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Monday, April 1, 2024

Annual Gasoline Price Post

It was difficult, this year,  to put together my annual blog post on the price of gasoline.  I had the pictures of prices at the pump taken in early January showing the government mandated price of 11.5 Egyptian Pounds per liter.



But what should I use for the conversion of Egyptian Pounds to U.S. Dollars?  The official rate had remained at 30.85 EGP per USD since the previous year.  This was a valid number - it is what I would see if I used a credit card or withdrew money from an ATM.  But the "parallel market," as it was referred to in the local media (black market in U.S. media) was reportedly running at 40 to 1 - some reports said 50 to 1 - there was even a report in Barrons of 70 to 1, although I couldn't find anyone that had evidence of it happening.  

Rumors about imminent devaluation of the pound were flying - even that the pound would be allowed to float.

Finally, the devaluation came to pass on March 7.  The pound was free to float!  And it surfaced at about 48 EGP to the dollar before settling around 47.


So I planned for two entries on the annual chart.  Of course, in Egypt, plans change.  Just a few days after the pound was devalued, the government regulated price of gasoline changed.  Everyone's favorite 92 octane jumped from 11.5 EGP per liter to 12.5   Reports of the change quickly circulated on the media and Internet.


With all the calculations done, here is the bottom line:  The Egyptian motorist has seen the price of gasoline rise from 9.25 to 12.5 EGP  per liter - a whopping 35% over the past year.

Meanwhile, the U.S. observer of the scene has noticed that the price has fallen from $1.19 per gallon to $1.00 per gallon - almost a 16% decrease.

Yes.  Dollar a gallon gas has returned!

Here are some historic gas prices for as long as I have been keeping track - with three lines for the current year, 2024. (Prices shown in Egyptian Pound and U.S. Dollar equivalency)  Note that over the seventeen year period, the Egyptian prices has increased by a factor of 8 while the price in dollars has remained fairly constant.

US $
Year per liter per gallon
2007 1.50 1.04
2011 1.42 0.93
2013 1.85 1.04
2014 1.85 1.01
2016 2.60 1.26
2017 3.50 0.74
2018 5.00 1.11
2019 6.75 1.46
2020 7.75 1.83
2022 8.50 2.05
2023 9.25
       2024 Jan 11.50
     1.41 *1
       2024 Jan
        2024 Mar
*1 Price in U.S. Dollars at official rate vs. "parallel market" rate

When  we traveled to Minya by van, I noted the price of Solar (Diesel fuel.)  Selling for only 8.25 EGP per liter in January, it jumped 21% to 10 EGP per liter.  While only costing 80 cents a gallon on our scale, the 21% increase will ripple through the entire Egyptian economy.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Winter in Egypt, 2024 - We Visit the Grand Egyptian Museum, a First Look Inside

Finally, after decades of planning, construction, revolution and pandemic, the Grand Egyptian Museum is open.  Well, not completely open, just "Open in trial mode" - sort of a beta testing phase.

I chronicled the long-running construction of the new Grand Egyptian Museum back in 2018.  We became hopeful that the opening was near when we saw direction signs appear on the Ring Road a year ago.  

We were aware that the museum was now open in "trial mode" before we arrived in January but thought that we would put off a visit on the hope that it would go into fully open mode before we returned home. We got encouragement to go visit when we visited our good friend, Jill, who described her visit - especially the "Tutankhamen Immersive Exhibition."  (See description and brief preview here.)

Reservations are required, especially for the Immersive Exhibit, but it appeared that walk-ups were being admitted to the museum the day that we were there.

With our reservations/admission tickets in hand we drove to the museum parking lot and were granted admission - well, after we were forced to return to the car and leave behind my cameras.  "Photography is permitted for personal use" - but not with a camera.*

I apologize for the photo quality.  Next year I will bring a better quality mobile phone camera just for photos.

We took several pictures of the outside of the museum since we have been following the construction and admiring the appearance for so long.



The ticket price for foreigners is 1200 Egyptian Pounds, about $25 apiece.  We were able to skate by for half of that since we had our Egyptian residency cards.  That is one of the benefits of that lengthy process described back at this post.


We had been particularly interested in seeing the obelisk outside.  It was not among the many that once existed in ancient Heliopolis (see previous post) as it was brought here from Tanis, farther north in the Nile Delta where we had seen it back in 2019.  Its companion also was moved from Tanis and now resides downtown in Tahrir Square.


The scale of this massive building is hard to appreciate until you approach the actual entrance and pass by the huge cartouches that decorate the surround.


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Once inside the building, the visitor feels the dominant presence of Ramses II represented by his 83-ton statue in the heart of the lobby. 


Poor Ramses.  He was moved out here from the Cairo railway depot back in 2006 and has been patiently awaiting the opening of the GEM ever since.  I never photographed him while he was at the station.  We have visited his twin statue near Memphis/Dashour on numerous occasions, however, and have many photographs of him.


Our tickets specified admission to the 10:30 showing of the Immersive Exhibition.  Like others, we followed the suggestion to arrive fifteen minutes early and joined the group near the theater entrance close to the grand staircase.

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There is just a brief blurb about the development of the show.  The mention on this poster of "square pixels," "black pixels" and high resolution numbers like 7920 was encouraging to this old tech guy.  This was likely not going to be like the old standard definition projection TV at the heart of many U.S. National Park and monument shows.

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I was not disappointed.  As the exhibition began, there were gasps and "ooh"s in several languages.


A bit of the simulated 3-D flavor of the projection video comes through in this photo showing a curved section of a tomb as it "rounds the corner" at the head of the room.


Part of the projected image also is displayed on the floor.  I was a bit late in taking this next photo which would have shown the fish swimming up the Nile River beneath our feet.  "Immersive" indeed!


Of course, as the room cleared, I took a couple of pictures of the projection units mounted on the ceiling.  To describe it as a bit of a lash-up installation doesn't seem out of place.  But the alignment of the projected images was absolutely seamless.  I was impressed!

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Following the Immersive Exhibition a museum guide led a quick half-hour tour of the open portion of the museum.  We picked up a pair of headphones to hear the guide, although it wasn't necessary as there were only four of us in her tour group.  Two Australians and we two Americans had a full English language tour to ourselves.  Our guide normally led Chinese groups but was doing fill in work in English that day.  She had excellent language skills and nicely handled questions.  

We began at the bottom of the grand staircase, pausing to look at about half of the exhibits on the way up.

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At the top of the staircase, there is a scale model of the museum showing its relationship to the Giza pyramids and there is a fine view of those pyramids from the window at the end of the building.  In the future, there are supposed to be jitneys running between the museum and the pyramids, providing an improved experience for visitors.

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The guided tour concluded at the top of the staircase and visitors were left on their own to descend and visit additional exhibits that had been pointed out as we climbed.

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The Grand Museum provides a lot of space for exhibits that were difficult to house in the old museum downtown.  The stairs provide a vantage point not possible otherwise and long expanses of space open up other possibilities.




This tip of Queen Hatshepsut's obelisk was attracting a lot of attention from visitors viewing it from a variety of angles.


Meanwhile, nearby, Linda was capturing an image of a liquid offering table.

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We had never encountered an offering table like this before.  The suggestion that the depressions represent offerings from the different nomes (provinces) in Upper and Lower Egypt is intriguing.


As we reached the bottom of the staircase, I was delighted to discover that we were at the back side of the famed King's List found at nearby Saqqara.  The front side has a modern up-to-date presentation of the king's names with their cartouche representations in order of their regency.



Looking around on the ground level, there was an array of pharonic statuary.


In the area of shops, we only found one open in addition to the museum shop selling souvenirs and books.  The Atef Wassef jewelry store had quite a collection of silver, much of which we recognized as originating in the oasis town of Siwa that we visited last year.  Many of their pieces are 95 years old.


Is it worth touring the Grand Egyptian Museum in its present "trial mode?"  Absolutely.  The Tutankhamen Immersive Exhibit is worth the price of admission just to admire the video display technology in use.  

The small amount of museum space that is currently open on trial will occupy an interested person several hours.  We spent three hours there and could have easily stayed much longer.  I hope the full museum will finally be accessible by our next return in January.



* Cameras are not permitted but photography is.  While I always protest that this makes no sense, the rationale seems pretty obvious.  Too many tourists just don't know how to turn off the flash on their digital camera.  Many have to be moved off of A(utomatic) and set to P(rogram).  Others just don't have a clue that it can be done.

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Winter in Egypt, 2024 - We Visit the Baron Empain Palace in the Heart of Heliopolis. Part II, A View from the Roof and Surrounding Heliopolis

Many of the exhibits in the Baron Empain Palace describe the Baron's project to build the new town of Heliopolis beginning in 1905.  As we headed up the marble staircase to the "First Floor," we noticed a large panel displaying sixteen drawings and photos relating to the nearby area.  I took a few photos but we didn't have a chance to read all of the material until a few days later.

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The ancient town of Heliopolis, seven miles northeast of Cairo, had a rich history going back thousands of years before Baron Empain arrived.   This 1882 Birds-Eye View of the Cairo area shows the surrounding area.

Empain and his business partner, Boghos Nubar Pasha, reportedly acquired their 2500 hectares of desert land (almost ten square miles) for less than 6000 Egyptian pounds in 1905.


The baron was cautious about beginning construction on the site.  He contacted the Belgian archeologist, Jean Capart, to explore the surrounding area for burial grounds associated with the ancient Heliopolis.  Capart failed to find any evidence and construction was soon underway.  

The Empain-Pasha concession consists of the triangular shaped property shown in the document above and below.  The lower photo highlights a few of the features mentioned in various accounts of the archeological exploration for graves and artifacts.


There are some amazing photos of Heliopolis under construction, of the 1910 aviation meet at the nearby airfield and of the city as it grew, but little evidence of what must have been a magnificent ancient city.

A 2019 article in Archeology magazine describes the scant remains of the ancient city:

At its peak around 1200 B.C., the holy site was marked with dozens of colossal obelisks.  Heliopolis was known far and wide in antiquity. Called "On" in Hebrew, the city is mentioned multiple times in the Old Testament.

... Yet today, Heliopolis is virtually unknown. After almost two and a half millennia of continuous worship there, the importance of its temples declined. By the second century B.C., the city was abandoned, for reasons archaeologists are still trying to discern. It was subsequently plundered and stripped of anything that could be burned or reused. Beginning in the late Roman period, nearly all of its limestone architecture was carted away to build Cairo, leaving little to see above the surface. Over time, most of the city’s obelisks were removed, carried off first to decorate Alexandria, and then to Rome, Paris, London, and even New York (see “The Obelisks of Heliopolis,” page 30). Only one still stands at the center of the site, a 68-foot-tall red granite monument erected by Senwosret I around 1950 B.C. that juts out of the ground in the impoverished Cairo neighborhood of Matariya like a hieroglyph-inscribed spike. By the 1800s, Heliopolis had all but vanished under the silt that builds up during the Nile’s annual floods. It was buried under farm fields on the outskirts of Cairo. What was left of Heliopolis is now covered by between six and 20 feet of soil and debris. “It’s extraordinary that one of the most famous cities of the ancient world is now a ghost of a name,” says Stephen Quirke, head of the Petrie Museum at the University of London. “It’s a black hole in our knowledge of ancient Egypt. Heliopolis is the great site.”

One can only imagine the view approaching  Heliopolis in ancient times with the sun reflecting from the gold covered tips of those dozens of obelisks.

As for the modern city, French historian Robert Ilbert notes the rapid growth in a 1984 publication:

The first buildings began to rise in 1908, at the same time as the first tram route to Cairo was being opened (a distance of about 10km from the centre of the city).  Also during this time the desert had blossomed into an oasis and there was speculation about moving Egypt's first aerodrome, which Empain had decided to build on his concession, further away.  Although there were barely a thousand inhabitants by the end of 1909, by 1915 the figure had already risen to 6,210, increasing to 9,200 in 1921 and jumping to a high of 224,000 in 1928

This photograph from 1932 found in the United States Library of Congress, shows the airfield in the foreground with the still isolated suburb nearby.  The hippodrome and horse track are partially visible at the upper left.


At the top of that marble stairway mentioned a few paragraphs above, we found a series of exhibits that among other things includes some of the architects who deserve special credit for their work on buildings in the new Heliopolis. (click to enlarge)







The comprehensive planning of Heliopolis provided space for all levels of society and, in fact, the town drew a widely diverse population.  Historian Ilbert describes the character of the population:

Viewed demographically, the general composition of the new town shows that, on the whole, the population represented was typically Egyptian right from the start. At least half of the inhabitants were local including, in 1925, 20 per cent Europeans (in particular Italians and Greeks) and a large number of Levantines (about 30 per cent).  However, from the standpoint of religions represented, the figures obtained in no way compare with those of the Egyptian average (the Christian element, for example, being greatly over-represented).

Socially, Heliopolis was always stamped with the image of the ruling class. The large numbers of Egyptian officials were due at least in part to the difficulties encountered by the Company between 1907 and 1911, when the two-oasis project had to be abandoned, and which resulted in accommodations being offered to the government at very low prices in order to fill the new buildings. But this setback was once more the promise of success, marking the transformation of a tourist city into a real town. In addition, the design of Heliopolis with its variety of buildings attracted Egyptians of all classes and the often considerable financing opportunities made available enabled purchasers to find in Heliopolis what they could not find elsewhere.

Thus it was that the new town came to be used as a stepping stone by the new bourgeoisie, an important factor to be considered since it partly explains the success achieved by Empain among the new middle classes in Egypt during the 1920s. To move to Heliopolis meant, in a way, integration into a new western pattern of living without, however, "going over the border" into an excessively homogeneous, completely foreign quarter. The slightly affected architecture of the town - oriental even if in pseudo-taste - projected the image of a "modern" type of town but, nonetheless, "Egyptian" in character.


A few buildings that were part major parts of the Heliopolis project deserve mention:




The Heliopolis Palace Hotel deserves special attention and you can find that in this 1998 article from the Cairo Times



There is also a page of the original architect's drawings for the Baron's palace, "Villa Hindoue," among the exhibits.



For those of us who purchased tickets to the rooftop, there is one last stairway, and it is a gem.


BarronEmpain-108    BarronEmpain-144

Of course, the view from the rooftop is spectacular.


Details in that picture are easily missed.  For example, there is a streetcar, the Baron's ticket to success, just across the street.  That building in the foreground is the Hussein Kamel Palace - now an innovation hub.  In the distance, continuing down the street on the left side, is the dome of the Heliopolis Basilica.  Missing from the photo, off to the left side at the same distance as the basilica is the Palace Hotel, now one of the Egyptian Presidental palaces.  


There are numerous interesting architectural details on the rooftop.  Click on any of the pictures below to go to my Empain Palace Flickr album and browse more of the details.

 BarronEmpain-114    BarronEmpain-116

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We didn't begin to see enough of the area surrounding the Baron's palace.  The modern suburb of Heliopolis and the nearby ancient obelisk will be a high priority on our list of sites to explore next year when we return.  By that time, I hope to put my hands on a copy of this book published by American University in Cairo.