Come with me on a journey through the streets of Cairo. It is one of the oldest cities in the world, and one of the biggest, teeming with life, with history, with ideas, inspiration, kindness and suffering, wealth, poverty and greed. It is all things, all you could want it to be and all you wish it wasn’t. It is one of the most densely populated cities in the world.
There are over twenty million people all vying for space, over twenty million people walking it’s weary streets, over twenty million stories unfolding, over twenty million stories intertwined in a chaotic web of life. It is smothering. It is exhilarating. It never stops. Egyptians call it Umm ad-Dunya: the Mother of the World.
From the van while driving to the pyramids, and to the museum, and in and out of town to Alexandria and back, we get glimpses of these stories: school girls,
and veiled women rushing,
the man selling yams,
and the couple selling corn.
They are next to a busy main road under the dual overpass of a freeway, which doesn’t live up to its name. There are 5 million cars in Cairo. Add to that there are motorbikes, tuk tuks, buses, horse carts, and donkey carts.
The traffic is unkempt, insistent, ruthless, and frightening. The freeways and the ring road are wall-to-wall traffic; there is nothing free about them. Cairenes spend a significant part of their lives stuck in traffic. It has become a place to socialize, to hang out with friends, and to trade insults with fellow drivers. The blaring of horns is relentless. Traffic laws are largely ignored.
And now we leave the snarling traffic behind and walk through the part of town known as Islamic Cairo, the medieval heart of the city. Breathing comes easier, and we start to relax in the spaciousness of pedestrian-only streets.
The buildings have the patina of age, and the beauty of a time when architecture was about more than cost and function.
First to Al-Azhar Mosque
where all the women must don robes and head scarves in order to be allowed to enter. The main entrance opens into the vast white marble-paved courtyard.
Inside a young boy contemplates the Koran. Or perhaps it is his cell phone. Or the Koran on his cell phone.
Al-Azhar Mosque is one of the oldest operating universities in the world, and is the oldest and biggest in the Islamic world.
From the mosque we walk to Cairo’s enormous market, or souk, known as Khan al-Khalili. Khan al-Khalili was built in the 1300’s and is still frequented as much by locals as by tourists. It is a rabbit warren of tiny pedestrian alleys and lanes,
a huge conglomeration of stores, selling everything from metal wear
to stone carvings,
No one hassles us as we explore.
Perhaps they sense we are only here to look. But they do say hello, and ask where we’re from. All throughout Egypt hawkers cry out to us “Where are you from” in a bid to get our attention. When we reply “Canada” their immediate response is “Canada Dry!” I’m sure they don’t even know what it is. I think it may be the only words they have ever heard about Canada. For all you non-Canadians, Canada Dry is a sparkling ginger flavoured soft drink very much like ginger ale.
And now it’s time for a break, so naturally we go to the famous Al-Fishawy Café, the oldest coffee house in Cairo. Begun more than 240 years ago by one Mr. Al-Fishawy, this smoky, mirrored cafe was originally a simple stall serving coffee to the vendors in the labyrinthine souk.
It gradually expanded to include water pipes and tea,
and today has become a Cairo institution, a welcoming reprieve where locals and tourists alike stop for the atmosphere, the old-school ways, and of course for coffee, tea, and tobacco. It is owned and run today by the seventh-generation of Al-Fishawys, and is mostly a café for ordinary people: cabbies and shopkeepers, students, and worshippers after evening prayers. And late into the evening there can be spontaneous performances of poetry or music. Everyone likes to hang out here.
We are served quickly and sit drinking hot coffee and steaming mint tea while watching the life around us. I see two women reflected in one of the many mirrors. I watch and photograph them for a while as they smoke their flavoured hookahs. Then suddenly one of them catches me and I’m rewarded with a sweet smile.
The shoeshine men hassle us for business and some of our group oblige,
and a street cat curls around the corner and up the stairs, it’s yellow eyes an unspoken plea for food.
And now we are out of the souk, across the square, and back into the madness.
There are vans that you can hail that run up and down the main streets in the midst of the tsunami of traffic, but you must have exact fare, and know when to get off. We are all heading out for a meal and are grateful for our guide who knows the city well. She knows how to negotiate the price, and she knows where we are going. She flags down a van and we all pile in. Seatbelts? What are seatbelts?
Continuing our journey we explore Old, or Coptic, Cairo, home to Cairo’s Coptic Christian community. The Coptic Orthodox Church dates back to its founding in 42 CE and is arguably the oldest Christian denomination. The church has survived, even being in the midst of a largely Muslim population for the past thousand years, and despite centuries of persecution. Today there are about twelve million Copts in Cairo, and several beautiful churches.
Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church, known as the Hanging Church, is built on top of an ancient Roman fortress, its nave suspended over a passage.
Nearby is the Greek Orthodox Church of St George.
We feel almost as if we’ve been transported to a different city, and a different time. The narrow alleys of the area seem like an island of quiet and peace.
The Arabic name for Cairo is Al-Qahira. Drop the “al” and let Kahira roll quickly off the tongue. It sounds like the Anglicized Cairo. It means the vanquisher, or the oppressor. The Coptic name for the city is Kahire, meaning “Place of the Sun”. We discover that Cairo lives up to both its names. It is one of the most polluted cities in the world, and the crowds and traffic can be overwhelming. At the same time there’s pulsating life here; life that’s exciting and stimulating. There’s beautiful architecture, friendly people, and gems like the Al-Fishawy Café. Somehow the people of Cairo manage to make it work despite the dirt and the over-crowding. It’s a vibrant ever-evolving tapestry, a whole that seems to be greater than the sum of its parts. If you’re willing, Cairo will beguile you into loving it.
This is the final post about Egypt. From Cairo we flew back to Canada, spent two months in Vancouver, and then went south to Mexico.
Other posts about Egypt:
Taken for a ride in Luxor. And the Biggest Religious Building of all Time.
Next post: San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2016.