On the banks of the river Nile

Posted: December 3, 2010 in Africa
Tags: , , , , , ,

It has often been written that Egypt is Cairo and Cairo is Egypt. Cairo is the semi-mythical capital of the Arab world and a city of sprawling confusion. Home to some 16m Egyptians and the “city of a 1,000 towers”, modern day Cairo resonates faded decadence and shabby charm. It’s not a pretty city – taken at face value it is a throbbing metropolis of chaos. Dirty streets adorned with swarming flies and rotting rubbish piles, incessant honking of car horns, hustle and bustle, ill-looking stray dogs and cats, half finished buildings and the random detritus of human life; these are all symbols of the city that really never sleeps. However, to judge Cairo on its surface beauty is to under-estimate its charm. The city contains a wealth of culture and history and hidden gems are waiting to be found provided you have the patience to get under its skin and ignore the grime.

Having long ago decided we needed to calm down the journey times and spend more time enjoying each destination, Muneeza and I agreed that we would focus our shortened stay in Egypt on Cairo and give ourselves the chance to get a feel for its pace and culture.  The plan was to spend each day in a different suburb of the city and go everywhere on foot whenever possible and open ourselves to the approaches of the local people.

Islamic Cairo

Situated to the East of Downtown, where we first stayed in the Berlin Hotel (run down budegt building with clean, basic rooms but noisier than a gaggle of teenage girls with a nude picture of Orlando Bloom), Islamic Cairo is an incredible part of town with over 800 listed monuments. Street signs are not the forte of Egyptians and our grasp of written arabic is poor to say the least, so navigation is by landmarks and basic Lonely Planet maps.

It was Muneeza who wanted to see this part of Cairo and I’m very glad she took me there. It is a crazy, messy, fly ridden area but the architecture is fascinating. Influences from the Ottoman empire, from Greece, from the Arab world, all shape the skyline. Our plan had been only to visit the renowned Al Azhar Mosque, founded in AD 970 and the oldest mosque in Egypt. However, we were hijaked by a local old man called Fathi who, having insisted he wasn’t a guide and didn’t want money, persuaded us to follow him on a tour.

We spent about 30mins being guided through the back streets that no tourist ever ventures down. We met lots of local people. We had the history of buildings explained, from mausoleums to madrassas. We had Egyptian tea in his small museum, a garage off the street that contains a haberdashery of items from all round Egypt collected over the years of trading with the Bedouin. We read his guest book that has entries from people from all over the world who, like us, followed his hospitality. After tea and his indulgence in sheesha, he walked us back to the mosque and we said a fond farewell. Oh and we bought a wooden elephant before we left!

We walked back to our hotel through the winding streets and bazaars of Cairo. It was an amazing experience and showed that hospitality was often the greatest in the poorest areas. Islamic Cairo at street level is not pretty as it is ridden with flies, stray animals, broken pavements and dirt. However, the people are quick to smile and ready to help a visitor and the frequent greetings of “welcome to Egypt” put smiles on our faces.


Nested on a small island in the middle of the Nile to the West of downtown, Zamalek was described as being slightly more affluent. We walked as usual and experienced the standard traffic chaos and dirty roads. In Zamalek we headed south towards the Cairo Tower and shelled out a steep LE70 (8GBP) to go to the viewpoint at the top. Despite the high cost, it was worthwhile because the tower offers a 360 degree panorama of Cairo. It’s a marmite view – spectacular vista but the entire city is enveloped in a fug of smog and pollution, so the skyline at building level is yellow/brown and it only gets blue when you get way above the people. Despite the depressing reality that we were inhaling death air, we loved being able to look across the city and down the Nile and picture how much fun Cairo must have been before the pollution took over.

Old Cairo

Once known as Babylon (but not in the David Gray sense..) and locally known as Masr al-Qadima, old Cairo incorporates the whole area south of Garden City down to Coptic (Christian) Cairo. We took the tube to cut the walking time as it was hot hot heat and got off at Mar Girgis, directly opposite the Coptic Museum. We had a lesiurely walk around the museum and the various Christian churches, which whilst interesting, where spolied by the tourism police security quadron that barred us from going further south. We spoke to a local shop owner and asked why we couldn’t as we had walked everywhere else in the city and he simply told us that the police are stupid!

Frustrated, we headed North and opted to walk the whole way back to the hotel, about 4kms in total. The walk was intriguing. The Coptic area is in good condition, polished for the bus-in/bus-out tourist conveyor belt. The Old Cairo directly north, which is a Muslim enclave, is once more ramshackle. In Garden City where street markets flourish, we walked past steaming rubbish tips, crumbling buildings, dead animals, swarms of flies and even a homeless man with elephantitis of the legs and supurating wounds. It was a depressing site. Then as soon as we crossed the aqueduct of an-Nasr Mohammed it was as if the poverty was alleviated by a spell and, whilst by no means sparkling, the cleanliness improved.

We got back to the hotel hot and grimy but having enjoyed the walking experience once more. I got in the shower and realised just how dirty this city makes you – brown water pourred off me and left a trail of dirt in the shower. I have no idea how people live this way day in, day out without suffering from chronic illness.

The Pyramids at Giza and Saqqara

The legendary pyramids, one of the must-see tourist attractions in Egypt. Cairo is not a Pharonic city, dating instead from around AD969, but the Pharoahs dominate popular history and the pyramids at Giza are the most well known.

We knew that it was a tourist trap and we would be inundated with tacky hawkers trying to flog anything under the sun but what we hadn’t bargained for was just how shocking the encroachment of mankind is on the beauty of the ancient world. How the Egyptian Governments and cultural leaders have allowed the sprawling mess of modern Cairo to reach within 200 yards of the great pyramids is beyond our comprehension. Added to that, every step you take you are hassled by someone wanting baksheesh for adding no value to your experience. Security police, intended to help protect the site, encourage you to cross security cordons to “touch the pyramid, sure sure, no problem” and then extract baksheesh even though they tell you it doesn’t cost. Camel riders kept trying to re-tie Muneeza’s shawl in the Arab fashion, then insist on a photo and charge baksheesh. We lost track of ther number of times we told them “la shukran” and then in English emphasised that they would get nothing from us. And nobody got a dime from us.

We decided we had to block out the scum of human greed from our minds and focus on absorbing the sights. When you make this mental leap, all you see before you are the 3 great pyramids of Khufu, Chephren and Mycerinus (grand father, father and son). The scale is mind blowing. When you then consider that these edifices, the tallest at 146m high, were built in approximately 2,500BC and that each limestone block (weighing 2.5 tons) was hand hewn from rock and transported down the Nile then hauled to Giza, the imagination of the Pharoahs is brought into sharp perspective. The Great Pyrmaid of Khufu (Cheops) comprises over 2.3m blocks. And what I discovered is that the depth of the rock face at the bottom is immense – it’s not just a few surface blocks, the blocks continue back a long, long way making the pyramid almost inpenetrable. That’s way the attempts of Saladin’s son Malek Abdel Aziz to dismantle the smaller pyramid of Mycerinus in AD1186 proved futile. After 8 months he gave up and the scar in the north face is testament to his failure and the Pharoah’s incredible architecture.

The pyramid and necropolis at Saqqara, dating further back in time that Giza, is a similar story. The experience of walking in a city that was built around 2,650BC by Pharoah Zoser’s chief architect Imhotep (later deified for his acheivement) is wonderful. Surrounded by the desert plateau you can let yourself imagine what it must have been like in those time and how exciting the discovery of the ruins in the 19th Century must have been for the French Egyptologist, Auguste Mariette. However, the crowd of hungry student guides and Bedouin Arabs won’t let you enjoy the site in peace – you can’t walk into a temple without being f0llowed and a garbled explanation in Arabic offered before baksheesh is demanded. I’m a polite person usually but I could happily have given them the good news.

We opted to head back to the hotel after Saqqara and miss out on Memphis. The decision was based on the fact that despite the natural beauty of the pyramid complexes and the fascinating history surrounding us, we weren’t given any time to soak up the experience. Modern day Cairo has been allowed to encroach on Giza far too easily and you can hear the city noises as you walk around. Add to that constant harrassment by people wanting to get money from you for nothing, the litter strewn across the sites, the copious amounts of horse and camel shit and you get a picture of utter disappointment. Furthermore, generation after generation of shoddy builder has raped and pillaged the Giza site to strip the pyramids of their polished white limestone casing (mercifully now prohibited) for use in the palaces and mosques of the select few. All this has achieved is the acceleration of decay of the wonderful pyramids.

The Egyptian Government and people don’t appear to value what they have and the constant drive to make money takes precedence over the beauty of the ancient world. We wonder what the Pharoahs would think if they could see what has become of their pyramids?


I took a little afternoon tour all by myself as my poor jani had been struck down by a case of the Pharoah’s revenge. The book described Helipolis, if it were to stand alone in its own right, as a gem of North Africa. Granted that was written in 2003 but I have no idea what the writer was on, perhaps a mesculin fuelled binge. The Heliopolis that I saw was a confused mess like the rest of Cairo.

Amidst the noisy traffic and bustling streets there are some beautiful buildings and intriguing architecture. The arking esplanade of Ibrahim Laqqany throws up interesting oriental inspired stone buildings but it’s still just another shopping mecca. The most intriguing buildings, the basilica designed to be a miniature version of Istanbul’s Aya Sofia and Baron’s Palace, a hindu style temple in honour of the Belgian Baron Empain who founded Heliopolis, are both closed to the public and paraded by security officers. What is the point?

I took the tram back to Midan Ramses, the main square near our hotel. The tram system is dilapidated and slow, oh so slow but a snip at LE 0.5 (about 6p). It took forever to come and I got home rather later than expected but I was glad to have made the effort to see Heliopolis even if the reality is not quite as seductive as the literary review.

Dirty pretty things

There are lots of negative aspects to the western world but having experienced this city in detail, I can safely say that I am hugely thankful for the quality of life and level of cleanliness we have in the UK. We both loved Cairo but would never want to live somewhere so crazy and dirty. It really is a dirty pretty thing.

We have also changed our travel plans. The trip to Kazakhstan would have led to a super expensive flight to Nepal, so I’ve sacrificed the Aral Sea dream and we’re flying direct from Cairo to Kathmandu, giving us an extra week to enjoy Egypt and head to the Sinai peninsula and go meet Moses.

Ma’a salaama Cairo

love james & muneeza x

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s