A Tour of Old Cairo

This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

30 September 2009

Okay. So I’m up at 5 AM, before the alarm and long before the sun. I step out on the balcony and realize that it has rained overnight. Not a lot, but the balustrade is wet and I can see the streets shining and slick under the streetlight on the corner below. There are still clouds in the sky and I wonder if maybe I should take a rain jacket. I decide no, Cairo is a couple hundred miles south and I seriously doubt that they will have had the same weather.


I eat breakfast and about half an hour before train time I head downstairs and look for a cab. At this time of day, there aren’t many of them, but yesterday I asked the cabbie who drove me home what time the cabs start rolling in the morning and he said they’re always around. I took him at his word, hoping I wouldn’t have to walk (or run) to the train station. It’s a bit too far to do that. I had a short wait and a yellow and black came into view. Most cabs in Alexandria, and in Egypt in general, are painted black with yellow doors, hoods and trunk lids. Virtually all of them are Ladas, Russian POS’s that have the advantage of being cheap, maneuverable, and able to take a serious beating and keep on rolling. They’re also dirty, loud, cramped and often smelly. But we don’t sweat the small stuff. They get you from A to B.

I get dropped at the station in good time and am directed by friendly early risers to the right platform. The train rolls up right on time and I head for my second class coach. I find my seat, surprised to learn that the car is air conditioned, and settle down. It’s not crowded and it’s fairly comfortable. The air conditioning has the car a bit too cool for my taste, but not too bad.

We set off, rumbling through the outskirts of Alexandria and then farm land. I’m seated next to a guy of about fifty-five or so, who reads the Koran for the whole journey. His recitation is barely audible over the sound of the wheels on the tracks and it’s easy to ignore after a while. I take out my Blue Guide to Egypt and start reading about the Islamic city, which is the main focus of the Fulbright tour today. The guide book has easily fifty pages on Islamic Cairo and I wonder how much of that we’re actually going to see in a six-hour walking tour.

The two and a half hour trip is over before I know it. We pull into Cairo on time and I try to find a cab. I intend to avoid the customary vultures who lurk near the station’s exit. They prey on the ignorant: “Taxi, Mister? Where you go?”

“Mat’haf al-Qibti (the Coptic Museum). How much?”

“How about fifty pounds?” In a pig’s eye.

"La, Shukran (No thanks)." I paid only 85 pounds for a 200 mile train ride. Get real. I walk away.

Outside the price drops to 30 pounds and I wonder if that’s the best I’ll be able to do. I don’t know Cairo and I don’t know the distance between the train station and the Coptic Museum. The train station is on Ramses (yeah, the ancient Pharaoh) Square. The square is actually a roundabout with a viaduct running overhead for part of its circumference. With the arrival of the train from Alexandria, the competition for cabs has gotten fierce and I wait for ten minutes or so before an empty one comes along. I hop in and tell the driver where I want to go. He doesn’t understand my Arabic the first time around and when I repeat myself, adding a few details, like “Old Cairo (al-Qahira al-‘adeema),” he nods hesitantly. Fortunately, Hend Rasmy, the Fulbright person who is leading the tour, had told me to expect this sort of thing and has instructed me to call her cell phone if the driver were uncertain. I do this and hand the phone to the driver. He and Hend converse for a minute and then we're on the right track.

It’s quite a long ride and during the time the driver and I are together, I learn that the he is an Orthodox Christian. He shows me a small tattoo of a cross on the inside of his right wrist. He wants to know if America is a Catholic country. No, I reply; mostly Protestant.

“Oh, Protestants,” he nods. “My wife is a Protestant.” Religion is a testy subject in Egypt. The country considers itself Muslim, but there is a sizable Egyptian Christian (Coptic) community, some Catholics, and some Eastern Orthodox Christians, as well as a miniscule and dwindling Jewish presence. The Copts have long been discriminated against, not officially, but as a matter of practice in certain segments of the population. They are true second-class citizens, although one brave Coptic soul is currently running for president. His pitch is (I saw his statement in a Cairo newspaper before I left for Alexandria), “I’m an Egyptian, so why shouldn’t I be a candidate?” Lots of luck. A snowball would have a better chance of surviving Summer here.

We reach the Coptic Museum and I pay the fare. Thirty pounds. Probably way too much but what the hey; I’m here. Now I have to find Hend and the group. I call her again and she tells me they’re in the Hanging Church (no one was hanged there; it’s built in a manner that makes it appear to be hanging from a wall, I think. I’m too late for the guide’s explanation). I don’t see her so I walk back toward the museum entrance. Not there either. I call again and she says “Turn around.” There she is, waving. Okay. I’m connected.

I enter the church and meet the other folks. There are seventeen of us, about half students and half “scholars.” Our guide is Dr. Chahinda Karim, an art historian. We’re just finishing the “Coptic” part of the tour and walk out of the Hanging Church to a small structure known as the Church of the Holy Family. Copts believe that Joseph, Mary and Jesus were buried here in a crypt beneath the church. This part of Cairo existed before the city of Cairo itself. The Arabs founded a settlement in this area when they invaded Egypt in 641 AD. Fustat, as it was called, was almost completely destroyed by two separate fires, the second one about the time of the Crusades (1168 actually), and it was never rebuilt. Modern Cairo recovered the area over time so that now it’s part of the city.

The historic sites we are visiting are at least ten feet below the present ground level so we have to go down stairways to reach the ancient street level. There has been some reconstruction here which is intended to give one a sense of what the city was like 1500 years ago. The one restored street is narrow and rather winding with the usual tourist shops on either side. At the far end of this street we enter a very old building. It is a synagogue which is reputed to have been built on the site where Moses was retrieved from the bull rushes along the Nile. The person who supposedly recognized this site was a Rabbi who came from Palestine in the time before the Muslims. His name was Ben Ezra and the synagogue bears his name.

The importance of this building, aside from its historical value, lies in the fact that in the late 1800’s a Cambridge Hebrew scholar named Solomon Schechter came to this building and was shown a depository where centuries of discarded paper had been stored. Jews of that day believed that anything bearing Hebrew text (the sacred Jewish language) could not simply be discarded. It had to be ritually buried, just in case any of the writings included the name of God. Schechter retrieved crates and crates of documents from the room and spent the rest of his life researching them. They form the basis for our understanding of life in Fustat-Cairo for the medieval period. It was such a treat to stand in that building knowing that Schechter had been there as well.

Our final stop in this part of town is the Church of St. George, he of dragon-slaying fame. He was martyred and his relics are located here. There is a small shrine to which one gains access via yet another flight of stairs. Coptic nuns still live in the cloister attached to this church.

From the church we returned to the parking area outside the Coptic Museum and boarded a bus waiting there for us. Our guide pointed out the first mosque to be built in Cairo as we pulled away and then we were headed to the old city of Cairo proper. Fifteen minutes later we were outside the Mosque of Husayn in classical Islamic Cairo. The Fatimids (a Tunisian Shi`ite dynasty of the tenth century) founded Cairo and built the first city wall and other structures. The Mosque of Husayn is one of the earliest of their buildings. We don’t go in here, though; it’s already nearly lunch time and we have reservations at the Naguib Mahfouz Coffee Shop. A short walk into the Khan al-Khalili, Cairo’s famous (and now tarted up) traditional market area, brings us to the eatery where Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s most famous novelist and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, used to take his daily coffee break. We go in and are led to a long table in the back where we sit down to eat.

Lunch includes all the foods I have been wanting to eat since I arrived in Egypt, but have been unable to find in Alexandria. We are served by fez-wearing waiters, who bring puffy freshly baked pita bread, hummus, stuffed grape leaves, Baba Ghanoush, puff pastries filled with spinach, and kibbe (ground lamb and spices formed into little cones and deep fried. Mmm!). I order a glass of mango juice; when it comes, it is thick with pulp and tastes very healthy indeed. Lunch itself is a carnivore’s delight: lamb chop, kebabs, roasted pigeon, skewered chicken and rice with pine nuts. We eat and talk for most of an hour.

Up from the table (some people moan about taking a nap) and back outside. We turn right and walk to one of the main thoroughfares of Islamic Cairo. It has been restored and cleaned up considerably. The intent is to give an impression of what Cairo looked like in the 13th and 14th centuries. There is a small mosque called the Mosque of al-Salih Ayyub, which we enter and, in the shade of one of its arcades, our guide gives us an explanation of this simple style of mosque: a square building with arcades around the walls and an open space in the center. We spend a delightful half hour or so talking about the place, and members of the group begin to ask Dr. Karim about being a Muslim woman. She expresses unreserved dislike for the whole veil thing; she considers herself a “good Muslim woman,” but she’ll be darned if she’ll were a hot old head covering.

She says that she wears what she considers modest attire: a long blouse over trousers that are not tight fitting (“I’m a grandmother,” she says, by way of explanation.). Her hair is uncovered. She tells of being confronted, on a trip to Saudi Arabia, by one of the religious enforcers who make sure Muslim women (and men) are obeying the dress code. He's carrying a stick with which he punishes transgressors on the spot. She had her head and hair covered, since that’s the law, but the guy with the beard and the stick wanted her to cover her face. In short she told him to buzz off or she would put his stick where the sun don’t shine. He left. In a hurry.

We got up after a while and wandered back out to the street. Waiting there for us was our unofficial body guard. A guy in his twenties, wearing a brown polyester suit, complete with tie. One unusual accessory was the machine pistol he carried under his jacket. Not very unobtrusive but rather business-like. He wasn’t attached to our little group, but he was just keeping an eye on us, making sure the riff-raff didn’t give us any trouble.

Dr. Karim pointed out several more of the Mamluke buildings along the street (the Mamlukes ruled Egypt from the beginning of the 14th century until the Ottoman Turks came along in 1516). They left an incredible architectural legacy and their buildings are more numerous than those of any other Egyptian Muslim dynasty. At the end of the street, we passed through one of the gates in the ancient city wall and found our bus waiting for us. We didn’t see our security detail after that.

A bus ride of about twenty minutes brought us to another part of Cairo that was more familiar. We were now in the shadow of the citadel where we had enjoyed dinner after our orientation session two weeks ago. We descended the bus steps and found ourselves in between two massive buildings. One was yet another Mamluke structure, the Mosque and Madrasa of Sultan Hasan, built in 1356, the second an Ottoman Turkish building dating to 1906.

The Sultan Hasan mosque was the first structure of its kind. Instead of being simply a place of prayer, this mosque had a school (madrasa) attached to it. The madrasa had room for about 400 students, two or three to a room, who would study under sheikhs at the mosque and pray their daily prayers without having to go outside. The foundation document for the building states that, in addition to the Koran and Muslim law, astronomy and mathematics were to be taught here as well. In addition, there was a small medical clinic appended to the building so that students could study medicine. We had a look around this massive place and then walked across the plaza to the second building. This is called the Rifa`i Mosque and was built at the beginning of the 20th century by the Ottoman Turks. The Turks didn’t build many large mosques in Cairo because it was only a provincial city to them; their capital was Istanbul. However, this building is interesting because it resembles a Christian church in its form. The first Turkish mosque in Istanbul was a converted church (St. Sophia) and Turkish architects used that as their architectural model when they built mosques elsewhere. There are also tombs in this building. Two Egyptian kings, Fuad and his son Farouq (the last king of Egypt) are buried here as is the Shah of Iran. I had always wondered where he had been planted, and here he was. Apparently, the decision to bury him here was made because his first wife was Farouq’s sister, so he was sort of family.

So, enough of mosques and minarets and all that. We re-boarded the bus and were dropped in the Dokki District just next to the Fulbright office. I thought the area looked familiar. I asked a couple of people what they thought was the best way for me to get back to the train station: cab or subway. I opted for subway just for the experience and four of us bought tickets and jumped on. My companions were heading in a slightly different direction so they got off after a couple of stops to make their connection. I stayed on until the Mubarak Station and then got off. The station was huge and the passageways maze-like, but by asking for directions a couple of times, I found myself back above ground and standing in front of the Cairo train station. Inside, I went to the information kiosk and asked for the platform for the Alexandria train. “Thamani,” the man said. Number eight. I found it and the train was waiting.

First class for the ride home in the evening light. Air conditioning up too high again, and no decent light to read by. I napped briefly and watched night slide past the windows. We flew down the tracks until we were just outside of Alexandria and then we came to a halt. For the next half hour we crept along and pulled in about a half an hour late. Everyone needed cabs so there was a bit of a wait again, but I managed to snag one after about five minutes. In another ten I was home and crawling into bed.

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