Thursday, April 26, 2012

Jordan Challenge 31: Making a Cairo Top Ten List (Part I)

So, it's been a couple of weeks since I got back from my trip to Cairo with my most amazing friend and fellow Fulbrighter Grace, but I've been at a loss about how to write about what we saw and did there.  But then last night, while talking to my equally amazing friend and fellow Fulbrighter Elizabeth, she pointed out the solution when she observed that I am a dedicated List Maker.  That has, after all, been a central theme of this blog from the start.  The challenge in this case was in keeping the list to a Top Ten, and even that was fairly hefty, necessitating a two-post write-up.

Here it is: my top ten Highlights of a Long Weekend in Cairo:

10.  The Pyramids of Giza (of course!). Fairly obvious, I know.  We could have done fine without the extremely aggressive purveyors of camel rides and plastic pyramids but it surely is an amazing thing to get up close and personal with probably the most famous geometric shapes in the world. I had visited once before but had never gone inside one.  This time we bought tickets and went inside the  Great Pyramid of Khufu (the biggest one).  I don't know why Middle Eastern tourist attractions are so fond of making you check your camera at the entrance (same thing at the Egyptian and Coptic Museums and at some cool places in Beirut), but as a result I have no photos from inside the Pyramid.  Nonetheless I can report that climbing up the inside is actually an unforgettable experience.  Rather than a staircase there is a gangway, and the passage is so low, you actually have to walk up bent over.  There are warnings not to go in if you are claustrophobic or have heart or back conditions.  We joked about it till we went inside and realized they were serious.  Climbing up makes you wonder how on earth they got the stones (which weigh several tons each) of the pyramids up at all.
Getting ready to give up my camera and head into the Great Pyramid of Khufu

A rare moment of not being surrounded by anyone who wants to sell anything.

9. Saqqara.  The Pyramids of Giza are not the only ones in the area, just the most famous.  Saqqara is a big complex south of Cairo that we also visited, which includes the Step Pyramid of Zoser and a very cool museum on the grounds.
Grace and I in front of the Step Pyramid of Zoser.  Grace's headgear and my bundle were both thrust upon us by our picture-taker, who was gearing up for the big moment when he would hit us up for baksheesh (a tip). Look out if these guys ever get together with the traders of Wall Street.

8. The Khan Al-Khalili Bazaar.  If you want to appreciate the architecture of Old Cairo, a good way to do it is to hit the Khan Al-Khalil Bazaar (and that way you can buy souvenirs, too).  Wandering around there reminded me of being in Stonetown, Zanzibar, which is an awfully high compliment as far as I am concerned for a place.  There are lots of twisty alleyways and beautiful doors and windows and the smell of spices and shops and stalls for everything from scarves to exotic lanterns to boring plastic kitchen utensils (which reminds that you the real citizens of Cairo and not just the tourists go there, too).
Everywhere you look in the Khan Al-Khalil is another beautiful building detail.

Grace, Lucy and Kat taking a breather from some serious bargaining (Kat wins the prize with the amazing lamps she bought).

7. Al-Azhar Mosque.  Grace and I both bought scarves at Khan Al-Khalil, which were pressed into service at our next place on our itinerary, the Al-Azhar Mosque.  Happily, this mosque is open to non-Muslim visitors (provided they cover themselves appropriately), and is interesting not only for the beauty of the mosque, but for its claim to fame as the world's oldest surviving university (established in 972 AD).  It is still considered the foremost Islamic institution for the study of Sunni theology and law.  Grace told me that the students and their teachers are paired off, and the students learn through an intensive one-on-one form of the tutelage; we saw the work going on for ourselves as we toured the courtyard and some of the areas inside the mosque, and the pairs of students and teachers in conversation with one another.
Grace dons her brand-new headscarf before we headed inside to see what old-school one-on-one Quaranic instruction looks like inside the mosque.

6. The Citadel and Al-Azhar Park. We made the trek up to the Citadel fairly late in the day, so didn't have to time to go in all the different mosques and museums enclosed within the walls of the structure, though we did venture in to the biggest mosque and had some great views of the rest of the city from the Citadel walls.  The Citadel was constructed by the Sultan Saladin in the 1100s to protect Cairo against the Crusaders. On the way up to the Citadel, Grace and I had passed the Al-Azhar Park, and had resolved to go visit it on the way back down. We were so glad we did.  There is an admission fee to the park, but it is well worth it. It's a beautiful green space full of little lakes and streams and promenades, with tons of Egyptian families having picnics and generally enjoying themselves.  We went to a lovely cafe overlooking the water, with great views of many of the sights we had spent the day visiting.
Waiting for some fabulous strawberry-mango smoothies at the cafe on the waterfront in Al-Azhar Park with views of the Citadel over Grace's shoulder.

5.  Egyptian Museum. The Egyptian Museum is definitely one of the coolest museums I have ever seen in my life.  It is basically Mummy Central.  Before visiting the Egyptian Museum I had been under the mistaken impression that only really big pharaohs and their queens got to be mummies.  How wrong I was.  I'm pretty sure that mummification was not for the poor, but there seemed to be quite a few upper-class-but-definitely-not-royalty mummies in the mix.  Only the really big VIPs got the amazing death masks (King Tut's solid gold mask is displayed in all its glory in a glass case and it is truly splendid); more ordinary folk had portraits placed over their mummified faces, and a lot of these portraits are themselves quite well-preserved.  For me, the most fascinating room was the one holding mummified animals.  Some were royal pets (most interesting in that regard were some baboons which were mummified in sitting positions); some were gods in their own rights (such as some bulls that were living gods while they were alive and then interred with all the ritual accorded a king); and some were, logically, mummified food for their mummified masters. The only good thing I can say about being forced to check my camera outside the entrance is that it ups the ante for anyone whose interest is raised by this description -- if you want to see the mummies, you can't look at your friend's pictures because there are none.  You have to see them for yourself.
One shot of the outside of the Egypt Museum before we gave up our cameras and headed inside to visit what I'm  quite confident is the largest collection of mummies in the world.

4.  Felucca Ride Down the Nile. This one was suggested by our friend and fellow Fulbrighter, Kat, who happened to also be in Cairo, with another friend, Lucy, while we were there.  Feluccas look an awful lot like what we called dhows on Zanzibar -- that is sailboats with a distinctive crescent-triangle shaped sail.  I'm pretty sure that the best time to take a felucca is exactly when we did -- at dusk.  You start out in the light and return in the dark, having sailed along the Nile, looking at the city of Cairo, watching the city life and lights emerge as darkness descends.  Definitely one of the best early-evening activities I can imagine.
Grace, Lucy and I settling in (Kat was taking the picture) for our felucca ride on the Nile.

From the Pyramids to the mummies of the Egyptian Museum to sailing down the Nile, there is so much to see and do in Cairo.  And that's not even including some of the stuff that got nudged off the list, like visiting the Coptic Museum or getting around on the always-adventurous Cairo subway.  But I thought my Top Three Things were so good that they deserve their own post, which I shall write shortly to round out my list.

1 comment:

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