Sunday, November 28, 2010

How to keep Egypt interesting - A Tourist Perspective


I just got back from a weekend in Luxor, one of the major cities in Egypt. It is actually a small village compared to Cairo. Population of not even 1 million, according to Wikipedia it was only 489+ Thousand in 2010.

But although Luxor is not a huge city like Cairo it is, in my humble opinion, Egypt's capital for historians and wannabee historians. Okay, I know it doesn't make sense without some clarification so here you have it: When it comes to the Pharaonic times, Cairo has the pyramids which are in themselves awesomely impressive and yes, it is quite impressive what those Egyptians way back, really way back, have accomplished. I mean, gjeez, can you imagine building those pyramids without the help of Caterpillar? At the time they didn't have bulldozers and all. But this is pretty much it. (Yes, Caironians you can start flaming me here). When you pay a visit to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, you'll notice that pretty much everything is from Luxor. From the various valleys in the desert around Luxor they've retrieved all mummies a lot of Sphinxes and statues and all.
Don't get me wrong, Cairo is an impressive city and there's plenty to see in Cairo, but I would dare to say that Cairo's true attraction is more in the Islamic history. And of course it is always interesting to see how 16 million (or 20 million, depending who you're asking) live together in a fairly nice manner. And then of course there's a huge theme park in Cairo we call 'Traffic'. You can read about traffic in pretty much every little text on Cairo.
Alexandria, 3.5 million population, is more of interest when you're looking for Greek or Roman history. And then there's the great library, which is freakishly huge. So there's from a city point of view not that much overlap. Luxor: Pharaonic, Cairo: Islam, Alexandria: Greek & Roman. And I am pretty sure that by this I am offending people and am selling all cities short. I won't apologize.

I've now visited all three cities and I think I visited them in the right order. Cairo, Alexandria and Luxor. (I know there's more to see in Egypt.) Cairo is impressive and the pyramids and Sphinx are as mysterious as can be. From my terrace I can see the pyramids in the desert and that's amazing. I've seen the mummies in the Egyptian Museum. The pyramids are Egypt. Full Stop.
Alexandria is really nice to visit. It is laid back, a true city at the sea and it has a rich history. Apart from the library, I would say there's nothing as impressive in Alexandria as the pyramids and the Sphinx, but then again, the history in both cities don't compete. One can perfectly enjoy and be amazed by Alexandria even after spending time in Cairo. Don't get me wrong, the history of Alexandria is just as impressive as in Cairo, it's just that it's not as mysterious.
But the real deal is Luxor. Don't go to Luxor before you've seen the other two cities, because you'll be spoiled to the core. Luxor is littered with awe inspiring history. It has the Valley of the Kings with all the tombs and many of them are open for the public. And they are, but for the treasures, in pristine condition. Actually, I would not be surprise if in 10 years from now, it all turns out to be a hoax. It's that well preserved in like a gazillion years. If you get the chance, you should also visit the Valley of the Scribblers. Very interesting indeed, we had the luck that our guide was also an archeologist that did some digging in this valley.
The temples of Karnak is just wicket. It's huge, impressive, intimidating and interesting as anything else in Egypt. Make sure your guide knows what he's talking about. The temple of Hatsjeput is interesting and impressive by itself, but when you know the story of this queen it's even more a worthy site to visit. (Little piece of trivia: Polish craftsmen have rebuild the temple to great extend as a gift to Egypt.) Honestly, after visiting Luxor, Cairo has lost from an historical point of view quite a bit of its magic.

We visited Luxor in two days and our itinerary was setup by Kingfisher Tours, an Egyptian/Dutch run travel specialist. They did a great job and especially kudoos for hooking is up with Abdul, the guide who showed us around the various sites of Luxor with all the enthusiasm and knowledge that makes a trip to a tomb worth your while. Kingfisher Tours, btw, also arranged for our trip to Alexandria.

So if you're thinking about seeing the historical site of Egypt, fly into Cairo, take a trip to Alexandria after seeing Cairo and conclude with Luxor. Don't start with Luxor! Really you'll be disappointed by Cairo and Alexandria.


PS: Looking for a great place to eat, enjoy the food at Sofra or The Fortune Cookie. Both have an excellent kitchen and we enjoyed both restaurants.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Ramadan Chronicles, final part in a series

First of all my apologies for not publishing this in a while, this post has been sitting in my drafts since I wrote it and forgot to hit the publish button.

This is the final part of a series on the topic of Ramadan, the time of fasting and contemplating in Islam. Actually this is about the period after Ramadan, the first week or so to be accurate.
Once Ramadan is over, after 30 days, when the moon has completed its cycle, the fasting is over and Eid is upon everybody. This is a time of celebrating and eating, party all the time.
I can't say too much about Eid from experience as this coincided with a vacation to my family in the Netherlands, but I did experience some of it. And I was surprised too find out that it seemed as if Ramadan was taken more seriously than Eid. What I mean is that it seemed to me that most of my colleagues around me where more affected by Ramadan, its consequences and what it meant for them than about Eid, although all the tweets and Facebook status updates where about celebrating Eid and not about Ramadan. Which makes kind of sense as well.

Interestingly enough, some Muslims are not really participating in the celebrations of Eid as their fellow Muslims do. They keep on fasting for a few more days, 7 if I am not mistaken. I am not really sure as to why they would do this, although I had some discussions about it. But prolonging the fasting for a few more days accounts for fasting for a whole year.
I would say that continuing the fasting for a longer while whereas all your family, friends and colleagues around you are not would seem to be harder to keep up than when everybody is fasting and whole society is changing pace and rhythm.

Now that Ramadan and Eid are all over and life in Cairo is back to normal, Cairo is also a better and nicer place to be. It has regained its buzz and vividness. I didn't like Ramadan at all. At work productivity came almost to a full stop and the cheery faces of my colleagues where mostly gone. Everybody was tired and cranky. Now everything is back to business as usual, and I like it that way.

Until next post about my experiences in Egypt.


Ramadan Chronicles, part three in a series

First of all my apologies for not posting this sooner. This post has been sitting and waiting in draft since forever. Guess I forgot to hit that 'Publish' button when it was due. But here's the post nevertheless.

Ramadan is an interesting period in the Muslim year. First of all it is a period in which people only eat or drink something between sunset and sunrise. These two moments are very carefully determined and actually do coincide with sunset and sunrise, instead of being some symbolical times like between 8 PM and 6 AM the next day. This means that when Ramadan is happening during summer, it is a lot harder than when it is in winter. And Muslims in northern Sweden have a for more difficult time than those living around the Equator.
Btw, the month of Ramadan is 'moving' throughout the year, every year it is a bit earlier in the year than the year before. This because the Islamic months are determined by the moon phases.

Another interesting fact of Ramadan, something you might not know when you're not Muslim is that during Ramadan the whole of the Koran is read during the first prayer after sunset. In reality this means that this prayer is a long prayer compared to the other prayers during Ramadan. So this means that during the 30 days of Ramadan, during one particular prayer the whole of the Koran is read.
I guess one can say it is fortunate that this prayer is after breakfast instead of before.

Until next post...

PS: One little trivia, the first meal after sunset is called 'breakfast' as it is breaking the fasting.