Friday, January 30, 2015

Egypt | Cairo | Giza | Pyramids

Wandered down to Cairo from Istanbul. Another milk run on Turkish Air. The Airbus took off from the same remote gate as flights to Tabriz, Iran, and Ulaanbaatar. From the gate they ferry you by bus to the plane parked in the hinterlands of the airport. Just once I would like to fly somewhere that deserves a walk-on ramp. At first I thought I was at the wrong gate. At last three-quarters of the passengers were Chinese. Was I lining up for the Beijing flight? But no, they were all Chinese tourists. In Istanbul itself I would guess that at least half the tourists are Chinese. Many older Chinese couples on the plane, presumably retirees, plus the usual bevy of young Chinese women traveling by themselves. 

It is only a two hour hump across the Mediterranean to Cairo. I spent it reading Amelia Edward’s A Thousand Miles Up The Nile, a classic of Victorian travel literature (the Kindle version is $1.99; a fantastic bargain). I also dipped into Barbara Mertz’s Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs, a light-hearted romp through four or five thousand years of Egyptian history. Mertz, writing under the pen name of Elizabeth Peters, also wrote nineteen novels featuring the indomitable Amelia Peabody, wife of Radcliffe Emerson, “the greatest Egyptologist of this or any other age,” at least according to his besotted spouse. Almost all of the Peabody books take place in Egypt and deal with the madcap adventures of Peabody and her husband. I am embarrassed to admit that I have actually read All Nineteen Of The Amelia Peabody Books. This may sound ridiculous, but on the other hand I have probably not watched one entire TV program in the last twenty years. Everyone is entitled to one shameless vice. 

The Cairo Airport is very modern and extremely large. It takes probably twenty minutes to walk to Immigration. The guest house I am staying at offered a free pick-up at the airport if you stay more than four nights. I am staying seven, so before I even went through Immigration I was met by Abdullah, the representative of the guesthouse. Apparently in Egypt tourist guides can do this. He shepherded me through Immigration and then Customs. They knew him at Customs and we were waved through without the official even glancing at my portmanteau or passport, even though I noticed they were checking everyone else’s documents. The free airport pickup proved to quite a boon, since the airport is on the east side of the Nile, and Giza, where I am staying in on the west side. It can take a hour to get to Giza if traffic is heavy. 

Abdullah it turns out is a history aficionado and while driving to Giza we had quite an interesting chat about the Mamluk period of Egyptian history. Unfortunately he was wrong in his assertion that Chingis Khan invaded Egypt. Chingis Khan died several decades before the Mongols reached Syria, where on September 3, 1260 they were soundly defeated by the Mamluks of Egypt at the Battle of Ain Jalut. He also insisted that the Mamluks were descendants of Mongol slave-soldiers. They are  descended from slave-soldiers, but mostly of Turk and Turcoman descent. I am unaware of any Mongol Mamluks. Happily the discussion soon veered to Fourth Dynasty Egypt, during which time the three big pyramids of Giza were built. Indeed, soon after we crossed the Nile they could be seen looming above the Giza skyline.

My guest house is just fifty feet from the entrance to the Pyramids complex. It is a rather modest establishment actually, although my room is quite large and features a huge double bed. More importantly, the windows provide stunning views of the three Giza Pyramids and the Sphinx. There is also a roof top viewing area with even better views. After stashing my portmanteau I headed across the street to the entrance of the Pyramid complex and bought a ticket for eighty Egyptian pounds ($10.52)
View from my room at the guest house. In front of the middle pyramid can be seen the Sphinx (click on photo for enlargement).

Monday, January 5, 2015

Iran | Sultaniyya | Mausoleum of Ilkhan Öljeitü

Wandered by the town of Sultaniyya, site of the mausoleum of Öljeitü (Ölziit in Mongolian), the eighth Ilkhan. Ölziit was the great-grandson of Khülegü Khan, founder of the Ilkhanate, and the great-great-great-grandson of Chingis Khan. It was Ölziit (r. 1305–1316) who had moved the capital of the Ilkhanate from Tabriz to Sultaniyya, 175 miles to the southeast. At the insistence of his mother Uruk Khatun, a Nestorian Christian, he had been baptized as a Christian and given the name Nicholas. When he was still in his teens, however, he married a Muslim girl, and apparently under her influence he converted to Islam. At first he was a Sunni Muslim, but he eventually became disillusioned by Nit-Picking Sunni Jurists and switched to Shiism. Perhaps to burnish his credentials as a Shiite he hatched a scheme to move the bodies of the two proto-martyrs of Shiism, Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, and Ali’s son Husain, from their shrines in Iraq to Sultaniyya and house them in an enormous mausoleum of his own making. It is not quite clear if he also intended the building to be a mausoleum for himself.  The mausoleum was built, but the plan to move the remains of Ali and Husain to Sultaniyya came to naught.  The building ended up as the repository for Ölziit’s own remains. 
The structure is 161 feet high, with a dome eighty-four feet in diameter, reportedly the third largest brick dome in the world. Larger are the brick domes of the Cathedral of Florence in Italy (138 feet), and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (103 feet). Apart from brick domes, the largest dome in the world is the steel dome of Cowboys Stadium in Texas, built by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, the Khülegü of our age (click on photos for enlargements).
For comparison, here is the dome of Hagia Sophia
Mausoleum of Ölziit
Mausoleum of Ölziit
Mausoleum of Ölziit
Mausoleum of Ölziit
Mausoleum of Ölziit
Mausoleum of Ölziit
The vast interior of the mausoleum is undergoing renovation 
Interior of the mausoleum
The interior of the mausoleum was once covered with decoration. This eight-foot high panel is one of few surviving examples.
Catacomb under the mausoleum. This space may have been built for the remains of Ali and Husain.
The open walkway just below the dome
The open walkway just below the dome
Decoration of walkway
Decoration of walkway
Detail of decoration
View of Sultaniyya from open walkway.  Sultaniyya, once the capital of the Ilkhanate, is now a sleepy little town with a population of just over 5000. It is justly famous for its kebabs.