Library of Alexandria
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February 24, 2003:

Woke to sheets of rain beating against the shutters and shlumped downstairs for breakfast. It's our last day in Egypt and we're getting tired and ready to go home. The continental breakfast was a sad affair, really, and we ordered a cheese omelet (and got a plate of cheese the first time -- a nice assortment of french stuff). Language barriers are fun! I can't figure out why we have the most interesting food adventures when we travel.

Mr. Mohammed arrived at 10:30 and we checked out in short order.

The plan today is the Royal Jewelry Museum, the new Library, and back to Cairo for our flight. We've been invited by Mr. Mohammed to have dinner with his family again, before our flight leaves for New York. The first time we had dinner with them, it was arranged by the tour company. This seems to be a spontaneous invitation, which really was nice.

It's too wet for much sightseeing today, and the wind is howling in from the Mediterranean Sea with a vengeance. The waves are breaking hard on the beach. It if was a bit warmer, we might go wandering around the city for a while on our own (probably with Mr. Mohammed following us in the van!) but it was cruddy. Going from the desert to this wet, blustery weather is a bit of a shock.

Bibliotheca Alexandrina
The jewelry museum is closed for restoration, so off to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.


The Library is round, eleven stories "deep", with most of the structure underground and a vast louvred-glass ceiling that lights the entire library with a pale, diffused light. The outside of the library is a concrete swoop around the lobby, covered in glyphs in many different languages. Even this monumental entrance doesn't do justice to the library inside.

My palms start sweating the minute I get inside. This is actually normal for me, but the sheer size of the place is almost overwhelming. The original library, which was burned to the ground two millenia ago, was recognized the world over as the repository of knowledge and arts. Depending on which history you adhere to, it was burnt by Caesar in 48 CE, the Christians in 391, or Muslims in 642. In any case, it contained "too much" knowledge. The goal of the new library is to live up to that ancient reputation. The old library contained about 700,000 volumes and enjoyed something called "first deposit rights", which meant that any book or manuscript entering into the city could be copied for the library.

The new library has 4 million volumes, 50,000 maps, and 100,000 manuscripts, including many rare and one-of-a-kind volumes. Eventually, the collection may top 8 million books. Part of the project also includes "internet archives" of some 10 billion pages which are accessible from the hundreds of computers in the Library.

Books are shelved in many languages -- using the standard Dewey Decimal system, which makes it a bit easier. There are many books in English, French, and Arabic, as well as a smattering of other languages throughout the shelves. There are three museum exhibits, including a manuscript museum which we did not visit. There are computers everywhere with access to the entirety of the library's catalog and hundred of other resources.

Mark finally dragged me away after two hours spent wandering the shelves, admiring the art displays, and browsing the online resources. I could have spent the entire day there -- if we could have convinced Mr. Mohammed that he didn't have to wait for us in the van. We tried to convince him to go have coffee or visit his family in Alexandria, but he was adamant that he was responsible for us and would wait.

Back to Cairo
We started home amid a fresh burst of rain, stopping for lunch at Omar's Oasis about halfway back on the Desert road. Quite a good lunch (and Mr. Mohammed seems to be well-known here). The menu us in Arabic, and no one spoke English -- Mr. Mohammed translated as he could and we managed alright. I had lamb curry and Mark had some sort of chicken. It's probably the least adventurous meal we've had in a few days.

Mr. Mohammed bought fettir -- a phyllo pizza -- for dinner later.

We dropped off our security guy at the train station so he could go back to Alexandria and we went to into Cairo to pick up souvenirs. We bought two alabaster vases at one of the tourist bazaars and went to Mohammed's apartment. We sat -- slightly uncomfortably -- in his living room since his wife was not home yet and I'm not sure he can even boil water on his own! He sent one of the neighborhood kids out for bottles of Pepsi.

Their older son joined us for dinner, as well. He is getting married soon, and so we talked about marriage customs (arranged marriages are still the norm) and the wedding. THey are very pleased with the match, and their son seems excited, too.

Dinner was fettir -- dough with lots of butter, eaten as a kind of pizza with mish (cheese) and tomatoes and molasses. Good, but heavy. We had a nice time, even without George to translate. AFter dinner we watched TV with the family. George finally arrived at about ten and we went to the airport for our midnight-ish flight.


Cancelled? This is a major flight -- the only one to the states. The next flight is tomorrow at 11:25. George is furious. The airline never called him with the cancellation, and didn't tell him anything when he called to confirm the flight the day before.

So, off to the EgyptAir office to see what is going on. George starts to chain-smoke. They won't move us to another airline and certainly don't understand that 40 minutes is not enough time to get from JFK to Newark for our connecting flight. AARGH.

George is apologizing profusely -- it's certainly not his fault and we're not upset at all We'll get home eventually. But customer service is not helpful. The plane was grounded for "mechanical problems".

After quite a bit of yelling by George and the airline people, we are told that we're just moved to 11:30 tomorrow. We will miss our connecting flight to Denver, and they are not the least bit sympathetic, since we didn't make the reservations at the same time (?). They tentatively put us on a flight, but can't confirm it. We later discovered that the flight number they gave us doesn't even exist! We'll get a voucher for the hotel, but they won't deal with us in NY. I suppose that's what we get for flying on a government owned airlines.

George starts to twitch when he can't find us a hotel room near the airport. We finally get a room at the Hilton in downtown Cairo about 1am with a 7am wake up call.

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