Friday, June 27, 2008


Phew, sorry it's been a while, but in Siwa I heard a sound I hadn't heard in a long, long time: a modem dialing up. (Remember that? 9600 baud all the way to 56.6k...) So blog posts were pretty out of the question.

Maybe we should start with some quick photos of Alexandria:

Alex is a coastal city on the Mediterranean, and the beach is mighty popular in summer.

On the coast's obvious prominence, where the Lighthouse of Alexandria once stood, is now Qaitbey Fort, a 550-year-old structure made mostly out of blocks from the fallen lighthouse. Clearly the inspiration for Legos:

Here are some kittens I found in a nook in Qaitbey Fort. I don't think I've ever seen a not-cute kitten, but these get extra points: those sky-blue eyes!

Most non-Western countries have stray dogs. Egypt has stray cats. Stray cats are kinda cute. Leah would love it.

I love this fruit juice shop. That's a mango/peach creation, and it's way bigger than it looks in the photo. 5 pounds, which is about $1.

Alex is also famous for its ice cream, apparently. This masterpiece was the most expensive option on the menu. I had it for lunch.

They're still excavating these Greco-Roman ruins they found while digging for the foundation of some building. I'm telling you, Egypt is just bursting with history. And good stuff, too.

Okay, okay, enough photos of Alexandria. What I really wanna talk about here is Siwa.

Siwa is an oasis in Western Egypt, near Libya. Modern Siwa centers around the remains of Shali, an enormous mudbrick construction dating from around 1200 (the oasis has been settled since "at least the 10th millennium BC"). The Siwans lived in Shali for over 700 years, building upwards until some structures were five stories high. Then, a freak 3-day rain in 1926 forced the entire town to relocate.

You know how, if you don't live in an earthquake area, your buildings aren't made to withstand earthquakes? Here in the Western Desert, bordering the Great Sand Sea, buildings aren't made to withstand RAIN! The city just melted. It's unbelievable. It looks like it was made of sugar.

(Oases form when a topological depression dips into the aquafer; they are still part of the nearly precipitation-free dessert. The water comes from below, not above.)

It's worth stressing, maybe, that Siwa is smack in the middle of the desert. Coming here, the bus goes through hundreds of miles of rocky, barren nothingness. Then suddenly, so suddenly, there's an army of date palms flush with the greenest fronds. It's so sudden, and so out of place. It's like a fairy tale.

The sunset from atop Shali is everything you dreamed it would be.

And since you have this endless cloudless sky, as soon as the sun dips below the horizon, you can turn around and see the Earth shadow rising up, and it eventually takes over the whole sky and makes night (sorry this photo didn't turn out so well).

Ooh, in that Earth shadow photo, to the right of the rocky mesa, you can see how abruptly the oasis gives way to the sand. It's just palm, palm, palm, saaaaaaaaaand.

You know, it's not just the biota that's so seemingly out of place (or maybe that's just me, anyway); the whole culture here seems translocated from some foreign land five hundred years ago. Here's a Siwan taxi stand.

I KNOW!!!! A taxi is a donkey cart led by a ten-to-fifteen-year-old Siwan boy. Always male, by the way: Siwa is a very conservative place, and the rare times I see women, they're totally, totally covered. We can't decide how they know who's whom, or how the women see out.

Ummm... what else? Oooh, right, Mountain of the Dead!

So yeah, that's the Mountain of the Dead. You know how I got there? A Berber-navigated, donkey-powered single-axle wooden cart-taxi!! Those Bndpsaw cart-taxis are might slow, so you sit and think "I can't believe I'm here" for an extra long time. They're like a light jog pace. But we got there alright.

I kinda flipped out at this place. This is from an email I wrote my folks in my excitement:
MY GOD!! I could not get over it. The hill is dotted with holes like an overgrown mole infestation, and each hole leads to a tiny, undorned tomb. They date from 300BC. Most were opened during WWII as Siwa's inhabitants took refuge from the bombing there. Views from the summit could go on the cover of any National Geographic.

A guy comes up to me and asks if I've seen the locked tombs yet. Let's go!

Egypt has a culture of baksheesh, or tipping. I have no idea what to give someone who unlocks a tomb for you. One Egyptian pound (20 cents)? I get it in my front pocket, ready.

We get to a tomb much bigger than any I've seen, and he unlocks the door. Photography is strictly forbidden, so even if I could get my photos onto the blog, you wouldn't see it, but WOWOWOWOWOW!! The 12' by 4' by 7' hallway is COVERED with the kind of paintings they show in books on Ancient Egypt!! I'm just floored! And the guy who let me in obviously likes my reaction. You see Anubis and Isis and Horus and the feather/heart scale and the crocodile/lion/dog devourer beast, and it's covered in hieroglyphs, and the guy starts telling me a bit about what the gods are and why they're here -- but it's basic Egyptology stuff I already know a little about (weigh the heart against the feather of truth, if it's too heavy the beast eats your heart... I've read books and took a pair of The Learning Company classes on Ancient Egypt). I see a panel with the four children of Horus each painted with a jar, and kinda blurt out "canopic jars!" The guy is a bit surprised, and says, "you know Egyptology?" Uh, not really, but a tiny bit? Turns out he's not just a guard, he's an archaeologist here. Suddenly, seeing that, albeit basic, I have a little background on this stuff, he starts going into EVERYTHING! IT'S AWESOME! Reading the hieroglyphs and translating for me, telling me about how they excavated the tomb, explaining why this particular guy is drawn totally sideways (instead of the typically Egyptian legs-sideways torso-facing pose), and all sorts of stuff. Then he takes me to another locked tomb, larger but less adorned than the first, and explains everything about it. Wild stuff! It's the mountain's very oldest tomb, from about 580BC!!! I can't get a handle on these dates (you know, when that tomb was being built, the pyramids were almost exactly 2000 years old?!??!?!)

After all this, when I'm leaving, I get five pounds from my pocket (one dollar, but a substantial baksheesh, I think) to tip him, and he flatly refuses. Enjoy Siwa, he says.

Something about this, in a two thousand three hundred year-old tomb on the Mountain of the Dead... it just made me smile:

So that was incredible. The history here is just... I can't deal with it. Ooooh, oh, I forgot. This was just the sign beneath an headless, unadorned sphinx on display near the Greco-Roman theater in Alex:

That's the kind of history they have here. Built in eighteen hundred BC (some of the numerals on this keyboard don't work), reworked in twelve hundred BC by Ramses the Great, then chopped up and used as masonry. Too many sphinx here, I'm telling you.

This oasis is paradisaical, no doubt, but let's see some desert! So Lea and Richard and Patrick and I headed out with Muhammed and Muhammed for a two day one night safari.

Nearly everyone I met in Siwa was named Muhammed. They all wear the long white Arab Muslim getup, all have short dark curly hair, similar features. It's honestly hard to tell them apart. I guess the game Guess Who? never caught on here. Is it Muhammed?

First stop on the safari, just outside the oasis, are some prehistoric prints. I have no idea if it's the famous one, but either way, my foot's bigger (and has a better sandal tan):

After that, off to an outcropping just rife with fossils. The Sahara used to be underwater (really? I thought it was marshland, or something wetter, but not marine... but I guess I'm wrong), and as the wind sandblasts this limestone outcropping (I think it's limestone...) and makes more sand, the harder-than-limestone fossils are just extruded from the rock. With every step you're crunching little shells and sand-dollar-looking things undertoe. Everything here seems so out of place.

How's this cool, freshwater pool for out of place?

That was amazing.

The Great Sand Sea is really aptly named. These dunes are HUGE, and they ebb and flow, and like waves, some have rolling tops but some are sharply ridged.

I had plenty of time to take that photo, since when you think it's gonna be rolly-top, but it's sharp-ridge, the jeep gets waaay stuck.

That took a good twenty minutes of digging, and the sun is BLAZING, and the sand is like you could cook bread on it. Yikes.

As the sun sets, the sky glows this unbelievable palette of reds and purples and oranges and blues, and the temperature drops about thirty degrees (to seventy-five), and the sand becomes cool to the touch.

You know, I've always been a sandboarder at heart.

Seriously, sandboarding down the dunes was a TON OF FUN! Now I've never snowboarded or sandboarded before in my life, but it was pretty easy and so so SO FUN! One minor problem was that the soft sand of the dune gives way to compact, kinda hard sand at the bottom, and that's of course where you faceplant. The other minor problem was that there's no sandlift, you know? And walking up a two-hundred foot dune is effort, man! One step forward, slide nine-tenths of a step back. It took forever.

We set up camp at the base of the sandboarding dune, and wow. Just wow.

The night is just so quiet and peaceful and beautiful. Not a sound. I mean not a single whisper. Just silence, and a million stars. Mars was so bright. It really felt like being afloat in a great sand sea. That was the best night of my trip.

You know, on a clear night, it's not too hard to find satellites? They're like little stars that don't twinkle, and they move at an unbelievably constant pace through the darkness. We found lots of satellites that night.

Now I'm in Cairo. I'll write up about it later, but this rooftop view just made me think of those satellites, and the desert and Siwa.

I love Egypt.

I love every grain of sand, every braying donkey, every cloudless night and glass of tea (yes, glass) and glowing white robe and mudbrick home and pharoanic painting and excavated tomb and fairy-tale sunset and smiling Muhammed.




I jut love it with every cell in my heart.


yaya said...

Egypt wins a million trillion cool points. You should take more videos, they are fun.

daddy said...


of all the good things on this blog, it was SO good to hear your voice

Betty said...

Thanks for sharing your Egyptian adventures, especially the diving in Alexandria. Antiquities are one of the most fascinating things, right up there with deep space exploration. One of our divers is a professor of underwater archaeology and has done research on ancient shipwrecks off the coast of Turkey.

Your photos, and video, are wonderful, as is your narration. Are the stray cats in Egypt worshipped, as they were in BC times? -Betty

yaya said...

i went to the shedd today and said hi to nickel for you.

Jeanne said...

I'm so excited to go!!! It's too bad we won't be there together at the same time. Your blog is totally pumping me up Jake! And, when I listened to your video of you climbing up the sand dune, I immediately missed you Jake. It was good to hear your voice!

Jake Cooper said...

Thanks guys!

Hey Betty: in about a week (after dropping a king's ransom), I'll be a nitrox-certified, 100-dive diver who's logged bottom time on 4 continents!

Stray cats are worshipped by ME. They're soooo cute! Way better than scary dogs.

Thanks for saying hi to Nickel, Ya. Extra 10 points if you can find and say hi to Betty!

Jeanne, you're gonna love it. Egypt roolz!

Anonymous said...


p.s. You spelled deserts "desserts" once in the blog, and it made me hungry for ice cream.

p.p.s. This is Leah, if you didn't guess immediately. :)

Katie said...

that ice cream thing is amazing. (oh, and so are the 2000 year olds tombs and sand dunes...)