Weather forecast: sand
My hotel in Cairo was not far away from the Semiramis Intercontinental and the Nile Ritz-Carlton, but despite this close proximity, it only cost 5 dollars a night. The Egyptian pound was devalued and everything was very cheap. The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities was practically around the corner and equally a bargain. It is one of my favourite museums as it displays priceless artefacts that are known to every student of Egyptology, albeit shown with sometimes careless abandon. Exhibits are often provided with antique labels that carry explanations in English, or French, and that look like they have been jotted down by the archaeologist that had pulled the object in question out from under the sand. Not infrequently, however, interpretations are left altogether to the imagination of the visitor, who can often be seen staring in wonder at enormous blocks of bazalt.
A few days later I visited the pyramids, and even though I have seen them often, they never fail to impress me. In Cairo I had bought an old edition of the Rough Guide of Egypt and when sitting on a large block of granite, I was reading about the pyramids when something caught my attention: it mentioned a tomb near the pyramids where a dinosaur fossil can be seen in one of its stones. Never one to pass a rarity, I had to see this and after some time, I found the remains of the reptile. There was nobody there and the narrow corridor that led to it had obviously been used as a latrine for the camel drivers. To my shame I couldn’t resist pilfering a tiny bit of crumbling stone from it and it is thus that I now walk around with a bit of fossilised dinosaur bone in my wallet….. I am afraid I’ve become a true tomb raider….
Strange theories about the pyramids abound and include the assumption that they were ancient granaries built by Joseph as is written in the bible. This theory, for obvious reasons fell out of favour ever since the Middle Ages, but was actually endorsed as recently as 1998 by republican candidate for the American presidency, Ben Carson.
Other crackpot theories claim the pyramids were built by Satan, Noah, the people of Atlantis and, of course, aliens.
Learning bits of Arabic, for example saying ‘good morning’:
sabah il-kheer = morning of goodness
sabah id-din = morning of light (response)
So far, I haven’t heard anyone using it, except myself. Instead, they shout with gutteral voices at each other: Mah-MUD!!! Wahed shai!!!! Hey, Mah-MUD!!! It seemed to me that an unreasonable number of Egyptians, or at least those who are working in coffee houses, are called Mahmud.
The traffic in Cairo is abominable and nowhere else is a simple manoeuvre like crossing the street such a precarious undertaking as in this city. Especially the flyovers behind the Egyptian Museum were a pedestrian nightmare. For the first time visitor I have compiled a few tips as to how to safely cross the streets in Cairo:
– Use women and children as a shield to oncoming traffic.
– If you have more time: wait till Friday morning, when traffic is slow.
– Wait till traffic gets so congested that it only moves at a snails pace.
– However, beware of motorcyclists that whiz through congested traffic.
– Another hazard are cars suddenly reversing where any sane human being would think it impossible.
– Don’t go out after dark. Cars frequently drive without headlights, apparently for reasons of economy…
The medieval part of the city is known as Islamic Cairo. It’s a maze of small streets where life goes on as if nothing had happened for the past 500 years.
I started from the colourful Bab Zwayla which is one of the gates of Islamic Cairo built in the eleventh century. It was from here that throughout the centuries caravans left for Mecca. In medieval times it was used as location to execute dishonest merchants who were nailed or hung from its magnificent doors. Other popular attractions at the time included beheading and impalement of common criminals. It was at this gate that Tumanbey, the last Mamluke sultan of Egypt, met his fate in 1517, when he was hanged. Unfortunately for the sultan the rope broke twice before a more successful attempt was to help him out of his misery. It must all have been quite a humiliating experience for the poor sultan.
When I walked past the Al Hussein mosque, the door was open and I peered inside. Briefly though, because the mosque is forbidden for non-believers. According to the Shi’ites, Hussein was the third Imam who followed his father Ali, the second Imam. The mosque is built on the place where his head is buried according to the Fatimids, who are Shi’ites, but a quick search on the internet shows that his head was carried all over the Middle East and could be buried at half a dozen locations. Even though Egypt is firmly Sunni, they do adore Hussein, who was, after all, the grandson of Mohammed and the mosque is a popular pilgrimage.
The Al-Hakim mosque was built by the the mad caliph of the same name who was not only insane but whose behaviour was also brutal and erratic. At they tender age of 15 he had his tutor executed. Later, when dogs kept him out of his sleep he had all the city’s dogs exterminated. He forbade the eating of grapes and watercress among others and banned the playing of chess. He was famously misogynic and ordered women to stay inside their homes and to enforce this, he forbade cobblers to make or repair women’s shoes. On one occasion he had a group of noisy women, who had aggravated him, boiled alive in a public bath. He was the Sixth Fatimid Caliph and a religious fanatic, which may have also been the reason why he ordered so many Christians and Jews and merchants to be executed. He held regular inspections of the latter and when found guilty of misconduct head them sodomised by this Nubian slave, Massoud, while the caliph stood on their heads. He was not averse of doing the killing himself and is said to have bisected a butcher with his own cleaver. But all good things come to an end and one day he rode away through the southern gate and was never heard of again. Much to the relieve of women, Christians, Jews, merchants and dogs.
And chess players.
On my way back I visited the Al-Azhar Mosque which is a religious institution and is associated with the university of the same name. Egyptians claim it is the oldest in the world. [Moroccans disagree and preserve that title for the whatsitsname mosque in Fez…] The university is the authority on all matters concerning the Sunni branch of Islam and to this end it has proclaimed many fatwas on a wide variety of topics including, more recently, Pokémon, which I learned is a Japanese cartoon character.
Somewhere along the way I had some food and it looked like this.
The main plate was fuul, an Egyptian staple, consisting of mashed fava beans served with oil. It came with hummus, chickpeas paste, pitta bread and some pickles. Very yummy.
With Christmas I feasted on red wine, Marcil de Messe, Vin d’Egyptt depuis 1936, Production and botoled (sic) in Egypt. It was nice to drink wine even though it was horribly sweet. That night I ate out and ordered quail. It seemed to be blessed with more bones than any other animal I ever ate. Later I learned that it is common to eat it with bones and all because they are very soft. Next time then.