Thursday, March 30, 2006

Siwa Oasis

Nothing exciting happens in Siwa. But that's a large part of the charm. A massive oasis in the middle of the Western Desert, it's an odd place. The inhabitants are Berbers, not Egyptians, and are far friendlier and more helpful (without the requests for Baksheesh) than the 'mainlanders' (my term, not the Berbers').

There's an abundance of water here - I write sitting in the shade around a spring fed swimming pool - yet there are sand dunes and rocky desert on the horizon all around. We, in the footsteps of Alexander, visited the Oracle (but did not find confirmation that we were, like him, the sons of Zeus) and the totally ruined temple of Amun.

To see photos of Siwa, take a look at the Siwa Oasis set on my flickr site.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Total Eclipse of the Sun (Salum, Egypt)

We stood, dumbstruck, staring upwards. Venus looked on, goosebumps covered our flesh and we stared. Straight into the eye of god.

The day had begun like the very first day - with chaos and confusion. After overnighting in the desert, we had struck camp at dawn, dew still wet on the tents, and headed west to find the foretold spot from which to view the eclipse. Confusion mounted, though - was it meant to be at 10:30 local time or GMT? Or some other time? Still, it was early, so no matter - we could wait. And as I waited, I wondered - how many people these days saw eclipses unexpectedly? It couldn't be many.

We drove West until reaching Salum, where some people were on the edge of town, asking for money to park in town. So, we turned around, drove 10m the other direction and parked. Then we waited, about 3 1/2 hours, during which time I occasionally looked up at the sun, through foil glasses, both checking for first contact and marvelling at the ability to look straight at the morning sun, its heat removed by the foil, and see it looking pale like the moon.

11:22 - First Contact. A nibble taken out of the bottom right of the sun disc. Then over the following 70 minutes the shadow grew and grew. At first you could only tel by looking at the sun directly, but then the light begun to change character and, by second contact (1/2 coverage), the light grew dim and grey. The wind picked up as the temperature plummeted and dark bands rippled on the ground (Does anyone reading this know what causes them? Apparently it's a fairly commoneclipse phenomenon).

12:25 - Venus appeared. Ready to usher in the eclipse. Less than 15 minutes later, the sun disappeared.

The sun disappeared and was replaced by the burning eye of god. A black disc surrounded by a burning white corona. With the immense quantities of energy involved, white flames reaching far out into space and clearly intense furnace of the sun one's brain expects (and notices the absence of) the sound of fire - burning, crackling flames. But there was no sound.

Just silence.

And that silence made it all the more moving, all the more intense. For several minutes this raging, angry, god stared down and inspected his charges. Then, suddenly, his attention changed focus and this god turned away. For a brief moment there was a flash of the famous diamond ring for a few seconds - one final beautiful moment - before we had to put our foil glasses back on to view the recession.

I have seen many wonders in my life and in my travels. This is the greatest of them all.

Monday, March 27, 2006

El Alamein war cemeteries

The site of the Allies' decisive victory against the Axis forces led by Rommel. Their victory secured allied control over Egypt and the Suez Canal and ensured domination over the entire Mediterranean. Churchill praised Montgomery's troops by saying "It can be said that before El Alamein we had no victories and afterwards we suffered no defeats".

After leading Rommel on to their defensive position, Montgomery pounded them with artillery then counter attacked, breaking through the minefield and eventually chasing Rommel all the way through Libya to Tunisia. Behind them they left the fallen and these are interred in various cemeteries around the town - separate ones for Greek, South African, Allied, German, etc troops. The Allied cemetery is a sprawling affair, with white crosses interspersed by trees and overlooked by a giant crucifix. The German monument has symbolic tombs representing the different regions that fought here and names on giant plaques on the walls of the citadel-like building that houses it all. I think it was previously a German-built fort, but I am not sure. It's barely visible from the road.

As one of my fellow travellers remarked, "You can tell who won the war."

Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Library of Alexandria

To those people that say 'the Egyptians were great in the past, but could never build buildings like the pyramids any more' (and there are many that do). I say one thing - go visit the Bibliotheca Alexandria. It's big, it's beautiful and it's got very funky lighting (see photo below).

From the outside, the library looks like a giant discus embedded in the ground, reflecting the rays of the sun. On the back of the outside wall all manner of linguistic symbols are inscribed (from Amharic to Algebraic). Inside, there is shelf space for several million books all within a naturally lit, airy space with good (quiet) acoustics. The architecture is a triumph (I'm not sure the photos really capture it) and the whole library has a light yet academic feel to it.

In fact, all of Alexandria that we saw has a light and fun feel to it. The locals seemed far friendlier and more pleasant than some of the relatively surly Cairenes I bumped into and we were laughing and joking with four of them minutes after leaving the library.

Alexandria is strung out along the sea front, the perfect venue for spectacular Cannes-crossed-with-Havana sunset strolls. Dinner was all you can eat seafood (very tasty). Then I passed out.


Hopefully it's just a 24 hour bug, but after passing out in the restaurant I spent most of the following day in bed feeling very ill. First time that's happened (the fainting thing), I hope it's also the last.

Like a discus embedded in the ground.

Inside is bright, naturally lit by day, and airy.

Funky lighting on the bookshelves. Ikea would be proud.

The planetarium next to the library. More funky lighting - Habitat would be proud.

View from the library across to the fort at the far end of the Corniche.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Pyramids of Egypt

Headed South from Cairo to Saqqara, site of the world's oldest stone monument - the Step Pyramid of Zoser (2650BC). Whilst the finished article is a full 60m tall, the canny architect (the legendary and later deified Imhotep) built it up in stages as a series of mastabas layered on top of one another, building confidence and skill in masonry as he went. Each layer brought the pharaoh one step closer to the sun god (and raised Imhotep one step higher in the pharaoh's esteem). And so evolved the pyramid from the basic (cuboid), single-level mastaba.

Around Zoser's pyramid is a scattering of other temples and pyramids, mainly dating from after the famous pyramids of Giza. In the distance, to the south, you can also see the Bent and Red Pyramids of Sneferu. The Bent Pyramid changes angle halfway up (they found that they started too steep). The Red Pyramid uses this shallower angle for its entire height and is the world's oldest true pyramid and Sneferu's final resting place.

In Giza itself are the pyramids of Sneferu's son, grandson and great grandson - Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure. Personally I find these pyramids paradoxically equally impressive and disappointing. Disappointing (visually) because, although massive, they are drab. The interior and exterior is plain, lacking carving or detail to catch the eye and hold interest. The pyramid shape also means that they lean away from you, making them appear much shorter than they really are - I don't really get an overwhelming impression of size when standing at their base, even though they are gigantic.

But they are impressive too. So incredibly impressive. The scale, precision and organisation required to build these is mond boggling - and they are so old. The Great Pyramid of Khufu was 146m high when completed and remained the world's tallest building for more than 4000 years, until Eiffel's Tower was raised in Paris. It is reckoned that it took 100,000 men 20 years to build the Great Pyramid (working only 3 months a year, whilst the Nile was flooded), so it alone represents 500,000 man-years of labour. It is worth re-iterating the current theory that the pyramids were NOT built by slaves. Rather they were one of the world's oldest job creation schemes, designed in part to provide employment for farmers during the annual inundation.

And how did they manipulate the blocks? More than two million of them, weighing an average of 2.5t each. The largest slabs (used in the roof of the burial chamber) weigh FOUR HUNDRED tonnes. And this before even pulleys were invented.

The Step Pyramid of Saqqara. Generally accepted as being the world's first monument built of stone. Nice to see that they started small and worked their way up to bigger things!

Perhaps Tolkien's dwarfs were inspired by a little ancient Egyptian history? In the land of the Pharaohs, dwarfs were the goldsmiths and treasurers - our guide thinks it was because they could not run away very fast on their little legs.

Sunset at the Giza Pyramids. The Great Pyramid is on the far right. The photo was taken about 30 minutes before watching the sound and light show, which has dialogue to die (laughing) for.

For more photos of the pyramids, take a look at my flickr galleries:
Saqqara Step Pyramid and Surrounds
The Pyramids of Giza

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Bouncing around Cairo

The Egyptian Museum is everything I remember it being (I was last in Cairo for a few days with Mohsin in late 2002). It's evocative, often haunting, peices stare back at you. They stare straight across the gulf of 4000 years that separates you and look you in the eye. The items here have been placed into context by the excellent The Teaching Company audio-book lectures that Digger introduced me to.

I was, however, devastated by one change since my last visit - cameras are now banned (perhaps they were before as well, my memory's not all it was...). For me, this is a real shame. I like the interaction with the art that you can experience only by trying to make your own art from the pieces - it forces a deeper, more detailed examination of the works and rewards appreciation of the finer details and nuances.

I understand why use of flash photography should be banned from most museums and sites (it fades colours in art and encourages growth of mosses and bacteria in caves and such) but I would like to see people being allowed to pay extra to use a camera in most sites. Let the guards sieze any camera that flashes so the museum can sell them off at a later date - and raise more money for the museum trust!

In the evening, after an afternoon soaking up the atmosphere in Eastern Cairo, I met up with a colleague's mother. She runs the Estoril restuarant in downtown Cairo - pop in and say hello to Maryse if you're ever in town. The food's great too! Oh yes, she also features in a book written by an author friend of hers - 'The Jacobian House' is the novel, but she Maryse was quick to point out that her friend has somewhat embellished her life!

The following day I took the Metro down to Coptic Cairo. The Metro itself was quick and efficient, but the concept of 'let passengers get off before getting on' has not yet been engrained in the local psyche. Mind you, this is probably not helped by the drivers' over-enthusiasm to shut the doors only a few seconds after opening them.

Two other features should be noted by London Underground, both are designed to keep the carriages cooler. The first, and probably least useful, is the use of curtains or shutters which can be drawn shut on the sunny side of the carriage when it is running overground.

The second is ludicrously simple - swivelling fans are mounted on the ceiling in metal cages and keep the passengers cool. I understand why the Tube doesn't want to install air conditioning, but fans work very well and I hope they've considered this option seriously.

Coptic Cairo was pleasant to stroll around. The narrow streets provided shade from the early afternoon sun, and allowed the churches and synagogue to pop up unexpectly from around the street corners one wanders through.

This part of town is one of the oldest Christian encalves in Africa, and is on the supposed site where the Holy Family stayed whilst in exile during Herod's purge of newborn boys. The church and monastery here are both dedicated to St George (who, I must admit, I had forgotten was a Palestinian knight). Old George certainly gets around - when he's not the figurehead of Coptic Cairo or England he's got an entire country named after himself in the Caucuses.

The oddest thing here, though, was that the paintings of George (apart from the ones on horseback, slaying the dragon with his moustache flowing in the breeze) look very feminine - with rosy lips and smooth, curvaceous legs. I'm sure Dan Brown could write an entire novel based on this, given half a chance!

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Arrival in Cairo

Rain lashes down from a cold and thoroughly grey sky. I dash from aeroplane to bus to airport, then to another bus and another aeroplane. We then sit on the tarmac for an hour and a half while a faulty fuel tank is isolated (not 'fixed'!) and our lame plane takes off. So much for Frankfurt.

As much as I love travelling, I hate arriving. Specifically, I hate the taxi drivers that greet you on arrival and attempt to fleece you for all that you've got. You're also at your most vulnerable then - usually tired from the journey and unacclimatised to the language, prices, currency, gestures or any of the other norms you naturally assimilate when you spend any period of time in one place.

In fact, I was so surprised when I found a driver willing to take me to town for the lower price quoted in the 3 year old Lonely Planet that I forgot all notion of trying to find a bus and let him drive me into the night. And he was only the fourth one I had asked (others had laughed off my suggested fare and offered prices 2-3 times higher). I even got the bonus of a little first-hand history - his Fiat dated from the 70s (possibly 70BC).

And then, to top it off - I gave him a note larger than the agreed fare and he actually gave me change! I was so surprised that I gave him an extra dollar anyway - I wouldn't want him ostracised by his taxi chums when they learned of his uncharacteristic behaviour and low fare.

Some vignettes of the 30km journey:

A giant Arab sprawled in the driver's seat, pawing like a kitten at a red ball hanging from his rear view mirror.

A crucifix hanging from the next car's mirror. (They are a sizable number of Christians in Cairo)

As we entered downtown, I saw a man having a necktie tied onto him by another man at a necktie stall. He then half undid it, took it off, ran across the street to what appeared to be his necktie stall and tried to sell it to the woman waiting there.

Three lanes of traffic flowed, beeped and bumped through streets with only 2 lanes marked, we then merged with another road where 3 lanes were marked - and five lanes were actually in operation. The Red Arrows would have been impressed!

Monday, March 20, 2006

New home on

Quick note to people that may go to the old address - the whole blog has moved to with my new homepage on

If you're already viewing this on, congratulations :)

Friday, March 10, 2006

flickr tool - for h4ppier photos

Ever been frustrated with the Flickr Organizr? Wished there was a way to find (and date filter) the photos you have not yet put into sets? Then put the ones you've found into an existing or new set? Now you can - with h4ppier photos.

I finally got too frustrated with the flickr Organizr last weekend and took my first look into the flickr API, using phpFlickr to access it. I was pleasantly surprised - it's both easy to use and powerful (both flickr and phpFlickr have done a great job) - and my first flickr baby was born. I call it "h4ppier photos":

If you have a flickr account take a look some time, and let me know if you find the application useful. It lets you search and filter your photos by date or tag and find what photos you have that you have not yet put into any sets. At the moment you can only add these photos to sets, but I'll try and add more actions soon, like tagging the pics you've found or setting the license or other details.

If you have any suggestions or feedback, please post a comment!