Monday, November 11, 2013


“He who has not seen Cairo,” said a traveler of old, “has not seen the world.  Her soil is gold, her Nile is a marvel, her women are as the Damsels of paradise, her houses are palaces, and her soil is soft, sweet-smelling as aloes, refreshing the heart…and how can Cairo be otherwise when she is the Mother of the World?”
Chaotic and crowded, noisy and exciting, Cairo is one of the most exotic capitals in the world.  The largest city on the African continent, Cairo is so vibrantly alive that even the most jaded traveler must yield to its magic.

Arriving in Cairo is like falling through the looking glass and ending up in history.  Although the West has definitely made a huge impact on modern Cairo, its over-all flavor is still very much that of the Middle East.  Egyptians in their flowing galabeyas and traditional black robes, bear an uncanny resemblance to their ancestors depicted so graphically in the paintings and frescoes of the Pharaohs’ tombs. Indeed, Egyptians are still vehemently Pharaonic.  Their past often seems more vividly alive than their present.

Cairo, often called the city of a thousand minarets, abounds in all that represents Islamic architecture.  The Citadel of Saladin, (or Salah Ed-Din as he is known in Arabic) and the alabaster Mohammad Ali Mosque dominate the Cairo skyline.

Once you’ve arrived at Giza, the Pyramids of Giza exude an excitement just by the very virtue of being there.  They have been considered to be the greatest of the Ancient Seven Wonders of the World…that they alone would survive the passing of time.  Little wonder then, that Egyptian officials were outraged when the search for the New Seven Wonders of the World was to begin.  They felt the Pyramids should not be put to a vote.  Thus the Pyramids were withdrawn from the competition and given an “Honorary Wonder” status.


Although this awesome sight has been marred by commercialism, even the most sophisticated of tourists give in to the myriad of camel drivers hustling to take their picture on the mangy-looking beasts.  Tacky as it may seem at the time, once you get home it becomes a memorable photo.


The Great Pyramid of Cheops has fascinated archaeologists and mathematicians throughout the ages.  It was first believed that the pyramid had been constructed as a tomb for the Pharaoh, but it has since been proved that the pyramid is an incredibly sophisticated astronomical and mathematical monument.

Although it is standing on higher ground than that of Cheops, the Pyramid of Chephren is a bit shorter than the one of his father Cheops.  Standing less than half the height of the Great Pyramid of Cheops is the third of Giza’s famed trio, the Pyramid of Mykerinos, Chephren’s son.  There are actually nine pyramids at Giza.  A short ride into the adjacent desert affords a view of all nine, if you don’t encounter a sandstorm.

Shrouded in mystery, and staring unblinkingly into the desert, sits the colossal statue of the Great Sphinx.  With the head of Chephren, and the body of a lion, the Sphinx represents the Pharaoh as a vivid image of the Sun God.


Pharaoh Thutmose IV of the 18th dynasty carried out the first excavation and restoration of the Sphinx.  This event is related on a large red granite stele, erected between its outstretched paws, which records a dream of that prince before his accession to the throne.

While the prince was sleeping the Sphinx appeared to him.  It promised him the throne of Egypt if he would clear away the sand that nearly covered its body.  The God’s wish was fulfilled and the prince was rewarded with the crown of Egypt.

The ochre-colored Egyptian Museum of Antiquities reveals corridors overflowing with gold and gem-encrusted relics that testified to the talents of the Egyptians.  There you will find the beautiful statues of Thutmose III and an endearing, eerie, mummy collection.  However, surpassing them all, are the 3000-plus priceless treasures of King Tutankhamen, including his innermost coffin made from 244 pounds of solid gold.

Two spots of note in Fostat (Old Cairo)are the historic Ben Ezra Synagogue and the famous Khan el Khalili Souk.

Built in 882 on the remains of a Coptic church, the Ben Ezra Synagogue is the place where Maimonides worshipped when he lived in Cairo. When the synagogue underwent a restoration in the 1890s, a medieval geniza (hiding place) with thousands of sacred books and scrolls was discovered.  This historical synagogue, restored again in the 1980s, is one of the most visited sites in Cairo.  
Khan el Khalili, Cairo’s 600-year old Oriental bazaar is in the very center of the Old City of Cairo.  Tiny, narrow, winding alleyways are aglow with gold, silver and copper goods.  From swinging incense-burners, the heady scent of musk and sandalwood permeates the air. Outside the cafes, men in their flowing galabeyas smoke hubble-bubble (sheesha).  

The exotic aroma of a lamb roasting on the spit wafts its way through the passage.  Oblivious to it all, zaftig Egyptian ladies with Cleopatra-like, kohl-lined eyes, haggle with their hometown hucksters.


Bargaining is de rigueur in The Khan (pronounced like a guttural chan).  Offer one-half (or slightly less) of the asking price.  Screams of disbelief, and violent gyrations, will soon give way to more realistic dickering.  You may even have to walk out of the souk (shop).  If your bid is anywhere within the selling range, the proprietor will rush out and make you another offer.

What to buy in the Khan can be mind-boggling.  Inexpensive purchases might include native garb, perfumes, (new) mummy beads, and kohl eye-liner.  Rugs (kilims), tapestries (gobelins), and amulets (charms often worn around the neck as a protection against evil), are among the more pricy souvenirs.  The most popular of these amulets are scarabs (khepr), the Key of Life (ankh), the sacred Eye of Horus (uzat), and the cartouche, a silver or gold charm that bears a name in hieroglyphics.  Khan el Khalili is a world apart from modern Cairo. 


Khan el Khalili is a “lesson of life in miniature”.  And, as in life itself, certain precautions must be taken.  First, as in any bazaar any where in the world, watch your purse or wallet.  Losing it will definitely kill your shopping spree.  Secondly, beware of fakes in both the people and the merchandise.  “Thousand-year old antiques, often made last week and stealthily wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper, appear wherever there is a sucker. With its rare cloths, jewelry, and vividly colored wares, the Khan pulsates with the true spirit of the Orient.

Cairo has a tendency to over stimulate, and a time-out from history and the demands of this teeming city is necessary to avoid culture shock.

JANET STEINBERG is an award-winning Travel Writer and a Travel Consultant with THE TRAVEL AUTHORITY in Mariemont, Ohio.

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