We were fortunate to have visited Cairo just before the political and security crisis led to it losing much of its sheen as one of the world’s most popular historic tourist destination. Our visit was even more special as it was one of first few trips together and we were thrilled to set foot in this ancient city sprawling across the foot of the delta of the Nile. A short ride in one of the ancient Mercedes taxi’s brought us to this bustling city center where our tiny hotel was located – a large orange building sandwiched between two rather ugly looking plain ones. It was quite surprising to be greeted in `Hindi’ by the man at the reception but I guess that’s where the familiarity would end, as we were to discover over the next 3 days that we spent in the city.
WORDS & PICS COURTESY:
Kunal and Tamanna Patel – www.worldwidewandererz.com
On our way to the hotel, we had noticed that most of the shops were closed and upon inquiring the receptionist informed us that it was the month of Ramadan and the shops would open up again later in the night.
Not wanting to miss the experience of this very important holy month, we quickly freshened up and step out in the warm night, ofcourse not before a short conversation about directions and safety with our friend at the reception. As guided, we walked a short distance to reach one of Cairo’s main streets – it sure looked busy and festive. The hordes of men, women and children were busy greeting each other, chatting in small groups, some of them checking out the wares in the numerous shops that had pulled up their shutters to welcome the late night crowd.
We blended in mixing with the crowd, stopping to grab a delicious `kebab’ – a sumptuous middle eastern dish – at one of the busy doners’. We walked around for a couple of hours, listening to the nice Arabic instrumental music faintly wafting through the night, occasionally stopping to take a quick peek inside a few of the shops selling local stuff before strolling back to our hotel, a bit of jet lag creeping into our bodies at the end of what had been a long day.
We had slotted the whole of the next day, for a visit to the world famous, most intriguing and monumental structures located on the outskirts of Cairo – the Pyramids of Giza. After some intense haggling over the fare, we got a taxi for the short ride to the historic site in Giza.
The Giza pyramid complex is located a fair distance into the Libyan desert and consists of the Great Sphinx, temples, cemeteries, a village that housed workers and an industrial complex in addition to the 3 pyramids – Khufu – Khafre and Menkaure. The 3 pyramids alongwith the Great Sphinx are the center of attraction. Believed to have been constructed c. 2550 BC., there are still many theories as to how they were actually built and how the massive stones used in their construction, were moved from their quarries and hauled in place with such millimeter precision.
The Pyramids and the entire complex around them is believed to have been constructed to house the remains of the deceased Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt. Along with the `mummified’ corpse of the former king and all the articles which `he would need in the `afterlife’’, the Pyramids and the cemeteries around them also contain tombs of his entire entourage – wives, children, servants and even pets. Inspite of learning a great deal about the Pyramids and the Egyptian civilization during our course in architectural history, I still found it difficult to comprehend the sheer magnificence and enormous scale of these structures.
We also took advantage of the opportunity to enter inside the pyramid of Menkaure. Walking, well almost crawling down the steep narrow passageway that led down to the `burial chambers’, it was eerily claustrophobic, especially with realization of the thousands of tons of rock piled up above us. Even though the passageway was well lit and ventilated with mechanical exhaust fans, we were sweating with the excitement of entering the ancient tomb.
Once inside, one could only begin to comprehend the precision engineering required to carve out these passageways and chambers so deep inside these structures, that too almost 5000 years ago.
As Mark Lehner, the American archeologist and his team at the Ancient Egypt Research Associates have concluded “The development of this urban complex must have been rapid and after detailed studies the picture that emerges is that of a planned settlement, some of the world’s earliest urban planning, dated to the reigns of the two Giza Pyramid builders: Khafre (2520 – 2494 BC) and Menkaure (2390 – 2472 BC)”. Once outside the extreme dry heat hits you even harder, but failed to curb our enthusiasm of walking around to the boat pits, the cemeteries, Funerary temple of Khafre and finally to the Great Sphinx – the largest monolith statue in the world. Inspite of it being the world’s largest and oldest statues, there is little known about the Sphinx especially as to when it was built, by whom and for what purpose. Not wanting to wait up for the light and sound show – a major tourist attraction and a must for all visitors to Cairo – we took a taxi to the Grand
Pyramids hotel for an early dinner. Sitting outdoors savoring the delicious Egyptian cuisine, we had a magnificent view of the Pyramids in the distance, gloriously lit up against the night sky.
After dinner, we took a taxi to another major attraction located in Cairo’s Islamic district – the Khan el Khalili. Originally the site of a mausoleum of the Fatimid caliphs, it was part of the Fatimid Great Eastern Palace constructed in 970 AD. The mausoleum was destroyed in the 14th century to erect a large caravanserai – a building to house trading merchants and their caravans. By the 15th century the district around Khan el-Khalili became a major trade center the Turkish community of Cairo established itself here around this time. Occupied mainly by Egyptian traders and merchants, the Khan el-Khalili today, inspite of being popular with locals, is significantly geared towards tourists. The shops sell souvenirs, `Egyptian antiques’ and handmade traditional jewelry luring tourists who are happy to time-travel to the bygone era by walking the streets of this crowded Egyptian bazaar.
The market enfolds you in its mystical aura and one loses a sense of time, walking from shop to shop and listening to the native sellers tell you stories about the history and tradition behind each artifact offered for sale.
The next day, we walked back to the Islamic quarter to visit the famous Al-Hussein Mosque. Built in 1154 AD the mosque is considered to be one of the holiest Islamic sites in all of Egypt. Built on the cemetery of the Fatimid caliphs, the complex includes a mausoleum which dates back to the mosque’s original construction in 1154 AD, though the building that one sees standing today was only constructed in the 19th century. The building also houses the oldest complete manuscript of the Quran, which unfortunately we did not have the privilege of seeing. From the Islamic quarter we drove down to the Saladin Citadel of Cairo – a medieval Islamic fortification near the city center.
Built in the 12th century the Citadel’s prominent location allowed it to be the heart of the Egyptian government until the 19th century. Apart from the mosques and museums, a 280 feet deep well is also one of its major attractions. Consisting of 300 steps winding around its inside wall, the well supplied water to the city of Cairo through a series of aqueducts, some of which can still be seen in the city today. Another major attraction of the Citadel is the Great Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha – more popular as the Alabaster Mosque – commissioned by Muhammad Ali Pasha in the 19th century. Located on the summit of the citadel, its massive domes and minarets can be seen from any location in Cairo city.
While limestone was used for its construction, the lower storey and the forecourts are tiled with alabaster upto a height of almost 11 meters. The interior cupola gives a grand feeling of space as one walks on the thick carpet on the floor and the huge chandelier suspended from its roof lights up the main dome and the prayer hall beneath.
Vantage points on the outer courtyard of the mosque also afford amazing views of the city and on a clear day one can see the Pyramids of Giza outlined in the distance. From the Alabaster mosque, we went to the Egyptian Museum of Anitiquities – commonly known as the Egyptian Museum. It is home to the most extensive collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities and has more than 136,000 items on display with a few more hundred thousands in its store-rooms in the basement. The items on display include clothing, pottery, ancient medical and surgical instruments which give an insight into the tremendous advances that this ancient civilization had made in the fields of textile, medicine, sculpture and art.
The famous finds of the Tomb of Tutankhamun are also housed here including the famous mask, which was luckily on display during our visit (a lot of the famous artifacts are often missing as they are traveling for displays in other museums around the world). We also learnt about the famous Rosetta Stone – containing 3 scripts – Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic and Ancient Greek. It is on account of the same text in all the three scripts that has enabled the modern understanding of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. The original stone is housed in the British Museum with a full size copy located here.
We spent the next day visiting the more local precincts of the city, using its well established subway system. Though we had crossed the Nile using its many bridges over the past 2 days, it was not until late evening of the 3rd day that we actually spared time to walk along its banks – banks that cradled one of the world’s earliest civilizations more than 5000 years ago.
The panoramic view of Cairo’s skyline from the banks of the Nile is a mixed one – modern buildings and skyscrapers – including the Cairo Tower and Cairo Opera House – interspaced with domes and minarets of Cairo’s many mosques and heritage structures.
With a population of 6.76 million spread over 453 kilometers, Cairo can give the impression of being crowded, dusty and polluted. However once you blend into the city fabric it allows you to blend in, not allowing you to feel like a foreigner on a brief visit. Though one would need to have their wits about and be a shrewd negotiator at almost every step – taxis, bazaars, street vendors and even the wayside beggars, Cairo is definitely a city worth visiting. Perhaps after its present turmoil has faded and Cairo returns back to its former glory of being one of the most visited cities of the world.