Tuesday May 29, 2007


After a delicious breakfast at the Cairo Sheraton hotel (near the bookstore where Mark found some discomfiting (if not terribly surprising) books

[yes, that is Mein Kampf on the left in the second row]
we all gathered in the lobby. Our tour director Sherif and our Tour Guide (for the day) Mohamed Mandour (his spelling) met us after breakfast in our hotel. We piled into our air conditioned van as Sherif turned us over to Mohamed and introduced us to our tourist police guard for the day.


Crossing back east across the Nile and a little island within it, we drove south along the eastern bank past the highly guarded U. S. and British embassy compounds toward Fustat (old Cairo and the Coptic portion of the city) in which the Ben Ezra synagogue is located. Our van entered an area that is closed to everyone but tourists and residents. After parking the van we walked down about ten stairs to a rather old doorway.

Due to subsidence the area is now lower than the current water level of the Nile. We walked a few hundred meters or so to the Ben Ezra Synagogue. Preservation rules prohibit photography inside.

Mohamed explained that the synagogue had at various times been a church and a synagogue. The current (rather recent) decorations are Jewish in nature, but the Aron (Ark) for the Torah is oddly on the southern wall. From where we sat, near the entrance, we could see the opening, beyond the Ezrat Nashim (the women’s section) in the second story through which scholar Solomon Schechter crawled to find the geniza. From outside we saw an ancient Roman well

and the stairs down to the mikvah (which was closed).

Though it was not on our official itinerary, Mohamed also took us to the Coptic “Hanging” Church nearby where he explained some of its history and significance.

We learned that the Coptic cross uses the lotus flower motif indicating the 12 apostles.

It includes the icon known as the Mona Lisa of Cairo. Along the way back to our van we passed a little shopping opportunity. Some amazing pieces of inlaid furniture and papyri with the 10 Commandments

and “Ben Porat Yosef”

from Genesis were on display, but nobody took advantage.


Driving west across the Nile again we saw many half-finished apartment buildings on what was the fertile bank of the river. Mohamed told us that after (I think) the 1973 war it became more profitable for the local farmers to build there than to farm. However, this has caused a number of problems… deterioration of the flood plain, spike in land cost near the center of town and eye-sore construction.


Almost as soon as we crossed to the West Bank of the Nile we could see the Giza pyramids in the near distance. We continued to the “official” parking platform above the third pyramid where we took our photo of the day

as well as riding on camels overlooking the pyramids below us.

It is hard to express the awesome feeling of being in the presence of these structures.

Solar Boat

Mohamed took us to an area between the pyramids where we could walk to a museum for the Solar Boat. Mohamed told us that the experience of walking into the pyramid is like walking into a cramped dark closet, but that the boat was something amazing to see. We took his advice and got an impromptu (and probably inappropriate) tour by one of the attendants.

We had to put on “surgical booties” over our shoes and so we put our best foot forward.

This small but amazing exhibit highlights a wooden boat made of cedar from Lebanon, stored among the rocks,

and approximately 5000 years old. Held together by rope,

the original knots and planks are restored to the original impressive size.

Access to the Giza pyramids rotates, but given the choice between the boat museum and the pyramid, we selected the boat.


Beside the pyramids is the Sphinx; still mysterious in its origin, construction and meaning. Mohamed told us as much as we could absorb, but, the heat and the crowds and our near-exhaustion from traveling made it all difficult to retain.

Not far away and on our way to lunch we visited a shop with more inlaid furniture, fantastic hanging lamps and a papyrus-making “seminar”. Our restaurant featured family seating where they baked the bread/pita in ovens the traditional way and served us (for the non-vegetarians) delicious rotisseried chicken and lots of Near Eastern salads.

Cairo Museum

Back to downtown, feeling slightly refreshed (especially those few of us who napped a bit in the van) we arrived at the Egyptian Museum for a whirlwind tour of the Tut-Ankh-Amon relics. The museum is not like any museum in the United States; more like a huge (but really huge!) closet with cases of objects against the walls, lined up in the corridors, filling every nook and cranny. Among the many riches and wonders was a collection of boomerangs. Mohamed told us that in addition to the various shapes and sizes we saw on display were some that had holes in them. These created a whistle as they were thrown… which supposedly caused confusion on the part of the prey. We had pretty much reached the end of our energies when Mohamed suggested we see the mummified crocodiles. It was hard to imagine that a crocodile could be so large. Cameras are not allowed into the museum at all, so we could not photograph the mummies. We did, however, get an explanation and photographs a few days later.

Finally back to the hotel (beside the Russian embassy compound) where we showered, and regrouped for an Italian dinner (with some chocolate desserts) in one of the hotel restaurants. We also sang Happy Birthday to Janet, as this trip celebrates her special birthday.

Additional photos thanks to Sheryl Rowling.

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