Ruins of old Siwa (click here for more Egypt photos)
Ten years after World War I, the small oasis town of Siwa at the edge of the Western Desert was destroyed. A few hundred kilometres to the north at the Egyptian and Libyan coast, the famous battles of Field Marshall Rommel had taken place. But Siwa’s misfortune came not from war but from water – the most precious resource in the desert. Three days of heavy rain left the houses built of salt bricks and mud in ruins.
„Overshoes, this way please!,“ the caretaker shouts to every visitor from 10 m afar. Sand and dirt is everywhere as the Ibn Tulun Mosque in the Islamic part of Cairo is being restored. Since only foreign tourists are made to wear them (and presumably to pay for them), we refuse the protective cotton bags and walk around in socks. The Ibn Tulun mosque is one of the most enchanting mosques in Cairo. Built in the 9th century by Baghdad native Ibn Tulun, it features a ziggurat style minaret, influenced by the Great Mosque of Samarra in Iraq. We sit in the large courtyard and watch groups of Spanish and German tourists stumble about in the large overshoes – many of the women with open hair and bare shoulders.
Whenever we enter a mosque, Isa struggles to wrap a 1 meter long and 10 cm wide purple shawl around her head to cover her hair. Eventually she decides to buy a scarf of the appropriate size and, on this occasion, learn how to bind it correctly. For weeks we have been admiring the colourful patterns Egyptian women create with their headscarves, using two or three different coloured ones together for a more stunning impact.
„Na’am, spanish?“ The Egyptian shop assistant giggles while she winds the headscarf around the back of Isa’s head with a coquettish knot at the side. Isa now looks like a Flamenco dancer. The next moment with the scarf fixed under the chin, she wouldn’t stick out between the Turkish Mamas shopping for groceries in Ankara.
We both liked cosmopolitan Cairo, with its opera and art galleries, western-style cafes and bookshops. In the evenings mixed groups of young men and women sit in restaurants, go to the cinema or stroll through the streets of downtown together. Young couples walk hand in hand along the banks of the Nile. The city feels save and open-minded.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean it is also democratic. One day we hear loud shouting in the street and look down from our window on the 5th floor: A small group of about 10 protesters carry banners along the street. The same evening we pass dozens of police cars. Groups of riot police stand at the ready, and on several street corners we see plainclothes policemen (easily recognisable at their military posture) receiving last instructions. The next day, the Egyptian parliament decides in favour of an amendment to 34 articles of the constitution. The most controversial points include the elimination of the judicial oversight of elections and of an article guarding the people’s rights – which has been replaced by an anti-terror law. Critics claim that the amendment leads to a massive erosion of civil rights and favours President Mubarak’s son as his successor. In the public these far-reaching changes passed almost without notice.
When we visit Siwa on our way from Cairo to Libya, it rains every day – just a few drops, or a half-hearted rain lasting 20 minutes. Enough to form puddles on the street and in the sand. While we lament the non-photogenic cloudy skies, the locals are happy. It is strange to realise the importance of rain while looking at the ruins of old Siwa, destroyed by rain. We have been in deserts several times during the last months – passing through them by bus for hours, or sometimes riding camels, hiking and camping out. Although the fascination of the sheer vastness is not lost on us, we find the desert too uncomfortable. It is sandy, and there is, by definition, not enough water and accordingly you can’t wash and shower as much as you would like (most times not at all). That others don’t do it either is an additional drawback. The smoke of those romantic camp fires burns in the eyes, and the light of the flames is not bright enough to read.
We have meanwhile safely crossed Libya and arrived on the Tunisian touristic island of Djerba. A blog entry about Libya as well as budget pie charts for Egypt and Libya will follow soon.