Main Attraction at The Giza Zoo

We thought we attracted attention at the park, but that was nothing compared to the Giza Zoo! So if you want to know what the main attraction at the zoo was that day, we can tell you, hands down, it was us! It cost us only 25 Piasters (less than 5 cents) each to get in. And we were the only tourists. There was no one to share all the interest and attention of countless pre-teen and teenage boys who had nothing better to do than follow us everywhere and practice what little English they knew. This zoo was apparently quite nice 50 to 100 years ago, but today could use a lot of help. If you are a lover of animals this place is not for you. If you enjoy privacy and peace as you stroll about, this place is definitely not for you.

Shai and Ahwa

Shai (pronounced shy) is tea, plain old loose, black tea. Everything in Egypt is made better with shai. Shai is life. Shai is an experience, and no matter where you are, people seem to simply apparate with trays of it to serve to anyone in need. It isn’t shai if it isn’t practically half sugar. We have come to really like it (what do you know?) and now I even make it myself with a bit of hibiscus added in for fun.

A quick word on coffee is necessary here as well. It is a genetic predisposition for me to crave coffee. Just ask my dad. Ahwa is the word for coffee and the name given to coffee shops here although very few ahwas actually serve the holy brew. Everybody is just too busy sipping shai to drink coffee. There are a few exceptions. Fishawi’s (remember open 24 hours a day for the past 200 years?) had typical Turkish style coffee. Don’t drink the thick stuff at the bottom. Most of my coffee experiences were in order to also find free Internet. These local places catered to those of us longing for espresso drinks and were trying hard to serve like Starbucks. Beanos (Great name, eh?) had mediocre coffee and dial-up speed Internet. Cilantros (Isn’t this an herb for Mexican dishes? Who names these places anyways?) had terrible coffee and minimally better bandwidth. By far the best coffee I experienced was at Caffé Greco. They had great joe, adequate Internet, and the manager gave me a cool cap as a souvenir. Thanks Caffé Greco!

Now that we are in Luxor my coffee experience has plummeted. Instant coffee is the only brew on the West Bank. I am thankful that I brought a bit of Pete’s coffee and for the advice of my friend and fellow coffee addict Tom Fikes who recommended this portable coffee filter idea. Lacking any form of coffee maker I have resorted to using one of Sarah Jane’s old socks as a drip filter. It’s not bad, except that I have to give it back to her each morning so that she has something to put on her feet.

Good Food in Egypt: Not an Oxymoron

Eating has become one of our favorite pastimes. It's really an adventure, not being able to read a menu and not knowing what it is even if they tell you. We have really enjoyed trying out some of the local food although we must confess to having visited Pizza Hut and finding hamburgers and fries at a smoky little restaurant in Maadi called Lucille's. Great burgers and fries! . Sam’s favorite local food is shwerma, a sandwich with either beef or chicken that’s been compressed and cooked on a spit, then chopped up with tomatoes and garnish and put on a roll. Emma really likes the bread (aish) and has taken to falafels. Sarah Jane also likes many breads, fuul (broad bean soup) and the strawberries. Megan discovered tahini and baba ghanoug, an eggplant dip that is kind of spicy. She also likes labneh, a yogurt with mint. We like that on our falafels. Kushari was good too (a dish with noodles rice, black lentils chickpeas, served with tomato sauce). Fiteer is Egyptian pizza; thin flaky pastry makes the crust. We made the mistake of getting it take-out, and its trip into the bag and home smooshed it a bit. Lentil soup (shourba ads) was a hit with almost all of us. Omm Ali is a yummy dessert -kind of like bread pudding made with pastry and milk.

I decided to try a dish called Molokhiyya because the menu said to eat this if your wanted to “feel Egyptian.” I ate this green sludge poured over a bed of meatballs and rice, and I pity the Egyptian people if they feel the way I did after eating this.

An Afternoon at Al-Azhar Park

We enjoyed a relaxing afternoon at Al-Azhar Park in Cairo. The tour book calls it “a triumph of thoughtful urban planning” and I think we’d agree. It is set on a large piece of reclaimed land that rises up between Islamic Cairo and the Citadel. This land sits just below Moqattam and was once the city dump. The views from the park are amazing. But the park itself is just as, if not more, amazing. The gardens, ponds, fountains and pathways are unlike anything else we’ve seen in this city. It is clean, well-groomed and peaceful -a nice place to rest from all the busyness of the city. We encountered lots of young adults enjoying an afternoon with friends. And of course they enjoyed our kids! Emma remains a big hit in Egypt. (Several more offers for marriage -“How many camels for your daughter?”) Sam and Sarah Jane were the main attraction at the children’s play area. They quickly attracted a crowd of friends who were excited to talk and play with them. One woman even insisted that Sam hold her baby for a photo!


Lower Moqattam is a dump, literally. The people living in this community make their living sorting through the trash of Egypt that makes it to the dump. The ground floor of almost every apartment structure is filled to the ceiling with trash. Rumor has it that much of the trash is recycled in some way; more accurately put, it is reused. The narrow streets are five story apartment corridors and are busy with small dump trucks, loaded pick-ups, horse drawn carts, and people moving the garbage from doorway to doorway. Children walk the streets as well, and it looks as though most of them are going to school with backpacks in tow. The hustle and bustle of it all has a very refreshing feel in light of the actual business, but the stench of refuse permeates everything and reminds that this actually is a dump.

We drove through the lower areas on up the hill toward the limestone cliffs that tower above this area. We passed through a small tunnel/gate into another land altogether. OK, the smell was still there, but that is not what took our breath away. Into the limestone cliffs were carved several larger than life scenes from the Bible. Scenes of the Flight to Egypt, the Ten Commandments, the Ascension of Christ are found all up and down the cliffs. Every time you turn around you find another scene neatly tucked into the stone. At the foot of these cliffs is a Coptic church that has literally carved itself into the mountain. A sanctuary has been carved out of the cliff that seats several thousand people. Most of the people who live in Lower Moqattum are Coptic Christians and have been living at this site for centuries. We wandered around the sanctuary, looked into the grotto-like chambers that were used by the early Coptic church, and marveled at the work of this community. It is a true gem that few visit; who would look for this type of workmanship in a dump?

Cairo Museum Reloaded

We returned to the Cairo Egyptian Museum for another round of pharaonic madness. This time the museum was packed and yet not as overwhelming as the first visit. It helped having been there once before. This time we had a better sense of what we wanted to see and what was actually realistic in being able to see. There is just so much here.

We hung around the atrium area where Narmer’s palette is located. Sarcophagi of Hatshepsut and others dominate the main floor area. The swap meet feeling remains. Some of the items are presented front and center with piles of objects stacked along the walls. Some items are marked, some not. Treasures stashed in corners. Crazy. The colossus of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, his wife Tiy and their three daughters dominate the hall at the far end. It’s a kind of family portrait with Tiy’s arm around her husband. Unlike many Egyptian family portraits Tiy is sized the same as Amenhotep III. Other statues and engravings typically showed the wife as half size of the husband and children about quarter size. Kind of a ranking in importance. Tiy was one of the first pharaonic wives to hold official power. I barely come up to their knees and am about the same size as their children in the statue. I guess I know where I stand in importance! Under Amenhotep III a movement began in Egypt toward a monotheistic religion worshipping the god Aten and no others, and it was his successor Akhenaton who made this monotheistic belief the official religion of Egypt moving the capital and worship centers from Karnak to Amarna. All of this plays into an early Exodus theory I’m researching which I will try to explain in a future blog.

We also made it up to the Royal Mummy rooms. For yet another entry fee, more than the entry fee to the museum itself, you get to look at some of the most important pharaohs of the New Kingdom. Ramses II with his white hair is lying there, as are many of his children- grandchildren successors. His white hair was probably the result of the embalming salts bleaching his hair these past 3,000 years. My favorite was looking into the face of Amenhotep II. He’s my man. I believe he is the pharaoh of the Exodus. Just think of the things that he saw and experienced. A little ways from him lays Pharaoh Tuthmosis III, the Hornet, an incredible warrior king. Now just a shriveled old man. All of these mummies look like overly tan Florida beach retirees wrapped up in gauze. They are really recognizable.

We rounded out our time by visiting several less famous rooms. One was a room full of 3000-year-old models of everyday life activities: a carpentry shop, weavers, boating, baking. Each model looked like an ancient school diorama. I learned more about daily life in that room than in all the schoolbooks I’ve read. We also visited two rooms of nothing but jewelry. Everything was so delicate and intricate in design. They were incredibly skilled craftsmen. These people weren’t worried about basic life necessities; the Nile must have provided everything they needed in order for them to have the time to develop such amazing art. We also visited the animal mummy room. Dogs, cats, baboons, cows, snakes, and even crocodiles visited the embalmers.

We paid our final goodbyes by visiting Tut’s treasures one more time. Next week sometime we hope to visit his tomb down south in the Valley of the Kings.

Visit to Saqqara

Today we decided to brave the longer 45-minute drive to Saqqara. Say it with a glottal “q” (sounds like you’ve got something stuck in your throat) and you have the word “Sahara” -sort of.

Saqqara was the burial ground of the Old Kingdom pharaohs whose capital was Memphis across the Nile. It is also more of what you think Egypt should look like. Traveling south on the west side of the Nile, you pass by fruit and vegetable stands, fields of carrots (get juicin’ Rich and Scotty!) and other greens, donkey carts, palm groves, and dozens of carpet schools. The neighborhoods are poor and dirty with unpaved side streets. Intersections and canal crossings are crowded with cars, busses, vendors and people, many of whom are students heading back from school with backpacks in tow.

The main attraction at Saqqara is Djoser’s (Zoser) step pyramid complex. The massive step pyramid is visible from miles away thanks to the more diffused smog of the area. We eventually turned right (west) passing through lush green farmland and palm groves. The road tilted up a hill and suddenly the green ended. Poof! Instant desert.

Our first stop was the Saqqara Museum, which thankfully allowed us to photograph (sans flash) many of their artifacts. All other indoor sites (Giza pyramids, Egyptian Museum, tombs) forbid any photography -although I did manage to sneak a few. (Please don’t tell.) This museum featured many artifacts found at Djoser’s pyramid and those of surrounding pharaohs of the early Old Kingdom. Highlight, the sarcophagus of Imhotep, the architect and later deified designer of Djoser's Step Pyramid.

We next visited the tomb of Pharaoh Teti, first pharaoh of the VI dynasty (2345 BC). Like Khafre’s tomb we descended a narrow hallway about 70 feet until it opened into a central chamber about 12 feet square. Two rooms branched from here, one of them being the tomb of Teti. The walls were covered with engraved Pyramid Texts comprising of 283 separate spells, rituals, prayers, hymns, and lists of supplies needed in the afterlife. We were amazed by the quality and incredible quantity of hieroglyphics -way beyond anything we had seen in Giza. The elaborate inside of this tomb was especially surprising because from the outside it simply looked like a pile of rubble. But, it was once a limestone-covered step pyramid.

In front of Teti’s pyramid we explored the mastaba of Mereruka, a vizier and overseer of priests to Pharaoh Teti. Inside this structure were 32 chambers with numerous hieroglyphic engravings of daily life and afterlife bliss. This is the largest tomb for non-royalty ever found. He must have been pretty important.

We then wandered over to Djoser’s complex where we saw a couple of painted tombs belonging to the royal manicurists and butcher of 5th dynasty Pharaoh Nyuserra (2445 BC). We acquired a “tour guide” who quickly started leading us without our invitation. We were going to give him the slip when we realized he was actually quite knowledgeable (Masters degree in Egyptology it turns out) and worth every Egyptian Pound we paid. Thank you Saleh!

After telling us the stories of the people buried in these tombs and teaching us some basics in understanding hieroglyphics, Saleh took us over to Djoser’s complex. 30-foot walls surrounded the 37-acre complex. Djoser’s step pyramid built in 2650 BC and consisting of six 35-foot tall steps, sits in the center at an original height of about 210 feet tall. Prior to Djoser, pharaonic burial sites were large rectangular stone slabs called mastabas (Arabic for bench), under which the pharaoh was buried deep in the earth. Djoser ordered his architect Imhotep to build mastaba upon mastaba and to do so from stone. Even upon completion of the structure, Djoser commanded to have one side extended to make it even larger. Like earlier mastaba builders, his burial chamber was placed deep in the earth, the entrance being more than 60 feet below ground level. Tunnels from here travel close to four miles before reaching his granite sarcophagus. Along those four miles of tunnel a story is told in hieroglyphics about what went on in the large courtyard in front of the step pyramid.

Apparently, after 30 years of ruling as pharaoh, a special Jubilee Festival called the Heb-Sed took place in which the pharaoh had to prove his fitness to continue on as king. His task was to chase down and kill a bull that ran around this complex. If he was successful he then had to ask the gods for permission to continue his reign for another four years. If the priests of these gods answered affirmatively, he was given four more years to rule and a false, stone mummy was placed in the pharaoh’s sarcophagus to hold his place until he really did die. Failure to capture the bull or gain the gods’ favor meant immediate death and replacement. Djoser only reigned about 19 years. I guess he never had to test his strength.

Most of Saqqara (except for the Step Pyramid) was buried under the desert sand until the mid 19th century when a French archaeologist named Mariette found the Serepeum at the front of the pyramid. The Serepeum is a box-like structure about six feet tall with two peepholes in the front. When you look inside you see the life size statue of Pharaoh Djoser seated on his throne staring back at you. Pretty creepy. The rest of the funerary complex was not discovered until 1924 by another French archaeologist, Jean-Philippe Lauer, who worked at restoring the area for 75 years until he died in 2001. That’s a lifetime of dedicated work. Unfortunately, no one has continued his great work. Even more unfortunate is the Egyptian government’s attempt to restore the pyramid by simply trying to make it look like it did back in Djoser’s days. In the process many artifacts and lessons are being buried or destroyed in an attempt to make it have more tourist appeal. We were encouraged to enjoy it while it still remained in proper condition.

From the mounds of the structures around that courtyard we could see the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid in the distance. Pharaoh Sneferu built both of these. He came along 35 years after Djoser and started the tradition of the smooth-sided pyramids at Dahshur to the south. Later, his son Pharaoh Khufu perfected the “smooth” style at Giza to the north. Djoser’s pyramid sits between them and began this whole pyramid craze.

Djoser’s step pyramid is probably most known for being the world’s first stone monument and the first pyramid, but there is another first to add to the list. Inside the doorway to some structures inside the temple court we find perhaps the earliest example of tourist graffiti ever written. Apparently 1500 years after Djoser’s death, during the 47th year of the reign of Ramses II, a treasury scribe on a pleasure trip wrote of his admiration for the structures on the walls of the still-standing building. The year was 1232 BC. The site had been abandoned for centuries by this time. Pretty cool!

We too expressed our admiration (but just with the spoken word -no spray paint involved). While everyone flocks to Giza, Saqqara sits more quietly to the south, but with just as much to offer in a different way. The pyramids at Giza are immense in size, but everything we saw at Saqqara was immense in detail, wonderfully preserved for a more intimate, hands-on encounter with the ancient world.

Djoser's Step Pyramid Complex, Pharaoh Teti's Tomb, & an Excavation in Progress

Human Frogger and the Cairo Museum

Today we decided to tackle the Cairo Museum, home to King Tut’s famous treasures and innumerable other artifacts from ancient Egyptian culture. A local here described it as the world’s largest swap meet, and as we discovered he was right!

Our journey again began with the Metro. It was rush hour and packed. For the three of us adults and Emma who was being held, this only meant the discomfort of human claustrophobia and stale air. For Sam and Sarah Jane it meant standing nose to tail with countless Egyptian men. Not a pleasant perspective to travel by. Amidst the excitement and chaos of our time on the Metro we overshot our stop and exited one station too far.

Human Frogger: Remember the 1980’s video game Frogger, where your task was to help frogs hop across a screen full of moving traffic in order to reach the other side safely? (Why did the frog want to cross the street anyway?) Crossing streets in Cairo is exactly like that. The trick, I read and put into application this day, is to place a local between you and the oncoming traffic. Kind of like a human shield. Actually, your task is to then shadow their movements as they make their way across the street. Once you step off the curb you must never hesitate, just act like you own the road and follow the local. I carried Emma, held Sarah Jane’s hand, and led our team to victory at least a dozen times in order to weave our way back to the museum with Megan, Leah and Sam squealing behind me.

By the time we made it to the museum everyone was tired and hungry so we sat in the outer courtyard in front of the museum to eat PB&J sandwiches. The courtyard is filled with obelisk tops, statues, sphinxes, sarcophagi of pharaohs, and slabs of hieroglyphics. And of course tourists that are mostly found climbing onto said objects of antiquity snapping pictures left and right. We felt right at home and joined in.

Egypt’s ancient history is broken into three major chronological periods: the Old Kingdom (2686-2125BC), the Middle Kingdom (2055-1650 BC), and the New Kingdom (1550-1153 BC). The museum is roughly organized in this same chronological order. Stepping in the front doors, you are greeted by the giant statues (15 feet tall) that I believe were of Ramses II. I say, “I believe,” because everything is so poorly identified within the museum. There is scant signage. Wouldn’t it be cool to get the job of writing up descriptions for the items in here? Anyway, just beyond the entrance is the atrium, which is home to many early dynastic artifacts. In the center of this room, with absolutely no fanfare, is probably one of the museum’s most important items, the palette of Narmer. Narmer (also known as Menes) is noted with being the pharaoh to unify Upper and Lower Egypt around 3100 BC and wear the double crown.

As we walked clockwise around the ground floor of the museum we were greeted by the life-sized statue of Pharaoh Djoser (2667 BC) who built the complex at Saqqara just south of here where his step pyramid still stands. I’ll write more about him another day after we visit Saqqara. Suffice it to say that under his administration the world’s first monumental stone building and the first pyramid were built.

Continuing around the museum you are besieged by dozens of sphinxes each standing 4 feet tall, sarcophagus after sarcophagus, uncountable statuettes from tombs, and hundreds of life sized and larger than life-sized statues of Khafre, Menkare, Montuhotep II, Tuthmosis III, Amenhotep II, Hatshepsut, Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and Ramses II to name a few. It is overwhelming. There is just too much to take in. You can touch just about everything, and at first you want to stop and look at everything, but then you’re just overwhelmed. Maybe that job writing descriptions for everything isn’t such a cool idea after all.

Somehow we managed to keep our sanity on the ground floor and decided to brave the second floor. When we reached the top of the stairs we found ourselves in the middle of the gold plated burial boxes of King Tutankhamen (born Tutankhaten). And in the words of Howard Carter when he first opened Tut’s tomb back in 1922, “Everywhere I saw the glitter of gold.” Here is a link to the National Geographic’s site, which offers an amazing animation of how al these pieces fit together. And again, everything is right there; you can actually smell the objects, and again with very little signage. The real treasures of Tut are found in a side room, which was surprisingly empty. I stood with my face inches away from Tut’s solid gold death burial mask. We stood beside his solid gold mummy case. We compared our finger and toe sizes to his solid gold finger and toe caps. It was truly amazing.

By this time we were suffering from what is known as chronic pharaonic fatigue syndrome. We left the museum knowing that we will need to return before we leave Egypt.

We exited the museum, Froggered our way across the street along the Nile and allowed ourselves to be convinced that what we really needed was an hour-long felucca ride on the river. Our salesperson was right; it was just what we needed.

Human Frogger