Cairo 19 – 24/07/2012
The Tale of the Jewish Physician’ from the ‘Thousand and One Arabian Nights’ (now believed by scholars to have been written by a Cairene in the late medieval period) contains this text: “He who hath not seen Cairo hath not seen the world: her soil is gold, her Nile is a marvel; her women are like the black-eyed hours of Paradise; her houses are palaces; and her air is soft, more odorous than aloes-wood, rejoicing the heart. And how can Cairo be otherwise when she is the Mother of the World?”.
These days, as in most mega cities of the world, pollution is rampant, and that endemic haze is not so soft, but there are still palaces and superb mosques scattered throughout. The Nile still feeds the nation across a lush valley. The women, though, are less conspicuous than the old thousand and one stories would suggest, so we cannot vouch they are still as angelic. This is testosterone city, a sprawling mix of museums and pyramids, skyscrapers and medieval gates, of crowded streets with few precious traffic lights and a million bumpers, where car horns never stop, where old cars, bursting buses, donkey carts and pedestrians intermingle in astonishing patterns, and yet keep moving.
Cairo is the largest city in Africa, and in the entire Arab world. Symbolically enough, we had arrived here on the first day of Ramadan, a Friday. It was special to see the immense city in festive mood, with all Cairenes celebrating the holy month. Communal tables are laid out in the street from 7 p.m. till 3 a.m. It is a wonderful opportunity to finally experience some egyptian hospitality.
When sun sets, people start flooding the streets and public squares to enjoy the feast and some shopping.
We walked the the grand avenues lined with superb French and stalinist architecture. It is hard not to fall in love with this city. I was also difficult to be at ease there.
Egyptians love to say ‘Welcome!’ (or ‘Welcome to Alaska!), excited by the sight of strangers. But this is a city on speed, and welcome, my brother, sometimes you’re not. Sprits are tense, speeds are high and tempers easily lost. As politely as you may refuse the countless offers for stuff you don’t want, you are bound to make a few egyptians mad. In the historic Tahrir Square, we tried to imagine how these temperamental people focused their intensity to start the still bubbling Arab Spring. The revolution is weekly reenacted during friday gatherings, and signs of revolt are visible everywhere.
We explored the underbelly of the bazaar of Khan el-Khalili, a market that once gained such a stranglehold over world trade, that Columbus had to seek alternative routes, eventually discovering the new world.
Chinese goods have conquered even this age old market.
Even lentil soup is sold in fast-food packaging branded in the far east
It’s astonishing what can be found on the back allies: a diminutive shop with any imaginable trinket for PCs
The oasis of the massive Islamic Cairo are its mosques, like Al Ahzar, world’s oldest university, built in AD 970. Students still come here from all Islamic world.
Like they do in the more recent madrases
Cairo being the archetypal melting pot where the many cultures of the world mix with the many ages of the world, its oldest past is not islamic, but christian. The Coptic churches predate the arrival of arabs, but their founders decided to build them on top of the ancient fortress of Babylon.
Then there are those pyramids. When the Ancient Greek civilization was at its peak, they were already 2000 years old. The sprawling Cairo has long swallowed them, along with entire Giza. But to see the pyramids, we had to endure our share of ‘torture that no pen can describe from the hungry appeals for baksheesh that gleamed from Arab eyes’. Just like Mark Twain, who wrote these line on his 1866 visit. Once past the aggressive touts and fake ‘gifts’, we could marvel, knees shaking, at five millennia of human genius.
The pyramid of Kheops, the largest of the last seven wonders of the ancient world still standing
Limestone once covered both the three large and the six small (women) pyramids, making them glisten like crystals in the desert
The pyramid of Mycerinus (Menkaure) bares the evidence of a failed 12th century attempt to dismantle it
The Sphinx or Abu al-Hol (the ‘father of terror’ in arab) was actually carved out of bedrock. It’s like meeting your idol in the flesh, impressive, but somehow smaller than we had imagined.
In egyptian veins, Pharaonic blood has been drastically diluted. The most dramatic transformation was not the merit of generations of Libyans, Persians, Greek and Romans, but of the 4000 Arab horsemen who conquered the country in AD 640. Masters of trade, modern egyptians love to do what they do best: sell. But it is difficult to enjoy the site, with vendors of all description tugging persistently at our sleeve, offering camel rides, caleche tours and whatnot. Tourist junk is displayed all over ancient rock and animals are hysterically whipped by men who have forgotten to respect the creature that feeds them.
In the middle of change, the Pyramids are still standing, virtually unchanged and perfect, even if designed and built by imperfect humans.