(Note: This is the third and final blog about my observations based on travels to the Middle East. Previous blogs are on Israel and Jordan.)
I saved the Egypt blog for last since it is the most complex and puzzling of the three nations. Unlike Israel and Jordan, Egypt has always been a nation and was not created by arbitrary boundaries drawn by European powers as a result of the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. Egyptians are not Arabs, but Egyptians, and are located in Africa.
My observations are tempered by two lifelong biases: sympathy for people living in a controlled society and different ways to celebrate holidays. The biases may reflect my decades ago training as a sociologist.
In one way, I feel visiting Egypt is like it would have been if I visited the USSR during the Cold War peak: the government controls the populace but the people are similar to us in their concerns and interests. At no time did we feel unwelcome; quite often people would want their picture taken with us and would give their best wishes in broken English. In Egypt, family is critical and your main orientation.
By chance, or luck of the calendar, we spend time in Egypt during the Islamic Eid al-Adha holiday. Eid al-Adha is a feast of sacrifice with offerings to the needy combined with a kind of four day festivity where people wear new garments, children get presents and families celebrate. We saw celebrations in the smallest towns with shops filled of gifts for children and family celebrations in Cairo from cemetery visits to picnics in the Cairo equivalent of New York City's Central Park. Night time brought out colors; the decorated boats on the Nile in Cairo were almost magical.
The extent of archeological and historical sites is almost incomprehensible. We have a myopic view of the extent of the sites in historic Egypt is based on Western museum exhibitions such as King Tut and mummies and other artifacts in major museums. These pale by comparison with the reality. For example, King Tut is a two room tomb: tombs in Egypt quite often exceeded thirty rooms, all with art work, gold and jewelry. Our impression is constrained as if our impression of a major city like Boston is based on a three-Decker and not the diverse landscape.
The pyramids are a testament to engineering and architecture, considering they were built with only human and animal power and have detailed specifications. The Temples pioneered the keystone, arch and different columns; usually the designs were sculpted on the stone and not by working on plaster surfaces on the stone. Due to the arid climate the art work has stood the test of time. Some of the art work within a tomb that is 3,000 years old looks like it was colored yesterday.
The ancient culture was not a primitive culture. Most of the contributions we attribute to ancient Greek are Egyptian in origin. Hieroglyphs indicate spreadsheets, surgical instruments similar to what we us today, numbers with placement, basic knowledge of physics and perspective. A recent mummy was found with braces on the teeth.
In Egypt, life is water. Most people live within three miles of the Nile River. Bottled water is ubiquitous and sold at places more frequent than Duncan Doughnuts locations in New England. I experienced ecological shock when seeing how abruptly green areas at the side of the Nile end and the 2,300 mile desert to the Atlantic starts; no gradients. The Nile is used for everything: cleaning, drinking, bathing and irrigating.
Cities are also dependent on water and tradition. Cairo has a set of irrigation canals that are grossly polluted with trash on the banks wherever you look. Large areas of Cairo are taken up by family farms. Traffic is a free-for-all, with what we would call a rent-a-wreck, 1960ish VW vans without side doors and anything with a motor; it's amazing how much you can get on a small motorcycle or pickup truck. (I wonder how this compares to traffic in India.) Part of this problem is little or no city police.
Parts of Cairo are magnificent. This includes the area around the Presidential Palace, the Citadel with its magnificent Mohammad Ali mosque and streets parallel to the main roads. For the most part, everything is done on a 24/7 basis at small stores, ranging from food to auto repair. The non-Islamic holy sites are preserved and accessible. We went to Tahrir Square where the major rallies occur; it's similar to Columbus Circle in New York City and has its own subway stop.
Egypt is in a major transition with much uncertainty as the country tries to stabilize. The emerging steady state may be contrary to our American values but Egypt will survive. It's survived for 5,000 plus years.