The Mohammed Ali mosque inside The Citadel.
Today I'm back on the road with Yassah the driver. Another rediculously packed itinerary and no guide this time to (sort of) tell me what it's all about. First stop is The Citadel a walled, fortified enclave of Islamic buildings in south-east Cairo. A construction commenced in the 12th Century by the historically renowned Salah al-Din (or Saladin). Most notably it encircles the Mohhamed Ali Mosque. Yassah drops me at the entrance gates and when asked "How long?" I just pluck a figure out the air. An hour? My one and only priority today is a good chunk of time at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities so I can't spend too much time being driven elsewhere.
A garden tender takes a rest outside the Citadel.
.. it becomes immediately evident from the site plan (and the fact of a EGP40 entry fee) that I am of course sorely mistaken if I think I can take in such culture in such a way. Not my choice really. It's the nature of the Atef Plan and the brevity of my stay in Cairo generally. Too little time to take in too much of human history. I throw in the towel on this one, don't enter and sit in the sun reading my Guide book looking at sections of the Citadel from outside until Yassah returns.
Next we drive to the Coptic area of Cairo. Copts represent the significant minority population of Coptic Orthodox Christians within Egypt. Depending on your standpoint, research and who you talk to on your travels it is often made evident that this remains a social minority who remain subject to much financial and social disadvantage and persecution.
However this is not a subject I have either the means or the right at this time to comment on within the scope of my knowledge and this blog. A video diarist pastor from Finland who I will have as a coach companion in a couple of weeks time offers some quite harrowing insights into the tensions that exist between the Islamic majority and Coptic minority communities and institutions within this country at this time, however again I stress this is only one man's angle. The coptic area of Cairo at its heart is small, and a few steps beyond the main drag where a lot of the churches reside relative poverty is fairly noticeable.
Points of interest for the tourist here include a number of churches and The Coptic Museum, the latter of which I have no time for today.
St George's Church in the Coptic district of Cairo.
I manage a brief walkabout and pop into The Church of St George where a liturgy is being read whilst sun beams cut through the dusty air and past the wooden rafters of the ceiling to the floor. Very atmospheric.
Following a disappointing lunch at a venue of Yassah's directing I am finally driven to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, amusing Yassah all the way with my practicing of arabic numeral reading from car numberplates. Founded by the French egyptologist Auguste Mariette in 1858 the museum is one of the most recognisable structures in Cairo with its large red walls and domed roof. This then being its 150th anniversary this year there's no sign that this fact is being celebrated at all. Either my guide's got the date wrong or frankly, and quite likely, the current custodians really don't care that much.
The sun breaks through inside St George's Church.
The museum is LARGE and spread over its two floors are countless treasures of ancient antiquity. This place is absolutely chock-a-block with giant stone and wood sarcophagi, carved statuary and colossi, oranately decorated mummy casings and shrouds, weapons, vehicles and other accoutrements of ancient Egyptian life. The highlight of course is the decent number of rooms given over to the spoils of Tutankhamun's tomb. The principle room here contains many items of jewelry and adornment found in, on and around King Tut's mummy as well as two breathtaking gold-plated inner-sarcophagi and the famous near solid gold death mask of the 'Boy King'. Sadly, but understandably, NO photos permitted within the museum.
I spend a good 4 and half hours in the museum and then float outside to wonder "what next?".
The front garden of the museum comprises a pleasant(ish) artefact strewn garden area with a small pond within which the apparently rare Blue-Lotus flowers oft used in ancient Egypt are still cultivated. In my time in Cairo it is this area outside the museum that proves (predictably) to hold the highest concentration of 'western' tourists, all sitting around nattering and happy in the evening sun.
The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities.
This museum is a must see activity when in Cairo and a long walk within it will greatly help to enrich your understanding and appreciation of the many great temples, tombs and monuments of Egyptian civilization that you're likely to take in during your time in the country. At the same time it also introduces you to a feeling that for me recurred too, too often and frsutrated me during my time in Egypt.
A sense that somewhere over the decades, for whatever reason, be it financial struggles, institutional corruption (often cited as an endemic problem within the country) or just a more general malaise when it comes to looking after and taking great and careful pride in the wealth of culture that the nation possesses, this is clearly a museum subject to many forms of longstanding neglect. Whilst a lot of the symptoms are often quite amusing and quaint (many of the time-faded slips of paper containing cabinet contents descriptions often look like they are still the original hand-typed ones of Auguste Mariette himself...and probably are; and archaic artefact numbering systems revised time and again with the old numberings never removed making it often very tricky to identify what you're looking at) the care and conditions that so many of these ancient and deeply fragile mementos to human civilization are kept in is to my mind very concerning.
The (now rare) Blue Lotus. Possessed of and used for its psychotropic qualities in ancient times (kinda like that flower that the nasty bad guys use to send everyone loopy in Batman Begins... remember? :)
No climate control. The original fimsy glass and wood cabinets predomiate even for things of such inestimable value as King Tut's jewels themselves and delicate examples of papyrus records and cloth garments and shrouds are often at certain points in the day left to bath in direct, unfiltered sunlight. Whilst this higgledy-piggledy shabbiness remains part of the Museum's charm I hope that the proposed new modern development near the Giza pyramids to rehouse and expand on this collection comes sooner rather than later. For those that I've met and know Egypt better than I, this seems unlikely.