Cairo: Beyond the Pyramids

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Cairo’s Old City dates back to the seventh century C.E., when Islam entered the region. It is an archaeologist’s treasure-trove and an anthropologist’s delight-cum-nightmare.

By Yoginder Sikand

Cairo, many people who haven’t been there, imagine, is simply where the pyramids of Giza and the enormous Sphinx are. But there’s much more to the city than its ancient Pharoanic monuments. Having done the almost mandatory trip to Giza on a previous visit, some twenty years ago, on my latest visit to the city, I decided to explore Cairo’s Old City, which dates back to the seventh century C.E., when Islam entered the region. It is an archaeologist’s treasure-trove and an anthropologist’s delight-cum-nightmare.
Cairo’s chaotic Old City is definitely not the place for a relaxed, cheerful holiday. But for travelers with an interest in the living culture of ‘ordinary’ folk and willing to rough it out, it is a fascinating place to spend a few days pottering about in. Many visitors to the Old City hardly spend a day in the district, but it certainly deserves not less than a week. It isn’t easy negotiating the place, though. Much of it is a jungle of crater-ridden, rubbish-laden lanes clogged with traffic and crowds. Little booth-like shops, mud hovels, and soot-stained, unpainted, crumbling houses, many of them several centuries old, line the streets. Mule-drawn carts trundle past, bearing enormous loads of vegetables, fruits, bread, and meat. In dingy roadside cafes, men in Western dress and in the traditional Egyptian gown-like gelabiya, smoke shishas or hubble-bubbles, play backgammon, and watch football on giant television sets. Impoverished children pick through pyramid-like heaps of garbage. There are numerous enormous centuries-old structures around that were once functioning mansions, madrasas or Islamic schools, shrines, and sabils or public water fountains, but many of them in a state of considerable ruin and neglect and groan under thick layers of rubbish.
At the centre of the Old City is the massive Khan-e Khalili bazaar, which dates back to the fourteenth century, with dozens of shops selling Pharaonic statues, stone sphinxes, enormous wooden prayer-beads, camel-leather cushions, ornate glass lamps, brassware and jewellery, embroidered pieces of Islamic calligraphy, the usual Chinese-made knick-knacks that are now almost universal, and diaphanous belly-dance costumes in shocking electric hues. Little eateries, surrounded by lakes of garbage, do brisk business, selling mint tea, kababs, ful (spiced beans floating in olive oil) and kosheri””spaghetti with spicy tomato sauce and onions.
Deep into the confusing nest of lanes in the vicinity is the Tentmakers’ Bazaar, on Al-Muiz Street, which must not be missed, where, in dozens of little stalls, men churn out leather tents, boots, felt caps, and patchwork embroidery depicting Pharaonic themes and scenes from daily Egyptian life. Nearby, is what is said to be the world’s oldest university. Al-Azhar was set up as a mosque and centre for Islamic learning in the tenth century by the Fatimis, a branch of the Shia Muslims, who then ruled Egypt. An ornate entrance gate leads into the massive courtyard of the Al-Azhar mosque, whose inner hall is richly decorated with delicate Arabic inscriptions that are carved into the walls, and enormous brass lamps. Not far from Al-Azhar is the City of the Dead””thousands of graves, built like houses, inside which the poorest of Cairo’s poor live, along with their long-deceased ancestors.
Cairo’s Citadel is one of its major tourist attractions. It is a sprawling structure, built on a giant promontory, which commands a fabulous view of the chaos of the Old City that spreads out below. It was built by Salahuddin Ayyubi, the twelfth century Albanian warrior who is credited with having defeated the Crusaders. A walking distance away is the Al-Ghouriya, an ancient structure now reconstructed to host cultural performances, mostly free of cost.
Egypt was, in pre-Islamic times, a major centre of Christianity, and Jesus’ parents are said to have brought him to the country as a child to escape being killed by the tyrant Herod. They are said to have stayed in Egypt for three years. Today, hardly a tenth of Egypt’s population are Christians, mostly members of the Orthodox Coptic Church. Many of the former residents of the area have apparently migrated to America. The quarter, which is distinctly less filthy than the rest of the Old City, hosts seven ancient churches. Many of these resemble mosques, with their domes, beautiful mother of pearl inlay work on their doors, exquisite carpets, intricate friezes ornately decorated with Arabic calligraphy””verses from the Bible””and inscriptions in Arabic, besides Coptic and Greek. Gilded portraits of Jesus and
various Coptic saints decorate the walls, and unlike in Western churches, these figures look Asian, even African, with dark skins, curly hair and round noses. Incense wafts through the dark chambers of the churches as bearded priests, dressed in long, flowing robes, lead the prayers, in soft, song-like tones in Arabic mixed with ancient Coptic.
In the Church of St. Barbara you can see the steps leading to a pillared underground vault where Jesus, Mary and Joseph, so it is claimed, stayed. There is also a centuries-old Jewish synagogue in the area, a Coptic monastery, the charming Coptic museum, housed in an opulent Ottoman-period building, the ruins of a Roman fort and an Armenian and a Coptic cemetery–all of which are well worth a visit. A stone-throw’s distance from the Christian quarter is the enormous mosque of Amr bin As, said to be the first mosque to have been built in Egypt and, indeed, in all of Africa, named after the first Arab Muslim conqueror of Egypt, who established modern Cairo in the seventh century.
You could spend””as I did””almost a fortnight in the Old City exploring its many ancient monuments, many of them in a state of woeful ruin, and getting a taste of the life in the streets, but when you get tired of it all, as you soon will (because the filth and the crowds and the pushy shopkeepers and aggressive taxi-drivers all set to rip you off are bound to get intolerable after a while) you hire a felluca””a country boat””to sail down the Nile, leaving, to your immense relief, the chaos of the biggest city in Africa and the Middle East well behind you.
(The writer can be reached at [email protected])