Egypt and Egyptians: Part 2

Endeavor Bay, Tawila Island, Egypt

Just as we have found some Egyptians to be genuine and warm while others are less so, some parts of Egypt -the ancient parts mostly – are stunning, while others – say, anything done after about 1000 B.C.- are less picturesque.

Cairo, for example, is no Singapore. It was, in fact, by far and away, the most trash-laden city we’ve ever been in. And we’ve been to some doozies.

We read that Cairo produces something like 13,000 tons of trash every day, but collects only a fraction of that amount, the deficit being left to pile about. The evidence of the running garbage deficit is everywhere.

As our train rolled into Cairo, it felt like the tracks had been routed through a garbage dump of unending length. The locals simply chuck their trash over the fence, where it collects in enormous piles, an approach taken not only along the railroad tracks but in open lots, highway underpasses, fields, and just about every other open space in the city. Goats are everywhere amidst this sea of trash, chewing through the plastic bags to get at the goodies underneath.

Not that there is much open space into which to put the trash. Cairo has about 30 square centimeters of green park space per person, which is about the size of your foot, and somewhat less than the urban planning ideal of 15 square meters per person.

The air quality follows suit. Cairo is home to more than 4,500,000 cars (!), the majority of which are more than ten years old, and none of which are controlled by meaningful emission standards. Similarly, lead and copper smelters, and other unregulated industries, belch gases into the air. There is no real wind or rain to blow any of this stuff away, so it stagnates.

One can get used to this, right? Well, not really. We read one report that estimated that as many 25,000 people die in Cairo each year from air-pollution-related respiratory illness.

It may not change any time soon. Along water front promenades on the Red Sea, we watched workers clean walkways by sweeping the trash onto the beach below. At sea, we watched dive boats toss full bags of trash into the sea, doing so in the dark, pre-dawn hours of the morning to avoid detection by their overseas guests.

Some places, such as Port Ghalib, were comparatively clean, but this was the exception, and probably related to the fact that there were three workers for every guest at the under-populated resort. But as soon as you departed the resort itself and moved off into the dessert, you found the landscape awash in garbage, with each road-side scrub decorated with its own plastic bag collected from the wind. Some unlucky bushes had two or three bags. We’d seen the same thing in Sudan.

(Something needs to be done about plastic bags. When you buy something at a local convenience store – a piece of fruit, an ice cream, a can of ice tea – the local proprietors typically tuck it into a plastic bag or two. What can one expect but that, with so much synthetic wrapping being given away at no cost, a good amount ends up blowing around the city streets and surrounding desert.)

But once you step over the trash, duck under the smog clouds, and make it safely across the street and through the speeding traffic, another Egypt exists. And that is really something else.

The pyramids are even more impressive in real life than you’d think.

The engineering tolerances are simply amazing. The blocks weigh 2.5 tons on average, with those at the bottom heavier and the granite blocks used for the roof of the king’s chambers weighing between 50 and 80 tons each. Yet the gaps between these blocks are typically less than a millimeter, and uniform across the block’s length.

The bases of the pyramids are level, today, to 2 centimeters, and that difference may well be related to a shifting earth rather than a shifting pyramid. Each of the sides of the Great Pyramid is 230 meters in length, and they are identical to a tolerance of less than one centimeter. This was done without lasers or telescopic tools. Today, even using modern measuring standards, there is some argument that the differences in length are actually undetectable.

And if the pyramids look awesome now, at the time of completion they were even more stunning. The step-like blocks that make up the sides that we see today were originally covered with a limestone casing, still partially visible in places, so that pyramids would have sparkled the bright white of the U.S. Capitol or the Washington Monument. And most were topped by capstones, some made of gold, that would have gleamed in the sun or moonlight. They must have been something to behold.

When you enter the pyramids, and move along passageways that have not been exposed to the elements, the precision engineering becomes all the more apparent, with precisely squared corners in chambers made of blocks weighing tens of tons.

And all this was done not tens or hundreds but thousands of years ago, and the methodologies they developed were not understood until modern times. When one Arab sultan tried to dismantle a pyramid thousands of years after it had been built, he couldn’t figure out how to do it, and threw in the towel after managing only to remove enough stones to scar one of the sides.

We also traveled to Luxor, which also knocked our socks off. (Actually, they were already off – It was H-O-T HOT! registering 45 degrees Celsius, or 115 degrees Fahrenheit on more than one day. And it felt even hotter in the sun. The good news, though was that we were typically left to ourselves, unmolested by the scores of tourist buses that usually flood these sites.)

In Luxor, we saw paintings and wall carvings that were remarkable for their craftsmanship, with paint still sticking to rock walls and still looking fresh three thousand years after it had been applied.

Most of the objects that have been found in the tombs and temples in Luxor have been removed to the national museum in Cairo. And boy, is that place a disaster. The building sprawls with artifacts, but there is little rhyme or reason to the collections, and index cards that were obviously typed before the advent of the computer age provide little interpretive guidance as to what one is seeing. The Tut collection is somewhat of an exception. It has been loaned out from time to time, and has thus benefited from the organization and analysis that came as a result. But the rest of the museum has the look and feel of a poorly organized rummage sale.

(Some explanation for this might be found in the absence of meaningful leadership at the top. We read an editorial in a local newspaper by Zahi Hawass, the supposed dean of Egyptian Egyptologists, and individual responsible for the direction of modern-day Egyptology in this country. We came to the conclusion that he is a bit paranoid at best, and off his rocker at worst. In the editorial, he railed against competing foreign Egyptologists, “who are just hungry for fame for themselves. One in
particular believes that I do not know him, but I am aware of everything he says.” Hawass said that he doesn’t need to take credit for the work of others, as he has been accused of doing, because “some of my archeological projects have become the most important in Egypt.” You don’t say! He continued about “another anonymous person [who] has said that my work is just opening holes here and there in the Valley of the Kings. I know who this person is and I think he should go see our excavations . . . to see the difference between our work and his, which people actually do refer to as holes.” Go get ’em Zahi! What he should actually do is stop digging holes, or any merit, and give up the editorial writing for a couple of weeks, and organize the mess collected at the museum.)

But when we sifted among the treasures, we found truly amazing things. For example, we were awed by full-size carvings of a prince and his consort. They are seated, carved in wood, painted with accurate flesh tones and clothing colors, staring straight ahead, and looking as lifelike as could be. The craftsman did an especially wonderful job with the eyes, which sparkle with frank gazes. We spent 15 minutes in front of the pair, trying to understand the technical skill that went into their creation but mostly just unthinkingly appreciating how lifelike they were. We read (not in the poorly interpreted museum!) that when the tomb was first excavated and a light shone on the figures, the workers shrank back in fright, convinced that the prince and his consort where actually seated in front of them. We don’t blame them.

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