Egypt 1: Cairo

(Abby had a conference in Cairo, Egypt from 5 November to 8 November, so we decided that I would join her on the 7th, do some touring on the 8th, then we’d see Giza on the 9th before going to Luxor for the weekend.)

What does one say about Egypt? Cairo, the city of mysterious back alleys, of the Pyramids at Giza, of the mosque of Mohamed Ali; Luxor, the capitol of the ancient New Kingdom and site of the Valley of the Kings; Steve Martin performing “King Tut” on Saturday Night Live, the Bangles singing “Walk Like an Egyptian”, all of that. There’s a stereotypical pose where you stand with one arm held out in front, bent upward with the hand bent at the wrist and pointing forward palm down, while the other arm is in back, bent down with the hand again bent at the wrist and the palm facing upward. I think this summarizes our experience pretty well: the one hand pointed toward the magnificent sights, the other held out for bakshish. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

With their black and white paint, the taxis reminded me of sheet-metal pandas, except for their oversized, ancient luggage racks.

Cairo is a city of somewhere between 17 and 20 million people, depending on who you ask, crammed into about 82 square miles (although, with nothing but desert around it, it is constantly expanding). By way of comparison, New York City has about 8.2 million residents in 322 square miles. I’d been told that the traffic in Cairo was worse than it is in Tirana, and that’s an absolute truth. The taxis drive at break-neck speed, narrowly missing each other by centimeters as they dash for a sliver of open space on the crowded streets, creating third and fourth lanes of traffic between the two lanes marked on the asphalt. Our taxi rides were a bit like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride except without Disney’s protective benevolence. For all the craziness of Tirana’s traffic, the fenders and bumpers of Albanian cabs don’t bear a fraction of the scars that the Egyptian cabs do.

The Mosque of Mohamed Ali, shown from the place where all the tourists photograph it; a view of the Mosque interior; and the Pyramids viewed from the Citadel.

My first full day in Cairo, I went on a tour (with a tour guide) of the Citadel and Mosque of Mohamed Ali, the Hanging Church and Church of St. Sergius, and the Egyptian Antiquities Museum. Quick history lesson: the Citadel was built by Saladin to protect Cairo against the Crusaders, who never made it that far; however, it didn’t stop the Ottomans, who conquered Egypt in 1517. In 1801, the Ottomans sent a governor, Mohamed Ali – who was Albanian, by the way – to oversee the territory in the wake of Napoleon’s retreat. He began to modernize the territory and expand it as his own personal fiefdom; after repeated clashes with the Sublime Porte that drew in the international powers, Ali won control of Egypt in 1840. His dynasty lasted until King Farouk was overthrown by the popular revolution of 1952. Ali turned the Citadel into his palace and built a mosque, seen in the photos here.

The Hanging Church (also known Saint Virgin Mary’s) is a Coptic Christian Church which was built in the 3rd century. It’s called the Hanging Church because it is built atop a Roman fortress, so the nave is actually suspended above a passageway. You wouldn’t know it to look at it, however; you can only see below through a glass-covered hole in the floor. One interesting aspect of this church for me was the columns on the altar: they are all different, each representing one of the Apostles. The black column represents Judas.

From the Hanging Church we went down a series of alleys into the Church of St. Sergius, where no photography is allowed. The church was built on one of the sites where the Holy Family is said to have stopped during their travels through Egypt. As we were standing inside, my tour guide kept getting telephone calls. It turned out that her sister had just given birth, and she had to rush off to Alexandria. She therefore handed me off to her husband, also a professional tour guide, when we arrived at the Egyptian Antiquities Museum. Here is where the day – to use one of Abby’s favorite Australianisms – went “pear-shaped.” The Egyptian Antiquities Museum is an enormous institution with over 160,000 pieces, so the guide told me he could only show me the highlights. Fair enough, but he still whipped through them in about one hour. I saw the coffins and jewelry found at King Tutankhamen’s tomb, the enormous statue of King Ramses II, mummies – it is amazing that you can still see the eyelids, ear cartilage, and lips on the faces, they are so well preserved – and numerous other pieces, but it was a rush job, with fairly quick explanations. At one point, he walked off and I stayed a minute to look at something else, and had to run to catch up with him. I ended up staying on my own for another hour and a half to look around. There is so much to see: richly decorated mummy cases, the various statues and artifacts that were buried in the tombs, household items of the pharoahs, Greco-Roman pieces. The building really is fascinating, but one of the problems of the Egyptian Antiquities Museum is that for all the pieces in the collection, very few of them have labels, and the labels that do exist are ancient themselves; some of them are even handwritten. As a result, you often have little idea of what you’re seeing, which makes it more of a curiousity shop than a learning experience.

What do these two things have in common?

Feeling disappointed – or more honestly, cheated – that the tour was done by 1:00 on a supposedly “all day” tour, I returned to the hotel and Abby called the tour arranger to complain. I then went across the street to the Zoo to walk around while Abby finished her conference. An employee at the gate saw my camera – which apparently is Egyptian for “sucker” – walked up alongside me, and offered to show me around. I wasn’t interested at first, but he told me that there was a two-month old lion cub, so I decided to follow. He got one of the lionkeepers to open the lion house, which had already closed (this cost me 5 Egyptian pounds bakshish, or about a dollar) and we took pictures with the lions; then he got another employee to open the house where the cubs were, and we posed with some of the cubs (10 Egyptian pounds, after all, this was special); and then he took me to the ostrich pen (another five), the peacocks (yet another five) – at this point, I tipped him a few more pounds and told him I’d had enough. When he began to argue for more money, I handed him twenty more, which was less than he wanted, and told him respectfully – but forcefully – that I appreciated his efforts but I hadn’t asked for any of this, so he should be happy with what he was given. At this point he backed off and offered to continue the tour for free, but I was few up with Egyptian tour guides at this point, so I walked off on my own. Besides, you can’t even go into a public toilet without having someone hand you two sheets of toilet paper and ask you for a tip, so I think “free” would have still cost me money if I’d accepted.

After I returned from the zoo, Abby and I decided to go to the Khan al-Khalidi market. After another wild taxi ride, we were deposited in front of a warren of buildings and alleys. It was amazing, not least for all the merchants shouting “Hello! Come look!”, “Best price, what do you want?”, “American? No charge to look!”, and so on. Really, it becomes infuriating that you simply cannot be left alone without someone trying to take your money, be it a zookeeper or a tchotchke seller; and in most of the cases it’s not as though the merchandise is particularly attractive or high-quality. Case in point:

Admittedly, Abby was able to find some clothes for her nieces that were decent, and there were shops with carpets and spices and jewelry, but there was also a lot of tourist shlock, most of which is made in China. We ended the night in the El Fishawy coffee house, which supposedly has been open continuously for 200 years, where we had a coffee and a hookah and chatted with a Swedish guy while waving off a stream of kids, old women, and middle-aged men selling wallets, cigarette lighters, and packages of Kleenex.

One of the more exotic-looking shops in the market; a more typical view of towels and clothes for sale; one of the shops we encountered when we left the main market area and slipped into the back alleys where actual Egyptians shop; the El Fishawy coffee house.

I’ll post all the trip’s photos to the Flickr account shortly.