Across the Middle East

Cairo Travel Blog

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My life in Australia is now officially over. This morning I stepped off the plane into Egypt.

My first impression of Cairo was that it was a modern version of Fez. Sand hanging in the air, diffusing the morning light, gave a misty feel to the city, through which even modern buildings, cracked and smoothened by the winds, looked ancient. As the air cleared, the city revealed its true colours, dirty and crowded, with ugly modern buildings built next to decaying beautiful ones.

I had an amusing encounter at the hotel, when the clerk asked if I was booked for the 23rd or 24th. I was sure that today was the 24th, so this question threw me out and I simply replied "I booked for tonight" to cover my bases if time zone changes had thrown me off. He replied "we are booked up for the 23rd". I said again, "I booked for tonight", and he looked it up and said, "ah you are here for today, the 24th".

Some history of Egypt, the first great civilisation of the world.

Egypt has had civilised life for 7000 years, which were solidified into eight kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt, and finally united by Menes in 3165 BCE, starting the Old Kingdom, centred around Memphis (was just outside Cairo, but now ruined). The Old Kingdom lasted for a thousand years through five dynasties (I get to see the Great Pyramids at Giza, built in the fourth dynasty), until it broke apart in the fifth dynasty, in 2180 BCE. Egypt was reunified by Montuhotep II in 2040 BCE, creating the Middle Kingdom, based around Thebes (now Aswan, in about a week I’ll get to see the Middle Kingdom tombs). The New Kingdom developed in 1570 BCE, and reached its height of Mediterranean power during the 18th, 19th and 20th dynasties, from 1550-1069 BCE, but declined with the invasion of Ageans (the Egyptian Dark Ages), and was overthrown by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE. Alexander founded Alexandria, the new capital, from which Egypt was ruled for 300 years by a dynasty founded by Alexander’s general, Ptolemy (apparently they Greek rulers were very snobbish, calling it ‘Alexandria Besides Egypt’ and intermarrying, only Cleopatra even bothered to learn the local language). Cleopatra was the last Ptolemaic ruler, she was made coregent with her brother Ptolemy XIII, and to gain sole power she formed an alliance with Julius Caesar. When Caesar was killed, she married Marc Antony as protector, but Caesar’s nephew Octavian (whose sister was married to Antony) became Roman Emperor and defeated the Egyptian navy in 31 BCE. Cleopatra committed suicide with an asp, and the Romans ruled Egypt. This lasted until the conquest of Egypt by the Arabs (with only 10 000 troops) in 640 CE (the Fatimid dynasty founded Cairo in 969 CE, and made it the new Islamic capital, building many mosques and markets I get to see), then again by the Ottoman Turks in 1517 CE. Egypt was conquered by Napoleon in 1798 (who had an Alexander the Great complex, similar to Hitler who was possessed by the idea of invading India), but the British expelled them in 1801. Egypt became independent, but this only lasted until 1882 when the British occupied Egypt for unpaid debts from the building of the Suez Canal. The current independence came after the 1952 Revolution.

Cairo. Anyway, I am in Cairo, the largest city in Africa, and one of the densest in the world, with nearly twenty million people. I decided to spend the morning looking at some of the more obscure regions of the city. I walked to downtown, seeing a motorbike accident, and the first of a surprising number of donkey-pulled carts (the donkeys were dressed up nicely). I then walked south along the Nile, lined with ancient fig trees and date palms, with half wild looking dogs, and cats sleeping on the side walk.

I was after the Coptic quarter, so once I walked far enough south I turned east, thinking to cut along the residential streets. The streets turned into small winding alleys, with blind ends and rubble-blocked paths, and finally terminating in a large wall. in the end I had to retrace my steps to leave, much to the amusement of two small children and their donkey. Trying another time, I bumped suddenly into a huge domed church complex. It was the Coptic quarter, occupied by Coptic Christians since Roman times. The Coptics in Eqypt, like the Nestorians in Iraq, are one of the few surviving churches from the splinter ~150CE on the nature of Jesus (they maintained that he was human, but the divine spirit resided in him, unlike the Catholics who say he was both human and divine). I saw ancient Roman towers, the hanging Church, and the Church of St Sergius. Wandering through the complex, it turned into a maze of winding streets lined with decaying tombs. I walked back past St Sergius during mass, and a guy outside beckoned me in to have a look. I generally feel uncomfortable about entering churches, in case it is disrespectful not to pray, but he pulled me in so I watched the service with Coptic chanting and the heavy smoke on incense in the air. As an added plus, being ultra-orthodox, they gave me bread.

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Cairo Sights & Attractions review
There are two old religious centres in Cairo that are well worth a look. The first is rarely visited, the Coptic Quarter. It has been occupied by … read entire review
photo by: vulindlela