Poros – Athens – Cairo – Alexandria – Cairo
October 8 – October 11, 2008
Well it’s the day before Hallowe’en and I’m sitting in shorts and a tank top on my balcony in Poros, Greece, enjoying my view, eating Pringles and chocolate and drinking beer instead of being a good little pethi (student) and reading my Iliad – I think writing about Egypt is much more rewarding – wouldn’t you agree??
It all began three weeks ago with the journey to Athens from Poros – Phillipos drove me home from the dig site early and I got my ferry and bus to Athens no problem. Short ferry ride, looong bus ride, which meant I got to Athens just in time to take one of the two busses I needed to get to my hostel. Arriving in Omonia Square at night, alone and with a backpack is significantly less than ideal, however, once I found the Acropolis in the distance, I was on my way. 45 minutes and a sore back later I arrived at the hostel and met some awesome Canadian girls on the rooftop bar – we went out to get pizza at midnight and my meagre Greek managed to score us two pizza’s for less than the price of one! Pretty late night, very early morning, ugh.
The good thing about Europe is you don’t really have to be at the airport until a reasonable time before your flight ~ 9:30 am flight, 8 am check-in – bonus!
The flight to Cairo from Athens is only two short hours, and if you have a particularly awesome pilot like I did, he will fly over the Pyramids so you can take the requisite tourist shots – nice!
Met my tour rep who took me to my hotel, and went to sleep to catch up from the night before. Yusef, an SFU Alumni who is currently working in Cairo as a Diplomat in the Embassy came and picked me up in the afternoon and we spent the rest of the day going to Khan el Khalili (the big souq in Cairo), eating, drinking (Ramadan had just ended, so booze was back!) and ended up at a theatre in Cairo with Swiss, French, Irish, Australian, and American diplomats for a Modern Dance presentation that the Swiss Embassy was putting on. Even to my music theatre brain, modern dance is weird. The Australian diplomat and I giggled through the whole show and were quite happy to leave once the thing was over. Met the Canadian Ambassador, his wife and son on the way out – very nice people, crazy day.
The next morning (Oct 10th) it was off to the train station. Cairo is a city of 18-22 million people depending on who you ask, and 2-4 million people go through the main train station in Cairo everyday – yeah, it’s a busy city. Busy doesn’t even begin to describe it. Egypt is the most crazy, illogical, irrational, loudest and dirtiest place I’ve ever been, and Cairo is all of that and more. There are horns at all hours of the night and day, no driving rules, and nothing really makes sense. However, everything seems to run (albeit not always efficiently or well) and the country seems to be ticking along, with no one too bothered about the insanity of it all – pretty great and pretty overwhelming at the same time!
The train to Alexandria is about 2 hours and basically follows the Nile down to the sea. 95% of people in Egypt live on the Nile, so there are plenty of random villages, people, cows, fields, camels and donkeys all along the way to look at. Being a westerner and on a tour, I got to sit in the lovely air-conditioned coach (it was only in the mid-20’s, so just right temperature wise) and met some American ladies in their sixties who were also touring around Egypt. One was an archaeologist who was a stone expert and had excavated in Egypt in the 60’s and the other is an art historian. Very interesting company. We met up for dinner that night and sightseeing the next day and it was quite a lot of fun to have such knowledge bases to pull from!!
When I arrived in Alexandria (or Alex as the locals call it), my tour guide met me and we were off for a whirlwind day of sightseeing! First stop was the Roman Catacombs at Kom El-Shuqafa. 35 metres (although most of it is now covered by ground water) of catacombs and tombs dug into the bedrock in Alex. Really great site to see, and now that I know so much about cemeteries and ancient things, I think my tour guide was only slightly nonplussed to find out that I knew nearly as much as she did. Next stop ‘Amud El-Sawari, or the Pillar of Pompey. There used to be a huge temple here, but now only once pillar remains standing. Made of Aswan pink granite (Aswan is about 14+ hours away by train!) it’s really high and pretty impressive. Legend has it that Napoleon and 10 buddies ate lunch on the top of it ~ yeah right! There was also a small library in the complex, as well as some later Roman ruins. These two sights were suggested on the itinerary of what to do while in Alexandria, but Jean (the archaeologist) also recommended Kom El Dikka to me, which is a Roman Theatre. On the site (under 20 feet of topsoil!) there is also a very interesting schoolhouse, some Roman Baths and a Roman villa with great preserved mosaics. Like all the good settlement sites over here, it has evidence of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine settlement, and it was fun to try to figure out which is which. There was a cool echo spot in the Odeon – basically a particular spot in the semicircle with a hollow space underneath where you can hear yourself really well. After Kom El Dikka it was off to the National Museum, which has recently been redone and was quite nicely presented and air-conditioned. It had three floors of Greco-Roman, Coptic Christian and Pharonic displays. My first glimpse of Pharonic artefacts in Egypt and not the British Museum, including a mummy and some canopic jars. Then (finally!) on to lunch (it was about 3pm by now)!! Had kebab (lamb) and kofta (beef) with a wide range of salads and some rice, as well as Egyptian tea (which is the same as Turkish and Greek tea – Lipton Yellow Label, strong, with tons of sugar). Then finally it was time to check into my hotel and put my feet up!
My hotel was on the Corniche (or seawall) and from my balcony I could see the harbour – very nice. The young men who worked there took a liking to me and hooked me up with an Egyptian SIM card for my cell phone for about $3 Canadian – an excellent deal considering I’ve heard of people paying as much as $22 for the exact same thing!! Relaxed for the rest of the afternoon and then met Jean and Diana at their hotel and we went out for an excellent dinner of all sorts of seafood.
The next day (Oct 11th) was Library Day!! Slept in, ate breakfast in bed, and meandered over to the absolutely beautiful new Alexandria Library. The complex includes a conference centre and a planetarium, as well as a small museum. Took a tour and took my time wandering around and looking at the exhibits inside. Found my favourite poem and gave it a quick read, and then headed to the museum before meeting up with Jean and Diana. We actually ended up going back to Kom El Dikka, as I hadn’t seen the Roman Villa the day before. It was really fun looking at the site with them. Jean was quizzing me on all things archaeology and I actually got the answers right! We caught a cab and indented to go over to the Anfushi Tombs near old Alexandria, but they were closed so we took a tram back into town and had a pastry and tea at a restaurant on the Corniche. It was a very pleasant couple of days, and Alexandria is a beautiful city (at least what I saw of it!). Like almost everywhere in Egypt, there are so many sites its pretty impossible to see everything in one city in two days, but you do your best and hope to return one day!
Took an evening train back to Cairo (that ended up being over an hour late, missed my first meeting with my tour group, my representative didn’t meet me at the station, accused me of being on the incorrect train, and then I had to pay part of the taxi fare back to the hotel) and got to bed quite late after waking up my new tour roomie Sarah.
Next up – the Pyramids, Sphinx and Cairo Museum!