ultramarinus – beyond the sea

Posts tagged “Cairo



39 days had gone by. My Middle East journey had came to an end. Back in 2006, political situations in the region was relatively calm. No hiccups in transportation, no encounter of theft or any form of danger, no unwanted aggressive behavior from anyone we met, our trip went pretty smoothly from beginning to the end. I spent my last day in the Middle East wandering around Islamic Cairo, indulging myself one last time in the midst of historical streets, laid-back teashops and souvenir stalls. A collage of Islamic Cairo composes the last bits of my memory of the Middle East. After my walk in Cairo, I met up with my two travel buddies just returned from Luxor. We then hopped on a taxi to the airport for our flight to Athens.



If not the summer heat, wandering in Islamic Cairo around the huge Khan el-Khalili market would be the most ideal way to enjoy Old Cairo. Even without entering mosques or museums, just strolling around to feel the bustling activities, hearing the calls of prayer mingled with the yells of merchants, smelling the shisha smoke and Arabian coffee from open cafes, and searching for the highly decorative details on centuries old building facade was just a pure delight.

As the largest and most famous souq in the region, it is understandable that Khan el-Khalili has been developed into a major tourist attraction in Cairo. It was precisely the souq’s popularity among tourists that made it falling victim as a target of terrorist attacks. In 2005, just one year prior to my visit, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device near the market, killing two French and one American tourists. In 2009, another bombing incident took place at the souq and killed a 17-year-old French girl. These incidents did make some temporary impact to tourism in Egypt. But judging from the tourist crowds that I saw in 2006, just one year after the suicide bombing, the impact was rather minimal. Of course no attacks would make a greater impact to tourism than the Covid 19 pandemic that we are experiencing right now.

The network of alleyways offered me a delightful labyrinth to wander around.
Most tourists come to Khan El-Khalili for souvenirs, handmade carpets silverware, antiques, stained glass lamps, incense, jewellery, copper-ware, and even gold. I spent most of my time strolling around to take pictures.
For me, the area was a great place to get lost and just watch the bustling actions of local people.
The Mosque Madrassa Khanqah at al-Muizz Street near Bayn al-Qasrayn is a popular spot for tourist photos.
Some aggressive shop owners did approach and invite me to enter their shops.
Sitting at the outdoor patio of a coffeehouse was the most comfortable way foe me to enjoy the bustling activities around.
Despite most shops are now catered for tourists, some still maintain their original character selling daily merchandises and spices.
In Cairo, one of the most sought-after souvenir is the handcrafted metal lantern.
Beyond market stalls and shops, I would from time to time be amazed by some beautiful architecture that had stood for centuries.
Especially in al-Muizz Street where buildings with ornate details have been well preserved.
From time to time, I would unintentionally return to the same spot more than one occasion, including the Mosque Madrassa Khanqah at al-Muizz Street.
Without notice, the sun was getting low and shadows were lengthening.
Despite getting late, the market was still packed with shoppers, tourists and merchants.
From time to time I would hear the loud speakers from nearby mosques calling for prayer.
In the side alleyways away from the main shopping streets, the peaceful neighborhood setting was like another world.
Wandering in the Khan el-Khalili area was a delight for me. Every turn at alleyways or brief stop along the way showed me a unique picture of Cairo from what seemed to be a bygone era.



In 1996, British director Anthony Minghella adapted Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient into a box office hit and critically acclaimed movie. In the film, the 1940’s Historic Cairo appears to be an untouched medieval Arab city. In reality, the scenes were filmed in Tunisia, as the real Cairo is a much more developed city. Nonetheless, the UNESCO World Heritage listed Historic Cairo, or commonly known as Islamic Cairo, is the “Cairo” that most travellers and audience of The English Patient desire to see: a vibrant neighbourhood full of winding alleyways, souks, fountains, medieval mansions, hammans, and most of all, mosques of different sizes and with them, a thousand minarets that make up the city’s skyline. Established in 969 AD, Cairo was the capital city of the Fatimid Caliphate until the 12th century. Then the city changed hands from one Islamic empire to another, including the Ottomans. Throughout centuries, Cairo was situated in the midst of caravan routes between Africa and the Middle East. From spices, Yemeni coffee to Indian textiles, Cairo has always been a trading hub in the Arab world.

Just like many old Arab cities, my first impression of Islamic Cairo was noisy, chaotic, disorganized, crowded, disorienting, and confusing. However, at certain moment when I stood under the shade of a minaret or took refuge at a tranquil teashop near the souk of Khan el-Khalili, I felt being miles away from the hectic activities and could easily imagine myself being in the Old Cairo of The English Patient.

Every time I ventured out my hotel I would likely go past the historical Midan Square. At the centre of the square stood a statue of Mustafa Kamil Pasha, a nationalist activist in late 19th century and early 20th century.
The Tahrir Square is the most famous public square in downtown Cairo. In recent years, the square is widely known as the focal point for the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets and gathered at the Tahrir Square.
Without traffic lights, crossing the traffic circle at Tahrir Square was one of the most exciting experience in downtown Cairo, especially during rush hours.
As the main square in downtown Cairo, Tahrir Square is the most prominent spot for commercial advertisement.
Sometimes referred to as the Paris along the Nile, the 19th century Cairo had undergone a series of urban transformations after Khedive Ismail, the Khedive of Egypt, visited Paris and decided to leave his European mark in the city.
Touring Old Cairo allowed me to appreciate many historical buildings.
Founded by an Austrian merchant, the iconic Tiring Building was department store opened in 1912. However, due to WWI, the Austrian business was forced into liquidation by 1920. Since then, the abandoned building became home to many small business and workshops. The glass globe on the roof has became a well known feature in the neighbourhood.
In Old Cairo, each building is unique and can be photogenic in its own way.
Tea houses or the ahwa are popular in Cairo as the venue for relaxation and social activities.
Bab El Nasr or Gate of Victory, is one of the three remaining gates of the Old City of Cairo.
Traditional brass lanterns are eye-catching highlights for buildings in Islamic Cairo.
Mashrabiya, a projected bay window covered with wooden latticework, is a common feature in Islamic Cairo.
Wandering in Old Cairo was an enjoyable experience if not the overwhelming summer heat.
I spent most of the day walking around Islamic Cairo without a destination in mind.
I passed by a mosque entrance while morning prayer was called.
Then I noticed splendid minarets of Al-Azhar Mosque right in front of me. Al-Azhar Mosque was established in 972 AD as the first mosque of Cairo. The mosque also hosts the world’s second oldest university.
Al-Azhar University is well known in the Islamic world for the study of Sunni theology and Islamic law. Today, the mosque serves as a symbol of Islamic Egypt.
Built in the 15th century, the Minaret of Qaytbay is a prominent feature crowned by a finial top.
The decorative motifs near the entrances of Al-Azhar Mosque are quite spectacular.



Built upon the 3rd century ruined gate of the Roman fortress, layers of palm tree logs and stones were used to construct the foundation for the Hanging Church. Probably the most famous church in Coptic Cairo, the Hanging Church is also one of the oldest. Between 7th and 13th century, the Hanging Church was the residence of the Coptic Patriarch. Although much of what we see today of the church’s exterior is from the 19th century, many of the interior architectural features and objects date back to various periods in history, including the 110 Christian icons in which the oldest dates back to the 8th century. Some parts of the church was off limits to tourists during our visit, but nonetheless the Hanging Church was the highlight of our visit of Coptic Cairo.

After Coptic Cairo, we spent much of the afternoon at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the huge museum filled with treasures from ancient Egypt since 1901. The exhibits seemed disorienting at times, though its collection of the 120,000 ancient Egypt artefacts, such as papyrus, stone statues, jewellery, royal mummies (famous pharaohs such as Ramses II), and funeral accessories were truly magnificent. The most impressive of all was undoubtedly the treasures of the tomb of boy King Tutankhamen. According to plan, the Cairo’s Egyptian Museum would be replaced by the new Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza in 2021. Unfortunately, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic would likely affect the visitor numbers for the new museum at its grand opening.

Leaving the museum, we strolled along the Nile and saw a few felucca owners cleaning their boats. We didn’t have the interest to hire a felucca. Instead, we headed to Cafe Niche for a quick bite. Back at Luna Hotel, my two travel buddies rested a bit before heading to the train station for their quick visit of Upper Egypt. For me, I thought more time would be needed for a decent visit of Luxor and Aswan in Upper Egypt. Instead, I planned to spend the remaining few days in Egypt on my own. My destination was off the beaten track at Siwa Oasis and the Western Desert.

The Hanging Church is one of the most important Coptic Church in Cairo.
Built upon the remains of the southern gate of a Roman fortress, the Hanging Church is situated on a raised platform accessible via a staircase of 29 steps.
Touches of fine details at the forecourt provided us a preview of the beautiful interior.
Massive fabric were set up over the courtyard of the Hanging Church, probably for shading during religious gatherings.
The Coptic Cross is a symbol of faith for the Copts. Some Copts would have the Coptic cross tattooed at their right wrist.
The original 7th century building has been renovated numerous times in history. The exterior facade was mainly constructed in the 19th century.
The wooden barrel vault in reference to the structure of Noah’s ark was a captivating.
In October 2014, the Hanging Church was inaugurated after a 16-year restoration. In 2006 during our visit, a number of places were off limits to visitors.
Even the wooden benches in the Hanging Church are decorated with the Coptic Cross.



At around 42 AD, Saint Mark introduced Christianity into Egypt and found the Church of Alexandria, one of the five apostolic sees of early Christianity in the Roman Empire (Church of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem ). By the 3rd century, Christianity had became the most popular religion in Egypt. The local language used to translate the earliest scripture was Coptic, and the Copts are one of the most ancient Christian communities in the Middle East. As Islam and the Arabic language entered Egypt in the 7th century, the significance of the Coptic language declined. Coptic Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, continues to evolve and has became the main stream Christianity in Egypt. It is also believed that many practices of early Christians had been preserved by the Coptic Church. Today, it is estimated that Copts account for 5 to 20% of the Egyptian population.

In the 12 century, the seat of the Church of Alexandria was relocated to Coptic Cairo, the area believed to be visited by the Holy family when Jesus was a child. Today, Coptic Quarter is included in Old Cairo, the historical area of the Egyptian capital that has been inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1979. Like many tourists, we took the metro to the Coptic Quarter on our second day in Cairo. We visited the St George Church, Synagogue of Ben Ezra, Church of Abu Serga, and the Hanging Church. We also toured the Coptic Cemetery. Every tomb in the Coptic Cemetery is like a small shrine on its own.

Built in the time of Roman Emperor Trajan (98 – 117 AD), Babylon Fortress was the earliest city centre of ancient Cairo. Within the fortress stand the major attractions of Coptic Cairo.
Much of the Old Cairo, including the Coptic Quarter, is full of narrow alleyways.
Unlike othe Coptic Orthodox churches in the area, the Church of St. George is part of the Holy Patriarchal Monastery of St George belonged to the Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Built upon the site of the 10th century predecessor, the current church was completed in 1909.
One of the area we stopped by was the beautiful Coptic Cemetery and its church.
The cemetery has a mix of Coptic and Greek Orthodox religious structures.
There was a cross shaped flower bed at the Coptic Cemetery.
Statues of cross and angel were common sights in the Coptic Cemetery.
Some of the structures appear like mini mansions, similar to Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires or Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
Some structures look relatively new and well maintained.
The Coptic Cemetery reveals the significance population of the Coptic population in Cairo.
Visiting the Coptic Cemetery was a peaceful experience compared to the hectic daily scenes of Cairo.



Outside the gate of Giza pyramids, we waited 1/2 hour for the Cairo-bounded bus. We weren’t sure where to get off, but as long as the bus was heading to Cairo we had no worries. The traffic was bad. We soon lose track of time as the bus inched back to the Egyptian capital. As a metropolis with a dense population of over 10 million residents (now over 20 million in the metropolitan area), poor traffic continues to haunt the roads and highways of Cairo. In our short stay in the city, I hardly saw a single set of traffic lights. Somehow drivers on the road have their own way to maintain order. As evening approached, we weren’t sure where the bus was heading. We decided to get off near Cairo’s Opera House, simply because we recognized the area and were able to orient ourselves back to Tahrir Square. When we passed by the Nile, we saw a few locals fishing from the bridge. Back at Tahrir Square, we tried to find a pub called Ali Baba. A guy appeared from nowhere came over to “help” us out. He said Ali Baba no longer existed, and led us to his perfume shop instead.

We walked back to Tahrir Square trying to search for another place for drinks. Another man approached us to offer help. Claimed to be a swim instructor and tour guide (with a button of Canadian flag and South Korean flag at his collar), the man took out his wallet and showed us a photo of himself in swimming suit at a much younger age. He called himself Arnold Schwarzenegger of Egypt. The guy was very talkative, and spoke good English. He looked very friendly, and even grabbed my arm when crossing the street. We followed him to a local cafe where local beer was served. Each of us ordered a bottle of beer. We chatted about politics and Islam. He mentioned about his visit to Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Jordan, and bemoaned the fact that Arab countries were never able to bridge their differences in order to become a unified modern nation. Talking about differences, our conversation also steered to the conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam in Iraq, and the pro- and anti-American supporters in the Middle East. After politics, he recited a few Islam stories to us, mainly about legends that involve miracles. After the drinks, he walked us to our hotel, kissed our cheek, wished us good luck and left. From the visits of pyramids to the talk with the local swim instructor, what a remarkable day it was.

The traffic from Giza back to Cairo was so bad that even a donkey cart was moving faster than our bus.
The roads in Cairo were full of activities, from cars to camels to people.
Some apartments we saw seemed to be quite pleasant and highly livable.
We didn’t know how long it took for our return trip to Cairo.
All we noticed was the gradual change of sun angle.
We finally arrived in central Cairo near sunset.
After getting off, we arrived at the El Galaa Bridge over the famous Nile River.
Built in 2000, the tower of Faisal Islamic Bank of Egypt is a good example of vernacular architecture in the contemporary era.
The sunset was brief near the equator. Soon we found ourselves walking at night.



From the pyramids on Giza Plateau to the royal tombs in Valley of the Kings, their belief in afterlife, rebirth, and life of immortality have shaped the cultural identity of the ancient Egyptians for thousands of years. From the Classical time to the modern age, tourists travel to Egypt from around the world to see their majestic monuments dedicated to their afterlife beliefs. Ever since seeing real mummies as a boy in the British Museum, checking out the Egyptian pyramids and tombs has been included on my wish list for a long time. As a boy, I could never imagine how touristy and commercialized the actual visit of the archaeological sites have became, nor would I acknowledge that the Great Pyramids and Sphinx are actually situated just a stone throw away from the urban area of Giza, the third largest city in Egypt. Often, the experience of traveling would involve fulfilling a dream while at the same time accepting the reality.

While visiting Sinai felt like a continuation of our experience of the Arabian Desert (Petra and Wadi Rum), arriving in Cairo gave us a sense of entering another chapter, the final one this time, of our Middle East trip. At Luna Hotel, we hired a taxi for our first day in Cairo. Our intention was to do a day excursion at the outskirts of Cairo, probably the most popular day trip for all tourists coming to Egypt. Our first stop was Saqqara at 30km south of Cairo. Saqqara was the royal necropolis of Memphis, the capital of Lower Egypt. Many kings and nobles of the early dynasties and the Old Kingdom were buried at Saqqara. At Saqqara, the most famous monument is the Pyramid of Djoser, which is also the oldest surviving stone building in the world. Before we headed to the world famous step pyramid, a staff led us into one of the many tombs in the archaeological site. Inside the tomb, detailed wall inscriptions and paintings were well preserved. Apart from depictions of kings and divinities, I was particularly interested in the figures that illustrate religious possessions and ceremonial feasts.

Outside the tomb, we reached the main funeral complex of the Pyramid of Djoser. The complex was crowded with tourist groups, each was led by a tour guide holding an umbrella and speaking with a microphone. We walked past the tourist groups and through the funeral complex to reach the famous stepped pyramid. Out of all mastabas and tombs in Saqqara, Djoser’s stepped pyramid is certainly the most unique and iconic. The massive monument of terracing stone masonry, dated back to 27th century BC, is known as the earliest pyramid in Egypt, and the predecessor for the Great Pyramids of Giza.

Our base Luna Hotel was situated near Talaat Harb Square and the Egyptian Museum.
At Saqqara, we were led to tomb that was opened to visitors.
Inside the tomb, we were fascinated by the wall relief.
The depiction of religious possessions and ceremonial feasts are beautifully carved and coloured.
Judging by the large size, the figure seated must be a royal figure, perhaps the master of the tomb. Without any interpretation information, it would be useful to hire a guide.
Architectural relief in the tomb.
Egyptian hieroglyphs was undecipherable from the fall of the Roman Empire until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799.
Built in the 27th century BC, the limestone step pyramid is the tomb of Djoser, one of the king of the Egyptian Old Kingdom.
The six stepped Djoser Pyramid was built in six stages, which was an architectural experiment back then.
Other than Djoser, another sixteen kings built pyramids at Saqqara.
The walled enclosure and entrance gate of the Djoser complex is also quite impressive.
Despite simple, the architectural proportion and rhythm of the entrance and wall complex conveys a certain imposing beauty to incoming visitors.