Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Day in Old Cairo

It is December 2007. I am researching the 15th book in my Roman Mysteries series, this one will be set in Roman Egypt.

entrance to the souk in Cairo Old Town
Our tour group is planning to visit Tanis, on the eastern Delta, in order to look at some more pyramids and hieroglyphs. They will be driving for nearly three hours there and it will take them longer to get back. They will be in a military convoy. Unable to face another day at a desolate site with nothing but rocks, I ask Richard if he minds a lazy day in Old Cairo. He welcomes the idea of breakfast at 9.00 instead of 6.00am.

I ring Omar, the wonderful taxi driver who took us to the Pharaonic Village and he says he is at our disposal. I find out later that he was suffering from flu but came to our rescue anyway.

We meet in the hotel lobby at 10.00am and Omar drives us to Old Cairo where we see the so-called hanging church, built in the late 3rd century above the Roman Walls. We also descend to a crypt where Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus stayed during their sojourn in Egypt. We wander through the sunny gardens of a Greek monastery and graveyard. It is green and peaceful, with little birds twittering. I have not heard much twittering on this trip. Just the cawing of crows and ravens at the ancient sites.

Cairo rooftops & minaret
We go down a covered street to the synagogue, then re-emerge and find Omar, who's been enjoying a mint tea in the sunshine. I say I would like to see the City of the Dead, the extensive graveyard of Cairo, with its population of poor and homeless, and he takes us to see some Islamic crypts. He helps us scramble on top of the crypt and from here we can see the rooftops of Cairo. It's a perfect day.

Omar teaches us the difference between Fatimid, Ottoman and Mamluk minarets. He takes us to a place where we can see mosques with all three minarets and expects me to take a photo. I wish he'd driven more slowly through some of the old, poor parts of Cairo where you still see boys carrying buckets of hot coals and women balancing trays laden with bread and men smoking their hookahs. What I really want to see is the bazaar.

Gayer-Anderson House, Cairo
Omar agrees to take us to the bazaar but drops us at the Gayer-Anderson House first. He says we'll like it. We do. A British major named Anderson refurbished two Cairo mansions in the 1930's and made them his home. Although he converted some rooms, he left most with their wonderful carved wooden screens. In the major's little private museum I see a replica of my favourite Egyptian cat, now in the British Museum. Now I know why it's called "The Anderson Cat"! There is a secret room behind a cupboard and a wonderful rooftop. Scenes from The Spy Who Loved Me were filmed here, too. (You can see a fun article about movies set in Egypt here.)

Omar in the antiques shop
Omar parks his car and leads us into the bazaar. He knows I like Roman things and takes us to an 800 year old hole-in-the-wall antiquities shop. The owner, a tall, ascetic-looking man -- takes us upstairs to his holy of holies and orders mint tea. We make polite conversation for a while. Then he brings out a small marble head. It looks vaguely Roman, but does not seem to represent anyone in particular. If authentic, the carving round the eyes would suggest a late date: 4th or 5th century AD. Then he makes the mistake of bringing out three more heads, all obviously by the same workshop. If he had produced just the one, I might have been convinced, but now I suspect a con. Anyway, the heads are ugly.

antique sharp-nosed fish?
Something in a glass case does catch my eye, however. It is a small bronze model of an 'oxyrhynchus', a sharp-nosed fish, about as long as my thumb. These were worshipped in the town of Oxyrhynchus, famous for its papyri. Perhaps it was a votive offering at a temple in the Fayum. The dealer says the asking price is £150. 'How old is it?' I ask. '1800 years,' says the dealer. 'How can you tell?' 'By the patina.' Deeply sceptical, I offer £5. But we are so far apart that negotiations cease then and there. Anyway, isn't it illegal to take real antiquities out of the country?

Perfumer in Cairo Souk, 2007
On the way out of the bazaar I buy ten little glass perfume jars for £5, about a dollar each. That's more like it!

Richard buys some spices in the spice market (after waiting for the staff to finish afternoon prayers) and I finish off my shopping with a bottle of lotus oil from an Aladdin's cave perfume shop.

We are back in Giza by 6.00pm, too late for Richard to do a watercolour, but early enough to have a delicious meal at Felfela, an excellent and inexpensive restaurant near the hotel. Three hours later the rest of our group arrives. They are tired and hungry, and even though David spotted a Seth animal, I'm secretly glad we spent the day in Old Cairo.

P.S. If you liked this you might enjoy my blogs about Upside Down Egypt & 12 Fun Facts I learned at the Pyramids. Also A Week on the S.S. Karim.

[I was researching Roman Mystery 15, The Scribes from Alexandria. It is now available in paperbackKindle and as an abridged audiobook, and is perfect for primary schools studying Egypt in Key Stage 2.]

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Ice Cold in Alex

It is Sunday 9 December 2007. My husband Richard and I are on the last leg of our second trip to Egypt, researching The Scribes from Alexandria. This will be one of the few books set in Alexandria of the past without Cleopatra, because my interest is Roman Alexandria. (However, Cleopatra does make a kind of cameo.)

Our tour group is given the choice of a free day or an optional day trip to Alexandria. Well, obviously, it's got to be Alexandria! Only four of us opt for the tour: me, Richard, David and Derek. David is from Edinburgh and Derek from York. They are both easy-going and our small group means we (or rather I) can dictate the places we go and the things we see. I have a checklist of things I'd love to see. Today's guide Walid looks about 18, though he must be in his mid-twenties. He drives a cerise microbus.

Alexandria Toll Gate - coming from the south (Cairo)
A 7.00am start means the road is clear. We pass the Cairo tollbooth an hour after setting out. It is yellow and made to look like a Nile temple with sculptures and hieroglyphics. Advertisements mar this attempt somewhat. After the Cairo tollbooth, the road becomes bumpier and agriculture starts to appear. After 100 kilometers and another hour we reach the Alexandria tollbooth. It is white and blue, (the colours of Greece), with imitation Greek columns and the words ALEXANDRIA in big Greek letters above it. The famous Lake Mareotis has moved, or shrunk. Our guide tells us the water is salt water from the sea. But it gives a good impression of what Alexandria's situation might have looked like. Another half hour or so brings us to the waterfront and the famous 'corniche'.

scene from Ice Cold in Alex
Michael Palin called Alexandria 'Cannes with acne'. We can see traces of its colonial beauty but it is now sadly decrepit and dusty. Still, it has a certain charm helped by perfect weather. After three days of solid rain we have struck gold with a mild blue day. We all talk about the famous scene in a 1958 film Ice Cold in Alex where John Mills and Sylvia Syms and some others have an ice cold beer in Alexandria at the end of a hot and arduous desert adventure. The last scene is famous. The four of them go into a hotel bar and order ice cold beer. For a moment they savour the anticipation and watch moisture condense on the glass. Then they drink it down. According to imdb.com trivia, John Mills was drinking real beer because ginger ale and other substitutes didn't look real enough on film. In the final cut (the 14th take) he actually was quite drunk!

The cerise microbus takes us to the site of the lighthouse first. There is a medieval fort there now. Walid doesn't know much about ancient Alexandria but I try to stay quiet and just take in the surroundings, imagining the great lighthouse rising up above us, like Ostia's only taller and covered in white marble. While we are exploring, some Egyptian girl students (early teens) ask Derek if they can take his photo. We joke afterwards that he should have asked for 'baksheesh'. (Whenever you take someone's picture here in Egypt, they expect you to pay them a tip for the privilege.)

Pompey's Pillar (so-called)
Back in Alexandria proper, the so-called 'Pillar of Pompey' was a pillar re-used by Diocletian in the third century. It may once have been part of the Serapeum, the magnificent and famous annex to the great Museum or "Library" of Alexandria. I think this hill could be the remains of the Paneum, a conical hill which was sacred to the god Pan. We know from ancient writers that you could look out over all of Alexandria from its top.

Next stop are the catacombs of Kom es-Shoqafa – "mound of shards" – which might have been the Alexandrian equivalent of Rome's Mons Testaccio. These Graeco-Romano tombs display a strange mixture of Greek, Roman and Egyptian imagery on them. We go down to a huge catacomb riddled with inner rooms, stone recesses and tunnels. There is even a massive triclinium where the family of the dead person would have a meal in his or her honour.

the "Alexandria Quartet"
Then it's on to the Graeco-Roman theatre. This is very small and I think it's more likely to be a lecture hall. We know that the famous Museum (where the Library was) had lots of famous scholars who gave public talks. Nearby are baths and a 3rd century Roman townhouse called the Villa of the Birds, on account of the pretty mosaics on the floor.

The National Museum in Alexandria is beautifully laid out, with proper lighting and dust-free cases, (unlike it's massive cousin in Cairo). It's also a manageable size. The Pharaonic gallery is downstairs, the Graeco-Roman on the ground floor and Islamic one floor up. Half an hour is long enough for us to look at our preferred sections with a quick glance at one other floor. David raves about the quality of the Pharaonic art downstairs and regrets leaving his camera in the hotel.

Alexandria's eastern harbour
We are delighted to discover that lunch is included in our tour. Our microbus takes us back to the Corniche through dusty roads and crowded traffic to a delightful restaurant called The Fish Market. It has a magnificent view over the brilliant blue sea and reminds me of Sausalito, looking out over the San Francisco Bay, or of Sydney, Australia. For the first time in a week I feel like we are on holiday. The waiter brings a delicious assortment of meze, then a choice of whole grey mullet or tomato pasta for main course.

After lunch we find a decrepit hotel from Britain's colonial period to recreate the famous moment from Ice Cold in Alex. We can't find a bar so we have to make do with a table and we drink Egyptian beer instead of Carlsberg. The hotel staff think we are crazy as Walid and I art direct the scene. (above from left to right: Caroline, Richard, Derek and David at the Windsor Palace Hotel)

the modern Library of Alexandria (in 2007)
Our final stop is the brand new Library of Alexandria. It is on the waterfront, nowhere near the original library, but that doesn't matter. It is really stunning. My favourite bit is a triangular pool at the back which reflects palm trees on the waterfront.

It's 4.30pm and the sun is low in the sky. We start back and stop for a quick 'comfort stop' on our way out of Alexandria. How glad I am that we did. The first part of the trip is quite scary. It's pitch black with no street lights and Egyptian drivers pass on either side. Our driver drives very fast. He's good, but donkey carts and pedestrians wear no lights. What if he hits one? We reach the Cairo toll booth in good time, just over two hours. However, suddenly the road is packed and we aren't moving at all.

recreating the moment from Ice Cold in Alex
This is the Mother of all Traffic Jams. I have never seen anything like it. Three lanes of highway are occupied by five lanes of honking cars, trucks, taxis, cars, minivans and tankers. For most of the trip we are at a standstill or moving at a crawl. Our driver goes on the bumpy shoulder of the highway, when he can move, but another pickup truck is even further to the right on the sandbank. Richard, Derek and David give him the nickname 'Sandbank Sam'.

After an hour or two we see people walking on the dark side of the road. They are easily overtaking us. Trapped by two lanes of traffic on either side, I try not to think about what would happen if I suddenly needed the toilet. I wonder if this is divine punishment for the torture I inflicted on Flavia in The Beggar of Volubilis. I wouldn't be surprised to see a woman giving birth by the side of the road. People are certainly doing other things there. Finally, finally the hotel is in sight. We were hoping to be back by 7.30pm. It is now nearly 10.00pm. It has taken us nearly five hours to get back. I will never complain about London traffic again.

The other members of our group spot us and run out of the hotel restaurant to greet us. They have moved to a big table so that we can join them. None of the four of us feel like eating but we all order beers and for us this is really an Ice Cold in Alex moment. Never has a tall cold beer tasted so good.

Friday, December 07, 2007

A Break from Pyramids

Mini Abu Simbel in Cairo
Thursday 6 December, 2007. Richard and I are in Cairo to research Roman Mystery 15, The Scribes from Alexandria. I wake up at 4.00am with a plan.

Instead of going to Heliopolis today to see an obelisk and some more tombs, we could get a taxi to the Pharaonic Village, the theme park about way of life in ancient Egypt.

At breakfast that morning, Richard gamely agrees to the plan. After some investigation I find a taxi driver called Omar – a jewel beyond price – connected with the hotel. He says the Pharaonic Village opens at 9.00am and that he will take us for 70 Egyptian pounds (£7). I agree and we set off just after 8.30 and arrive on the dot of 9.00. Half an hour later Richard and I find ourselves the only ones on a kind of flat bottomed boat with chairs. A few others – full of Egyptian schoolchildren – are towed by tug, but ours has its own motor.

The barge putts slowly around the perimeter of an island fringed by papyrus beds. There is an English commentary on a loudspeaker which gives a handy summary of Egyptian cosmology as we pass painted plaster statues of Egyptian gods and goddesses. There is even a mini Abu Simbel.

ploughing at the Pharaonic Village in Cairo

sheepish shadouf demonstrator
Then we get to the good bit: real Egyptians and animals acting out the way of life: ploughing with a wooden plough, sowing the seed and getting sheep to press down the ground, threshing by cow, winnowing, a man operating a shadouf for bringing up water, landowner paying taxes, making honey, building boats of papyrus and a fisherman beating the water. (We saw this last activity for real on our boat trip from Luxor to Aswan last May.) There are also tableaux of brickmaking, mummification, perfume-making, painting and carving, a carpenter and armourer's workshop, potters, grape-treaders, spinners and weavers. We also see a demonstration of papyrus making. The actors look a little sheepish but were mostly cheerful. I fear they may not be paid much.

guide #5, Ahmed
We disembark from the barge and are met by Ahmed, guide number 5. We are the only English-speakers so we had him all to ourselves. He is very charming and informative, though a little nervous at first. He punctuates every other sentence with the phrase 'By the way'. But then he relaxes and gives us an excellent tour of a rich man's house, a poor man's house and a temple. There is incense burning in the temple and it makes the air smoky, catching the beams of sunshine coming down past columns. Finally Ahmed takes us to see a reconstruction of King Tut's tomb. All the grave articles are fake, of course, but it is good to see how they had been left in the rooms. And it is all very accurately done. We recognize some of the items from the King Tut exhibition in London and see others later that afternoon at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

blue lotus at the Cairo Hilton
Omar had taken us to the island in his comfortable car, chatting about mothers-in-law and his four children. The taxi to our rendezvous with the others at the Nile Hilton is a ancient, battered, black and white vehicle held together with duct tape. No seat belts, naturally. Luckily the traffic is moving at a snail's pace.

'It's not far to the Nile Hilton,' I say to the taxi driver. 'Is it?' Blank look. 'The Nile Hilton,' I say slowly. 'Is it far?' More blank looks. 'Do you speak English?' I finally say. 'My English,' he replies carefully, 'is not perfect.' But he gets us there and we meet up with the rest of our group for a quick snack before the dusty treasures of the Cairo Museum.

And there, in a pool before the museum are several perfect specimens of the rare blue lotus!

[I was researching Roman Mystery 15, The Scribes from Alexandria. It is now available in paperbackKindle and as an abridged audiobook, and is perfect for primary schools studying Egypt in Key Stage 2.]

Pyramids R Us

by Caroline Lawrence
(author of The Roman Mysteries)

Today is a day of pyramids. We see a red pyramid, a bent pyramid, a mud pyramid, a rubble pyramid and an off-limits pyramid. We travel to sites south of Cairo: Dahshur, Saqqara and Abusir. We are mainly alone at these sites and not hassled by other groups and touts.

Nevertheless, my favourite thing is driving through the villages, seeing life unchanged after 4000 years: a woman carrying a circular tray on her head, it was piled with disc-shaped pieces of bread. I see a donkey drawn cart, a butcher taking cuts from a side of beef hanging in the street. In a palm grove a man squats by a campfire while his friend is stretched out on the earth behind him, fast asleep. All the women here wear headscarves and the men all have skullcaps or turbans. Some ride donkeys astride, with their feet straight out, others ride side-saddle. In a mastaba at the site of Saqqara I spot several reliefs of the oxyrhynchus or sharp-nosed fish!

At Abusir, a site not usually open to tourists, we see one of the earliest columns with a capital. This one has a lotus capital. I ask Joclyn if she has ever seen a blue lotus. She says only twice. Once at the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Cairo and once at the Pharaonic Village. The Pharaonic Village is a kind of educational display on an island in Cairo with living tableaux of ancient life along the banks of the Nile. She explains how it came to be. 25 years ago an Egyptian named Hassan Regeb wanted to research how papyrus was made but discovered that none of the original Nile papyrus plants had survived. So he bought a plot of marshy land cheap from the government on condition that after he grew his papyrus he would make it a tourist attraction. It sounds good.

[I was researching Roman Mystery 15, The Scribes from Alexandria. It is now available in paperbackKindle and as an abridged audiobook, and is perfect for primary schools studying Egypt in Key Stage 2.]

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Pyramids and Sphinx

by Caroline Lawrence, author of The Roman Mysteries.

It is December 2007. We have flown to Egypt for the second time to research The Scribes from Alexandria, my antepenultimate Roman Mystery. My husband (and map-maker) Richard and I arrived late last night – 10.30pm London time and 12.30am Cairo time – and it was 4.00am before lights out.

Le Meridien Pyramids Hotel in Giza, Egypt
We are staying at the Le Meridien Pyramids Hotel in Giza, so this morning I pull back the drapes, not sure what I will see. Pyramids! Two of them. Medium sized, flat against the hazy, cloud-speckled dawn sky. A busy road and some pylons in the foreground, and the back of the hotel. This is the view they never show you!

Roman Mystery #15
The morning is mild and even a little cool sitting out by the pool to have breakfast. We have a nice select group of fellow travellers on this academic guided tour. There are only nine of us in all, plus not one but two expert guides. Rawya is our Egyptian guide and Joclyn our British guide. Both are women, both extremely knowledgable and articulate.

At a few minutes past 10.00 we set off along the manic road to a roundabout then back up past the Mena Auberoi Hotel, which is older and four starred, probably nicer than this rather soulless modern one. Not that I'm complaining.

A few minutes later we are at the pyramids. They say you have to be standing in front of them to get the full impact, but I didn't feel any particular sense of awe. They are big and familiar and as you might expect there are Egyptian men and children ready to beg you to buy postcards, gifts, burnooses, camel rides, etc.

Our guides advise us to ignore these entrepreneurs, especially the ones offering a short camel ride.

Ten FUN FACTS I learned at Giza:

pyramid at Giza
I. A pyramid is essentially a big fat obelisk.

II. The pyramids would have been covered with smooth slabs of white limestone in ancient times, making them even more impressive. This is what Flavia and her friends would have seen when they visit in the first century AD. There would have been graffiti all over them, too. Greek and Latin, of course.

III. A massive cedar river boat belonging to Cheops was found buried on the south side of the Great Pyramid. It has a special display room near the spot where it was found. It is amazing.

IV. The lovely triangular felucca sail didn't come in until 300 AD! Until then, all boats were square-rigged.

V. There are smaller more conventional tombs by the pyramids. These are called mastabas and are usually for friends and family of Mr Pharaoh.

VI. The ka is the double of a person. The ba is the spirit. According to Egyptian tradition, both are created with the body but are immortal. When the body dies, these two live on and wait to be reunited to the body on the Day of Resurrection.

VII. In the depiction of figures on walls, etc. there are three symbols to show children: a lock of hair over one ear, no clothes, a finger at the mouth. Children are shown aged about twenty but small. Twenty to thirty is the ideal age for to come back on the Day of Resurrection. (Nobody knows the date of this momentous event.)

VIII. Egyptian granite comes from one place: Aswan. It is composed of crystals of pink, grey and black. You get pink, grey or black granite depending on the proportion of those three colours of crystal in a piece of granite.

IX. The Nile was closer to the Sphinx (and to the pyramids) in ancient times. A short canal brought water to the Sphinx for easy boat access and to provide water for the priests and temples.

X. The Sphinx was up to its neck in sand until the 19th century.
(Though it may have been cleared at times before that.)

Caroline on camel
XI. The Sphinx is slowly melting, worn away by constant sand in the wind. In a hundred years or less the head will probably fall off! Also pigeons are now nesting on its face. Recent bird-flu scares forced Egyptians to destroy the columbaria on their houses and so the pigeons must find new homes! Their guano does not help matters.

XII. The Ptolemaic Greeks were the first to do restoration work on the Sphinx, probably around 200 BC.

P.S. Contrary to what I had heard, camels are fun to ride!

P.S. If you liked this you might enjoy my blogs about Upside Down Egypt & A Day in Old Cairo.

[I was researching Roman Mystery 15, The Scribes from Alexandria. It is now available in paperbackKindle and as an abridged audiobook, and is perfect for primary schools studying Egypt in Key Stage 2.]

Sunday, December 02, 2007

December in the Delta

We are off to Egypt: to Lower Egypt. Confusingly, Lower Egypt is actually above Upper Egypt on modern maps. We'll be based in Giza at a hotel with a pyramid view. (Probably one of those terrible blots on the landscape but at least we will be in it looking out). Our last day includes an optional day trip to Alexandria. Sadly there are very few physical remains of what was arguably the most beautiful city in the Roman world. But my next book is set there and that's why we're going. Here's our itinerary:

Tuesday: The Giza Plateau - Pyramids and Sphinx

Wednesday: Sakkara/Dashur - lots more pyramids, including a newly opened complex at Abu Sir

Thursday: Heliopolis/Cairo Museum - morning in Heliopolis, afternoon in the Cairo Museum

Friday: Fayum - The Ptolomaic-Roman City of Karanis and the labyrinth at Heracleopolis (!) and the famous mastaba tombs. (This is where many of those stunning Romano-Egyptian encaustic coffin portraits come from.)

Saturday: The Delta - visit to the ancient cult city of Bubastis (lots of cat mummies!), then to some excavations at Tanis

Sunday: Alexandria - the new museum, Kom el Dikka and some catacombs are on the itinerary

Monday: home... inshallah!