January 14, 2004

Best Memory From Egypt

My favorite memory from Egypt comes from our last day in Siwa, despite suffering with a ridiculous bout of intestinal pain and unpleasantness. We walked about 2 Km from our hotel to the base of the Hill of the Dead late on a Friday afternoon. Slowly, because I couldn't move very fast, we mounted the steps and walked around the front of the mountain, examining the exumed tombs which were cut like perfect rectangular prisms from the sides of the mountain.

We rested and enjoyed the view of palm trees, mesas, desert, the town of siwa, and the farther away mountains upon which we'd visited Alexander's (supposed) tomb and the temple of Ammon. A lanky boy came running up the steps--he was in a white running shirt and shorts and barefoot. I clapped for him and shouted encouragement. On his second run up the stairs, he stopped and we exchanged names. I took his picture as he stood there and showed it to him on the digital camera. He asked if I would take one of him running. So, I did. I tried to explain that I would send the photographs to Ali who had promised to distribute them, but my neither my Arabic nor his English was good enough to get the point across.

After the boy left, several Italian women from the previous night's dinner came down from the top of the mountain. They asked if we had seen the locked tombs and if we knew any of their history. I explained that there was some in the Rough Guide and tried to hand it to them. They asked me to translate instead, and although I succeeded in a round about way, I was shocked at just how much my Italian has fallen into disrepair over the last 2 years. One of the women took over translation from me at the end and quickly breezed through the last few paragraphs. I contented myself with a reminder of how much easier it is to translate back into your native language as compared with out of it.

After the women left, we followed the keeper of the Key towards the tombs and passed a man crouching over a fire in one of the caves. He invited us for tea after the tombs, and we accepted. We followed the key-keeper into the four locked tombs and marvelled at the murals of a Grecian-looking merchant, the crocodile, and heiroglyphs. Real mummies and skeletons were in two of the tombs, including a skull with hair still attached (which had later been dated to be roman, not ptolemic or 26th Dynasty). Seeing mummies in the actual tombs as opposed to in a museum was somehow more real and also, more overwhelming. We were silenced as we tried to get our heads around age of the tombs, the multiple uses that had been made of them over the ages by the Ptolemic empire, the 26th Dynasty, the Romans, the Siwans, the Italian troops in 1940...and now us, tourists, visiting with a man who lived nearby and following up our visit with tea.

The tea man carefully laid out clean mats and pillows for us in the cave. He unwrapped a blackened metal boiling pot, a white porcelain serving pot, and four shot glass sized glass tea cups. Slowly, he performed the ritual of making the tea, with each step gently and carefully undertaken as he smiled and smoked. The tea smelled wonderful and we looked over the horizon as we awaited both the sunset and the tea. He offered us cigarettes, oranges, tangerines and bananas. We accepted some of his offerings and relaxed near the fire. Finally, the tea was ready. He poured sugar into the white tea pot and added the tea. Repeatedly, he poured a cup of tea in a long stream and poured the cup back into the tea pot to cool the liquid. The sun kept descending and the sky moved from yellow to orange to pink. Finally, he served us our tea and we sipped on the strong concoction as we watched the sun make its final descent.

I would have liked to stay longer, but unfortunately, my stomach had other ideas, so I had to leave. R stayed behind and talked with the men a bit more. One of them invited us back for native Siwan whiskey, but later, after the cop who had been waiting nearby was gone. R smiled, said no thanks, gave baksheesh to the tea-maker and the key-keeper and walked down the mountain to meet me.

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