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Shooting the Shisha

A Look Back in Cairo's Past

sunny 85 °F

Today would be our final day in Cairo. After a 10 AM pickup, our van took us along the Pyramid Road from Giza to Old Cairo. At our hotel, they have an old photograph from the 19th century showing this road desolate of buildings, cars, carts, or people. That is not the cause nowadays. Traffic was so congested that it took almost an hour to drive 14 km--barely faster than running speed.

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Not going anywhere for awhile. Grab a Snickers bar.

Our first stop was the Coptic area of Cairo. After Jesus' crucifixion, St. Mark brought Christianity to Egypt. The Romans persecuted these early worshippers forcing them into hiding. One secret meeting place for these Christians was the Hanging Church which was built on the ruins of a secluded and abandoned Roman fortress. It was ingenuously constructed by placing palm tree planks across from one tower to another tower. Sand and water were then placed on top and compacted down. After the sand dried, it essentially developed the strength of sandstone. Although this foundation has held up for over 1,500 years, it's still a bit nerve-racking knowing that the church is not on terra firma.

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Several churches are built on the ruins of this former Roman fortress.

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(Left) The Hanging Church is still actively used by Coptic Christians. (Right) A cutout of the church's floor shows that it is indeed suspended above the ground.

We then went nearby to the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George. He was a Roman tribune who refused to comply with the emperor's edict that all soldier's renounce Christianity. He was imprisoned, tortured, and finally executed for his religious beliefs. They have some ghastly torture devices on display including a pair of sandals with huge spikes that would pierce the foot at each step. The church is decorated with paintings of him as a medieval knight on horseback slaying a dragon, a symbol of the defeat of Satan.

The third church we visited was the Coptic Church of St. Sergius. According to tradition, the church's crypt was once a cave where Jesus, Joseph, and Mary stayed when they fled from King Herod. The church was popular with pilgrims especially during medieval times. Since the stairwell to the crypt is gated off, people write down their wishes on paper and throw them down hoping their prayers are granted.

We then walked over to the Ben Esra Synagogue, the oldest one in Egypt dating back to the 12th century. Only a few Jewish families remain nearby to worship there, most having fled to Israel in the 1950's. The synagogue has pillars and floors made from imported white Italian marble. It had been renovated within the last 10-20 years, so it is still in very good shape.

Moving forward historically, we drove to the citadel of Saladin. He is best known as the outstanding commander who opposed Richard the Lionhearted during the Crusades. He built a series of forts including this one to protect his territory against attack. At the top of the fortress stands the Mosque of Mohammed Ali, considered second only to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul in terms of beauty. Mohammed Ali was one of the greatest leaders in Egyptian history. Prior to his rule, Egypt was weak because rival factions such as the Mamelukes had kept the country fragmented. He consolidated the power of the viceroy in the early 1800's by ambushing and massacring 500 Mameluke leaders. He then set about modernizing Egypt with the help of his French advisors.

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(Left) It was refreshing to see that most of the tourists to the citadel were local Egyptians. (Right) A small trebuchet decorates the entrance of the citadel.

There were several local kids here on field trip who mobbed us smiling and asking us repeatedly, "What's your name? What's your name?" Sam remarked that this sentence is probably the only English phrase they know. Since the fortress is built on the high ground overlooking the city, the best panoramic view of the city is right outside the mosque. Nearby is also a large clock tower. Mohammed Ali had given the French an obelisk as a token of friendship. In return, the French gave Egypt this clock. It has never worked. Not even after almost 200 years.

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The Mosque of Mohammed Ali.

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The mosque was built with alabaster which remains cool even during the hot summer months.

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The mosque is ornately decorated including ceilings hand-painted using gold.

On the way out, we passed the quarries where the stones for the Great Pyramids were cut. They were then somehow dragged for miles and miles to Giza. We also drove along the road passing the City of the Dead. It's really just a cemetery. The tombs for members of the same family are enclosed by a high fence which can seem like the walls of a house. The multitude of these family plots gives the illusion of the cemetery as a city.

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The quarry for the Great Pyramids of Giza.

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The City of the Dead blends in with the rest of the Cairo landscape.

We then visited the Khan el Khalili, the old market of Cairo. We relaxed at an outdoor cafe and enjoyed a Turkish coffee and apple-scented shisha. Since I am not a smoker, it irritated my throat after awhile. The wife didn't like it at all and only took a few puffs. The apple smell was sweet yet subtle.

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(Left) Shisha pipes come in all sorts of colorful, decorative patterns. They gave us the ugliest one. (Right) Surgeon General's Warning: Smoking causes lung cancer.

It was nice just relaxing and shooting the breeze with Sam--kinda like sitting at a Parisian cafe. He told us about his trip to Singapore, New Zealand, and Thailand last year. We were particularly interested in hearing about Thailand since that is one place we are considering on going. He remarked that it is one of the few countries where Egyptians can feel rich. Sam talked about how he and his wife visited Patpong. He didn't believe any of that stuff was real until he almost got hit in the face with a flying banana. If you don't know what I'm talking about, you are best not knowing.

Thinking back on our visit to the synagogue, I asked Sam how younger Egyptians perceive Jews. He replied that obviously there will be some that hate them just because of the contentious issues with Israel. In fact Sam's father fought two wars against them as a fighter pilot. Even then, his father harbored no ill will towards his enemy--they were fighting for their country just as he was for his too. Sam stated that many see the problem as mainly a Palestinian vs Israeli conflict. Egypt has made its peace with Israel over thirty years ago. As for the Jews who remain in Egypt, Sam said that he has an even greater respect for them. Their decision to remain here despite the difficulties and potential danger shows their true love for Egypt.

We also discussed the role of women in Egyptian society. We had spoken to very few women on our trip so far. Apparently, many women do work--just not in the tourism sector. Once they hit puberty, most females in Egypt wear a headscarf that just covers their head, but keeps the face fully exposed. In modern parts of Cairo, it's not uncommon to see some younger women wearing a headscarf and tight-fitting shirt and jeans. However, we still saw plenty of ladies donning the full black burka where only their eyes are visible within a small slit. Sam explained that this tradition originated from Saudi Arabia where women dressed like that to protect themselves from the sand and wind. He said that nowhere in the Koran does it mention women having to cover themselves like that. Only Arabs or religious zealots dress in the burka. Sam is not a big fan of the look saying, "Why would I want all of our women to look like ninjas?"

He mentioned that some visitors from ultra-conservative Islamic countries act very differently while in Egypt. Some of the married Saudi men hang out at the belly-dancing clubs (the closest institution to strip clubs here) trying to pick up women. I told him that there is no shortage of that behavior from married men back in the U.S. too. Sam then told us of an account many years ago when he was stopped by a woman in a full burka who told him that he had dropped a piece of paper on the ground. As she hurried off, he picked up the paper and it had her name and phone number on it. He never called. "She could have been the most gorgeous woman of your dreams!" I remarked. "OR she could have had the face of a dog!" he retorted. I guess that is the magic and mystery of the burka.

As we relaxed vendors stopped by and politely hawked their wares. The wife had been looking for some playful headdresses for our daughter. A cute little girl about 10-12 years old haggled us up to three for LE 40 (they should only be ten a piece). I asked her why she wasn't in school that day. She answered that it was her birthday and her mother was letting her stay home. Obviously this was a lie. She was working for a shopkeeper selling his/her wares using the 'cuteness' factor as an advantage. She left and came back a few minutes later asking Sam to help her with some math. The shopkeeper was getting LE 8 for each headdress. She couldn't figure out the simple calculations to see how much profit she should make on the three she sold to us. Sadly, the lack of education for the poor people will continue to be one of the challenges that Egypt faces in the future.

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(Left) You can enjoy ice cream with your scented tobacco (narchile). (Right) Sadly, this girl propagates the myth that girls suck at math.

We walked around the bazaar for a few minutes. Most of the stuff being sold was cheap junk likely made in China. Sam had told us that the best things to get there were wood boxes inlaid with mother of pearl, shisha pipes, copper pots and lamps, and leather goods. We had plenty of souvenirs by then, so we avoided buying anything substantial.

On the way back to Giza, we stopped off to get some take-out some koshary, falafels, and shwarma sandwiches. Since we would be flying out very early in the morning, we toured the grounds of our historic hotel, the Mena House, for the last time. It was built in the 1860's by the Egyptian ruler, Khedive Ismail as a hunting lodge. It was then sold and converted into a hotel two decades later. During the late 19th and 20th century, heads of state, royalty, and wealthy Europeans stayed there when visiting Cairo. Back in those days they had a golf course and a ski slope both made up of sand. During World War II, Roosevelt and Churchill planned part of the the D-Day Invasion while staying at the Mena House. Later in the 1970's, the hotel hosted the Egypt-Israeli Talks which led to the historic peace accord. During our stay, the hotel was undergoing more renovations/expansions but it was not noticeable. The service was impeccable during our time there. We were upgraded to a room facing the Pyramids, possibly because their occupancy was low from the lack of tourism. Regardless of the reason, enjoying the view of this great monument while we ate dinner on our balcony was a great parting image of Cairo.

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A 1888 advertisement for the Mena House. Note the telephone number.

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The view of Khufu's Pyramid from the balcony of our hotel.

Posted by evilnoah 19:56 Archived in Egypt Tagged egypt cairo

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