Cairo – Beyond the Pyramids

View of Cairo from Ibn Tulun Mosque

Sept 29 – Oct 1, 2012

Photo set on Flickr

Day 1


Similar to many metropolises in the developing world, Cairo has gained a somewhat negative reputation among travelers. The reason is not hard to imagine – these cities, with their ever-growing population and inadequate public infrastructure, are extremely difficult to navigate for short-term visitors. Like it or not though, there is no avoiding Cairo, if for no other reason than the Pyramids, the only surviving member of the Seven Wonders of the World.

But after the revolution even the infallible Pyramids have failed to draw in visitors. Compared to the international mix in Doha, we amazingly didn’t spot a single Caucasian at Cairo’s airport. Partially filling the void were a few mainland Chinese tour groups.

Our only plan for this day was the Egyptian Museum, taking it slowly after the long flight. Mohammed, whom my wife contacted online, picked us up at the arrival area and would be our driver for daytime sightseeing the next few days.

Mohammed, in the early 30s, had studied tourism at university and worked in the sector for almost a decade. Naturally our conversation topic soon focused on the revolution.

“Since the revolution, people traveling to Egypt have declined by 70%. Never in my life has the situation been so dire. It was not that long ago when I was fully booked everyday throughout the year except for the summer months. Now I consider myself lucky to have two appointments a week.”

While politics and ideology generate headlines, he believed the most urgent issue would always be the economy. “I don’t really care who is in power, Mubarak or Morsi. Egypt has all the means to be a great power in this region. And it frustrates me that many of us can barely maintain a livelihood.”

Our conversation was interrupted when we were about to merge into a large traffic circle. Even without introduction I knew we had arrived at Tahrir Square, the birthplace of the revolution. From our brief drive-by I couldn’t notice any hint that this was the place where tens of thousands Egyptians gathered last year. Nothing at all appeared out of the ordinary.

Egyptian Museum

If Tahrir Square is the symbol of the present, then without a doubt the nearby Egyptian Museum is the guardian of the captivating civilization that once occupied this same piece of land. Once inside, two things became immediately apparent:

  1. The crumbling 110-year-old museum felt almost as old as the artifacts it housed. The revolution only deteriorated the condition
  2. Culturally, Ancient Egypt has absolutely nothing in common with contemporary Egypt

The second point was a fact I had always known, but being on the ground and seeing the country firsthand really brought the contrast to my heart. While many foreigners are fascinated by ancient Egypt, its polytheistic nature goes directly against the teaching of Islam. The culture and art of ancient Egypt has been largely preserved to this day, in the Arab heartland no less, is a testimony to the continued profitability of this once-magnificent civilization.

I personally was not very fond of the museum’s warehouse like atmosphere – my interest level gradually waned as I grew desensitized in a maze of objects that didn’t follow any logical order. The Egyptian Museum contains the goods, headline by Tutankhamun’s artifacts and numerous mummies, to be one of the best museums in the world with a better infrastructure and display system.

Still, we had what’s equivalent to a crash course on Egyptology during our afternoon at the museum, learning what’s “ka”, “ba” and “ra”, and who’s who in ancient Egypt (Akhenaten, Hatshepsut and Ramesses III but to name a few).

Whirling Dervishes

Whirling Dervishes at Wekalet El-Ghouri Arts Centre

At night we were on our own. Dinner was easy enough – the popular Abou El Sid was just a few-minute drive from our hotel. Online research recommended advance booking, but like much of elsewhere in Cairo the restaurant was mostly empty on this night. We ordered lentil soup, molokheya with meatball and rice, and Circassian chicken. The food, perhaps not surprising given the restaurant’s focus to cater to foreigners and also Egypt’s long history under Ottoman rule, reminded me very much of Turkish cuisine. Which, given the enormous gap between the reputation of Egyptian and Turkish cuisines, is not necessarily a bad thing.

Despite our jet lag, 19:30 was too early to call it a night. We flagged down a worn-down black and white taxi and asked for the Wekalet El-Ghouri Arts Centre, where Whirling Dervishes performances would be staged 3 times a week at 20:30. Whirling Dervishes, or Sufi whirling, is a form of physical meditation among the followers of the Sufi tradition of Islam. Originated as a method to focus on God, today the Whirling Dervishes has also become a major tourist draw in Turkey and Egypt.

Coming from Hong Kong, I had long been desensitized to high population density and heavy traffic, but Cairo’s chaos was on another level altogether. Coming outdoor to shop and socialize in the cooler evening, the already narrow streets were filled with car-ignoring pedestrians.

Our taxi driver had no idea where was our destination. Suddenly he stopped the car by an open-air market and took off, presumably seeking for someone to ask direction. The two of us remained in the back row of the scorching hot car, a bit concerned about this unforeseen turn of event. A few minutes later he signaled us to get out of the car and led us through the market and into a dark and garbage-filled alley. He pointed to a large wooden door to our right and there it was – the Wekalet El-Ghouri Arts Centre.

Much to our surprise the discreetly located theatre was half full. The roofless theatre’s air ventilation left much to be desire, as evidenced by many in the audience fanning themselves.

After 45 minutes of dancing by a group of white-dressed men, the main performance began when a man in green came on stage and started swirling. Always maintaining at the same pace, he swirled nonstop to the sound of drumbeat and bağlama for half an hour, carrying an expression not of exhaustion but delight.

Day 2

Dahshur, Saqqara and Giza

Read full entry here.

Day 3

Coptic Cairo

The Hanging Church

Among Arab nations, Egypt is one of the few to have a sizable Christian populace, amounting to 10% of its total population. Christianity traces its roots to the disciple Mark, preceding the founding of Islam by more than 500 years. Another proof of its long history – the word Copt, which now refers to Egyptian Christian, originates from a Greek term that used to describe the entire native Egyptian populace under Roman rule.

Coptic Cairo, one of the town’s oldest neighborhoods, has the highest concentration of Egypt’s Christian sites, including what’s believed to be the hideout of Jesus during his time in the country. But the pilgrimage dollar didn’t seem to have trickled down into the streets. Even by Cairo’s standard, Coptic Cairo was visibly poor. Trash staked up like hills and cars had to fight for space with donkey-pulled carts. Mohammed told us this area, although historically significant, was one of the last districts in central Cairo to be linked to the electric grid. Such impoverishment is driven by a myriad of factors, and it will not be a stretch to suggest the sectarian struggle between the Sunni Muslim majority and the Coptic minority being a key one.

We visited the following:

  • The Hanging Church – First built in the 3rd century AD. So named because of its location above a gatehouse of the Babylon Fortress
  • Abu Serga – Dates back to the 4th century, this ramshackle church, which allegedly occupies the same spot Jesus stayed in Cairo, was where many patriarchs of the Coptic Church were elected.
  • The Babylon Fortress – Possibly built by people of Mesopotamian origin in 6th century BC. Current incarnation founded by the Romans.

All of them fall into the “nice to be there” category. I wouldn’t hesitate to prioritize other places and give Coptic Cairo a miss if short of time.

Islamic Cairo

Interior of Mosque of Muhammad Ali

Besides their respective fame, the reason why I picked to visit the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan and Mosque of Ibn Tulun was because each of them represents a particular era after the introduction of Islam into Egypt. Not many other cities are able to keep intact these many layers of history.

As I was about to enter the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, I was struck by a last-second realization that I had never been inside a mosque before, even though there are plenty of mosques in both Vancouver and Hong Kong.

Sitting atop the Citadel, a fortress in the centre of Cairo built to defend the city from the invading Crusaders, the mosque was built relatively recently in 1848 by Muhammad Ali Pasha, the man widely regarded as the founder of modern Egypt. To make space for his namesake mosque he had all Mamluk (the pre-Ottoman sultanate) buildings occupying this prime piece of real estate demolished.

Constructed in the Ottoman architectural style, the mosque’s extravagant interior is a far cry from Cairo’s somewhat crumbling cityscape. The colossal circular hanging lamps easily draws most of the attention, but the mosque’s uniqueness lays somewhere more subtle.

Every mosque contains a mihrab (semicircular niche) in the wall facing the direction of Mecca, and to its right is a minbar, a pulpit where the imam (prayer leader) delivers sermon. There are two at the Mosque of Muhammad Ali. Why? Because the oversized original couldn’t take its proper spot next to the mihrab, a smaller one had to be added, although only 90 years later.

Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan

From the Citadel we could see our next destination, the Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan, constructed during the Mamluk Sultanate (ruled Egypt from 1250–1517). Work began in 1356 AD, funded by money confiscated from those who deceased during the Black Death epidemic that struck the city ten years prior. This oppressive policy was deeply unpopular, and to make matter worse, one of the mosque’s minarets collapsed during construction. More than 300 people died as a result. The string of unfortunate events didn’t stop there – two years before the mosque’s completion Sultan Hassan was killed in a revolt, unable to see his namesake mosque and mausoleum in their full form.

The many loss in human lives and wealth might never be justifiable, however when completed in 1363 the Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan was one of the largest buildings in the entire Islamic world. The mosque’s unassuming exterior, meshing perfectly well with its dilapidated surrounding, belied the massive construction bill that almost bankrupted the regime of Sultan Hassan.

We entered a dimly light vestibule after passing through the giant main door, where we left our shoes. A one-dollar tip was demanded by a middle-aged man to “safeguard” them. A round of haggling later the fee was lowered by half.

Turning right from the entrance was a long and dark corridor, which eventually merged into an open courtyard dominated by a several-storied tall ablution fountain. On the sides of the courtyard were four iwans (rectangular halls) dedicated to each of the major Sunni schools of thought (Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanafi and Hanbali). However this madrassa (educational institution) was never fully utilized, mainly due to the untimely death of its patron Sultan Hassan.

It could have been a great setting for learning, with ornate walls and lamps hanging from lines looming far above. Alas, the Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan remains a proud example of Mamluk architecture.

Mosque of Ibn Tulun

The Mosque of Ibn Tulun, the last site on our to-do list and the oldest surviving mosque in Cairo. Dating back to 879 AD, the building was commissioned during the Baghdad-based Abbasid Caliphate that ruled over most of the Middle East and Northern Africa for 500 years. One of the mosque’s key features is its spiral minaret which is based on the Great Mosque of Samarra, Iraq.

Suffering from monument fatigue, we made quick work of this mosque. Its spartan courtyard left an impression, but not as much as the rapacious shoe-keeper who wanted $5. This constant and omnipresent haggling was starting to get under my skin – getting back my shoes shouldn’t require a minute of my life spent on bargaining.

Khan el-Khalili

Khan el-Khalili

Khan el-Khalili is the largest souq (open-air market) in Cairo, continuously serving the city since the 14th century. The market is supposedly a major tourist attraction, but on this day foreigners were few and far between.

Even without the tourists Khan el-Khalili seemed to be doing just fine, at least in terms of traffic. We began at the al-Hussein Square and headed northwest. Every alley was packed with vendors, deliverymen and shoppers.

Amid this constant flow of human movement and goods delivery, we stood out like a clog in the drainage. As the only East Asian in the crowd, we also attracted attention and haggling from all comers, which became slightly unnerving after we turned a corner too many and became lost. In this maze-like environment, the best way to regain a sense of direction was to simply turn around and retrace our footsteps back to square one.

Surely the Egyptian capital has many stories left to explore, but that’s the job for journalist. Taking a breather at the famous yet forgettable El-Fishawy café close to the al-Hussein Square, the two of us were already looking forward to Luxor and gladly leaving behind Cairo’s insufferable traffic and pollution.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s