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  • Writer's picturePeter Antonucci

Cairo, Egypt | Day 1

Friday | September 30, 2016

The day began with palpable excitement as we docked in Egypt. After a quick breakfast, I ran downstairs to meet our driver as we were due to head off to Cairo and the ancient pyramids.

We boarded our van and headed out for the 45 minute ride to the airport. In the front seat were a driver and two guards, each armed with pistols, with a machine gun stationed between them. We thought that level of security a bit much, but we continued on.

After we had driven a little while, we noticed a jeep full of men in military looking uniforms with machine guns hanging out the windows on first the right and then left sides of our vehicle. They weaved in and out of the highway, stopping random cars and waiving us up, or holding us back. I was scared, fearful that our lives were about to put in jeopardy. It was only then that one of the guards in the front seat explained that those jeeps contained additional security personnel assigned to our protective detail. I dared not even attempt to photograph them for fear that I would be met with a forceful interrogation.

On the other hand, outside the window, I noticed there were fortified bunkers carved into the desert sands.


Other than that, the entire ride was through desert.


I would be lying if I did not disclose that we felt bit of fear that point. Why did we need so many men and guns to protect us.

Thankfully, we arrived to the airport without much fanfare. We were hustled through security by our protective detail. Interestingly, we had to pass through metal detectors on four separate occasions, necessitating the removal of everything in our pockets, and even the removal of our belts and shoes.

In the airport, the three women in my group were required to wear Muslim headgear.

Alas, we were on EgyptAir, the same airline whose pilots were being sought in connection with a bombing in New York last week, and the same airline whose pilot had crashed a plane into a mountain a year ago.

The one-hour flight took us directly over the desert.


Even when we landed in Cairo, a major international city in the Middle East, all we saw was desert.


There we were, in the land of the sphinx!


While we were in the airport, we heard the call to prayer and dozens of Muslims dutifully dropped to their knees, faced west, and prayed.


We met our driver, Moses, who instructed us throughout our visit to Cairo; we were to “follow Moses.”


He was a pleasant and affable man in his early 60’s who has been guiding for more than 30 years. He speaks many languages and in the past has been the designated guide for the UN Security Council. He has also guided president Jimmy Carter, and prime ministers and presidents of various other countries.

Most of the buildings looked concrete and square, with architecture that suggested they must have been built in the 1960s.

As we drove through downtown Cairo, we learned it has the largest military academy in Africa. We also drove past the 1973 War Museum, a massive complex over four blocks in length. In that building, Moses told us, were located the weapons and memorials from the 1973 “Rosh Hashanah” war against Israel.

We also noticed palaces located at random places in the middle of Cairo. That indeed was quite different from what one sees in most countries.

Moses gave us a little information about Egypt and Cairo. Egypt is a country of 90 million people, 20 million of whom live in the city of Cairo. Those 90 million people in Egypt live on only 5% of the land. The majority of the land is desert and uninhabitable, except to Bedouins.

We also learned that there is a 20% unemployment rate in Egypt and personal income taxes range between 20% and 30%. Moreover, Egypt does not presently export any oil.

Education in Egypt is compulsary from ages six through fifteen. Schools for the youth are free, but private schools can cost up to $5000 per year. For those who qualify, University is also free, but private universities can cost up to $10,000 per year.

50% of the population of Egypt is under 30 years old.

90% of the country is Muslim, and 10% Christian. There is no appreciable Jewish population in Egypt.

Moses told us that there are literally thousands of mosques in Cairo; no one could even begin to approximate the exact number. All of the mosques in Egypt, like every other Islamic country, have minarets.

We drove by the new Cairo opera house, which had been donated by the Japanese.

Our first stop was the Nile Ritz Carlton, where we had an extraordinary lunch buffet.


To say it was extravagant would be the understatement of the day.


There was a massive salad bar.


Seafood was abundant.


But I was most surprised to see the presence of pig, understanding that pork is totally forbidden in the Muslim religion.


That may have been the largest pot of paella anywhere in the world!


Of course, the dessert table was amazing!


Back outside, we found ourselves in Tahir (Liberation) Square where the revolution had occurred only a few years ago. The January 25, 2011 revolution, started as an anti-police riot. It was only later in the week that it evolved into an overturning of the entire government.

From there, it was only a short walk to the Cairo Museum of Antiquities.


This building was built as a museum in 1902, and has performed that function ever since. It houses the largest single collection of antiquities in the world, including over 120,000 pieces. These are all authentic pieces of Egyptian antiquity discovered by archaeologists in this country. And even so, it is estimated that they approximate only one third of those in Egypt. In other words, there may be another quarter of a million tombs, sarcophagi, and artifacts still buried under Egyptian soil.

Shortly after we entered the museum, one of the women in our group decided to rest her handbag on something. Moses was aghast as the “rack” she was using was a sphinx made from the time of Rameses II in 1230BC!

I thought we were going to get thrown out of the museum, if not out of Egypt.

Sarcophagi were everywhere.


So were statues.


Sphinxes were also ubiquitous.


The intricate nature of the carvings was most impressive.


One of the first things we saw was a monument to the man who built the pyramids in 2805 BC.


This little statute of three fine gentleman included Marcurinus in the middle, the man who built the third pyramid.


And here, Moses explains the history of King Chephrin, the builder of the second pyramid and the sphinx in 2700 BC. This particular statue is made of diorite.


A word about history here – King Kiops was the man who built the first pyramid, the only remaining one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. His son, Chephren, built the second pyramid and, as mentioned above, the sphinx. And the third son, Marcurinus, build the third one.

I took this photograph from the side because one can see the muscles on the statue and the falcon seated behind the head of the pharaoh with its wings protecting him.


Someone never got around to finishing the sculpture so I did.


This statue of the Queen sitting was constructed in 2500 BC. Note the eyes on the scribe, made of agate-like stones.


This sarcophagus was made of alabaster.


Here is the carrying chair of Queen Heleps-Heres.


This statue depicts a dwarf with his woman. This particular dwarf owned 1000 sheep, so he was not that poor.


Note the children at his feet, intended to compensate for his short legs.

Here is another requisite statue of a king and queen.


When the British archaeologists stumbled upon them, the figures were on their backs so the faces and eyes were pointed straight up in the air. The diggers were frightened and needed reassurance from the Egyptians that these characters were not coming to life.

The new Kingdom began in 1570 BC and lasted until 1050 BC. At that time, Luxor was the capital of Egypt and pharoahs such as Ramses, Tutmosis, and Tutangamon ruled from this location.

I found particularly interesting this statue of a king in front of a sacred cow. Look at the amazing colors in the background. This was built for Tutmosis III.


Next Moses regaled us with the story of Howard Carter, the American archaeologist who was determined to discover the lost Kingdom of King Tut. Carter spent three years, from 1920 to 1922, in Egypt trying to find the legendary tomb of King Tut. Finally, after being told 1922 was going to be the last year of his funding, he stumbled upon the entrance to King Tut’s tomb on November 4, 1922.

King Tut ruled from 1361 to 1352 BC. He was a young and insignificant ruler who we would have never learned about but for Carter’s discovery. Tut became famous in 1922 as Carter unearthed 5000 contact pieces from his tomb. Tut’s inner sarcophagus was made of 110 kg of pure gold. That was then laid inside a gilded wood sarcophagus and then a stone sarcophagus.

Several of these pieces have been on display in other countries, but Egyptian law mandates that they can only travel when there is more than one piece in a collection and there are duplicates. In other words, if there are two of a kind, one can travel. But if there is only one of something, it cannot leave the country. For example, this unique throne of King Tut has never left Egypt.

In Tut’s tomb were found these little golden likenesses of his servants who were to join him in the afterlife.


That was a kindness because ordinarily, pharaohs had their servants killed and buried with them, so they would be available to the pharaohs once they arose from the dead.

These alabaster animals were also found in his tomb.


When Tut was buried, his loyal surgeon removed all of his organs and put them inside these four alabaster jars.


These were then placed inside a gold chamber, which was placed inside another gold chamber, and yet another gold chamber. The organs had to be made available to King Tut once he arose from the dead.

This was Tut’s actual throne.


And here is where he rested his weary bones.


I stumbled across these royal chariots.


I also found his royal boat.


We then went into a special gold room where pictures were not allowed (but that didn't stop me)! There, we saw the 1.1 kg mask that Tut actually wore over his mummified body.


We also saw three massive gold sarcophagi and their respective tombs.


Even after we left the actual museum, we saw these antiquities just "sitting around" outside.


Next, it was time to leave the museum and we headed to our hotel, the Four Seasons. There, I enjoyed an excellent view from my suite.


After a quick shower and time to write these few notes, Moses picked us up at our hotel and we drove into the heart of Islamic Cairo on a Friday night. There was nothing touristy about this – we were out and about in the gritty (but not dirty) part of the city with only locals. There were thousands of people milling about, but we felt incredibly safe (and not just because of the presence of the armed security guards who followed us at every step).


It was somewhat comparable to the grand bazaar in Istanbul, but the crowd was far more polite. Over the course of the entire evening, which lasted several hours, only one man approached us, and did so very courteously. No one grabbed our sleeves or touched us. Moses told us that if a local were to touch a tourist, he would be arrested. Tourism is obviously a very important part of the Egyptian economy and security is taken seriously. With the entire economy so fragile, if a tourist were hurt, or killed, the entire Egyptian economy may just crumble.

We entered the heart of the city through the Fotuh Gate, built by the Fatimide Dynasty.


The Fatamides came to Egypt from the West, principally Morocco, and were the first conquerors not to have come from the east. That occurred in 989 AD, which is when Cairo was founded. It was during that year, and the ensuing years, that these very walls and gates were built.

While walking through the bazaar, we saw a wedding.


We also saw these pretty local Egyptian women posing for pictures.


Poverty was rampant and people were selling everything. This gentleman had a store full of olives he was selling for pickling.


This gentleman was selling fresh corn, and was keen to be in the picture.

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And seemingly everyone was selling hooka pipes.


Families were gathered together eating in chairs on the sidewalk; the atmosphere was festive and fun.

Eventually, Moses led us down a little alley into a restaurant where we had dinner.


He had not been there in four months, so Moses was warmly greeted by everyone from the manager, to the maître d’, to each of the waiters.

The ceilings in the place were very cool.

Men in the restaurant wore fezzes and Moses took a few minutes to tell us about them.


Fezzes were introduced to Egypt by the Turks in 1840. They really went out of fashion after the 1952 resolution, when King Farook was overthrown by Nassir. At that time, the royal family essentially came to its end and Farook’s son, then just a young boy, was exiled. He returned five years ago and last year, was granted the diplomatic status of “ex-king” by the Egyptian government.

Dinner was amazing.


Of course, being in a Muslim city, no alcohol was served.

We boarded our vehicle to transport us back to the hotel, and we actually drove right through all the people. It was a miracle that we did not hit anyone. It was also somewhat incredible that no one was fazed that we would be the only vehicle driving right through the middle of the bazaar.

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Back in the hotel, sleep came easily.


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