Cairo, Egypt


Was it warmer in Egypt five thousand years ago than it is today? Have you noticed that ancient Egyptians are always shown wearing light tunics? Come to Egypt in chilly winter and you will start asking yourself the same question.

I’ve found the answer during my recent visit to the mastaba, or tomb, of Mereruka in Saqqara, an ancient site about a couple of hours’ drive from Cairo. There I saw a fresco, made circa 2340 BC, showing an Egyptian man sporting a fur coat! It is hard to say what animal was used (looks like a lion’s skin), but it is a fur coat for sure. True, the man in the fresco was not wearing any pants or hat, but it might have been the artist’s way of conveying his model’s macho image, and the man quickly slipped into his comfy buckskins after posing for the fresco. Guest what? I’m looking for ancient Egyptian pants now!

Speaking of ancient fashions: when, following the rebellion of 1745, the Scots were forbidden to wear the traditional kilt and had to put up with the despised trousers, they invented a new dance, called Seann Triubhas (pronounced Shawn Trews), which means “without trousers”. The first part of the dance, consisting of graceful, flowing movements, is supposed to mock the restrictions imposed by the foreign trousers, while the second part exhibits the freedom of action possible when wearing the kilt. I don’t remember where I found this information, sorry.

“We are lucky to have the pyramids,” says Ahmet the driver, counting the wad of banknotes handed over to him by foreign tourists upon their return to Cairo from a day-long tour of the pyramid sites in Giza, Saqqara, and Dashur. The same words complete with the quick money-counting routine are repeated by hundreds of other taxi drivers, by horse, donkey, and camel men, by vendors of fake antiques and papyrus artwork, not to mention hotel operators.

It is ironic that the ancient Egyptians’ preoccupation with death has made the world aware of almost every aspect of their life and continues to provide a steady source of income for Egyptian Arabs today. At least, the Arabs appreciate the Pharaohs’ contribution to their well-being, even though they despise foreign visitors for throwing money away – incidentally, into their pockets.

As to the present-day architecture, pigeon houses are worth the mention. No, locals don’t breed the birds for sports or shows: they entice them into tall brick buildings with numerous holes, and then they kill them for food. Even posh restaurants on the banks of the Nile River in downtown Cairo have small pigeon houses near their kitchens.

I didn’t have a chance (or desire) to tickle my palate or learn the true Egyptian way of cooking the pigeon. The following is a recipe from the Medieval and Anglo-Saxon section of The British Museum Cookbook by Michelle Berriedale-Johnson, 1987, British Museum Publications:

Crustade of Chicken and Pigeon
Serves 6

225-350g (8-12oz) wholemeal or wholewheat pastry (depending on whether
you want a lid on your crustade)
1 pigeon
2 chicken joints (2 breasts or 2 whole legs)
150mL (f fl oz, 2/3 cup) dry white wine
several grinds of black pepper
4 cloves
15 g (1/2 oz) butter
50g (2oz) mushrooms, roughly chopped
25g (1oz) raisins
3 large eggs
salt, pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

Roll out 225g (8 oz) of the pastry and line a 20cm (8 inch) flan dish;
back the crust blind.

Put the pigeon in a pot with the stock, wine, pepper and cloves and cook
very slowly for an hour. Add the chicken and continue to cook for a
further 45 minutes or till the meat of both birds is really tender.
Meanwhile cook the mushrooms lightly in the butter. Remove the birds
from the stock and bone them. Cut the flesh into quite small pieces, mix
it with the mushrooms and the raisins and spread them over the base of
the flan case. Beat the eggs with a fork and season with the salt,
pepper, and ginger. Add 240mL (8floz, 1 cup) of the cooking juices and
pour over the meat in the flan case. If you want to have a lid, roll out
the rest of the pastry and cover the flan. Bake it in moderate oven
(180C, 350F, Gas Mark4) for 25 minutes if uncovered, 35 minutes if
covered. Serve warm with a good green salad.

And to sum up, here’s one riddle that is no longer a riddle for me.

After quite a few trips to Islamic countries, I suddenly realized there was at least one thing I didn’t understand: bruises on the forehead. The mystery was unraveled when I bluntly asked an accidental acquaintance of mine in Egypt if he got his huge bruise in a car accident.

“No, no,” he laughed. “Its because of my praying. I prayed hard since childhood and this is the result.” It was impossible to believe that people should pray so much and so hard to get one and sometimes even two or three bruises on their foreheads.

In Russia, there is a saying about people who are so zealous in their efforts they come to hurt themselves or create problems for others. The proverb goes, “Teach a fool to pray, and he will bruise his forehead.” The saying is not directly associated with religion, even though the true Orthodox Church believers in Russia do hit the ground with their foreheads when praying, it is about overdoing things.

But it never occurred to me that the proverbial wisdom will be so vividly illustrated in an Islamic country.

Incidentally, they say the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s assassination was connected with his religious practices, or lack thereof. Sadat was not apparently a zealous Muslim and his forehead lacked the telltale signs, so one day he decided to apply chemicals to the part of the face above the eyes to simulate praying bruises in order to appease his radical Islamic opponents. But the latter learned about his trick, and members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad meted out severe punishment in accordance with Allah’s will on October 6, 1981.

Don’t know if the Sadat story is true.