Tag Archives: monuments

Contrasting Neighborhoods of Cairo

Today I went out in search of adventure, in the form of an unmapped wander through  two neighborhoods of Cairo. The city is a study in contrasts, and the juxtaposition of different areas sometimes feels like the juxtaposition of two totally different worlds. Though there are many indicators that show the difference between places, I’ve come to the conclusion that wealth in Cairo is measured in trees and pavement. These two factors alone will tell you everything you need to know.

The morning started in Zamalek, one of the richest neighborhoods of Cairo. Located on an island in the middle of the Nile, it hosts number of foreign embassies, meaning a lot of foreign diplomats and their retinues live here as well. The boulevards are wide, tree-lined, and evenly paved.  The buildings are all modern and mostly soulless. Very little trash is in the street. Boutique shops are full of expensive housewares, and multiple bookstores sell English-language books (hamdulilah!). I was able to take a yoga class today in this expat enclave, my first since arriving in Cairo, and it was wonderful to find something here that was so integral to my life back home.

This is what wealth looks like: broad, tree-lined streets paved with asphalt.

After yoga, I wandered until I felt peckish and found an upscale coffee shop, where my tea and carrot cake cost more than I usually spend on proper meals. Despite the exorbitant prices, the coffeeshop was packed with expats (and wealthy locals), presumably there for the atmosphere of a place that felt like the coffeeshops at home.

Wealth also looks like overpriced tea and carrot cake, plush chairs, and a spotlessly clean shop.

Walking around Zamalek, I heard almost no catcalls. No heckling of any kind. After two months of  near-constant commentary on every moment that I spent outside, it was almost surreal—like I had been transported into  a different universe from the one that I normally inhabited.  The island felt like just that—an island. A tiny, wealthy bubble of Euro-American sensibilities in the midst of the teeming chaos that is Cairo. It was nice, for a while, to have a small break from my normal reality. But after a few hours, it made me feel bored.

One of the things that I love about Cairo is the breath of the unexpected that pervades my experience here. I felt cut off, in Zamalek, from the real spirit of the city, so I decided to go back to the city’s roots. Back to Islamic Cairo, with its lively markets and minarets, with its history and soul. The streets are narrow, unpaved, and treeless. Space is a commodity here, and so is asphalt. Trees are too much of a luxury to grow.

This is what streets look like in Old Islamic Cairo. Narrower, unpaved, no trees.

Though the streets aren’t as nice here, the buildings are infinitely more interesting. I started out at Al-Azhar mosque, which was built in the tenth century and is one of the oldest mosques in Cairo.  It’s a glorious confection of white marble,  a wonderful break from the heat and the dust of outside.

The peaceful courtyard of Al-Azhar mosque

 

 

Details of the architectural confectionery

 

From there, I wandered in a fairly directionless manner, my main priority being to move in the opposite direction of the tourist market and its accompanying touts. I succeeded, moving through neighborhood markets selling produce, local clothing, and basic housewares, passing coffee shops where men sat with shisha pipes for hours at a time. These places were not designed to trap tourists, and so I walked unmolested and mostly un-commented upon until I reached the Mosque of Al-Mu’ayyad, a glorious structure with beautiful interior polychrome designs.

The interior of the Mosque of Al-Mu'ayyad

From there, I went to the neighboring Bab Zuwayla, the southern gate of Medieval Cairo. Above the gate stand two minarets , and I braved the narrow, unlit spiral stairs  to watch the sunset.

Sunset over Cairo

Looking out over the city, glowing under the light of the setting sun, I felt a surge of affection for my adopted city. There’s so much history here, so much life, so many different influences that come together to make the city vibrant. For all their differences, Zamalek and Old Islamic Cairo both have their place, as do all the other disparate neighborhoods here. Despite its many challenges, I’m glad that I can call this city home.

 

The minarets of Cairo's skyline at twilight.

 

 

A Long Overdue Update from Luxor

Hello everyone,

It’s been quite a while since I’ve updated this blog. Experiences in Egypt have come thick and fast, and it’s been nearly impossible to find the time to process it all, let alone blog about it. I’m going to make an attempt tonight, and hopefully work backwards over the course of the next month or so to write about everything I’ve been doing lately that’s made me too busy to write.

I’m in Luxor right now, in Upper or Southern Egypt.  Upper Egypt is called so because of its elevation, because it is the area from which the Nile flows, towards the low lands and the Mediterranean to the North.  It is my third day here. I arrived by felucca  (small traditional sailboat) from Aswan, and saw the glories of the Karnak and Luxor temples on my first day. The second day, I got up at crazy o’clock in the morning and went for my first-ever hot air balloon ride, watching the sun rise over the horizon from above the Nile and the many temples down below. After the balloon ride, I went to the valley of the kings, where I saw  the tombs of Ramses I, Ramses III, and Sety II on my regular ticket. Then I paid the extra to see the tombs of Tutankhamen and Ramses VI (it’s worth the extra cost). After the kings, we saw the temple of Queen Hatshepsut, the only woman to ever rule Egypt as a Pharaoh, and the Colossi of Memnon (yes, they’re big).  After all that, the group that I had joined briefly to get from Aswan to Luxor departed for Cairo, and I was here on my own.

I’ve had a couple of meetings with people about projects in the area, though I haven’t seen any yet.  The people I’ve met individually through recommendations of other contacts have been lovely. But what I’ve discovered about Luxor is that it lives and breathes by tourism alone, and it’s bleeding its tourists dry. It is impossible to walk alone here without being harassed. In Cairo and Aswan, the harassment is limited to just a few areas—the main tourist areas, if you will. In Luxor, the town has nothing besides tourist areas. Which means no place is safe from harassment, if you’re female and alone.

Take this afternoon. My agenda as I planned it:

  1. Go to the bookstore.
  2. Stop at a jewelry shop.
  3. Take a walk for some fresh air and exercise.
  4. Stop by a café to do some work and relax.

My afternoon as it actually happened?

  1. Start walking to the bookstore.
  2. Refuse the advances of multiple taxi and caleche drivers who alternately ask where I’m going, offer to take me wherever they think I’m going, tell me how beautiful I am, tell me they’re single,  and after about ten iterations of “no, no thank you, no, I’m not interested, no, no, and no,” they leave with a hopeful, “maybe later,” that indicates that they’ll remember me for the next time they see me walking and harass me again.
  3. Go to the bookstore. No hassle here, because they know they have things that foreigners want and will buy without convincing. Spend a very pleasant time and buy a new journal and a pocket phrasebook.
  4. Stop by the jewelry shop next door. Ascertain that I don’t see anything I want in about 2 minutes, stick around for another 5 minutes convincing the shopkeeper that I really are going to leave without buying anything because I really don’t see anything I like.
  5. Start to take a walk.
  6. Feel elated after 3 minutes with only a few minor comments to herald my passage.
  7. Get approached out of nowhere by a guy asking me what I think of Luxor, who does not appreciate the irony with which I say, “It would be a great town without the hassle.” He starts walking beside me down the street (without any invitation on my part).
  8. Face the dilemma: let him follow me down the road and be annoyed by his talk, or lose him with difficulty and risk (almost inevitably) being followed by someone worse? Either way I lose.
  9.  Choose the lesser of two evils—he hasn’t said anything overtly sexual yet, and if he follows me at least he’ll keep the other guys away.
  10. Skip the coffee shop (because then he will want to come in  and keep talking) and go back to the hotel (a good place to ditch someone–now he knows where I live, but at least he can’t get inside).

So.

Afternoons like this one are really pretty mild. No one groped me, proposed marriage to me, made indecent sexual advances to me, or ripped me off. All in all, I can count the afternoon as a relative success, since at least I got what I wanted at the bookstore.

That said, afternoons like this one are indicative of a larger problem. People come to Egypt for the pyramids and temples, for the desert and the Nile and the experience of being someplace exotic and new. But very few people, having been to Egypt once, have any desire to go back, and it’s largely due to the  harassment. The first time I traveled to Egypt, I had no intention of ever returning. The pyramids and the Nile were nice, but I’d been groped, harassed, and propositioned so many times during my 7-day visit that I couldn’t wait to leave.  I like Egypt much better the second time around because I’m not always in the touristy areas where these occurrences are common. But the fact that these things happen often to tourists is an enormous shame.

Egypt has much to offer a traveler.  It’s an amazing, beautiful, and unique country with the potential to do truly great things. But this one unavoidable inconvenience repels repeat business and keeps people away. Egypt needs its tourists–they’re the basis of the entire economy. It needs to treat them well when they arrive.

 

 

 

 

A Classic Sightseeing Day in Cairo

Today I took advantage of the fact that I’m working with a major travel company by tagging along for a group sightseeing day. Today was a classic “visiting Cairo” kind of day. One of my colleagues was taking his group to the Egyptian museum and the Giza pyramids, and so I tagged along, joining the throngs of tourists to look at the wonders of Egypt’s pharaonic past.

The Egyptian museum, I discovered, is much better with a guide. I remember seeing it my first time in Egypt, six years ago, and being overwhelmed by the sheer number of artefacts on display, jumbled together in cases without labels. I tried to look at everything, but it was impossible to absorb it all.

Today, though,  I was part of a tour, and I listened with fascination as my colleague explained the significance of many of the highlights. Particularly interesting was a tiny statue of Kheops, the pharaoh buried in the Great Pyramid. For the ancient Egyptians, statues had the potential to act as vehicles for the soul to return to if the body was damaged, and so statues of individuals were highly valued as a kind of “afterlife insurance.”

During his time as pharaoh, Kheops forbade the creation of statues with any likeness other than his own, dashing the hopes of an afterlife to all his citizens for a generation. Consequently, after the pharaoh died, people destroyed all of his statues in retaliation. The only surviving statue of the pharaoh who built the Great Pyramid is only about three inches high. At least his pyramid survived.

Though learning details about the other pharaohs was interesting, the highlight of the Egyptian Museum is and always has been the treasure of Tutankhamen.  From my trip to Egypt six years ago, Tutankhamen’s death mask is one of the few items that I remember with great clarity.  Though iconic, photos do not do it justice. The sight of it alone, in person, was worth the cost of the entire trip.

This time around, I noticed more details. The finely worked hieroglyphs on the mask’s interior, the intricately inlaid semi-precious stones around the rim. The details of the boy-king’s facial features. The textures of the gold and gems. The other incredible treasures of the tomb, including  fabulous amulets of scarabs and winged goddesses to keep the king safe as he journeyed through the afterlife.

After the Egyptian Museum  we headed for the Giza plateau, to visit the great pyramids. Massive wonders of the ancient world, looking out over the city of Cairo in unexpected proximity. The sprawling suburbs of Giza are only a few minutes away. The pyramids themselves are surrounded by tourist touts barking camels and overpriced souvenirs. I ignored them, and focused on the monuments themselves.

The smallest of the three main Giza pyramids was the one we chose to go inside, and we entered down a long, narrow shaft near the base of the tomb. Though the walls were close and the ceiling low, the space wasn’t nearly as claustrophobic as I expected. At the end of this long tunnel was a central chamber, followed by another tunnel to another chamber, probably the one where the king was buried, thousands of years ago. Standing in that central chamber, I could feel the weight of history, like the weight of the stones pressing in above my head. I was standing inside the one of the only surviving wonders of the ancient world. There’s almost nothing more incredible than that.