Scotsabroad's Weblog

October 25, 2008

A Wet Weekend

Filed under: Weather — scotsabroad @ 3:39 pm

October 17, 2008

$3 Million Well Spent

Filed under: Cairo — scotsabroad @ 7:21 pm

Today we headed downtown to explore a bit of the island of Gezira. I wanted to photograph the lions designed by Alfred Jacquemart for Khedive Ismail, on the Qasr al-Nil Bridge. We also planned to go up the Cairo Tower and visit the Pharaonic Gardens to find another obelisk and an ancient statue of an unfinished lion.

We drove to Maadi and took the Metro to Tahir Square. We walked over the Qasr al-Nil Bridge on to the island of Gezira and Zamalek.  At each end of the bridge are a pair of very imposing yet somewhat likeable lions.

The Cairo Tower with its wicker basketry and lotus flower design was opened in 1961. We thought that the entrance fee was a bit steep, 65 LE each, but Lucas got up for nothing. The pollution was very noticeable today and we were not expecting to see for miles at the top. We were certainly not expecting the solitary lift, with bellhop, taking everyone up and down the tower. I did not dwell on thoughts of power failure (common in Cairo) or the safety of the viewing gallery. Even through the haze the view was incredible.

One story goes that the USA backed Nasser’s military takeover and one of Nasser’s aides received a suitcase from the CIA containing $3 million. Being sensitive to accepting bribes and still undecided about who to side with during the Cold War, Nasser decided to keep the money but build this rather fabulous folly with revolving restaurant and blinking antenna. Flamboyant. Egypt must have recouped the money charging tourists to go up and down since then. We had a great view of 6 October Bridge and Roda Island, could just make out the outline of the Citadel but not a glimpse of the pyramids.

 We then looked for the entrance to the Pharaonic Gardens and The Nile Needle. The boys missed out on seeing the obelisk last week in Matariyya, and apart from another placed near the Egypt Air Terminal, the only other one in Cairo stands in these gardens on the banks of the Nile. There is also a rather splendid, unfinished lion (facing a finished one) that makes visitors wonder… why wasn’t it completed?



October 10, 2008

Right at the Fountain

Filed under: Cairo — scotsabroad @ 7:14 pm

What fountain? I was back in al-Matariyya this morning looking for the obelisk of Senusret1. The boys were invited to a swim birthday party at the Intercontinental Hotel that is part of the Citystars complex near Heliopolis. Shona agreed to take the boys with the added incentive of some time shopping alone and using the hotel’s spa. A few hours on my own exploring Matariyya in the car was too good an opportunity to miss. Driving was tricky today, being a Friday, as many roads were closed for prayers. Worshippers literally lay their mats down on the road outside their mosques as the sermon is broadcast through loud-speakers from inside.

I found it. Another hour driving around, using my limited Arabic and going into Chemist shops knowing that I could find someone who could speak English. I also found the fountain, it is behind the railings in the picture above. Not in my top ten. It does not look as if it has ever gushed or even dribbled. Carrying on down the narrowing road I eventually caught sight of the obelisk behind a green coloured mosque. Not the grandest of settings for the last standing part of the Heliopolis cult temple of Re. What can I say? The obelisk, known locally as el-Misallah (I must have been saying it wrong), stands in a little garden in the middle of a large area of waste ground. Waste ground is an accurate description, as on three sides of the garden there is a sea of waste, with every colour of plastic bag imaginable. Scale wise, people resemble ants, crossing, foraging and collecting bits of rubbish. The odd donkey cart and flock of sheep come as no surprise. This is the centre of a city. This is when you realise Cairo has a problem cleaning up after itself. Indeed people in this area seem to use the tram lines as a place for getting rid of rubbish. The rubbish collectors can be seen walking the lines sifting through the bags and garbage. The obelisk is 22 meters high, weighs 120 tons and was carved from a block of pink Aswan granite. It was one of two. The other is missing, said the lady (antiquities inspector) at the booth. She also helped me with the Arabic for the Virgin’s Tree.

Matariyya claims to have later acquaintance with the infant Jesus. I went looking for the Virgin’s Tree. I got lost but ended up at the Church of the Holy Family. A very pleasant scout leader (who could speak Italian) got the key and led me inside the church. One of those magic moments when they switch on the lights just for you. Beautiful church but no sign of a tree.

Along the street, second on the left I found the Virgin’s Tree. The story goes that while in Egypt the Holy Family hid from Herod’s soldiers in the branches of a balsam tree. The balsam has died but was replaced with this sycamore fig estimated to be at least a hundred years old. The nearby well is said to have sprung up with Christ’s touch when Mary needed water to wash clothes. The water is said to have healing properties. Early last century it was reputed that Christian souvenir hunting was so bad that the tree’s owner tied a knife to the branches and put up a sign begging people not to hack at it any more with axes. I left empty handed.


Two brilliant places to visit but not the easiest to find. Thanks to Lesley Lababidi and The Rough Guide to Egypt for a lot of the information and stories attached to these places – but not for the directions and maps! A great few hours lost in the city.

October 6, 2008

Moon Beach

Filed under: Holidays — scotsabroad @ 7:48 pm

Just spent the last couple of nights down at Ras Sudr enjoying the weather and some time on the beach. Great few days being beachcombers looking for shells and interesting, weathered stones. Shona surprised us all by taking a windsurfing lesson. Very impressive especially for someone who can’t swim. Just a very relaxed time star gazing, watching flying-fish and walking the beach. Only a few hours drive from Cairo going under the Suez Canal and down the West Coast of Sinai.

October 2, 2008

6 October

Filed under: Cairo — scotsabroad @ 7:15 pm


The third day of our Eid holiday and the boys and I headed out early to explore Heliopolis with few expectations. Being a holiday many places of interest might have been closed but the weather has certainly become cooler allowing us to travel more comfortably. As it turned out our collection of deceptively useless maps and guidebook directions made me sweat enough. I wanted to find the Obelisk of Senusret 1. 

I encouraged the boys to come on this trip with the prospect of visiting (being October) the October War Panorama. We drove around Al-Matariya district but just couldn’t find the Obelisk. Heliopolis is a great area with some magnificent architecture. The founder of the new city of Heliopolis (not the one from 4000 years ago – the obelisk being the only remaining trace of the city Plato once visited) Baron Empain, commissioned French architect Alexandre Marcel to build him a palace. The resulting exotic, Hindu-style building built in 1906 is still one of my favourite landmarks in the city. Driving through the area this morning we saw a lot of old cars seemingly abandoned by long-deceased owners. This Mercury automobile (1950s?) still has class, in typical decaying suburban surroundings. Henry Ford designed the cars for/as, entry-level-luxury. A good phrase to describe Heliopolis last century.

I was all set to visit the October War Panorama with a mixture of cynicism and admiration for a country that can celebrate a victory without historical evidence to back them up. A major bridge in the city bears the name, 6th October Bridge. However, I have always been a bit confused about Egypt’s involvement in the Six Day War (1957) with Israel and the offensive (again, against Israel) launched by Egypt and Syria (I think Jordan as well) on the 6th of October 1973, when they crossed into the Sinai and the Golan Heights. I think they claim to have been successful in both encounters. I think they were convincingly mauled in 1957 but having read about the consequences of the offensive in 1973, Sadat might just have deserved his Nobel Peace Prize after all. Within a few weeks Egypt had lost more ground than it had taken but now had the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. over a barrel – literally, as OPEC deployed the ‘oil weapon’ boycotting countries who supported Israel. Was that the Winter of Discontent?

On entering the complex we were ushered into a cinema-style hall that was already full of Egyptians with children, many wielding imitation guns. We were the only non-Egyptians there. A small screen was ready to show us a film but what intrigued us most was the reconstruction of the Suez Canal (real water) and the model houses, tanks and figures along the banks laid out below it. I couldn’t help but imagine Michael Bentine walking in and giving us a commentary on the conflict with puffs of dust spewing from the buildings and splashes from the choppy water. Click on this link if you know what I mean. The commentary was in Arabic and even Cairo noticed a lot of the footage was repeated on the film. At the end many of the audience gestured to the Canal and asked when the show would start. The projectionists stuck their heads out the gap and said the show was over. This was a huge disappointment to us. Perhaps the people who could bring the scene to life were on holiday.

We were then led upstairs, up a very slippery staircase to the panorama which consisted of a revolving set of seats going round a painted mural with objects from the conflict in the foreground. It was big enough to house tanks, jeeps etc. Very patriotic and some clapping and weeping grannies at the end. Finished by having a climb over the tanks and guns outside. The Panorama was a gift, money was donated by the Domocratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1983. Not somewhere I would take visitors to unless they asked. It is free entry this Monday!

We will return to find the Obelisk. We will not be defeated.

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