Known as the cradle of civilisation and famous for its treasures, the Sphinx and the pyramid of Giza, the sprawling city of Cairo is pure magic
It was 2:00 am. The baggage claim area at the airport was now empty but my wife and I still held out for a miracle. Sadly, however, it was not a day for miracles. We were obliged to leave the airport empty handed with a receipt from the lost luggage counter, armed with the hope of being reunited with our lost baggage sometime in the near future. This did nothing to dampen our spirits, for we were after all in the city where civilisation began: Umm al-Dunya, the “mother of the world”: magical Cairo.
The sprawling city of Cairo was naturally the first stop on our Egyptian itinerary. This extraordinary city, also known as the cradle of civilisation, is famous for its treasures, offering the traveller a peep into a unique culture steeped in history. We began our tour with the great pyramid of Giza - the only surviving wonder of the ancient world.
A little less than 45 minutes away from downtown Cairo, the great pyramid of Giza was built as a tomb for King Khufu, also known as Cheops by the Greeks. The 455 feet high pyramid was the tallest man-made structure until the Lincoln Cathedral was built in England in 1311. The mere structure of the pyramid is mind boggling, making one wonder how it was ever built with such precision in those ancient times: it is estimated that 20,000 to 30,000 labourers were used to build it over a 20-year period. For a small fee, one can even enter the pyramid and climb up to where the sarcophagus lies. This we did – my wife not being one to let such an opportunity pass her by, despite the rather claustrophobic and steep climb and a bakhshish-demanding guard at the entrance.
Not far from the Giza pyramid stands another of Egypt’s enigmas: one of the oldest statues in the world, the Sphinx. With the head of a man and the body of a lion, the sphinx is said to have been the brainchild of King Khafre, son of King Khufu, whose pyramid can also be found at Giza. Many theories persist as to the origins and meaning behind the Sphinx. One theory is that the head is that of King Khafre himself, who wished to be represented as a god before his citizens, while the body is that of a cat (lion) as cats played an important religious role at the time.
For the ardent cat lover with me this “important role” proved rather horrific. Antiquarians have found evidence that cats were bred near temples by the Egyptians for the sole purpose of sacrifice and to make offerings to the gods, a booming business in those times. Suddenly the mummified cat we had come across in London’s British Museum made a lot of sense.
Like any top destination, Giza offers the usual touristy paraphernalia, in this instance, a combination of camel rides – the poor camels a little worse for the wear – and excited tour guides offering to click pictures of tourists in various staged poses before the pyramids. Despite this, however, it is a mesmerising place that takes you back in time. While I was finally ‘persuaded’ by our zealous guide to take a camel ride, I managed to avoid the staged pictures.
Competing with Giza for the title of top tourist attraction is the home of Tutankhamun (the boy king): the world famous Egyptian Museum. When we visited, the museum was still housed in its old colonial-era building located at the famous Tahrir Square. More recently, everything has shifted to the new Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza – supposedly the world’s largest archaeological museum. The museum boasts a huge collection of more than 120,000 artefacts including gigantic statues, mummies, papyrus scrolls, precious jewellery, toys and pottery. However, the highlight of the museum is Tutankhamen and his treasures.
The 18/19-year-old Boy King, who ruled for only ten years, stayed in obscurity until his tomb was accidentally discovered by Howard Carter in November, 1922 in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. It was a fascinating discovery for his burial chamber had somehow eluded tomb raiders, ensuring that all the precious objects buried with him as insurance to a comfortable afterlife were there for the world to marvel at. Strangely enough, the Boy King did not appear to have received the royal treatment he was entitled to. Not only is his tomb the smallest in the Valley of the Kings, he appears to have been hastily buried in a second-hand coffin, in cramped space, his embalmed body missing a heart. And yet, with the exciting discovery of his untouched tomb, the young King was eternalised as perhaps one of the most famous Egyptian pharaohs.
Of the more than 5000 objects buried with him, the most spectacular finds include three wooden gold covered coffins, his burial mask, the statue of Anubis, his chariot and golden throne, his gold slippers and jewels. The mummified Pharaoh himself is, however, displayed in his original grave in Luxor in a climate-controlled glass box.
Our visits to Giza and the museum were a full day affair. With the evening approaching, hunger pangs drew us to a local restaurant for some delicious Egyptian food. While falafel, shawarma, kebab and kofte are no strangers to me, the national dish of Egypt – koshary - also should have rung a bell for there is a hidden connection between koshary and our very own “khichri” – an unglamorous mixture of rice and lentils often eaten in the subcontinent as comfort food. It emerged that the origins of Egypt’s national dish lay in the subcontinent. Apparently, khichri was brought to Egypt by Indian soldiers fighting alongside the British during World War II. The unassuming khichri slowly evolved to include spices, garlic, tomato sauce and finally pasta (staple food of Italian Egyptians) - and the Egyptian national dish, koshary was born. Ever since I discovered the origins of koshary, I have developed a new respect for our humble khichri.
Since we were in Cairo for just two days, we divided our second day between Coptic and Islamic Cairo. Coptic Cairo is of significant religious and historic importance and should not be missed. As per the gospel of Matthew in the New Testament, the Virgin Mary, Baby Jesus and Saint Joseph fled from King Herod’s Jerusalem to Egypt. It is believed by Coptic Christians that in Egypt the fleeing holy family took refuge in the area now known as Coptic Cairo. Notable sites to visit in this area include the Babylon fortress, the Hanging Church and the famous Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church, the latter dating back to around 4th-5th century. It is believed that it was in a cave, at the site of the Sergius and Bacchus Church, that the holy family took refuge.
Another historic site is the nearby 9th century Ben Azra synagogue. A church converted into a synagogue, Ben Azra is believed to have been built on the site where baby Moses was found in his basket floating among the reeds on the Nile.
Muslim rule in Cairo began with the Rashidun Caliphate, followed by many others including the Umayyads, Abbasids, Fatimids and the Ayyubids. Every dynasty was to leave its mark on Cairo with unique architecture. Arguably, the most famous of these is the well-preserved Citadel of Saladin. Cairo was the principal seat of Salahuddin Ayyubi and this magnificent citadel is testament to his great rule, for it has never fallen to the enemy.
Another renowned feature of old Cairo is the Fatimid period Al-Azhar Mosque and University complex. Reputed to be the oldest university in the world, Al-Azhar has been the seat of Islamic learning for more than 1,000 years. Some historians have suggested that the modern-day graduation gown is in fact inspired from the robes worn by Al Azhar University’s graduating scholars. So now every time you see graduates flinging their caps in the air, remember their gowns came from Al-Azhar.
Following a quick tour of the mosque, we found ourselves in the oldest bazaar in Cairo, much to my wife’s delight and my trepidation - the Khan Al Khalili. A bustling labyrinth of shops and stalls, this souk is not for the faint-hearted. Make sure you brush up your haggling skills before you enter because you are likely to need them here to bargain with the wily shopkeepers. The bazaar had everything one could wish for: from eatables to spices, souvenirs to gold, it was a treasure trove for my excited wife, whom I followed from stall to stall with a rapidly sinking heart. I, however, successfully distracted her from the gold shops by offering her some gold nuggets instead: sweet ‘gold’ fritters – zalabya, sold at every corner of the bazaar.
The Khan Al Khalili is also the site of the oldest café in Cairo. The El-Fishawy Cafe opened in 1797, a year before Napoleon invaded Egypt. Since then, it has been frequented by many famous people including King Farouk, the last Egyptian monarch and the Nobel Laureates Nagiub Mahfouz and Ahmed Zewail. The cafe’s open layout makes it a thoroughfare with street peddlers, musicians and performers all offering their wares to you as you sip the house speciality - shai barad or boiled tea. The tea is heated in a basin of sand and, therefore, has a distinct taste.
After a quick cup of tea, we strolled down nearby Al-Muizz Street. This 10th Century pathway is the oldest street in Cairo and not to be missed for it has architectural wonders belonging to the various Muslim dynasties that ruled over Egypt. Just before leaving Khan-Al-Khilili, we stopped at one of the most scared Islamic sites in Eygpt: the Al-Hussein Mosque, rumoured to be the burial place of the head of Hussein (with whom Allah was pleased), the martyred grandson of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
With our trip to Cairo nearing its end (we were due to fly to Luxor the following day), our hotel informed us that our luggage had finally arrived. Of course, it was too late for my pocket because my wife had already made several purchases of what she defined as necessities to make up for the missing luggage.
Although we bade farewell to Cairo the next day, it stayed in our hearts and minds long after – two days were certainly not enough to explore this ancient city of wonders, enigmas and whispered promises.
– The writer is a development professional and an avid traveller. He blogs at www.travelpangs.com and can be reached at [email protected]