Journal: Monday 25 September 2000
Even though we had such a late night, I saw the sun rise this morning from the tiny balcony of our hotel room. I hadn’t slept for long, being unused to the noise of a vast city in the early morning and the shunting and forlorn hooting of trains in the railway station that seemed to have carried on throughout the night. The wide road beneath our window was already alive with hurrying people, vendors setting out their stalls at the back of Rameses Station and the ever-present cars speeding noisily by. As I listened to the last haunting notes of the of the morning call to prayer coming from a nearby minaret, the sun rose in the east, a deep orange fiery ball, then quickly vanished into a high bank of smog. Unmistakably Cairo.
My plan this morning was to go to Abbassiya. I had applied for a student antiquities permit and had to visit the SCA offices in east Cairo to meet with someone to get the permit. I agreed with Jenny that I would go to Abbassiya while she went to the Egyptian Museum, both of us taking taxis in opposite directions and we would meet later. Then I found that getting a taxi on the outskirts of Cairo is no easy task. To begin with, none of the drivers spoke any English and they couldn’t understand where I wanted to go, first confusing my destination with Abusir on the other side of the Nile. My Saidi-learned dialect of Arabic was useless here. Eventually I found a driver who seemed to vaguely understand and off we lurched in his very battered black and white taxi to the district of Abbassiya. Then I realised that I didn’t have the full address, stupidly thinking that everyone would know where the main offices of the Supreme Council of Antiquities was. Nobody did. When we arrived in Abbassiya the taxi driver asked several people in the street if they knew where the building was and even tried the telephone number I had for the office, which for some reason was unobtainable. Not a soul spoke English and after an hour or so of going round in circles, we were forced to give up the search. Driving back towards central Cairo, I asked to be taken to the Egyptian Museum and after failing in English, searching my limited vocabulary for words such as mathaf (museum), ‘asaar (antiquities), even beit mummiya (house of mummies?). It seemed so obvious to me. What I hadn’t realised was that local taxis in Cairo are only allowed to drive in certain areas. The taxis found outside the main tourist hotels have a licence for the whole city, but many others don’t. The driver tried to explain this but I didn’t understand him and I thought he was just being difficult. I’m sure he thought the same thing of me.
Eventually I did find another taxi to take me to the Museum. This was my second visit there and knowing how vast the galleries are I wondered if I would ever be able to find Jenny. Even the building itself, a pink Victorian monstrosity designed by French architect Marcel Dourgnon and inaugurated in 1902, is impressive, set in a garden presided over by the statue of its first Director, Auguste-Edouard Mariette. Inside its high-ceilinged halls is the world’s greatest repository of more than 120,000 ancient Egyptian artefacts. It has actually been calculated that if you spend one minute at each exhibit it will take nine months to see the whole collection! As luck would have it I found Jenny in the Tutankhamun gallery, my first port of call. I couldn’t resist re-visiting the fabulous golden treasures of the boy-king, housed in a newly renovated temperature-controlled room. This is a great contrast to many of the other galleries with their original wooden cases covered with glass that looked like it had never been cleaned since the museum opened. To our great frustration, many objects were unlabeled, but every one was a real treasure. On the ground floor is the statue gallery and the atrium which displays the largest of the exhibits, including a colossal statue of Rameses II and a massive statue pair of Amenhotep III and his wife Tiye as its focus and we took our time marvelling at these and many other beautiful works of art, spending the rest of the day in the museum.
When we were thrown out of the museum at closing time we found a taxi to take us across the river to the island of el-Manyal, where there is a student office which issues ISIC cards and in case I never got my antiquities permit, I decided to renew my student card which had run out. This time we had no problem with finding the place, as we had taken a taxi outside the museum and the driver spoke good English. I did have a little trouble with the office staff who at first refused to believe I was a student, saying that I was too old (i.e. over 25), even though I had an English student card. They obviously don’t have mature students in Egypt. Our taxi waited for us and after we had arranged with the driver to take us to Saqqara tomorrow, he dropped us off in the Khan el-Khalili.
The Khan el-Khalili is an ancient labyrinth of narrow streets and passageways, sometimes covered over, where many craftsmen work in gold, silver, brass, leather, glassware and stones. This is said to be one of the biggest bazaars in the world where you can buy absolutely anything. We wandered the streets for a while, resisting the temptation to buy everything we saw, though some of the traders were very persistent. It was quite dark by this time and the alleyways were lit by strings of bare light bulbs, giving the area a festive appearance. We ate dinner at ‘Egyptian Pancakes’ near al-Azhar, followed by strong turkish coffee in a little coffee-shop in a side street and enjoyed the scene as the crowds of tourists and Cairene families paraded up and down. I feel like I have been here a week already!