Cairo was my base of operations in Egypt, as it unfortunately is for most tourists (but I’m not really a tourist, per se). Cairo has some wonderful nooks and crannies, but my lasting impression of it was the pollution clogging my sinuses and lungs, mind boggling traffic, and the sad decay of once beautiful places. It is definitely worth a visit, especially if you have wonderful friends living there to take you to the secret spots, but don’t plan to stay long unless you have a gas mask.
I have two very cool and accommodating friends in Cairo, who enthusiastically took on the tour guide role during the first two days I was there. The first day, we wandered around Islamic Cairo, a warren of alleys that have housed shops and cafes for ages, and don’t look all that different than they did hundreds of years ago, except they are disrupted by the occasional car. Even the foreigners wandering around (mostly lost and hampered with bags of purchases) probably have their analogs in history.
Behind the busy and crowded storefronts, you can see the remnants of layers of beautiful and old buildings, built on and around one another over time. The walls of arches over the alleys are decorated with intricate carvings, many of which incorporate typical Arabic artistry using Arabic script and quotes from the Koran. I wonder what was inside of those walls, what houses and private spaces they protected. We had lunch on the second floor of a set of shops, on a balcony overlooking an alley occupied by a couple of shisha sellers. It was great to be able to look down and observe the wandering and bargaining while I ate my falafel and chatted about life in Cairo with my friends.
During our wanderings, we entered, after some discussion between one of my friends and the guard that included us leaving after ten minutes and something about a mysterious engineer, an historic mosque that once linked two major madrassas and has what may be the tallest minaret in the city. The building is stunning: tall walls, arched hallways lit by old hanging lamps, a huge courtyard with four wings, a central fountain, and vivid stained glass windows. The painting on the walls and ceiling was so intricate that we wondered out loud who the poor bastards tasked with that tedious but magnificent job were. We also wondered about the pressure that must have been on the guy or guys who were responsible for carving a quote from the Koran around the courtyard wall so that it ended exactly at the corner where the last wall met the first.
We spent our ten minutes just looking around and trying to get photos that would capture it. Then, in blatant defiance of our guard’s warning (we weren’t really worried), we started the epic climb up the endless stairs to the top of the minaret. Step after step up the ancient stairs, through spots so dark you lose a sense of your own height and position in space, and out into the riotously bright afternoon sun, we went. Upon arriving at the top, the effort was made worthwhile by the view: a panorama of Cairo, old and new, shrouded with smog but still fascinating in its inclusion of thousands of hears of history. We breathed hard as we stood there just taking it in: the view and the smog alike.
The smog is really unbelievable. It isn’t as bad as Dhaka in Bangladesh, but it is almost there. It is so offensive and makes just breathing in Cairo so annoying that it feels like the city wants you to leave and never come back. Supposedly, the US government funded a clean air project here several years ago: you’d never know it. If this is better, how was it before?
The next day, we took off on the remarkably clean and efficient metro to the Coptic section of town. The Coptic Church is a branch of Catholic Christianity. Christianity in Egypt pre-dates Islam by many centuries, and the Coptic section is also known as Old Cairo. Many would probably mistake a Coptic Church for a Greek Orthodox Church. There are no statues, only icons, and the sanctuary is surrounded by an intricately carved high wooden screen. We visited the Hanging Church, the Church of Al-Mo’allaqa, which is built over a bastion of an ancient Roman fortress. It is called the Hanging Church because it kind of hangs over the bastion, and the empty spaces inside the bastion now form the basement of the church. The inside is beautiful, with intricately carved wooden elements, beautiful icons from various periods, and walls covered in colorful murals. Through the glass inserts scattered through this oldest and very significant Coptic church, you can look down directly into human history; I could have stood there for hours asking, “How the heck did we get from there to here?”
In addition to this church, we also briefly visited another Coptic church, a mosque, and a synagogue. What struck me most were the similarities between the three types of buildings. All three religions use Arabic script, are decorated with intricate carving and murals, and prohibit statues. All three types of building have similar architectural shapes, as well as a pulpit somewhere in the middle, raised up above the congregation’s space and accessed by steps. This may be the period, of course, as they were all last remodeled probably around the same time by people who were all heavily influenced by the same outside factors, but it just made me think about the number of wars fought over religion when in many ways, we all have a lot more in common than we’ve preferred to believe.
We ended the day smoking a shisha and drinking coffee in the neighborhood where another friend of ours once lived, watching the little girls being ferried home from school, packed into cars like sardines.