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Published: November 15th 2010
After a couple of days sorting out my Sudanese visa, and finding my way around the city, I head to Islamic Cairo - a winding labyrinth of narrow streets, tea shops, bread sellers and fabric merchants overlooking by towering minarets wherever you look. The mosques were built between 1000 and 300 years ago, and it seems as if little has changed since then. Each call to prayer bounces of the stone walls and echoes into an almighty din, the calls of tea sellers ring out, and donkeys hooves clack on the cobbled streets. The only change seems to be the addition of camera totting tourists, telescopic lenses being worn as badges of honour as they (including me) indulge in overpriced coffee, and buy overpriced souvenirs.
I really enjoyed wandering around the area - an escape from the cars, and from the endless shoe shops and clothes shops in the Downtown area around my hotel. It was still noisy and busy, but in a fascinating way - with mosques hidden around every corner, and the aroma of spices, baking bread, and sheesha smoke thick in the air.
Other highlights of the city were the more obvious Cairo Museum and the
Giza Pyramids. Although my attention span doesn't really fit with museums, I'd heard good things about the Cairo Museum, and it seemed like something you just have to do while in the city. In fact, it was amazing, and blew me away - being face to face with a 300 year old sarcophagus, being dwarfed by a 7meter statue of Amenhotep III, and after 3 hours of amazement, being made speechless by the mask of Tutankhamen. The burial mask, although originally hidden away inside two sarcophagi, and buried in a hidden tomb, is one of the most beautiful well crafted things I've ever seen. The gold still glistens as if it's just been crafted, so smooth it looks as if it's been machine molded, and the lapiz lazuli so blue they look to have been painted.
I was equally impressed the following day at the Pyramids. While originally skeptical about visiting them, I was again in awe as they came into view. Escaping the crowds I clambered over ruined tombs, and into empty desert, becoming Howard Carter (or Indiana Jones) and discovering them for the very first time. This also got me away from the touts, no camel hustler was within 300m, and gave me the perfect angle to admire the size and scale of the pyramids from afar (photo to come). Although the inside of the second pyramid was a let down (lots of queueing for a cramped corridor and a bare room), and the sphinx too busy to enjoy, I was still overwhelmed and awestruck by the place. You may have seen pictures of them a 1000 times. You may be bombarded by aggressive camel hustlers. The tourist police may well be the worst touts there. But it would be pretty hard not to be taken back by size, scale, and beauty of everything.
Cairo is like no other city I've been too. The monuments of Rome. The energy of Kolkata. The hassle of Varanasi. The car horns of Marble Arch. Where Africa seems to meet the Middle East. It's not relaxing that's for sure. But it's definitely alive. It takes some getting used to, but it's a great place to visit. I've enjoyed my time - full of falafels, backgammon, and car horns - but after 6 days I've just about had my fill of it for the time being, and it's time to move on. So tomorrow, I'll head into the desert, to Siwa - a small oasis with more donkeys and cars. The perfect counter to the mayhem of Cairo...
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