Cairo, Egypt Monday, February 6, 1995
It's cool and overcast again. Definitely not the weather we had counted on. Breakfast in the Night & Day was happenin' due mostly to the African-American tour group that we saw arrive yesterday. It turns out that they're from Michigan and are traveling with their pastors. They've just come from Israel and will stop in Rome on their way home.
Khaled meets us and introduces us to Howard and Ann Pearson. He's a pediatrician with the Yale Medical School who has been working in Saudi Arabia. Our Egyptologist for this morning's tour is Mona El Nahas who will also be our guide for the regular tour. Mona explains that everything starts later during Ramadan because of the all night parties. We understand. The party next door to our hotel didn't stop until 3:30 AM.
As we get underway in our minivan, Mona tells us that the fertile strip of land on either side of the Nile is called the Green Snake. We drive along the West Corniche in Giza so we can see a little more of the city. This is the part of town where Anwar Sadat lived and his wife still does when she isn't teaching in Washington. Then we turn back across the river into Old Cairo, the oldest part of the city and the location of fifth Egyptian capital after Memphis, Thebes, Amarna and Alexandria.
Old Cairo is dusty, dirt colored and poor. We pass donkey-drawn carts bringing vegetables to the street market, then we see the market itself spreading up a side street near the oldest mosque in Cairo. Most of it is a reconstruction and apparently isn't of much interest. We park opposite a station on the relatively new subway line, duck down some steps and through a door into an alley that leads to St. Sargus Church. It's the oldest church in Egypt dating from the fourth century A.D. and is under renovation in the Egyptian manner-slowly. Supposedly the holy family stayed in this location for several months after fleeing from Herod. The church goes back a long way in Egypt. Mark apparently came to Egypt in the first century A.D., first to Alexandria, then to Upper Egypt where the early Christians set up churches and housekeeping in the old Egyptian temples. The Egyptian brand of Christianity took it's own course, evolving as the Coptic Church with its own pope and different holidays.
We walk into an anteroom to peer down into the waterlogged crypt where Mary, Joseph and Jesus were supposed to have stayed. The steps down are blocked off but people have thrown money and prayer notes down into the stairwell. As an aside, we learn that this location is also believed to be where baby Moses (or Prophet Moses, as Mona calls him) was found in the bullrushes. It continues our Israeli experience of everything seeming to have happened in the same place.
We leave St. Sargus and head down the alley and around the corner to the Ben Ezra Synagogue. Along the way Mona greets a cheerful Coptic woman who's doing her laundry. The Coptic cross is tattooed on her forearm. She apparently usually lets Mona's tourists into her two room house but her father is asleep so we just smile and peek in. Mona slips her some money.
Further along we reach the completely renovated Ben Ezra Synagogue thanks to $3 million from the American and Canadian Jewish Congresses. Apparently there was a very early synagogue here but St. Mary's Church took over the building until it collapsed in the twelfth century whereupon it was rebuilt as a synagogue by Rabbi Ben Ezra. It has beautiful inlaid mother-of-pearl designs and Hebrew inscriptions set in wood. Today there are only 200 Jews in all of Egypt, 120 in Alexandria and 80 in Cairo, most of them quite aged. There is no rabbi. Services are held in a synagogue in the downtown area during the High Holidays but it is otherwise closed. This synagogue is a museum only.
As we walk back to the van, kids are getting out of school and streaming for the subway. We also pass an uniformed officer of the Tourist and Antiquities Police. We continue up the street, past St. Georges Church to the Coptic Museum. We enter through a gate by the remains of Trajan's fort and the Hanging Church which was built on top of it.
The museum itself is at the far end of a courtyard. Inside we see examples of how the early Coptics tried to hide their religion by subtly placing subliminal images of their cross amidst the Egyptian symbols of papyrus and alligators. The Coptic cross, by the way, differs from the the cross of Western Christianity in that it is equilateral instead being taller than it is wide. As we continue through rooms with wonderful wooden ceilings, we see carvings and frescoes dating back to the fourth century including images of the Goddess Isis and her son Horus which are supposed to mirror those of Mary and Jesus. While we wander, Mona informs us that the Greeks introduced the camel to Egypt and that today's camels are imported from the Sudan and Australia. Now that's a piece of news!
We see a fresco of Abraham sacrificing Issac and learn that this is the point where the road splits. Islam believes that it was not Issac, Abraham's youngest son by Sarah, but Ismail, his oldest son by Haggar who was going to be sacrificed. Islam celebrates the sacrifice of a sheep instead of Issac/Ismail 65 days after Ramadan. We admire a beautiful inlaid litter before moving upstairs to the fourth century tapestries and seventeenth and eighteenth century icons. I discover St. Menas slaying a dragon and assume he's called St. George in other quarters. We move into the age of metal with religious articles, weapons, crowns and medical instruments from the fifth century.
We leave the unexpectedly rewarding Coptic Museum to visit the hanging Church. It dates from the fifth century and has a wooden ceiling, a nice collection of icons which were hard to see in the dim light, even with candles stuck in sand filled trays burning in front of them. The church also features several glass cases of relics-parts of heads, fingers, hair...the usual stuff, all wrapped up, of course. Somehow, people have managed to insert their written prayers into the cases. The church pulpit is supported by twelve columns representing the apostles. One is darker than the others-Judas. As we leave we learn that Islam dates from the seventh century.
We reenter our van and head back past a herd of black goats. Dust is in my mouth, a situation that I'm sure will be repeated. We pass the City of the Dead, 1.5 million people living above the crypts of a large cemetery. Looking out as the city rolls by it seems monochromatic-dun colored, dirty and half rubble. Buildings started but never finished or falling down and left like that, the up and the down meeting in the same place. Occasionally there are spots of color, a splash of oranges or green cabbages emerge from a street market.
Back in the city we see the Khan el Khalili bazaar, the Muski, and a large flea market all from an overhead road, then we're down at street level again in the area Susan and I walked yesterday. Mona points out the Sednaoui and Hannaux department stores near Groppi. We pass the downtown synagogue guarded like an embassy and are soon deposited back at the Semiramis.
Some Egyptianisms we've garnered during today's outing: "Ramadan Karim" means greater generosity during Ramadan. It was used during a traffic argument sort of like "Take it easy, buddy." Also "No problem", the Egyptian answer for everything.
After changing into some warmer clothes we walked over to the Ramses Hilton for lunch. The Felafel restaurant was closed in honor of Ramadan but we found food at the Terrace Cafe. Susan did her double Lentil soup routine and I had Mouloukia Ferakh, boiled chicken in a slimy green broth over rice. It's advertised as an Egyptian delicacy. I don't think so.
After lunch we picked up a copy of Egypt Today and cruised through a tourist shop where we saw some acceptable chotchkis but didn't buy. A cab back for LE 5 and it's nap time once again.
Several well slept hours later we chart our evening. Susan has been reading Egypt Today and found an art gallery, Espace, which is open from 5-8 PM. Since most restaurants and the department stores don't open again until 8, we decide to hit the gallery first, if we can find it.
The front desk indicates two small streets on my map as possibilities so we head out. The streets are muddy and puddled from a shower while we slept. There are no drains or sewers to relieve the water. We head up Kasr el Nil to Talat Harb Square then right on Muh Sabri Abu el A'lam. The streets are busy but not overwhelming. Cairo has seventeen million people and is obviously busy but it doesn't seem teeming, at least not like we thought it would be, not even close to the feel of Hong Kong. Maybe we're not in the teeming part of town.
We go down one side street and then up another. We see car dealers but no art gallery. We also pass a cafe with men smoking water pipes but we don't join them. We're now on Abdel Khaliq Sarwat and I've scoped out the fact that Felfala, home of foul, is on this street. Mona said don't eat here but we think she's being overprotective and anyway Susan is determined. After passing a storefront mosque, nothing but a small room bathed in green light with men praying, we arrive at Felfala and like its looks.
We walk into a long, narrow space with an arch of wicker or bent wood overhead. A brazier sits in the middle of the back room heating a table of Japanese girls, another with a German couple and several tables of Egyptians. Out charming maitre d', who is studying to be an Egyptologist and will be working tomorrow at the Egyptian Museum, responds to our request for foul with an offer of samplings from various parts of the menu including foul, taamia, lamb kabab, vegetable casserole and more. We must have had eight dishes-ground meat with tomatoes and eggs (not good), foul with spices (good), bean/vegetable casserole (good), tahina (good), well, you get the point. Two Stellas and a very good Om-Aly for dessert comes to LE 78. On to the department stores. Forget it. We go to Hammaux which is grim, poorly lit, with no customers and glum help. Sort of like China.
I locate the street were Susan has read about a jewelry shop. It's called Khaliq Sarwat but I can't find the shop. The streets are jumping and we continue to marvel at the fact that we're out by ourselves walking around Cairo, Egypt at night. Who would have thought it. The people are cosmopolitan and we've had none of the hassles we experienced in Morocco. Even the supplications of the cab drivers seem modest and within reason. We head back through a pedestrian only street of shops, then back home via our familiar route. We negotiate an in-your-face street crossing at Tahrir Square and we're back at the Semiramis for turkish coffee in the lobby. We briefly tour the hotel shops up on the mezzanine then return to our room for a few minutes of TV-the news in English from a Cairo station, an Arab soap opera about an argument at a vegetable stand, 30 seconds of the O.J. Simpson trial on CNN and then to bed.