Sunday, February 25, 2007

Medieval Air Conditioning

Next door to the mosque of Ibn Tulun is a remarkable little museum, the Gayer Anderson House. Anyone who's seen James Bond's The Spy Who Loved Me has see part of the Gayer Anderson House during a fight scene that took place in a roof garden. This was shot in the roof garden that is surrounded by wooden screens known as mashrabeya. These screens were used to provide privacy for the person looking out from the house, but also they cooled the air that entered the house or garden. As the wind pushed through the small holes of the screens, it compressed and cooled providing a means of reducing the heat.

Dr. Gayer Anderson was a British doctor who moved into a 16th century house adjoining the mosque and a 17th century house that was connected to the first. He filled the houses with beautiful examples of Mameluke marble fountains, furniture, mashrabeya, and brass work, as well as art work that he collected in his travels around the world. In his old age, he left the houses to the government of Egypt as a museum.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

What's For Dinner, Mom?

Learning to appreciate new things to eat is part of living in another culture. When that culture speaks another language and uses another alphabet, sometimes figuring out what you are buying is another challenge. While at a large grocery store in Maadi, an upscale suburb of Cairo, today I saw this sign over a refrigerator full of cuts of meat. Being an experienced translator of Araglish, I made a bee-line for the fridge to pick up one of my favourite sources of protein, ostrich steaks. Meat, by the way, is expensive in Egypt compared to some places. The ostrich is about USD 3 per pound.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Getting Away On Friday

Cairo is one of the most densely populated cities in the world and unfortunately it has very few parks. Friday being the day that most people have off from work, many families try to get a bit of fresh air and look for a place where the kids can have good time. On the main roads out near my farm there are restaurants specialising in country cooking, grilled chicken, quail, stuffed pigeon, salads and so on. Many of them have some open land where kids can try pony rides, take a ride in a carriage and so on. This is about as close as many children will ever get to a farm or anything other than urban living.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

A Dangerous Place To Wait

Egyptians love flowers. They will bring them to you on the slightest excuse. There must be flower shops on almost every corner in Cairo and where ever there is enough space, there will be nursery plants stacked along sidewalks. Today, trying to accomplish many small errands, I went to one bank to make a deposit while I sent my friend to another to cash a check. I finished my errand first and found myself with some extra time, so I went across the street to take a look at some of the flowers. Half an hour later and LE 140 poorer, I was loading pots of flowers into the back of my jeep to be planted in the garden this weekend.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A Desert Place

In Old Cairo there is a very old mosque, the mosque of Ibn Tulun which was built in the 9th century, before the city of Cairo even existed technically. At this time the city was known as Fustat and was ruled by the Fatimid dynasty who were Shiites from western north Africa who claimed descent from Mohamed's daughter Fatima. The mosque is unusual and lovely in an austere fashion. Rather than being an indoor gathering place, the main space is under the sky. There is a fountain/well in the center of the open courtyard where the ritual washing of hands, arms, face, ears, nose, mouth, and feet would be done before prayer. Surrounding the courtyard is an arcade whose only decoration is quotes from the Quran carved in a simple script. The minaret, the tower from which the muezzin would make the call to prayer five times a day, is also unusual in that the stairway climbs the outside of the minaret rather than the inside. This is one of the oldest mosques in Cairo and has been renovated since I first saw it in 1976, bringing it back to its desert simplicity and peace.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Fruits of Winter

If you really like your fruit and vegetables, you don't buy them from a supermarket here. We do have some supermarkets in Cairo, but their produce usually isn't so super. The smaller corner fruit sellers have fresher produce by far. Other than out of season fruits (like grapes in winter or apples any time other than mid summer) most of the produce is grown here so it is indeed fresh. One of the things that I love about Egypt is the fact that the things that are good for you are cheap to buy, while the things that aren't so good for you like Oreos or Cheetos or chocolate bars are more expensive. I think that is the way things should be.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Car 54, Where Are You?

Police are a constant in city life. Every city has them, but there are variations around the world. Egypt has compulsory military service for all young men who are not the only sons in the family, and some of the young men opt to work in the police rather than the standard military. With a respectable population, there are a lot of police officers standing around Cairo, most of them doing just that...standing around. I don't know if there are any special requirements for the police in the camel squad, but I'd imagine that at least they have to have an affinity for camels. They don't patrol downtown anywhere. You are most likely to see hagana (the Arabic name for camel police) in the antiquities areas and around the pyramids of Giza, which is where this shot was taken.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Original Museum

The Egyptian Museum is a neat-freak's nightmare. It's a museum curator's nightmare too, actually. The building itself was built in 1900 to house the many objects being discovered by the many archaeologigsts and Egyptologists excavating the various sites in the country and it was the first purpose-built museum in the world. Most other museums were housed in old homes or palaces. There are over 120 thousand objects in the museum, most of them badly displayed and labeled, but all of them fascinating. When we have visitors to Cairo, we usually recommend no more than an hour or two per day in museum because you begin to go into information overload, and statues, mummy cases, and pieces of jewelry begin dancing before your eyes. Every so often there is a small piece in a newspaper about how someone has just "found" another important piece of art work in the basement storage areas.

There are now plans for a new Egyptian museum to be built near the Giza plateau. This new museum would allow the pieces from the old museum to be displayed better. I personally hope that the old museum finds a new life as perhaps a museum of Egyptology or something like that. It deserves a future as it is in itself an important antiquity. It is also a lovely old building in its own right.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Making a Living in Egypt

This is part of what I do to make ends meet. True, most of my clients are in slightly less extraordinary physical condition, but I run a farm and riding business that specialises in sane, safe horses who can make a private dream come true, and it is always amazing to me how many people have dreams about Egypt. I take housewives who have just moved here and are trying to find their feet in the city on quiet rides in the villages so that they can see how the people live outside of the city. I help photographers who want some stunning shots of people, horses and pyramids. I guide treks through the desert to show visitors the backs of pyramids and other antiquities that aren't accessible by buses or cars.

Mostly I try to pass on the wonder, the laughter, and the joy of living that is this marvelous country of Egypt.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Expect The Unexpected

I had some clients for my horseback riding business request that I take them to the pyramids in Giza one day. While they wanted to see the hallmark monuments of Egypt, they were not looking forward to the postcard-selling masses that congeal around anyone who is wandering the plateau. Almost twenty years of residence and a happily forgotten number of visits to the Giza plateau have given me a certain expertise in managing to see the interesting sights there without getting embroiled in the more commercial aspects, so I agreed. Two things that they wanted to do were to see the inside of a pyramid (highly overrated) and to see the museum of the Solar Boat at the base of the Great Pyramid (a tiny wonder) so I got them to the requested destinations, brushing off the sellers with a quick "La'. Aisheen hena" ("No. We live here."), a phrase that elicited immediate apologies on the part of tacky souvenir toting types. While they visited the Solar Boat museum, I sat in the sun gawking at tourists and decided to photograph some of them as they passed by. I took one shot of some as they came around the corner of the museum, but it wasn't until I downloaded them that I spotted the camel. You just never know.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Wish I Was Here

There are thousands of mosques in Cairo...thousands in the city and even tiny hand-built mosques scattered throughout the farmland. Mosques are wonderful places, peaceful and welcoming. This particular photo was taken in the main mosque of Mohamed Ali at the Citadel in Cairo. It isn't particularly old, only a couple hundred years or so, but when I was traveling back and forth between Toronto and Cairo with two small children it was one of our favourite stops on a busy day. I could let the kids run off steam in the park of the Citadel and then they would be happy to lay down on the carpet and just check out for an hour's nap. People come and go, some to pray and some just to admire the lovely architecture that is reminiscent of the Grand Mosque of Istanbul that was once the church of Hagia Sophia. No one ever is concerned that children sleep in a quiet corner or that an old woman sits in a sunny spot to watch passersby or that students study together somewhere else. These are truly centers of community in the old sense of the word

Saturday, February 10, 2007

A City of Layers

One less than lovely aspect of living on a farm is the fact that I have no land line for telephone/internet and occasionally my mobile phone connection collapses, like yesterday. What can you do?

There is nothing simple about Cairo. Layers of civilisation, pockets of antiquity next to yesterday's treasure, new surrounded by old, forgotten surrounded by barely imagined, Cairo is complex beyond simple understanding. Max Rodenbeck's book, Cairo The City Victorious, is the best book I've ever read about this city, and one of the very few to truly touch on the complexity of this wonderful place.

One of the oddities of Cairo is the City of the Dead. This is an enormous area to the east of the old city of Cairo where the Mamelukes began burying their dead in what was then the desert. It contains everything from simple mausoleums still used by modern families from Cairo to mosques and palaces built almost a thousand years ago. Oddly enough it also contains the homes of many less wealthy Cairenes who have gradually moved into unused tombs and turned them into villages among the tombs. There is life in the City of the Dead.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Circling Closer To The City

From the extraordinary bareness of the Sahara, which is the image that many people carry subconsciously of Egypt, the lushness of the Nile Valley is a shock. Even without the yearly inundation the Nile Valley has to be one of the most fertile areas in the world. Most of the farming is done by hand, with fields usually being plowed by one of the local villagers who rents his tractor out to do the job by the hour. I was out riding one day and ran across a few of my neighbours who were plowing their field with an old wooden plow drawn by a couple of cows. This is not a common sight and I snapped the shot with my Nokia 6630 since I'd left my camera back at the house. One of the extraordinary things about Egypt is that most of the fruits and vegetables needed to feed our roughly 75 million people are produced by the hand labour of the Nile Valley farmers. There are some larger holdings in the reclaimed areas that can sustain more mechanised farming, but near Cairo the work is all done by hand.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

The Logical Starting Point

Say "Cairo" or "Egypt" and the first thing people think of is the desert with a pyramid. So let's start with the stereotype. Why not? This is a random sarcophagus lying in the sand near the Step Pyramid at Sakkara. In the distance are the pyramids of Abu Sir, just down the street from my farm, and on the right you can see the sharp line marking the edge of the Nile Valley and the Sahara Desert.

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