Live From the Longchamps: Day Three

Live From the Longchamps

Day Three

by Jimmy Dunn

All of the smoke that filled Cairo's sky really derived from a very confined location

Today, a black smoke cloud shrouded the Cairo sun. It was almost as if Cairo itself was ablaze, but in reality it the fire was very contained and not nearly as large as it appeared to be.

The day actually started out being a little chilly, and stayed that way. I awoke looking for trouble, deciding I would simply take a black and white taxi out to Saqqara to do the research I had in mind. Of course, taxis are no trouble, but they are not the easiest way to see the sites, and finding one back to Cairo can be a problem, and with no guide or Egyptian companion, I was bound to experiencea few problems, but really, I do such thingsso that I cantell tourists what not to do. Unfortunately (or fortunately), there are too many good people in Cairo who like to look after me, so this is not always easily accomplished.

Black smoke fills the sky in Cairo

I started the day by taking a taxi a short distance up to the Marriott for breakfast on the Terrace, but when I decided to take a few pictures of this chilly, but almost empty locale, I discovered that I had left the memory card for my camera in my computer. Also, leaving a snow-blown Texas landscape for Egypt, I had began the day without a coat, which would have been fine but for the breeze, so after breakfast I had to make my way back to the Hotel Longchamps. There, Hebba, the ownersuggested to me, until I finally relented, to take one of her drivers out to Saqqara tomorrow. Its not like that left me with nothing to do, because I had business to take care off and appointments to make, but that doesn't make for a very interesting story on Tour Egypt. After sifting through about half of the 20,000 or so junk emails in my mail box, I went in search of adventure.

In the entrance to the El Sawy Cultural Center

After some consultations with a few locals, I went for a short stroll up 26th of July Street in search of the El Sawy Cultural Center, finding it actually built beneath the bridge prior to crossing from Zamalek over to the west bank. I also found a buzz of activity, with workmen obviously pouring their efforts into readying the center for upcoming concerts.

Since ancient times, Egypt has always been a land of art and performance. We see this in the ancient tomb and temple scenes, and today, Egypt remains a place wherethe artscontinue to have an enthusiastic following. Hence, one sees many galleries and numerous cultural centers.

One of the El Sawy Cultural Center's two concert halls

The El Sawy Cultural Center is not a huge place, with its two small concert halls, but I found it more interesting than I expected. Basically, it appears to be both a center for performing arts, as well as for visual arts, where entertainers of international repute perform amidst an art gallerysupplied by six of the best known private galleries. Mohamed Sawy is the owner of this private center. He was at one time the conductor of the Cairo Opera. His father was, twenty years ago, the Minister of Culture


A very few of the items of artwork in the cultural Center

The center has a variety of foreign and domestic artists that perform frequently at the center. Performances are not limited to any specific venue, as one night it might be classic, another jazz, Arabic traditional or some solitary musician, such as tonight, when they will have a famous lute player.

That was all fun, but I was really set to come back to the hotel and write a pretty boring story. I was sitting in Hebba's office while Hebba was on the phone with a friend and though I could understand much, I was being entertained by her switching back and fourth between Arabic, English, French and German when apparently, the friend told Hebba about a big fire. Sure enough, as we looked out the window, it looked like a whole section of Cairo was ablaze. We could see smoke billowing up in great clouds, and I felt an adventure coming on.

Blanketing the fire with water

The fire set in a compound that had obviously been guarded at some point

I, of course, grabbed my camera and the first passing taxi. He didn't understand English very well, so I flicked my Bic lighter, pointed at the flame, and then at the smoke in the air, and eventually he got the message. Off we went.

A very serious Cairo Fireman

Actually, the fire looked much closer than it was. As it turns out, getting there was interesting because we transversed territory through the poorer sections of Cairo for the better part of an hour, past goat markets and local bazaars, over ancient bridges and along alleyways were families still cook outdoors on open fires. As I said in a prior report, even Cairo taxi drivers have to ask directions, and though we could see the smoke billowing up all along, the driver had to start asking directions early in our ride. Eventually, we actually picked up another Egyptian man to direct us in that section of town,and soon he started asking for directions!Eventually wearrived at the fire,well before some of the Egyptian fire officials. All during the ride I thought that we might be too late to catch the real action, but not so.

A firestorm rises in the smoke

Now at this point I should stop to mention the fact that fires are relatively uncommon in Egypt, where building material is frequently stone or brick, and it was not a section of Cairo that had gone up in flames, but rather a contained area that may have had something to do with the government, considering the obvious guard house built upon the stone fence, that surrounded the area on fire. Still, there were huge flames shooting into the air, as well as tornado-like firestorms erupting ever so often.

At first, I tried to talk my way past the crowd control police, but no luck there. However,undaunted after having driven so far,I scaled the steps of a nearby building to its roof. However, it did not supply a very good view of the actual action, though was able to scout out a better location atop a nearby wall that surrounded a primary school. It provided a perfect view. Unfortunately, after arriving at the wall, it was too high for my fifty-two year old climbing abilities, but some locals were quick to help out.From the gym of the school, they retrieved a rickety old wooden ladder and up I went.

Firemen are always brave souls

Now I suppose this adventure might not be so interesting to many tourists, who come here for the antiquities or the warm beaches along the Red Sea, but it was more excitement than I had experienced all day, and I thought that someone might be interested in seeing Egyptian firemen at work. I shot away for some time with my camera and finally decided to descend, but somehow the ladder had actually fallen apart while I was on the wall, which itself was rather high. I could have probably made it down in front of the wall which was closer to the ground but where the police obviously didn't want me, or find another way. I ended up partly sliding and partly climbing down what was left of the ladder.

Lots of kids and my broken ladder

In the end, the small school kids who had perhaps been released from school because of the fire, thought this was all great fun, particularly having some American in their midst snapping off pictures. They were harder to escape from than the fire, which by the way, appears not to have caused any injuries. I made my way back to the Hotel Longchamps where I finished the night visiting and having dinner with Lara Iskander, one of our writers, so while not wishing to diminish the tragedy of a fire, I can say that I had a rather lively day. However, tomorrow I will definitely be heading to Saqqara.

There is one point to be made to Egyptian tourists. Today, I traveled into the heart of a very poor section of Cairo, where there was not even an instance of the tourist police and where tourist are likely never to go. I shuffled through throngs of Egyptians, and it is clear that many of them knew that I was an American. Even the school children nailed that one. I never felt any concern for my safety amongst these people, and indeed, a number of them helped me out while I was photographing the fire. So once again, whether in upscale Zamalek, or elsewhere, these Egyptians demonstrated the hospitality and friendship.

On another note, today I received a correspondence from Jane Akshar, an AETBI member and tour operator out of Luxor, who has just had a short visit with Kent Weeks and also reports on other matters around Luxor. As most of our readers should know, Kent is a very well known Egyptologist who is excavating KV5, the tomb of the sons of Ramesses II. She has this to report:

Latest from KV5

Kent Weeks

KV5 the tomb of the sons of Ramesses II continues to puzzle and fascinate. Speaking with Dr Kent Weeks he said that the reasons behind its unique construction continue to be unknown. The team is currently working in the Valley and outside of KV5 one can watch their work with remnants of pottery discovered last year. So far the finds, whilst expanding archaeological knowledge, have not yielded items that would be put on display in pride of place in any famous museum, but they are contributing to the jigsaw that is KV5. The team is almost frustrated by the complexity and continuing discoveries as more and more side chambers are discovered, but so far only one chamber that might have been a burial chamber, Chamber 5.

Corridor 20 has many side chambers and has led to another three pillared hall mirroring corridor 12 but instead of going off from there like corridor 16 it has gone back on itself like a stair and has gone down to the 4th level. The team continue to be surprised by this tomb. Dr Weeks told me that funding continues to be an issue as governments cut back their expenditure. The various publications are contributing enormously but he is always looking for more. You could hear the frustration in his voice as he tried to fathom out the reason for this unique construction. So far no clues have been uncovered but the team is hoping that when the burial chambers are eventually uncovered this might give them an insight. But with the discovery of the fourth level, and who knows what else lies beyond that, finding the burial chambers could still be years away. Meanwhile the mystery of KV5 tantalizes the archaeological world.

An Osiris Statue in KV5

A more modern story.

A huge number of homes on the West Bank are being destroyed by the government in a clearance program that leaves the owners with no compensation or alternative accommodation. Speculation is rife but it is believed that a consortium of business men have approached the government with plans to develop the West Bank. This has meant the destruction of homes owned by both local families and ex pats. Some of these homes have cost as much as one million L.E., a huge sum by local standards, and that they are being destroyed without any compensation is causing frustration and anger amongst the locals.

Lectures in Luxor.

The Mummification Museum has been putting on a series of lectures. Details are hard to obtain in advance but visitors should look out for posters at the main sites. The most recent one was by Edwin Brock on the subject of Ramesses VI. The inaugural one was a report by a Spanish team on the recent excavations which was attended by Dr Kent Weeks.

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Last Updated: June 21st, 2011