The Citadel, Mamluks & Mohammed Ali

This entry is one of the late ones I mentioned.  This is the last of my Egypt entries.

Saladin built the Citadel and it became the home of Egypt’s rulers for the next 800 years.  You can see why it was built here.  The high ground commands Cairo.  All medieval fortresses have a similar feel and this one reminded me of those I have seen around Europe.  Europeans learned the art of making stone fortifications from the Muslims during the Crusades, but Muslim inherited much of the knowledge from the Romans and stone walls are stone walls.  Anyway, the feeling was familiar, except for the minarets. 

Mohammed Ali, ruler of Egypt not the fighter, added a lot to the complex, including the big Mohammed Ali Mosque.  He was an Albanian born in what is now Greece who evidently never spoke any language well other than Albanian.  It gets even more complicated.  He took power from the Mamluks, slave soldiers seized from the Balkans and Caucuses, among other places.   The Turks ran one strange empire.  Mohammed Ali invited the leaders of the Mamluks to a feast at the Citadel and then murdered them on the way out.  That is a dish best served cold.

The Citadel features an interesting military museum with lots of weapons and uniforms.  The big drawback is that it was restored with the help of the North Koreans, so many of the exhibits are comically propagandistic.  Although the list of recent Egyptian war victories is short, they managed to imply some or at least a few heroic stands.  The N. Koreans made a panorama of the Yom Kippur War that looks like the D-Day landings.  They probably copied the D-Day pictures.  They have a painting of the British in Egypt in the 19th Century showing a couple of guys who look like they came out of a 1990s GQ.  I bet that is what the N. Koreans used as models.  How dumb is it to ask the N. Koreans to help with something like this, but despite the propaganda veneer and the mislabeling of some exhibits, it is worth seeing.  Alex especially liked it.  

The Mohammed Ali Mosque is an interesting place.  It is Turkish, not Egyptian style, and looks like those you might find in Istanbul.  Mohammed Ali is an interesting and important historical figure.  He rescued Egypt from chaos, helped modernize the place  in the 19th Century and ruled for many years, yet we hear very little about him in our history classes.  I think he suffers from being a non-European leader when most history was written in and about Europe.  He also doesn’t get much support from nationalists or the new PC crowd, which venerates non-western leaders, because of his peculiar origins.  He was essentially an imperialist and sort of an adventurer, who could capture the imaginations of Victorians but leaves modern readers cold.

Note on Chronology

You may have noticed that my blog entries are sometimes out of sequence.  There are two reasons for this.  The first one is a good one.  Revealing some of my travel plans in real time would violate operational security and even though I write innocuously and in general terms, I might accidentally reveal something important.  So if you are an ordinary reader, I apologize for any confusion.  If you are a bad guy looking for information, I expect the Marines are coming for you and you should probably just give up.

The other reason is more practical.  Sometimes I do not have access to computers or internet.  The time I write the most is when I am stuck someplace waiting for a flight.  I take notes in my little green books and I do not get around to transcribing them for awhile.  In any case, I have a notebook full of notes and not so much time to transcribe, so the order may suffer.

Speaking of out of order, here is a good picture from the pyramids.

Little Boy Gone

Check-in was “passenger only” so I couldn’t go in with Alex.  Instead, I watched through the glass for an agonizing forty-five minutes while he waded through a disorganized gaggle that passes for a line around here.  He has grown into a man, stronger than I am, and it is silly of me to fret about him.  Still, I see the little boy even as I look at the man.  I am profoundly sad to see him off.  Separation from family is easy to contemplate but harder to live.

I had a good time with him in Egypt and it is hard to go back to Iraq.  I traveled again through Kuwait.  Ali Al Salem is not a nice place.  The chow hall in not as good as Al Asad and tent living is intrinsically difficult.  This time was worse.  I got in late so they put me in a big barracks tent with bunk beds.  All the beds were full except one top bunk.  I took it.  It was drafty and uncomfortable.   I was worried that I would fall out, not that I usually fall out of bed, but it is like standing near a cliff w/o a guard rail.  You can walk close to the edge of sidewalk w/o a thought, but when there is a drop off, you just feel less secure.

From Kuwait, I flew on a C17.  It is a flying warehouse.  We were packed in like sardines, but the flight to Al Asad lasted only an hour.   I had my gear on my lap and pressed against the seat in front of me, so I could not take a deep breath, but as long as I did not try to move around, it wasn’t so bad.  I slept most of the way.   The funny thing was that when I got back to my can at Al Asad, it felt like home.  You can get used to anything.


I was interested in seeing Heliopolis because I am interested in planned communities from the “garden city” era in the early 20th Century an era and concept that produced some of the most livable cities.  Many of the places where people want to live today, but usually cannot afford – Beverly Hills, Grosse Point, Chestnut Hill & Coral Gables – started out as garden cities.  Unfortunately, the idea fell out of favor with planners and architects by mid-century and we were building some of the ugliest and most dysfunctional communities in human history.  The hideousness was worldwide.  It is hard to believe that someone created places like Nowa Huta, Cabrini Green or Brasilia on purpose.  I think we can learn from successes and failures.

Heliopolis is still relatively more livable than the rest of Cairo, but the population and squalor of the larger city have overwhelmed it.  In theory you can walk around, but the Cairo driving habits make that dangerous.  The inhabitants and authorities are making efforts to clean up some of the squalor, but a prerequisite for a livable city is control of traffic & overcrowding.  Unless you do that, it is like cleaning the birdcage w/o feeding the bird.

The most interesting book I read on this sort of topic was “A Pattern Language”.  The authors went around the world to compile the factors that people want in their cities.  Galleries or porches are one of the important factors they found.  Heliopolis has them. Another factor was access to shops.  These are also present.  I think if they got the traffic problem under control, this place would be just fine.   From the guidebook I thought this would be a more pleasant place.  I guess in a city with nearly 20 million people packed so tightly together, that is something you just do not get.

Some of the shopkeepers & taxi drivers we met alluded to this.  They complained that their upscale customers were disappearing, drawn out of Cairo to the controlled and agreeable resorts.  At first, people went to the resorts when they visited Egypt.  More and more, however, they are just going to resorts that happen to be in Egypt w/o regard to the rest of the country.  The Red Sea resorts are where they are because the sun shines every day not because they are in Egypt.  They could be anywhere in the world.

The take away lesson from this is that if you do not provide people with the pleasant amenities they want, they will find them someplace else, and the most influential people will leave first.

Great Pyramids

We saw the pyramids.  They are magical and more impressive than you would think from pictures.  The sphinx is smaller, however.  We rode up on camels to see these wonders.  It cost more, but it was a good experience and now that I have done it I will never have to do it again.  The camel is a horse designed by a committee.  They are truly odd looking and unpleasant animals.   They burp, spit and stink. 

We had a good guide who had relationships (i.e. gave money) with the guards to let us “park” near some of the pyramids and we had the pleasure of being almost alone in the quiet near some of the smaller pyramids. It makes a big difference. We could see the thousands of people in the distance touring the macro sites. When we went down to see the sphinx we had the crowd crush experience. There is always somebody around who wants money. It detracts.

Below I am sitting with our guide. He spoke good English and claimed to have spent his whole life near the pyramids, at first as a child selling little tokens.

A Long Way From Graceland

Memphis was the capital of Egypt for hundreds of years.  Today there is nothing but palms trees and a big monument area in the nearby desert.   This is Saqqara.  In some ways it is more interesting than the pyramids at Giza.   The first pyramids are here.  At first they are just a pile of rubble, but then you get a step pyramid (pyramid of Djoser) that is the precursor of the pyramids we all know.

We got to Saqqara early enough to avoid the crowds.  In fact, we were just about a half hour ahead of a bus caravan of Germans.  They were hot on our heels throughout the area.  Going in tour groups has some advantages.  You get some lecture by the guide and the numbers help dilute the effect of the ubiquitous pseudo guides who show you how to get into a monument or point you to the clearly marked path and then want money.

I do not believe that the average guide furnishes accurate information.  Just listening to those around me I heard all sorts of conflicting stories.  The guides’ main goal is to make the listeners happy so that he will get a bigger tip, so he tailors history to suite what he thinks the audiences wants to hear or a narrative that is easier to tell.  I am not sure it really matters very much anyway.  I cannot believe I just wrote that.  Those who know me know that I am very particular about historical accuracy, but in this case the person is going to remember only that he saw something very old.  The details will be buried in the sands of time, shrouded in the mist of antiquity or lost like a drunk’s car keys on a dark night, depending on the metaphor you like best.   This is tourism, not scholarship.

After Saqqara we went to the probable site of Memphis. Layers of mud had covered the place, but they still sometimes dig out interesting things.   There was a giant stature of Ramesses laying on the ground and they built a viewing area around it  Ramesses was evidently the vainest man in world history.  He wrote his name on everything, including the statues of previous pharaohs, but this was supposedly really him.   We got to Memphis a few minutes ahead of the Germans, but that is about all the time it took to see the place. 

Our driver took us to a carpet “museum”, i.e. a place where they show you an exhibit of carpet making for a minute and then try to sell you carpets for the next hour.  Drivers get a kickback and I don’t begrudge them this.  We went to a papyrus museum yesterday, same thing.  And they tried to draw us into a perfume factory.  We were immune to these enticements, however, having already been already fleeced at papyrus and perfume museums near the Egyptian museum.

For me the most interesting part of the day was a visit to the Coptic area.  Copts still make up about 10% of the population.  The churches are reminiscent of the Romans & Byzantines.  I like that history.  According to the narrative at the museums, Egypt has more relics of early Christianity than anyplace else because the climate preserves them. Besides, Egypt was a center of early Christianity.  It is interesting to see how Islam so obliterated Christianity in all but a few pockets in what really was its homeland in Egypt, Syria, Asia Minor and of course the Holy Land itself.   

We wanted to go to a nearby restaurant, but the driver told us that we would get food poisoning if we even walked in.  He took us to an authentic tourist buffet restaurant.  Those Germans who, had been just behind us all day, were now in front and already sitting at the restaurant.  We had the Egyptian meal auf deutsch. 

It was a busy day.  Back at the Marriott we went to the restaurant that called itself Egyptians and called ourselves content.  Then a strange thing happened.  It rained.  People are accustomed to water flowing in the river and are a little surprised to see it falling from the sky.  The waiters were all exercised & talking about it.   After living in Al Anbar for a couple of months, I understand.I will post pictures of all the things above when I get back to Al Asad.

First Day in Cairo

Above is Alex at the Hotel with Cairo behind

Egyptians have been very friendly.  Some are just the trying to sell something, but others seemed genuine.  We are staying at the Marriott, where I stay whenever I can all around the world.  The Cairo Marriot is more opulent than most.  It sits in a beautiful garden area on an island in the Nile in a palace built by the Egyptian Khedive to host Euro-Royalty during the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.  Among the guests were Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef and Empress Eugene, wife of Napoleon III.  I suppose they had really nice rooms.  Today the rooms are typical Marriott.  I like that.  I feel at home. 

Outside the Egyptian Museum

Alex & I walked to the Egyptian Museum, which is just across the river not far from the hotel.  It is full of artifacts, perhaps over full.  The place has a little bit the feel of a warehouse, with artifacts stacked in rows.  After you have seen one mummy, you have pretty much seen them all, kinda dry and depressing.  But I enjoyed seeing all those things I have seen pictured in history books.  We saw the King Tut stuff, for example.

The desert preserves things that would have long ago turned into dust or compost in any other environment.  I especially like the little wooden figures showing ordinary life and people working in brewing, baking and textiles.  I prefer these kinds of things to the death obsessed culture of the tombs.  How they lived in more interesting than how they died.   The gold and art from the tombs is spectacular, but it was a waste of for the people of the time to literally slave away their lives to fill monuments to the dead.  I don’t much like the jackal-headed gods either.  

Old & new

We tend to think of Egypt only in relation to those who built the pyramids but there is a lot more. Roman and Greek history was always my specialty and I am more interested in Egypt under the Greek Ptolemy and the Romans.  This period lasted more than 1000 years, but we often telescope history and move from the pharaohs to the caliphs, with only a brief glace at Anthony & Cleopatra, usually even forgetting that Cleo was a nice Greek girl descendents from one of Alexander the Great’s generals.   Cairo was built on a Roman city called Babylon.  It is a little ironic that I had to travel FROM the country of the original Babylon to see one.  The Christian Copts, descended from the original inhabitants, still live on the site.

This is one of the narrowest buildings I have seen.

Parts of Cairo are pleasant, but it is never peaceful and walking around is not much fun.  Drivers pay no attention to crosswalks or signals.  You have to run for you life to cross busy streets and there are lots of busy streets.  As Alex and I waited to run across one busy street, some guys on the other side actually mocked us for being timid.  The funniest thing I saw was a bus turn a corner too sharply and three guys literally fell out.  They landed on their feet and just chased the bus to get back on.  Cacophony is the word to describe roads.  Everybody feels it necessary to beep his horn just like a bored dog has to bark at everybody who passes.  We did a lot of walking nevertheless.  It seems like everybody wants to talk and invite you back to their shop for free tea. Of course, it is not really free.  If you stop more than a few seconds, taxis pull up and ask if you need a ride   I have to admire their energy, but I would prefer to have a little more peace.

Note on Pictures

I am traveling in Egypt.  I have my camera and I plan to take lots of pictures, but I forgot to bring the cable to load them onto the computer, so I will not immediately be able to post them.  I will still post texts and will amend them with pictures when I get back to Al Asad.

I also have some old pictures I can use AND the Internet is so fast here compared with Al Asad that I might take advantage to post some old odd things.