Published: April 8th 2012April 8th 2012
First of all, a Happy Easter to everyone reading this! Hope it is being celebrated well wherever this is being read.
Greetings from Cairo! Humungous and hot metropolois of 20 million, the largest both in the Arab world and on the African continent, and a teaming, stressful, polluted and chaotic place. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great place to visit and has some seriously stunning sights to see, but after 3 days here I am ready to get out. Yes, the city Cairenes call “The Mother of the World” has seen enough of me, and tomorrow morning I catch a bus to hopefully quieter destinations.
I must admit, I am a little hot and bothered right now, as the temperature has hit just under 40 degrees every day since I’ve been here, so probably not writing this one in the peakiest of moods, but I do hope to do this city and my time here justice by writing up the events of the last few days here – eventful, and stunning in parts.
Last I wrote I was just about to leave serene (apart from the din of the Corniche) harbour-side Alexandria, and I
took another first-class air conditioned train back to Cairo, this time to spend a bit longer than 10 minutes. I checked into the lovely Hotel Luna, albeit on the main shopping street of Cairo, Talaat Harb, and thus the noisiest, most chock-a-block place I’ve seen here full of cars and people right outside the hotel’s entrance. My room though is just a haven of tranquillity with a window on the inside of the block – a world away from the chaos and din of the Cairene world outside, from where I write up this blog entry in air-conditioned, light-blue sheeted luxury. And after an intense couple of days sightseeing, I’m spending the rest of the day just relaxing holed up in here.
The hotel is just a 10-minute walk from Tahrir Square, scene of last year’s Egyptian Revolution, which despite being just about present for in Tunisia, Syria and Malawi, I was actually sadly absent this time… But the UK Foreign Office website continues to warn travellers not to hang around the area, as it has still been the focal point of large-scale protests and demonstrations ever since. It particularly warns against going there on Fridays just after afternoon
prayers, which funnily enough was exactly the time I arrived in the area. Coming out of the Cairo Metro station near to my hotel, I was greeted by large crowds chanting loudly with banners and political pictures all heading to the square. I kept a low-profile till I checked into my hotel, and headed straight back out again to see what it was all about.
Turns out the crowds had gathered in support of presidential candidate Hazem Salah, an independent runner vying for votes in next month’s general election, which is to come about as a direct result of last year’s revolution. Only the country’s second general election, the first being arguably rigged on a number of fronts in favour of Hosni Mubarak. Rather than instantly jumping on the bandwagon that “Egypt is finally free, has achieved democracy” and all that last year, I feel like I err more on the side of caution as to the application of “western-style democracy” to an eastern-style country and value-system, and the potential election of Hazem Salah, whose supporters were gathered in Tahrir Square on Friday afternoon, I feel testifies to this concern.
Salah is described as an ultra-conservative Egyptian lawyer
and Salafi Islamist politician, whose policies include making the veil compulsory for women, lowering the age of marriage to puberty, and more worryingly, ending the current Peace Treaty agreed with Israel and siding more with the international policies of Iran. The last thing this region needs is a country as populous and politically significant as Egypt to go down the road of ultra hardline Islamist ideologies, and while I wandered around the demonstration with interest, I considered the potential consequences for the region and the world if this gentleman were elected the next Egyptian President. I would also have serious doubts as to the future of the free democratic electoral system which has just been achieved in Egypt should someone of this background be elected president, particularly as another of his electoral policies includes dismantling the upper house of the Egyptian parliament. The atmosphere was very jovial, however, and his supporters friendly and welcoming – the ambience did turn slightly more sour and aggressive after sundown though, and I was glad to be heading off and towards the peaceful confines of my hotel room afterwards. Despite my own worries for the country, Hazem Salah is certainly a very popular candidate
Me and Sphinx
Note the likeness...?
here, and I will be following the Egyptian election next month with interest, as well as concern.
That afternoon however, I also managed to fit in a brief visit to an area called Coptic Cairo, a very unusual bubble of Christianity to the south of the downtown area, filled with Coptic Christian churches, a branch of Orthodox Christianity which originated in the 4th
Century AD in Egypt and has apparently changed very little since. The area of Coptic Cairo was of particular interest to me, as it is said to be the site where the Pharaoh’s daughter found the baby Moses in his wicker basket on the banks of the Nile, as well as the place of refuge to which Joseph and Mary fled with the baby Jesus after hearing of Herod’s intention to kill all new-born males shortly after his birth. Sadly as I was arriving, all the churches were closing, but it was an interesting place to walk around nonetheless.
Well-rested in my lovely hotel room, the next day, yesterday, I awoke with just sheer excitement as I contemplated my plan for the day ahead - a visit to the famous Pyramids of Giza. They seriously
did not fail to impress. Standing in their exact same positions for nearly five millennia, and gazing at them in awesome contemplation of just how long they’ve stood there, I was mesmerised. There are three main pyramids at the site, the Pharaonic burial tombs of a father, son and grandson team named Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure, at 146m, 136m and 62m respectively (the Pyramids, not the people!). There is also the iconic Sphinx, half-man half-lion, which is claimed to resemble the Pharaoh Khafre of second-pyramid fame. Seriously spectacular, stunning, I can’t really find adequate words to describe them. It is not only their beauty, it is their immense size and that they have stood there longer than any other man-made object in the world. They have seen empires come and go, the Eygptians, the Greeks and Romans, the British, and yet they still stand there as majestic and as timeless as the day they were first built, and will continue to stand there in ages and empires to come. As well as being filled with awe, I felt also rather belittled in their mighty presence. What an experience, and what an honour to have seen them. I recommend the experience
Khufu Pyramid, Giza
to anyone who has not yet been graced by their presence.
Unfortunately, though, the guidebooks are all right about the sheer hassle, noise and annoyance from the many guides, touts and general dodgies which bother you from the moment you see the Pyramids through the backstreets of Cairo. Twice in the taxi on the way there I nearly had two “guides” get in to volunteer their services, whereupon I told the taxi driver what he needs to do – just drive boy! Getting through the gate was just a nightmare, as Egyptian touts not only bother you with their loud voices, they also feel compelled to grab on to your arm and not let go, which I find utterly distasteful and have no qualms with removing said gentleman’s hand with as much force as they apply to me, and telling them not to touch me. I finally had to shout at one guy “what the f$%£ do you want?” before he raised his hands in surrender and walked away. I am not normally prone to such outbursts, and in fact I either completely ignore these types, or just say no in a very friendly manner with perhaps a joke
thrown in to ease the atmosphere. But this place was one of the worst I've been to, and enough was enough - I wasn't going to let some meaningless idiot spoil the enjoyment of my visit. I spent the rest of the time in Giza with sunglasses and listening to my MP3 player, which I believe I have mentioned before, does wonders for ignoring wannabe money-makers at places like these.
After lunch at the splendidly colonial and decadent Mena House Oberoi at the foot of the Pyramids, I taxi-ed it back into town, once again at breakneck speeds of up to 80kmph through the traffic, pedestrians and chaos of Cairo roads for a rest in my hotel, and then a lovely afternoon wandering the backstreets of Islamic Cairo, the Cairo of 19th
Century engravings of Egypt, with camels, souqs, funduqs and mosques. It was a refreshing time, as for the first time in a big Middle Eastern city exploring the old part of town, and contrary to the Pyramids-experience, there was no hassle at all from anyone. This seemed a place which just got down to business, the market sellers selling their goods to local Cairenes, the shoppers just
getting on with their shopping. Tourists seemed to just disappear into the background, and I seriously enjoyed a wander around these streets without the hassle experienced in places such as Marrakesh, Tunis and Istanbul. Dinner in the Citadel View restaurant, Al-Azhar Park, overlooking the stunning Cairo citadel to the south and Islamic old town to the west, and I called it a day.
Today just a chill day mainly, as I feel I need it from the hassles and heat of this city. Just spent the morning exploring the wonderful antiquities and artefacts of the Egyptian Museum, including the Royal Mummy Room with the amazingly preserved bodies of Pharaohs including the more famous Ramses II, Hatshepshut and Seti I. I am hoping these guys won’t be revisiting me in my dreams tonight, as despite the wonder of being able to preserve bodies in lifelike state for thousands of years, with their blackened skin and gnashing white teeth they are seriously the stuff bad dreams and Hollywood movies are made of… The other star attraction of the Museum is the rooms showcasing the finds from the tomb of Tutankhamun – the famous golden ornate death mask, two of the three
sarcophagi, and countless pieces of jewellery, toys and even chariots and bedsteads which were all entombed with the youthful but popular king who reigned for only 10 years between the ages of 9 and 19. I believe the mummy of Tutankhamun himself, along with the other sarcophagus, is still within its tomb down in the Valley of Kings in Luxor, which brings me on to my next and concluding paragraph for this blog entry: what up next…
So, after 3 intense but enjoyable days in intense but enjoyable Cairo, I am booked onto an 8am bus leaving the Cairo Gateway bus station tomorrow morning south-westwards into the Western Desert. My plan over the next few days is to hop through the oases of Egypt’s Western Desert, including hopefully Bahariya, Al-Farafra, Al-Dakhla and Al-Kharga, before the desert loop leads me back to the Nile at Luxor. I am not sure what to expect on this part of my journey, as I have not heard much about visiting these parts. My intention is to try to get off the beaten track a bit and experience a bit of desert life and scenery, though I am not sure how touristy or not
Hazem Salah political rally, Tahrir Square
these places will be – there is only one way to find out I guess!
Until the next time, perhaps from some desert oasis out west, bis-salaama, and will write again soon.
All the best
There are more photos below