Egypt Dazzles with Its History; Great Pyramids Exciting Start to a Grand Tour

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 4, 2003 | Go to article overview

Egypt Dazzles with Its History; Great Pyramids Exciting Start to a Grand Tour


Byline: Eva Harnik, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

CAIRO - I have seen many pictures of the Sphinx and the pyramids before, but in real life, the visual attack on my senses was almost crushing. From my spacious suite in the Meridian Hotel just outside Egypt's capital, the three pyramids of Giza glowed in the evening light at sunset. Soft yellow beams focused on these shapes against an inky blue sky.

The next morning I climbed all the way to the top chamber inside the Great Pyramid, burial place of the Pharaoh Khufu (about 2650 B.C.). Slaves lugged more than 2 million stone blocks, each weighing a couple of tons to build this monument. It is empty inside now. Whatever remained after centuries of looting is safely ensconced in the Museum of Egyptian Art in Cairo. It is awesome even to think that a mere mortal could commandeer thousands of slaves for his own glorification.

The two other pyramids in Giza belonged to his son, Cephren, and grandson, Menkaure. I found the second of these particularly enticing as much lighter stones cap the top. If it could have spoken to me, it would have said, "Here I am, smaller but more distinguished looking."

The Sphinx sat in front of Cephren's pyramid, mysterious, unfathomable, looking down. She, too, spoke: "My secret remains hidden, but you may admire me." I did.

Giza occupies a natural plateau overlooking the Nile, and, like a mirage, Cairo shimmers on the nearby horizon. Most of the city's modern buildings, the old and new mosques, Coptic churches and elegant, classical residential palaces along the Nile were built of pale white sandstone. I liked the simplicity of the uniform building materials and the discreet use of embellishment. The city blended well into the desert around it.

Old neighborhoods bustled with local life; vegetable carts were pushed along the narrow streets; the delicious smell of freshly baked feather-light bread wafted from small stores. I entered a local papyrus store that sold copies of old scrolls. However, the main attraction was the demonstration of papermaking. This incredibly resilient and attractive paper comes from the aquatic papyrus plant, an ancient inhabitant of the Nile River.

The owner cut a stalk of papyrus, peeled away the outer green layer, then repeatedly squeezed and compressed the core to a pulp in a vise until it was free of excess water and sugar. The finished sheet looked like a piece of textile, but paper it was; ready to paint in six days.

Another visit took me to a perfume store that sold all the scents of the Arabian Nights. For a reasonable price, the attar of rose, jasmine, blended citrus fruits and many others were available in delicate, colored glass vials. I could have chosen my personal mix from sample concentrates.

Instead of going into the main bazaar, I decided to wander among the friendly small stores, enjoying the offer of tea or Turkish coffee. I sat comfortably on a low ottoman, receiving the goods brought to me for inspection. The vendors were just as eager as in the bazaar, but the atmosphere was so much more civilized in the shops.

The remains of the old city wall and the Citadel of Sultan Saladin, built during his reign (A.D. 1172-1193) are on the outskirts of Cairo. The walls enclose the Great Alabaster Mosque, an imposing and beautifully proportioned building flooded by natural light. Persian rugs cover the marble floor, and the ornate mihrab, the Islamic altar, points toward Mecca. From the ramparts, another view of the sprawling city beckons.

A visit to Cairo would not be complete without a night cruise on one of the elegant restaurant boats plying the Nile. Velvet curtains, marble floors, wood paneling, crystal chandeliers, damask tablecloths, and silver flatware complimented a good meal. A belly dancer provided the entertainment. It was great fun, the heat of the day was gone and the view from the deck was lovely. …

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