Cairo: Ancient sights, modern experiences

Posted December 29, 2008 11:01 a.m. EST

— Minutes after we met in his mother’s Cairo home for a traditional Arabic dinner, Ahmed asked me, “Are you a football (soccer) fan?”

When I replied that I knew Egypt had just lost 1-0 against Malawi in a qualifying match for the Euro Cup earlier in the day, American met Egyptian and the evening’s companionship began.

It was our first night on a seven-day visit to Egypt arranged by AAA Carolinas and African Travel that would include seeing mummies, pyramids, antiquities, mosques, temples, bazaars and a cruise down the Nile River to walk through tombs and temples, some built thousands of years before the birth of Christ.

Host for the first night was Ahmed’s mother, Sahar, our knowledgeable archaeologist turned tour guide, who served a delicious typical Egyptian meal of sea bass, couscous, rice with raisins, salad and fried squid, as we discussed politics, religion and the rigors of urban daily life, seeking understanding between different cultures in different countries on different continents.

Earlier that morning, we had been picked up in a minivan by Sahar and Mohammed, our driver, to begin a day of touring historic sites in Cairo, a teeming city of 22 million, in a country of 80 million people, with 55 million Muslims, mostly Sunni, and 25 million Orthodox Christians.

Our first stop was Old Cairo and the “Hanging Church,” so-called because the floor sits atop two towers of an old Roman fortress.

It was our first observance of the omnipresent armed guards wearing white uniforms who man gates to the city’s tourist sites and patrol the grounds throughout the country.

Tourism police patrol and protect visitors and popular sites 24/7, as Egypt recognizes tourism as one its most important industries.

The “Hanging Church,” built in the third century A.D., it is one of the oldest Christian places of worship in Egypt, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and the Coptic Church still holds services there.

Next was the Abu Serga Church, located over a crypt where Mary and Joseph were supposed to have hidden from Herod the Great, with a wooden ceiling looking like an upside down ark, and still a place of worship. Then we visited the synagogue of Ben Ezra, purchased in the 9th Century from the Christians, and it is believed among several legends, to be the site of the first synagogue and where Moses prayed to God for help with the Pharaoh to "let his people go."

No one worships in the synagogue anymore – most Jews left in the 1948 exodus to Israel when it became an independent state – but it is meticulously and carefully maintained annually by the American Jewish Congress. (A small Jewish community of 200 to 300 still lives in Alexandria – the only Jewish community left in Egypt.)

The Coptic museum, sprouting Corinthian columns from 4th century A.D., was next, jammed with Christian artifacts from churches, tombs and homes. Colorful mosaic windows built in different shapes and colors let shafts of light in to see textiles, manuscripts  – including letters written on bone and pottery – and religious icons of gold, silver and iron. Open-to-the-air windows were covered with mashrabiyya screens – intricate, interlaced strips of wood that let the person inside look out but protect the viewer from being identified from the outside.

On to the Citadel, a fortress home to Egypt’s rulers for more than 700 years and now home to three mosques, including the mosque of Mohammed Ali, which we entered after taking our shoes off, where we observed small groups sitting on carpets discussing history or religion under cut-glass lights hanging in a circle from the domed ceiling. Many young female visitors were covered with long, green robes because women are not allowed inside with uncovered shoulders, stomach or legs.

Before lunch, we drove to the Middle East’s oldest bazaar, Khan El Khalili, weaving through Cairo traffic without regard to traffic lanes, making U-turns, and cutting in and out among slower vehicles as frequently and easily as we would pass cars on the Interstate, but with only a sliver of space between us. Red lights meant slow down and see if you can make it across the intersection; green meant cut in front of the red light traffic.

When congestion slowed us down, pedestrians slithered through the traffic, impervious to the cacophony of blaring car horns. It resembled a wild, automotive video game come to life. While there are traffic laws, the Egyptians say, “No one follows the law, so there is no law to be followed.”

Before lunch at Naguib Mahfouz Restaurant, named for the 1988 Nobel Prize author who often wrote about families living in the bazaar, we learned some basic bargaining tactics for shopping. Every price is negotiable, and a rule of thumb is most bottom lines are nearly one-third of the first offer.

After lunch, we challenged the 20-acre maze of paved and unpaved streets in the bazaar, with every other vendor asking us as we walked slowly past to look over their wares.

Younger salespeople would banter, “Tell my how I can get your money,” or “I don’t know what you want, but I have it.” If you looked and laughed, they pursued. While the hundreds of shops in the bazaar uphold the tradition of bargaining, most sold the same souvenirs. Service distinctions and product diversification were not to be found.

The day’s final visit was to the world-renowned Egyptian Museum, with more than 100,000 relics – and twice as many not on display awaiting completion of an expansion in 2011.

Highlights included a duplicate of the original Rosetta stone, which is on display in the British Museum. The stone found in 1799 by a soldier in Napoleon’s army and led to the deciphering of hieroglyphics because two words were recognized – Cleopatra and Ptolemy V.

There are relics, mummies, statues, boats, coffins, precious personal ornaments and items used in daily life like combs and pots. Most popular are the 1,700 artifacts from the tomb of boy prince, Pharaoh Tutankhamen, discovered in the Valley of Kings in 1922 by Howard Carter.

King Tut’s stunning gold death mask is inlaid with precious gems, and more than 140 amulets and pieces of jewelry are on display, including the 19-year-old’s underwear, hung on the wall in a glass case to preserve it.

Later, we returned to our hotel, the magnificent, modern Fairmont Towers, in Cairo’s upscale suburb, Heliopolis, and only five minutes from the airport. A football field-sized, marbled atrium with a 50-foot high ceiling, air-conditioned to a comfortable 70 degrees as a respite from 93-degree temperatures outside, it has all the amenities that an oil-rich sheik requires. It rivals AAA-rated Five Diamond hotels in the United States, and the price was included in our African Travel tour package.

The next morning, before leaving on a riverboat for a five-day voyage down the Nile, we made the traditional trek to the three main Giza Plateau pyramids and Sphinx.

One of the Seven Wonders of the World, the pyramids are the oldest tourist attraction in the world, already 2,500 years old when Christ was born.

We visited early in the morning, when it was cooler and less crowded. Tickets to enter the pyramid of Cheops were included in our tour package. The pyramid, comprised of 2.3 million blocks of stone weighing and average 2.5 tons, looked like an ant hill with my wife, like hundreds of others, scampering up the side to explore inside, sometimes bending over in a 3½-foot-tall tunnel, to eventually reach the empty interior burial chamber.

“It was hot, crowded and dusty, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything,” Kathy Crosby said. “It was a once in a lifetime thrill.”

The nearby Solar Boat museum contains the remains of Cheops’ huge funerary cedar wood boat, recently discovered at the base of the pyramid, buried for use by the pharaoh on his trip to the after-world.

Optional camel riders were next, followed by a visit to the Sphinx, built in 2650 B.C. from a single piece of stone and as much a symbol of Egypt as the pyramids. The man with the lion’s head is 240 feet long, and the base has been continually shored up to keep it from eroding due to underwater springs.

Lunch was at the Mena House Oberoi, a former palace of Pasha Ishmael and now an upscale hotel with a restaurant overlooking the pyramids and surrounding gardens. Our afternoon was spent visiting Memphis, with an 8-ton Alabaster Sphinx and a limestone Colossus of Ramses II, in a courtyard with other statutes and vendor stands.