Friday, March 30, 2007

Welcome in Cairo

Tam has been singing the Indiana Jones theme song ever since we boarded the plane to Cairo. As we descended towards the city, we began to get a sense of just how vast a city of 20 million people (!) really is.

Cairo is a huge, teeming, overwhelming place. Thousands of ancient black-and-white taxis play a death-defying game on the roads, where lane lines and traffic lights are meaningless; shanties are built on top of one another, with huge concrete-block buildings covered in satellite dishes and trash stretching out in every direction. The westernized downtown area, where the museum and most of the hotels are, was modeled after Baron Hausmann's much-admired/ much-reviled design for Paris in the late nineteenth century, with wide boulevards and carefully laid out streets. A little of this romantic grandiosity still meets the eye today; this is Midan Tahrir, just outside our hotel.

We teamed up with another world traveller, who's been making his way from Manchester for nearly two months already, and haggled (rather skillfully, if we do say so ourselves) for a taxi into the city. After checking into our modest hotel, we headed for the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, an incredible, sprawling place full to overflowing with artifacts that seem to have been collected, placed behind their glass cases and labelled with thumb-tacked typewritten pages (or not) a half-century ago and left untouched since. Still, the treasures found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen are mind-bogglingly impressive.

Later, famished, we feasted on falafel, babaganoush, ful and tabbouli at a diner called Gad; diners are probably the most common type of restaurant in Cairo, being cheap and usually pretty good. Gad was packed, with waiters carrying unbelievably huge trays sliding from table to table on the slippery floor with practiced flair. Egyptian cuisine, especially in the north around Cairo and Alexandria, shares many characteristics with the food of other parts of the eastern Mediterranean. Ful medames (slow cooked and mashed fava beans) is commonly considered to be the national dish of Egypt and is eaten with garlic and olive oil or deep fried to make falafel or ta'miyya. The name derives from the Egyptian word for fava beans and a Coptic word meaning "buried," referring to the original means of cooking the beans in a pot buried in hot coals. Egyptian bread or 'aish masri ('aish means "life" in Arabic) accompanies every meal. At Gad, part of the restaurant is open to the street and you can watch the guys spin the dough to unbelievable thinness on their fists before flinging it down on the rounded griddle. After a couple of bottles of the local lager (the ancient Egyptians invented beer, you know), we returned to our hotel, exhausted just from negotiating the city.

We set out the next morning for Islamic Cairo, an older section of the city that teems with markets, mosques and people. After getting completely lost for hours in a bazaar that went on for miles and sold every conceivable variety of shoes, bags and plastic knick-knacks of the sort that end up in dusty charity shops in London, we finally managed to orient ourselves with the (scant) help of the map in our guidebook, and found the old bazaar of Khan al-Khalili, with its legenday spice suq (market). Laura got some expert tutelage on the various types of saffron and cinnamon, dried crushed flowers and herbs that characterize Middle Eastern cuisine, sniffing little spoonfuls of each brought out of barrels and drawers.

The touristy parts of Cairo are overrun by touts, postcard vendors, children desperately trying to sell plastic statues of ancient Egyptian cats, and aggressively self-promoting taxi drivers. But after tea at the legendary Fishawi's, we crossed the street out of the market and instantly were in a different world, where our foreign clothes and peculiar hair color provoked cries of "Hello!" and "Welcome in Egypt!" but no sales pitches. We walked along dirt roads while children drove donkeys hauling carts of vegetables, passing the Al-Azhar mosque along with a number of less renowned madrasas and mosques where people were going about their business. The stroll eventually led us to the Citadel, begun in the late twelfth century by Salah al-Din; its walls enclose the royal palace and the Muhammed Ali Mosque, built in a giant reconstruction program in the early 19th century and now among Cairo's most famous skyline silhouettes.

Across from the Citadel are two other grand mosques, the Mosque of Sultan Hassan (a positively enormous edifice begun in 1356, which has survived numerous structural problems and use as a storage base for artillery during a number of medieval dynastic struggles) and the pseudo-Mamluk Rifai Mosque, which houses the tomb of Sheikh Ali al-Rifai, founder of the Rifai "whirling dervish" sect of Sufi Islam.

Wandering back downtown, we found a place to feast on babaganoush, tahini, grilled chicken, and roast pigeon stuffed with rice and liver (surprisingly tasty), then retired for a couple of beers at a hotel bar down the street. Most of the bars in Cairo are in hotels and cater to the expat population and wealthy Cairenes; the majority of ordinary citizens congregate in coffee shops to chill out, set the world to rights, smoke and play backgammon. Alcohol, technically forbidden in Islam (although this stricture is often interpreted loosely), is a luxury product in Cairo; it's quite a shock to pay as much for a couple of rounds of beer as for a night in a hotel room, even though that's still less than a few pints would cost you at our local in Shepherd's Bush. Still, the relaxed atmosphere is a welcome relief from the bustle of the city and we enjoyed the scent of the shishas wafting around us from the next table.

The next day, we set off in the morning to explore the Coptic Quarter. About ten percent of Cairo's 20 million residents (seriously, 20 million people!) are Coptic Christians, and have traditionally gathered in this tiny quarter to the south of town, which is built on the ruins of the city of Babylon (you can see parts of the Roman wall, and one of the Babylonian fortress towers built by Diocletian). The Coptic Quarter contains Cairo's oldest and best known churches and also the just-renovated Coptic Museum. This, we agreed, is one of the very best museums either of us has ever visited; it's housed in a beautiful building featuring elaborately carved wooden ceilings reminiscent of Coptic church architecture, and displays an amazing collection of Coptic frescoes, textiles, sculptures and manuscripts (including some pages from the Nag Hammadi Gnostic texts, found in a jar in the Egyptian desert in 1945) from the 4th century to the present. The brilliantly colored frescoes from the monasteries of St. Jerome were like nothing we've ever seen. We also took in part of a Coptic Orthodox service at the tiny Hanging Church, so named because it is built over a water gate through which Melkite, the last Byzantine viceroy of Babylon, escaped just before the city surrendered to the Muslims in 641; then we peeked into the Convent of St. George, where many devout Coptic Christians had gathered to pray and press their hands against dozens of icons of the saint. The tiny Church of St. Sergius, reached through a medieval stone corridor, is virtually underground because the ground has been built up so extensively since the church's founding in the fifth century.

All this religious education made us hungry, so we stopped for some falafel at a little cafe just outside the convent (hey, nuns have to eat too!) which was notable for its delicious coating of toasted sesame seeds and the spicy heat of the accompanying babaganoush.

Restored, we caught a cab west across the River Nile, driving past lush green fields and grazing animals to the Pyramids, perched between the edge of the jammed, dusty streets of Giza City and the never-ending, rolling dunes of the Western Desert...

We ended our last full day in Cairo at Abou Tarek, another crowded Egyptian diner, this one specializing in - actually, exclusively serving - kushari, a nourishing (and filling) dish of noodles, macaroni, rice, lentils and onions. There is an accepted protocol for eating kushari, which we learned by observation: the other diners at our communal table dressed their heaping bowls with spicy tomato sauce and even spicier garlic oil from metal pitchers, then tossed the concoction together with a spoon. We followed their example for a fantastically satisfying meal, but declined the rather glutinous rice pudding which is the most popular dessert in the desert.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice hat!