Cairo in Autumn can reach 31 degrees by day and settle to 21 degrees in the evening. Leaving the airport car park, sartorially prepared for the tropics, with a 7 degree chill of Mancunian air, and promising cold autumnal rain, I’m filled with eastern promise!
The short hop on the Heathrow shuttle is uneventful, apart from having to make a dash to the duty-free shop to pay a king’s ransom for a bottle of water to relieve the paroxysms of choking phlegm from a fellow traveller who has allowed a salted peanut to go down the wrong tract. The poor woman is on her first holiday abroad after burying her husband and selling up the family business, a care home in the north-west. Her first trip away and almost her last. She is on her way to Milan to visit her son and I feel duty-bound to help her along her way. Mind you, at airport prices for a bottle of water to help the poor woman, not to mention the showing human compassion and generosity of spirit, it is a close call.
Heathrow Terminal 5 is a paradise for people watching. The adage that ‘old rockers never die’ is evident in the couple who come to sit opposite us. She is positively nondescript in her black fake fur coat, black trousers and blonde hair piled up in a chignon. He, on the other hand, is a work of art. Straight platinum hair, cut to the collar, round John Lennon sun glasses, weather-worn brown leather bomber jacket and drainpipe jeans, beaten only by gold monkey-boots. He makes Keith Richards look the picture of health and sobriety. He’s a good foot shorter than her, not to mention a few stone lighter and it makes for a comic picture as she hands him crisps with miserly generosity and he dutifully follows in her wake, albeit with a much shorter gait, carrying their hand-grip.
So, fortified by a gin and tonic we sit, gently taxiing to the runway. It’s Thursday, so for all of the Egyptian passengers around us, the start of the weekend. Next stop will be Cairo and I can’t help but wonder what awaits us on this, our first visit to Africa.
Even at one o’clock in the morning, Cairo airport can be manic. Everything seems to be both familiar and yet, at the same time, strange and oddly different. For a capital city, the airport footprint is predictably large but the arrival terminals themselves echo earlier days and are small, unassuming and rather down at heel.
The first task on arrival is to seek out a tourist visa. For this you need sterling, euros or dollars. There is clearly little faith or trust in the local currency.
Long before you reach the arrival hall, there is a row of bureau de change kiosks all actively looking for your custom. For the princely sum of $50 the bank clerk hands out two stickers, each about the size of a label from a jam jar, and about as colourful. No passports needed, no paperwork, no questions, just the power of the dollar.
‘Do I lick these or peel them off the backing?’
‘I show you…..look, like this, see?’
His colleague looks up from an old-fashioned typewriter and smiles.
‘He my boss. He very good at this.’
‘He’s definitely going far,’ is my reply.
Then there is the first passport check. This is where the visa is checked and stamped. It takes only a moment. Immediately beyond, a soldier at a small gate checks the same passport once again. So much for trusting members of the Egyptian civil service. Well, I suppose this is what to expect, bearing in mind the Spring revolutions of 2011, the military coup d’etat, the rise of the Muslim brotherhood and the Sisi government and the most recent anti-government protests this April.
At the luggage carousel, there seems to be a large number of men all sporting the same identification on lanyards around their necks. Their task, it seems, it to spot items of luggage and place them on trolleys for the waiting travellers. The latter are left to recognise that what is being put together doesn’t belong to them, to take the suitcases off the trolley and put them back on to the conveyor belt. On their next cycle round, the bags will find their way onto another trolley, one way or another. The best policy, I find, is to push in front of them, spot our two suitcases early and drag them off before anyone realises they are a matching pair with a common owner.
In the lavatory, I am handed a small piece of toilet paper by a grinning, toothless employee who nods at me, nods downwards at my lower half, and then nods at the paper. Someone, who could easily pass as his brother or cousin, is waiting by the washbasins to turn on the tap for me and hand out a further supply of paper. On top of this, there appears to be another relative by the door to see me safely back into the arrivals hall. They all require tipping but I’m embarrassed that I have no loose change, so all I can do is to smile back, nod equally feverishly, and make my escape. I’ve learnt the word baksheesh, in fact I learnt it at an early age from reading comics, but ‘tipping’ seems to be the word they use and obviously understand.
The third passport check is at customs. I’ve travelled less than a hundred yards but I’ve clearly had more than enough opportunity to forge a new identity, twice, if not three times. I bet Howard Marks never had this much trouble!
We finally burst out of the entrance and exit doors into a cacophony of taxi drivers, to be bombarded by ‘meet and greet’ boards and are frantically solicited by hordes of young men who want to carry our bags and to whisk us off in one of the hundreds of taxis that fill the forecourse.
Our driver, Aymen packs everything into his superbly-valeted Toyota and we head towards the city. Today has not been a good day for him, he tells us. The Egyptian pound, the LE, has been revalued by the government and is worth only 60% of what it was worth yesterday. It’s to attract tourists, apparently; but for the two sitting in the back of his taxi armed with a large supply of the most disgustingly filthy 100 Egyptian pound notes, purchased from Marks and Spencer and counted out by an attractive clerk with blood-red acrylic nails, it’s not much by way of comfort. Nor, presumably, will it be for the Egyptian family trying to make ends meet down at the market or in the supermarket aisles.
It’s quiet on the roads, we’re told, as we weave between lorry and car, with scant regard for the white lines demarcating the four or sometimes five lanes and make our way around the ring road to the south of the city and out to the suburbs of Maadi. One hand on the car horn, the other on the phone, texting as we go; it’s the Egyptian way!
There’s not much to see in the dark during the forty-minute drive and little to do when we arrive at our destination except to thank Aymen who would have earned the equivalent of fifteen English pounds for this journey yesterday, but today, it’s only worth ten. He’s happy with the additional tip, which is pitifully small, but all adds up in a long, long day for him here in North Africa. And, as weary travellers look forward to bed and sleep, he’s heading back to the airport to begin the whole process again.
The area around Maadi is largely residential and considered up-market. A maze of main streets and side roads with cars parked anywhere and everywhere. Amongst the usual proliferation of Japanese and German vehicles are wrecks that died where they stopped and have been here for years. I’m told that many belong to people working abroad. Judging by the a brown rusted Pontiac in the next street, its owner must have passed on as well. It must have been there for generations. It’s gradually becoming part of the street. Bumpers have fallen off and are lying in the dirt. Weeds have grown up around the tyres and the dust is inches thick.
Next to it is an old man on a cart pulled by an equally dilapidated horse. It is from another time and place. An old woman passes with a push-cart. Her job is to sweep up the litter. She has a job for life. The corners of all the housing blocks are thick with waste. Bags and bags of plastic, paper, wrappers and cartons. No one seems to bother and everyone lives amongst it all.
Houses are poorly finished. There seems to be a gigantic gap between those that have and aren’t really fussed about it and those that haven’t and probably will never have it, anyway. Large glossy Mercedes and Volkswagens share the same pitted and rutted roads with hundreds of Hiace minibuses stopping to pick up anyone as part of an informal bus service.
Westerners tend to rely on Uber or dedicated drivers as pre-arranged taxi services. Local white taxis are fine for short distances but out on the ring roads and dual carriageways, it’s not advisable to risk your life in one of the battered Ladas or Chinese BYD taxis. The whole city is too large to contemplate walking, although there is a two-line Metro service: one going across the city and the other heading in the alternative direction.
Everyone uses their horn. You beep because you are behind someone, you beep because you are in front. You beep because you are simply on the road. Multiply that by the number of drivers and cars and it’s bedlam.
And as far as the eye can see is a large concrete and brick wall. High enough to dissuade those who would seek to scale it, it resembles the wall of a rather benign prison. It’s the boundary to the Maadi sports club. Tennis courts, swimming pools, football pitches, indoor and outdoor sports facilities, its own McDonalds – it’s all there, if you have the means to pay the annual subscription rate. Its footprint is enormous. And it’s all guarded by the usual bevy of security officials who are provided with the standard issue of white shirts, navy trousers and white plastic garden seats from which they spend many hours every day, watching the world go by.
Everywhere you go, there are people employed to guard. Police at roadblocks, army at the entrance of buildings and hotels , security guards at barriers, old men at gateways. Everybody has a white plastic chair and spends their life vegetating. All you can do to pass the time is smoke, polish your gun and yawn.
As you might have expected, there is a huge gulf here between the haves and the have-nots. The British ex-pat community and many of the other westerners probably hold the middle ground. However, at the lower end, there are still divisions. Every Egyptian is granted a daily bread ration of five of the Egyptian flat breads. Every shop and business seems to be teeming with sales assistants, bag carriers, door openers, security guards and general shop walkers. There must be more taxis here than in the majority of cities across the world. Below that strata are the general poor and the very poor. Drivers of donkey carts and horse drawn flat carts collect what they can for a few pounds to eek a living. Wages are rock bottom and everyone relies on baksheesh to supplement earnings.
The horses and donkeys look emaciated and totally depressed. Some of their owners are only marginally better.
There are those out in suburbia with their BMWs and Mercedes Benzs. The luxury car market is for a small minority. The average BMW costs four times as much here as it would in the UK. The second hand car market is equally expensive. There is a car dealership just below the apartment. They wash them nightly to get rid of the dust but there’s no hiding all the dints and scratches, even on fairly new models. Consequently, cars and vans are kept on the road as long as they can run, often held together by tape or bits that look as though they have been borrowed from kitchen equipment. Rust, dints and scrapes abound.
And yet, absolutely everywhere, there is a warm welcome, a cheeriness, a curiosity and a willingness to share a story. In truth, from shopkeepers much of this has the ulterior motive of getting you to part with your money, but captive audiences, such as taxi drivers and waiters, are equally friendly. Mind you, stepping inside a pharmacy for a bottle of shower gel I was met by an old woman in a black abaya whose face would have turned milk. Her mission must have been to put her son or son-in-law out of business as quickly and as forcefully as possible. It took all my cajoling skills to extricate her out of her chair and totter the half dozen or so steps to the cabinet and back to the drawer for change.
One other small thing strikes you. When you come to pay for goods, the tills are almost always more or less empty. Nobody has change, nobody seems happy with any paper money larger than the equivalent of a five pound note.
A gentle introduction to Cairo
One needs to be gently introduced to Cairo. As the largest city in the Arab world, the 15th largest city in the whole world and covering an area of 175 square miles, it is sprawling and seems to go on for ever. 6.76 million people live within Cairo’s metropolitan boundaries and a further 10 million live on the edges of this vast city, mainly in the new developments of the 6th of October city and New Cairo. A million a year are joining the city’s population.
Consequently, ‘doing’ Cairo is a pipe-dream unless you live here and are prepared to tackle the job with military-style planning. The best a tourist can do is to pick the ‘must-sees’ and try their best to make some sort of geographical sense of the place, linking experiences together.
Cairo is not a threatening city, despite the recent incidences of unrest. In fact, very much the opposite. For someone who loves getting about by public transport, it’s clear that buses and, in particular, the vast number of mini-buses which transport locals hither and thither are off my radar. They are just too crowded and dilapidated. Taxis, however, are ridiculously cheap. There are thousands of small white cabs that can be hailed almost everywhere and will take you across the city, a journey of well over an hour, for 20 or 30 Egyptian pounds – less than two of our English own. Alternatively, an Uber driver will pick you up, monitoring your position on Google maps and take you on the same journey for marginally more.
Cairo does have its own Metro system. There are three lines which cross the city and cover a little over 48 miles. A ticket will cost you 5p where ever you are bound. As a result, it’s heaving with people all day long.
Cairo is missing its tourists. The threats across the Arab World have meant that the vast army of tourists that used to flock to Egypt throughout the year to view the antiquities and sail the Nile has greatly diminished. This has been a huge blow to the economy and Cairo residents respond warmly to you as wander the streets.
We’re approached by a young woman, fully veiled in a niquab. She wants to have her photograph taken with us and her husband, grinning enthusiastically, points his smart-phone at us as she links me, giving my wife a kiss. She is profuse in her thanks before we have to drag ourselves away and walk on. Another man stops us and wants to know where we are from? I tell him Manchester and he tells me that he has been to Brighton! His father had been in Alexandria during the war and he has friends and family in Leeds. He shakes our hands. We’re constantly waved at by old men sitting along the pavement edges and from children sitting in cars and buses. Taxi drivers are polite and shop assistants display a level of customer service that we haven’t seen in the United Kingdom for over fifty years.
It’s easy walking around in an autumnal Cairo. The heat of the summer has gone and, despite being well into the twenties, a breeze keeps the worst of the heat away and it feels like a summer’s day back home. Dusk arrives early at five o’clock and the temperature falls to the bearable high teens, making evenings even more pleasant and requiring only the occasional use of a light jacket, jumper or cardigan.
Another way of moving around in Cairo is to use the Nile Water Taxi system. This is not a vast network, but it does provide a scenic and stress-free way to get from A to B. Our ‘A’ is the Corniche in Maadi and ‘B’ was half an hour up river at Zamelek, an attractive suburb. Alongside the basic water taxis are a small fleet of rib speedboats, not the cheapest form of transport, but modern, extremely quick and exhilarating.
We eat the Sequoia, a floating restaurant on the banks of the Nile, in suburban Zamelek on Gezira Island. Suddenly, you’re transported away from the madness of the city into a cool and sophisticated oasis. There are low tables, colonial-style well-cushioned chairs and a positive army of attentive waiters. Every employee wears a uniform according to their rank and responsibility. The head waiters are all in smart grey suits, then there are some in trousers and waistcoats down to the boys who attend to the Shisha pipes in shapeless white galbayas.
It’s sometimes easy to forget you are in a Muslim country, ruled by a Muslim leader. Egypt feels very Western. Yes, there is a degree of modesty and there are those who wear the veil. However, in truth, it can feel less secular in some of our own northern cities than it does here in Muslim Egypt. At the Sequoia, the affluent are at lunch. People dress casually, but extremely smartly and there is a considerable quantity of gold on show. We eat mezes: falafel, hummus, salads, Egyptian flat bread, shawarma, tabbouleh and halloumi cheese with aubergine. The local Stella lager is excellent, albeit that the company is now a branch of the ever-expanding Heineken.
After lunch, we walk the short distance to Tahrir Square, the scene of so much protesting over the recent years. There is a police and military presence everywhere. All hotels and important buildings are guarded and the soldiers are provided with an armoured sentry box, behind which they stand in full military garb and carrying automatic weapons. They peep out at you through small plates of bullet-proof glass or pop their helmeted heads over the top to grin as you pass by.
Tahrir Square is in downtown Cairo and part of an area designed to be one of the most elegant. The Sadat metro station gives easy access to the nearby Cairo museum. Every square around here, and there are many, seems to carry a statue of a suited man in a fez. Obviously, not the same man, but they hark back to not so long ago when the fez was common place in Cairo. Not so today. They have been sent into history and are the stuff that films, TV period dramas and Tommy Cooper conventions are made of.
Many of the buildings around this area show the grandeur of a time when this area was developed to feel like an eastern Paris. The glory has faded a little but there are areas where the impact of time, war and revolution are less apparent.
However, the piece de la resistance is the Windsor Hotel in nearby Alfi Bey Street. With its manually-operated wooden carriage elevator, opulent furniture and smoky bars, it echoes a time when it was a First World War British Officers’ Club and, more lately, guests have included the Monty Python Team and Karl Pilkington, who was less than impressed, as usual. As you wander around, the feeling is that the hotel hasn’t been touched for decades. The framed travel posters are pre-war. The main desk still uses rotary telephones and there is a genuine working switch board. The Americans used to flock here in their search for nostalgia. Today, the bar is almost deserted. A small group of young British ex-pats enjoy old lager and cigarettes and, in one corner, amid the sounds of the endless traffic from the streets outside, we sit and listen for echoes of a time gone by and lost forever.
Beyond the Windsor is a warren of side streets littered with outside cafes, populated by men drinking tea, coffee and fruit juices and watching football on large television screens balanced on an assortment of side-dressers and dining room cabinets. There is barely a woman to be seen, except those who are making their way home as the evening arrives and the lighted shops advertise their wares. The main streets carry the usual array of department stores, clothes emporia and electrical shops. The side streets, however, are full of small, dark and dingy outlets that serve as DIY shops, barbers, purveyors of pots and pans, coffee sellers and probably everything else you could ever possibly need.
The Pyramids at Giza
The road to Giza takes you though some of the worst residential housing projects I have ever seen. Rough brick and concrete cubes interlock into blocks with narrow streets in between.
Property is left unfinished to avoid the 30% tax payable on completion. However, on the road to Giza, most are still in the process of development but, here and there, washing is hanging out to dry and air conditioners have been fitted. It’s pretty desperate living. You might be lucky enough to have a balcony but when you see the quality of bricklaying that will have to support your weight, you might think twice before venturing out of an warm evening with your glass of sweetened black tea.
Between the blocks you catch occasional glimpses of a pyramid but nothing prepares you for the majesty and splendour that greets you as you arrive.
Police and military security at the entrances is reassuringly tight and both cars and persons are searched; unless you are clearly Western, in which case armed guards wave you though with a courteous smile and a flick of the wrist. Our driver, Peter, remonstrates when necessary and uses the same principles when talking to us as we do with foreigners. If at first they don’t understand, simply raise your voice to a shout and it’s bound to aid comprehension.
The site is quiet and has been since the tourists fled. I’m greeted by a tsunami of camel and horse drivers, people selling bottles of water and ice cream, boys wanting to pose with me for photographs, traders selling head scarves and guides wanting to share their knowledge of ancient Egyptology with me. They draw us in with the expectation of payment. Once they know we’re British, it’s ‘Lovely Jubbly, Tally Ho’ and ‘Toodle Pip’ by way of ingratiating themselves to us. Most will tell you that their very existence depends on tourists and ask where they have all gone and when will they return? The Americans are due as the weather cools but most agree that the likelihood of them returning in their previously large numbers is unlikely. The Russians are welcome but they are not generous tourists. The British are still liked, mainly due to the Premier League, their disposable income and the fact that, currently, they are the biggest investors in the Egyptian economy.
There are three limestone pyramids on the site as well as the Great Sphinx. The Great Pyramid, otherwise known as the Pyramid of Cheops. the Pyramid Of Khafre and the Pyramid of Menkaure. The roadway from the pyramids leads up to the Great Sphinx. It was along this road that thousands of ancient workers dragged huge limestone blocks, carved with mathematical precision at a time in history when the west was still engaged in primitive barbarism. The pyramids are deservedly treasures of the ancient world. The whole site is huge and there is more than enough room to walk away for the ‘perfect photograph’ as well as plenty of quiet places to sit and contemplate the wonder of it all. Remember, this place was built between 2560 and 2540 BC.
Away to the west is the Sahara desert and Libya. The dunes start almost immediately and the sight of camel herders on the horizon evokes images of El Lawrence and the Bedouins. The roasting heat from a clear blue sky bounces up from the sand and rocks and I can’t help but wonder about all those people who, over the years, were forced by commerce or hardship, by accident or design, in times of war and of peace, to trek the vast distances across unrelenting and unforgiving sand.
Inside the Great Pyramid I climb up a long walkway, never more than three feet wide and about as high, dipping down under vast blocks of granite until I reach the inner chamber. The burial chamber is located high in the middle of the pyramid in a large room lined in smooth granite that is cool to the touch and with the remains of a sarcophagus. The chamber must be thirty feet long, about twenty feet wide and probably fifty feet high. There are no hieroglyphs and very little else to see, but it is more than worth the effort to feel and realise that you’re standing inside the heart of one of the most iconic structures of the planet. It is a monument of engineering. How they dragged up the carefully cut blocks and placed them in position with such accuracy beggars belief.
As we drive away, dropping down the access road and taking our last look at the Great Sphinx and the three pyramids, our driver, Peter, turns to me and says,
‘You have to wonder at all this. Think, Jesus stood in front of the pyramids.’
Well, ‘stood’ might carry a touch of poetic licence. Possibly ‘crawled’ or ‘tottered’. However, the Holy Family would have reached the banks of the Nile, somewhere between Alexandria and Cairo and Jesus may well have passed by, albeit sitting in a Judean 1st century stroller.
On the way back we stop for Lebanese schwarma and head back to Maadi. Tomorrow we move on to Aswan and another chapter in the adventure that is Egypt.
In the evening we eat at Al Dayaa, a lovely Lebanese restaurant in Maadi. It’s alcohol-free as are so many of the Egyptian restaurants, but the food is fresh, tasty and aromatic.
We leave Cairo for two adventures. We spend three days on the Nile, travelling from the southern city of Aswan up to Luxor. Then we fly back to Cairo before heading out to Faiyum, out in the Sahara.
At the end of two fabulous adventures, we continue our sight-seeing in Cairo.
Old Cairo is divided into areas. One section is Coptic Cairo. It lies on the Metro line, travelling on which is an experience in itself. From Maadi, I take the line for five stops down. The train is divided into men and women and women-only carriages. The mixed carriage is full to bursting, but people make space for us. Free deodorant would be a good idea as people raise arms to hold on to the ceiling rails for stability. By the time we reach our stop, it smells like a hamburger stall.
There are definitely two sides of the track and I get off on the wrong side, suddenly finding myself in amongst very poor streets and depressed housing. I back-track and the railway staff kindly let me back in to cross the bridge and emerge on the right side of the road, opposite the Coptic Museum.
Coptic Cairo has been a centre for Christianity since the third and fourth centuries. Christianity had a stronghold here until the arrival of the Islamic culture, although it has been tolerated ever since.
It is traditionally held that the Holy Family stayed here during their flight into Egypt and St Mark was able to develop Christianity under the Romans.
We start at the Hanging Church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It’s referred to as the Hanging or Suspended church as it is built over a void; it’s foundations being the Roman Fortress of Babylon. The Holy icons and paintings all date from 3rd and 4th century AD and depict scenes from the New Testament. It’s all very, very old.
Next door is the Coptic Museum. Room after room celebrating the Coptic foundations of art, religion and day to day life in Cairo. The building is strongly Islamic in style with fabulously-carved door and window panels.
From there, we take in St. George’s Church and the nunnery of St. Philomena. Unfortunately, I stand in the wrong, albeit short, queue and find myself greeted by a nun who thinks I’m visiting a relative who has taken Holy Orders. After a confusing conversation, she realises that I am a fully-paid up heretic and directs me to the chaplet below with the sprinkling of other visitors, mainly Egyptian.
Everyone around me is moved by the religious experience the area has to offer They move slowly from icon to icon, stroking the images and wiping their lips with their fingers. I ponder on the transfer of germs and bacteria. Clearly for the blessed, this is not an issue. I steer clear, recognising the fact that I would be struck down immediately if I followed suit. It wouldn’t be a miracle or a vision that would be the saving grace, I’d probably have to resort to a twenty-first century cure at out-patients.
Next is Abu Serga, or the Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus, two Roman soldiers who were martyred for their faith. It’s also known as the Cavern Church and we follow the long line down into the crypt below the church where we marvel at a small room and consider its significance. It is strongly believed that in this small room, the Holy Family stayed for three months. The flooring is protected and signs tell the visitors that on this stone pavement, Jesus, his mother and Joseph walked, sat, slept and shared food. It’s all very moving. It is believed that Joseph worked on the fortress during the period to earn money to keep his family’s body and soul together. In those times, the Nile was closer and, being below water level, would have been subjected to regular flooding.
Nearby is the Ben Ezra synagogue. Although the original building is very old, it was renovated at the start of the twentieth century. However, it still has an atmosphere and the combination of church, synagogue and mosque gives you a sense of how religions can live in harmony and be mutually tolerated. Outside of the synagogue is a small area set back and away from crowds. The Jewish faith has it that in this spot Moses came shore in his basket, among the reeds of the Nile. That nugget of historical fact was shared with me by one of the Church elders, who then reminded me that nothing comes free and his open hand swallowed what was left of my small denomination notes, an English pound coin and a token for the shopping trolley at Lidl.
We catch the Metro back to Maadi, after stopping at Auntie Annie’s pretzel house for a ‘Pretzel Dog’ – a long hot dog, spiral wrapped in pastry, and looking too much for comfort like something that has been circumcised. Just eating it walking along the street would have found its way into a gay porn film in another country.
The Egyptian pound has reached a high of 21 LE to the pound sterling today. Luxury goods are rapidly going up in price, a pair of training shoes nows cost over 1300 LE but food prices are holding. Nothing brings out the crowds faster to protest than basic food items being beyond the reach of the poor.
Cairo Museum and the Cairo Tower
15 Egyptian pounds sounds a lot of money for a hair-raising twenty minute drive in a battered white taxi, weaving through side streets and avoiding trucks, buses and other road users by inches. However, when I consider that, with the exchange rate being what it is, it’s a fraction more than 75p. Everyone loves a bargain, even at the expense of personal safety.
We catch the Metro downtown to Sadat. Our first port of call is the Cairo Museum. Arguably one of the world’s greatest museums, it’s a fine-looking building in a classical style. The queue is short, although it still takes a while to cross the threshold due to the security screens, X-Ray equipment, army, police with sniffer dogs and body searches.
Rather than be systematic and follow the crowds, we make for the two main attractions. It’s a good move as the Tutankhamen and Royal Mummy rooms are almost deserted and we’re free to take our time and allow the wonder of it all to soak in.
Tutankhamen’s mummy is in the tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, but the rooms in the museum still offer more than enough to make me stand back in awe. Despite being so well known, nothing prepares you for the sheer beauty and size of the head mask. For a moment, I wonder what it must have been like to break through the last sealed door and, by the light of a candle, be the first person to cast an eye on these treasures for nearly three thousand years. In other display cases are riches beyond compare. Staggeringly beautiful gold jewellery: semi-precious stones, agates and topaz set in gold bracelets and necklaces; gold daggers with intricately-carved sheathes.
In the hallway are golden chariots, beds and statues. There are richly-painted coffins and sarcophagi. It’s a glimpse into the ancient world. Many of the statues have survived so well that the detail is amazing.
The Royal Mummy rooms house Tutankhamen’s mother and the bodies of other Pharaohs, including Rameses II. They are peculiar. The tallest is just under two metres and the smallest are babies. Wrapped in their cloths, the linen has survived so well, it’s possible to see the way it was woven 1500 years before Christ. Individual fingers and toes are wrapped and finger stalls have helped the to retain the shape of the bones. Most of the bodies are black with the effect of the processing, although one or two are white with the salt used to preserve the flesh. The nails and the teeth are intact and many still have their hair in place. It’s eerie looking closely at someone who lived so long ago, who was so revered and had so much power. My face and theirs are only separated by a piece of glass and a temperature-controlled sterile environment. I’m moved by the fact that very few people managed to be this close to them when they were alive.
One Pharaoh is buried with her mummified pet baboon. This leads me next door to the mummified animals. Cats, dogs, reptiles and mammals; all votive mummies, prepared with the same care and expertise as for the Royal Family. Their skill meant that the remains have lasted so well for so long.
To be honest, after this, the rest of the museum is a little of an anti-climax. The stone figures, hieroglyphs, statues and artefacts are massively impressive. I think the issue is that there is so much on show, it’s hard to take it all in. We walk a little over four miles; trudging corridors and staircases, moving from room to room. To think that there is more in storage than on show is staggering. A new museum is being built out towards Giza and should be ready within a year or two. The intention is to split the exhibits between the two sites and be able to show some of the many treasures that have been locked in storage, some for nearly a hundred years.
The Museum shop is a strange area. A museum reproduction team produces large pieces for sale to the public. Consequently, if you want to buy a chariot, a sarcophagus, a tomb or a full-size statue of a warrior, then you are in luck. Perhaps I could store the lawnmower in the tomb? Or my bike? Nothing will fit in to hand-luggage and apart from a few books, there’s little else. Not a fridge magnet, tea-towel, pencil, mug, badge or tote bag in sight.
Free of souvenirs, we leave and walk the short distance along the Nile and over the Kasr El Nile Bridge to Gezira Island and climb the Cairo Tower.
Built in the reign of Nasser, it stands 187 metres tall and an elevator whisks you up to the top for glorious views across Cairo. On a clear day, you can see out to the pyramids at Giza and, looking down, I realise how much of Cairo is given over to private sports clubs and private gardens.
Walking back from the island to Downtown Cairo, we pass the Egyptian Football Association, home to the organisers of the African Cup. Tahrir Square is under heavy guard in expectation of protests. Sandbags block side streets and armoured vehicles are parked at every intersection. The Muslim Brotherhood is voicing dissent again and the army is less than inclined to take any nonsense. Apart from nearly all the main doors of the Metro being closed, allowing access only at certain points, it feels relatively normal and certainly does not feel threatening. People stop and are keen to chat. Many people do not want visitors to take away impressions of a city under armed rule. They are sensitive to the fact that tourists are already keeping away and trade is suffering as a consequence. 80% of the tourist trade has disappeared since 9/11 and the terrorist attack at Sharm. Young people all over the city stop us and ask us where we are from, welcome us to Cairo and hope we are having a good time.
Occasionally, there are those who are still intent on exploiting this goodwill. All too often, we are helped across the road by young men who tell us that they are only interested in making sure that, as visitors, we take away the right impression of their city.
‘Don’t go down here. There are road blocks at the bottom. Come this way and cross the square. Where are you from? I have a friend in Cardiff. This is my family’s block. I have a brother who studies art. Let me give you my business card. Step this way’
And, as soon as you can say ‘sit down and have a cup of tea’, we are suckered into an art-buying scam. Having very little money on me helps. I say honestly that we do not have any money to buy.
‘Money isn’t everything, my friend’
However, it turns out to be so when he’s packed up three pieces of papyrus painted with scenes of ancient Egypt and wants 900 Egyptian pounds for them.
‘Give me something for them. Give me 500? My sister, she marries tomorrow and the shop is closed for a month. This is the last day we are open.’
Now there’s a surprise.
I explain that, baring the two pounds I have for two tickets on the Metro, I have nothing else. I get cross at myself for trying to prove it by emptying my pockets. Why I am trying to justify myself to this man escapes me, but justify I do. Eventually, a mysterious 100 pound note, worth barely five English pounds, finds its way out of my shoe and into my hand and I part with it in exchange for a tube containing one picture.
Ah well, it was a small price to pay.
We head past Cafe Richie, where revolutions are planned, to Groppi; in its hey-day a fashionable department store and even more fashionable cafe. Sadly, it’s been closed for over a year and is looking a shabby reflection of its former glory.
A young man who we met the other day, wanders over. Pointing at my papyrus in a tube, he says,
‘What have you bought? Have you bought it from a shop? Why? There is a government bazaar on this street that offers very good prices’
And then it comes.
‘Let me give you my business card. Here walk this any with me. No pressure. Come and see what I am selling’.
And so it continues. We offer firm and sincere apologies, well at least firm, and move away.
At the next crossroads, another twenty-something, rather smartly-dressed man approaches. He warmly welcomes us and asks where we are from.
‘Let me guess’, says I, ‘You have a bazaar around the corner and want to give us you business card, but unfortunately, you don’t have one in your pocket and we need to go with you to your shop?’
However, this time we are wrong. He holds my arm, smiles, looks over his shoulder and drops his voice.
‘Got any money you want changing, my friend, I give best price….’
And so it continues. This is downtown Cairo and it’s all part of the experience.
There is another side, unfortunately. Beggers on street corners, selling small packets of tissues. Women and men, often disabled, beg for coins in exchange for small items, or simply beg. They don’t pressure us, but it is still sad and sometimes shocking to see. We bump into and later step over a glue-sniffer. A man in his thirties, I suppose, lying across the full width of the pavement with his nose in a cloth bag. People don’t react. Like us, they walk around or step over and move on. No doubt the police will be along in a short while to move him on. After all, it’s not good for tourism.
The Metro takes us back to Maadi and a taxi takes us home. It’s been a long day and feet are sore. Downtown Cairo can be wearing. Uneven pavements, manic traffic and incessant noise drains your reserves.
It’s strange to think that two of the most interesting sights to see in Islamic Cairo focus on Christianity, rather than the Muslim faith.
We take a driver for the day and head south and then east. Still within the sprawl of Cairo, we head for the Cave Church at the edge of Garbage City.
Garbage City is well off the tourist route and it’s easy to see why. However, a community has been here since the third century. Coptic Christians arrived to this part of Cairo, were tolerated by the Romans and allowed to develop and practise their faith. Over the centuries, they flourished and became a separate small community within a growing Islamic area. In the early part of the 20th century, in 1960, a large number of Coptic Christians migrated to Cairo from the southern areas of Egypt, around Abu Simnel and the Sudanese border. The government found themselves with a large number of migrants, out of work, desperate for housing and Christian. They were all moved into the same area and, as a community, started collecting the garbage from Cairo and its surrounding areas, bringing it home to sort. Nowadays, every family from the whole area, street after street, block after block, collects the garbage by small lorries, flat-back trucks, donkey and horse carts or by hand. Back at home, it’s sorted out into plastics, paper, card and whatever. Once sorted, it goes to recyclers and factories through a series of agents. It’s a huge money earner – for the agents, the factories and the recyclers. For the poor residents of Garbage City, it’s subsistence living. It’s another truly desperate place. People live in small apartments high above the waste of the city. Children go to school and return home to help make money.
Our guide tells us that these are the lowest of the low. Education is at such a low level and schools so poor that rarely does anyone make it out of the city and prosper. The vast, vast majority and born, live, marry and die here in Garbage City.
The organic waste is fed to pigs that are kept at the back of the apartment blocks. In a Muslim country, this is the only area where pork is on sale. However, because anything and everything is fed to the animals, the meat is of such poor and dubious quality that only the residents of Garbage City eat it. Huge slabs hang on hooks in the door way of what must be a butcher’s shop, covered in flies and suspiciously grey.
At the edge of the city, like something from a post-apocalyptic movie are two huge steel gates. These mark the end of the city and provide a way of sealing in the city from the wider metropolis. It also marks the start of one of the great wonders of Islamic Cairo, the Cave church.
The Cave Church
Coptic Christianity is the oldest form of Christianity and it lays claim to being the first Church. Copts have been in Egypt since the first century and, even today, rather than developing and moving forward in their faith, resolutely turn backwards to the purity of the early church for guidance. Only the most devout, intelligent and least-worldly are chosen to train for the priesthood. Priests have to be married and are encouraged to have families. Bishops are chosen from amongst the priests based on their devout piety and bishops elect their own popes on the same basis. This way, the Copts believe that they avoid the corruption, the seeking for power, control and self-interest that has marred the western faiths and Churches.
Here in Garbage City, the Church recognised a growing congregation of Coptic Christians and has been working for many years to provide an infrastructure for its flock. Hospitals and schools are run by the Church and it provides a tight support structure for the residents. Three churches have been founded in the area, the largest, which seats 8,000, was dug out of the limestone cliffs by hand and is consistently full for services on Fridays and Sundays. I’m told that it is a growing Church, with young people happy and willing to embrace the faith, support the work of the Church and grow up as active believers.
The cave church itself is magnificent. It sits alongside a huge open-air amphitheatre of a church and both are used as regular venues for services. The cave church itself is deep into the rock, hewed out of a old quarry. It is dedicated to Simon the Tanner, whose relics are held in cases by the altar. The rock provides for breath-taking acoustics. The walls, inside and out, are carved with huge religious murals, with inscriptions in English and Arabic. They are part of a life’s-long work for Mario, a Pole, who came to this area on holiday twenty years ago, and has never left. The intention is to add Coptic script to the murals as all the residents of the area learn and speak Arabic, Coptic and some English.
It’s time to leave the Christian side of Islamic Cairo behind and we make our way to the Mohammed Ali mosque, housed within the mighty Citadel.
The Citadel and the Mohammed Ali Mosque
The Citadel dates back to the time of Saladin and was a gift to the Egyptian people to protect them from attack. It was also the site of a gathering of Egyptian tribal leaders during which the gates were closed behind them and King Mohammed Ali executed every single one, so establishing sole control over the country.
The Mohammed Ali Mosque, the National Police Museum, the Royal Carriage Museum and the National Military Museum are all housed within the citadel, but it’s the Mosque that I’m here to see. Taking off my shoes, I cross the marble forecourt and enter the huge circular space. The floor is covered in individual red carpets and the ceiling is rich in spherical lamps and chandeliers. This is an unusual mosque in that it encourages women and men to pray together. It’s free of ornament and all the windows frames and carvings are in the pattern and style of Islamic art, as one would expect.
I sit listening to a lady talking to a group of visitors. Like so many Muslims, she’s keen to stress that the Islamic Order is one of peace. Nations should be able to live together, whatever their faith. It is a faith that advocates tolerance. I raise this later with our driver. Although he is Christian, he is worried about the impact that ISIS, The Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah and other terror groups are having on the world’s and western perception of Islam. It certainly isn’t going to draw the American tourist back here in the hurry, especially in a post-Trump America.
The City of the Dead
Beyond the mosque, we turn right into the City of the Dead. Originally the Northern Cemetery, it housed the tombs of the great and the good of Cairo. However, it gradually expanded to cover an area of several square kilometres. Over the years, families who were desperate to find somewhere to live, unemployed or generally in poverty, moved into the family tombs to be with their deceased relatives and also to provide themselves with accommodation. Once a tomb area has been bought, it becomes the property of the family for eternity. The tombs are walled and behind each is a courtyard area and sufficient room for future burials. Sufficient room, in fact, to allow the families to take up residence and stay in situ for life. It’s a strange place. Gradually, they’ve set up shops, cafes and a transport system. There are City of the Dead schools and medical centres. You live your life with your ancestors and eventually become part of the surroundings in the same way as they are.
Our driver is surprised to hear that cremation is popular in the UK. He presumed that it only happened in India. He finds it hard to consider that once cremated, there is nothing to visit when you want to talk or ask advice from a close one who has departed this life.
‘What if I want to go and visit my father? How can I do this if all I have is a handful of dust?’
I tell him about ‘green burials’ and he thinks this is a marvellous idea. I think I might have mistakenly led him to think that you could end up in the vegetable patch or under the apple tree in the garden; he expresses concern that, should you decide to sell your house, could your relative come with you, or do they have to stay put?
Al Azhar Park
Fortunately, by now we have arrived at the Al Azhar Park, the largest park in Cairo. It reminds me of the parks in China. It’s very organised, very clean and has piped music to entertain you as you walk the paths and enjoy the cessation of traffic noise.
It’s modelled in Islamic fashion, so there is water everywhere. Fountains, little streams and stone work in Islamic style make for a very pleasant place. People come here to relax during the day and after school or work. By 3 pm the whole place is filling up with young girls, selfie sticks and mobiles in hand, all wanting to have their photographs taken with a pale-faced, white-haired westerner. We are the only western faces in the whole park, but it makes no difference. Everywhere we walk, people smile, say ‘Welcome to Egypt‘ and ‘Hello, how are you‘. Our Arabic has not gone far beyond ‘hello’, ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘thankyou’ , but even the slightest attempt, even the single word, is appreciated.
We spend a blissful couple of hours in the park before emerging through the gates and back amid the manic traffic and our journey home. On the way, we discuss the finer points of driving in Cairo. Motor insurance is optional. Most people don’t bother with it unless the car is owned by the bank, in which case, it’s compulsory and set at 3.6% of the price of the vehicle. Bearing in mind that cars cost three or four times what they do in the west, this is a considerable cost. The alternative is that you have your own car repaired and, if the police or the court find you responsible for the crash, then you also pay to have the other car repaired. Usually, everybody looks after their own vehicle.
You have to be eighteen to drive. Some take lessons and then pass a test. However, if you’re rich enough, then a driving licence can be provided under the counter by bribing a government official. This is seen as ‘normal practice’ and probably accounts for some of the worst driving I’ve seen on any roads outside of China. Fuel is cheap, it costs about £10 to fill an average tank, hence the ridiculously low charges for taxis, Uber, or personal drivers. People who drive for a living put in exceptionally long hours to earn a weekly wage. It all adds to the sense of personal comfort and safety as we force our way through rush-hour traffic, five cars abreast, horns blaring and three inches away from cars on all sides.
The Saqqara Pyramids, Festival City and the Ace Club
We call our usual driver and head out to the Saqqara Pyramids. They are the earliest pyramids built in Cairo, then known as Memphis, and amongst some of the earliest in Egypt.
Although mentioned in many guide books, these days Saqqara is not massively popular with tourists and we find ourselves there with only a small handful of other visitors; South Americans and strongly looking as though they have hailed from Peru or Chile.
Situated on the edge of the desert, Saqqara is something of a desolate place. A scattering of tourist touts, a couple of camel drivers and a guide or two; the latter finding times tough and so have hiked up what they consider to be a suitable tip for their troubles to, comparably, astronomical levels. I need a firm voice and to be resolute to convince them that what they’ve had is all that they will be getting.
These are old pyramids and still under excavation. The Step Pyramid of King Djoser was built in the 3rd Dynasty. As such it was here in 2700 BC and is, therefore, a staggering 4000 years old. It’s ‘stepped’ as each layer is slightly smaller than the one below it. Not as big as the pyramids of Giza, it was here that builders and architects perfected their craft and led the the might and majesty of the Great Pyramids.
There is a good deal of restoration going on and timber scaffolding has been erected around one side of the pyramid. To be honest, the scaffolding looks as old as the site itself and is precarious. Workers, with not a hard hat in sight, let alone steel toe-capped boots and hi-viz jackets, haul huge sandstone blocks up to the higher levels using very basic block and tackle. Here they lever them into place and begin the task of trimming to fit.
The tombs are open and are reached via 45 degree walkways, some as little as four feet in height. They descend to where there are fine displays of hieroglyphs and cartouche, the red oxide paint has survived and the images are bright and amazingly fresh.
I walk out into the desert and look around. Away in the distance is Giza and in the other direction are three more pyramids. Far away, across the sand is Libya and this spot, 35km from the metropolis of Cairo, feels as old as time itself. The is no traffic noise and the whole place has a tangible solitude that is welcome after the chaotic bedlam of the last few days.
On the way back we pass a number of Carpet Schools. The term ‘school’ is a misnomer as they are essentially factories where children, as young as ten, are employed for their dexterity to weave rugs and carpets for export. These factories do little to provide even the basics of education and nearly all of their employees remain illiterate and innumerate well into adulthood. Egypt is a twenty-first century country and with that comes an assumption that all children receive good education. In reality, there is still a substantial percentage who do not go to school. Others attend government schools but leave at a still young age. The government schools, like the government hospitals provide a basic resource and not to a particularly high standard.
To benefit and to get the job done well, you need to be affluent. Only 6% of Egyptians have health care. They join with ex-pats with employee-cover or BUPA to benefit from a handful of top-quality hospitals and clinics scattered over the city.
For education, children from the middle and upper class Egyptian families go to one of the many private schools in the city. British, American and German schools have been set up and offer international-standard education, at a price. Many children pay several tens of thousands of English pounds or American dollars each year to benefit from the education on offer; staffed by American or European-trained teachers and offering qualifications recognised as worthy the world over. This education provides the necessary ticket to enter universities across the world and helps puts a foot on the ladder that will taken them wherever they wish to go. Unfortunately, with wealth and advantage does not always go dedication and perseverance. Like the world over, there are still those who could but don’t; those who should but won’t.
The sad thing is that those who might, but can’t, are within the state sector or, too often, working their lives out in desperate poverty with rarely a glimmer of light at the end of a long, long, dark tunnel.
Aymen, our driver, admits that he has only had what he terms as ‘basic education’. After a gruelling few years working as a mechanic at the bus depot and driving all hours to make up a wage on which he could survive, he turned to the Church for help. The provision of somewhere to live, furniture and money helped him turn his life around and now, at thirty eight, he considers himself rich and has a good quality of life. He runs a business providing trips , excursions and chauffeured cars. With forty drivers on his payroll he is doing very well. His brothers work for him and they live together in the same apartment building. His mother, who used to farm, has converted the roof area into a small holding and breeds chickens, rabbits and pigeons for the table.
For such a help early on in his career, Aymen is appreciably grateful. He gives 10% of everything he earns back to the Church. ‘It is only right’, he says.
We discuss military service. It’s compulsory for all young Egyptian men to undertake it. The most able only complete one year, those who are the least-educated complete three years and the rest, two. However, as with everything in Egypt, it’s not as simple as that. If the family is dependent on you as a breadwinner, you can be excused service. If you ‘disappear’ before you are called up, then when you ‘reappear’ again, two or three years later, you can buy your amnesty for a few hundred Egyptian pounds. The worst thing that you can do is to turn up at the allotted time, be registered and then disappear. Eventually, you will be stopped at a checkpoint or picked up by the police and your papers will show you have deserted. You are immediately sent to a posting out on the border between Libya or Israel for the duration. You might have been driving home from the mall, the week’s shopping in the back of your car. It doesn’t matter. The car and shopping will stay where you left it. You’re off in a truck heading west, east, or wherever. The border postings are seen as being the worst. Three years staring out across the sand, just in case.
We call in at the Cairo Festival City Mall, a huge development, the land owned by an Egyptian multi-millionaire. Space has been rented out to IKEA, Marks and Spencer, Debenhams and a whole host of other well-known high street brands. There is a multiplex cinema, food court and numerous independent restaurants. It’s busy and everyone is well-dressed. It’s strange that those brand names that we feel are our own are, in fact, everyone else’s as well. The majority of the shops are very familiar, even if the prices aren’t.
With the Egyptian pound being at 17.5 to the British pound, there are bargains to be had. We stop at the Sunglasses Hut where RayBans are selling for a over 1200 EGP, the equivalent of roughly £65 a pair. Too good a bargain to miss.
Tissot and Longines watches are a fraction of what they would be in the UK. However, in some perfume shops, the price labels have been removed and replaced with new, higher prices. Luxury goods will be the first to feel the increases, food will follow, but with less impact; unless, of course, you are very poor. Inevitably, the poor will get poorer and the rich will absorb it or become even richer. It’s the same the world over.
In the evening, we sample ex-pat life at the Ace Club in Maadi. Resembling something from the 1950s, albeit with the addition of 20th century disco lighting and sound system, the buildings lie behind a high wall. The traffic noise outside masks the entertainment within, and all day and every night, until midnight, ex-pats and those from the local community who wish to pay their subscriptions meet to drink, eat, watch television, dance and socialise.
There’s a potpourri of types. Overweight and overbearing businessmen from the oil industry and finance houses. Wives, with and without children, who gather to meet and mix. Young , and not so young, predatory females, dressed to kill and out on the town. It’s Thursday and the end of a working week. Young men, single and married, are here to drink a few cheap beers on their way home and to start the weekend in customary style.
As clubs go, it’s not the grandest in Maadi or in Cairo. It’s not one of the expensive health and leisure clubs, where the car park is filled with luxury German automobiles, and the subscription runs into several hundred English pounds a year. Here, at the Ace club, the subscription rates are rather less prohibitive and it has the feel of a British Legion or a local Social Club about it. It’s cosy, familiar and friendly. An Egyptian Tusker might have found it a tad noisy for his sundowner and it lacks the finesse for the pre-dinner G&T or the last whisky and water of the evening, sitting on cane chair and looking out across the veldt, but it’s clearly a welcome watering-hole for those who pass through the gates and enter a little bit of home, away from home.
After Friday prayers, it seems the whole of Cairo descend on the Tentmakers’ Souk and the neighbouring, more touristy area of Al Kahlili. It covers a vast area; street after narrow street of stalls selling all manner of goods: rugs and linens, lights and pottery, tinware and wooden carvings, perfumes and spices.
The advantage of the Tentmakers’ souk is that it is a souk for locals and, consequently, free of hawker intimidation and pressure. The entrance is full of greengrocers, butchers and fishmongers, fabric and rug shops, sheesh cafes and the occasional small hotel. The place swarms with flies but it seems to bother people very little. Half way along is the cafe at which Karl Pilkington stopped and nursed one of the many feral cats.
The rugs and cushion covers are excellent value and we negotiate six hand-woven cushion covers and a small rug for less than forty English pounds. This is certainly the place t leave feeling more than satisfied that you’ve shopped for bargains.
The Al Kahlili souk is less of a pleasant experience. The usual barracking of tourists is ever present but, in fairness, towards the end of the time here in Cairo, it bothers me less than it would have done two weeks ago. I’ve developed a suitable wave of the hand and a firmness of tone that seems to be working.
It’s a long taxi ride back to Maadi for a mere three English pounds and time to pack. Early tomorrow we head to Terminal 1 at Cairo Airport and then it’s Heathrow before a short hop back to Manchester.
Cairo has been fantastic. It can feel like another world. On the one hand there is a surfeit of antiquities; on the other, desperate third-world poverty on a medieval level. Then there is the wealth and twenty-first century development that joins the contemporary with the ancient. Wild cats, feral packs of dogs, beggars; all existing alongside their human neighbours. The orthodox and the secular, the Bedouin with the sophisticated younger generation who are every bit as modern as anywhere else in the world.
Above all, I have been moved by the warmth, humour and generosity of the people. Never have I felt so welcome and so appreciated as a visitor. We have a lesson to learn from the Egyptians.
I miss the cafe culture of Europe. I miss English pubs. I miss decent internet speeds. I miss proper waste disposal and clean streets. I miss the quiet of the Welsh countryside. But this is all but for a moment.
I will miss the warmth of the local people, the wave from the caretaker every time I come home.
Most of all we’ll miss our hosts: my son and his wife, who have so generously and proudly shown off their current adopted home and country.