Egypt: Islamic Cairo (Day 1)

First of all, let me say that I love Cairo. I love it for its speed, its noise, its throngs of people, its culture.

The people that shout, that smile, that laugh, that form the lifeblood of a city that has one hand giving a high-five to tradition and the other grabbing the short-skirted behind of capitalism and freedom of expression.

Cairo is a beast of a city, a pulsing heart running a marathon. If you ever make it to Cairo, you will be amazed at the layers of human experience.

From, literally, the oldest civilization in the world, to a mixing of cultures: Arabs, Islam, Christianity, Crusades, Colonialism, French and British influence, World War II, and McDonald’s. Every bit of rubble has a story to tell.

These are the people who live in the largest city in Africa.

Sean and I arrived two days before my parents and sister. We instantly were shocked by the sheer size of the city. It was a magnitude that we have never seen before. Sure, New York City is big, but it’s all in English, and you have the glitter of Times Square and a cop on every corner to point you to the nearest metro station and public bathroom. In Cairo, you are in a jungle of Arabic script and honking horns, with the smell of shawarma wafting through the air. We dropped off our bags and went for a walk.

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I was hoping for a side of french fries to go with my felafel sandwich, but I ended up with two sandwiches: one filled with felafel and one filled with french fries. Both were equally good.
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We found a warm, quiet cafe on the street near our apartment. We settled into the comfy, overstuffed chairs with a cup of chai, shisha, and the lovely drink I had come to be addicted to: sahleb. A delicious, thick, pudding-like drink that warms you from the inside out. We returned to this cafe multiple times not only for the shisha and chai, but for the $4 pizzas, too!

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Before my parents landed, Sean and I went to the Cairo museum. It was fantastic. We bought a book in order to be able to navigate the countless mummies, statues, and sarcophagi.

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Street art in Cairo.

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Once my parents arrived, we explored Medieval Cairo. While Sean and I enjoyed navigating the city by ourselves, it was truly exhausting. Therefore, we organized a guide for much of our stay in Cairo so that we could relax and enjoy the company of our family as well as genuinely understand the city. (We booked through a wonderful woman named Mara, who was fantastically helpful in arranging everything for us. She has hotels in both Cairo and Luxor, and can organize any tour you need.) The above picture is of Bab Al Nasr, or the Gate of Victory. It was the gate the victorious warriors would return to the city through after their conquests abroad.

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Once inside the area of Medieval Cairo, we visited the Mosque of Al-Hakim. It was a beautiful mosque, but the guy who built it was a little unhinged. (He is known as the “Mad Caliph” in Western literature.) Al Hakim passed a law that prevented women from wearing shoes so that they couldn’t go outside. He also killed all the dogs in Cairo because their barking annoyed him. He would wander around at night, and ordered all the streets of Cairo to be illuminated for him. (Before electricity.) Then, he changed his mind, and ordered everyone to be indoors by sunset.  Then, at the age of 36, he disappeared. (And who says history isn’t fascinating?)

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Inside Bayt al-Suhaymi, or, an incredibly rich person’s house during the Ottoman era. Every part of the house was beautifully adorned. In the background, you can see me, my mother, and our AMAZING guide, Mohammed, looking at an Islamic rug.
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The view out one of the women’s windows at Bayt-Al-Suhaymi. The point was that I could see you, but you couldn’t see me…

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A ‘living room’ type area at Bayt Al Suhaymi. Isn’t it just gorgeous? And to think, this was in the 1600’s!

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After Bayt Al Suhaymi (I am so tired of forcing my fingers to type that name… try it, it’s tough!) we visited the hammam of Sultan Inal. A “hammam” is a public bath, which were incredibly popular for a long period of time. Not many exist any more in Egypt; people now visit spas, and, obviously, bathe within their own homes. I have been in quite a few hammams in the Middle East, some still in operation and some such as this that have been preserved, and you can recognize them all by their beautiful stained glass ceilings. (If you go to Egypt, be careful with your Arabic; my students in Kuwait told me that “pigeon” and “bathroom” both sound like “hammam”!)
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This was one of the most beautiful places we visited: The Mausoleum and Madrasa of Sultan Qalawun. (There’s one of those names again…) A madrasa is a learning center. In the above photo you can see the place people would pray. (The Imam reads from the Quran in the wooden pulpit, and the arched area is pointing towards Mecca.)

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This is looking at the tomb of Sultan Qalawun. I am in love with the beauty of Arabic script, and the beautiful woodworking of the Ottoman era. (And remember, this is Egypt, wood is hard to come by!)

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Walking through Medieval Cairo. I love how the old architecture towers over the modern traffic. (And, trust me, this is NOT a typical street in Cairo!) The rest of Cairo has about four cars fitting into the width of this walkway.

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Here we are in a Sufi monastery built during the Mamluk period. Can you see, behind the “gazebo” style structure, the small doorways? Those were small rooms, where the Sufis lived. They would spend their entire lives within the confines of this complex. (Unfamiliar with Sufism? They are a sect of Islam that brought us the concept of the “whirling dervish”.)

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Again, inside the Sufi monastery. The prayer area. We were the only people there!

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Our final stop brought us to Khan El Khalili, or the famous bazaar of Cairo. We spent a few hours perusing the shops and feasting on felafel and eggplant sandwiches. (And, admittedly, giggling while my mom and sister got targeted by shopkeepers for “one time deals” and “special prices”.)
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Dad, are you upset you didn’t bring one of those lamps home with you?

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More of Khan El Khalili. It was great to be in a place that didn’t allow vehicles. In this photo, I am standing outside of a shop where my father bought frankincense. Very cool, huh?
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Before we got in the car to return to our apartment, Sean snapped a picture of some boys playing soccer. Like I said, it’s a city of many voices.

(Check back soon! There is lots more Egypt to share with you! And, wow, in typing this blog, I am amazed at how much I learned!)

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Categories: Egypt | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Egypt: Islamic Cairo (Day 1)

  1. Amber

    I know this post is old, but I have to comment. My husband is from Egypt. I went to Cairo once and these pictures seem to really take me back. Its beautiful! And a little scary with all the people and noise. How did you like the traffic? I was so sure I would die on the roads there, but they all seem to be pretty skilled drivers considering how crazy the roads are.

  2. Hi Amber,
    I am glad you enjoyed my posts on Egypt! It really was a wonderful place to visit. You’re right; the traffic is absolutely insane. We didn’t drive ourselves, so that helped me to relax a little bit. You know, the thing I miss the most about the Middle East is the food, particularly in Egypt! The Egyptians have some delicious recipes. Maybe your husband cooks them for you? 🙂

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