Hello habibis! Welcome to the third installment of Travel Tuesday, covering the first half of my travels in the Mediterranean. This installment will cover the year I studied abroad in Egypt and my travels within Egypt and to nearby countries. Next Tuesday I’ll cover the rest of my Mediterranean travels, which all occurred after my study abroad year. I apologize for the lack of pictures in this post – I have them somewhere but I can’t track them down. I’ll try to give you a sense of what it was like to live in Egypt, sans pictures.
I studied abroad in Egypt my junior year at the American University in Cairo (AUC). It was an amazing experience and not one I would change. As you’ve seen in my other travel posts, I’ve traveled a lot with my family, but I really grew up very sheltered in the suburbs, and although the beautiful university where I went to college is in a small city, it’s rather cut off from the city. I hadn’t experienced much of the world. Studying Arabic changed that. It exposed me to a whole new part of the world and a culture I had little familiarity with. Where I grew up is not terribly diverse, so studying Arabic and then studying in the Middle East broadened my world view. I’m so glad I chose Arabic because I never would have had these experiences.
When I was in Egypt – it always amazes me how fast time flies; I was there over eight years ago – the situation was very different from what’s happening now. Mubarak had reigned as president for 20-odd years. People used to joke about him but few protests were allowed. I remember the protests because of avian flu. The government killed some chickens and threw them in the Nile, and the chicken farmers protested that they hadn’t been sufficiently compensated for their confiscated animals. There were other protests, too, but none were large. Nothing like what happened in 2010. The AUC used to have its campus right downtown, near Tahrir Square, so we saw the protests sometimes. (The new campus is outside the city – better for the Egyptian students, I guess, but way less fun when you’re a study abroad student. Then again, with everything happening in Cairo right now, being outside the city might be safer sometimes.)
When we got to Egypt it was the end of August. I flew over with my friend L. Egypt in August is HOT. It was something like 42 degrees Celsius and I remember one of the British students telling me what the conversion was – approximately 112 Fahrenheit. I remember telling him that wasn’t possible because humans couldn’t survive at those temperatures. (Science is not my strong suit…) In my opinion, anything over 100 is too hot. They say it’s a dry heat, but as far as I’m concerned it doesn’t matter. We guzzled 1.5 liter water bottles. I didn’t get my appetite back for about three weeks, once the temperature dropped back to something more bearable (high 90s probably).
The AUC’s main dorm is in Zamalek, an island in the Nile where a lot of expats and wealthy Egyptians live. The year I studied abroad they had an overflow so they rented a hotel to be a second dorm for female students, mostly study abroad students from America and Europe with a few full-time students from elsewhere in the Middle East mixed in. My roommate was a Palestinian girl named Dalia who was studying communications to become a journalist. This hotel was in a middle class Egyptian neighborhood and, I’m afraid to say, we heard that locally the hotel had a reputation as being the kind of place men might take their mistresses. It was probably not the best place to put 80 foreign girls living in Egypt for the first time. (The school didn’t realize that the hotel had such a reputation.) Middle class Egyptians tend to be more conservative and as it was our first time in Egypt we didn’t always know the local customs. That was a definite adjustment. I lived in an apartment in Zamalek with two other study abroad students in the spring.
Cairo has the famous Egyptian Museum, filled to overflowing with antiquities. I’m not a mummy person but the rest of it was cool.
Cairo also has a huge market, Khan al-Khalili, where you can buy almost anything. I liked going to the scarf and textiles section on the outskirts. (It may have even been a different market.) I bought lots of scarves for myself and as presents. I wasn’t quilting then – if I were I might have bought fabulous fabrics for myself. The textile work is really beautiful.
Cairo is a huge city and it keeps expanding. Tahrir Square is where the government is but Old Cairo, or Islamic Cairo, is where you can see many of the real sites. Al-Azhar, the famous mosque and university, is there. Khan al-Khalili is nearby. There are other mosques as well as churches and a beautiful synagogue. The synagogue is basically empty now. Most Egyptian Jews moved to Israel years ago. The only Jews there now are generally foreigners studying or working in Cairo. The churches do a little better. Most Egyptian Christians are Coptic, which is the Egyptian church. Most of the Coptic churches are Orthodox but a few are Catholic. (The main difference there is whether or not they take the Catholic Pope as their highest religious authority – I believe the practice is the same in all Coptic churches.) Coptic is also a language, the language spoken in Egypt prior to Arabic. I didn’t attend a Coptic church while I was there; I went to a Roman Catholic church in Zamalek, which had lovely mosaics inside and mainly served Zamalek’s expat community. The French, English, and Italian masses were far better attended than the Arabic mass. (The AUC has Friday/Saturday weekends, which is standard in the Middle East because Friday is the day of worship in Islam. We had classes on Sunday and the first semester I had classes all day Sunday that conflicted with the English and Arabic masses. I had to attend the Italian mass, I think, for at least part of that semester. During Ramadan the class schedules change – some classes move up in the day and some are pushed back, so people can be home with their families during iftar, the meal when you break your daily fast. That further complicated my weekly trips to Zamalek to go to mass. We had a shuttle bus between the two dorms but it didn’t run near iftar and I would have to take a cab and convince some poor cab driver who just wanted to get home and break his fast to take me to mass.)
The pyramids are a once in a lifetime experience. We rented camels and rode them around. My mom called me while we were there and did NOT believe me when I said I was riding a camel at the pyramids. I have a picture of me on the phone with her while on the camel. Camels, in my opinion, are also once in a lifetime. I wouldn’t want to ride one again. They’re so high up and being controlled by a small child. I tried to communicate at some point with the little boy leading my camel to tell him I wanted to get down but my Arabic was not sufficient for that. (Most foreigners learning Arabic learn Modern Standard Arabic first, the Arabic used in media and newspapers and academia. Then you have to learn dialects. My Egyptian wasn’t good enough to tell the kid I didn’t want to ride the camel anymore.) we saw the Sphinx too. It’s smaller than it looks but still crazy impressive. I got my butt grabbed there, probably by one of the Egyptian teenaged boys who appeared to be there on a school trip. That colors the memory of the Sphinx somewhat. Getting out to Giza requires an expensive cab ride or public transportation, namely Cairo’s metro system. I don’t recommend it to foreigners. There’s a women only car but it’s confusing sometimes which car that is, and sometimes there are still men on it. The other cars are crowded and foreign women get a lot of attention everywhere – the hardest part of living in Egypt, for me – so being in an enclosed space isn’t ideal.
I traveled around Egypt a fair bit. I went to Alexandria on the Mediterranean. The library at Alexandria was one of the wonders of the ancient world. It was destroyed but today they have a very modern cool library. They also have a great museum – very different from the one in Cairo. It’s curated sparsely but to great effect. The one in Cairo is sometimes a jumble. We also saw some Greek and Roman ruins and the interesting graves they have there, which combine Greek and Egyptian iconography.
I went to the Sinai to see St. Catherine’s monastery and Mt. Sinai. Boy is that a trip. Hours and hours on a bus across the desert. Not my favorite way to travel. (I don’t like deserts.) However, the monastery was lovely. Egypt has a long monastic and hermetic religion – St. Anthony was an Egyptian monk and hermit. St. Catherine’s has a bush that is said to be the burning bush, going back to Moses. We tried to climb the mountain to watch the sunrise but we started too late and then it got crazy hot and we had to give up and go back down. Adventure!
The other place I went in Egypt was Luxor, Valley of the Kings. My uncle G was visiting and we took a dawn hot air balloon ride. It was amazing. The tombs are elaborate. All in all a really cool place to visit.
While we studied abroad we took side trips. Some were arranged via the AUC and some we did on our own. My first trip out of Egypt was to Istanbul over one of the eids (holidays). It was early November but Egypt was still HOT. We got to Istanbul and it was in the 40s and rainy. It was wonderful. They took us on tours of palaces and we went shopping and had so much fun. I returned to Istanbul again with my uncle G, who came back to Egypt to visit me in the spring and brought my sister with him. We had planned a trip to Sharm El Sheikh, a resort town in Egypt, but there had recently been a suicide bombing in nearby Dahab (the only terrorist attack I’m aware of while I was studying in Egypt), so we decided Istanbul would be better. We stayed near Galata Tower and explored. N stayed with me in Egypt after Uncle G went home, but she liked Istanbul better.
I also traveled to Cyprus with some friends in the spring. We needed a break from Egypt at that point. (I remember returning to Egypt and a little British girl sitting near me on the plane being SO EXCITED to travel to Egypt, whereas my reaction was dread. As I mentioned, the sexual harassment was really stressful and made life in Egypt less enjoyable.) We went to the beach, some Roman ruins (They are everywhere! The Romans truly got around!), and Greek monasteries on the Greek side. Then we crossed into the Turkish side for a day. I knew nothing about Cyprus before I went, so I’d been completely unaware that there even was a Turkish Cyprus or that they’d had a civil war and now have a no-man’s-land in between. The border crossing area used to be where a lot of embassies were, so you pass by huge empty mansions. It’s surreal. Turkish Cyprus did feel more like Turkey. We saw a Crusader castle (speaking of people who got around). You can cross the border but only for a day – you have to be back by a certain time.
My big trip was our spring break trip: Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. At the time Lebanon seemed pretty stable (although Israel bombed them four months later and my mother is still upset at me over it), and if there were any signs of the civil war to come in Syria, they hadn’t been seen by the West yet. Everything was peaceful while we traveled. We started in Beirut – we saw their museum, still with bullet holes from their own civil war (hey have amazing treasures that they covered in the cement for the duration to protect them), although the city didn’t give me any sense of tension or strain. It seemed recovered. I don’t know how it is now. We walked around the beautiful city and enjoyed ourselves. The next day we took a bus to the Syrian border to see if we could cross. They don’t always let people through and we were expecting to be refused and to go back to Beirut for a few more days, and then we’d have flown to Amman to finish our travels. However, after a four hour wait we were allowed to cross. That border crossing was a very different experience from the one in Cyprus. There was a bathroom at the Dunkin Donuts or something on the Lebanese side, but we couldn’t cross back to use it. We were a group of five Americans, so the two of us with the strongest Arabic asked someone at the crossing – they were all Syrian soldiers – for a bathroom in our best lugha wusta (literally, “middle language,” a mix of standard Arabic and dialect). The Egyptian dialect is close to Levantine dialects, but not exactly the same, and Syrian would be the least similar Levantine dialect due to its geographic distance from Egypt. We got taken to an officer to repeat our request, and then he spoke in the phone in Arabic and we had NO IDEA what he was saying. Finally, they took us to the bathroom the soldiers used, yelled something (presumably, a warning to any soldiers in there that a group of American girls was coming in), and let us in. My friends reported that a rather startled looking soldier came out while a couple of us were in other stalls. I think that’s one of my best travel stories, but in light of the current conflict it feels so strange to retell it.
As a tangent, bathrooms in the Middle East are on the basic side. When we flew into Cyprus and they had not only automatic flushing toilets but automatic towel dispensers, we exclaimed aloud like children. We had gotten used to bathrooms where you can’t put the toilet paper in the toilet – which are the nicest public bathrooms. By the time we’d gotten to Syria, I was used to toilets that were holes in the ground. My first experience with that was en route to the hot air balloon ride in Luxor, Egypt. The “bathroom” was a small cement room with a hole in the floor on the side of a building. There was a door but it had a large hole in the bottom of it, so the door didn’t conceal you at all. It faced out into fields. Luckily, when I needed to use the bathroom it was pre-dawn so there was no one around. We always carried our own toilet paper and hand sanitizer in the Middle East.
Back to Syria: we took the bus to Damascus. Our travel day was Good Friday. The next day we explored Old Damascus – the market, the Christian quarter, the Umayyad Mosque, etc. The Umayyad Mosque is said to possess the head of John the Baptist (but there’s also one in Istanbul, so make of that what you will). (This isn’t the Umayyad Mosque that was partially destroyed during the civil war – that’s the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo – but I understand that Damascus has suffered heavy damages so I don’t know what shape it’s in.) The coolest part about the souq (market) is that it’s the same market St. Paul walked through 2,000 years ago. When I went you could still see the Roman columns. Again, I don’t know what it looks like now, but at the time it was a beautiful thriving market. In the Christian quarter we explored and I looked for every church to figure out where I could go to Easter Mass the next day. We saw an Armenian church and were fascinated by the Armenian script.
On Easter I attended mass at the Syrian Catholic Patriarchy with one or two of the other girls. It was a huge church done in green marble, with a more Orthodox feel to it (based on the style of the icons and other decor). Mass was either in Syrian Arabic or in Syriac, a Semitic language evolved from Aramaic. I couldn’t understand the words, but Catholic mass is the same everywhere so I could follow along as well as I could at the Italian mass in Cairo. (Many of the Syrian churches use Syriac as a liturgical language, including the Syrian Catholic Church. Like in Egypt, where there are Coptic Orthodox and Coptic Catholics, there are Syrian Orthodox and Syrian Catholics.)
We traveled out into the countryside to see some Crusader castles and Byzantine ruins. The countryside was green and beautiful with rolling hills and huge poppy fields. I know the poppies were probably being grown for opium, but they’re my favorite flowers and I loved to see them. One of the Crusader castles, Crac des Chevaliers, is the best Crusader castle I’ve ever seen. They’ve reconstructed parts of it, so you can see the great halls and walk around. We climbed up to the top and sat along the walls. It was wonderful. The Byzantine ruins are also really cool – it’s a village or town that was abandoned for unknown reasons in the 4th or 5th century, so it’s roofless rock houses that still stand and what I believe is the longest still-standing Roman colonnade in the world. It’s pretty cool. (I feel like I need to caveat every paragraph by saying “I don’t know what condition this is still in.”)
We went to Hama and Homs, which were the seats of the civil war. So I have a pretty good idea of what shape they’re in now, which is not good.
The other place we went in Syria is Palmyra, called Tadmur in Arabic. It dates back thousands of years. They built huge monuments there, and they have more Roman columns and stuff. (You see Roman ruins seriously everywhere and at some point it becomes a bit blase, like oh look another colonnade.) Palmyra is in the desert going toward Syria, so it was pretty hot there even in April.
From Syria we took another bus to Amman. We didn’t find Amman that interesting – I find that most people who studied in Cairo think Amman is boring just because there’s less to see, but people I know who studied in Amman really enjoyed it, so I think it’s not much of a tourist-y destination, but apparently a cool place to live. My favorite part of Jordan was Petra. If you’ve seen “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” you’ve seen Petra – the desert canyon with the huge carved edifices is Petra. (But when you go inside, it’s not fancy like in Indiana Jones – it’s just a large room with bare walls.) The Nabateans, another Semitic people, carved these giant edifices into the canyon. It’s beautiful. They are so amazing in person.
We had planned to travel back to Egypt via the “fast ferry” from Aqaba, but it wasn’t running. The slow ferry was running but not for hours later, so we decided to take a cab to Egypt via Eilat, in Israel. (Seriously, it’s like a half hour cab ride.) Eilat looked like Florida – people were walking around in bathing suits. It was a bit of culture shock. We didn’t spend any other time in Israel; I didn’t see anything other than the cab ride.
So, that was my study abroad. Next week I’ll talk about my other trips to the Mediterranean: my pilgrimage to Israel and our family vacations on a bus tour of Italy and two Mediterranean cruises – with pictures!