Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Day 14 – My last day in Egypt

This was it. A last day in Egypt, and a relatively short list of things to do. First I had to return the car, and I felt pretty sure I knew what roads to take to get back to the center of town. By I did a silly mistake and missed the onramp to the express way and got “funneled” into the small streets. Left, then right, then left . . . oh boy this is going to hurt . . wait, this part of town looks familiar . . . maybe if I cut across this narrow alley . . . yes, there is the roundabout where I had lunch after visiting the Egyptian Museum. Three minutes later I parked the car in front of the hotel, and five minutes later I was walking away, free of cares, toward the metro station.

Second, Ali had told me I had to visit the Al-Azhar Mosque, which was established on 970 AD. It is not the oldest mosques, but it is one of the oldest. It has the added claim to fame that within a few years of its foundation a school (madrasa) was added to it (988 AD). This madrasa eventually became the Al-Azhar University, which claims the title of the second oldest university in the world (the oldest is the madrasa/university in Fez, Morrocco).

Across the square is the Mosque of Sayyidna al-Hussein, one of the most holy places of Islam, since it is the burial place of the head of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet, who was assassinated in Iraq (thus starting the feud between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam, a feud that continues to the present day. Since it is such a holy place, it is not open to visit by non-mulsims.

Third, just alongside the mosque starts the Khan al-Khalili, the legendary market of Old Cairo. I had put shopping until the very last day, to save my pounds for a truly unique souvenir. I knew exactly what I wanted: A couple of cheap papyri to put on the walls of my Africa room, and a faience figurine of either a winged scarab (yeah, good luck with that one), an ushebti (figurines that were added to the burials of kings or nobles to perform any manual labor required of the principal in the next world), or a hippopotamus (I had seen one in Luxor, and I was kicking myself for not buying it then and there).

As always, the market place was fascinating. The color, the variety, and the absolute charm of the sellers is irresistible to me. The papyri were no problem, and I was even bold enough to haggle a bit on the price. The faience figurines, on the other hand, were nowhere to be found. Maybe I should say that faience is a type of ceramic that was popular during pharaonic times; quartz sand mixed with a pigment was sprinkled on a regular clay figurine, and when the piece was fired the quartz and the pigment would fuse and together glaze the figurine with an attractive blue or turquoise tint. Most of the merchants had no idea what I was talking about, and instead kept directing me to the regular fare they carry for tourists. Quite despondent I was ready to quit, when a lady told me to follow her to her son’s shop. It was a big shop, with many pieces, and I was sure to find what I wanted there. No, it looked just like another waste of time when I spotted a dust covered basket in one of the corners that had some pale green figurines. I pulled it out and there they were, a good dozen of ushebtis forgotten by time. The folks there could hardly believe I was interested on those old, chipped pieces, but business is business and after a modest amount of haggling I became the proud owner of the best two pieces.

After that I went back to the Scout Center, because I wanted to buy some Scout paraphernalia for Dave. So I did, and afterward realized I still had 130 pounds in my pocket. Cool, now that I am done with my shopping I can blow this money on another museum and a good meal.

So off I went again, this time headed for the Coptic quarter of the city. I am referring to the quarter where some of the old Coptic churches and monasteries are, not where the modern Copts live. You see, the Copts are the garbage collectors of Cairo, and they pretty much live around and at the dump. But in the old days the Copts became famous for the “invention” of monastic life, and many Coptic monasteries were built between 200 and 1200 AD. This means that for quite some time Coptic Christianity and Islam shared the country “nuss we nuss” (50-50). History tells us that around 675 AD, just a few years after the death of the Prophet, 2,000 Arab riders invaded Egypt and brought Islam unto the land. They established their first city, El Fustat, in close proximity to the Coptic monasteries, just south of what eventually was to become Old Cairo.

So I burnt 50 pounds in the Coptic Museum (OK, but not great), walked around the neighborhood, and secure on the knowledge that there was nothing else I wanted I started browsing through shops. I looked with interested eyes at a book on Egyptian cooking, but I only had 60 pounds to spend, and the book was 75 pounds. The very charming gentleman running the bookshop was not weakening, but he invited me to look at his brother’s bazaar, where maybe I could get something for my 60 pounds. OK, I went in, and looked, and was turning ready to go when I spied TWO beautiful faience winged scarabs! I was cool as ice when I asked for the price. The gentleman laughed and said “a lot more than 60 pounds!” But he knew I was hooked.

When I told him I had no more money he suggested paying by credit card. Really? My credit card has been totally useless so far, so I gladly reached for my wallet when I recalled I had left it at the Scout Center. Arggh. “No problem”, said he, “my brother will drive you to the hotel and you can pay for it then and there.” What can I say. When you meet such an accommodating salesman there is little one can do. So I got a ride to my hotel, with lots of conversation and sightseeing along the way, I got my credit card and using a portable remote terminal took care of business, and now I am the proud owner of four magnificent pieces of ceramic art (and an Egyptian cookbook :). I am one happy pup.

And that is it. Tomorrow I take the plane to Frankfurt at 5 am, and expect to have breakfast at the airport with my dear Christine and Gustav. After that I will fly from Frankfurt to Denver (I shudder every time I think about the time I got stranded in Denver under glacial conditions), and from there to Sacramento, where DJ and Girl will pick me up. It was a short but intense trip, and I will remember Egypt and its fabulous people fondly for many years to come.


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