Cairo was everything we were told it would be – messy, ugly and polluted. The streets were crowded and traffic chaotic. But beneath all the grime and chaos there lurked a grace and charm that was beguiling.
Cairo is a city of Layers. Over 3000 years of accumulated history melding into a mosaic of fascinating cultures! Predictably, we started our exploration with the earliest contributors to this mosaic, by spending an entire day paying obeisance to the Pyramids and the Sphinx in Giza, Dashur and Saqqara.
Still with the Pharaonic layer the next morning, we visited the Egyptian Antiquities Museum – home to some of the most amazing artefacts from ancient Egypt. There were, incredibly, only a handful of people in King Tut’s room! We circumambulated the solid gold coffins at our own pace, etching the fabulous images into our memories and marvelling at the skill of those ancient artisans. (No cameras allowed unfortunately. Click here & here for some images of King Tuts treasures) Some of the other highlights were the 4th dynasty figures with inlaid eyes and the Amarna exhibits. Unbelievable antiquities in a dusty, dingy, stuffy museum! Plans are afloat to transfer them to a new, state of the art museum in Giza, scheduled to open in 2015
The Museum is just off Tahrir Square, which was to become the focal point of the revolution shortly after our trip. My Facebook status’ at the time bear testimony to how terrified I was that it would be looted. These treasures don’t just belong to the Egyptians, they are world heritage and it would be a great pity if we failed to preserve that heritage for our children and grandchildren.
‘Museumed’ out and near suffocation we walked up to Abu Tarek for delicious Koshary – a mixture of rice, lentils chickpeas, macaroni and fried onions doused with chilly sauce – and then went on to explore Cairo’s Roman/Byzantine footprints in ‘Old Cairo’ (400AD) or ‘Misr Al Qadhima’. This is the Christian center of the city with some really old Coptic churches, a Coptic Museum and a synagogue
Chief among them is the Hanging church – so-called because it is suspended over the south gate of the Roman fort of Babylon (Different from Biblical Babylon!). The crypt of St Sergius’s church nearby is reputedly where the Holy Family sheltered after their flight to Egypt. Later that evening we strolled around the Zemalek neighbourhood and dined at Abu El Sid. We love Egyptian cuisine, but our one grouse with most Egyptian restaurants was the absence of fresh hot, breads unlike in Turkey where even the tiniest restaurants have their own bread kilns.
We skipped a few centuries the next morning (The Arab Conquest of 641AD, the Ummayad and the Abbasid dynasties) and jumped to the 9th century to visit the Tulunid dynasty mosque of Ibn Tulun.
We chose three mosques to visit (apart from the newer Muhammad Ali Mosque) from the hundreds in Cairo, from three different historical periods. But this spare, brick and mortar mosque purported to be inspired by the great mosque of Samarra in Iraq, and the oldest mosque in the city still in its original form, was our favourite mosque of all!
Adjacent to the Ibn Tulun mosque, is the Gayer Anderson Museum, two 16th-century Ottoman residences restored by British Major John Gayer Anderson.
The two houses with several courtyards, terraces and wooden mashrabiyyas (latticed wooden windows) are well worth a visit
‘Al-Qahira’ or ‘The Victorious’ – from which modern Cairo gets its name – was not founded until the Fatimid period (969-1171AD) by the descendants of the Prophet’s daughter Fatima. This is the heart of Islamic Cairo and we left the exploration of this area for our last day and I shall tell you all about that in my next post.
Next stop – the massive Cairo Citadel (1176-1183)
It was built by Saladin – a Kurdish warrior who established the Ayyubid dynasty – to defend the city from the Crusaders. Adjacent is the massive and opulent 19th century Alabaster Mosque built by Muhammad Ali Pasha founder of the last dynasty of Khedives and kings
Nearby was another exquisite 19th century monument – the mosque of Al Rifai, commisioned by the mother of Khedive Ismail Pasha.
The beautiful tracery patterns of the columns are repeated on the domes! Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi is buried here along with Egypt’s last King Farouk and other dignitaries
Retracing our steps back a few centuries to the Mamluk era, we entered the majestic Mosque and Madarasa of Sultan Hasan (1361)
Back to the present at our hotel downtown, we gazed out our window at this modern metropolis and its life blood, the beautiful river Nile! You cannot imagine one without the other!
Cairo’s cultural diversity is embodied in its amazing architecture, its profusion of domes and minarets vying for space with modern skyscrapers!
Little wonder then that it is called “The City of a Thousand Minarets”
We ended the day at Al Azhar park – a garbage dump converted into this fabulous garden by the Aga Khan foundation – at dusk, to watch the sun sink slowly behind the city and the Alabaster mosque light up in the night sky!
Coming up our search for the real Cairo……