Considering the short amount of time we were in Egypt, we managed to cram a fair amount into the trip: in addition to the trip to Giza, we saw amazing mosques and a huge Christian complex and we took a trip to Alexandria to go on a Nile River excursion. We also tried to see the view from the top of the Cairo Tower, but a foggy morning combined with the ever-present smog, and we saw only fog and smog. Ah, well, you can’t win them all. I also feel practically obliged to rattle on for a bit about driving and traffic in Cairo; I might just as well start with that and get it out of the way.
If driving in Qatar was a new and initially unsettling experience, at least it served to build up my resistance to horrific driving so that being on the roads in Kathmandu was (probably) less terrifying than it might have been. Following along this same logic, it’s fair to say that Kathmandu traffic was, in turn, good preparation for that which we experienced in Cairo—a sort of acclimatization process, if you will.
Jerry observed that Cairo traffic was similar to that in Kathmandu, just on bigger roads, going a lot faster. That’s certainly a good take on things: the main roads are much bigger than those in Kathmandu (think US Route 95 or the M25 in London for comparison), and the average speed on said roads was 110 kph/65 mph. As in Nepal, there were: carts drawn by livestock being driven by teenagers (to their credit, they did tend to stay on the far right side of the road, but they also sometimes went against the direction of the traffic); buses with people hanging off the back or standing partly in- and partly outside of open doors while traveling, pell-mell, along the highway; cars, motorcycles, panel trucks, and pickup trucks (usually well over-loaded with whatever cargo they were hauling plus additional passengers).
But there were also two interesting differences between driving in Cairo and driving anywhere else I’ve ever been.
First: a shocking number of people seem to consider headlight use while driving at night to be optional. To be fair, the roads are well lit, and lots of people do drive with headlights on, so maybe they’re just letting those light sources do the job and going for maximum bulb life. Still, it’s a tad unnerving.
Second (and definitely unnerving) is the fact that in Cairo, the lines on the roads seem to be painted on strictly for decorative purposes. Roads that are ostensibly two lanes wide are routinely traveled with vehicles three or four abreast, and on that 95-like road (which looks as though it ought to be four lanes) the number was as high as seven. Case in point is the photo below (we are in the far-left lane; there is a lane between the red Chevy truck and the red car to its left).
Drivers move with awe-inspiring if cringe-inducing speed between other cars and the distance between moving vehicles as a general rule was a lot closer than I’d prefer to be at a dead stop in a parking lot. The whole experience was…well, I’m pretty much out of superlatives at this point, so I’ll just let the picture below say its thousand words (and yes, all cars were moving forward at a good clip when I snapped this).
Oddly enough, I found myself much more relaxed during the whole traffic/riding thing in Cairo than in Kathmandu (or my first days of driving in Doha, for that matter). I think I must have entered some sort of passenger nirvana where I just took it all in and blithely assumed that because this was the way everybody drove, it must be okay. This is not to say that we didn’t see plenty of accidents (and people just get out of their cars wherever that occurs, shouting and gesticulating while the other traffic moves around them, like a stream water around a rock), or that my eyebrows weren’t permanently sky-high, or that I didn’t hiss, “That can’t possibly be safe!” at Jerry every ten minutes. It does mean that when our cab driver cheerfully informed us that “to drive in Cairo, you must have a heart of steel, forty extra eyes, and a lot of luck”, I just assumed that he had all of that.
Moving from the ridiculous to the sublime, we spent a gorgeous chunk of one day visiting a handful of mosques in what is called Old Cairo. We had to remove our shoes before entering the mosques, and this was the only place we’ve been thus far where I was asked to cover my head and arms. (Clean scarves available at the entrance, to be placed in the enormous bowl labeled ‘used’ as we exited.)
Built between 1356 and 1363, the Mosque of Sultan Hasan is considered to be one of the most compact and unified from a stylistic point; it is situated directly next to the much newer Mosque of Al Rifai (1869-1912), which (though architecturally designed to complement the Mosque of Sultan Hasan) was an attempt by the rulers of the time to modernize the city. Both are breathtakingly beautiful; inside the main prayer room of the older mosque there was a Muslim man who sat us on the floor and intoned part of the Qur’an for us. It was a beautiful thing to listen to: he held his hands cupped around his mouth, varying the degree and direction to which they opened as he sang and the acoustics were stunning.
These mosques are very close to the Cairo Citadel (also called the Saladin Citadel). It was built between 1176 and 1183 by order of Salah al-Din as a defense against the Crusaders. The Citadel itself was the centerpiece of a wall intended to surround both Cairo and neighboring Fustat, and the structure included an elaborate well and aqueduct system to supply the city with water. Huge stretches of the aqueduct are still visible—very cool.
The Mosque Ahmad Ibn Tulun, commissioned by Ahmad himself (he was the Abbasid governor of Egypt from 868-884AD), is the oldest in the city still in its original form (the inscription slab marks completion in 879 AD) and is, area-wise, the largest. It is also the mosque that has that distinctive spiral minaret, and (for movie buffs) it’s where some parts of The Spy Who Loved Me was shot, along with the adjacent Gayer-Anderson Museum. The Gayer-Anderson Museum is the former Ottoman-style residence of British Major R.G. Gayer-Anderson, who got special permission in 1935 from the Egyptian government to live there. He added electricity and plumbing to the newly-restored 17th century style abode and filled it with his personal (and impressively large) collection of Islamic art and furnishings from the same era. In 1942, ill health forced him to return to England, so he gifted the contents of the house to Egypt (in return, King Farouk—the second-to-last King of Egypt—gave him the title ‘Pasha’).
There is a small but strong Christian contingent in Cairo and when I found out that there was a St. George’s Church in the city it immediately got put on our to-see list. The main building of the complex is now a nunnery (home to about thirty-five women), and is not open to the public, but there are other churches in the compound, including the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (these are believed to be the oldest in Cairo, and are built on the spot where Jesus and his family rested after their flight to Egypt). There is also a Jewish synagogue in the compound (again—the oldest in Egypt, and this said to be the site where Pharaoh’s daughter found the baby Moses).
The religious compound where St. George’s is located was, incidentally, one of the most rigorously tended entrances of all the places we visited. There were literally Tourism Police (not just a fancy title—these guys had guns and everything) everywhere we went, and as an aside I will say that while being American (and apparently we stick out a mile wide as such) did result in us being an immediate magnet for every vendor selling tchotchkes within a mile radius, the flip side of that coin is that being American also brings incredible privilege. Incredible. We didn’t see a lot of Westerners anywhere we went, but we did see a lot of people being questioned on their way into mosques and such, some at quite some length; we were asked where we were from (or, more often, asked directly if we were from America) and promptly waved through.
To gain entrance to the religious compound you needed to show identification. There was quite a line, and the people ahead of us mostly had passports in hand; at this point I told Jerry there was a good chance I wouldn’t be able to get in, as I had not a speck of identification on me. He had his wallet, and thus his Doha resident card and American driving license, but I had zilch. We waited in line, watching as proffered IDs were carefully scrutinized before the person was allowed in. One man was denied entrance and pushed rather unceremoniously to one side. He protested, waving his ID card in one hand and trying to push through the entrance; this resulted in his being hauled bodily aside by an officer and a very loud and fairly physical argument took place. I became even more convinced that I wouldn’t be allowed inside (there were other couples in line ahead of us, and both had been asked for ID) but when we got to the turnstile, the guard barely glanced at Jerry’s ID before waving us both almost impatiently inside.
There were plenty more officers roaming the complex, and they all greeted us (“Hello, America!”) One asked us for an American dollar; as it happened, I had American currency with me, and so (to his enormous delight), I gave him one. This turned out to be a minor tactical error: one young boy saw me give the officer the dollar and promptly began following us through the throng, entreating me to give him one, too. I would dearly have loved to—I had another—but he had plenty of friends and I knew the second I gave in we would be swarmed by a whole passel of kids. I didn’t have either the emotional energy or the number of single dollar bills I’d need to deal with the situation. I ended up refusing the boy, and he was so crestfallen that it made me really sad.
While living conditions in Cairo didn’t seem quite as bad as those in Kathmandu, they’re far from great: a lot of people live with very little. This was most readily evident the afternoon we went up to the outskirts of Alexandria, where we met up with a colleague of Jerry’s from Aspire (he’s studying at one of the universities in Cairo) and went on a Nile River excursion with him and half a dozen of his friends. It was a beautiful day, and we motored gently along, stopping several times, first to have tea (served in small clear handle-less glasses), then at a family run farm where one of the crops is honey. At our next stop we left the vessel for a short (forty minutes or so) tour of the immediate area in horse drawn carriages; by then night had fallen and it had actually gotten a bit chilly, so when we returned to where the boat was waiting, we first stopped at a tea and sheesha house for refreshment. Everywhere we went, the people we met were hard working and visibly extremely poor, and nothing anywhere was anything remotely resembling ‘clean’.
I remember sitting on the grimy sofa at our last tea-stop and wondering vaguely how the dishes had been washed, then thought about some of the things I’d seen that day and decided that dish washing really didn’t matter in the larger scheme of things. After all, tea is made with boiling water, right?