Friday, February 29, 2008

The Last Hurrah

The Cairo Museum was one of the stops we had looked forward to the most and saved it for last. We were so disappointed to find out that the museum had changed its photo policy and all cameras had to be left with security outside the museum. So, except for the pics outside, all the shots are off the internet.

Both Cameron and I could have spent more than a full day in the museum. It hasn't been updated in 100 years, so even the most beautiful things are in plain glass cabinets with wood trim. Some cards are typed, with stains on them, some are in Arabic only, while other displays aren't labelled at all. The walls are a bit dingy and there's no spot lighting or anything to draw your attention to certain items. Interestingly, the result is a feeling that you've somehow stumbled into an attic of treasures. This is also where we finally had it with a guided tour. There is clearly
a "path" that they follow. I know this because there were certain exhibits where 90% of the people were crowded around with their guide. Noah and Ava quickly became bored standing in front of one thing for 10 minutes while the guide talked so we finally convinced her that we were perfectly happy to use our guide book and just enjoy seeing the displays and didn't need to be shepherded through (I was also a bit concerned that we were going to be the first family to break priceless artifacts if we didn't keep the smaller ones engaged more!)
Everything was breathtaking. From giant stone statues to mamzingly detailed painted figure hand painted papyrus, everything was fascinating. The level of preservation of some items, especially wooden ones, was unbelievable. There was almost an entire floor devoted to painted coffins of all shapes and sizes, and a hall of sarcophagi, which lent an air of mystery to the entrance. There were rooms of jewelry, gold chariots, and paintings of birds so realistic scientists can use them today to identify different species.

One of the best rooms was the hall of mummies. The room was dim and very hushed. No one spoke above a whisper. I didn't think it was at all gruesome to see the bodies. Itw as fascinating to see actual hair, teeth, and fingernails on some of the bodies. Up close you could see that this one had a large jaw, or that one's eyes were close together, or this one over here had been much taller. I thought it would be like seeing statues but I clearly felt that I was in the presence of actual people. Cameron and I felt that it was a fitting end--we had seen the monuments they had built, then seen their tombs, and now were able to stand in front of the actual men (and woman) who constructed these amazing sites. Throughout this trip I kept thinking that the Eyptians showed a tremendous amount of respect in terms of their beliefs and arrogance in their ideas of immortality. I think they've come closer than perhaps any other people at achieving that level of longevity. I wondered what they would have thought about what we were seeing. Honestly, they'd probably be quite annoyed that the afterlife didn't quite turn out the way they had planned and they were relegated to a glass display for as much of eternity as possible! We made it a point to spend some time at each of the mummies who were responsible for the temples we had visited and whose tombs we had seen.
There was also an additional room of other mummies--animals and birds, mostly--that have been found in the tombs (they really did believe in taking everything--and sometimes everyone--with them). Noah and Ava found the mummified cats, crocodiles, and birds very interesting.

The crown jewel of the museum, of course, is the King Tut exhibit. We were thrilled to see it, of course, because it is so famous, and it is spectacular, but there are so many spectacular things in the museum that none of felt that it stood out head and shoulders above so many other things. What is truly amazing is how complete the collection is. King Tut was a relatively minor and unimportant king, yet the treasure in his tomb is almost beyond belief. What much have been in the tombs of Ramses and Ahkentatan, those important and long-ruling pharoahs?!

There is a room devoted to King Tut--the solid gold death mask (that weighs almost 30 pounds) and the solid gold (almost 500 pound) coffin, as well as the jewelry that was found tucked in the layers of the linen wrapping. But the display covers most of a floor. There are the gold plated boxes (at least 4 that were as big as shipping crates) that nest one inside the other that held the coffin, the alabastor canopic jars, the hundreds and hundreds of statues that were placed in his tomb, furniture--beds, couches, and chairs. There was a display of his clothes that had been preserved--leather, brass, and gold sandals, robes, underwear, socks, even a leopard skin robe. There were even boquets of flowers that had been placed at the entrance to the rooms in the tomb! There were chariots, wooden and gold, as well as statues of jackals, soldiers, and servants. Everywhere there were large photos of what the items had looked like and how they were placed in the tomb when it was first opened. I somehow had thought that they were arranged neatly, maybe a bit like a display even back then, but they basically just stacked and stuffed everything in, like you would do in a storage locker. There was also his solid gold throne, which has a picture of him and his mother detailed in precious stones.

In a number of places there were pieces missing with a note that said "on temporary loan or display." We found out that many of those items were part of the King Tut tour that is currently in the US. I thought about how amazing it would have been to be able to see the Tut exhibit (we had planned to go to Chicago before we found out we were coming to Tanzania), and yet what a tiny fraction of the artifacts are being shown compared to the total amount. There are definitely other pieces in the museum more impressive (well, maybe not more impressive than the gold mask and coffin) but for sheet volume the Tut exhibit is truly overwhelming.
Two days wouldn't have been enough for Cameron and I, so 4 hours definitely didn't do the place justice. We were off to the enormous market the defies description for some shopping, coffee, and ambiance before heading home to Tanzania. We had a last meal at Pizza Hut and it was heavenly. Everyone, even Ava, realized the importance of pacing and eating slowly and methodically so as to eat as much as possible! We stuffed ourselve and headed for the airport, tired and immensely satisfied.

A Star is Born

Cameron had a lead role in the school play this year. Instead of a musical, they did a drama called, "Macbeth on the Loose." It's about a group of students staging the play "Macbeth"--each character chooses the character in "Macbeth" that they want to play, generally because they share similar qualities with them. They begin to act like the Shakespearen characters as they plot and scheme to get the roles they want. Each Shakespearen character has its counterpart in one of the students in the play. Sounds confusing, but it was very easy to follow. In one of the opening scenes all the students have gathered for audition, but no one has read the play or really understands anything about it, so in going through the auditions, the audience gets an overview of the Shakespearan characters and the plot.

Cameron played Gordon/MacDuff. He is terribly legalistic and loves pretending his cadet group are real soldiers. He spends much of the play trying to keep everyone to his sense of order and spying on people. Throughout most of the play, he's pretty annoying (and funny), but in the 2nd act he actually figures out what the lead character has done to get the part of Macbeth and stages a coup that takes place during the actual production of the play, where he "dethrones" the main character and brings back the other kids who should have had parts they lost because of Macbeth's actions.

This group was younger than last year's. The play is 90 minutes and all spoken dialogue, much of it the actual lines from "Macbeth" so it was quite challening to learn the lines. Of the main characters, one is in 8th grade, one is in 6th, and the other 2 (including Cameron) were in 7th. They did a fantastic job.
Because the school is so small (15-20 in each class from 6th grade on up) it requires a lot of participation from everyone to do anything. ISM is blessed with 2 unbelievable drama teachers who do such a wonderful job of inspiring, encouraging, and challenging the students. Cameron has really found a niche in drama here.
We are so proud of his effort and his success this weekend.
And the red (ginger) hair? One of the tea ladies likes to read fortunes in the tea leaves (generally badly). She warns the lead character (Ed/Macbeth) to "beware of the man with ginger hair." Ed hires one of the school bullies to rough up every red-haired kid in school. But no one knows Gordon (Cameron) has red hair because he never takes off his beret and uniform. During the production of "MacBeth" Cameron rips off his beret and shows himself to be the "ginger-haired man."
Assuming I have any luck, I'll be putting a clip on YouTube, so stay tuned for the link.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

This Almost Teenager...and Noah and Ava

Isn't the stereotype that teenagers rebel? That they do strange things, wear strange clothes, try so hard to be nonconformists (along with all of their friends that are doing exactly the same thing)? Well, that's not Cameron. Yes, he does have his own path he follows, but in general he's a pretty easy to get along with guy. So how to explain this...

Cameron has a lead role in the school play and a key aspect of the character is that he has red hair. We couldn't find a red wig and wasn't time to get one sent over, so Cameron gamely volunteered to go "ginger" as they call it here. No, it's not temporary--he spent a couple hours having his hair bleached before coloring it red. After the play he'll cut it shorter and eventually probably get tired of it and we'll color it back to his natural color. The guy with Cameron is Ali, who did the work. He's very "colorful" himself (you can't see the blue streak in his hair) and yes, he was coloring his white dog pink. Going to Ali is always lots of fun. He's got lots of dogs and cats and parrots and lots of funny stories.

Noah and Ava celebrated their birthdays at the pool today with pizzas, cake, swimming, and lots of friends. She got a sunburn and he's baked with exhaustion, so all in all, I'd call it successful!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Karnak is an enormous complex of sanctuaries, obelisks, statues, and pylons. The scale is huge-- over 1 mile by 800 meters. That's big enough to fit 10 cathedrals inside! During the reign of Ramses III over 80,000 workers served on this temple alone. For over 1500 years, Karnak was the most important place of worship in Egypt. To the side of the massive entrance pylons is a very nondescript earthen wall/ramp. They are the remains of the original ramps built to carry the materials to build the temple itself. Because it's been added to by so many pharoahs, it's difficult to describe it succinctly.

Or photograph it. The hippostyle hall, the hall filled with 134 massive pillars, is big enough to contain both St. Peter's (the Vatican) and St. Paul's (London) cathedrals. Back in the day it was covered with a brightly painted roof. The guidebook says " is impossible to get an overall idea of this court; there is nothing to do but stand and stare up at the dizzying spectacle." Too true.

This is where the overload of temples, obelisks, monuments, hieroglyphics, and pharoahs reached the tipping point. Honestly, I stopped caring. This was our 4th stop that day (after Valley of the Kings, Hatshepsut, and Luxor) and the size and volume of everything just made us feel like we couldn't process any more information. We left the tour guide and decided to just wander and look. Appreciate what we saw for what we saw without trying to learn more history or put it into the proper dynasty. And then, things were more interesting again.

The obelisk of Hatshepsut was interesting, however. It is the largest obelisk in Egypt and was originally buried almost to the top (on the left you can see the line of color difference) in order to hide signs of her reign and preserve the obelisk.

The scarab statue is supposed to bring luck or grant your wish if you walk around it 7 times. Ava wished for a pony (big surprise there). Grandma wished for no more trouble for her ornery hip. I wished we could find a Diet Coke for a decent price at the temple, but since I wasn't walking around it, you can guess how it went!
(and, if you are wondering about any funky spacing, trust me--courtesy of Blogger, not yours truly!)

Happy Birthday, Noah!

Noah turned 9 today--time flies when you have kids, eh? I often say Noah is the child that is aging me. He is wildly extreme with his emotions. He's highly sensitive, very loud, and very active. When he loves something he's utterly and completely passionate. When he's upset, it's the blackest worst day of his entire existence. He lives life at 100% all the time and usually wears the dirt and grime to prove it!
Noah is also the kind of kid who wants the whole day to celebrate his big day--not necessarily selfishly, but I heard the phrase "the birthday boy should..." quite a few times. My friend Calandria posted once about a party that her son had where he was the birthday king for a period of time, complete with a throne. That would suit Noah just fine.
At the same time, he's the one who often appreciates the little things. This birthday was not as glorious as he had hoped. President Bush was in town today and all the roads were closed so school was cancelled and he will have to wait another day to be the big cheese at school. We couldn't get to the side of town where we swim, either, and it was hot today.
We ate lunch at his favorite hamburger place and he went swimming at our neighbor's. Tacos for dinner and then presents and a cake. The cake is naked because I can't cook and was unable to make 3 (yes, 3) simple frosting recipes. The 3rd one was delicious, but wouldn't thicken so we used it more like fondue and dipped the cake and raspberries in it. It would be heavenly over ice cream (although I suppose if I tried to make it as ice cream sauce, it would thicken right up and make frosting). The only reason the cake was success was because it was Pillsbury. Step 1--Admit you have a problem. That's me.
He got some money, a beanie baby (recycled) from Ava, a coupon for playtime (where he can control the activities) from Cameron and a soccer goal from his grammy. He is waiting until next week for an American present that is coming with volunteers, but he knows it's nothing big, after Christmas and a trip to Egypt!
Ava's birthday is coming soon and they are going to have a joint birthday party. Swimming at the pool with cake and pizza. Some kids will bring presents if they have things to give, some won't. Some give money, some just a card. Once in a while a party mom gives a goody bag. I remember how much work and effort (and sometimes money) I put into parties for my kids back in the States, and believe me, I was one of the cheaper moms by far. This is so refreshing! And Noah just wants to be the center of attention all day, and that doesn't cost a penny.
P.S. This drives me nuts so I want to be known that yes, I do know how to use paragraphs. Apparently, Blogger does not.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Islam and Coptic Christians

Words can't describe just how crowded and dense the living is in Cairo (and, I suspect, many other cities in India, China, etc.) I suspect there are parts of New York City or Philadelphia where things may be very tight, but we all reflected on the tremendous S-P-A-C-E we have in America! I don't think people who haven't been can imagine it. Certainly when we try to tell people (sometimes even Europeans) how long it takes us to drive from Minnesota to Montana, they can't believe the US is that big. It's equally hard to describe how the apartment buildings are less than 50 feet apart, 10-12 stories high, and go on and on and on...not to mention the little square houses. Everything sits on top of everything else.

Egypt is, of course, predominantly Muslim--about 80%. It used to be known as the "City of the 1,000 Spires" because of the minarets rising up from all the mosques. It is a beautiful sight, still, to look over the city and see the spires rising. The call to worship which is sung 5 times a day, also adds to the atmosphere (provided that the caller is any good!)
We visited the mosque of Mohammed Ali (really) which is located inside the Citadel. The Citadel was begun in the 1100's to protect the city against the Crusaders. The British used it during World War II as a military compound as well. The mosque was built in the 1800's. From other pictures, I don't think it is the most beautiful mosque, but it was very impressive.
The courtyard was beautiful, and as far as I could go dressed in capri pants and a t-shirt. I had to put on a baggy green cloak-like thing that made me look like I was going to a 3rd rate Lord of the Rings convention. Sadly, no pictures available of that.

The interesting thing about mosques is that they're empty on the inside. I assume that during their services it fills up, but it was mostly tourists in the morning. I did see a number of men praying along the walls--women worship seperately. The mosque was as big or bigger than any cathedral, but the lack of pews made it feel somehow unfinished. We had to remove our shoes and weren't even allowed to put them down, as we discovered when Cameron set his down to get his camera.

Mohammed Ali (OK, and just to be clear, because someone's going to think it, it's NOT the boxer) is buried in a marble tomb at the mosque. As with everything else Egyptian, the carving was exquisite. The tomb is behind panels of beautiful wrought-iron work, with spaces just big enough to squeeze a camera in for a shot.

Of the remaining 20% of the population, about half of them are Coptic Christians. At one time there were more than 20 Christian churches in less than 1 square kilometer; surrounding part of the area is a Roman wall built in the 2nd century. According to tradition, Coptic Christianity was established by the apostle Mark. For several hundred years after the death of Christ, Egypt was predominantly Christian, but by the 1200's Islam had taken hold. The faith is more similar to Catholicism than Protestantism. They have their own. You can read a short introduction about Coptic Christianity but it would take quite a bit of study to fully understand the differences.

None of the churches allow pictures on the inside. We visited the Hanging Church, which had beautiful mosaics lining the courtyard. Built in the 9th century, it literally hangs suspended between 2 towers (a hole cut into the floor where you can see down to the ground proves it).

After Jesus was born, an angel appeared to Mary and Joseph, telling them to flee to Egypt and wait there until the death of King Herod. This is the event that marks the beginning of Christianity in Egypt. St. Sergius is the church built over the cave where the Family is reputed to have stayed. One of the leaders of the church is said to have had a vision of the location in 500 AD. I personally am a bit suspicious of the veracity of the actual location, as I am about all the actual locations of so many of the places in Israel and Jerusalem. I think the Bible is purposely vague in order to avoid people either worshipping actual sites or shrines instead of God, and also to avoid the illusion of needing absolute concrete proof of everything. On the other hand, 500 AD is not all that long after something happened and it is possible to believe that as word of Jesus spread, people remembered stories from the past? Who knows. The actual shrine is out of sight under the church. An altar-type area is set up at the top of the stairs that lead down to the shrine.
The convent of St. George (St. George and the Dragon) is also located in the area. Cameron remembered the story and all the kids loved the carvings and mosaics of St. George besting the dragon.

Also located in the Coptic area is the oldest syngagogue in Eygpt. Ben Ezra Synagogue is in a church built in the 4th century and converted by the the rabbi for whom the synagogue is named. Supposedly this is where the prophet Jeremiah gathered the Jews after King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. Next to the synagogue is a spring where Moses was found and where Mary drew water for her family. Given the history between Israel and Egypt, it was interesting to visit such an old syngagogue that has been left untouched by politics.
We are continually in awe of the age of things here. Forget buildings constructed during the Revolutionary War. Forget a church built in the 1300's. There is so much history--Pharoahs, Muslims, Christians, Romans, Crusaders...I felt simulataneously overloaded and guilty for not knowing more about what we were seeing.