First stop this morning is at The Citadel, the castle and mosque of Muhammad Ali (the original–NOT the American boxer!). His tomb is located within the mosque. It is on a hill, high above the city of Cairo, where we get a good view of the, uh, black cloud of pollution hanging over the city. In spite of the pollution, we can see quite a bit of the city from up here, and, though it is more peaceful than down below, the constant sound of honking horns floats up to us. The mosque is very pretty, with its domed ceiling and intricate detail work. Pretty lights are strung across the ceiling. We enjoy a few minutes inside, and then it’s on to the Pyramids!
I am so excited for this! Coming from the USA, where a building that is 200 years old is really “old”, it is amazing to me to be looking at structures that are nearly 5000 years old! The pyramids at Giza are astounding! I wonder, “How on earth did they build them, when each stone block weighed, on average, 2.5 tons?” Cheops’ pyramid (the biggest one, though it doesn’t appear so) alone is built from an estimated 2.3 million blocks. No one knows how they did it, but according to the ancient historian Herodotus, “it took 100,000 workers over 30 years to build this pyramid.” (from LDS TravelStudy Guide, “Egypt”, p. 87) The pyramids of Chephren and Mycerinus are smaller, in deference to their fathers, but no less spectacular. Chephren’s pyramid still has a portion of the original limestone casing at the top. I can only imagine how beautiful the three pyramids must have looked with their original polished limestone and granite faces.
Near the big pyramids, but not as grand or noticeable, are some smaller pyramids, built for the wives of the pharoahs. This contrast in size and grandeur symbolizes in stark reality the lesser role of women throughout Egyptian civilization (and ancient civilizations in general). It is repeated over and over in the pyramids, tombs and temples. (Just an observation–not a political statement)
We have the option of going inside one of the pyramids, with the warning that it is not a particularly pleasant experience. But I am in Egypt, most likely for the one and only time in my life, and I am not going to miss seeing the inside of a legendary pyramid because it is hot, stinky and cramped! If you are truly claustrophobic, don’t go inside, but otherwise, it was worth a few minutes of discomfort. The passageway is only about 4’ X 4’ (I’m estimating), so you have to hunch over and walk down for a ways until you come to level ground, where you can stand up straight for a few feet. Then you have to hunch over again and go up to the sarcophagus room. This is a fairly large room, with an empty stone sarcophagus (box) on one side. It was hot and stuffy in there, and I was very glad to get out, but hey, I had to see the inside. Once upon a time, that room would have been stuffed with treasures of all kinds, but the pyramids have long since been robbed of their treasures.
We hit the ground running, bright and early on our first full day in Egypt, although we have spent the previous 36+ hours traveling without much sleep. We learn quickly that sleep has a low priority on this jam-packed adventure, if we want to get all the “fun stuff” in. We can sleep when we get home (and on the buses, every time we have more than 5 minutes’ travel time). We fill two large travel buses–Drew and I are on Bus 1 with Steve and Gayle Halversen as guides, while the other 42 in our group are on Bus 2, with Chal and Janeen Halversen (Steve’s son and his wife).
At 8:00am we’re on the bus in Cairo–a sprawling, bustling, NOISY city of about 17 million people–in a Third World Country. This is most evident in the contrast of old and modern modes of transportation and dress visible everywhere on the crowded streets. Donkey-powered wooden carts loaded with fruits, vegetables, breads and other wares share the roadways with buses, bicycles, and old cars, many of which are crammed full of more bodies than seems possible (or prudent). The traffic is downright frightening, the noise from car horns deafening. I am grateful to be aboard the biggest vehicle on the road as I watch cars darting every direction and making 5 lanes out of the 3 painted lanes on the road. Now I understand why all the honking. I see very few traffic lights or stop signs, and I wonder, “Do they have traffic laws? Speed limits? Seat belt laws?” (They probably do–I just can’t read Arabic. I’m skeptical about those seat belt laws, though.)
The people on the streets are more fascinating than the crazy traffic. Many of the men wear turbans and lightweight robes, but many also wear modern pants and shirts. Virtually all of the women wear veils on their heads (but not over their faces), with traditional dresses or more modern pants, skirts and blouses. The older women wear plain black veils, but the veils of the young women are noticeably different–they are varied and brightly colored, often embellished with sequins and rhinestones. Like their veils, their demeanor is markedly different from that of the older women–they are smiling and animated in their conversations, in contrast to the stoic faces of their elders.
I have the urge to be turned loose in a street market, to be able to interact with the people, taste their bread, and look at their wares, but we never get the chance to do this because of time (and probably safety issues, too).
In addition to Steve Halversen, our guide from LDS Travel, we have an Egyptian guide and a security guard packing a serious weapon (which is supposed to be hidden in his suitcoat, but I can see it sticking out), This is a requirement for every tourist group in Egypt, for safety and other reasons (control). Our guide, Hasan, is friendly and knowledgeable and answers all of our questions in good English and with patience. (Bus 2 is not so lucky–their guide is very hard to understand).
As far as I can tell, the masses live in poverty. They don’t seem to have a “middle class.” I see no houses, no suburban neighborhoods like what I am familiar with–only row upon row upon row of drab red brick apartment buildings, with laundry hanging from practically every window. Most of these ugly buildings are in some state of construction. We are told this is because the people can avoid paying taxes if their dwelling is “unfinished”, and also because whenever a child marries, an apartment is built on to the rest of the structure for their new “home”. Seeing these living conditions makes me feel very blessed. We just don’t realize how much we have in America!
The urge to travel and see the world has been embedded in my soul for as long as I can remember. As a child I did not have many opportunities to travel, but I am finding opportunities as an adult to feed that hunger. Just a few years before I entered college at Brigham Young University (BYU) in the 1980s, the university had completed building the BYU Jerusalem Center in Israel, a beautiful learning facility with stunning views of the old city of Jerusalem and The Dome of the Rock, which sit on the hill directly across the Kidron Valley. I had always thought that a trip to the Holy Land–actually walking where Jesus walked–would be a spiritual journey like no other. I had a great desire to participate in a semester-long study abroad at the BYU Jerusalem Center. However, the cost was beyond my means at the time, and I graduated without having that experience. My dream of going to Israel was pushed to the “Someday I’ll go there” file in the back of my mind.
Fast forward to a regular Tuesday evening early in 2007. My husband, Drew, came home with an invitation to go on a 17-day LDS Study Tour (i.e. NOT a vacation) to Israel and Egypt. As I read through the proposed itinerary–which included visiting legendary spiritual places such as Bethlehem, Galilee, Jericho, Judea, Jerusalem (and the BYU Jerusalem Center), the Jordan River, and the Dead Sea, and exotic places such as Cairo, Luxor, the Nile River, and the pyramids, temples and tombs of the pharoahs–my pulse began to race, and it felt like my insides were doing flips. This trip was calling my name! I knew I HAD to go on this trip! Not only would it be a trip to some of the most fascinating places in the world, but they are also some of the most sacred religious sites in the world (probably THE holiest religious sites in all of Christianity). And our guide would be Stephen Halversen, a personal friend and a man who has lived among the people in Israel and has spent his life studying and teaching about Jesus Christ and that ancient world. It was a combination of a trip and a guide together that I could not pass up!
It took some convincing to get my husband to agree to go (he hates going to hot places–after all, we LIVE in the desert!) and to take an unprecedented two and a half weeks off of work. Nevertheless, convince him I did, and after 18 months of preparation, in May 2008, we boarded a plane headed to Cairo, Egypt with a group of 84 people to see some of the oldest and most meaningful places on earth!