Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Cairo: April 17, 2010

All material including photographs are ©2010 Ronald Dunlap / Doglight Studios

Got up early this morning so I could be out the door by 8 a.m. We were off to Memphis, the ancient Egyptian capital. I'd visited there 20 years ago and was underwhelmed, so I was hoping this visit would be more auspicious.

We maneuvered our way through the heavy morning traffic that is Cairo until we reached the outskirts of the city, where the flow thinned to a trickle. It had been 45 minutes from the time I left my room until we arrived at the Mit Rahina, the closest population center to what's left of the ancient capital. We hung a right at the Mit Rahina's main street and headed west until we ran into the open air museum that encloses what remains of Memphis.

There's really not much there outside of a very large colossus of Ramses II. Made of pink limestone, it was rediscovered by an Italian archaeologist in 1820. The base of the statue is missing, so the Ramses lays on his back, staring up at the ceiling of the building that's been built around him. Up on the second floor, bored tourists look down on the once-great king with passive faces, where once they would have been quaking, hoping not to wet themselves as they knelt before him.

In the surrounding courtyard there is a lovely alabaster sphinx. It once stood in front of the temple of Path, but now it's the focal point of this patch of dirt that's designated as a tourist destination. There are a few other elements from the city but nothing unique. A lot of what was originally here was sold off to major museums around the world during the early part of the last century. For all the fuss the tour companies make about the place, there's really not much to see. It's a real boondoggle, in my opinion.

On our arrival this morning, the policeman at the eastern gate gave us a hassle for coming from the wrong direction. It seems the Tourist Authority has just built a new "secure" road from Saqqara to Memphis, and that's the way tourists are supposed to come. After a brief discussion, Magdy, without paying "baksheesh," secured permission for us to enter. We parked between giant tour buses, and he went to talk to the head of the tourist police while I purchased my entry ticket (21 Egyptian pounds) and then began looking for something interesting to shoot. I made the circuit and shot what I could. You would think there'd be something more impressive left of this once-glittering capital of one of history's greatest civilizations.

Even though it was "unsafe," we drove out the way we'd come and back to Mit Rahina. It was still morning, and I needed to fill my memory cards with images, so I asked Magdy if we could stop in Mit Rahina and walk around a little. We found a place to park off of the River Road and got out. We walked a serpentine pattern through the town, grabbing images of architecture and anyone who would agree to be photographed. I was relieved to not find any of the hostility I had been warned about. After 40 minutes or so we headed back to the car.

A few blocks away from where we'd parked, Magdy asked if I'd like to rest and have some tea. I agreed that it would be nice to sit down and watch the world go by for a while. We took seats at the next tea shop. I ordered a bottle of water and sweet tea, and Magdy had water and Turkish coffee. I sat happily, sipping my tea and staring back at all the town folk who passed. I always wear my sunglasses on these occasions — they protect my soul from being stepped on.

As we were paying our bill (12 egyptian pounds, or 2.16 dollars, including tip), I noticed a couple of gentlemen playing dominos near us, and I asked Magdy to inquire if I could take a couple of photos. They agreed, and to my delight it started an avalanche of others who wanted their photos taken.

By 3 p.m., I was back in the lobby of the Hilton. I had an hour and a half to myself before Magdy's return at 5:30. I took the elevator up to the 5th floor, thinking that I would sit by the pool, have a drink, and continue my trip notes. No sooner had I sat down and ordered a drink than a couple of Saudi women showed up with a gaggle of kids. Dressed in immaculate black burkas with thousand-dollar high heels peeking out the bottom, their charges began an assault on the placid water of the pool. I waved the waiter over, paid my bill, and then headed back to my room. The joyful splashing had been too much for me. I still had more than an hour until Magdy would be back to take me to Makattam Mountain, so I closed my eyes.

Makattam is an upscale suburb of Cairo. It's really more of a hill than a mountain, but it's a wonderful place to watch the sunset. We got there just before six and paid the concessionaires their fee to park and to sit at one of their plastic tables on the dirt pad that's under their control. I set up my tripod and the camera, attached the time advance, and ordered a Diet Coke for myself and a coffee for Magdy. The romantic feel and mild breezes make this area a sort of Islamic lovers lane, where young courting couples come to take in the beauty of the megalopolis spread out below them. Strolling hand in hand, they glance out lovingly at the broad expanse of colored lights that define the city and hide the struggles of its 17 million inhabitants.

Cairo Sunset from Mokattam Mountain from Ronald Dunlap on Vimeo.

Normally you can see the pyramids from here, but tonight it was overcast and I could just barely make out the silhouette of Khufu, so I had no hope that the camera could capture it. I was shooting a frame every minute and hoped for the best. Ahmet had invited us to his house this evening for dinner, so I only had until 7 p.m. to capture what I could.

At ten after seven, I collected my stuff and walked back to the car. Magdy tipped the concessionaire and pulled back onto the asphalt road. We left Makattam and headed down to Ahmet's house, which was just about 10 minutes away.

We got there at 7:30, after having a small problem finding his condo. We finally guessed correctly and were received with a warm welcome. Over the delicious spread of food his wife had laid out, we relived humorous stories of past mishaps and exploits. The proud father of many sons, he was a generous host.

I got back to the hotel just after 10, gathered up my things that needed to go to the laundry, bagged them up, and filled out the slip. I sat the bag by the front door, took half an hour to complete my equipment rituals, then sacked out.