Egypt calls: Empty of tourists, full of bargains, praying for traveler’s return

(PETER ANDREWS/ REUTERS ) - Few tourists are visiting the step pyramid built for King Djoser outside Cairo. The architect built the structure with limestone instead of the mud brick used in earlier pyramids, which eventually disappeared into the desert.

(PETER ANDREWS/ REUTERS ) - Few tourists are visiting the step pyramid built for King Djoser outside Cairo. The architect built the structure with limestone instead of the mud brick used in earlier pyramids, which eventually disappeared into the desert.

Only minutes before, the vast expanses of the Ibn Tulun mosque, one of the largest in the world, had been packed with Muslims — praying, listening to the Friday sermon, observing the most important religious duty of the week. Now they had filed out into the winding, cacophonous streets of Cairo, and we stood alone, quiet and awed, with more than 1,000 years of time entirely to ourselves.

Normally, awe is hard to come by in Cairo. Not for any lack of grandeur: This is the land of the pyramids, for heaven’s sake, and the Egyptian Museum virtually shimmers with golden King Tut and other sure-to-dazzle pharaonic treasures. But awe — silence-inducing, wonder-inspiring awe — requires at least one undistracted moment to gaze, contemplate and imagine. Otherwise it’s a quick “Awesome!” and you’re off to the next marvel in the guidebook.

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Not now. Oh, the streets are as chaotic and litter-strewn as ever, with vendors cooking sweet potatoes in makeshift wood-burning metal stoves while pushing their carts through lanes crowded not only with people but also with mounds of pita, live turkeys and chickens perched atop leaning towers of crates. Auto store hubcaps spill out onto the sidewalk, tangling up customers of the cafe next door as they pull their chairs to the curb to smoke shisha. And everywhere, drivers strike their horns, whether they need to or not, sounding the heartbeat of the city. Awesome!

And yet there we were, my husband and I, in awe. On a short four-night trip to Cairo, we found ourselves walking blissfully alone around attractions usually surrounded by fleets of buses, overrun by long lines of tourists and immersed in a din of languages. The revolution here, with its attendant uncertainties, has made tourists keep their distance, to the profound regret of a nation that depends on them.

This is the time to visit — quick, before it gets way too hot and while hotels are a relative bargain. Not only did I appreciate the solitude — and the souvenir bargaining leverage — but the Egyptians we met were inordinately grateful for our presence, equally eager to tell us about their dreams of democracy or to take us by the hand at a crosswalk and guide us through harrowing traffic. Visitors are welcome, and I felt safe wherever we went.

***

We had taken a cab from our hotel, the lush Marriott in the Nile island neighborhood of Zamalek, to the Ibn Tulun mosque, deep in Islamic Cairo. A caretaker tied protective cloth over our shoes, awaited a donation for the mosque — we gave 20 Egyptian pounds, a little more than $3 — and then returned to his mostly undisturbed post at the door.

We walked unhurried along the passageways of the mosque named after Ahmad Ibn Tulun, an early ruler of Egypt, and built in 879, dwelling on the grace of the arches and thinking of the unimaginable number of travelers who had come before us. As we gazed across the courtyard, admiring the minaret with its unusual exterior spiral staircase, I spotted two figures climbing upward, above the crenulated walls.

Will and I hurried over, eager to meet fellow travelers, and encountered Maggie Konstanski and Katya Hooker, two young friends from Bloomington, Ind. Maggie, 24, is working on a graduate degree at the American University in Cairo; Katya, 23, was visiting. They’d been to the pyramids the previous day, the 12th time for Maggie, who has been living in Cairo for a year and a half. “It was deserted, and I got to make my Cairo dream come true,” she told us triumphantly. “I climbed into a sarcophagus.”

Maggie had been relishing her time here, but the revolution gave her a deeper tie to the country. While Egyptians had always shown her warmth, they’d avoided talking about politics. The revolution let loose a desire for intense conversation.

“I walk through Tahrir Square on my way home and someone always comes up to me,” she said. “They ask me, ‘Do Americans think we have a chance for democracy?’ ‘Can you believe we did this peacefully?’ It’s a real opportunity to connect.”

Katya has been transfixed. “In Europe, you feel history has been done,” she said. “Here, it’s chaotic and dirty, and history is happening around you. I love it.”

As they went on their way, Will and I climbed up the tower for a sweeping view of the city — a skyline pierced by minarets and dotted with domes; TV dishes small, medium and large crowding every rooftop; laundry of every color, shape and size flapping outside windows.

Next door to the mosque we came upon the only disappointment of the trip. The highly recommended Gayer-Anderson Museum — two 14th- and 15th-century houses built into a wall of the mosque and filled with carpets, furniture and decoration from many eras — was closed. The museum, where scenes from the James Bond movie “The Spy Who Loved Me” were filmed, hadn’t reopened since the revolution, and the guard on duty wasn’t sure when it would.

I consoled myself in the Khan Misr Tulun gift shop across the street. The shop carries an appealing assortment of crafts — embroidered scarves, pierced-metal lampshades, pottery and distinctive jewelry — along with useful maps for walking tours of Cairo.

Later in the day, I strolled through Khan el-Khalili, the ancient bazaar full of narrow passageways stuffed with water pipes, papyrus, perfume, inlaid boxes and men demanding that you visit their shops. It’s worth seeing, along with the spice market next door and several mosques nearby, but very high-pressure.

The Tulun shop, in contrast, is a veritable oasis — fairly priced and with none of the pushiness or intense haggling that can wear on you, even if you have a good sense of humor. I lingered and found a billowing red scarf with beaded tassels, a pierced-metal silver-coated candleholder and a collection of recycled handblown water (or wine) glasses. Note the latest souvenir: a Tahrir Square street sign.

Tahrir Square has returned to life as a big noisy traffic circle and a place to pick up souvenir flags or T-shirts evoking the revolution on your way to the Egyptian Museum. Will had been there on some of the most euphoric as well as frightening rock-throwing days, covering the revolution at the end of January and early February for The Post. And I was there in mid-February, as protesters rallied to make sure that their demands were pursued. That was a heady time, as people who had felt disdained by their rulers took charge of themselves and their country.

***

Even though I had some grasp of how to get around (I knew to offer 20 pounds for the average taxi ride and to keep pound coins handy to tip toilet attendants), I wanted to hire a guide to see the pyramids on our first day. This is not a place where you want to rent a car and head out on your own — the traffic is terrible and the directions confusing.

Amina Desouky, an ever-smiling young woman trained in archaeology, picked us up first thing Wednesday at our hotel, charging $70 per person for the day for her encyclopedic knowledge and endless patience with questions, a car and driver and admission to all the sights. A bargain! For example, the Great Pyramid and Sphinx in Giza cost 60 pounds, about $10, per person, and Amina was invaluable in pleasantly deflecting the camel-ride sellers, the horseback touts and the tacky souvenir vendors who descend, desperate and insistent, upon every visitor.

(I’m a pretty independent traveler, but this is the time to take a tour, whether individual or by the busload. Amina had sent a driver to meet us at the airport the night before, for $25. When I’d flown in for work in February, I’d bargained a taxi driver down to $16, but even before we got out of the parking lot, he was adding on extra costs. Amina’s driver offered to stop and buy snacks, and he loaded us up with cold bottles of water, no charge.)

By the time I saw my first pyramid — about half an hour outside the city — I was already approaching sensory overload. Look at that car: A woman at the wheel, face and body covered in billowing cloth, wears rhinestone-laden sunglasses over the slits for her eyes. A horse stands tied to a city bus stop, its vegetable-laden cart unhitched nearby, as fancy cars crawl through the traffic. In the countryside, men trot along bareback on donkeys, their legs dangling without stirrups. Farmers dot the green fields, harvesting carrots and onions. Trash piles up everywhere. Water buffaloes and dogs laze in the lanes.

Nearing Saqqara, less than 20 miles southwest of Cairo and a short ride from Giza, dense groves of date palms suddenly give way to endless desert and the early step pyramid built for King Djoser, who died in 2648 B.C. Amina described him as a lucky king because his genius of an architect, Imhotep, built with limestone instead of the mud brick used in earlier pyramids, which eventually disappeared into the desert. Imhotep took his inspiration from the benches outside houses — thus the step design.

The silence here was interrupted only by workers hacking away at stone, repairing the pyramid the same way their ancestors made it centuries ago. The pyramid dominates a complex of temples and mortuaries. Climb down into the Teti pyramid to find amazingly preserved walls of hieroglyphics. (The guards will urge you to take prohibited pictures in return for tips. Nearly everyone, everywhere, wants a tip.) Other tombs have beautifully detailed scenes, still bright with color after 4,000 years, showing the pharaoh’s subjects bringing him geese, flowers and other offerings. Try to ignore the litter of potato chip bags underfoot. (I began to think that potato chips were the national dish, there are so many stands in the city and villages that sell them.)

The pyramids can easily make for a full day. Six miles from Saqqara is Dahshur, with the Bent pyramid, built at an odd angle and rejected by Pharaoh Sneferu, who put up the Red pyramid — named for the hue of the limestone — nearby. It’s even quieter here than at Saqqara — no tourists, police sitting silently under a canopy with their camels resting nearby, the flutter of discarded plastic bags blowing across the desert, markers of our modern civilization.

Even the Great Pyramids, up against the touristy town of Giza, offer a leisurely pace in these business-scarce days. A busload of Russians seemed to disappear into the eternal landscape. Of course a stop here is a must, but Giza is such a familiar symbol of Egypt that I found Dahshur and Saqqara, unknown to me before this trip, more intriguing.

Lunching at Restaurant Pharous, just next to Saqqara, at a table under the trees, Amina was surprised to see the owner, Hajji Said Abdul Karim, cooking shish kebab over the outdoor grill. The jolly Hajji Said said that he’d laid off his 30-person workforce as tourists disappeared. Now he was cooking, his son waited tables and his daughter sat on the ground next to a clay oven, baking bread.

“Tell Americans it’s very safe here,” he told me, “and even better, it’s democratic.”

***

That evening, after Amina dropped us off, full of advice on where to eat and what to see for the next two days, we had dinner at Abou El Sid, near the hotel and redolent with atmosphere: Louis Quatorze chairs arrayed around low tables, wood latticework covering the floor-to-ceiling windows, Oriental arches, ornate metal lamps casting variegated shadows on the stucco walls, and lots of interesting Egyptian food. Wine in Egypt is expensive and so-so. Go for the beer. (The best place to buy wine and spirits is at the airport, where you can get them duty-free after arriving.)

We spent the next morning at the Egyptian Museum, home to many thousands of poorly marked treasures. Either hire a guide for an hour (another opportunity to bargain — don’t take the first price you’re offered) to hit the high points and then go through again on your own, or arrive armed with a detailed guidebook.

I had persuaded Will to walk to the museum, to see the view from the bridge over the Nile, and a morning among the mummies had made me tired, hungry and eager to try koshary, the Egyptian national dish of lentils, rice, pasta, browned onions and tomato sauce. My friend Wendy, who lived in Cairo until last year, had recommended Abou Tarek, a short walk from the museum. Will, ever handy with a map, led the way and I soon found myself pushing through a dense, noisy crowd waiting for takeout in the Egyptian version of a diner.

Upstairs, the table service was more sedate, and a waiter brought enormous bowls of koshary, then added vinegar and spices to the tomato sauce, showing me how to mix it properly. Two bowls of koshary and two bottles of water cost about $4. Wow!

As the afternoon deepened, we walked to the Nile pier across from the Four Seasons Hotel in Cairo’s Garden City, where the feluccas tie up. The sailboat skippers were smoking, polishing, mending, uninterrupted by customers. A man calling himself Salah Aswani (because he’s from Aswan, upriver), gestured us into his 28-foot boat, El Hud, as Will negotiated a price of 100 pounds, or about $17.

Salah kicked the dock, pushed on a long pole, and we floated gently backward into the current. Sitting next to a large low table, I regretted having arrived full, unaccompanied by a picnic supper and a bottle of wine.

Salah unhurriedly raised the sail, and we caught the early evening breeze. He dropped the centerboard, and El Hud heeled just enough to show that it’s a creature of the wind. Salah asked whether we wanted to set a course for Aswan, only about 500 miles to the south. Awesome! We laughed.

We crisscrossed the Nile, the traffic muffled on the shore, El Hud creaking and splashing through the waves. As the sun dropped lower, a fine breeze came up. The big noisy city had turned silent backdrop. The moment was ours. And we were in awe.

 
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