Wednesday 22 April 2020

1990 Egypt I: Cairo, Saqqarah, Giza

18.2.90 Cairo

Cairo airport interesting.  Already even there a certain pushiness manifest – I am sure that this will increase.  At least I have got the hang of taxis: don't take touts, go for official ones.  The ride in from the airport past military installations, huge hotels, the statue of Ramses.  Nearer Cairo, everything turns into roads.  And the driving – nobody obeys traffic lights, everyone wheels everywhere.  Near the main railway station, people add to the melee.  The station new, gleaming, floodlit.  We pass several metro stations, the "M"  peeking out from the Arabic spaghetti – apart from the inevitable Japanese trademarks, English is little in evidence.

I am now sitting in the reception of the Hotel Cosmopolitan, which is less as I expected, more as I hoped.  Gleaming white pseudo-classical architecture, ironwork, plants, creaking lift.  My room an odd polygon, crisp sheets, French telephone.  But everything teeters on the brink: light sockets don't work, locks are broken.  The drive here seemed long and circuitous.  We were beaten by a coachload of German tourists; tourists – of all nationalities – abound in their groups.  I will be the odd one out, again.  The streets, by night at least, have a strangely French provincial air about them.  Several women I have seen have been really attractive: small, dark, shapely, fine eyes.  The men vary enormously, from blackest Nubians to light yellow types.  

Breakfast – continental, even down to the "la vache qui rit" cheese.  Hot, strange coffee.  In a spirit of contrariness, I ache for Europe.  Brahms goes through my head.  Walk out to Tahrir Square – no signs, but instinct does not deceive.  Cars – Ladas, Peugeot 504s – every one battered and bruised.  Overcast day, but just right for walking.  Dust in the air.  To the Nile.  The NileThe Nile.  Slightly wider than the Thames.  Undistinguished really (except it is the only major river to flow northwards), but still the Nile…

Although there is clearly poverty, it is not Indian-style: the cars are too modern, there are too many people in three-piece suits – as well as galabijas.  Westernised women and women in scarfs.  The sun is breaking though; the heat is palpable even from this.  Summer must be hell.  To Cairo Tower.  The first sight of the pyramids through the haze, an amazing presence even at this distance.  Cairo creeps up to it like an urban bindweed – but dares go no closer.  Looking east, minarets appear on the hill above the city.  Otherwise all is hazy blocks of flats, offices, roads, cars everywhere.  Not a beautiful city, but one of manifest energy – and presumably the biggest for a good few thousands miles in all directions (is Delhi/Calcutta bigger? Nothing in Europe is).  One noticeable trait: the Cairenes seem keen on reading – everywhere, even the poorest worker is deep in his paper – without wishing to patronise, an impressive achievement.

It is nearly 11 o'clock, and still the traffic pours into the centre; does it never stop?  To Felfela restaurant for lunch – wonderfully atmospheric.  The smell of incense, strangely woody interior – tree trunk cross-sections for tables – and terrapins in tanks.  Bessara then chicken then om ali; we shall see what damage it does.  There is faint music in the background: Cairo is otherwise oddly bereft of it – just the bleat of cars and thunder of lorries.  Occasionally I pass a shop and hear a quick snatch.

In the afternoon to the Egyptian Museum.  Following the Blue Guide.  Limestone figures: they look life-like – presumably are.  Amazing haircut of bloke – layered beehive.  Menkaure triad – so perfect, so old – IV dynasty.   The more you look at the crown the more primitive it seems.  Why this shape?  So impractical.  And the hieroglyphs – already very sure.  42: A roomful of seated and standing people, four to five thousand years old.  The square headed Khafre in glorious diorite.  In the same room, amazing pic of the pyramids – taken from directly above Khufu's – abstract geometric images.

Millions of hieroglyphs – but I am blind to them.  Between rooms 21 and 16, mirror images in Arabic numerals.  I had not noticed until Egypt that we write our Arabic numerals from right to left: 21, 31… Four sphinxes in a row (there should be a better plural).  Room 7: a small insignificant relief of a couple receiving offerings.  For no apparent reason, every face has been mutilated.  Why?  8: scenes of dancing and music.  If only we knew what it sounded like.  The standard problem here: how can we look at 100,000 objects and see anything?  Also, if we use a guidebook to help us, we are looking at the wrong thing.  The guided tour – Germans mostly – are a pain.

3: Akhnaten.  Weird to be surrounded by his artefacts.  His face – long and thing - a serious young man.  Again clearly a portrait and no mere idealisation.  When he proclaimed his new faith he must have terrified people.  A fleshy nose.  A small relief of Akhnaten and Nefertiti – with faint grid lines on it – for copying?  Also a long chin – visible in the above, too.  A roomful of coins, stupid circles of metal.  But on one, barely visible: "aleksandro" written in Greek…

Curious, pondering figure of Ramses II, shielded by Horus, a great lock of hair to his right.  This is an eerie place, with its colossal weight of history – not one to be locked in at night.  24: impressive for all the granite they hewed: not easy.  Green schist of Taweret – as a pregnant hippo…  35: proto-semitic inscriptions: the smell of electricity leaping across cultures.  34: to see the classical stuff makes it all look very decadent.  47: in one of the Nubian rooms, a game board with dice – the latter identical to those of today: how far back do they go?  

To the central hall (at last – it's taken over two hours), and back to the Narmer Palette, which is stunning.  It speaks very directly of that time, of the forging of a country, of war, of dominion.  And yet it has writing too: empire and words, inextricably bound up, words giving empire over reality, to propose alternatives, to give orders.  Writing is empowering – cf. 19th century England, the reluctance to teach reading to the working classes.  Reading => new ideas => writing => action.  Words on global computer networks – tyranny-proof?  Cf. information blocks in repressive regimes – every typewriter registered under Ceaușescu…  Perhaps Narmer is moving because it is primitive – unlike most Egyptian art – which looks too perfect. 

38: the ancient games – the urge to model, to control, to play.  A pair of ivory castanets – I think I saw them in a relief before.  The atrium, like a huge temple – a foretaste, I hope.  A ray of sunlight cuts across it like something from an "Indiana Jones" film.  Despite the repeated signs around the place, everyone – myself included – has an irresistible urge to touch things.  Partly, I suppose, because stone cries out for it; partly to reach back to the past, to the person who engraved the words and the images.

It is amazing the number of old folks who visit places like Egypt.  What good does it do them?  Is it a rounding off of their lives?  It certainly is not useful.  Perhaps to pass the time, waiting for death.  The time to travel is when you are young and can be usefully changed by it.

18: rightly dominating the hall, the serenely confident massive double group of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye.  Sums up Egypt in my image of it.  13: the Israel Stela – a magic cross-reference.  It is noticeable that a particular area has been rubbed clean – but who knows if it is right? Words.  The bell has rung – we must go…

I am now in Groppi's - not proving a pleasant experience.  Primo: I sit in a smoky, draughty place – my fault.  Secondo: when I move, the waiter goes bananas, perhaps thinking I am doing a runner or whatever; terzo: there is the cake, which when it turns up looks as if someone has gobbed all over it (perhaps they have…); quarto: the coffee's 'orrible.  Ergo: I will not be coming back – or tipping heavily.  Groppi's is near my hotel.  To reach it I pass a large clock – which plays Big Ben's chimes, aka Great St Mary's (ah, England, England…) - but apparently amplified through a grotty speaker.  Very strange.  

So, what of my first day in Egypt?  As I suspected, it reminds me much of Greece, Athens in particular, with its concrete, its traffic, the latter's noise, its antiquities.  The Nile is special, but not glamorous here.  The pyramids are a promise.  

Everybody smokes like a bloody chimney here.  

I am currently trying to work out my itinerary, the when and where that must be fitted together like a puzzle.  It is interesting how my novel is starting to affect me from the future, because my book's shapes are very much continent on what happened to me: now I am shaping my life to fit the book

[Parenthetically, I have quinto for Groppi's: tried to pay ten times the bill – thus making myself look like a typical tourist [sub-parenthetically – this should be discussed in "On Tourism", along with "The Language of Tourism", "Old Tourism", "The Demise of Tourism" – we can't travel because it's too easy, no sense of distance] and then sesto: I tip too much. Bo!]

This, for all its manifest faults for me – tubular steel chairs, rickety metal tables – seems to be the place dewy-eyed courting couples – perhaps the chairs and tables are specially-designed: the chairs thrust you forward over the exiguous tables.  There seems to be a lot of it going on – and this a Muslim country.  However, to keep things in perspective, my debacle here – and the cost of my rest in this stimulating if none-too-endearing place – was around 50p.

Today is Sunday – in some places.  So far as I can tell, Egypt is a bit schizophrenic: Friday is the Sabbath, so to speak, but Sunday seems half one too.  We shall see on Friday.  Speaking generally (and extrapolating from about two points) just as the women seem to balloon as they age, the men, perhaps in compensation, seem to become attenuated.  There are fat old men here, of course, just as there are svelte old women; but we are talking gross simplifications here [I remember the temple tower in Guangzhou: why? Why now?]  

God knows why, but this place has filled out nicely: there is a gentle conversational hubbub in Groppi's now.  Even without my novel-to-be, I am sure that the secret to this place is the writing.  This is the first time I have been anywhere that was opaque: in Russia I could at least transliterate, and in India, Roman script abounds.  Here it is an effort even to read the numbers of buses; it is like Bergman's "Cries and Whispers": I am trapped in a silent land.  Cultural reference is the same: if I speak (of Bergman, for example), and it is meaningless to you, my conversation starts dropping out.

What are the urges to empire?  Is it partly that conquering of those who speak differently: is an empire defined by conquering those who speak a sufficiently different language?  If they speak another language, they are assimilated; if they have their own, they remain separate and retain the possibility of re-emerging as a nation. 

It is strange how in countries like Egypt, Greece et al. the lower middle/working classes wear suits without ties on their days off.  In Britain, people would never do the same.  Is one function of the cigarette to provide a legitimisation of the hand covering the mouth when talking?  In normal conversation, doing so is fairly obviously a sign of evasion.  A cigarette allows you to satisfy the primal urge to hide what you say, without appearing to.  This thought flows from watching the tête-à-tête around me.

To the left of me, a German is reading a translation of "The Confederacy of Dunces" – a quotation I recently came across (Swift); a Frenchman reads "Prague's Dimanche" – of which I know nothing.  An overweight Westerner in a loud check jacket smokes a cigar ostentatiously.  My language problems continue: one of the charlies here is hell-bent on moving me to another table – and wants me to order more.  Since I have not touched the accursed cake, this is hardly on.  My ankles are cold.  The wind rises quite surprisingly in the evening.  Sitting outside in Tahrir Square (memories of the square by Oslo's Rådhuset) the fountains spray was lifted and carried some way.  The wind rose, bowling grit and garbage before it.

What extraordinary behaviour: charlie comes up to me again, and suggests I want to move.  I disabuse him.  He offers to replenish the yummies I had before.  I refuse this too.  He then gets uppity – so I get up, and leave.

To the Nile, which looks good by dusk.  Tahrir Square lit up like Piccadilly Circus.  Along the Nile Corniche, past huge hotels staring at nothing in particular.  Birds fly overhead, feluccas bob at anchor.  I walk to Garden City, to El Nil hotel, then up to the UK embassy.  I buy a bag of bickies.  I survive crossing the roads – I now realise that the old woman I saw crossing the traffic in front of the Vittorio Emanuele monument in a semi-suicidal fashion must simply have had Egyptian blood in her.  Back to Felfela – the old Lonely Planet gives pretty lukewarm recommendations to everything else.

Afterwards.  The ghanoush (aubergine pate) spicy, and the fegatini (ah! Shades of Arezzo) particularly liquid in their tenderness.  I have been really weak: I have ordered om ali – nuts, raisins, pastry, milk - again; last time it was ambrosial.  The bustle in this place is magic.  Tens of white-wrapped waiters zoom around – creating quite a draught – while DJ'd top men look on benignly.  I do believe the place is full to bursting – rightly so: the food is excellent and cheap.  And not many Japanese – unlike everywhere else.  Here is seems to be Germans, Brits and other Euro trash. 

The design of the place: long and narrow, in three sections not counting the entrance hall which also doubles as part of the kitchens.  The first part (where I sat at lunchtime) has raised levels, terrapins and baby crocodiles (well, that's what the book said).  Next, the bar, then a larger section that really seems to pack them in.  Interesting wicker work on the ceiling, variously ornate lamps (i.e. bulbs).  Wood and stone everywhere; nice.  Queues at the door.  The bustle accelerates.

19.2.90 Saqqarah

With Mohammed (E£50 the day) to Saqqarah.  Long busy road parallel to the Nile.  English signs soon disappear – glad I'm not driving.  Cool day.  Sun breaking through high clouds.  At Memphis the landscape changes: sand.   Saqqarah is all sand – with rubble everywhere.  The pyramids set on a plateau.  A cool breeze blows, the sun occluded.  A ringing tintinnabulation as I arrive: stonebreakers, metal on rock.  The long, impressive causeway – beautiful dressed stone.  

To the pyramid of Unas – inside my first pyramid.  Weird, descending steeply inside the stone – about four feet high.  Then hit by the warmth – and tobacco smell – Egyptians inside, waiting to "explain".  Inside, the Wendy doll-house-shaped room, covered in texts, the ultimate wallpaper.  Completely silent.  According to my book of translations, these are the oldest of the pyramid texts – and hence nearly the oldest Egyptian: "Re-Atum, this Unas comes to you…"  The urge to graffiti: the urge to immortality.  Page 36 of Miriam Lichtheim's "Ancient Egyptian Literature Vol I": the cannibalism – weird. The sense of ancient rites and knowledge. Why these texts? Why these combinations?

The cartouche of Unas everywhere – a word I can read.  On the north wall, a row of them.  Fifty-six of them.  Above, another row, but not as many.  Interestingly, the cartouche is reversed on the north and south walls – presumably all the texts are.  Traces of blue remain in some of the hieroglyphs.  

Outside into the brilliant sunshine, the air still cool.  To the Persian tombs, locked with a padlock made in China… Climbing a dune I am confronted by the sands.  In the distance, the "bent" pyramid.  On the south side, you see the structure clearly, in a section.  Also huge hieroglyphs on the face: an ancient Egyptian billboard.  By the southern tomb of Zoser's courtyard, there is an amazingly deep shaft.  You can see the strata of sandstone.  What a feat.  The Southern House: now we traipse in to see ancient graffiti. 

Ptah-hotep – nothing from the outside, astonishing inside.  The colours so vivid – but surely damaged by the careless visitors – soon it will be shut off: I am lucky again.  No gods, no cartouche [the cartouche: royal vanity helped decipher hieroglyphs].  The  hieroglyphs are slightly archaic – some of the earliest.  The musicians over the door: flute, singer, harpist, clapper.  A long, low flute.  The ochre, greens, blues, blacks – four to five thousand years old.  The detail: a calf's birth, wrestling youths, acrobats, the simulated palm trunks of the ceiling.  The sophistication – manicure and pedicure.  It's been downhill all the way, really.

To the Serapeum, surely one of the oddest places in the world.  A huge, long corridor, with enormous sarcophagi on each side – those of the bulls.  They look like giants' tombs, or those of aliens.  Unbelievably large chunks of granite.  The tunnel itself is collapsing – there are timbers shoring it up – a little worrying.  Warm again – with birds in here.  

To the end, to the final bull sarcophagus on the right: magnificent stone over one foot thick, the lid two feet thick – how did they manoeuvre it all?  Crude hieroglyphs scratched in the beautiful stone.  The ancient Egyptians seem to have had a real sensibility for stone.  But what effort, to what an end…  In the side corridor, an abandoned sarcophagus almost blocking it.  It has a sense of abandonment still, as if left yesterday.

The sun is high now, and quite warm.  I am by the pyramid of Userkof.  Its entrance is everything one imagines – a gap rent in the rock face, a black hole, with precarious slabs perched above it.  Nothing to see, though.  To a certain extent, the pyramids are a negation of the flat desert, a statement of humanity.  Zoser's is extraordinary: each of the five layers like a slap in the face of the sand.  To Teti's pyramid after Mereruka – the latter feeble after Ptah-hotep – coarse workmanship, crude images.  Teti is bigger than Unas, but fewer of its texts survive.  Once again, his cartouche is in evidence.  Magic: "O great strider/who sows greenstone, malachite, turquoise – stars!/As you are green so may Teti be green,/Green as a living reed!".

Memphis: what a name, what resonance.  The reality – a dusty lay-by on the road to Saqqara.  A sphinx, a few stelae – all that is left of the country's capital.  Except, of course, the ultimate insult – that of Ramses II, a huge prostrate form, flat on his back- the weakest position.  Massive – and impotent.  He can't even see Memphis.  Typically, he is covered – shoulders, chest, girdle, wrists, the stick in his hands – with his cartouche, repeated like propaganda.

Back in the haven of my hotel – more of that anon – the coffee has arrived, smelling as French as ever (memories: the Parisian youth hostel miles out, the huge bowls of coffee).  Driving with Mohammed: a near-chain smoker (E£1 for 20 – no wonder); a childhood smell; getting into a car I smelt old smoke, cheap plastic – the Ford Zephyr, the Zodiac.  Seems hard to believe my parents smoked; thankfully, they both gave up early ["Smoking is bad,/for a Dad,/it can cause lung infection./Although it has not much detection."] I hate fags, but the smell of cigs in third-world taxis is right, somehow.  As we approached Cairo, the sun on my neck, the same tape played endlessly, the traffic coagulated.  Soon we were at a standstill, despite the constant jockeying, misses by an inch.

To Ramses Station; a nightmare.  The worst job in the world: traffic policeman in Cairo, their dinky chequered sleeves waving impotently.  Here the "Just Me More" principle reaches its logical conclusion: everybody always trying to edge through – result: gridlock.  In a few years' time, Cairo will be solid from dawn to dusk.

Parenthetically: my three guide books complement each other well.  The Lonely Planet is demotic, no nonsense, practical and helpful; the Blue Guide is aloof and aristocratic, usually very comprehensive, but rather cold; Michael von Haag's book for Travelaid – the both of which I have never come across – is anecdotal, detailed in a personal way – and feels rather like I hope Walks with Lorenzetti feels: knowledgeable yet intimate. I'm certainly glad I brought Mike's book along – it was touch and go at one point.

So, at Ramses Station.  Without much objection from me, old Mohammed shows me where the sleeper ticket office is.  Mini-disaster: 22 February is full up; I take one for 21st, leaving 7pm, for E£141.  Sounds expensive (ish), though apparently dinner and brekkers is included.  So I leave a day early.  I love long train rides – this one is about ten hours.  It is the only way to get the feel of the country.

Then a long, slow, painful drive to the old Cosmopolitan.  Baksheesh for Mohammed, then to here.  I note that the E£3 spent on Saqqarah was the best value I ever had, except possibly for the complete works in Italian and Latin of Dante, published by OUP, and costing me 60p in a second-hand bookstall held in Cambridge at the Fitzwilliam Museum.  I've never seen the latter elsewhere at any price.  A treasure.

The landscape around Saqqarah very lush.  Waving palm trees, blindfolded donkeys circling water pumps, camels, asses, horses, women, children, bikes, motorcycles everywhere.  At times the wind was wicked, what with the sand – murder for contact lens wearers.  The rest-house tent selling cake and chicken-flavoured crisps.  The attendants at the tombs tiresome when they try to turn into guides – you can't blame them.  Amazingly fluent as they switch from English, to German, to French, to Italian – the same phrase.  For them perhaps, there exists this strange schizo language "European" – not so very different from each other, anyway.  Impressive really.  That Serapeum, a disturbing image of institutionalised madness.  The effort that went into the construction of it all.  Bulls, indeed.  

After coffee, out for a preprandial.  Towards Ezehbehiyah Garden.  People out for their passeggiata, bustling streets à la Bond Street.  Ezehbehiyah is split in two by stalls – clothes, shoes, music, books,  The gardens closed.  At the edge I watch the sunset.

Then along Opera Midan to the tourist office – but I can't think of any question.  To the clock – and into a bookshop.  I was weak: as well as Middle East News, I bought Gardiner's "Middle Egyptian Grammar" – for E£55, a snip.  Well, it had to be done.  It's cheap, not too heavy – looks like a cheap reprint.  To the room, reading newspaper.  Then to Felfela – well, it's good and reasons as above.  No room for me.  Once round the block, then back – to try fuul – is this wise?

Handshaking here seems a much more natural action then in the UK.  There, the hand is almost a challenge, thrust at you; here, the hands meet and melt in a warmly fluid action.  

The experience of descending into the earth – the pyramids, the Serapeum – so odd.  It really is like entering the underworld, a parallel realm.  (cf. "Citta' Invisibili" – which I must read in Italian).  A comment from Mohammed, after Memphis, trying to direct me into one of his pet souvenir shops: "real papyrus – not bananas!"  I note that the banknotes of Egypt not only have (our) Arabic numerals, but even "Central Bank of Egypt".  Such is the power of the tourist.

20.2.90 Cairo

Reading Gardiner last night – what a book, what a world.  Interesting facts about ancient Egyptian: related to Semitic and Hamitic; but like English, is a collapsed, stripped-down language – lost lots of forms, letters etc.  Suggests fusions of two tongues – like English and Norman – that is, conquest of one tribe by another and the resulting linguistic erosion.  These events must have happened around 6000 BCE say – seven or eight thousand years ago. Language is like DNA: it bears the imprints of all miscegenations.

Along to El Misr travel agency.  Terribly helpful – but ultimately only offering very expensive hotels in Luxor and Aswan.  I'll see what happens when I'm there.  In the Egyptian Museum.  Given the vastness of the Tut collection, only a rush through the upper galleries.  Odd to be surrounded by all these sarcophagi – like the scene in the film 2001: the sleepers waiting to awake.  And the words everywhere.  The ancient Egyptians were like children with logorrhea: they had the same with writing – every surface covered, as if they were tapes of their speech, to stop them becoming dumb.

Other exhibits – the alabaster vases.  The beautiful papyri – cruelly exposed to the light.  A room full of ships and other models.  Mummified animals; cases full of brilliant blue glazeware – gorgeous turquoise.  But I am stalling: I must essay Tut himself.

Greeted by the man: two black and gold statues.  I see his cartouche for the first – but hardly the last – time.  Wonderful scimitars – weird instruments.  Ostrich fan with cartouche.  Ankh symbols – gilt, looking like Jean Tinguely mobiles.  Horrible mummies of babies (foetuses).  The pix around the room of the tomb – like an old lumber store – junk everywhere, but 3000-year-old junk.  Wonderful recognising his cartouche – a signature, a voice.  A coffin with a lock of hair from the queen's grandmother…  Everything – even knobbly flails – has his name on it – "this is mine".  A model of a granary – with grains.  In an earlier room, dessicated figs, raisins… 324: what a masterpiece, details. Poor old Nubians get it again.  Hundreds of small images of the king, all with his name – like amplifications of the soul.  Glorious throne, amazing moulding of king and queen.  Bee and sedge on sides.  Even Aten has a uraeus.  A caseful of throwsticks, some looking like boomerangs.  The craftmanship of the alabaster – puts Nottingham to shame. And the lamp: what patience to make it.  The gilt canopic jars and their boxes.  A nice effect: looking at the outer tomb, the first tomb can be seen reflected in the glass so as to appear inside it: intentional?  Or the gods looking after their own?

Lunch in the café? – my stomach is beginning to give a few warnings, so I need to ease up.  I am knackered.  Tut is impressive – the wealth – the inner coffins weigh 100 kg – solid gold – and the opulence of the king's lifestyle.  But of course the abiding impression is of how much has been lost: Tut was a footling, young king.  Imagine what the splendours of Ramses II were.  And imagine the glee of the tomb robbers.

To Midan Hussein – eventually.  Usual traffic madness – I think taxicabs may earn their rates.  The number of near-nicks for cars – and people. [Parenthetically, I seem to have ended up with a Turkish coffee: it looks like black sludge – but tastes quite nice.]  Having been dumped somewhere, I had to find where.  No signs in English, and nothing really looked like the map. Some wandering, then I found the Mosque of Hussein.  Alas, one of the two forbidden to non-Muslims.  An odd design, with Gothic (sic) windows – influenced by Sir George Gilbert Scott, apparently.  

Then a wander through the Khalili souk.  This place is really Arabic.  Reminds me of Chandni Chowk and Jaipur, Jodhpur et al. A real warren – but civilised, vaguely touristy.  Not that much pressure, though.  Indeed, contrary to reports, I've had little in the way of such hassle.  Perhaps it's me.  Also, parenthetically, relatively few beggars.  Only a couple of begging women and children, or legless cripples.  Also noticeable are the kids trooping to and from school – very young.  Bodes well for the country.  

I wander further, looking for the incense bazaar.  I get lost, and find myself increasingly in muddy backstreets.  Horses are more common.  Not quite as bad as Jaisalmer.  Still not very threatening – I felt less safe in Varanasi, behind the main burning ghat.  Eventually I re-orient myself.  Time for a mosque – that of Sultan al-Mu'ayyad Mosque looks good.  E£1 to get in – and have my shoes locked up.  Inside, fairly decrepit – but in use, which I always find a bit off-putting.  Some repairs going on, men having a kip.  I go up the minaret, led by the effusive doorkeeper working hard on his baksheesh – too hard on him, poor, broken-winded smoker that he is.

To the first stage, in a dusty, dusky winding staircase.  Pretty rough – reminds me of Montepulciano, where you ascended a series of rickety ladders to the top of the tower pretty much at your own risk.  The view: 'orrible.  Egyptians seem to use their roofs as dustbins, piling junk and debris up there.   Everything is grey and dusty – a city, however ancient and medieval, of concrete – even the minarets.  It looks better from below.  Ascending to the very top of the tower, things didn't improve.  [Ultimately, all books become Books of the Dead.] [How ugly Westerners must look with their Al-amarna drooping faces, their sharpness, their lack of grace.]  I can see most of the main mosques - Ibn Tulun, Sultan Hassan, Al-Azhar, Al Hakim; I can see the wall of hills, the old citadel.  All grey, hung with haze.  Blocks of flats girdle the city.

Egyptians are such hedonists – the ultra-sweet coffee and food, the water-pipes.  A European wearing a tie – must be British.  In the awning of this café, it is cool.  To my right, the grey-yellow sandstone of Hussein and the constant barking of horns.  PS: I never found Tut's horn in the Egyptian Museum.  Pity.  But there were good smells in Khan el-Khalili – incense, strange perfumes and – most evocative – liquorice...the smell of distant childhood.  A woman selling monkey nuts moves next to me with her charming but snotty kids.  She is wrapping the nuts up in pages from an Arabic book – not a valuable one, I hope… A scene from the past…  To the Mosque of Al-Azhar.  A big open space.  As I sit in the sun, the muezzin's voice bleats from the hidden loudspeakers.  The faithful gather for prayer.  They line up inside, bowing periodically. In Khan el-Khalili, I hear music for the first time – as in India and Nepal.

A walk to the Nile (sounds good, dunnit?).  Then, weakly, to Felfela's – who have redesigned their menu without asking me.  Usual reasons.  At least today I am back in the main part, not the front.  And I have ordered quail.

The ancient Egyptian that has come down to us is like a mummy: an eviscerated skeleton.  If we have the odd canopic jar – through Coptic (sic) – it is not enough to bring it back to life.  Despite all the spells we have, we don't have the one to effect that.  Indeed, ancient Egyptian is a twitching skeleton.  Also note: the first history (= written) is probably Narmer's tablet.  First halting attempt at writing, and first proud statement of identity (the king's name) and celebration of upper Egypt conquering lower Egypt – "the men of the papyrus brought captives" – nice symbolism that it would be papyrus that revolutionised writing many years later.  Compare the living, witty forms of hieroglyphs with cuneiform – a spiky, accountant's language.  Hieroglyphs capture the initial wonder of words – as in "Nar-mer" – hearing them with a fresh ear, childlike, not grown-up and analytical.

21.2.90 Giza

As I write, I sit at the heart of Khufu's pyramid.  What an experience.  Millions of tons of stone about me.  A crazy passage here: very long, narrow and steep – and quite claustrophobic if you thought about it too long.  And how do we get out with the hordes coming in?  A teaser...

I arose early, hoping to beat the crowds here – which I did – but I also hoped to be able to climb this thing – which looks unlikely – tourist police are everywhere.  Perhaps I am not too disappointed.  At 8am, I have the place to myself.  A glorious morning, a light mist over Cairo.  Clear blue sky.  The pyramids cast huge, dark shadows on the sand.  They are immense, glorious.  Nearby Cairo – and there is a lot of it between the Nile and here – is a footling excrescence. 

The huge slabs here are so perfectly dressed – not the faintest gap in the black granite.  Huge slabs in the centre.  We are very trusting of the ancient engineers – I wouldn't trust anything of ours after a few thousand years.  It is very warm in here, the stored body heat of thousands, I suppose.  Everyone else seems very light-hearted and trivial, as if intoxicated.  Cameras in the main gallery and tomb.  The lack of hieroglyphs makes it feel rather stark and lonely.  Perhaps no wonder that people spend little time in here: there is almost literally nothing to look at.  Even the sarcophagus is anonymous.

Amazing – I have the place to myself.  It is quite frightening.  I think I prefer it when there are others.  As they descend, the place booms menacingly.  Yikes.  This place is nearly 5000 years old.  I cannot grasp it.

In many ways, the gallery is the most impressive part: you get a better sense of scale, of the architectural achievement.  The long passage to it is amazing too: looking down along it, you are most aware of the sense of passing in to stone.  There is something rather sad about all these wrinklies staggering up here, half killing themselves.  Then they leave almost immediately.  Why bother?  I am in the chamber leading to the hall: it is so impressive with its overlapping stones, edging in like some horror movie "Curse of the Mummy".  It gives a good idea of the (presumed) diagonal construction here (everywhere?).  Imagine if the lights went out.  On the way back, I take the descending path: very long, a real sense of down.  Kills the legs.  Smell of ammonia. The weight above me…

To the boat pit – a covering for my shoes.  Very impressive – about 100 feet long – it must have been a proud sight on the Nile.  Imagine a flotilla of them.  The sun outside is very pleasant now – strong but cooled by the wind.  No jacket.  My legs are trembling from ascending the steps to the original entrance – great exercise – and the lights did go out for a while…

Down to the Sphinx.  It is, as warned, surprisingly small.  Sitting in a chair for the Son et Lumière, the view is great: the three pyramids, the Sphinx crouching down in its quarry, peeping over the top.  Covered in scaffolding.  From here, the pyramids look as if they have a textured surface.

At last some hieroglyphs – faint on the outside of the south temple.  Out to Menkaure's pyramid.  I am surprised how easy it is to get away from tourist and touts.  No one here.  Cairo a haze in the background, a few skyscrapers, the pyramids, and Saqqarah behind me.  The two big pyramids in front.  I'm sitting on part of the fallen casing – red and black stone.  To my left, three baby pyramids.  At last, I can see the Cairo Tower through a gap, next to one of the small pyramids next to Khufu's.

To Ibn Tulun Mosque – with a driver posing as a taxi driver, and not knowing the way.  But this is what a mosque should be.  Huge open space, massive galleries, peaceful, beehive structure in the centre, curling minaret.  Up the minaret.  The view, well, grey again.  It strikes me that Islam is an open air religion in a way that Christianity is no more.  The citadel clearly in view and many other mosques.  Pyramids just visible through the haze.

Along to the Gayer-Anderson House – beautiful courtyard – reminds me of Museo Fortuny, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.  Airy loggia.  Blue glazeware – thin and elegant in the Winter Rooms.  The writing room – everything beginning to fall into disrepair, dusty, faded, nostalgic.  A window half off its hinges.  Atmospheric library – great for a film.  A cupboard/secret door giving on to ta gallery for the women to watch the men.  Nice to see the interior reality of houses as they were.  And yet I can't help feeling that the style is over-rich, incapable of development – except to mannerism.  Very peaceful though, no other tourists – it's easy to lose them.  But as I said, even Giza was surprisingly quiet – at 12 noon, few coaches even.  Perhaps the season ending, he said hopefully…

Mad drive back to the Cosmopolitan for a much-needed coffee (drugs).  My face and neck definitely know the sun, which was quite strong today.  At least I should sleep well tonight.  I'm glad I'm leaving Cairo.  It's been great, but it is time to move on.  Luxor should provide a suitable contrast to this hustle.  It's just a question of what accommodation I can find.  Heigh-ho.

Cairo station.  Rather quiet really – nothing compared to India.  Eight tracks, no waiting room – so I have in front of me a thinnish liquid pretending to be orange – or mango?  juice, which I have no intention of drinking.  There are mosquitoes around here – a bit worrying.  A train sounded earlier – a huge, mournful diminished fifth.  

One thing that's nice (I think) about Egypt – that it doesn't mollycoddle: the minaret I climbed was deeply dodgy – quite vertiginous and made me feel unusually unsafe.  Perhaps all the visible garbage below attracted, somehow.  

On the platform itself, a little more disorder.  The train before mine is in.  Lots of train attendants hover, kitted out in a kind of blackcurrant mousse-coloured jacket.  On the train.  Wonderful.  Initial impressions are good, anyway: sleeping compartment for two, three seat (very comfy), washbasin, table, mirror – tous les comforts.

NB: when a later pharaoh wished to appropriate something, he simply erased the old cartouche.  Equally, after the heresy of Akhnaton, priests erased his cartouche everywhere.  NB too: the process of gods conquering local gods – Re-Amun etc – assimilation, changing name, keeping the idea – empire of Re at greatest with Akhnaton and Ramses II – and then all lost.  NB 3 (?): Egyptian architecture is based on accretion – the pylons added – and is therefore based on magnification – succeeding pylons get smaller => later get bigger.  Empire has to expand to live.  A contracting empire is a dead one.

Food – amazingly like on aircraft – served on trays, fold-down table, everything pre-wrapped – even individual condiments – some of it dodgy though.  Not alone as I hoped – the bloke I saw at the station turned up – with a cold.  Cheers, Re-Amun.  Otherwise a civilised experience.  Perhaps inevitably, the trains were built in Germany.  Messerschmidt (remember that show at the ICA…?)  The whole principle behind "baksheesh" is master/servant – dominion, empire.  Perhaps a lingering legacy of 2000 years of subjection.  Suez = end of the British Empire, beginning of a truly free Egypt.

1990 Egypt II: Luxor, Aswan, Abu Simbel
1990 Egypt III: Asyut, Kharga, El Amarna
1990 Egypt IV: Alexandria, Wadi El Natrun, Suez

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