Monthly Archives: January 2017

Southern Sinai

From Cairo I set out to the South Sinai and so I was going back to Asia, because the peninsula is geographically part of that continent. Not for any reason that I know of but just because most people say so.

In the bus I was reading the Guide du Routard, that I had found somewhere, and was particularly fascinated by the history section. It mentioned that the Hyksos, the invaders who brought down the Middle Kingdom, came with new inventions like les chars de combat which Google carelessly translated as ‘battle tanks’. These were of course horse chariots which must have come as quite a surprise to the Egyptians who had never seen a horse in their lives. The Hyksos also practised horse burials which undoubtedly pleased the Egyptians who had so far practically mummified and buried everything that had had a pulse.  It is interesting to read how the French have a different view on the more recent history of Egypt than the British.
When reading histories of Egypt it’s easy to get the idea that Napoleon briefly travelled to Egypt to conquer it and then quickly depart after the British destroyed his fleet. In reality, Bonaparte stayed more than a year in Egypt, he even contemplated converting to Islam, only to decide against it because he didn’t like the idea of circumcision…

The French guidebook also mentioned that the Egyptians sang his praise in the streets: Bounabardeh (Egyptians, as always, struggle with the letter ‘p’; here it means Bonaparte) Ya Salam, vainqueur des Turcs! Tu nous as fait soupirer par ton absence, toi qui prends le café  avec du sucre… Intrigued by this singular text, especially the part how Bonaparte took his coffee, I found out that it was actually composed by Gérard de Nerval who appeared to be an interesting character himself. He travelled to Egypt 4o years later which most people feel must have compromised the accuracy of his writing. After coming back from Egypt things went downhill and his behaviour became increasingly idiosyncratic: he was observed to walk his pet lobster (sic) in the parks of Paris: He was not mad he said, but:  I have a liking for lobsters. They are peaceful, serious creatures. They know the secrets of the sea, they don’t bark, and they don’t gnaw upon one’s monadic privacy like dogs do. And Goethe had an aversion to dogs, and he wasn’t mad.
Sadly, all did not end well and the poet committed eventually suicide.

Napoleon’s time in Egypt left a famous quote to posterity: From the heights of these pyramids, forty centuries look down on us… But having visited Egypt now on several occasions, I think it went more likely like this:

From the heights of these pyramids…
Sir….
… forty centuries
Sir…
What!?
You want to ride camel, sir?
No!. I don’t want to ride a camel! Like I said: From the heights of…
You know how much, sir?
No!… From the heights…
You want to know how much?
No, I don’t care how much! From the heights of…
Sir!
Now what?
Maybe tomorrow, sir?

napoleon4small

Napoleon’s address (poor sketch)

The Guide du Routard continues to describe how Egypt then became a popular destination for older English patricians:
Et du coup, les pauvres Egyptiens virent deferler des troupeaux de vieilles filles coiffees de chapeaux a fleurs qui se souciaient de la sante de dromedaires. Sans parler de ces gentlemen qui voulaient a tout prix mettre un nuage  de lait dans la the a la menthe.

In Dahab there’s a small ruin, called the Nabataean port, which is rather underwhelming compared to Petra, its famous counterpart in nearby Jordan. There’s not much left but some low walls made of crude stones. It’s fenced off with barbed wire. Maybe because at night it eerily resembles some of the cheaper accommodation in the town and it seems very well possible that in the past some drunken travellers had mistaken it for their guesthouse and subsequently vandalising it after they found out that the toilets wouldn’t flush.

One of the pleasures of this seaside town is eating fish. In my favourite restaurant it was normally served with a seafood soup which invariably included a crab with thin, spidery legs. It might be a deficiency in my upbringing, but I don’t know how to eat crab. I crack open the bone with my teeth, it splinters and the bits of flesh are all over the place. It seems unfair of the crab to defend its meat so stubbornly, especially after its death, and I dredge the crab out of the soup and discard it as inedible. Cats roam the restaurant, occasionally driven away by a waiter who rattles a broom under the tables and chairs.

On my second day in Dahab I went snorkelling at the upper reaches of the famous Blue Hole, a deep abyss where many scuba divers have found their end. Nearby, on land, there are plaques attached to the rock to commemorate  the audacious divers that have died. There stood a fair breeze and after half an hour I was cold to the bone.
On my second trip the wind had died down and it wasn’t as cold anymore.  Red fish, blue fish and yellow fish. My new favourite fish is the unicorn fish, it looks alien, as if from a cartoon. Its proboscis is a mystery as it doesn’t seem to serve any purpose. A few days of calm and balmy weather followed and I enjoyed quite a few snorkelling trips, but then the wind came back. I decided to travel to Luxor.

Some attempts to sketch the unicorn fish.

Cairo

Weather forecast: sand

My hotel in Cairo was not far away from the Semiramis Intercontinental and the Nile Ritz-Carlton, but despite this close proximity, it only cost 5 dollars a night. The Egyptian pound was devalued and everything was very cheap. The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities was practically around the corner and equally a bargain. It is one of my favourite museums as it displays priceless artefacts that are known to every student of Egyptology, albeit shown with sometimes careless abandon. Exhibits are often provided with antique labels that carry explanations in English, or French, and that look like they have been jotted down by the archaeologist that had pulled the object in question out from under the sand. Not infrequently, however, interpretations are left altogether to the imagination of the visitor, who can often be seen staring in wonder at enormous blocks of bazalt.

A few days later I visited the pyramids, and even though I have seen them often, they never fail to impress me. In Cairo I had  bought an old edition of the Rough Guide of Egypt and when sitting on a large block of granite,  I was reading about the pyramids when something caught my attention: it mentioned a tomb near the pyramids where a dinosaur fossil can be seen in one of its stones. Never one to pass a rarity, I had to see this and after some time, I found the remains of the reptile. There was nobody there and the narrow corridor that led to it had obviously been used as a latrine for the camel drivers. To my shame I couldn’t resist pilfering a tiny bit of crumbling stone from it and it is thus that I now walk around with a bit of fossilised dinosaur bone in my wallet….. I am afraid I’ve become a true tomb raider….

Strange theories about the pyramids abound and include the assumption that they were ancient granaries built by Joseph as is written in the bible. This theory, for obvious reasons fell out of favour ever since the Middle Ages, but was actually endorsed as recently as 1998 by republican candidate for the American presidency, Ben Carson.
Other crackpot theories claim the pyramids were built by Satan, Noah, the people of Atlantis and, of course, aliens.

Learning bits of Arabic, for example saying ‘good morning’:
sabah il-kheer = morning of goodness
sabah id-din     = morning of light (response)
So far, I haven’t heard anyone using it, except myself. Instead, they shout with gutteral voices at each other: Mah-MUD!!! Wahed shai!!!! Hey, Mah-MUD!!! It seemed to me that an unreasonable number of Egyptians, or at least those who are working in coffee houses, are called Mahmud.

The traffic in Cairo is abominable and nowhere else is a simple manoeuvre like crossing the street such a precarious undertaking as in this city. Especially the flyovers behind the Egyptian Museum were a pedestrian nightmare. For the first time visitor I have compiled a few tips as to how to safely cross the streets in Cairo:
– Use women and children as a shield to oncoming traffic.
– If you have more time: wait till Friday morning, when traffic is slow.
– Wait till traffic gets so congested that it only moves at a snails pace.
– However, beware of motorcyclists that whiz through congested traffic.
– Another hazard are cars suddenly reversing where any sane human being would think it impossible.
– Don’t go out after dark. Cars frequently drive without headlights, apparently for reasons of economy…

The medieval part of the city is known as Islamic Cairo. It’s a maze of small streets where life goes on as if nothing had happened for the past 500 years.

I started from the colourful Bab Zwayla which is one of the gates of Islamic Cairo built in the eleventh century. It was from here that throughout the centuries caravans left for Mecca. In medieval times it was used as location to execute dishonest merchants who were nailed or hung from its magnificent doors. Other popular attractions at the time included beheading and impalement of common criminals. It was at this gate that Tumanbey, the last Mamluke sultan of Egypt, met his fate in 1517, when he was hanged. Unfortunately for the sultan the rope broke twice before a more successful attempt was to help him out of his misery. It must all have been quite a humiliating experience for the poor sultan.

babzwayla

Bab Zwayla

When I walked past the Al Hussein mosque, the door was open and I peered inside. Briefly though, because the mosque is forbidden for non-believers. According to the Shi’ites, Hussein was the third Imam who followed his father Ali, the second Imam. The mosque is built on the place where his head is buried according to the Fatimids, who are Shi’ites, but a quick search on the internet shows that his head was carried all over the Middle East and could be buried at half a dozen locations. Even though Egypt is firmly Sunni, they do adore Hussein, who was, after all, the grandson of Mohammed and the mosque is a popular pilgrimage.
The Al-Hakim mosque was built by the the mad caliph of the same name who was not only insane but whose behaviour was also brutal and erratic. At they tender age of 15 he had his tutor executed. Later, when dogs kept him out of his sleep he had all the city’s dogs exterminated. He forbade the eating of grapes and watercress among others and banned the playing of chess. He was famously misogynic and ordered women to stay inside their homes and to enforce this, he forbade cobblers to make or repair women’s shoes. On one occasion he had a group of noisy women, who had aggravated him, boiled alive in a public bath. He was the Sixth Fatimid Caliph and a religious fanatic, which  may have also been the reason why he ordered so many Christians and Jews and merchants to be executed. He held regular inspections of the latter and when found guilty of misconduct head them sodomised by this Nubian slave, Massoud, while the caliph stood on their heads. He was not averse of doing the killing himself and is said to have bisected a butcher with his own cleaver. But all good things come to an end and one day he rode away through the southern gate and was never heard of again. Much to the relieve of women, Christians, Jews, merchants and dogs.
And chess players.
On my way back I visited the Al-Azhar Mosque which is  a religious institution and is associated with the university of the same name. Egyptians claim it is the oldest in the world. [Moroccans disagree and preserve that title for the whatsitsname mosque in Fez…] The university is the authority on all matters concerning the Sunni branch of Islam and to this end it has proclaimed many fatwas on a wide variety of topics including, more recently,  Pokémon, which I learned is a Japanese cartoon character.

Somewhere along the way I had some food and it looked like this.

fuul

The main plate was fuul, an Egyptian staple, consisting of mashed fava beans served with oil. It came with hummus, chickpeas paste, pitta bread and some pickles. Very yummy.

With Christmas I feasted on red wine, Marcil de Messe, Vin d’Egyptt depuis 1936, Production and botoled (sic) in Egypt. It was nice to drink wine even though it was horribly sweet.  That night I ate out and ordered quail. It seemed to be blessed with more bones than any other animal I ever ate. Later I learned that it is common to eat it with bones and all because they are very soft. Next time then.

Shiraz and Persepolis

Persepolis is a popular excursion from Shiraz which I undertook with two other guests from the hotel I stayed at. We had hired a taxi with a driver who doubled as a guide.

Persepolis is a complex of palaces built by the Achaemenids from the 6th century BC onward. The largest palace of Persepolis is the Apadana, built by Darius the Great and finished by his son Xerxes the Great. We walked through the audience hall where delegations from subjugated nations brought their gifts to the King of Kings. On the eastern stairway there are three registers with reliefs that depict 23 such delegations. Our guide explained.

From left to right there were Medes followed by Elamites, bringing a lion with two cubs. The overseer was not amused.
Jesus, what is that? Get it out of here! That’s dangerous….
A
nd Arians who had taken a camel. Next up were  Arachosians, who nobody knew where they were from..
You are from…?? Arachosia?  We actually conquered you?
Next came Egyptians (the panel is badly damaged here) and Bactrians who had brought, how satisfactory, a two humped camel, and..
And you are…?
We are Assagartians…
I beg your pardon?
We are Assagartians, we come from Assagartia, it’s not far from Arachosia.
You are from where? And it’s not far from where?

Assargatians got that a lot.
Then there were Assyrians, because they were always there, and Pointed-hat Scythians, a funny looking lot, who had brought horses and trousers, which were a new apparel handy for horse riding, which they happened to like a lot.
Next were Gandarians of the Kabul valley bringing a humped bull.
Just through that door,  if you like. to the left, yes,…. beware of the lion…
Then Amorgian Scythians nobody had ever heard of, and Lydians of Croessus fame.
Greeks who brought wool.
In case the King of Kings wanted knitting.
Which he didn’t.
Cappadocians from Turkey who came with hot air balloons and Parthians who had come with yet more camels and Indians who had brought bags of gold dust.
As you do..
Furthermore European Scythians, looking amused, and Arabs of Jordan, and Palestines, who had all brought more husbandry for the Great King.
Then there were the Zarangians, who came from Mars, followed by Lybians with an antelope and Ethiopians with a giraffe. Some sources speak of an okapi, which must have baffled the Ethiopians, had they known it…

Nobody had brought any donkeys.

Persepolis was destroyed by Alexander the Great and his army looted the remains and according to Plutarch: Carried away its treasure on 20,000 mules and 5,000 camels…. Nowadays, to see what they have left of it, one has to pay a 200.000 rial entrance fee.

Not far from Persepolis are the rock graves of the Achaemenid kings. There are four of them, almost identical and characteristically cruciform (photo right).

The photo to the left is a building that is known as Ka’ba-ye Zartosht, which translates as the ‘cube of Zoroaster’, though it’s no longer generally believed to be a Zoroastrian temple. Its function remains a mystery, though it looks like it could hold a giraffe.

On the rooftop terrace of my hostel, cuddling with a book in the warm sunshine:

A cappuccino please… and do you have a toilet here?
You want with sugar?
Yes… eh.. but you don’t have a toilet?
No sugar?
Yes, I want sugar.
You want sugar?
Yes. And do you have a toilet?
You want a toilet?
Yes
Sorry, no toilet.
You don’t have a toilet?
Where you from?

Musing over a brochure of Shiraz, I read about the Delgosha Garden that I might visit: Some researchers attribute the history of the garden to the past time…. The scribe that had assembled the brochure was nibbling on his pen, that sounded good, researchers attributed it to the past time….. Then the museum which was rubbish …and on the second floor (of the museum) more than 100 different types of old radios are on display….
Lots of different types of radios that’s….. that’s good. Yes.

Instead, I visited the Nasir al-Mulk mosque, popularly known as the Pink Mosque. On sunny mornings the stained windows orchestrate a whirling display of colours.

On the internet I had read an article of the Huffington Post that described the mosque as “a riotous wonderland of color that is absolutely breathtaking”. But I found out that this was to be taken as typical American aggrandisement: It was nice but not breathtaking, even though their photography is obviously much better than mine.
I was intrigued by the sign “Don’t roll up the carpets please”. It suggested that  some tourists were caught in the act of rolling up the carpets.
What are you doing?
Ve are rolling up ze carpets…
Could you please stop that!
Ve vere only trying to help….

Later, I walked through the Bazaar e-Vakil, under its domed ceilings, where I rubbed shoulders with turbaned Baluchis who were dressed in shalwaar khamiz. I drank tea and ate kebab with rubbery bread, which could have been used as placemats, and which was served with raw onion. I tried the dizi, a stew of mutton, chick peas and beans, that is served in a mortar with a pestle. Like all food in Iran it comes with bread. It’s customary to decant the fluid in a bowl and eat it as a soup with the bread. The remainder is then mashed and eaten with more bread.

After a prolonged stay in Shiraz, I took a bus to Isfahan. When we came close to Isfahan, it started to rain and not much later the desert was soaking wet. I was surprised at how big the city was: it took an hour in slow moving traffic around the expressways that surround Isfahan to reach the bus station. In my memory it was just a provincial town. How deceiving memories can be…. but then, after all, Isfahan is half the world as they say.

The river was dry and the famous tea houses under the bridge were gone…