Behind the madness, traffic and pollution of Cairo there sits a seductive mistress of a city that sucks you in and bites you with a an addictive elixir making it very difficult to leave. Cairo is the capital of the Arab world, but here in the city where pedestrians battle with cars, trucks and busses for rights of passage across a maze of streets, canals and the wonderful River Nile there is no pretension, no expectation nor forced behavioral rituals other than respect. A medieval city until the mid 1800’s, Cairo is a living museum that rests in the shadows of the pyramids and Sphinx. It’s easy to get lost and one can slip into anonymity as easy as putting oneself as a tourist with a bulls-eye on your forehead.
Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
Ahmad Marei (mobile: 012-386-1056; fixed 02-298-1365) could possibly be the best guide in Cairo. Call him and negotiate a deal. He’s knowledgeable, degreed and fun. Plus, he’ll blow you away and make the Museum or any other Egypt sites much more enjoyable.
You looking at me?
A street vendor sends a quick text message before filling orders in the ubiquitous chai tea glasses. Alway sin glasses, never in cups.
Street vendor selling beans, nuts and juices.
Crazy Khan al-Khali in Cairo, Egypt.
Street life, still life: Cairo. Interestingly note the guy’s t-shirt on the left. Caught after the photo was taken of course. (click to make larger)
With a few days to kill in Cairo and newly made friends, I made my way through the dissonant sounds of the city and to the Egyptian Museum. According to Lonely Planet if you were to spend one minute at each exhibit in this massive museum it would take you nine months to see everything. Then again, one minute at an exhibit would mean you really saw nothing at all. So it’s easy to spend a day here. But without credentials or studies in archaeology or Egyptology the Museum is a maze and confusion.
Upon entering the museum visitors are greeted with the Rosetta Stone, the most important discovery in Egypt as it provided the code to translating hieroglyphics and in turn the stories, history and lives of the endless dynasties of Pharaonic Egypt. After Napoleon’s armies successfully captured the Egyptian Nile Delta, in 1799 A French soldier working at a fort on the Rosetta branch of the Nile River found a black basalt stone slab carved with inscriptions that would ultimately open the world of Egypt’s history. Though the Rosetta Stone on display here in the Egyptian Museum is copy, the original somehow got relegated to the British Museum in London, and I’m sure the Egyptians are still scratching their heads about this one. Carved with an inscription in three different scripts: Egyptian hieroglyphs at the top, demotic script (a late cursive form of hieroglyphs) in the middle, and Greek at the bottom, the Rosetta Stone made sense of everything in this museum.
To be efficient and to try to understand more about Egyptology I hired a guide who told me that he was once a director of this museum and during the time that the King Tut exhibit made its world tour. Though some of my friends doubted his credentials, Ahmad Marei was perhaps the best guide I’d engaged in all of my travels. He knew the museum inside and out, spoke great English could handle my most bizarre questions and understood my somewhat sometimes sardonic yet tongue in cheek humor. If you happen to be in Cairo and want the best guide to walk you through this museum call
Perhaps the most amazing exhibit in the museum is the King Tut exhibit. Sadly, no photography is allowed in the museum and I had to check my camera outside before entering. The exhibit takes up three or four halls and yet what is only display represents only 60% of what was found in his tomb. And I was in the young Pharaoh’s tomb — it’s just not that big. They found 4,650 antiquities in his tomb. How did all this stuff fit in there? And the quality of the jewelry, the chariots, the coffins and sarcophagus? The intricate work done in such fine detail and symmetry. The thrones? Gilded gold and finely sculpted. Stone canisters with lids carved of animal or pharaohs heads contained the organs of the Pharaoh and placed in the tomb so he wouldn’t be without them.
Egyptologists feel that the origin of Angels came from Pharaonic times and evidence in sculptures of birds with the head of woman were first found here in Egypt. Egyptologists hold dearly the facts that they were the first to enjoy pastime by playing games. And all of these have been found in tombs or unearthed from the Nile Valley. For example, the first evidence of dice dates to 7,000 BC and chess to 5,000 BC. And the written word, rather pictures? Egyptians invented paper by using the papyrus plant. There was even a top that dated thousands of years BC. It’s widely known that Egyptians used sundials to mark time. But what about at night? Ahmad showed me what looked like a pail with several parallel rings of holes running around its circumference. At night they’d fill the pail with water and it would slowly drain through the holes. Put your hand in and count down to the water and you’ve got the time. These were placed in Tut’s tomb so he would know what time it was as the sun doesn’t shine inside the tomb.
While in museum mode I took a cruise over to Old Cairo, which was once known as Babylon and the site predates the coming of Islam and is the home to the Coptic Christian community. Among the fascinating antiquities in the Coptic Museum are the Nag Hammadi documents a group of writings from the 4th century that are codices for the gnostic gospels. The collection of thirteen ancient codices containing over fifty texts, was discovered in Al-Qasr Egypt in 1945 by a farmer cultivating soil. While the discovery of these codices in many ways reopened the history books on Christianity, but perhaps no one has had more fun and conspiracy theories than Dan Brown in his wildly popular book The Da Vinci Code. Though I’ve never read the book, I understand that the Nag Hammadi codices are essential to building the plot line of the book where his main characters deny the inspiration and authority of the biblical text and replace Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John with the Gnostic gospels found in the Nag Hammadi Library.
Mohamed Ali Mosque – The Alabastar Mosque Commands the skyline of Cairo. But inside, the work is very interesting.
Inside another Cairo Mosque copies of Koran prayer books bound in intricate leather available for all to read — that is, if you can read Arabic text.
In the police museum I was elated to find hundreds of years old RUBBER STAMPS… glad to see that the use of these isn’t Egypt’s example of advancements in technology. Lots of rubber-stamping going on here. Has been for years, too!
6th Century BC ruins of Fort Babylon, built by the Persians, moved to this location by the Romans and now at the entrance of the Coptic Museum adjacent to Greek Orthodox Church of St. George and the Hanging Church of Babylon.
While Iraq may claim home to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, also here in Old Cairo I visited the Hanging Church of Babylon which serves as the center of Coptic Christian worship and also the Church of St. Sergius, supposedly a stopover for the Holy Family from their run from King Herod.
Above interior, exterior and below entrance to the Hanging Church of Babylon, build around 690 AD during dynasty of Isaac.
While Old Cairo provide insight into ancient history of Christianity, a journey through medieval Islamic Cairo provided insight and opened my eyes to the world of Islam, which unfortunately is wildly misunderstood by the West. Traveling through the Muslim world for quite a while, but for the last two months I’ve been nearly smack in the middle of it. So a journey through the old part of Cairo, where it’s Islamic origins lie, was an order.
There’s nothing like a walk through the ancient bazaar of the Khan al-Khali, the Al-Azhar Mosque and of course the Citadel with the towering signature mosque of Cairo built by Seladin, the Mohamed Ali Mosque, also known as the Alabaster Mosque with extensive use of this stone from the quarries of the Nile Valley. I checked out the police and military museums and wandered aimlessly getting energized from the exuberance of this mad city.
I could have spent days just wandering around Islamic Cairo getting lost in the bazaars or sitting and watching the children play, the men going to prayer or the constant barrage of tourists stumbling around confused yet amazed.
And the only annoying thing that happened in the couple days I wandered the city? My taxi driver. With my bike in pieces at M. Anwar’s shop, I hired a taxi one day to wander the city. At lunch he insisted on taking me to a “good ” restaurant. Turns out the restaurant is a place only tourists would go, evidenced by the mini-vans and busses in its secure parking lot. His reason? It’s safe and clean for you. When I asked him if he’d eat hear he said only with tourists. After my expensive and disappointing buffet I pulled him aside and tried to explain that I am not a tourist and if we go again I want to go where “YOU” eat — without tourists.