Tuesday, June 08, 2010


I’m not going to lie: We originally opted to visit this city solely because of its name, hoping that there was something else cool enough about it to warrant a trip. Zagazig? Who wouldn’t want to go there? It’s like zigzag…only backwards. Granted, they don’t say zag-a-zig in Egypt. They drop the Gs so it comes out like za-a-zi, but still, it’s a cool name.

Zagazig is a bustling town in the Delta, with a population of around 279,000, according to Wikipedia. It claims the ruins of the ancient city Bubastis, or Tell Basta, named after the feline goddess Bastet, and is possibly the city Pi-beseth, mentioned in Ezekiel 30:17. There was a temple complex there to worship Bastet, which we went to. Construction of the temple was begun in the 4th dynasty by Khufu and Khafre—you know, the pyramid guys—and various pharaohs kept adding onto it for the next 17 centuries, which almost explains why we saw ancient Egyptian lotus-style column capitals and more classical Corinthian capitals, although I can’t quite get the dates to add up.

The 4th dynasty lasted from ca. 2613 to 2494 BC and 1700 years from that only brings us to between 913 and 794 BC. According to Wikipedia, “the oldest known example of a Corinthian column is in the Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae in Arcadia,ca 450–420 BC.” Seems to me our history is off by about 300 years. No biggie.

My sources aren’t all that in depth—Lonely Planet and Wikipedia—so I’m not too worried about it. Besides, who knows what kinds of places they pulled all the rubble that they had on display.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Since we were taking the train to Zagazig and we had been meaning to visit the Egyptian Railway Museum we decided to get to the train station early and stop there on our way. This wasn’t an issue since our train didn’t leave until one in the afternoon and the museum is located right on platform one.

The museum opened on January 15th, 1933, according to the leaflet they gave to us as a “gift,” coordinating with the International Railways Conference that was held in Cairo in 1933 so that attendees of the conference could also attend the grand opening of the museum. There are about 700 models and exhibits in the museum and I’m pretty sure they haven’t touched any of them since 1933.

There’s a full-size cross-sectioned model of a train engine that was open for exploration. Rachel was terrified of it.

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There were actually several hands-on activities like a Walschaerts valve gear you could spin by cranking a handle…

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…a railroad switch, some operator booths, and so forth.

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They also had a fancy rail car of Mohammed Ali Pasha. Rachel was afraid of that, too. I don’t know why.

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While we were taking pictures a worker came up to us and informed us that although photography was not prohibited in the museum we were only allowed to take one picture per person…the whole visit.

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We feigned compliance and then started snapping pictures of everything in sight just to spite her. Therefore we ended up with loads more pictures than we would have taken had she not started trying to enforce arbitrary rules.

There were some interesting things in the museum, though. They had old travel posters and railway advertisements up all over the place and dozens of ghetto models and displays.

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While we were wandering around Andrew kept mentioning that Grandpa Frank would be in heaven—he loves model trains and planes and this museum was chock full of them, although I’d be willing to wager that Grandpa Frank’s trains are in much better condition than the models they had at the museum.

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There were trains on the roof of the station, trains strewn about the tracks, and trains still in their boxes. And what’s with that picture of flowers in the background? Just prettying things up, I suppose.

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Also, I had never seen a model train track with a mosque on it until today, just saying.

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The planes were in much better condition than any of the train sets I think, in part, because they were suspended from the ceilings, out of reach of the general public.

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Of course there was also the obligatory ancient Egyptian hud placed around the museum—they have so much of it here they have to put it in every museum they have whether it fits the bill or not. Josie thought this life-sized statue was rather attractive.

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I also enjoyed the random (and very dusty) floral arrangements stashed here and there throughout the museum, as well as the multiple pictures of Mubarak. Also, I just noticed that that clock in the picture isn’t showing the right time since this picture was taken at around 12:30, not 3:45.

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We found a model of the trains that are still functioning (or at least are eerily similar to the ones that are) in Egypt today—this exhibit was clearly added post-1933 but was still installed decades ago, I’m sure. These trains were imported from Yugoslavia in 1963.

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We boarded one that looked almost exactly like this (except that it was blue, not grey) about twenty minutes after leaving the museum. Our tickets from Cairo to Zagazig only cost 10 LE, for the air conditioned car, which we thought was a great deal until the train pulled up. It was the nastiest looking train I’ve ever set foot on and our car smelled strongly of urine. Luckily the trip only took an hour. 

From the train station in Zagazig it was only a quick cab ride to the Temple of Bubastis. Taxis in Zagazig are red and white and we’re sure we grossly overpaid because neither of our drivers argued with the fare we paid (5 LE). In fact, they received it quite happily.

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We were dropped off on the side of the road at the pre-entrance to the entrance of the site where the guards deliberated for a good fifteen minutes before deciding to grant us entrance. There were men dressed in galabias standing around with guns slung on their backs—they were there for military training. I will never understand why they always put military bases right by tourist destinations.

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“We’ve got three Americans here,” one guard said into his radio, “What should we do with them?”

A garbled response came from the other end.

“Well, there’s a man and two women….the man says he’s a student at the American University…one of the women is his wife, the other claims to be the wife’s sister…I don’t know what they want.” He turned to us, “What do you want?”

“We just want to visit the Temple of Bubastis. This is a tourist site, right?”

“Yes. They want to visit the ruins. I don’t know why. They don’t look dangerous. Should we let them in?”

After fifteen minutes of that a police truck drove up and stopped near us.

“Alright, you can go,” said one of the guards in the truck.

Josie and I headed to the ticket booth. Andrew started climbing up into the bed of the police truck. The guards looked at him like he was crazy and directed him to the ticket booth. It was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen—Andrew awkwardly stopping halfway in, halfway out while the guards yelled at him. Classic.

This is me laughing about it when we were recounting the event later.

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The temple of Bubastis is really nothing more than a pile of rubble, although they do have a modern-looking visitor’s center (that was locked up) and had a nice (if not very sunny) display of choice pieces they supposedly dug out from among the wreckage.

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There is a statue on a large pedestal that seemed to be the main draw of the complex, though I can’t figure out why since the statue has the face of a human, not a cat. She looks almost like Hathor to me but I’m no Egyptologist so don’t take my word for it.

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Rachel loved all the ramps to run up and down and the “curbs” to balance on. Her dress was so filthy by the end of our outing that we could have set her on the street to beg.

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A guard was charged with the duty of babysitting us and it was a little unnerving to have him following us around so closely. Andrew dared Josie to lick some hieroglyphics while the guard wasn’t looking, so she did.

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I still can’t believe she did that. Silly girl.

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When we had looked at everything on display we asked the guard about the “cat cemetery,” which he took us to. Lonely Planet describes it as “morbidly fun to explore” but the guard wouldn’t let us down inside any of the underground galleries so we could only see what was exposed on the ground. It was rather extensive and makes me wonder what we would have seen had we been allowed to go inside any of the galleries.

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I have a hunch it would have been more fun to explore if we hadn’t been being stalked so closely by our guard. He was right on our tail the whole time. Still, it was interesting.

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There were these prickly bushes all over the ground and instead of avoiding them, Rachel would run right through them, singing, “Run through the prickly plants! We can’t go around them! We have to go through them! Quick! Quick! Ow! Ow!”

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I talked to her about going around them instead but she insisted we had to go “right through them!” At least she was wearing socks and shoes, right?

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We were all hot and tired by the time we left, except for Rachel, who was merely hot. She still wanted to climb and jump on everything.

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While we were stopped at an intersection on our way back into town another taxi pulled up to ours and asked the driver if he could break a twenty. Our driver said he could and started rooting around his money compartment but then traffic started moving again and everyone else started honking so our driver started moving forward. The other taxi stayed right beside us. When our driver had made the correct change he handed it to Andrew who passed it through the window to the other driver. All while zipping through busy streets like taxis here do. It was quite amazing to watch. I’m impressed we didn’t crash, especially while our driver was rifling through his change compartment.

Our first stop downtown was at a juice store. Andrew and I got some fresh mango juice…that was mixed with ice. We usually avoid ice in Egypt because ice can be dangerous. In Cairo, anyway, ice is carted around in a stack of hay by donkeys and boys just chisel off chunks and sell those to stores. It’s slightly less than sanitary. We drank our juice, anyway, and it was so good but we were worried about getting sick so we also bought some Coke and guzzled that down, too.

Coke should always accompany any meal you eat off the street. It destroys just about anything that would make you sick.

We were still feeling thirsty and adventurous so we also got some aseer ‘asab, or sugarcane juice. It’s hard to believe we’ve lived for two years in Cairo and hadn’t tried it yet.

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Andrew asked how much it was for a bag of juice and the man told him it would be two pounds. Then he grabbed a stalk of sugarcane, broke it into fourths, and handed it to a befuddled Andrew. This is Andrew’s alrighty-then face:

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When the man had finished breaking the sugarcane Andrew explained that what we actually wanted was juice. We got it in the end and, truthfully, I found it disgusting. I don’t think Josie liked it much, either, and Andrew said it could grow on him, but he wasn’t a big fan.

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I thought it tasted like the way outside smells—sickly sweet and almost like wet, rotting grass. Yuck! Rachel liked it, though!

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I saw some belts for sale on the street and stopped to look at them. I have been needing a belt for a long time. I didn’t like any of the belts displayed on the street, though, so the shop owner invited me to follow him inside the market where there were more belts on display. There we were caught up in a mosh pit of admirers, and not just for Rachel and Miriam, either. They wanted pictures with all of us. I don’t think they get foreigners in Zagazig very often.

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I did find a belt that I liked, in case you were wondering, and, yes, it feels fantastic to walk around without having to pull up my pants every couple of steps.

We went back to the train station to rest on the benches on the square while we ate our lunch of juice, bread, and coke.

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Some of our admirers followed us from the market and charmed Rachel into playing soccer with them. She’s usually pretty shy so I’m impressed that she was able to jump in and kick the ball around with a bunch of boys.

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There was a statue in the square and Andrew went up to see who it was a statue of.

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“It’s Ahmed Orabi,” he declared, sitting back down on the benches with us.

“Oh, that makes sense,” I said, “He was born here.”

“Really? Orabi was born in Zagazig? How do you know that?”

Well, for once I Wikipedia-ed before we went somewhere instead of after and Orabi is listed as one of the “notable people from Zagazig,” that’s how. Orabi staged the Orabi Revolt against the British in the late 1800s, hence the name of the revolt, and Andrew wrote about him a lot in his thesis.

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Rachel clearly doesn’t get pop a lot and hardly ever gets caffeinated pop, but she had eaten street food, too, and so we made an exception. She was buzzing with energy and Andrew told her, “You’d better sleep tonight!” But she settled right down once we were on the train…it was about a half hour late coming in so she had a lot of time to run around on the platform before we boarded.

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Miriam allowed herself to be passed around to all the admiring strangers while we waited and somehow managed to stay awake the whole way back to Cairo.

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It was a nice day trip—we arrived in Zagazig at 2:30 and left at 6:15 PM. We even had time to stop at Dar es-Salaam on the way home, which I won’t write about now. But it was a good day, and not too terribly exhausting, either.


  1. I haven't had sugar cane since the mission. We'd sometimes get a piece and bite off small chunks, chew the juice out, and spit it out. Yummy.

  2. I.can'' juice!!!!

    Ah.. actually I do... ppl have diff tastes, and they aren't unanimously in agreement regarding sugarcane juice appeal.. BUT I LOVE IT and it's one of the things I miss the most in Egypt :)

    Have you guys gone to Heliopolis/Nasr City during your stay?

  3. Heliopolis has lots of nice churches, the presidential palace, lots of squares... while Nasr City is all about the malls and shopping e.g. City Stars Mall...

  4. you guys are the coolest americans i 've ever seen or will ever see i guess, zagazig!!! lool. of course u had lots of admirers and the guards had to be suspicious cuz not even the president of egypt has ever visted zagazig , im egyptain myself ,lived all my life in egypt and never been there and not mention drinking the sugar cane juice :) you are my new heros :)!!! im beyond impressed coz this is like a small town with no attractions whatsoever , but you have reintroduced my country to me :) GOD bless you and enjoy your time in egypt ,i so love your attitude :)

  5. Your family is the cutest thing ever! And how much Rachel and Miriam have grown. It is almost scary.

    Definitely going to miss reading your adventures in Egypt. Why do you have to leave :(?

    Wish you all the best!

  6. I actually lived in Zagazig, and will go back ( Im from Europe ), very good place :)
    Maybe see u again there some day !