There is something eternally romantic about this country which no amount of revolution, turmoil or technology can alter
As our plane descended upon the Cairo International Airport, my heart flipped a thousand beats for it was like travelling through time.
Cairo, the capital of Egypt, had an official name ‘Al-Qahira’. Though Cairo airport was nothing much to write home about, what lies beyond is what interests the visitor much more.
To get the local feel, we decided to give the luxury cab a miss and managed to find another one that was in a decidedly poorer condition but with more local character. The Egyptian driver spoke no English but his driving was, at the least, nerve-wracking, and at best, Bond-like. The drive was long and hot and our chauffeur wove his way in and out of most tricky spots with practised ease. In general, the imagery was one of a neglected city with unmasked potential.
Cairo reminded me so much of Kolkata of yesteryear: apartment blocks, mostly in a semi-dilapidated state; roads teeming with pedestrians crossing the road wherever they please and mighty traffic jams and heat of the sultry kind.
Through the eight days that followed, we were transported to a magical world of the Pharaohs. For starters, the many mosques that Cairo is replete with, the back and by lanes of the city, the rich museum a mere walk across the road from our Hotel- all made us belive we were participating in a fun obstacle race. We learnt in time that it’s best to try and make a run for it, turn around and just smile and wave a cheery ‘thanks’ in return. It worked!
Our guide Sayyed was fluent and a master at his craft. It mattered little that he might have got his facts a bit mixed up. His earnest hollerings in his favourite Arabic word ‘Habibi’, was a signal to us all to watch out for the Orange Pad he would hold up for us to find him. Depending on the tone you chose to adopt, Habibi could mean friend or lover
The EGYPTIAN MUSEUM probably houses the most extensive and exhaustive collection of antiquities on earth. It has 136,000 items on display, with many more hundreds of thousands in its basement storerooms.
The City of the Dead versus The City of the Living
Cairo is a city divided by the “earlier” era and the “now” era. We were stunned by the theme but that’s how it is. The City of the Dead is pretty much full up of living people, in traditional attire and living in harmony among mosques and monuments belonging to the “earlier” era. QARAFA is what it is named. From the 300 years of the East Roman Empire’s rule, ancient Egypt became part of the Islamic Empire only in 639 AD.
My diary was close at hand and I made these factual notes as we went along from one imposing structure to another. I also made sketches, being drawn to them magnetically.
Egypt has a strong history of being ruled by Mamluks, slave boys that were brought from Turkey and the Black Sea. We were fortunate enough to witness many rather intriguing Mamluk structures that dot the City of the Dead. Mamluk architecture is unique and special in its magnificence. It became obvious to us that their sense of aesthetics and beauty was evolved to a degree that would be considered very advanced in today’s times.
THE RIVER NILE
The River Nile has a deep bond with Egypt’s history and its current culture, quite literally.
Three main activities continue along and on the Nile, for centuries now. Tourism on the Nile is carried out in the form of luxury liners and traditional Egyptian sailboats dropping and picking people. Millions go up and down the Nile on a daily basis. Our group was in two such boats, twice over. They were glorious evenings both, made up of dance and song in a luxury liner.
Surprisingly, it turned cold towards the evening as we drank in the beauty of the sights, starting from sundown on up to 11 pm. An unforgettable banquet and belly dance programme had been organised by our friend Sayyed and one wouldn’t want to miss this for anything in the world.
Sailing and cutting through the chilly wind was intrinsic to our thrill on those evenings upon moonlit waters. The sailboat was a calmer experience and that regaled us just as much. The moments passed by much too soon.
Khan El Khalili Bazaar – a tourist’s paradise
Replete with temptations, this ancient bazaar, belonging to the old city of Cairo, is a shopper’s delight. SOUQ is a local word for covered bazaars, but this one is unending and wickedly strewn with far too many items to name. I was able to also purchase, a huge metal fly, finely etched display plates with ornate designs and some fun crystal “boxes” that come on with a button under them, and light up faces of Nephrititi, Tutenkhamon and such like a stunning silver pendant of Nephrititi’s headdress and face that none have failed to ecstatically admire around my neck – a rather exotic fare and excellent for gifting.
Allow Cairo to get under your skin, and you will be mesmerised by the warmth of the people and needless to say, the aromas and sounds of its food. The food: the kebabs, “shwarmas” of grilled meats, rice platters, hookahs (shishas) with perfumed smoke emanating from its belly, the very ‘un-vegetarian’ fare – were oh-so-perfect to tickle more than just our taste buds.
If you are a lover of the arts, of people and of ancient history, you will return very full and very enriched. It’s a voyage that you will not wish to return from in haste, within and without.