CAIRO :: LOWER EGYPT :: 30 0 N 31 1 E
I HAD HEARD SO MANY HORROR STORIES ABOUT CAIRO, THAT CITY OF 15 MILLION SOULS IN LOWER EGYPT, THAT I WAS EXPECTING IT TO BE A LIVING HELL UPON MY ARRIVAL THERE IN THE LATE DAYS OF JANUARY 1993. To be sure, there was the odor of smoke in the air, and plenty of car horns to rattle the concentration and frazzle tempers. But like many Third World cities, such as Bangkok and Jakarta, not to mention Mexico City, I think Cairo gets a bad rap. Sure it is dusty, overcrowded -- but that is the whole appeal of the place, that is why you travel halfway around the world to experience a slice of exotica! Mixed in with all the car exhaust fumes in the Egyptian capital you will find a symphony of other exotic hues, aromas of antiquity -- a spice market in the winding souk. Cairo (just like Bangkok, Jakarta, Mexico City) is a city which intoxicates the imagination. What could be more natural, amongst this anarchy of the senses, to have a chaotic transport network? If Cairo hadn't have had a chaotic transport network and an army of hawkers and beggars on the streets in time for my arrival there on January 25 1993 (Monday) I would have felt ripped off. It's all part of that Third World charm!
Not all travellers have as comfortable a crashlanding in Cairo as I. Boots'n'All's veteran reporter Philip Blazdell, in one of his classic pieces, writes of his arrival in the teeming North African metropolis: "We finally arrived at the suburban bus station, close to midnight, and by the time the driver had pried open the doors (a tricky exercise involving a tire jack, a small Philip's screwdriver and a tin of peaches) a motley collection of the great-unwashed proletariat, otherwise known as Egyptian taxi drivers, had surrounded the bus with a siege mentality.
"You could almost smell the greed -- a bus load of tourists, coming up from Sinai arriving late at night into a bus station which was as close to central Cairo as Egypt is a friendly country to travel in (i.e. not at all), had to be a good earner. Whilst the Koreans and Italians were fighting with a scrum of dirty yokels, I slipped out the back door of the bus, dived through a hole in the fence and jumped into the first taxi I saw."
I have to agree with Philip, the taxi drivers of Egypt suck. As do the young guys chasing you down the street trying to sell you postcards or asking where you are from, etc. I used to throw stones on them when I was on top of the sand mountains overlooking the Valley of the Kings, which in retrospect, was probably not such a wise thing to do (considering the terrorist activity which has taken place there.) But nonetheless, the day I made my first appearance in the Egyptian capital, I was impressed by what I saw. With my travelling buddy Garnet Mae I had taken a night train from Luxor, and then connected via the French-built Cairo Metro to take us to the center of town. I remember thinking: "If this is Hell, then I don't ever want to go to Heaven!" The center of Cairo looked modern, almost European, and nowhere near as hectic as Bangkok.
Blazdell goes on to write, in his classic piece: "I had imagined Cairo to be a magical place: the bazaars, the Egyptian museum, the millennia of culture. But standing on a street corner in the middle of the night miles from where my map said I should have been was taking a slight edge off my enjoyment, and Cairo was turning out to be definitely more Brothers' Grimm than Enid Blyton." My impression of Cairo was of a shabby, yellowed, noisy, but vibrant and cosmopolitan city. Vagabond, another of the star's of the Internet travel blog scene, agrees with me. On his site, Vagabond writes: "Cairo is a bursting at the seams with life and progressiveness and passion and contemporary distractions. I'm fairly certain that Cairenes never sleep. Traditional life and modernization mash together here with greater harmony than I've seen in other capitals around the world. And the women are definitely not all hidden behind veils." I agree with Vagabond -- Cairo is one of the hearts of the Islamic world, which alone should give it sightseeing prominence. It also boasts a treasure trove of historic attractions including the Big Daddy of them all -- the Pyramids of Giza. But the first place Garnet and I visited, upon our arrival and delousement in a Midan Tahrir hotel, was the famous Egyptian Museum.
This is one of the world's great museums and, naturally enough, home to the greatest collection of Egyptian antiquities. This might sound conceited and strange to say, but despite the wealth of the exhibits within, the museum looked shabby; and apart from the brilliance of the King Tutankhamen displays, I found the whole place rather ho-hummish. I guess I am not the museum (or art gallery) kind of guy -- at one bored point during my visit I remember finding a window, and staring with naked wonder at the surrounding city. The outside was alive, that was where the life was, in contrast to the static representations inside. Even on a shabby street, that is where you can find the real Egypt -- all of its past has culminated in this creation, all of Egypt's glorious past has poured into the manifestation of even the filthiest Cairo slum. That is not something that Blazdell would be able to understand!
Nonetheless, we soon got out of the museum, and boarded a taxi through Cairo's congested streets to a local market (which sold nothing but junk), and then to the Pyramids, which we reached at sunset. The Pyramids were awesome -- I felt a great spiritual buzz standing at the feet of what are, I guess, one of the most enduring symbols of Humankind. Then the peddlers started pissing me off! Wanting to be alone amongst such inspiring monuments, I ended up snapping at someone who worked at the site and spoiling my feelings of tranquility -- but I think I will return again in a better mood!
The hawkers, con artists and salesmen at work at the Pyramids are among the rudest and most persistent in the entire world. Luckily, we had arrived near sunset, and once it got dark, pretty much everyone disappeared. The amazing thing is there is no gate which they lock up at night, no announcements telling you to go home. Consequently, night is the perfect time to wander the Pyramid site and enjoy the wonder of the site without being pressured by leaches. My friend Garnet decided to climb one of the Pyramids -- I declined, it looked kind of dangerous with all the crumbly slabs of stone on the surface. From what I remember, he managed to reach the summit. I didn't think that much of it at the time, but this was actually quite an achievement for Garnet. According to the Boots'n'All website, there is a growing tradition for travellers visiting Cairo to climb one of the Pyramids, and wait all night to watch the sunrise. In his article "Japanese Strategies for Climbing the Great Pyramids", David M. Weber writes: "Climbing had been permissible up until the 1980s when it was forbidden following the deaths of several climbers. Despite the ban, the Great Pyramid is still climbed periodically, generally in the dead of night. Sometimes guards are bribed and guides hired to show intrepid climbers the way up. Other climbers prefer to forego paying unnecessary bribes and find ways of avoiding opportunistic guards. Interestingly enough, the leading nationality of these thrifty nocturnal climbers are the Japanese. The young Japanese travelers in Egypt have made pyramid climbing virtually a profession. They even have a handwritten book about how to do it in one of the hotels in Cairo."
Leaving the Pyramids, we met a local Coptic Christian who took us to his church, which gave me another glimpse of ordinary Egyptian life -- unfortunately he ruined my respect by trying to convert me! We got a service taxi back to Midan Tahrir (the center of town) for only 50 piastres each (1/20th the price of a regular taxi!
The Pyramids of Giza are obviously a big drawcard, and one of the wonders of the world, so they have to be seen. But to my mind now the best thing to do in Cairo is to check out the dizzying array of mosques and Coptic churchs. Cairo is still a medieval city in many ways, and the weight of history is almost suffocating.
The Old City of Cairo is known as Masr al-Qadima, and includes the sub-area of Coptic Cairo. I tried to reach it one glorious winter's day, as I followed the Nile through some beuatiful Third World streetscapes -- I couldn't make it but I did visit reputedly the oldest mosque in Cairo, and an old Coptic Christian graveyard. I also took in Egypt's oldest synagogue, Ben Ezra, built after the sack of Jerusalem led to an exodus of Jewish refugees into Cairo. Sunday School students might remember that Jesus Himself spent time in Eygpt evading the decree to have Him killed, and the Church of St Sergius at Abu Serga (considered to be Cairo's oldest church, dating from the 4th century AD) was supposedly built on the spot where the Holy Family rested at the end of their Egyptian adventure. However, the church is dedicated to Sergius and Bacchus, who were soldier-saints that were martyred during the 4th century in Syria by Maximilan. The original building was probably done during the 5th century. It was burned during the fire of Fustat during the reign of Marwan II around 750. It was then restored during the 8th century.
Whatever you want, Cairo can generally supplied. The food is exotic and delicious. If shopping is your bag, check out Khan el-Khalili, the colorful odorful street market. Named for the great Caravansary, the market was built in 1382 by the Emir Djaharks el-Khalili in the heart of the Fatimid City. Together with the al-Muski market to the west, they comprise one of Cairo's most important shopping areas. I visited the market one night with my English friends Tom and Gary, who had seemingly followed me all over Egypt. The last time I had seen them was on a Nile river felucca I had shared with them on the water route from Aswan to Luxor. We had broken contact; but by chance I encountered them again in a Cairo hotel room, and I had resumed hanging with them. My Australian buddy Garnet had returned to Australia for band rehearsals or something, so I was eager for fresh social stimulation.
In my opinion, most of the wares for sale at Khan el-Khalili were junk -- papyrus bookmarks and little marble Pyramids and Sphinxs, for example. If you are a fan of Arab pop, you could pick up a healthy selection of cassette classics here! But if you can fight off the aggressive shopkeepers and salesmen you can enjoy a step back in time and a sense of feudal ambience at this market. If I were to journey back to Khan el-Khalili today, I could probably pick up an Osama bin Laden T-shirt.
Anyway, it is a fascinating city, and must be seen by anyone claiming to know and understand the human story. A big part of the human story started here, on the banks of the fertile Nile. To be sure, Cairo can be rough on the senses, and I will grant Blazdell an "I concur" on that point. In many Third World and Asian cities it is common to see men urinating in public on the sides of buildings or handy trees. Cairo was the first place I have visited where I saw a young woman relieving herself, in squat position, on the edge of a super-highway. The presence of armed guards outside synagogues might prove discerting to some, especially visiting Americans and Jews. This is a city which can wear you down, and the constant harassment from touts can drive you mental, really insane. My last night in Cairo (before heading out for a little R&R in the magical oasis of Siwa in the deep desert) I went to watch Batman 2 at an Egyptian cinema. I could barely to see the screen, what with all the smoke being generated by all the chain-smokers in the audience. Behind me, a couple obviously on a date conversed loudly, barely paying any attention to the film. I went a quiet anger mount inside me. For the first time, I began to realise what it took Philip Blazdell only minutes to deduce -- Cairo sucked! I wrote in my diary that night: "I'm officially over Cairo! It is time to move on." And move on I did.
Dahab Hostel: .
A single with shared bathroom will cost you a mere 35 Egyptian pounds per night. Wifi access is free.