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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.