Cairo – old and new


Day 3 in Cairo

Cairo – Al Qahira – it means the Victorious City

While yesterday was a beautiful introduction to the pyramids in Giza, we are now headed towards the city of Cairo. The promise of a city in the middle of a desert, thriving for a few thousand years, gets us excited to leave the hotel early. Just like yesterday, the breakfast is excellent – well, it is the exact same menu.

Feeling more adventurous, we debate whether we should take the subway into the city. It is a 20 minute taxi ride to the subway and another 40 minutes to Cairo. In a couple of days we plan to go to Luxor via the sleeping train. Since we decided to keep our options open, we did not reserve tickets in advance – we take a cab and head towards to the Giza railway station, book our tickets and catch the subway to Cairo. The ticket office is not more than 80 sq foot. It has 2 windows and one of them is covered with a giant air conditioner. The roof is made of an asbestos sheet and the only door has a huge lock on it. Talking in bits and pieces of English, we gather that the office opens at 11AM. Since it is only 8:30 in the morning, we decide to make a move to Cairo and book our tickets from there. In the frenzy, we extend our cab for a full day tour of Cairo for EP180.
Our first stop is the Egyptian Museum.The facade is beautifully done in a shade of peachish red – and there is heavy security.  The entrance fee is a cash only proposition – EP60 per person – so we head into a nearby hotel to withdraw a bunch load of cash – we anticipate all transactions from now on will be cash only. The security is tight – there are at least a 100 policeman around the periphery of the museum and it feels like going through airport security to get into the museum. The scene inside is chaotic – poor labeling and poor presentation makes it one of the more unattractive museums. Although the sections are clearly labeled, the artifacts in each section carry no description for the audience to understand their significance. (October 2009). For example – the Egyptians excavated more than 4000 items from  King Tut’s tomb – all of them are labeled with numbers, with little or no descriptive information on the significance of the item. We are really disappointed ot note that the original Rosetta stone is in The British Museum, and the original boats used by the Pharaohs have been neatly shipped out to other countries as well.  There is a separate mummy section where the mummies have been preserved – but it costs another EP100 per person for access.

We take a quick stop at the Egyptian museum cafe to fill ourselves up with a light brunch and head over to the Cairo railway station. We are lucky to get a cabin @ US$60 per person – however the booking officer insists that we pay in US$ or Euros. After much deliberation and a small bakhsheesh we convince him to accept Egyptian Pounds. The train leaves from Giza tomorrow sharp @8PM.

Next, we decide to venture into the ancient market of Khan-el-Khalili and the area known to westerners as Islamic Cairo. This is perhaps oxymoronic, as 85% of Egyptians are Islamic and Islam pervades all aspects of life in the coutry. Nevertheless, this is perhaps the old city of Cairo where life goes on as it would have been a few hundred years ago – albeit with modern amenities like electricity and cars. The by lanes are small and  the market has a bustle like the old towns in India – Chandni Chowk in Delhi or Varanasi. The vendors sells everything from pita bread, to glass bangles, spices, scarves, women’s lingerie, Egyptian porcelain (sometimes made in China), cotton etc. We have some roadside lunch – falafals and kebabs – and go on to admire the Al-Azhar mosque.

The Al-Azhar mosque was the first mosque in Cairo and is associated with the Al-Azhar university – the second oldest standing university and a center for Sharia law and Sunni theology. The architecture is a blend of domes and minarets – a combination that came about through the mixing of Ottoman and Malmuk styles of architecture. The carvings are still sharp – because most of them have been rebuilt time and again. The mosque has an easy feel to it – the people are friendly and women are allowed inside – quite in contrast to other countries and mosques. Some sections of the mosque, though, are closed for non-Muslims. The archways on the doors are beautifully designed, and have been restored periodically to preserve the original structure. Shown here is the double archway to the entrance of the mosque.

It is only about 2PM and the day has been exhausting already – the heat really saps into your system and it is important to remain hydrated at all times. We keep drinking water and make our way to a restaurant. Our driver takes us to a high end buffet place – EP80 per person. we settle for a largely vegetarian meal – the fruits and the salads are just perfect – I am sure the Nile delta makes a difference in the quality of the natural food and fruit. At the restaurant, I am amused by the menu – take a look at it – the non alcoholic section of this restaurant had us in splits –  humor yourselves. The less said about the local english, the better.

In Egypt it is expected that you pay for your driver’s meals – or at least expected of the tourists. Though the driver’s meal was half the price. Talking about our current driver – he was born and brought up in Cairo and has 4 wives – several kids and grand kids. He is extremely jovial and cracks a joke every now and then. He has officially adopted my wife as his daughter.

make our move towards the Cairo citadel. This is where Barack Obama gave his historic speech just a few days ago. The roads around the citadel seem to have been paved recently in honor of Obama’s visit. Meandering through the bylanes, we drive through the “City of the Dead”. This is as unique to Cairo as the pyramids are to Egypt.

The City of the Dead stretches north to south in Cairo.  To the uninitiated, it is a graveyard, but to thousands of Egyptians, it is home. In the picture on the right, the city of the dead is in the foreground. People just continue to live amidst the burial grounds. Legend has it that the earlier tribe just buried within their houses and so the tradition continues. But one look reveals that the city is no more than a slum today. The residents live amongst the tombs without access to water or a roof over their heads – which is not a problem since it hardly rains in Cairo. The roads are no more than 6-8 feet wide and navigating through them requires a skillful driver. The city of the dead opens into a vast expanse of wide roads and carefully manicured gardens and lawns with modern sprinklers. For the first time I can see local Egyptian couples walking hand in hand and shying away from others. The citadel seems like a nice place to bring a date for a nice romantic evening – albeit an expensive one as the entrance fee is about EP40.

Inside the citadel are sweeping views of Cairo – one can look all around the city – although the dense smog prevents ou from looking too far and distant objects are hazy. Nevertheless, the air is purer up here. The courtyard is dominated by the Mohammad Ali mosque – a huge structure perched on the summit of the citadel. The citadel also houses the National Military and Police museum. The complex strictly closes at 5PM and everyone is ejected out – so make sure you leave ample time to enjoy the citadel.

We head back to the hotel – and to spend some time at the local market in Giza to pick up some trinkets and souvenirs. The Oberoi Mena house is a stone’s throw away and we decide to get dinner there. As we enter, we realize that the hospitality of the Mena House Oberoi is clearly superior to other 5 star places around. For a change, the lobby is a no smoking zone and the staff is extremely courteous. The hotel is actually just at the base of the pyramids and has a golf course as well. The Indian restaurant at the hotel has fixed seating times as it is accompanied by a live ghazal show. We have an hour to kill, and we hang out by the swimming pool. As we enter the restaurant at about 9:30 PM, we are also joined by the owner and chairman Mr. P.R.S. Oberoi and his wife – he is a Sikh as well. While we did not see any other Indians, it was refreshing to see Sikhs around. The ghazal performer was good and took  requests from the audience adding a personal touch to the atmosphere. Mr. Oberoi’s PS sat next to us and we hit up a conversation. We are taking their cruise down the Nile in a few days and she promises to send in a word about our arrival. We are thrilled.

We walk back to Le Meridian and it has been quite an enriching day. We are pleasantly surprised to see a wedding cake – obviously someone at teh hotel was paying attention and we certainly appreciated the nice gesture.

Tomorrow we await more.

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