Hieroglyphs in the Sun – Chapter 4

Posted by: Maria Atalanti

Published on: 15/05/2024

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 The Market of El Khalil

In the morning, she met Hans alone again. She sat next to him and struck up a conversation in a casual tone. She asked him about his impressions of their journey so far, and to her surprise, he replied politely:

-I knew quite a lot about Egypt before we came here. I don’t know if my mother told you, but my father was an Egyptologist. He constantly spoke to me about this ancient civilization. I haven’t learned much new until now; I just identify my knowledge with the authentic sites.

-Would you like to become an Egyptologist too?”

-I don’t know yet. That’s why when this trip ends, we’ll stay with my mother for a few days in Cairo. I would like to make some decisions.

-Oh, I didn’t know you would stay in Cairo,” Sofia said, surprised.

-I thought my mother had told you, Hans said, turning back to his food.

At that moment, Nefeli arrived, and the conversation stopped. Although what Hans said wasn’t particularly significant, Sofia felt that something more was happening than she knew and understood. But she left the matter there. She didn’t want to pressure her friend.

Leaving the hotel, they took their luggage with them because they would fly to Luxor in the afternoon. Their first stop was the National Museum of Cairo, which had recently opened as well. There were exhibits from various periods of Egypt’s history, and in the basement, a room with mummies. In a low-lit environment, the visitors from Cyprus encountered the mummies, the all-powerful kings, and queens of Egypt, who had been resting in silence for millennia. These lifeless bodies were weak and shrunk. It was striking that one could see their hair, even their hairstyles.

The mummy that was discussed the most was that of Ramses II, the mighty Pharaoh of Egypt, whose colossal statue they had seen on the first day at the Grand Museum of Cairo. A king with the stature of a god there, here he lay before them, imperishable but fleshless and weak, making one thinking that the vanity of excess doesn’t accompany you after death. He died at the age of 92, an old age for that time. With his many wives, he had a hundred children. He was a very successful Pharaoh who ensured his memory by building many monuments. The most famous is Abu Simbel, in southern Egypt, one of the best-preserved temples of ancient Egypt, dedicated to himself, his wife Nefertari, and four deities.

And here, Nefeli added some interesting information:

-Ramses II was not great only for the monuments he left behind and the women he had. During his reign, a great drought plagued the region, and important civilizations, such as the Assyrians, were destroyed. The Egyptians survived. Contemporary scientists discovered that they experimented with different varieties of grains and cultivated the most resistant ones and those requiring less water. They also managed to develop a method for calculating the amount of water the Nile would bring each year – the Nilometer – to know how large areas they could cultivate. In this way, they succeeded in maintaining satisfactory quantities of food for their needs.

Their next stop was the market of Khan El Khalili. Sofia had heard about it from Alkinoos Ioannidis’ song ‘Stin agora tou Al Halili’ and was expecting to see something very exotic and oriental. It was indeed an oriental market, but with evident signs of tourist attraction. It was unlikely for an Egyptian to come here to shop. There was everything, from dried fruits, spices, traditional costumes, bags, pouches, clay objects, metal objects, and anything a person could think of. Even the smell of the place was peculiar, as the vendors burned oriental incense to advertise their goods.

Their shops, makeshift accommodations, one next to the other, forming intricate alleys, made Sofia feel for a moment that she could get lost. She followed Nefeli and Hans, struggling through the crowd. She didn’t want to buy anything herself, but she remembered her neighbor, Elpida, who watered her plants, and thought it was a good opportunity to get her a gift. However, she didn’t dare to stop somewhere on her own; she simply followed Nefeli and waited for her to shop so she could choose her gift.

The vendors were pushy and persistent in their efforts to force the tourists passing by to buy their products. They spoke Arabic, some words in Spanish or English or Greek, whatever they knew, until they hit upon the language of the tourists in front of them. Visitors from Cyprus were clearly instructed by their guide to haggle over the price because that was the culture of the country and how transactions were made. This was complicated for Sofia, who had never done anything like that in her life. She noticed that almost all products started from forty euros and ended up at ten, five, or even three. It depended on how skilled the buyer was at bargaining.

At some point, Nefeli entered a shop that, among other things, had decorated chessboards because she wanted to buy one to play chess with Hans. Those shown to her by the vendor did not satisfy her, and she was ready to leave when he suggested taking her to the back rooms to show her more variety. She didn’t want to follow him, and he persisted. He had become very insistent, and when Nefeli started to leave, he grabbed her hand. Nefeli pulled, but he held her tightly.

To her surprise, Sofia saw Hans raise his cane and hit him on the hand. He let out a cry and let her go. Immediately, they all left the shop and moved away hastily. It was then that, out of the corner of her eye, Sofia saw the blonde woman watching from a distance and then disappearing.

-Coincidence? Who knows? she thought.

She didn’t say anything, though. She didn’t want to complicate the situation further. As they were all disturbed, they decided to go to a café recommended by the guide to eat something and calm down. There, they met other people from their group who were having a light meal and told them about their recent experience. There was a big discussion, and everyone was surprised at the violent way the vendor had acted. Yes, they were intolerably pushy in their attempts to sell their products, but they shouldn’t resort to such methods!

-Very strange behavior, they all concluded.

-Anyway, all’s well that ends well, Nefeli said to stop the discussion. Let’s forget about it. It was an unlucky moment.

While they were talking, Sofia looked around, partly to see if the blonde woman had followed them and partly to study the decoration of the place, expressing Egyptian aesthetics and tradition. At least that’s what she assumed.

She didn’t spot the blonde woman. The café-restaurant was quite large, with low lighting, characteristic of areas with very high temperatures trying to maintain a cool atmosphere indoors. The waiters were dressed in traditional costumes and wore a red fez on their heads. The floor was decorated with geometric black-and-white shapes, forming a flower with a heart in ochre in the middle. The ceiling was adorned with a carved geometric pattern, and the windows had a metal grid in square shapes. There were low sofas with low tables, as well as wooden tables with wooden chairs. On the walls were photographs, perhaps of the founders of the café, and large mirrors, but otherwise, the ordering and payment system were organized by electronic means and modern methods. Most visitors were obviously foreigners.

-A ‘traditional’ café for tourists, she thought. However, it is very beautiful and well-organized.

Hans was very caring towards his mother, as if he cared more for her, after the incident. They all drank the wonderful guava juice, which you find everywhere in Egypt, and ate falafel, a local dish, like meatballs, made with fava beans.

As they left the café, Nefeli declared that she had no desire to return to the narrow alleys with the tiny shops that led to hidden spaces in the back. They agreed to walk to the Square with the mosque, near the point where their bus would pick them up. There were shops there as well as wandering vendors. Finally, Sofia managed to buy a wallet for Mrs. Elpida. Thinking she had exhausted all her bargaining skills – a quality she had just acquired – she got it for only 10 euros from the initial price of 40. To her surprise, she later learned that the others had bought three at the price of 10 euros!

-I’m not cut out for bargaining! she thought.

Gradually the whole group gathered, and they took the bus to the airport. Sofia took the opportunity to talk to Nefeli to discuss the incident at the market. However, she didn’t seem to want to continue talking about it, so Sofia fell silent. But inside, she thought that the vendor, besides his insistence on making her shop, might have wanted to kidnap her because she is so impressive. She knew that Arabs really like beautiful women.

-What nonsense!’ she scolded herself. How could he have kidnapped her when we were all there? But if he had dragged her into the back rooms, where would we find them in that maze? Then there’s also that blonde woman who keeps popping up every now and then. Is it a coincidence or does it play a role?

-Stop these thoughts! she said sternly to herself. Try to enjoy the trip! But I’ll have her close to me, among the crowd, anyway, she concluded.

Their flight was short, about an hour, but their journey was impressive. As the plane headed towards Luxor, south of Cairo, at the time when the sun was setting on the horizon, they could see on their right an orange sunset and on their left, a red moon rising. This spectacle lasted throughout the journey. It was magical!

-In this country from ancient times, people worshipped the sun and its light, Nefeli said. It’s some time when we travel and see nothing but the beauty of the celestial bodies. It’s natural for people to be connected to the starry sky and to identify their monuments with the stars. You know, they believed that the god Osiris came from the constellation of Orion. And as I’ve told you, the three pyramids of Giza correspond to the exact positions of the three stars in the belt of Orion.

-What do you mean ‘in the belt’ of Orion?

-Orion is a constellation composed of eight main stars and many smaller ones, which, when connected by imaginary lines, resemble an archer with his bow drawn. In the middle of the archer, where the belt is located, there are the three stars whose positions correspond to the pyramids of Giza. And the amazing thing is that in similar positions, the Aztecs have placed their pyramids, in Teotihuacan in Mexico.

-Impressive! Thousands of miles apart, corresponding structures, corresponding locations!

-If one starts studying astronomy, archaeology, history, even mathematics, one realizes that everything is interconnected and creates a magical and wonderful image of our world, which includes not only the earth, but the entire universe.

-You put it so nicely! Maybe if we can see this big picture, we’ll stop being obsessed with our religions, our homelands, our egocentric desires, and focus on this wonderful world that surrounds us.

-All these may sound romantic and unattainable, but if we think that whatever man does, he does to feel fulfilled and happy, and most of the time he gets trapped in the webs he himself weaves, without finding what he’s looking for, then this proposal is a good alternative.

-That’s what I’ve really missed in life. The search, the adventure, the other, beyond the established.

At that moment, Nefeli took Sofia’s hand in hers and said, “This trip is your opportunity! It seems it will be adventurous and mysterious. Let’s see if you’ll enjoy it!”

Sofia smiled and said nothing. She already felt that beyond the sightseeing in Egypt, another story was unfolding, one she couldn’t yet define. However, she was ready for the adventure, maybe even anticipating it.

That evening at dinner, they sat with a few other people from their group. There was Michael and Anna, both retired bank employees, as well as Maria, who was also a retired teacher. Inevitably, the conversation focused on Nefeli’s morning adventure.

Opinions were exchanged. Michael said they should call the police. Anna found the whole story very strange because Muslims usually don’t touch strange women. But Maria expressed what everyone was thinking but no one said: that Nefeli is a very beautiful woman, and the Egyptian’s intentions could be much more sinister than just trying to sell her a chessboard.

Nefeli listened to them politely and calmly. She didn’t seem to enjoy the conversation but hid her feelings. Hans showed clearly that he was upset and got up from the table. So gradually the conversation stopped, and everyone began to comment on what they had seen the day that passed.

Sofia’s feelings were mixed. Inside her, she had a concern for her friend; she understood that something undefined was happening, but she also felt a trust and a certainty that everything would be fine.


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