06 August 2007

Aug 5 – Egyptian Museum, Bazaar

I met Ebrahim in the lobby and we headed out across town to the Egyptian Museum. Ibrahim bought the tickets and I took some pictures outside the museum, since cameras are not allowed inside.

The grounds in front of the building have some of the sculptures, obelisks and hieroglyphic carvings collected from various sites scattered throughout the grounds. Flanking either side of the walkway to the main entrance are two Sphinx (Sphinxes? Sphinxi? Sphini?) which, of course, every tourist wants their picture taken with. Who am I to defy local customs?? I had a picture taken of Ibrahim and me with one of the sphinx in front of the museum.

We entered the museum and, just like the hotel, the Pharaonic Village, the Giza Plateau, the Sphinx Sound & Light Show…we went through a security screening. Upon entering the museum, you’re greeted by monumental sculptures of the kings in the classic ‘throne’ pose. Unlike most museums, here the sculptures are out in the open where you can touch them. And, judging by the darker, polished look to the legs of the statues up to about 6 feet from the floor, people have been doing just that for a very long time.

The place is HUGE. And I’m obviously here with the right guy. Ibrahim says he’s been here at least 20 times. He knows the layout of the museum and where the most interesting exhibits are. We’d need days to actually cover the museum, and if I were there on my own I might not find the highlights, so he guides me to them.

We started briefly on the main floor where there are so many rooms and halls and displayed collections covering most of the dynasties of Lower (north), Middle, and Upper (south) Egypt. Ibrahim told me that the most interesting displays were upstairs, though, so we only spent 30-45 minutes downstairs.

Upstairs, there are display rooms with some of the objects found in Tutankhamen’s tomb…The Gold Mask (the one everyone has seen in pictures), the collarplates, the rings and amulets, etc. Outside the display rooms is the main hall that has the nested boxes that contained the sarcophagi and mummy…all separated so you can see them individually, rather than as they were found. The actual mummy is not in this museum, it’s in Luxor. There are also many items found in the tomb…jars and containers that held food, several beds, a number of chariots, attendant statues and carvings. It’s an impressive collection!

Another huge highlight of the museum was the royal mummy display. In a separate room at the far end of the top floor are the climate-controlled cases. You have to pay an additional entrance fee to get into the mummy display, but it’s worth it! Along the hallway leading to the room are a number of displays that talk about the mummification process and show some of the instruments used.

Once you pass through an air curtain and into the air-conditioned display room you see the actual mummies. There are about a dozen glass cases and each mummy is identified along with anything known about the person from the mummy (approximate age, what can be determined about health and/or cause of death, etc).

My other favorite thing in the museum was the papyrus room. There was one large room that had nothing but papyrus scrolls. Being something of a calligraphy nut, I was in heaven! I could have spent all morning, at least, just in that room, looking at the hieroglyphic strokes and illustrations as well as marveling at how well-preserved they are (or maybe it’s just that papyrus is extremely durable!)

Everywhere we went, Ibrahim had a running commentary on not just the items displayed but other historical and more modern contexts for them. The man is an absolute wealth of information on just about everything but especially history. He studied in the US for a while (mostly agriculture, but a parallel study in economics), lived in Nigeria for a number of years, and has traveled to many places. Everywhere he goes, he soaks up information and connects the pieces from here to there and forms his opinions. He’s interested in everything and an incredibly interesting person to be around.

After the museum, we went to a shishkabob restaurant that he really likes. He said there are 3 of them…2 in Cairo and one in Alexandria but this one is his favorite. We both had the pigeon soup to start. It was a broth type soup…there were no pieces of anything in it, but it wasn’t clear… with seasonings and spices into which we squeezed lime. The limes were cut in half and tiny…about the size of a large grape…and they had a cheesecloth type covering on them so that when you squeezed them, you didn’t get seeds or pulp. It was delicious!

We also had some of the same side dishes and condiments that I’d had yesterday or the day before…the yogurt sauce, sesame paste, salad…but also some different ones. There was a rice dish that was seasoned with spices and toasted almond slices and had pieces of kidney and liver on top. I wish I’d known that before I ate one of them… There was also a pickle plate that had small pickled eggplant halves stuffed with minced vegetables, pickled onions, and pickle spears. I liked the spears ok and I tried the eggplant but it was so salty and so astringent that I couldn’t finish it. I decided to cut my losses and not try the onions. There was also a basket of the same sort of bread I’d had before.

The main course was the shishkebab. There were several pieces of beef that had been grilled on a skewer and a couple of other things that looked sort of like 3 connected meatballs (kofta)…about 6 inches long and a little more than an inch thick at the thickest part but slightly narrower in 2 places…were seasoned ground meat that had been formed on a skewer and grilled. It was very tasty! It was also a lot of food…I couldn’t finish all of mine.

After eating, we went to the bazaar. We had to park a ways away and walk. As we approached the area, Ibrahim told me that when we got there, to let him know what I was interested in and he would deal with the vendors. I told him a few things I was looking for and we entered the warren of alleys, shops and aisles.

The first shop we entered had papyrus paintings. I’d told Ibrahim that I was looking for one with musicians on it. He and the guy sorted through a pile and found one that was very nice. They had a heated discussion about it and Ibrahim grabbed my elbow to walk us out.

A few places further on, they also had papyrus paintings. He found the same painting and they haggled over it. While they were haggling, I also found some scarab beetles carved from stone that I liked. Ibrahim paid for the painting and we walked out but the guy was still following us and they were “discussing” the beetles. At some point, they reached an agreement and Ibrahim handed him some more bills and me the scarabs.

I also wanted a pair of the small cymbals that belly dancers use…he found and negotiated for those while I was looking at something else.

He told me that he could do a lot better if I wasn’t with him. When the vendors see a foreigner, the price starts out at triple what it should be. He can negotiate them down but if he’d gone in on his own, the initial price would have been a lot lower and he’d have had a lot more room to negotiate.

Oh, well…he’s still getting me a much better price than I ever would have been able to get and the vendors are so aggressive that I would have probably given up rather than deal with it. They seem to enjoy the challenge.

When we came out at the end of the street, we walked along where there aren’t any shops for a bit and Ibrahim told me about the mosques that were there. From one point, we could see minarets of several different styles/eras. The whole area was in the process of being restored as an historic district.

We headed back to the car and wanted something cold to drink so we stopped at a couple of places selling pop. At all of them in the bazaar, Ibrahim walked away rather than pay what they were asking…again, the presence of a foreigner played a part, he said.

After we got back out on the main street to get back to the car, he stopped at a place that sold spices, seeds (for eating/cooking) and drinks. As we approached, I saw him head in, so I hung back to stay out of sight until he’d closed the deal. He did and we finally got a cold drink.

On the way back to the hotel, we drove through a street with produce vendors. We drove by a wagon with some strange fruits on it and he asked me if I’d ever had those. I said I didn’t even know what they were. He asked if I wanted to try them…by now he’s figured out that if it’s “local”, I’ll try it. So we pulled over and he went back and got one. It’s a cactus fruit. I took a bite and it’s a very soft fruit…kind of like very ripe papaya but has a lot of very hard little seeds in it. I asked him (around a mouthful of it) if you were supposed to eat the seeds or spit them out. He said to just swallow them…don’t try to chew them, they’re too hard. Luckily, the fruit is so soft that you don’t have to chew them much. It was very sweet and juicy. I liked it.

He took me back to my hotel and we made arrangements for him to pick me up at 8:30 for supper at a seafood restaurant. I took a shower, changed clothes and chilled until it was time to go.