calling on cleopatra

Cairo Travel Blog

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During the ride from the Cairo International Airport, visions of desert sands, date palms and statues of ancient pharaohs brought to mind scenes of Ramses II's exploits from the Hollywood classic The Ten Commandments. But when our driver Mahmoud, a proud local, pointed out the high-rise buildings and sprawling public gardens of Heliopolis, modern-day Cairo seemed far removed from the world of mummified cats and god-like kings.

Even a cursory glance at the city squares and flyovers proves to be a crash course in Egyptian politics. While posters of President Hosni Mubarak are ubiquitous, Nasr city, a satellite town named after the Egyptian leader Nasser, is swamped with impressive industrial complexes. Cobblestone streets and colonial buildings render a European look to the western part of the city, which had, in fact, been modelled like Paris under the rule of Ismail the Magnificent, way back in the 19th century. Battered Peugeots and Romanian Dacias line up at traffic jams.

Travellers looking for a quintessential Arab experience won't be disappointed. For instance, the Khan El Khalili market brings to life images of Arabian Nights. Keffiya-clad hookah smokers, donkey carts, aromatic spices and choc-o-bloc gullies give many Western tourists a sensory overload.

Merchants were more than over-zealous when displaying a figurine of Nefertiti or a gaudy trinket.  The haggling over prices and the smell of fried food will make any Indian feel right at home in this 14th-century bazaar.

Firmly entrenched in medieval history, Old Cairo is a striking contrast to the upscale multi-national campuses and apartments of Sixth October City. Many residents wear traditional caps and gabardines, adding to the area's old-world charm. The Al-Azhar mosque and the Saracenic monuments of Old Cairo give fascinating insight into Egypt's Islamic heritage.

The Citadel, perched on the Muqattam Hills, giraffes over the city. The fortress houses some of the finest mosques and palaces built by the Mameluke sultans and Turkish governors. Inside the Ottoman-style Mohammed Ali mosque, European and Japanese visitors feasted their eyes on the dazzling light-fittings and Arabic inscriptions on the dome, the breathtaking artwork reminiscent of Italy's Sistine Chapel. Royal chambers and portraits remain frozen in time at the Citadel's El-Gawhara or Jewel Palace.

Roman ruins and ancient Coptic churches bring out this North African hub's diversity.

On a Sunday morning, barefoot worshippers gathered at the St George's Nunnery and fervently sang Coptic hymns. The rituals were distinctive from the practices at Catholic churches. People chained themselves symbolically to commemorate St George's martyrdom.

Cairo residents, who hang out at hip boutiques and cafes of Zamalek, one of the city's happening suburbs, are far more westernised in their attire than their counterpart in more conservative localities. While teen couples sit cheek to cheek at French and Italian eateries, a few women even puff hookahs at some of the local restaurants (most hookah joints are usually restricted to men). "Cafés are now popular among both youngsters and the middle-aged," says Marwan, a lawyer who runs a cafe called Insomnia in Zamalek.

The government-sponsored matchbox apartments, however, are a far cry from the affluence of South Cairo. As for the Nile, that cradle of an ancient civilisation, today it rings loud with Arabic pop songs, neon signs, billboards and an armada of ferries livening up the river at night. Downtown Cairo has a lot to offer shoppers and restaurant-goers. Textile and leather outlets are aplenty and the streets are redolent with the aroma of baklavas (traditional Arab sweets). For fast-food lovers, there's a mix of KFCs and local takeaways.

Serious foodies can have a go at traditional Egyptian cuisine such as Baba Ganoosh or Hosnia, as well as authentic French and Italian dishes. The downtown Felfela restaurant has been applauded by gourmets worldwide and graced by the likes of former US President Jimmy Carter. Cooing doves, vintage sewing machines and a rock-garden setting make this eatery a must-see.

The Egyptian Museum, which houses over 120,000 objects of Pharoanic and Greco-Roman origin, took me back to history lessons at high school. Also in store were tales from the crypt! Mummified rulers now lay well preserved in their air-conditioned `afterlife.'

An entire section of the museum is dedicated to treasures archived out of the "jinxed" tomb of Tutankhamun by the famed British archaeologist, Howard Carter. One wonders whether the spirit of this ill-fated boy-king is disturbed by the presence of nosy tourists.

As an anachronism of sorts, Pharaohs and gods such as Horus stare down on 21st-century denizens from carvings on public buildings and statues erected on parks. Brands are still named after Cleopatra and Egyptian gods.

The one-hour journey to the historic sites of Saccara and Memphis gave a bird's eye view of pastoral Egypt. Mud houses, lush farms and sunflower fields dotted the landscape. Policemen in white uniforms ushered tourists towards King Zoser's tomb at Saccara. Led Zeppelin's rock classic `Stairway to heaven' came to mind as we approached the Step Pyramid �" another reminder of ancient Egypt's obsession with death.

Further away, at the Memphis Museum, Ramses II seemed humbled in stone. His statue lay in a horizontal position and worse, his arms were chopped off.

The pyramids of Giza are less than 20 km from Cairo. Dozens of tourist buses lined up in front of the nose-less sphinx (most Egyptians pronounce it as `Sphinkis' with a thick Arabic accent) and the pyramids of Cheops, Khafre and Menkaure. The scattered limestone and alabaster and the scorching heat made many wince thinking about the plight of the slaves who were whipped to build these ancient wonders.

The Pyramids of Giza.

Camel riders demanded `baksheesh' whenever their photographs were taken, while many hawkers brandished their wares. A closer look at the Cheops pyramid inspired the kind of awe that Napoleon expressed when he invaded Egypt in 1798, "Soldiers! From the top of these pyramids, 40 centuries are looking at us."

Back at the airport, an affable WHO official hailing from Alexandria said that a trip to Egypt would be incomplete without a visit to Sharm El-Sheikh. Ironically, the very next day, the Red Sea resort was struck by blasts. While gawking at the news flashes with despair, I fervently hoped that the hard-working Egyptians would get their act together to woo back tourists.

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photo by: vulindlela