Tag Archives: Egypt

Step Up to Saqqara

TRAVEL THERE: VISITING THE STEP PYRAMID

The Egyptians didn’t wake up one morning and have the perfect formula for pyramid building.  They had hundreds of years of practice before the elegant examples at Giza were built.  (There’s a nick in the Ancient Alien theory!)  At Dashour we saw pyramids of various shapes and sizes.  Their most successful attempts led them to give step pyramids a try and the best example of these Step Pyramids is up the road a bit from Dashour and down the road a bit from Giza at Saqqara. 

Getting There

When we departed Dashour, our military friends didn’t seem quite so intimidating.  They barely glanced at us as we passed by.  Izzat got back on the main road, the one with the dirty canals in the middle, and headed back north.  Zuzu continued to regale us with the history lesson and before long we were at another military installation.  This one was not quite as intimidating, but to a certain extent a little more scary.  The soldiers at Saqqara were a little less serious, but also a lot more careless.  They all carried guns and seemed to be having several different conversations, and in each the guns were being casually waved about as if they were extensions of the gesticulating soldiers’ arms.  I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if someone’s finger slipped a bit.

If you don’t count the threat of wayward bullets, the site seems more tourist-friendly.  In Dashour everything was a street and a parking lot because it was just wide open spaces for as far as you could see.  At Saqqara, there were actual gravel-covered parking lots and roads that looked regularly traveled. 

The Museum

Another tourist- friendly feature was a small museum.  There’s actually a lovely promenade from the parking lot to the museum that looks as if it could accommodate a gift shop, a concession stand and perhaps even a small cafe, but everything was closed down tight and no signs indicated that any of it had ever been anything.  I wondered if there had been more there once or whether they were presently developing it, but Zuzu did not provide that kind of information.  He looked at me as if I’d suddenly begun to speak a language he didn’t understand and shrugged his shoulders.

We grabbed a few pictures and headed inside.  This had to be a recent development, because the interior looked like something you might see in other countries.  It was clean and neat.  The items were advantageously displayed in glass cases and lo and behold, there were placards there to identify the pieces and give a little history.  Pictures were not allowed or I would be glad to show you the lovely facility.  The museum was not large, but I liked it very much.

Wandering the Ruins

Saqqara is a significant archaeological site.  They have found a number of ruins dating to a variety of periods.  Some have been restored.  Some look as if they were once available for viewing, but have been closed up. Some areas are currently under renovation.  Even though the ruins come from different eras they are all very close together.  You can see everything without having to walk very far.

I’d say of the three Pyramid sites, Saqqara was my favorite – not more important than Giza, but more enjoyable.  Each is worth a visit.  If you can convince your guide to do them in chronological order, then kudos to you.  I think that would be an interesting progression, but that guide would not be Zuzu.  He’s going to do Giza first, no matter what.

A Little Entertainment

As if to prove they’d gotten the tourist thing figured out a Saqqara, they actually had a cultural performance!  A toupe of dancers, both male and female, performed energetic renditions of folk dances, brandishing swords, swaying their hips and stomping their feet.  The colors were a little too Hollywood to be traditional, but I appreciated the effort.

The drive back to the Mena house was daunting.  It was five o’clock traffic Egyptian style.  I was appreciating Izzat more and more.  Back at the hotel we did a little exploration, wandering around at will.  We’d been on the official tour and they encouraged us to wander the hotel – so we did.  We also had another fantastic meal, this time at the Khan-il-Khalili restaurant which specialized in Egyptian cuisine.  Back at the room I packed up.  In the morning Izzat would be there fairly early to take us to the airport for the next phase of our adventure.

 

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Don’t Miss Dashour

TRAVEL THERE: THE INFANCY OF PYRAMID BUILDING

I’m worried about Egypt.  Tourism is their primary industry, but they aren’t exactly working hard to promote it.  Bill and I shook our heads in disbelief during most of the trip.  It’s almost as if they don’t want tourists.  The first thing I’d like to do is just give everything a good cleaning and add some trashcans.  Egyptians themselves are delightful and there are wonderful things to see, but you have to be serious about wanting to visit and you will encounter obstacles.  Let me explain.

Do You Know the Way to Dashour?

The Bent Pyramid at Dashour

Were Giza, Dashour and Saqqara in the US, they’d be owned by the National Park Service.  All three complexes would be surrounded by federal lands and you’d get a tour map that helped you navigate your way from one site to another.  All along the tour route, you’d see lovely hotels, a wide variety of restaurants and other attractions like miniature golf and water slides.  Each site would have interpretive signs, museums, exhibits and gift shops.  That’s not the way it goes in Egypt.  Where is UNESCO, by the way!

Nothing about the Giza site suggests that just a short drive away are two more fantastic historical sites.  You’re just supposed to know.  There’s not a single sign that points the way.  You head off down the road and wander along the side of a filthy canal.  Along most of the way, both sides of the road has development, but it’s residences, not fast food and hotels.  If you didn’t have a guide, I guarantee you wouldn’t find it.

While there, I discovered that you could ride horses between the sites.  You can google “pyramid horse tours” and find all kinds of vendors, but since I didn’t know about the tours, I didn’t know to research it.  You are now better informed than I was.

We eventually turned off the main road, but I didn’t see anything that said, “This way to Dashour.”  A rutted goat path took us to a military installation.  I don’t know any better way to describe it – white painted buildings, with guys in uniform carrying guns.  This was not the appropriate welcoming committee for your average American tourist.

I do love one thing about Egyptians – their creativity.  Wherever we went were folks who set up shop and went about their business without the accouterments Americans would demand.  

  • If neighbors want to get together and smoke sheesha, why let the absence of a park stop you.  Gather your chairs in the street and pass the hookah.  The cars will figure out a way to get around you.
  • Want to have a souvenir shop?  Then find a piece of pavement and start selling.  You can hang wire between signs to display your wares or use a cardboard crate.
  • Need an office.  Find a table and chair – any table and chair.

The guy in charge at the military installation had followed the examples above – right by the side of the goat path.  Both pieces of furniture looked like they’d been built in the 50’s, but for completely different purposes.  Sitting on the table was the ubiquitous glass for tea.  Who needs anything else?

Nothing!

Worth It for Me

It’s no wonder that our nephew couldn’t understand why we wanted to go to Dashour.  With the exception of a few pyramids in serious disrepair there is nothing there.  I mean nothing!

But those few pyramids were worth the trip for me.  While Zuzu hadn’t found much new ground to cover with me at Giza, he was invaluable at Dashour.

Obviously, the Bent Pyramid is bent, but hearing why and how it got that way, as I stood below it, was fascinating.  We climbed up another crumbling pyramid to see the shaft built down into it, where the pharaoh’s body would have been carried and imagined the day of the funeral.  How did they get him down all those steps?  Another pyramid was tall and skinny, almost like a Christmas tree.  How did these configurations develop into what we saw at the Giza Plateau?

I’d read right before I left for Egypt that they’d just found a new pyramid at Dashour – but where?  And why didn’t they offer to show it to me for $20 more.  I would have gladly coughed up the Jackson.

The whole thing begs for development.  In our heads we laid out the informational signage, chose refreshment stands, picked out costumes for the guides and decided where the museum and shop should be.  The Egyptians need tourists to spend more days in their country and with just a few bare necessities and a little signage, people would flock to see these wonders, but as it stands, Bill and I were the lone tourists.  We would never have found it on our own and even if we would have, I doubt we’re brave enough to confront the military authorities guarding it.  What a shame!

But our Pyramid tour was not over.  On to Saqqara.  Join us next week.

 

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A Little Ancient History

My first visit to the Pyramids

TRAVEL THERE: VISITING THE GIZA PLATEAU

No traveler can really claim to have visited Egypt unless they’ve been to the Pyramids.  It’s like going to Paris and skipping the Eiffel Tower.  I’ve had the privilege of visiting Egypt twice and both times we made the trip out to Giza.  You can’t really appreciate my second experience until you hear what happened the first time.

My First Visit to Giza

Just like my most recent trip to Egypt, family was the reason we visited Egypt in 1996.  The primary motivation was Sophie, Bill’s mom.  Some business needed to be taken care of in person, but it was also my first time to meet most of his family, including Sophie who was not well enough to travel to the States for our wedding.  We crammed a lot of tourism into our 19 day stay, but family issues dominated our time there.  Well, family issues coupled with luggage woes.

In spite of our lack of luggage and our family business, Bill got me to the Pyramids within 48 hours of our arrival.  I was wearing the same outfit I wore on the plane, because it was the only one I had, but I was gleeful nonetheless.  Bill hired a car and driver for the day, but that was a very different prospect than having Ezzat on hand for our more recent visit.  Ezzat looked out for us, protected us and did everything he could to enhance our time in Egypt.  The anonymous driver we hired in 1996 treated us like tourists.

The Papyrus Museum and Perfume Factory

Yes, it happened to us.  Instead of enjoying a day at the most important tourist site in Egypt, we spent our morning at a Papyrus Museum (make that souvenir store) and before the day was over watched perfume bottles being blown and silver cartouches being poured against our will.  Bill may have thought he was a native, but to our driver he was just another gullible American tourist.

I won’t bore you with the papyrus shopping opportunity, but what happened next was important.  Our driver did not drive up to a big gate that said “The Pyramids” or buy any entry tickets.  He drove through a slum and parked in front of a hovel.  He and Bill had a significant conversation about it, but since I didn’t know what to expect I was not alarmed.  I probably should have been.

The driver had brought us here to be the reluctant guests of a local headman.  This guy, we’ll call him Ahab, had a great little industry going on.  Limo drivers brought him unsuspecting tourists and Ahab would convince them to open up their pocketbooks to benefit himself and his neighbors.  The driver may have misunderstood who Bill was, but by the end of the day, he and Ahab found out they hadn’t picked the right mark.

Initially, things seemed all right, unconventional, but entertaining.  Ahab’s “family” put me on a camel and Bill on a horse.  For awhile we rode down a street, then out into the desert and across a cemetery.  Suddenly, we were at the Pyramids.  We walked about for a bit, took a few pictures and then our “guides” arranged for us to go inside one of the Pyramids.  It was siesta time and we pretty much had the place to ourselves.  My strongest memory was heading back to Ahab’s. For a moment, I sat atop my camel looking across the Nile to Cairo with it’s crosses and crescents kissing the horizon. 

Then things didn’t seem alright.  We were ready to return to the hotel, but we were in Ahab’s control and he wasn’t ready for us to leave.  Today, we would have used our phone to contact Uber, who would know where we were thanks to the magic of GPS.  In 1996 we just had to pray for things to turn out OK.

We sat forever in a perfume showroom chatting with Ahab.  This was where we were supposed to open up our pocketbooks.  Bill had paid for our unique transportation to the Pyramids, but now his pocketbook was shut tight.  On the surface everything appeared normal, but the air was thick with non-verbal confrontation.

When it became apparent that nothing short of a firearm was going to convince us to buy any perfume-filled bottles Ahab offered us the opportunity to buy some cartouches.  He even took us into the factory where they were made, but Bill wasn’t buying a cartouche either.  I was ready to buy all their perfume and cartouches – if they’d just let us leave, but not Bill.

I’m here to tell the tale, so obviously the limo drive did eventually return, but he wasn’t glad to see us.  No commission would be forthcoming.  On the very quiet ride back to the hotel, Bill told me to get out of the car and get to the room as soon as the car pulled to the curb.  I minded him with alacrity and I don’t think any of us really want to know how things went for that driver.

No animals were involved in our most recent visit to the Pyramids and that’s just part of the good news.  Come back next week and I’ll share the adventure with you.

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The Marvelous Mena House

TRAVEL THERE: AN AMAZING HOTEL

I was predisposed to love the Mena House.  I’d been hearing about it for years and it sounded like my kind of place.  It had historical significance and it was a luxury hotel Bill’s place of birth would make affordable.  Let me tell you about it.

Arriving in Style

 I will admit there is something posh about being delivered to your hotel by a private driver and car.  We pulled up to the security gate to be sniffed by dogs, checked by metal detectors and generally gone over with a fine tooth comb, but our driver handled it all while Bill and I marveled at the Pyramids looming over us.  I thought we’d have a view of them.  I didn’t realize we’d be next door.

The lobby was opulent and we were treated like dignitaries.  Being treated like dignitaries takes a little longer than just being tourists, but it was kind of fun.  We were whisked to our room on a golf cart by a servile employee of the hotel and escorted around our new digs as if they rooms of the old palace, instead of the very comfortable modern room we’d reserved.

A Delicious Meal

Our next stop was lunch.  We wandered across the grounds and found a nice patio restaurant which served food all day long.  The prices were reasonable, the service was attentive and the food was amazing.  The travel gods were shining on us.

A Free Historical Tour

As we lazed about enjoying the view our nephew Steven and his friend John arrived.  They’d fallen for the 8:30 sight-seeing tour I’d rejected.  While they regretted waking up early, they were very happy with their day.  We decided to meet up again soon and see the free historical tour of the hotel I’d seen advertised in the lobby.  The parade of celebrities who have stayed at the Mena House is pretty interesting, but not anything compared to the amount of history that has occurred since it was built in the 1800’s as a lodge for royalty.

The Rest of the Stay

The only problem we had with our stay at the Mena House is that it was too short.  We loved hanging out in our room and enjoying the patio with the great view of the pyramids.  We loved wandering around the hotel and grounds, photographing all the beauty both natural and man-planned.  The service was amazing.  The food was great – whether we were enjoying the free breakfast buffet, having lunch with a view or enjoying a Middle Eastern feast at the Khan il Khalili restaurant (named after the famous Cairo bazaar).

I have a fantasy of returning to Giza some day to see the wonderful museum being built to replace the Cairo Museum and the Mena House would be the perfect place to stay – but I doubt I could ever get Mr. Bill back to Egypt.  The place he has fond memories of growing up in doesn’t exist anymore.

If you’re still hungry for more about the Mena House, watch this video.  If you want to know about visiting the Pyramids, then come back next week.

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A Plethora of Pyramids

Saqqara’s Step Pyramid

TRAVEL THERE: DON’T LET GIZA BE YOUR ONLY PYRAMID EXPERIENCE

If you go to Egypt, you’ve got to see the Pyramids, but don’t stay in some Cairo hotel and take a day trip to the Giza Plateau.  Get out of the city and stay at the Mena House.  Someday, hopefully, they’ll finish the new museum that is supposed to replace the antiquated Cairo Museum and doing it this way will make even more sense.  But even if they never finish the museum (a distinct possibility given the tomorrow/bokrah mentality) you don’t want to be just another tourist.  There’s more to the Pyramids than you see at Giza.

Dusk at the Pyramids

A Tourist Trap to Avoid

Before I go into what you should see, let me steer you away from the Light and Sound Show.  I had been warned, but back in 1996, the Luxor Temple Sound and Light Show was one of the highlights of my trip.  The stunning display was interesting and entertaining.  Chances are that in 1996 the Pyramid Sound & Light Show was pretty amazing, too, but it’s not anymore.

There’s a huge outdoor theater which would seat hundreds of people, suggesting the show was once a really popular attraction, but I’d be surprised if there were 50 people at the performance we attended.  What’s more, the parking lot and entry were right next to a spot used as a toilet by the local camel population.  You need to be careful where you step and the smell will bowl you over.

I had threatened to enjoy the performance from my balcony at the Mena House, but wasn’t sure if I could see it from there.  It really doesn’t matter whether I could see it or not.  The balcony would have been a better choice.

The obligatory Sphinx and Pyramid picture

You Will Go to Giza First – and You WILL Like It or ELSE

Egyptians don’t see their country the way we do.  I had great difficulty convincing my nephew that I really did want him to schedule our guide to visit Dashour and Saquara.  Having already seen Giza, I really didn’t want to waste my time there, but skipping it altogether was not to be allowed.  What’s more my excellent guide, Zuzu insisted we had to start the day there.

My nephew and his friend had toured with Zuzu the day before and warned us that he was a little, shall we say, stubborn.  With Steven and John, the main problem was that he was going to give them all the information they paid for whether they wanted it or not.  I didn’t see that being a problem for me.  I challenge any guide to tell me more than I wanted to know about what I’m seeing.  However, Zuzu was a little stubborn in other ways, too.

When we got in the car to begin our day, I explained how I had already been to Giza before and I preferred to start at Dashour.  Zuzu said we would get to Dashour, but we’d start at Giza.  I tried several approaches to convince him I was the customer and he should do it my way, but whatever tack I used, he wasn’t going for it.  I didn’t want to be that Ugly American, so content in the knowledge we would get to all three pyramid locations, I decided to sit back and enjoy the tour.

Solar Boat Shoes

The Solar Boat Museum

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go to the Giza Plateau at all, because my previous unorthodox tour had not included the Solar Boat Museum and I wanted to see it.  I just didn’t want to waste time stomping around the Pyramids and the Sphinx, if it meant I’d miss out on Dashour and Saqqara.

Well, we did stomp around the Pyramids and the Sphinx.  And guess what, they looked just like they did last time we were there.  Granted Zuzu provided more background information than I got from Ahab’s guides, but after a lifetime of watching shows about Egyptian archaeology, Zuzu didn’t have much to add that I hadn’t already learned from Zahi Hawass and Giorgio A. Tsoukalos .

The Solar Boat Museum is fascinating, but they make you wear these awful shoe covers and pictures are not allowed.  The boat was buried in the sand somewhere around 2500 BC.  It had been disassembled before burial and the pieces were intact when it was found in 1954.  It was painstakingly reconstructed over a number of years and then in 1985, the Egyptians built the museum to show off the treasure.  Don’t miss it if you visit the Pyramids.

My Giza duties fulfilled, Zuzu let Izzat take us to Dashour.  Come back next week and enjoy that part of our day.  In the meantime, here’s a video of our visit to the Pyramids.

 

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A Change of Gears

TRAVEL THERE: GOOD-BYE FAIRMONT, HELLO MENA HOUSE

We visited Egypt to attend a wedding and what a wedding it was.  Next we were headed to Giza for some Pyramid sight-seeing, but first we had to check out of the Fairmont and into the Mena House, after catching a few zzzz’s.

A Late Night Delivery

I stayed up very far past my bedtime celebrating the newlyweds, something that happened frequently on this vacation.  When we finally got back to the room, we put away our wedding finery and gratefully fell into bed.  An hour or two later, there was a knock on the door.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, because of the urgency of the banging.  Had a hotel guest confused our room for someone else’s?  Was a wife fleeing an abusive husband?  Had the newlyweds argued and needed a referee?  Or was the party still going on and they’d decided to bring it to us?

Bill got up, went to the door and discovered members of the hotel staff with a cart full of food.  My sister-in-law mentioned sending us some left-overs, but I’d assured her we didn’t need them.  There was no microwave and while we did have a frig, it was full of refreshments the hotel wanted us to buy.  We were also scheduled to be out of the hotel by noon.  No time for a feast.  Still, we’d ended up on the list of rooms to visit and they were going to deliver!  Bill kept saying no thank you and the anonymous visitors kept bringing in trays of food.

Cairo Apartment Buildings

Good Morning?

I’m persnickety about keeping a hotel room neat, but after our late night delivery I woke up at around 8:30 to what looked like a catering disaster.  There were appetizers, main dishes and desserts all over the place.  I wouldn’t have been too happy about that under any circumstances, but in this case, I had to pack before the car came.

I got myself ready and shuffled the food into a corner, but Mr. Bill didn’t budge until 10:30, which at least gave me an opportunity to catch up in my travel journal.  As we’d planned the trip he’d tried to convince me this would be a good day for sight-seeing.  His nephew Ayman, our travel agent, kept giving us itineraries with an 8 AM pick-up time and I kept sending them back.  As I sat watching him sleep off his partying I felt pretty smug.

When he did get up, we found a snack among the desserts, but the rest of the un-refrigerated food seemed like food poisoning looking for a place to happen.  The packing ritual didn’t take very long and by 11:30 we were in the lobby waiting for our car.

Egypt’s roadside answer to Home Depot

The Luxury of Having a Driver

While I love luxury, our travel budget rarely affords us much of it.  We take nice vacations, but we always have the most economical transportation available.  Thankfully, the groom insisted Bill hire a driver to transport us around when we were on our own and Ayman did us the favor of scheduling one guy to be our driver the whole time – even when we traveled to Alexandria.

Izzat was a treasure.  He was very proper in a sort of Egyptian way.  If you’ve been there you know what I mean and if you haven’t, I can’t explain it to you.  He spoke impeccable English.  The car was a Hyundai, so nothing extravagant, but very clean.  So off we went.

Early in the trip Izzat was a little difficult to engage in conversation, but by the time we left Egypt he had warmed up to these two crazy Americans.  He never wanted to be in a picture, however, and some of that might be because of his faith.  Being Christian in Egypt is not illegal, but it’s also something of a disadvantage.

On our trip to the Mena House, Izzat was polite but distant.  We observed the sites on the way out to Giza.  Come back next week and I’ll tell you about our new favorite hotel.

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Here Comes the Bride and Groom

At Long Last!

TRAVEL THERE: LET THE PARTY FINALLY BEGIN

Of course, my nephew and his new wife did finally arrive at their own wedding reception and a party like you will not believe began.  Before I share the excitement, let me explain the delay.

The Big Moment – Delayed

The big moment at most wedding receptions is the entry of the bride and groom, but in Egypt they heighten the anticipation by not allowing anything to happen until the bride and groom appear.  That practice almost caused a riot when the newlywed pair failed to appear after a couple of hours.  The crowd settled down when snacks and some liquor appeared, but there was still an undercurrent of rumor around the ballroom.

Since we were in Egypt, I should have known traffic was the problem.  A few weeks ago I told you about the crush of traffic in the construction-clogged neighborhood of Heliopolis, but in spite of the wedding’s Heliopolis location, that wasn’t what caused the problem.  The guests who attended the ceremony made it back to the hotel in just a few minutes.

I’ve mentioned this was a holiday, the end of a long weekend, so many of the guests were traveling.  The plan had been for them to skip the brief wedding and show up just in time for the entry of the bride and groom into the reception.  Only the traffic was really bad and a large percentage of the people who really needed to be there were stuck on the road into Cairo.

Just about the time I was ready to gather up my broken shoes and head to the room for a good night’s sleep, my husband returned to the table.  I really wanted to chew him out for abandoning me, but I reminded myself that I’d been the one who said I’d just stay at the table.  I may or may not have told him that I was ready to go back to the room, but he let me know that the action was about to heat up.  The missing guests were arriving in droves and the newlyweds were making their way to the ballroom.

Fireworks and Applause

While the rest of us were just anxious to get on with the celebration, my grand niece’s and grand nephew’s anxiety had been about something else.  When the bride and groom appeared, the tiny wedding guests were to display a pair of signs about the last chance to run.  As the excitement level rose in the room, they were hustled near to the stage.  Since the wedding had already happened, the timing for the signs seemed a little off to this American, but this was Egypt and time has a whole different meaning there.

Then suddenly, the newlyweds were there – the beautiful bride and my handsome nephew.  I doubt any group of wedding guests has ever been more glad to see their newlyweds.  It was an astounding appearance!  A lightshow, fireworks – even canned applause.  You would have thought we were at the Olympics, but we were in a ballroom beneath the Heliopolis Fairmont.  The award for bride of the season goes to Mariam!

If More is Better Then this was the BEST!

As soon as Bassem and Mariam showed up the flood gates of hospitality opened.  Before too long a bountiful buffet was presented.  I swear we could have opened up the doors to every one staying at the Fairmont (both the older section and the Towers)  and still had leftovers for weeks.

There were two buffets, one for the main course and another for desserts.  There were also several specialty stations.  Problem was, my stomach had decided those few bites it got with the mezza was all it was going to get, so it had shut down for the night.  What I did manage to eat was great, but I couldn’t do justice to all those beautiful proteins, carbs and fats.

The dessert bar was unbelievable.  It stretched for what seemed like miles and had an amazing array of choices.  Any cruise ship would have been jealous.  In fact, I have to say that the actual offerings were better than any boat I’d been on.  The table wasn’t overcrowded with the decor some cruise ships employ, but the selections were top quality to match their great variety.

Starvation abated, it was time to dance- and dance we did.  The dj was great and pretty much every song was danceable.  Like most weddings, there were more kids and women dancing in groups than there were couples, but the energy was high.  Finally, I was not the only barefooted woman in the room.  My sweet husband obliged me, by taking me out to the floor a number of times, as did several of my nephews, cousins and such.  The groom spent a lot of time on the dance floor, but the bride could usually be seen enjoying her friends up on the white sofa in the lounge.

But the true highlight of any Egyptian party is the belly dancer and you’re going to have to come back next week for that.  I’ll leave you with a picture of me and my guys.

Blessed with Nephews!

 

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