|The Egyptian capital stretches out along both banks of the Nile. The governorship of Giza on the west bank and that of Cairo proper on the east bank merge to form the same vast conurbation. |
|Misr el-Qadima, the Coptic Quarter: |
|Situated on the east – and right – bank of the Nile at the southern tip of Roda Island lies the oldest inhabited section on this side of the river and home today to the Coptic population. It is possible to get there by underground (train to Helwan as far as Mari Girgis), or by riverboat leaving opposite the television station to the north of Tahrir Square. |
Descending the few steps leading to Misr el-Qadima and entering the encircling walls dating from Roman Babylon, the visitor enters another world, one of silence and contemplation. The narrow streets lead to the Convent of St George, the churches of St Sergius and St Barbara and, close to the Christian cemetery, the Ben Ezra Synagogue, recently restored thanks to the determined efforts of the Jewish community.
The churches – apart from the more modern Church of St George and “Hanging Church” – are scarcely distinguishable from neighbouring houses sharing the same stone, the same architecture and the same absence of external religious imagery.
|Cries of the street sellers: |
|Visitors may not realise it but the cries of the street sellers encapsulate the poetry and humour of the Egyptian people. The following are examples: boasting of the grapes’ sweetness, the seller cries, “Drowsing through the climbing vine, bees hint at the promise of sun-kissed wine!” Somewhat prone to exaggeration, sugar cane sellers shout, “Seven-metre cane, oh sugar cane”, when sugar cane never reaches more than five metres in length. “An empty bean pot means you’ve missed the lot”, the ful (brown bean stew) seller quite sensibly points out when keen to sell off the contents of his stew pot as quickly as possible. |
On the right, the Qalaun Mausoleum, built between 1284 and 1293, comprises a madrasa (mosque and school), hospital and tomb. Inside, the tranquil silence which persists today seems intensified by the stained-glass windows.
|The bazaar is the domain of shopkeepers and tourists. Jewellery, items made from copper, marquetry boxes, imitations of pharaonic objects, semi-precious stones, rugs, blown-glass dishes and other souvenirs are bought and sold in the shops grouped by trades along the narrow streets. It is a place to meander, bargain and lose one’s way…but not miss out on a cup of regular or karkade at the bazaar’s famous Café Fishawy. Just a few years ago, Naguib Mahfouz himself used to come and sit beneath the huge, ageing and discoloured mirrors of the café. |
The City of the Dead, without question one of the world’s largest necropolises, covers several square kilometres at the foot of Moqattam cliff. It contains the plain stone tombs of ordinary people and grandiose mausoleums which are the resting places of emirs and sultans, some dating from the fifteenth century. The living inhabit small, two or three-roomed houses built during the nineteenth century for the purpose of watching over the dead in accordance with a ritual dating back to the pharaohs.
When finding accommodation in Cairo became a challenge, the poorest people headed for these “villas” which had the great advantage of offering space and quiet.
Anyone keen on Mameluk architecture will want to visit the two mausoleums of Qaitbay and Barkuk in the northern part of the necropolis (El-Khalifa).
|The Islands of Gezira and Roda: |
|A lush, green oasis sheltered from the manic pace of the rest of the capital, the island of Gezira in the middle of the Nile is home to the residential quarter of Zamalek as well as to sports clubs, the new opera house and the Cairo Tower which at 185 m tall dominates the city. Site of numerous embassies and chosen for its tranquillity by many foreign residents, Zamalek seems to live at its own pace. When tired of traffic jams and crowds in the popular quarters, the visitor can come here to stroll peacefully along shady streets bordered by villas with an old-fashioned charm. The island of Roda shelters the Manyal Palace, former residence of the son of the Khedive Tewfiq, Mohamed Ali, and today transformed into a museum. Nestling on the banks of the Nile and protected by a rampart made to look like fortifications, the former royal residence is surrounded by a magnificent garden full of rich vegetation. |
|West Bank: |
Administratively separate from the east bank – on crossing the Nile, the visitor leaves Cairo and enters the governorship of Giza – the west bank of the Nile also has a distinctive population and appearance. Modern and straight avenues stretch away for kilometre after kilometre. Here and there a park planted with lumbering eucalyptus, small village square or beautiful restored villa reminds the visitor that a certain level of the middle class built residences here in what was the heart of the countryside just a few decades ago.
The Egyptian capital stretches out along both banks of the Nile. The governorship of Giza on the west bank and that of Cairo proper on the east bank merge to form the same vast conurbation. With an insatiable appetite for space, the largest city on the African continent makes daily inroads into desert sands and farmlands. This is happening at such a rate that no one knows for certain whether Cairo’s population has reached ten, fifteen or perhaps even twenty million.
|Cairo was a source of amazement to travelers even at the time of the Mameluks. But the indomitable city of Cairo is still in the eyes of the Egyptians “The Victorious”, “Mother of the world” or simply “Misr”, the name for Egypt as a whole. As long as the visitor is willing to lose his way then he too can discover the sweetness of Cairo nights lit by green neon illuminated mosques, the warmth of small, everyday cafes, the pleasure of strolling along narrow streets and the smiling good humor of the city’s people. |
|City centre: |
On the east bank of the Nile, between Tahrir and Ataba Squares and Ramesses Station lies the centre of modern-day Cairo. Europeanised since the mid nineteenth century, this quarter was built along the same lines as Haussmann’s Paris: the streets are broad and meet at right angles and rococo apartment buildings with stucco mouldings were considered the height of modernity. This area also conceals some architectural gems dating from the early nineteenth century.
Along Talaat Harb Street, Qasr el-Nil Street and the Avenue of the 26 July, enormous painted posters advertise films currently showing in the cinemas. On Thursday evenings, the citizens of Cairo crowd the pavements of this window-shopper’s paradise. There are fabric remnant shops, clothes and shoe shops as well as major department stores, such as City Star, excellent pastry shops, fashionable fast-food outlets and belly-dancing cabaret clubs. The crowds are a mix of tourists and students from the American university.
On leaving the main thoroughfares and entering the amazing alleyways of Khan El Khalili, the visitor can discover small restaurants and workaday cafes where men in suits and ties come to smoke their nargileh and drink their extra sweet tea away from the bustle.
Tahrir Square (Liberation Square) in the heart of the city represents Cairo as a whole. An oriental-style building houses the American University. An enormous, semi-circular building, the Mogamma, houses several government departments. A visa extension might require a visit to this building in which case a cold beer to follow on the terrace of the Nile Hilton is sure to be appreciated.
|Cairo’s underground – the fourth pyramid: |
Over a million passengers travel daily between Choubra el-Kheima in the north and Helwan in the south on its smoothly operating trains. A second line linking the two banks was opened in 1998 and has been extended as far as Giza.
|Experiencing life after sunset: |
In the heart of the Cairo night, dazzling dancers in sequinned costumes take centre stage. What westerners call belly dancing is here regarded as an institution. As such it has its dancing masters, who take pupils from around the world, its stars, who are seized on by luxury hotels and cinema directors, its couturiers, its musicians, its very own street of cabaret clubs and even its sleazy bars.
|Islamic Quarters: |
Cairo, “City of a thousand minarets”, is not considered by Muslims to be as holy a city as Mecca, Medina or Jerusalem. Its streets and alleyways do however conceal treasures of Islamic art, many of which, although crumbling, offer a dazzling sight to anyone who knows how and where to look. Admission to Islamic monuments is not free. Visitors should also be aware of the need to dress appropriately – shorts and vest tops are not acceptable – and to cover the head in all mosques.
In the Islamic quarters of Old Cairo there are mosques, palaces, caravanserais and Koranic schools. In this area little visited by tourists there is however evidence of life as it is lived by the ordinary people of Cairo – the tradesmen, street sellers and craftsmen. The two monumental gateways, Bab el-Futuh (Gate of Conquests) and Bab el-Nasr (Gate of Victory), mark the northern edge of Fatimid Cairo. Between the two lie the remains of the fortified wall which once encircled the city and which still gives the impression of invulnerability. Beside the Gate of Victory stands the El-Hakim Mosque, built during the first years following 1,000 AD. A place of worship for a mainly Indian Shiite sect, it was extensively restored with concrete and marble in 1980 losing much of its restrained beauty in the process.
Leading away from the front of the mosque is Mouizz el-Din Allah Street, lined with magnificent Islamic monuments. On Dahab Street, one of the first streets on the right, stands Beit el-Souhaymi, former residence of a seventeenth-century El-Azhar sheik, which gives an idea of the splendour of dignitaries’ houses in the Mameluk period. Mouizz el-Din Allah Street leads to the El-Aqmar Mosque (1125) and the fourteenth-century madrasa (mosque school) of Sultan Barkuk.