Cairo - Tahrir Square and Coptic Cairo


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Africa » Egypt » Lower Egypt » Cairo
April 8th 2011
Published: April 9th 2011
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At 6:30am this morning the conductor on the sleeper train starts tapping on the door asking if we would like our tea. I thought to myself ‘Not at 6:30!’ but kindly accepted the tea, though I did not drink it. We still had another 2 hours before arriving in Cairo. I was unable to fall back to sleep after that, so I sat at the window watching the farms on the Nile. Egyptians were up and about tending to their lands pulling goods along the tracks in their self made carriage pulled by a donkey. We drove passed villages situated along the Nile. The homes really had nothing to them, but I did notice that they had very nice doors. Each home had a big iron door with intricate designs in bright colors. The rest of the home was hay and stone hastily thrown together to provide shelter. The roofs were unparallel wooden boards laid across the top of the stone and hay. I noticed the amount of garbage lining the shores of the canals running through these villages. Thousands of plastic bags and water bottles made it difficult to see that there was water beneath them. It reminded me more of a landfill than a farm village. I could see through the doors of a few homes and in one I noticed a donkey sitting in the family’s main living room. Families sat outside their homes as the children played soccer in the street. I saw a newborn baby completely wrapped up in blankets with the mother trying to keep it out of the sun. The father came over and picked up the child onto his shoulder and spoke to it as he walked around. I couldn’t help but smile. They were happy. In all this dirt and grime, they had something beautiful to be thankful for and visibly were grateful.

Soon the conductor knocked on our door again and explained that it was 20 minutes to Cairo. We made sure our belongings were packed up and got off the train at Ramses Station in Cairo. Ramses Station isn’t nearly as haunting in the day time. Immediately we were swarmed with cab drivers and in an attempted to just get out of there we took the first affordable offer of 20LE. Again, we probably could have gotten a 10LE cab ride, but we weren’t interested in hassling over $1.60. Once we got into the cab younger man came up to the cab driver and asked him in Arabic how much he was getting from us. When the driver answered the younger man stormed away mad and then came back to the cab looked at Michael and said “30LE”. Michael said, “No, we agreed at 20LE”. The man replied “25LE, okay, no problem”. Michael and I went to leave the cab and the price went back to 20LE and the man stormed away. This really confused me to be honest. I know we could have chosen a metered cab that would have cost much less than 20LE. We also could have probably bartered among the cab drivers outside the train station until we got a price like 5LE. It’s not like the place was swarming with tourists. Regardless, we made it to the Marriott Cairo safely, yet incredibly tired.

We checked into our room at the front desk and headed up to room 1417, which we were assigned. We’d requested a deluxe non-smoking room, king bed, sofabed, and balcony with Nile view using my Marriott points. The second we walked into 1417 my eyes started watering from the smoke smell. I immediately turned back around and headed back to the front desk. They explained that it was a non-smoking room and almost reluctantly gave us a new room 1420. We got to room 1420 to find a small little double bed and a view of Giza (too far to see the pyramids). Nope, nope, nope. Michael wouldn’t even fit on that bed. So we headed back down to the front desk and they gave us a brand new room, 1610. Much better. It was exactly what we booked. I was a little cranky about all that because of the lack of quality sleep. I don’t understand why we felt like we were inconveniencing the front desk by requesting new rooms when they were giving us something different than we reserved. Regardless, all was in order now.

We unpacked our things, cleaned up and were on our way for another adventure in Cairo, Egypt. Today we planned to see the Egyptian museum and then head down to Coptic Cairo to see the Hanging Church and walk around Old Cairo. Tahrir Square, where the Egyptian museum is located, was just a short walking distance across the bridge from the Marriott hotel. Michael and I decided to walk. As we crossed the bridge rugs were laid out selling Egyptian flags, t-shirts, banners, ribbon, etc. Michael and I didn’t think too much of it as we were aware that Friday prayers often took place in Tahrir Square since the revolution however since February 20th, when Mubarak stepped down, the square has been relatively mild. Then a man came up to us and asked to see some identification. I asked to see his ID first, as I had learned in my travels to see that someone is police or military before providing my passport to them. This man was just an Egyptian citizen; he showed me his driver’s license. I told him I’d show it to him, but that he’s not allowed to hold it and he was satisfied. I found out from people later that they are checking for any Israelis or Iraqi Shiites that might cause trouble. Little did we know today was a planned protest demanding the prosecution of Mubarak and his associated ministers. Over 50,000 Egyptians filled the square chanting, waving flags and climbing the infrastructures to be seen and say their piece. This was the largest turnout in Tahrir square since Mubarak’s resignation. When we got to the steps of the Egyptian museum we were told that it was closed due to the protests. I was not really surprised, but that didn’t stop me from being incredibly disappointed that I couldn’t gaze upon Tutankhamen mask or the mummy of Ramses the Great today.

Michael and I turned back toward the hotel to grab a cab to Coptic Cairo. As we made our way back through Tahrir square the Egyptians were screaming their chants. I walked by a young man who stopped his chant as soon as he saw me. He jumped down from his trashcan and asked us where Michael and I were from. When we responded “USA”, he and his friends responded by sincerely thanking us for coming to Egypt and then explained that this is friendly protest and that contrary to CNN’s latest news broadcasts, Egyptians are peaceful people. Another man with red, white and black paint in his arms painted the backside of my hands each with an Egyptian flag and a red dot on each of my fingers. I was excited as I felt welcome this gesture. I found that flags on the back of your hands signified welcome tourists. No Egyptians paint the back of their hands. Soon Michael had a hand sewn flag and we were standing there in the middle of Tahrir square just smiling away because I had no idea what else to do. This is Egypt’s protest; I’m just here to show support at this point. People high fived us and yelled “Welcome to Egypt!”, “USA!”, “Egypt!”, or “Obama!” as they walked by and more than 2 dozen Egyptians stopped asking to take pictures with us while another 50 at least took pictures as they passed. Everyone who stopped asked Michael if it was okay to take a picture with me. That was definitely a change of pace from home, but regardless, Michael was a generous “husband” and we’re probably all over Egyptian facebook today. To show his gratitude, one of the men that took pictures with us gave us cardboard flags with a red ribbon to wear around our necks. So here I was in Tahrir Square decked out in the Egyptian flag while getting high fived as people line up to take pictures with me… is this really real? I honestly felt like a celebrity.

Once it was about 3 o’clock we decided that if we didn’t get down to Coptic Cairo we wouldn’t have enough time to enjoy the churches and old Cairo. We hailed a cab. The cab got lost, but eventually got us there for 20LE. We started at the Church of St. George. We walked through this intricate stone gate from the street and up some stairs that winded to the entrance. There was a beautiful iron gate with 4 bells. This church dates back to medieval times. As you walked into the church you could feel the wooden floor board’s creek beneath your feet. The place just smelled old. The dim lighting added to the medieval effect. Next we headed a short distance to the Hanging Church. The Hanging Church dates back to the 4th century and was built suspended over the Water Gate, or old Roman Babylon towers. There are areas within the church with a glass floor so that you can see more clearly. Again the church was wooden and decorated wooden arches lined the walls beautifully calling out the religious artifacts encased for display along left and right walls of the church. In the middle of the church, near the alter is a marble pulpit being held up by 13 pillars. One pillar is black while the other 12 are white; the black pillar represents Judas. We admired for a while and then began wandering around Coptic Cairo. We could see the Christian graveyards, a site not common in Islamic Egypt. A little less than 10 percent of the population is Coptic Christian. There is no difference between European Christians and Coptic Christians; it is just that when Egypt was invaded by Amr in 640 AD the Christians were called the Copts. Amr gave orders to his troops not to harm the Copts as he was told by the Prophet himself to treat them well.

During our wandering, Michael and I came across a coffee shop with outdoor seating. We had been meaning to try Egyptian mint tea and decided that this was as good a time as any. When we ordered the waiter brought out Lipton tea pouches with mint. Hmm… this wasn’t what we were expecting. When we questioned the waiter he replied, “Ooo, you want the Egyptian tea!” and a big smile fell across his face. Soon he brought out some real Egyptian tea with mint leaves. I have to admit that I find only a small difference between Western tea and Egyptian tea, but it was a relaxing experience. Two women sat smoking a water pipe, or sheesha. This is something else Michael and I have been meaning to try. We decided to try apple flavored water pipes. We inhaled up the hose and watched the water bubble through the glass at the bottom. Soon the taste of apple smoke filled my mouth and I exhaled with a cough. Haha, clearly I don’t do this all the time. Before long, both Michael and I got the hang of it. The sun was setting across from us and some locals sat next to us to smoke their own sheesha pipe. It’s incredibly common in Egypt, and it was a great cultural experience.

As darkness was upon us and both Michael and I were tired from the early train ride, we decided to start heading back to the Marriott. The Metro (subway) is relatively new in Cairo and instead of using any of the cabs that kept asking to take us to the hotel; we decided to try the subway. It cost only 1LE (or 16 US cents) to get on the subway! It’s clean and easy to follow. We should have used it to come to Coptic Cairo. We got out at Tahrir square and walked across the bridge home. We stopped and admired Al-Gezira Park. The Michael was asked to take some pictures with a few guys admiring his height. We sat on a bench in Al-Gezira park and looked in our guidebook for a good place to have dinner. We decided on Abu al-Sid, an Egyptian restaurant within walking distance to our hotel. It was described as follows: “It is often said that Egyptian cooking is a domestic cuisine, not especially suited for a high-class restaurant. Abu al-Sid proves otherwise. This is a very fashionable restaurant, decorated in an Oriental style with hanging lamps and brass tables, which has single handedly made dining out on traditional delicacies fashionable.” Well, we were sold. We made a reservation using the hotel concierge for 8:30pm.

We showered and dressed for dinner. We walked around the corner to where we were told the restaurant was located, but all we saw were unlabeled big iron doors and we were unsure if we were in the right place. We asked a man walking on the street, “Abu al-Sid?” He was unsure, but instead of saying “La” or no, he went into the local bookstore for us, asked the security officer and then walked us to the door. I thought this was incredibly nice of him – I nearly wanted to give him a hug. He wasn’t looking for a besheesh (tip), he was just helping us out. It was very refreshing.

When we entered Abu al-Sid, we determined that the description in the guidebook was perfect. It felt authentic and welcoming all together. The waiters spoke English and there was an English menu for us, yet as we looked around the restaurant we did not see anyone else that looked like tourists. There were men smoking their sheesha pipes relaxing after a long day. There was a group of Muslim women laughing and telling some stories in Arabic that had half the room laughing. It was wonderful.
For appetizers Michael and I ordered Babagnanoug (Aubergine Dip) and Bessara (Fava & Coriander Dip) with pita bread. The Babagnanoug was pretty bland, but the Bessara was absolutely wonderful! The Bessara tasted so great that my Michael actually took small bites so that he could savor the taste. (Michael bulldozes food ordinarily like he’s in an eating contest :-P). Then for dinner we ordered Fettah (which is Egyptian Risotto w/ yogurt, Rabbit & Tomato sauce) and Molokheya (Egyptian national dish of chicken and rice). Both were great. I preferred the Molokheya over the Fettah and wish that we had ordered the Fettah with the rabbit. I had never had rabbit before, but I thought it was really good. I can only describe it as a combination of the taste of chicken and veneer. Then for dessert we ordered Mohalabiyya (custard) and Fetir (oriental pancake w/ honey, nuts and eshta, which is a type of whipped cream). The Fetir was amazing. The texture of the pancake with the sweetness of the honey was a great combination. Michael and I both agreed it was our favorite. I felt like I needed to be rolled out of Al ad-Sid I was so full and I didn’t even finish all of my rice. I couldn’t believe that all that wonderful food, our wine and this great atmosphere was only about 300 LE (50 USD) between the both of us. Goodness, I’m going to miss this.

Tired, we both headed back to the hotel to fall asleep. Tomorrow we need to make sure we’re up early to ensure we’re there when the Egyptian Museum opens at 9:00am.



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12th April 2011

Thanks
As I'm about to embark on my first trip to Egypt, your blog and photos have been enjoyable as well as valuable. Thanks. K

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