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Egypt: In the Heart of the City, Descending the Cairo Side

September 20, 2010

Descending the Cairo Side a novel of the traveling life

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Photos by Ken and Peg Herring (unless noted)

I visited Cairo on several occasions in the 1970s and early 1980s.  Each time I was struck by the vibrancy of the people, who seemed to survive and often thrive amidst an environment of chaos.

I always stayed close to Midan el-Tahrir, or Freedom Square.  On its perimeter lurked a number of important sites: the Egyptian Museum, the Nile Hilton, the Ministry of the Interior, and just behind, the American University.

During my first visit I was completely broke for several weeks and so spent my time wandering the city on foot.  Old Cairo is particularly fascinating once you learn how to avoid the tourist market.

1) Wooden house facade: photo by Kit

The architecture and wood-working in the older buildings is breathtakingly beautiful.

I was fortunate to experience the end of Ramadan during my initial stay in the city.  At sunset  huge crowds gathered in the back streets.  I was crowd-surfed by the throngs, disconcerted and fearful, but I quickly understood they did this to share their joy with me, a foreign infidel, not to threaten my well-being.

2) Crowds in the old city; this is a funeral procession

Despite the huge population there were many places to relax in peace.  I used to hang out at the Cafe Riche, a restaurant frequented by the Cairene literati and made famous by Jonathan Raban in his travel book, Arabia, A Journey Through the Labyrinth. There I would buy a quart of beer and while away the afternoons talking to the other patrons. I never had any idea they were the finest novelists and poets of modern Egypt.

Of course the Nile was never far and it was always a pleasure to hang out on the bank and talk to the boatmen who lived on their small wooden crafts.

3) The Nile downtown

If I needed a place for thoughtful meditation I would often walk to one of Cairo’s great mosques, especially Ibn Tulun or Ali Hussein. Here foreigners were always made to feel especially welcome, and their interiors were always cool and quiet, a welcome relief from the heat and noise of the city.

4) The entrance to the Ali Hussein Mosque.  Everyone removes their shoes and walking on the ancient stonework with bare feet always gave me a physical connection to the magnificent architecture

5) The interior of Ali Hussein

When I first stayed in Cairo, in 1975, memories of the Yom Kippur War were fresh.  Many buildings had sandbags around their entrances and tourism was still down. But tour boats plied the Nile from Cairo all the way to Aswan, a trip they no longer undertake because of problems and unrest in central Egypt.

6) Loading passengers for a river cruise to Aswan

And, if boredom set in with unbearable intensity, a few pennies paid for public transport to the pyramids on the edge of the city.  The Giza plateau felt like another world altogether.

7) The sphinx gazes placidly toward the rising sun as it has done for thousands of years.  Interestingly its head is too small in proportion to the body; many scientists now conclude that the head was re-carved during periodic
restorations by various pharaohs,
perhaps to turn the monument into self-portraits of the rulers themselves

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