Landscapes while wandering the planet
The Hidden Cairo
Day 4 in Cairo
Cairo is often known as the city of a thousand minarets – notably for its Islamic architecture. Islam might be the dominant religion of the state, yet 15% of Egyptians are not Muslims – they are Coptic Christians and Jews. This is exciting because as a traveler one can experience a variety of cultures and do away with the stereotypes that are thrown at us everyday. the hidden gem in Cairo is known as Coptic Cairo – a part that belongs to the Coptic Christians. Back in the 5th century, Coptic Christians developed a dramatically different understanding of Christianity – the exact differences are still disputed, but I understand that they Celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January which corresponds to 25th December in the Julian calendar. This is all fascinating for us, only because we have never heard about such differences in a predominantly Islamic state. I have known that Christianity flourished in the Middle East before the 15th century or so, but to experience it in person will be a unique experience – we are really looking forward to an excellent day out exploring the not much talked about parts of Cairo.
We are now pretty bored of our usual elaborate breakfast at the hotel and don’t care much about the fresh fruits and juices – it is striking how quickly we take certain luxuries in life “as a given”. Two days on our own in the city has emboldened us today – we hire a cab for a one way trip to Coptic Cairo. It is a short ride and leaves us poorer by EP50.
The cab drops us off at what seems like a heavily barricaded part of the city. This is what is also known as the Old Cairo. It is suddenly apparent that the Coptic part of Cairo is heavily guarded and it may not be an entirely peaceful co-existence – although no sectarian violence has been reported, it is apparent that these folks live a separate life within Egypt. It is estimated that there are about 50-60M Coptic Christians worldwide.
We get off from the cab and start walking towards the barricaded area. Suddenly, a well built man springs up besides me and demands to see my passport. I refuse. A short period of nervous conversation ensues. Seeing the argument a cop comes towards us – he explains that the guy is an unmarked cop and for security reasons I needed to show my passport. They ask us if we have ever been to Israel – I reply in the negative and for some reason they are relieved. They shake my hand, apologize and disappear as suddenly as they appeared.
We move ahead to another surprise. Our driver from the 2nd day owns a souvenir shop right outside the Ben Ezra synagogue. We tell him that we will shop after we are done with the sightseeing.
The complex is pretty huge – and consists of a number of monuments. The entire place is very well kept – and renovated periodically to preserve the ancient treasure. This is quite in contrast from the Islamic monuments that have been left to degrade on their own. Our first stop is the Hanging Church. The actual monument dates back to the 8th century, but legend has it that a church has existed here since the 3rd century. The church is dedicated to Saint Virgin Mary and it is believed htat hte first family lived here for a while. The church has numerous holy icons and the most famous is a painting known as the Monalisa of Egypt, which shows the virgin Mary, Jesus and Moses. There are a number of helpful volunteers who enthusiastically guide us around the church and explain the historical significance.
Just outside the hanging church is the Ben Ezra synagogue – it lies in a labyrinth of bylanes below the ground – ancient remains of houses can be seen all around – some of them are still occupied and there are a number of shops. Bargain shopping is always fun – but I guess the Jewish quarter is less inclined to reduce their prices. At one point, one shopkeeper told me that he will sell me a trinket for a million dollars – just because I had quoted a bargain price that was not to his liking. I didn’t buy it. The synagogue itself is well kept – in the ancient times the ground floor was for men and the upper floor was for women – this practice is now discontinued. In the 18th century, a number of Hebrew manuscripts and writings from the Quran were found in the store of the synagogue dating back all the way since the 8th century. They are secular in nature and depict life in Turkey, Europe, Russia, and India etc.
Outside, we stop for a quick brunch and shop for some trinkets at the local market. We wander through the local bazaar – and take a short taxi ride to the Nilometer. This unique piece of art, architecture and utility was rendered obsolete after the construction of the Aswan Dams controlled the flooding of the Nile every summer. In the Pharaohnic times, the government imposed taxes on farmers based on the level of the Nile – higher the level, better the rains/floods, and more the crop and hence higher taxes. Not many people visit this part of Cairo’s history – the attendant at the Nilometer gives us a private tour before it closes for the day at 4PM.
We take a walk along the banks of the Nile and head over to the hotel to pack and take the Sleeping Train to Luxor. We hail a taxi from the Nilometer and settle with the driver for EP60 for the ride – but on reaching hte hotel he asks for EP300. It is not before the hotel concierge intervenes and settles for EP90 for the trip. I dislike it when locals try to rip off tourists. I am sure that it happens in all parts of the world, but it just leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Later in the evening we will head out towards the Giza railway station.