Journal: Friday 14 November 2003
The pale golden sun had just risen and the air was clear and sharp as we left Bahariya early this morning for the drive to Cairo, the last leg of our oasis trip.
Passing the checkpoint at the entrance to the oasis we followed the ancient caravan route from Bahariya to Cairo on a road that was first paved only as recently as 1978. To our right a raised railway line also followed the route, built to serve the Managim iron mines at the edge of the oasis. These mines are the main source of iron for the Egyptian steel industry. We saw no trains today, but passed at least two overturned and abandoned goods-wagons on the line. The road is long and winds lazily over the plateau, but there is little to look at. Apparently the remains of a petrified forest are scattered near the roadside at one point – but we missed it!
We were all pretty quiet and sleepy for most of the four and a half hour journey. Our week in the desert was over and we would shortly be back in civilization. I wasn’t sure that was such a good thing because I have loved being in the desert. The only one of us who chattered on the journey was Tom, who at last would be able to fulfil his dream of Cairo. I think this was the first time he’d spoken more than a few words to any of us. As we hit the traffic at the edge of Cairo it was like driving into a brick wall. All the open space and vast skies of the past week vanished and we were suddenly confronted with bumper-to-bumper cars and trucks, steep-sided buildings and the Cairo yellow smog that hangs in a permanent cloud over the city. And the incessant noise. Even those of us who knew what to expect experienced a culture shock.
One of the main reasons Tom wanted to visit Cairo was to see the Nag Hammadi Gospels. Thirteen of these 4th century Coptic books or codices were discovered by a farmer in the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945, bound in leather and buried in large pottery jars. Written on papyrus in the Coptic language, they are said to be the primary source of Gnostic Christianity. The Coptic Museum in Cairo has two pages of the manuscripts on display and so this was our first stop in Cairo today. Mohammed drove us straight to Old Cairo and parked near the museum. I was looking forward to seeing it again, but Tom was like an excited little boy. You can imagine his disappointment when we arrived outside the beautiful old building only to discover that it was closed for one month. We all felt really sorry for him.
After wandering around Old Cairo for a while, looking at the Babylon Gate and the Hanging Church, we drove on to our hotel on the eastern edge of Cairo. We were staying in the Ciao, near Rameses Station, where Sam and I have stayed several times before. By the time we had all got our rooms sorted out to our satisfaction (which involved several changes again), it was time for dinner. Again we were eating early because of Ramadan and today is Friday, the holy day. It seemed like the whole city was out to eat tonight and there was a celebratory feeling everywhere we went. Families young and old were parading up and down in their best clothes. Bright Ramadan lamps hung in the markets and coffee shops and there were colourful decorations everywhere. We had decided to have dinner at Felfella, the famous vegetarian restaurant, but it was packed and we had to wait quite a long time for a table. Abdul and Mohammed were with us and they were starving by the time we were seated – their Iftar delayed by the long wait. But the meal was good as always here and turned into quite a celebration of a successful trip – except maybe for Tom, who was now quite subdued again.