Cairo, Egypt. Blog Six

The Coptic District

We decided to visit the Coptic district, which is the oldest part of Cairo. The car dropped us near the ancient city wall, and we followed the crowds, walking along the street to where there were steps going down, and signs directing us to various places. There was no big sign saying This way to the Coptic district so we were a little unsure where to go—usually we avoid underground passages in unfamiliar cities—but we walked down the steps.

The hidden entrance to the Coptic District of Cairo.

There was a short tunnel, under the old city wall, and then we were in a narrow lane, the walls lined with books for sale. It was very unexpected! Tour groups and local people all seemed to be walking in the same direction, so we followed the crowd, round a corner, to a junction with signs on walls and archways in the wall. It was too busy to check our map, but I remembered we planned to see the Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus so we followed the sign for that. It all felt rather disorientating to be honest, and I was disappointed because I knew there were several places I hoped to visit but I was beginning to think it would be too difficult to find them.

The church was built in the 11th century, in honour of Sergus and Baccus, a couple of Roman soldiers who were martyred for being Christians. I had read that under the church is a cave, where it is believed Mary and Joseph lived when they ran to Egypt with baby Jesus, to escape King Herod. Several places in Egypt claim to have been visited by the holy family during their time here, which I guess makes for good tourism, but it’s easy to mock—and who knows? They must have lived somewhere and maybe afterwards they told people, and it was remembered.

We found a sign to the cave, and went down some steps, to the area below the church. Much of the Coptic area has stuff below it, because it was built on top of a Roman city. We were in a long line of tourists visiting the cave, so there was no great atmosphere to it, and it was hard to imagine how it might have been, with a young couple and a baby sheltering there.

The church itself was very glitzy, with lots of icons, gilt and tourists. Places like that don’t inspire me to pray, I find it hard to discover God under all the religion, but I guess people are different. To be honest, I found the mosques, with their ornate outsides and big empty interiors to be much better at inducing thoughts of God and prayer. I feel there must be a balance, something between the plain ugliness of a Baptist church and the distracting gloss of a high church. Somewhere special, but that doesn’t distract away from God.

Anyway, next we went to the Coptic Museum (because the Ben Ezra Synagogue, which I really wanted to see, was closed for renovations). We wandered into a private area by mistake, and were stopped by a friendly smiling man who turned out to be head of security. People in Egypt were always friendly. After being pointed in the right direction, we went to see the Nag Hammadi manuscripts (which are the source for Gnosticism—the belief that spirit is entirely separate to anything physical, and that Jesus was spirit, not physical). They also have the oldest surviving copy of the Psalms of David, but that was being restored so we couldn’t see it. We did see some very cool examples of early letters, written on pottery, in ancient Greek. (The museum also has very clean public toilets, if you’re interested.)

Finally, we visited the Hanging Church or Al Kineesa Al Mu’allaqa. It has a barrel-shaped ceiling, and white pillars that represent the 12 disciples, with a black one for Judas. Again, there were lots of icons, and gilt, and red bricks, and tourists. Part of the floor was glass, so you could peer down at the Roman towers below. (Which actually makes it less of a ‘hanging’ church and more of a ‘suspended’ one.)

We walked back to the hotel along busy roads. It was more of a slog than yesterday, and I found the constant honking of horns, the music of Cairo, to be very draining. We saw more poor people begging this time, including a young boy. I am uneasy refusing children, but I had no food to give him and money would possibly end up with the wrong person—so I told him no, and then felt guilty for the rest of the holiday and carried packets of Hulahoops everywhere in the hope I would see him again (but I never did).

At one point the road was very crowded with men, all waiting outside the Kuwait embassy. They queue there to apply for visas so they can go to work in Kuwait. It rained, quite heavily at one point, which I think is very rare here. Fingers up noses and men peeing behind parked cars seem to be a thing here. But mostly, I am interested by how friendly everyone is, how children smile and say hello, and people wave at us from buses, and greet us when we pass.

Later, there was a thunderstorm, and more rain. We watched from the balcony as big puddles formed on the roads. An unusual sight in Cairo. Thanks for reading. Hope you have a good day. Take care.
Love, Anne x

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Cairo, Egypt. Blog Five.

Visiting a Souk

After breakfast in the hotel lounge, we took a hotel car to Khan Al Khalili – a sort of bazaar in the Islamic district of Cairo. The hotel cars are more expensive than using local taxis, but they’re easier than trying to explain in non-Arabic where we want to go, and we know they’ll have seatbelts and not take us to the wrong location. We found places in the guidebook that looked interesting, booked a car to take us there and then walked back to the hotel. Neither of us especially like museums or monuments, and this proved a good strategy for seeing some of ‘real Cairo.’

The car dropped us, and we walked round the corner, into a myriad of ancient lanes lined with stalls, a whole mishmash of sights: Chickens and rabbits and pigeons in cages. Men pulling wheeled carts. People balancing crates on their heads—one young man on a bicycle had a plank on his head stacked with eish baladi the local flatbread. Stalls selling fruit, and cloth, and drinks.

There were stray dogs and skinny kittens—cats were everywhere—sleeping on a food-cart hotplate, sharing a beggar’s blanket, curled under stalls. We watched eish baladi being fried in a sizzling vat of oil, hoisted out by a net on a long pole, the oil dripping off, then heaped on a stall for the flies to feast on. There was a fabric shop, with burst sacks of fresh cotton on the street outside. The streets were busy, with uneven hard-packed mud to walk along, and I felt as if I had wandered into a stage set. It was marvellous. It was also the wrong place! We checked the map, and realised we should have been across the street, in the lanes that make up the bazaar—we were in a market intended for locals (much better, in my opinion).

When we entered the bazaar proper, it was very crowded. Many of the shops were aimed at tourists, and stallholders called to us, inviting us to look, telling us they had the best products, the lowest prices. We had come to look, not to buy, so we disappointed them. Like all roads in Cairo, traffic and pedestrians shared the space. There were tuktuks here (we didn’t see them in the centre of the city) and they mingled with the lorries and bikes and pedestrians, vying for space in the narrow lanes. The air was full of pollution and spices and the sharp tang of limes from a nearby stall. A woman sat on the kerb, her short round body swathed in flowing black, selling bunches of mint. Children sat nearby, screaming at cars when they passed in some noisy game. Men with shiny round trays carried glasses of tea.

We passed the faded finery of ornate mosques, and crumbling walls, and red brick buildings; all powdered in brown pollution. The road was often uneven, often with holes or dirtied by dog mess.

When we reached the centre of the market it was even busier, and many of the products were the same as you would see in an English market—cheap clothing and plastic houseware. Inflatable legs were strung over the walkway, modelling various brands of trousers. Large dolls (like American Girl Dolls) stood in rows, modelling baby clothes. There were windows displaying sexy lace underwear on voluptuous mannequins—yet all the real women seemed to be covered from head to foot in flowing robes. (No one seemed to see the irony of this.)

Random men approached us at intervals, to practise their English, or to give unwanted directions. Always polite, always with smiles, sometimes overly persistent. We smiled back, and walked on.

There were constant car horns. Speakers blasted a sport’s game commentary or an Islamic sermon. The call to prayer echoed from minarets. I saw smiles, lots of smiles, especially when we responded to vendors’ calls in our limited Arabic. There was also lots of spitting in the street, and fingers pushed up noses, and loads of shopping carried on heads—all very different to an English market.

It was a fabulous walk back to the hotel. The sun was hot, the air thick with pollution, but there was so much to absorb, so much life to be part of. Wonderful.

Thanks for reading, I will tell you more about our visit in another blog. Hope you have a lovely day. Take care.
Love, Anne x

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Visiting the Pyramids. Cairo, Egypt. Blog Four.

It was Sunday, and we had booked a tour to visit the pyramids, so when I woke with a headache I was disappointed. The trouble is, I am a fairly anxious traveller — I force myself to visit interesting places because I really want to see them, but sometimes my body reacts and pretends to be ill. I have to try and decide whether I actually AM ill, or if it’s just nerves and my silly brain playing tricks. I took some pills, and felt very sick, but I was almost positive that this was all due to nerves. I don’t usually mention my anxiety in blogs, because I don’t want it to be what defines me, but if you suffer from nerves, take comfort in knowing you are not alone. I find that praying then forcing my mind to think about something unrelated (like playing Duolingo) usually makes me feel better. I forced myself to get up, slinking round the room like a slug while I sipped water trying not to be sick again, got dressed, and informed Husband that I was fine, no need to cancel. He gave me worried looks. At 9am we went down to the hotel lobby, and met the car we had booked. As soon as I was in the car, watching the streets of Cairo as we travelled through Giza, I felt better. That’s the thing with nerves, if I can distract myself, they disappear and I can be the person I want to be.

The car came with a guide, which isn’t my favourite thing because generally they talk too much. I let Husband (who is more polite than me) chat to the guide, while I looked at Egypt. We drove through various districts that are poorer than central Cairo, where the hotel is. It reminded me of India, though I didn’t notice the same abject poverty, the same despair, that I have seen in India. Then we left the city and entered the desert.

As we arrived at the pyramid area, I was surprised to see another city — a sort of satellite city, out in the desert. I had assumed the pyramids would be in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing but sand, plonked deep in the desert. It was a shock to glimpse them between buildings as we drove through the edge of a town. We came to the parking area, and went to buy tickets. Our guide was very helpful here. He seemed to know everyone, and he stopped people approaching us to offer horse rides and camel rides and photographs, and a myriad of other offers. I have read that touts can be a problem by being overly persistent, but he shielded us from all of that, so I forgave him for talking too much. He was called Samii, by the way.

Husband wanted to go inside the Great Pyramid, so he paid an extra £20 and joined the long queue. I knew it would be a steep climb down a narrow shaft, deep into the inner chamber of the pyramid. Not something I will ever want to do. Instead, I walked round the edge with Samii and tried to ignore all the facts he told me, as I wanted to soak up the atmosphere of the place. Actually, there wasn’t much atmosphere worth soaking up, as the sky-scrapers of the nearby city distract from the desert, and there are too many tourists. The pyramids of Giza are wonderful to visit, but it’s hard to find any romance there. We wandered round the area where the workers (Samii didn’t call them slaves) lived. There were ancient carvings around the doorposts, but some had modern graffiti on them. Shame.

Samii showed me the round indentations in the stones, where rivets would have held them in place. There is something awesome about the pyramids, even with all the tourists. They would have been bigger (you can see the edge of where they would have reached) but stones were removed over the ages to build other buildings. A bit like the Colosseum in Rome, which had bricks pilfered over the years. The age is astonishing. Way back, in the time of Moses (if we date him about 1400 BC) he would have seen pyramids that were already a thousand years old. The Romans would have seen them as ancient structures.

I also hadn’t realised how many pyramids Egypt has. As we wandered round the Great Pyramid at Giza, we could see other pyramids in the haze in the horizon. Different Pharaohs from different ages built pyramids in places convenient for them.

We drove down to the Sphinx (which is on the same site, but a long walk in hot desert sun). At one time, a canal from the Nile would have lapped around the Sphinx, and you can see where the limestone has been worn away. He would have had a beard too, but I think it fell off and is now in the British Museum in London. And he once had a nose, and there are several rumours as to where that might be!

We left via a little souk (a market) selling various statues and carvings. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a papyrus shop. Guides often take you to visit their friends rather than to what you want to visit! This was interesting though, and we saw a demonstration of paper being made from strips of papyrus, as they would have made it in ancient times. Samii offered us a drink, and I managed to ask in Arabic for a cup of tea with sugar (and actually received a cup of tea with sugar, which was by no means certain!) It was hot, and very black, and it arrived in a tiny glass. Perfect.

Returned to the hotel exhausted, but extremely happy. Sometimes, it is definitely worth forcing yourself to do things that seem scary.

Hope you have a great day. Thanks for reading.
Love, Anne x

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Cairo, Egypt. Blog Three.

We set off to explore another part of Cairo. This is always fun, except for crossing the roads, which I was never comfortable with. Basically, central Cairo has many four-lane roads, with a variety of cars and bikes and lorries constantly filling. Everyone honks almost continually (one driver told us that brakes in Cairo are optional, but a horn is essential!) It is the music of Cairo. Traffic ignores lights (unless there is either a camera or a policeman) and switches lanes, and sometimes direction, at random. Crossing the road is an artform, like a dance, and the man who shouted to us that we should shut our eyes and just wander across was not far wrong. You have to wander out, into a space, and allow the traffic to flow around you. I spent hours on our balcony watching the busy junction below, where traffic whizzed and stray dogs and elderly ladies and striding men, all wandered across the road. No one ever seemed to be hit, no one seemed to be angry, it was expected that the traffic would never stop but nor would it hit you. As I said, I never grew comfortable with this, but we did get better at it.

View from our room.

We walked up river (which is South) to University Bridge. The bridge was covered in sand (we later learnt that sand from the desert blows in, but also any road repairs sometimes leave sand, so I don’t know which had caused it). Men were setting up plastic chairs, ready for an evening of sipping tea from the stalls and watching the sunset over the river.

We walked to Al Mahial Palace (Prince Mohammad Ali Palace). We paid £5 entrance, even though it was closing in half an hour and lots of it had shut for weddings (they did tell us this, but did not lower the price). There was a mosque, and the Imran showed me round. I left my shoes with Husband, and went into a large public space, with beautiful tiles on the walls, and an indent to show which direction is Mecca. There were rugs on the floor (though not in the corner where the women pray. Women are definitely lower status here – more on that in a later blog).

We wandered round the gardens. There were several wedding parties having photographs taken. All the women were very covered, no hair showing (except for the brides, in their flouncy silver-white dresses). The Islamic style of covering heads seemed threatening until I got used to it. But when I smiled at people, they smiled back, and the young bridesmaids were posing and giggling just like they would in England. I felt an unspoken bond with the women here, as if they know that the male-dominance thing is there, but they have great unity as women. Even a woman wearing full-burkha can smile with her eyes, and I found them friendly and welcoming. If you come, I recommend wearing a scarf rather than a hat – you will be less obvious, it feels polite, and it’s nice to protect your hair from the sun and pollution. It’s too windy for a hat anyway.

Bridesmaids from one of the bridal parties.

We went back to the hotel, crossing the bridge and walking along the Nile (not that we could see it as there are lots of clubs along the water’s edge). After thousands of years, the River Nile remains the focus here. A satellite map shows the life that clings to the water’s edge, and when we went further from the centre of Cairo, we were never far from the river. Anything a distance from the Nile is just desert, and it’s hard to live in a desert.

I like Cairo. I like the friendly people, the way everyone smiles at strangers. The tipping and the roads are hard to learn, but everything else I like. It feels very safe here, which is unusual for a culture that is so very different to England. I’ll tell you more in my next post – we went to see the pyramids up close. Wow!

Thanks for reading. Hope you have a safe day.
Love, Anne x

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Cairo, Egypt. Blog Two.

Our first day in Cairo, Egypt. After breakfast, we decided to visit the Egyptian Museum, which is about half an hour’s walk from the hotel. I donned a long-sleeved shirt and trousers, and wrapped a scarf over my hair. Although many women wear western clothes, most people wear very conservative clothes, and I didn’t want to stand out too much. We also followed the guidebook advice, and carried valuables in money-belts, and things like water bottles in cheap bags slung over our shoulders. (This was one of several good tips—I recommend the ‘Lonely Planet’ guidebook.

We stopped at an ATM to withdraw some Egyptian pounds. It’s a closed currency here, so we couldn’t buy Egyptian money before we came. They will accept dollars in most places, so it’s worth bringing some, especially one-dollar notes, as they make good tips until you have some local currency. In Egypt, everyone expects to be tipped, it’s how things work here. Another good thing to carry is toilet paper. When you use a public toilet, an attendant will try to sell you toilet paper as you enter. If you learn enough Arabic to say ‘No, thank you,’ politely, then you avoid paying an extortionate amount. You will then be shown to a cubicle (these vary, but most were very clean). There were no locks on the doors, but as everyone is shown to one, a closed door is enough privacy. Then, as you leave, it’s good manners to give a tip and say thank you. This is rewarded with nods and smiles. Taking your own paper means you can decide on the amount you want to tip, and you don’t appear rude. Politeness is very important in Egypt.

We left the hotel, and walked across the Nile (The NILE! Oh wow! Can’t believe I am writing this!) Even at 9am in October, the sun was hot. At Tahrir Square (which is not a square, it’s a roundabout, famous for the Arab Spring protests) anyway, at Tahrir Square you can see the Egyptian Museum. It’s prawn-pink, and fat. The lines weren’t too bad, though there were several. You queue to go through a metal detector into the complex. Then you queue to go through another security check at the gate, then you queue to buy tickets. If you are a tourist, it costs more than a local ticket (this seems to apply everywhere in Egypt – which I think is good). If you want to take in a camera, you pay extra (but taking photos on a mobile is free).

The museum was brilliant, even though I don’t usually like museums. Built about 1900, it really hasn’t changed much, with old-fashioned display cases and typed information cards next to them. There are wooden bannisters, and windows that don’t quite shut, and a maze of corridors. Some parts were too dim to see properly (so take a torch if you’re serious about seeing something particular). Other rooms were flooded with sunlight, which shone directly on ancient artefacts ( presumably fading them). There were signs saying ‘Do Not Touch’ but lots of people ignored this, and the guards didn’t seem to stop them. It was all wonderfully relaxed and dingy and more like Grandma’s loft than a major museum. (There’s a lot I could write here about who should own world history and how it should be preserved, but for now, just enjoy the jumbled atmosphere of the place.)

We walked back to the hotel. Attempted to stroll in a park, but a man told us we needed to buy a ticket. This was probably a lie, but we were too hot to care, so simply left. Being tourists here makes us a target for scams, but I think if we are careful there’s nothing threatening about it. Mostly they are trying to persuade us into giving them money, or selling their services as a tour guide, though it’s all very polite and good-humoured. Many people who speak are simply being friendly, and we found that answering politely, and always smiling, worked much better than a rude rebuff. Lots of people said hello and asked where we were from. When we smiled and said ‘London’ they usually ended the exchange with a big smile and a Welcome to Egypt! I expect there are conmen – most cities in the world have them – but in Cairo I only encountered people who were friendly and polite. (Actually, that is not quite true, but I will tall you about my airport experience another time.)

We showered and changed. While we were here, we found going outside to be a hot, sticky affair. The sand from the desert has coated all the buildings in dingy brown, and lots of men and dogs pee on the street, so when we returned to the hotel we wanted to change into inside clothes. We went to the lounge and drank cold cokes, then realised that we could see the pyramids through the haze on the horizon. This was very exciting!

Thanks for reading. I will tell you more in another post. If you sign up to follow my blog you won’t miss it.

Hope you have a lovely day. Take care.

Love, Anne x

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Visiting Cairo

I have always wanted to visit Cairo, to see the pyramids. I have heard about Egypt, that mysterious place that people in the Bible ran to whenever there was trouble, ever since I was a tiny child in Sunday School. As I study the Old Testament, and learn about Moses, and the Hebrews living in Egypt and then miraculously leaving, it makes me want to visit even more. Our trip to the British Museum, to look at all the stuff the English took from Egypt in the past, and my knowledge of Pharaohs and how they were buried, has all fueled this longing. So, when Husband suggested a trip to Cairo, I leapt at it!

I prepared by downloading the Duolingo Arabic app, and practising my Arabic every day. I mainly wanted to know how to ask where the toilets are, and to be able to recognise which door has ‘Ladies’ written on it. Unfortunately, neither Duolingo, nor the CD I bought, ever got to this essential information. I set off for Egypt able to say things like, ‘Hamid is from Oman’ or ‘The house has a new door.’ Not as helpful as I had hoped.

I read a few guidebooks, and chatted to friends who have visited Egypt, and packed things they recommended. My case was full of long skirts, chaste shirts, and tatty bags to carry a water bottle and an umbrella, without appearing ‘rich.’ I took my money-belt, as apparently pickpockets are common in Egypt. I also ordered a hijab and hair cap from Amazon. In Dubai, I disliked being stared at, and found the best thing was to dress like a local. I decided I would watch from the taxi from the airport, and see whether most women covered their hair or not, and then I would copy. Warned Husband I would not be looking my best during the trip. I showed him my hijab, and he laughed, told me I looked exceedingly grim, and no one would dare to come near me with that face. I’m sure he meant it kindly.

I also bought some books, mainly about the Exodus, and whether it could possibly have happened or not. They were hugely interesting, but too heavy to take, and I only read a little before it was time to go. Might have to plan another trip. Many of the places mentioned were several hours drive from Cairo, and this was slightly less secure. The travel advice was that touristy areas were safe, but possibly not other places. We decided we would stay in the city, and see what we could. (I secretly told myself I would visit again if I like it.) Husband booked The Sheraton, which also has a casino, so I hoped it wouldn’t be too tacky. It was walking distance from the Nile (Oh wow! Can’t believe I am going to see the Nile!) and right next door to the Russian Embassy (which perhaps wasn’t quite so good, given the current politics).

We arrived Friday evening. As we drove from the airport, I saw faded villas that had once been beautiful, mingled with ornate minarets and tall concrete apartment blocks. Cairo is busy and noisy and has a faded charm. I loved it.

Our hotel room was lovely, with a tiny balcony that gave a glimpse of the Nile. Oh wow! I am looking at the actual NILE as I write this! When I was a child in Sunday School, listening to stories of Egypt, I never imagined I would actually see the river Nile. Amazing.

I will tell you more about our trip in another blog. Thanks for reading. Stay safe.

Love, Anne x