Saturday, January 30

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Cairo adventures: Tourist

My second trip to Europe falls quite neatly within that genre of 'whirlwind.' Arriving in Nice, my French class made its way through the Loire Valley on through to and departing from Paris in little over a week. Every other day we were on the bus, moving between cities. Our stops ranged from the commercial (a perfume factory, a mall) to the classic (the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Louvre, a ride on the Seine) and nowhere in between.

More than anything, that trip cemented in me ideas of what a tour should not be. It should not be spent in transit. It should not end before jetlag is overcome. It should not be a desperate search for some souvenir that contains the essence of the visited in neglect of the present. And it most certainly should not be a checklist of the greatest hits. Not that there is anything wrong with the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame per se. They are impressive. It's very understandable why the city and nation would take them as their dominant image. The problem is that they are so present in the global culture. They are such loaded symbols with their freqent appearances in the great romances and legends, not to mention history, that the actual things cannot bear the strain. The grandiose expectations of the visitors break against the mundanity of reality. Especially when the actual things are surrounded by beggars politely asking if you speak English, immigrants hawking kitsch at an impressive mark-up and hours of lines of bored tourists.

And still I ended up visiting the Sphinx and Pyramids of Giza and the the Citadel of Salah al-Din in my final days in Cairo.

I admit. The Pyramids are, for lack of a more appropriate word, wondrous. Every five minutes someone may pass and offer their services as a government-licensed guide or to rent a horse or camel, but that does not detract from the Pyramids' majesty. They are enormous, and they are ancient. Flipping through a guide just outside the entrance, I learned that the tallest presently stands at 136 meters, diminished about ten meters since its original construction. You still don't even begin to gain a sense of just how large that is until you are there and see the stones at the foundation, each of them already at least twice your size, and you lose count of just how many rows there are until the pinnacle.

And then you look closer.

And then you see the neat rows of contemporary brick revealed by patches of missing plaster. The flaws of the Sphinx are even more egregious. The neat rows of brick line the outside of the paws and the metal scaffolding around the rump is still standing.

I can understand why the Ministry of Antiquities does this. Even more than Sugarloaf Mountain for Brazil or Willie the Walleye for Baudette, the Pyramids are the symbol of Egypt. They may have withstood the elements for millennia, but they are not eternal. The hordes of tourists clambering upon the lowest levels only hasten the day that they all come down. The hordes must be drawn in and appeased. The last remaining Wonder of the Ancient World must be preserved, by plaster and brick if necessary.

Not surprisingly, it still bothers me. It's as if rangers began importing ice to Glacier National Park, by sheer force of resources and will slowing the glacier's retreat. What then are we coming for if only to see something that has been maintained through sloppy government intervention? It's not history anymore that we have come for. It's a reminder, a reasonable facsimile, of what once was history. At some point, the Pyramids of Giza are going to be as real as the souvenirs that fit in the palm of your hand.

I know restoration happens all the time. Renaissance paintings have touch ups. The mansions of Browne's Addition's one-time railroad and lumber barons are returned to their former glory with some upgrades to the wiring and air conditioning systems. Things are always changing, being improved, being restored. Why should it matter whether it happens to the Pyramids, too? I guess it doesn't, really, but it strikes me as a ridiculous gesture. While civilizations and languages and cultures have risen up from and returned to the dust around the Pyramids, they have endured, and the Egyptians are not going to let that streak end. It's a strike against entropy and death, preserving the Pyramids for another millennium, proof that some aspect of humanity will continue on even if we do not. Kind of ironic seeing as how they're monuments to death.

The Citadel was similarly fascinating. While museums dedicated to the Egyptian army and police force are also with the complex, the Mohammed Ali Mosque is the undeniable centerpiece. The entire thing is hollow. There are no columns or floors. Just a direct line from you to the utmost ceiling, a sense of the infinitesimal, and every surface is lavished with designs. Bloody amazing.

Coming out, I heard a call to prayer. Just past the kiosk with all its postcards and handbags a man knelt upon a sheet of cardboard. Maybe he worked at the Citadel and was inure to the wonders of the mosque. Maybe he preferred the sun on his face to the electric lights inside. Maybe he was lazy. I don't know why, but he preferred to practice his faith outside rather than walk the twenty paces to pray inside one of the most famous mosques in the world.

Not quite sure what to make of that. I could say it was an act of modesty to avoid the tourists passing through the mosque, but he wasn't exactly discreet. Every group leaving the mosque could see him. I don't know, and I don't know either what it means when such a work of art inspires a greater sense of reverence in the visitor than the one for whom it was designed.

No comments: