February 7, 2003:
We're getting used to driving in Cairo. I no longer stare with impotent attention through the windshield at oncoming traffic, or wince every time we pass another car or truck on the road. When Mr. Mohammad shows up each morning, we pile in with our water bottles and backpacks, lean back in the seats, and relax. We gave up on the seatbelts after the first day. There are seatbelts in the van, but somewhere along the line id decided that they wouldn't save us if we were hit by a truck anyway. Insh'allah, as Mr. Mohammad says.
We're staying in Cairo today. Our first stop today is the Citadel of Saladin, which
houses the Alabaster Mosque and other buildings. Mark saw this mosque
twenty years ago and was amazed at the new lighting. He remembers it being dim and very gloomy. His guide back then took a lighter
to the alabaster walls to show how translucent they
are. A flashlight does the same today with far less
The mosque is definitely Ottoman -- the domes covered
in silvered lead shine. Inside, the centuries old carpets
on the alabaster floor are fitted exactly to the shape
of the mosque. No one asked me to wear a scarf when we entered, but there were several women in the tour group behind us wearing long sleeved, shamrock-green robes issued to them by the custodian because they were inappropriately dressed. Everyone must take off their shoes.
Fateh gave us a brief talk on the five pillars of Islam and let us loose to take pictures. He read the Koran while we wandered around
with about two hundred other people. Despite the crowd,
it was very quiet inside. It is a calm place, and far more awe-inspiring than
the churches in France, according to Mark. Mosques
make you feel small in comparison to God, Cathedrals
just make you feel small.
Citadel of Saladin
The rest of the Citadel is under massive reconstruction,
but the views from the walls over Cairo are stunning,
if a bit obscured by smog. Nearby is the green dome of the xxx mosque, almost completely enclosed in scaffolding, and the fronts of many other buildings are draped in tarps. It's early enough that the gardens aren't blooming, but the open courtyard in the upper part of the Citadel is laid out like a large park. There are quite a few people here just walking about and enjoying the sun. It at least feels like we're up above the smoggy city.
Down the hill from the Citadel are two mosques. The street between has been restored to the 15th century style, when the mosques were built. Inside the Rifai Mosque are the tombs of King Farouk and of the Shah of Iran (In a room with stunning green and red malachite marble floors. The inlaid stonework at first looks like painted decorations, and then you realize that the entire room is sheathed in stone. The ceilings are very high -- and painted so beautifully we spent most of the visit craned over backwards to see them.
We decide to pass on the Khan el-Khalili bazaar (the largest souk in Cairo) when we hit
the streets. We came out just after prayers and the
streets were jammed with quite literally thousands people heading home and preparing for the Festival, which occurs in a few days. We decide to come
back later when the crowds thinned a bit.
Lunch at a downtown restaurant called Soiree, a buffet
lunch served along with the smell and sound of Eau
de RAID being sprayed by the buffet line. The waiter
responsible must have been chasing one big bug! Food
was good though.
Coptic Cairo is much, much smaller than I thought --
a tiny walled enclave with a few churches and the
oldest synagogue in Cairo. The streets are narrow
and cobbled and the buildings overhang them, just
like it would have been in the Medieval city. A wall
surrounds the entire old city, which is built on the site of the ancient Fort of Babylon, with the remains of enormous Roman drum towers.
Copts are Christians -- a bit different than Eastern
Orthodox (they have their own Pope, for example) but
closer to them than most of the Protestant sects.
St Serious is the oldest Coptic Church and it is supposed
that the Holy Family were hidden here in the cellar.
We couldn't take any photos inside, but it looks like a very old Byzantine church, complete with icons and stylized paintings.
Beni Ezra is a tiny synagogue that is being restored
again (or continually). There is a serious water problem
in Cairo -- the water table is continually rising
-- and they are fighting the damage in every single
building in Old Cairo. The cellar of St. Sergius and the foundations of the Roman towers are filled with water that must be continuously pumped out.
Fateh pointed out an interesting bit of trivia to us while we sat in the ornately decorated hall of the synagogue. The Menorah and the word for God in Hebrew (Elohin), turned upside down, is the dome and crescent of the mosque and the word for Allah.
I wonder which one of the pair -- the Jew or the Muslim
-- were reading upside down?
We decided to pass entirely on the Khan for today (we'll be
going there again tomorrow for dinner) and try to
see the City of the Dead instead. This is a huge cemetery
-- and I mean HUGE. Kids were playing soccer when
we arrived an we had a chance to see the Mausoleum
and Mosque of Sultan Barquq, which is a combination
school, mosque, and tomb. We arrived at prayer time
and Mark was escorted to the tombs and up the crumbling minaret
while I investigated the courtyard. The tombs are very beautiful, but
the amazing thing is that people are living here.
The cemetery is a thriving city living among the graves
and tombs of the dead, with markets and even addresses of a sort.
Egypt has a long history of reverence of the dead, so it is not surprising that the tombs and mausoleums here were adopted as houses, shared with them. Some 300,000 people live in the necropolis here and to the south.
It was 4:00 pm when we arrived, so we couldn't go
anywhere else -- not a big deal, and maybe we can
go back later and see more. It isn't recommended that
we go by ourselves, as the people living in the City
of the Dead are very conservative and not necessarily
willing to be tourist attractions. They are very private.
We will try to return during the day, as some of the
most interesting architecture in Cairo is in the Northern
and Southern Cemeteries.
The museum, our next stop, is...WOW. Just wow. When
Mark told me that they stacked things in the halls,
I believed him because he is my husband but...they
really do stack things in the halls! The cases are haphazardly strewn around
the floors, stacked in piles, and the dust is so thick
in some of them -- undisturbed for decades, I'm sure
-- that you can't read the occasional tag. Fateh
says that only about 10% of the collection is actually
shown. They are building a new museum near the Mena House hotel, about 17000sf (five times the size of the current museum) that
will rotate displays in and out with a bit more speed
than the current museum.
Since we plan on coming back by ourselves in a few days, we did the quick "highlights" -- seated
statue of Chephren, the Scribe, Maidum Geese, Menkauhor, etc. We saw the Tutankhamen exhibit, Tanis treasures
(from Shoshenq's tomb) and the newly opened Mummy
The mummy room is a small, quiet, humidity
controlled room with all the royal mummies they have
found. It is very tastefully done, very respectful. We couldn't take any pictures, but it was interesting in a grisly, macabre sort of way.
It's a bit surprising to note that a lot of royal mummies have simply disappeared -- probably during the last century when mummies were considered a souvenir of Egypt.
Abandoning Fateh to the comfortable courtyard outside, we walked along the upper hallway where stone statues
and pieces of friezes are simply stacked on pallets. There are long galleries of glass cases containing
sarcophagi and other items. Some are so dusty that
it's obvious that they have not been touched since
the museum opened 100 years ago. It would be spooky
to be stuck here overnight. Fateh remarked later that the most scared he had ever been was when he was accidentally locked in the basement for a few minutes.