25 July 2013, 15:23
2115 |

The Enemy of Time

I negotiated a ride with a taxi driver for fifty (local) pounds. I had to return to the hotel from Cairo International Airport. A night in Cairo glimpsed through the window: the Nile with its five star-liners and small motor-boats, palms illuminated by street lights, mosques, a half-moon hanging high above the Nile, silver horns up. And finding myself without a ticket at the airport!

Sheraton road
It all started in the little town of Hurghada. A favorite spot of tourists from former Soviet countries – Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Poland – it is a resort recently built on the shore of the Red Sea (by the way, the second saltiest after the Dead Sea). It is a town with more tourists than native Egyptians and more starred hotels (of various levels) than residential houses or apartments. Hotels, souvenir shops, restaurants and cafes – all the necessities for a tourist – can be found on Sheraton Road. 
The four-star hotel I stayed at turned out to be much better than the Tsakhkadzor sanatoriums in Armenia. All the usual pluses and minuses – but then, the Red Sea is nearby! Here you get pleasant spring weather (in the 22-24 degree centigrade range) at the end of November, but it is much less sunny after 3 p.m. and there is nothing to do at the beach by that time. I met a Coptic Christian, David, in the hotel souvenir shop. “You really look like an Egyptian,” were his first words to me. He offered me a hookah while telling me how difficult it was to live in Egypt. The population is large (70 million), but jobs are very few. “I will probably move to the United States soon,” he confessed, “I have nothing to do here”. In the evening I decided to take a stroll around town, although there is really not much see in Hurghada. But socializing with the people is interesting, especially with the merchants who own the numerous stores and shops. Virtually every conversation I had with them followed the same pattern: 
– The merchant: “Where are you from?”
– Me: Armenia.
– The merchant: Oh, a great country! Speak Russian?
– Me: Da (yes in Russian).
– The merchant: (in Russian) Take everything you want, my friend, I will give you a bargain, just for you, I have the lowest prices… 
I went through this again and again… by the way the first advice guides give tourists is to bargain when shopping. You can get a merchant to cut the price of an Anubis bronze statue by as much as two-thirds. Late in the evening, I met the tour guide, who turned out to be a Georgian named Irakli. He became very excited when he found out I was from Armenia – I was almost a fellow countrymen. He then remembered the System of a Down band… He highly recommended a visit to an ancient Egyptian capital, Luxor, among other excursions.

A little about ancient Egypt
I was on the bus by 5 AM. It was going to be a long trip – almost four hours – so I stocked up with provisions. A friendly Egyptian named Yael was the guide. He began every sentence addressed to us with the phrase, “my habibi” (my dear). “My habibi, in an hour we will stop at the cafeteria, where all the buses gather and we will continue the trip together. Habibi, there will be about 70 tourist buses today and I must tell you, that is not much. Usually, about 120 tourist buses travel to Luxor every morning. My Habibi, we will be escorted by an armed convoy...” 
This was some convoy! There was good reason for it – in 1997 an unpleasant incident took place in Luxor. Terrorists fired on a bus filled with tourists from Germany. Now foreign guests are escorted by “people in black.” By the way, it was after this incident that German tourism almost came to a standstill; a flow of Russian tourists replaced it. 
We arrived at the cafeteria. The desert surrounded us. There stood a small building surrounded by tourists trying to get breakfast and coffee. Many had themselves photographed next to camels. At first, the camels’ owners smiled and posed with the tourists before cameras, but then vigorously demanded their “baksheesh” (the reward) almost the moment after the click of the cameras. If you didn’t pay up, they cursed the daylight out of you. 
By the way, there is another “shish” popular in Egypt, according to Yael – “hashish”. It is actively grown and sold by local Bedouins on the Sinai Peninsula. They are the richest people in the country. They also deal in arms left over from the war with Israel. It is widely believed that the police are no obstacle to them – it gets its own share of the profits. The peasants of southern Egypt, however, are in bad shape. Living and working in fertile Nile lands, they still use the same methods, under the same conditions, as 3000 years ago. 
“Habibi, southern Egyptians are very conservative,” the guide said, gesturing towards the window of the bus. “The whole family lives under the same roof. If a girl has sex before marriage she can even be killed. The wife stays home with the kids. My habibi, you probably noticed portraits of President Mubarak. I’ve got to tell you, he is the eighth wonder of the world – Egypt has been under his rule since 1985 and he is not planning to resign any time soon. Elections we have, democracy we do not.” 
“Not too original!” I thought. “It’s an interesting question – did Akhenaton imagine what his kingdom would be like in 3,000 years?”

The city of palaces
The excursion began with a trip to the imposing Karnak Temple (Germonphis in Greek). The guide informed us that it was built in the course of 1500 years, not in just a few years or centuries. Astonished tourists walked down the avenues of sheep-eyed sphinxes that have, needless to say, witnessed a great deal during their existence. The Karnak Temple consists of three separate structures, the biggest of which is a sanctuary of Amon.
But the most extraordinary part of the Temple is the enormous hypostyle hall, 102 meters in length and 53 meters in width, with 34 columns, each 23 meters in height. The unruffled columns stand proudly, indifferent to the tourists pottering somewhere below, trying to get a good look at the hieroglyphs on the columns and having themselves photographed alongside the statues. An inscription in the Armenian language (made with chalk on the hieroglyph-covered wall) attracted attention: “Yuri, 2006.” The Armenian impact on ancient Egyptian history!
The Obelisks of Thutmose I and his daughter Hatshepsut are remarkable and of course so is a giant scarab beetle that one has to circle round seven times before making a wish. What did I wish for? My girlfriend was in Saint-Petersburg at that time. I hoped that in the future our trips would coincide both in time and place.
The next point of the excursion was the City of Palaces, on the opposite side of the canal (that is, in the territory of Luxor itself). This is the location of the Valley of the Kings, the tombs of ancient rulers.
Under Yael’s tireless guidance we entered the burial scene open to visitors. There were only a few of these – the famous tombs of Tutankhamen, Ramses VI, Amenophis II, etc.
“Habibi, here you can see an entrance to the tomb, it was discovered by American archeologists this year. It is the first discovery in The Valley of the Kings since 1922,” – then the guide pointed to an underground walkway next to the tomb of Tutankhamen.
We managed to tour the palace of Hatshepsut located in the little spot named Deir el Bahari (in the past forty years, Polish workers have worked at restoring it), as well as the Memnon Colossus, before evening. Two twenty-meter size statues are all that remains of Amenophis III’s temple.
Then the cameras flashed for the last time and our bus took off back to Hurghada. The sun started to set; soon a half-moon replaced it.

The bustling Al Kahira
After splashing in the salty waters of the Red Sea for the last time and having smoked a hookah in the local cafe´, I left Hurghada. Late at night the tourist bus took us (two young couples, and a woman - all Russians, and I) up north, to the Egyptian capital, Cairo.
The first buildings appeared through the bus windows after an exhausting six-hour trip. It was only ten in the morning, with city traffic already intense. It was really terrifying – a continuous flow of moving cars, unrestricted by rules and regulations. The traffic lights were either not functioning or absent, many of the cars were badly dented from past accidents, drivers kept signaling non-stop, people crossed the street, stopping cars with their hands like Neo did the bullets fired by agent Smith in the movie, Matrix.
And this - in a city of a seventeen million people! Shock is one’s first reaction.
We finally arrived at the hotel, not located in the most prestigious part of the city (old Cairo or Mahadi is located far from the center), but it is on the Nile shore. The Nile is truly beautiful.

From the bird’s eye-view
The very first day of my stay in Cairo, I became well acquainted with the guys who rode on the bus with me. We decided to stick together. After all, Cairo is no Hurghada, it is much easier to get lost here and almost nobody speaks Russian. Since I turned out to be the only English-speaker, I conducted all “negotiations” with the locals who recognized me as their native.
According to the map, the metro can easily take you to Cairo National Museum, located in the center of the city, so we got on the metro. This transportation system is underdeveloped in Cairo – there are only two metro routs and the trains are overcrowded and stuffy. A few stops later we got off to see the beautiful rose-colored building with a domed roof… it cost only ten dollars to get in – quite affordable.
We also planned to visit Giza in the morning after the museum trip, but we were so exhausted that we postponed it till the next day.
“Let’s go to the Cairo Tower,” I suggested, “it is nearby.” At least, according to the map it is.
True, we approached a big white tower after a thirty-minute walk. It is 187 meters in height, 50 meters taller than the famous Cheops Pyramid. The construction of the Cairo Tower in 1961 was financed by the World Community. We paid 60 pounds and an elevator took us to the 14th floor, then we continued up by the stairs and…a magnificent view of Cairo and the Nile met the eye. From this height, one can view the most luxurious Cairo hotels, the television tower and the opera building... looking at the horizon, one sees the pyramids’ shapes through the red sunset light…

The father of horror
There is a proverb in Egypt - “Everything is afraid of time, time is afraid of pyramids”. The only one of the world’s wonders to survive time’s ravages is located in Giza in the Cairo district. To modern Egyptians, these pyramids, Cheops, Khefren and Mikerina, as well as the Sphinx, are not only historical legacies but inexhaustible sources of income: plenty of tourists pay to see them throughout the year. The taxi stopped near the entrance to the Acropolis territory. Once out of the car, we were surrounded by 10-20 people with offers to arrange horse or camel rides for us or to walk us to the point which provides the best view of the Sphinx and the pyramids; all this “only for 20 dollars.” By the way, it is not easy to rid yourself off these solicitors.
The excursion started at the foot of the Sphinx (in Arabic Abu-el-Hol – “the father of horror”). One hypothesis is that this statue (73 meters in length) of a lion with the face of a human being is the image of Pharaoh Khefren guarding his own tomb. By the way, the face of the great guardian was damaged not only by time and wind, but by Mamelukes. They practiced at cannon ball shooting, aiming at the statue’s nose. In addition, in the course of centuries, the Sphinx’s body was repeatedly covered with sand and each time people had to clean it off.
After befriending the lion with a human face, we turned around and walked towards the Cheops Pyramid – the tallest of them all. Initially 146 meters in height, it is now only 137. A platform of ten square meters was present on the top. They say it offers a beautiful view, but tourists are not allowed to climb the pyramids.
Standing at the foot of the Khefren pyramid (a bit shorter than that of Cheops), I was overwhelmed. This pyramid is the only one that has preserved some of its coating on the top. The words of Napoleon (who, needless to say, did not come here for a vacation) swirled in my head: “Soldiers, from the height of these pyramids, forty centuries look down on you.” It is indeed impressive. The devil-may-care attitude of the pyramids towards time has almost a visceral impact – it is even terrifying in a way… But my poetic ruminations were interrupted by the exclamation of a camel rider: “Hey, mister! Photo with camel! Come, take a photo with camel! Only 5 pounds….” After, trying to get rid of this first one, I was surrounded by an entire herd…

The loop
There are plenty of mosques in Cairo. According to the taxi driver (who was taking us to the Han El Halili bazaar) there are about a thousand here; but Mohammed Ali’s Mosque is widely considered the most beautiful of them all. It was built in 1830 and consists of two parts – the mosque itself and the yard. An architect from Turkey, Yusuf Bushnaq (a Greek by nationality), modelled the structure on a temple of Saint Sophia in Constantinople.
One of the many big Cairo bazaars, Han El Halili is located near this mosque. It is always loud and crowded here. We passed by a cafe; stopped by the hookah shop – we saw hand-bags, papyrus, jerseys adorned with Egyptian symbols. After about an hour, we strolled into a narrow street filled with jewelry shops. Here you can find inexpensive gold and silver of virtually any shape or form.
I noticed a sign at the entrance to one of the shops: “Hagop Hagopian Bijoutier”. Finally, our folks! I entered the shop and greeted Mrs. Hagopian - Hagop Hagopian himself was out. His wife told me that once half of these shops were Armenian-owned – now, only five remain.
“Would you want to move to Armenia?” – I asked her.
She replied, “No, we are fine here. Although many are moving these days.”
The last evening, we walked by the Nile shore, drinking wine (by the way, finding alcoholic beverages in Cairo – the drinking of which is taboo for Muslims - is quite a challenge).
At the airport I found myself without a ticket. As I could not convince the airport representative to give me a duplicate without a $150 fine (I had hardly any money left), I had to return to my hotel.

Native sand under my feet
Fortunately, I managed to contact the Armenian Embassy in Egypt the next day. The Armenian Consul, Artak, came to pick me up at the hotel and took me to the embassy – a beautiful building of European design located in the Geopolis district. By the way, the Armenian Embassy in Egypt is the only Armenian diplomatic entity in all of Africa - so the Consul has a lot on his plate.
Most of the Armenians in Egypt are descended from immigrants from Osman Turkey, who came here at the end of the 19th century. The local Armenian Diaspora amounts to 8 thousand people, found mostly in Cairo and Alexandria. Prior to the revolution in 1952, over 60 thousands Armenians lived here. The Armenian locals mostly work in the private sector: there are many successful businessmen and craftsmen (primarily jewelers) among them. Four social clubs, three sports clubs, and two charity funds currently cater to the Armenians of Cairo and Alexandria. The Armenian Diaspora publishes two daily newspapers and one weekly publication. Young Armenians uphold their national culture; for instance, they organize dance troupes such as the “Zangezur” and choirs such as the “Zvartnots” and “Dzahgastan”.
Religious practices play an important role in the life of the Armenian Diaspora. There are a number of Catholics among Armenians here as well as Armenian Apostolic Church followers. By the way, Catholics constitute the majority. There are five Armenian churches in the country overall – one is located in Alexandria, the other four in Cairo.
I set off to the airport after spending the night in the embassy. This time everything went well. Of course, I did not get to see all of Egypt in the few days of my visit, even counting the two “bonus” days. Well, even Cairo did not reveal to me all it has to offer. And this means I decided to come back…

Yerevan Magazine, Summer, N1, 2008

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20/05/2008 17:43 | Magazine

The Enemy of Time