The man’s face looks tired. Old and tired. Strands of wispy white hair still cling to his skull, and while his skin is cracked and leathery, his hooked nose and strong features are as distinctive and commanding as they must have been in his youth. His eyes are closed, and his body is frail, but all things considered, he’s held up pretty well, considering he died 3,225 years ago.
His name is Ramesses the Great, Ozymandias, king of kings. He ruled a united Egypt for 62 years. He conquered the Hittites and built the lost city of Pi-Ramesses. His body was entombed in the Valley of the Kings, where it remained for two hundred years before it was moved by the high priests of Ra to a secret tomb to protect it from grave robbers. Ramesses remained there for nearly three millennia before the cave was discovered in the 1880s by a goat herder. And in 2012 he lies in a glass box in the corner of the rambling great Egyptian Museum, where silly tourists stand grinning next to him taking photos in defiance of a strict no-pictures edict. (I borrowed the one above from here, before you ask.)
It’s a rather humbling experience to stand and look on the face of a man who was once the greatest ruler in the entire world. It’s easy to see it as some sort of existential lesson, but if anything, there’s something curiously peaceful about ruminating on the fact that today’s concerns, however dramatic they may seem at the time, will eventually be dust on tomorrow’s wind.
It’s not as if Egypt needs any sort of reminder in 2012 that even the mightiest will eventually fall, of course.
At some point during your correspondent’s five days in Cairo, I pick up a slim volume called “The Illusion of Progress in the Arab World” by one Galal Amin, professor of economics at the American University in Cairo. In the book, Amin argues that judging Arab countries by Western standards is at best unhelpful and at worst counter-productive. Amin’s arguments are certainly interesting, although it’s not really within the scope of this column to discuss them in detail — but one of them revolves around the idea that rather than being a single straight arrow pointing off into some unknowable progressive future, history is a series of rises and falls.
If this idea is one you accept, then Egypt today feels like a society where that wheel is turning very rapidly indeed, and Cairo is a fascinating place to be in 2012, for obvious reasons. They’re reasons that surround you from the minute you step out of your hotel into the wash of dust and desert heat. Taxi drivers don’t play music in their cabs — they play the news, and listen intently. In bars and cafés you’ll find current affairs on the TV, not sport, and at the tables groups of men sit and have earnest discussions over tea and cigarettes, discussions in which the words “Mubarak” and “Morsi” seem to feature heavily.
Tahrir Square itself isn’t really a square at all — it’s more like a large series of intersections that create one big open space that’s mostly filled with cars, buses, and motorcycles. The walls of the buildings that surround it are covered with graffiti — stencils of lost revolutionaries, caricatures of deposed politicians, scrawled slogans in Arabic, and one single repeated English phrase: “FUCK SCAF.” Around its perimeter, enterprising vendors sell Egyptian flags and various knick-knacks, while in the open space in front of a large government building on the square’s south side there’s a small tent village, not unlike what used to be found in Zucotti Square before the jackboots marched in. North of the square, the remains of the old NDP complex stand burned out and empty, stark against the skyline.
On my last night in town, there’s a decent sized rally in the square, catalyzed no doubt by newly-elected president Mohamed Morsi’s decision to recall parliament in defiance of a Supreme Court edict not to do so. A crowd gathers as the sun goes down, and a couple of dudes pull up in a van on which has been mounted an impressive PA system. For about half an hour, the van plays cheesy Arabic ballads as the swelling mass of people sings along. Eventually, one of the aforementioned dudes climbs the van and starts chanting slogans, which are repeated back to him by the throng. It’s all very good-natured and peaceful — the atmosphere is more impromptu dance party than world-shaking political upheaval. If, of course, you ignore the fact that the army has several serious-looking APCs — tanks, to you and I — parked a couple of blocks down the road.
This is what a revolution looks like: confused and confusing, exhilarating and directionless and being made up on the fly. Like all history, sense will only be made of it in retrospect. A narrative will be constructed. The key figures of revolutions past are immortalized in histories and books and photographs. In the present, they may well be sitting next to us on the bus.
Still, considering the city’s in the middle of an epoch-defining political upheaval, life here seems to be going on with a remarkable degree of normality. As a city, Cairo is like many others you’ll visit in what might be called the Second World. It’s dusty, noisy, overcrowded and — at first glance to Western eyes — chaotic.
It’s not without its aesthetic charms, though — the desert dust that settles over everything gives the city a distinctive palette, like an old photograph left in the sun so that its blacks have leached into a sort of muddy sepia. If you don’t mind the heat and the dust, it’s a great city for walking — getting lost in back alleys will provide both a respite from the traffic and also the chance to stumble across everything from remarkable Mamluk-era mosques to heinous looking slaughterhouses. The street food is fantastic.
Some of the best wanderings are to be done in the old Muslim area of the city, a warren of sandstone buildings and mosques and dirt roads and tea shops and scrawny-looking dogs and loads of shops selling strange garish lighting, for reasons that will remain forever unclear. It’s a place to get completely, gloriously lost, which is something that we don’t really do any more in this brave new age of Google Maps and always-on data connections.
It’s also the home of the Khan El-Khalili bazaar, one of the city’s headline attractions to anyone who enjoys bartering for alabaster pyramids or lotus flower perfume. No doubt those well-educated in the way of shopping can find some genuine bargains. Those more inclined to regarding shopping as an ordeal to be endured only when strictly necessary may find the whole thing something of a trial. (The antique shops are pretty great, mind.) Eventually, I do find something that will be genuinely useful — I buy some electric hair clippers for $10. “Made in Germany!” proclaims the vendor proudly as he takes our cash.
Learn from my mistakes: do not buy electric hair clippers off a dude on the street in Egypt and expect them to work. Sigh.
Because it’s so insanely hot during the day — well over 100 degrees, the sort of desert-dry heat that makes you feel like you’re in a firing kiln — Cairo seems to be very much a night city, which makes it my sort of place. As the sun goes down, what appear to be party boats dock on the Nile, bedizened in crazy lights and blasting thumping Arab techno. (Yes, there’s apparently such a thing.)
I amuse myself on my second night in town by heading to a place called the El Sawy Culture Wheel — a very pleasant hybrid café/performance space on the banks of the Nile in the rather swanky suburb of Zamalek — to catch a band. They’re called the 3Lama Band, and they play a sort of Tinariwen-style rock/desert blues hybrid.
I suspect the music scene is like that in several other countries I’ve visited, where the idea of making a living as part of a rock band is impractical, and thus the whole thing is pretty much exclusively a student endeavor. Several members of the crowd here tonight seem to know the band, and shout apparently good-natured banter at them throughout. The air is largely informal, even though 3Lama Band are clearly popular — there’s a good 200 people here, perhaps more.
The crowd is a real mixture of people — brash young dudes with slicked-back hair, gaggles of girls in headscarves, families in huddled groups, a couple of photographers, and one guy videoing the show as best he can. Noteworthy differences from attending a gig in New York include: the lack of alcohol, the fact that the crowd are apparently genuinely enjoying themselves (and aren’t shy about showing this), and the fact that there’s a heap of kids here. The band’s #1 fan is the little fellow above — and if that’s not the cutest thing you’ve seen all day, I’d love to see your secret stash of kittens.
“As a tourist,” wrote the late David Foster Wallace, “you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.”
It’s unclear whether DFW ever went to the Pyramids, but there can’t be many sentences that better describe the experience of visiting the last remaining wonder of the ancient world than “economically significant but existentially loathsome.” The Pyramids themselves are incredible, great mountains of stone whose sheer scale is astonishing and, again, somewhat humbling. Each of the great stone blocks is about my height. And there are 2.5m of them in the Great Pyramid of Cheops alone. You can climb up into the Great Pyramid if you so desire — it’s like a sort of obstacle course, which eventually deposits you in the King’s Chamber, an empty stone box that’s all the more remarkable for looking like it could have been built yesterday. Despite an edict prohibiting cameras, the attendant will take a photo of you with your cellphone — for a bribe donation, of course.
In fact, the whole place is not unlike an obstacle course, the obstacles consisting mainly of camel ride touts, postcard salesmen and attendants who are at best angling for tips and at worst actively deceptive. Even if you’ve been through such things all before in other countries, the Pyramids are intense, unless having a dude jump into your taxi on the way to the site to try to sell you his camel service, and then swear at you when you tell him to get out, is your idea of a good time. Sigh.
A more pleasant and just as historically remarkable experience is to be found at the Egyptian museum, where you can wander happily for hours amongst dusty halls of jaw-dropping historical artifacts, including the aforementioned mummy of Ramesses II and also those of several other hugely significant figures from ancient Egyptian history. It’s remarkable how the pharaohs’ personalities still blaze from their cadavers — Queen Hatshepsut, rotund and matronly. The warrior-king Tuthmosis II, rangy and powerful. Amehotep II, who stood over six feet tall and who has lost none of his imposing physicality in death. And perhaps most memorably of all, the relatively obscure Seqenenre Tao, who met a violent death at the hands of the Hyskos and whose body shows the marks of his demise — fractured skull, cheek shorn away by an axehead. His arm is extended as if he’s trying to protect himself. He looks for all the world like he’s shrieking.
As a whole, the place feels like going to a museum used to feel, before they were all renovated into gleaming white modern sepulchers. The lighting is terrible. There’s no real order to things — apparently forgotten pieces sit on palette jacks here and there, and several exhibits are wrapped in plastic because some dudes are painting the ceiling from a very questionable looking scaffold. Everything’s dusty. As a whole, the place feels more like a dingy Lower East Side furniture store or the studio of an eccentric Egypt-obsessed sculptor than a museum of huge historical significance.
But make no mistake — that’s exactly what it is. The complete contents of Tutankhamun’s tomb are here, as indeed is the entire tomb itself, apparently airlifted from the Valley of the Kings and whacked in a giant glass case. The treasure is amazing, most notably the iconic death mask, which you’ve seen a gazillion times and still manages to be jaw-droppingly beautiful in real life. Beyond such treasures, there’s a bewildering array of statues, sarcophagi, stelae, artifacts, and god only knows what else.
Also worth a visit if you ever find yourself in Cairo is the Museum of Islamic Art. I’ve long admired Islamic geometric art and Arabic calligraphy, and both are on spectacular display here. The highlights for my money are the astoundingly ornate wooden Koran stands and furniture of the Mamluk dynasty, but there’s plenty more to see, from Umayyad-era tombstones to Ottoman tessellation. I rather wish Islamic art was given more attention in the West, both as something to promote understanding of Muslim culture — something that’s sorely needed, for obvious reasons — and simply because the fluid, delicate arcs of Arabic are surely the most beautiful alphabet in the world.
The sun is going down, and I’m sitting in the lobby of the rather swanky Kempinski Hotel in Garden City, a few blocks and a world away from Tahrir Square. In the lobby, an American woman is loudly losing her mind over the fact that she’s called the concierge three times and no one is come to clean her wedding dress yet. I’m drinking tea — Western style tea with milk, not the teeth-curlingly strong black-with-sugar variety favored by the locals. And a string quartet is playing a kinda classical muzak version of “My Heart Will Go On.” Soon a taxi will come and take me to the airport. Next stop: Addis Ababa. Wish me luck.