find a cheap room with an amazing view over Alexandria's busy Mediterranean harbor.  Founded by Alexander the Great in the 3rd century BCE, Alexandria grew rapidly into a city that rivaled Rome before falling into decline in the 4th century CE. Its gigantic lighthouse was one of the Wonders of the Ancient World, and its library was the repository of the accumulated wisdom of the known world.  The lighthouse is long gone, and the library burned down (twice), but a new, stunningly beautiful Norwegian-designed library was opened in October 2002.  Along its gently curving exterior are carved the letters and symbols of hundreds of languages, both extant and extinct.  The interior is cavernous, modern, and bright, although the book collection still needs a lot of work.  Alongside more established classics on the half-empty shelves were the complete works of Danielle Steele and several “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” adaptations.    The arrival of Alexander marks the chronological passage to the last of the four major periods in ancient Egyptian history: the Ptolemaic Dynasty – named for the general who ruled after Alexander's death.  Alexandria's Greco-Roman museum is the best place to see Ptolemaic antiquities. 

* In a small, cold room on the second floor of the Egyptian Museum lie the mummified remains of ancient Egypt's most illustrious rulers.  The complex funerary rituals; the elaborate, hidden tombs; the massive temples and halls bearing their cartouches – everything had been designed to ensure that their names and spirits would live forever.  Now these long-dead pharaohs – once revered and feared as god-kings - must endure an endless parade of very ordinary mortals, gaping in amazement and disgust at their shriveled, blackened forms.  Bitter irony, karma, or just bad luck, it is an ignominious end for the pyramid-builders.  Their names live on, though not as they hoped.

Scott

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