There is a theme park on the Corniche – the road that runs beside the Nile. I have looked many times at the archway to the Pharaonic Village with its brightly painted hieroglyphs and suppressed a mental shudder. We seem to zip past it regularly. Other than wondering if the men inside really did wear those tiny see-through pleated linen mini skirts (and no, I am not panting) I have managed to suppress my curiosity.
Last week I managed to find out. A group of Australian artists have arrived in Egypt with a tour being run by a lecturer in photography. Oddly enough I had been hearing about this group for some time, as people who have known one or other have told me about it. The first was at the Sydney quilt show. Then I worked with Matt Dwyer – a quietly talented Queensland silversmith with a real gift for teaching and a quirky and elegant witticism in his work. He and his girlfriend were on the trip.
Then in Egypt I met someone else who had a friend on the trip. She commented that she was going to join them for the first part of the tour, and did I want to come. I was a bit reluctant to push in, but decided to join them for the Pharaonic Village.
I arrived to the puzzling realisation that there was nothing inside the gates but an empty space, shops, and ticket boxes. A quick phone call located the group already loaded and waiting on a barge with tiered seating. We pushed off into the Nile and chugged on our platform down the river and across a narrow channel. Then down a papyrus lined channel with very large Egyptian statues of gods like Anubis and Horus and Pharoahs like Akenhaten and Ramses 2. The boat passed in front of each piece while a voice on a loudspeaker on the boat told us about each statue. It was nice being out on the water, and this was surprisingly pleasant. Not wanting to push in with the group I had slipped into the back row of the boat so didn’t join the group jostling for the best photographs from the front row.
There was a flurry of excitement at Cleopatra’s statue when a really lovely kingfisher came to sit briefly on her head before flitting back to Ramses 2. Then another barge approached towing what was obviously a sick cow on a platform to the mainland – I hope for veterinary attention.
We chugged on and arrived at the village. Most of this was intended to be viewed from the water. I can’t remember most of it, as the tourists were far more interesting to watch.
I realised immediately that I was not going to see men in tiny white skirts. They had erected a board beside each display showing a copy of a tomb painting to give the source of their information. This was interesting. However, somewhere between the time of the pharaohs and now the garb for men had changed to long sleeved white shirt with rolled up sleeves, long wrap ‘skirt’ and a red and white striped headscarf – fetching but not what I had hoped to see. Women instead of bared bellies and a tight skirt wore long white robes with braid around hems and long sleeves, and long braided ‘wigs’ which I felt would have been more appropriate on staff in palaces than women in a peasant village. It was a compromise in a Moslem Egypt- but twas a pity!
The first display I remember (thought there were potters and builders and plasterers in there somewhere) was a display of ploughing. A simple wooden plough was yoked to a cow and being driven by a man on foot while a young girl hurled seed into the furrows behind him. They were followed by a group of stolid looking sheep who trudged behind – and according to the voice-over pushed the seed into the soil. Unfortunately for the farmer, the sheep were followed by about one hundred pigeons happily eating the seed thrown by the girl, who followed the farmer, who drove the plough, before the sheep that trod the grain and so on. They had obviously strayed from the display of pigeon houses next door. At the end of the row everyone knew the show was over. The cow stopped. The farmer stopped. The sheep dispersed with as little enthusiasm as they had been treading grain, and the pigeons swirled into the sky over our heads and proceeded to create a rain of droppings over the tourists.
On a bend in the river a young man enthusiastically thwacked the water with a large stick. It looked like an odd way to earn a living, but the voice over assured us that he did this to frighten the fish into the nets (and it was backed up by the tomb painting so it must be true). A moment later the voice over was saying “Let us see how lucky he is today” and right on cue he hauled in the nets to reveal four large fish, which he managed to make look almost alive with rapid jiggling of the nets and a broad smile in our direction. As he jiggled they flopped around, and the boat paused again to allow the front row to take photos, then the middle row surged forward to have a go. By the time the back row was trying to get shots his arms were wearing out and his smile was decidedly sheepish as the fish would surge up then lie limply while he gathered more strength in his arms for another hurl.
You are probably getting a feeling for what this was like. We did get of the barge and walk around through other exhibits, but it was all a bit ordinary. There was a model of King Tut’s tomb – but the group was going on to see the real thing so interest was more focussed on when they would be fed.
It was fun, and very entertaining, but I wasn’t sure how much of the amusement I felt was tinged with sympathy, and that vague feeling of commiseration at an embarrassing situation.
We had a big reception at our house that night. Suffice it to say that from 4.00 pm (and it took two hours to get from the Pharaonic Village because of one of the worst traffic jams I have struck) when the staff arrived from the Grand Hyatt it was a breeze and a delight. It has to be the most efficient catering service ever. They are well dressed and so professional. One even walked quietly past when Bob was addressing the group and blew out a guttering candle as it was making a noise.
By 10.30 pm our guests had left, and it would be normal to walk up the stairs to bed. I walked up stairs, put on more glitz and better evening clothes, and we went to an Egyptian wedding.
We arrived at The Heliopolis Intercontinental before 11.00pm, but the bride and groom had not yet arrived. The actual wedding was earlier, this was the reception. Egyptian weddings are notoriously late, noisy and fun.
We walked past a huge and somewhat ominous circle of drummers and musicians with traditional instruments in to a magical room. It was the size of the largest ballroom you could possibly imagine and with the ceiling hung with long shimmering strands of deep turquoise tiny lights – millions of them. The hotel has a Pharaonic theme but it is elegant and beautiful and so well done. The theme colour for the wedding was obviously blue. There were about forty five tables, and each held ten with seats covered in white satin and tied with a silver lame and blue chiffon bow. Each had a high tower of cascading flowers in blue and silver and white coming from large bowls on the ‘towers’ – so high you could easily see people on the opposite side of the table. Suspended from the bowls were candles floating in deep blue water in turquoise glass holders. More of these were studded around the table top. The tables were covered in snack food and about half the guests were seated – we were quite early (at 11.00pm).
Crudités were coiled into large brandy balloons like amazingly layered terrines and ice nestled among them. There were samosas, stuffed vine leaves, boreks, and a variety of mezze platters.
We realised that the huge flat screens around the room were showing details of the wedding celebration. After about half an hour the pictures changed and we were watching the arrival of the bride and groom. It was a good hint that there was suddenly an extraordinary level of noise. As if the drummers and pipes themselves had not been enough it was being amplified by the speakers all around the room. It took them nearly an hour to actually walk in. All the younger guests were outside and bride and groom danced in the centre of the group to the musicians.
Then the musicians came in and the ear-splitting noise went up ten fold to almost the level of pain. There were a series of formal dances with professionals doing the dancing. A group of young women did something graceful and slow and deliberate that was beautifully evocative of Ancient Egypt and the tomb paintings, but so well done that there wasn’t a glimmer of an embarrassed smile in sight.
A stately procession of slaves in short linen wraps and bronze chest plates ( a much better way to cover all that embarrassing flesh than a long sleeved shirt) carried in the bride and groom on a golden platform. The music accelerated and a long line of waiters arrived with fully laden trays of brightly striped fruit drinks – golden yellow and scarlet and glowing in the spotlights. They formed a ring and started to circle slowly to the music and the beating drums. As the drums sped up so did they – faster and faster as they whirled around with their trays. It seemed a very difficult way to stir a drink – and not efficient either as the layers stayed firmly layered. In fact, I wondered at one stage if the glasses were glued down and the so-called fluid was not!
Nope – it was, and they peeled off and delivered trays to each table, one waiter per table.
The bride’s father came to greet us personally. Then a large ice bucket was delivered to the table, and a set of tall glasses. Then a large bottle of Scotch arrived. This costs a fortune here where alcohol other than beer has a 500% mark up. We were busy wondering if we could possibly afford for our daughter to marry in Egypt a calculating the cost of a bottle per table when we realised we were the only table to rate Scotch. What is it about the Australian reputation?
I am running out of energy typing, and still have a lot of wedding to go. I think I have to summarise with the fact that there was another adjoining ballroom full of enough food for most of Cairo, all delicious and perfectly cooked – including whole lambs so succulent the flesh just fell apart but was still moist and delectable. It was 2.00 am when we were fed and if I am honest I was so weary that I was really no longer hungry.
We stayed only another hour and left with our ears strangely numb and not working very well, and just as the entertainers for the floor show were arriving.
It was odd to have such a very dodgy Pharaonic experience in the morning, and such an exclusive and elegant one in the night. I guess if the Ancient Egyptians were seeking immortality they have it, if only because they are still being imitated in so many ways.
We were exhausted when we fell into bed, and have decided weddings are to be attended only when we know the happy couple in future, as we did this time. It is just too hard with a working day next day!