“Cairo is in a state of becoming … We just don’t know what it’s becoming yet!”
Daniel Joseph Monti.
Stewart Goes Walkies is grateful to our friend, Allen Lai, for yet another of his excellent travelogues.
Cairo, Al-Qāhirah in Arabic (“The Victorious”), is the capital of Egypt, and one of the largest cities in Africa. Cairo has stood for more than 1,000 years on the same site on the banks of the Nile. The city is three times the size of Hong Kong, yet it houses only 20 million people (The last census showed the population of Hong Kong at just over 7 million – SGW). The city is a fascinating clash between the traditional and the modern, the religious and the secular, the East and the West. While its chaos can be exasperating, it can also be a rewarding challenge for travelers.
Egypt has been ruled by many empires. From the Persians in 500 BC to the Macedon Greek era – Alexander the Great 332 BC to Queen Cleopatra the last Pharaoh of Egypt, then the Roman empire till 400 AD. The Arabs came and ruled through three different Islamic eras. This was followed by the Ottoman era from 1517. It finished off with the French and the British. Only in 1922 did they gain their independence.
Cairo the City
My first impression was, it’s a beautiful city, it was rated the most beautiful city in the world in 1925. A lot of grand and very detailed architecture colonial buildings. The layout of the city was orderly. But when I started to travel, a few Imperfections appeared. First, it was the traffic, the roads in the city are wide and beautiful, but the traffic lights are, for the most part, out of order.
Imagine driving in New York City with no traffic lights. The chaos is unimaginable. Then there are the pedestrians, everyone crosses the road, where and when they want. So I saw and learned firsthand how to cross a six-lane road with cars speeding around me. But everyone seems to cope with it easily. Hence, it’s a noisy city, as everyone is using their horns.
When driving around the city, a strange sight to see is the many abandoned apartment buildings. After the Arab Spring (I will come back to this), massive blocks of apartment flats sprang up, the majority violated building codes and so had no permits. A common case problem was that the developer got direct permission from the president, then another president came into power with his own circle of businessmen who wanted a piece of the cake. There are around 226 such apartment buildings around the city, including the 166 metre tall Forte Tower. That didn’t stop someone from moving in.
So you will see an obviously abandoned building with a few units with windows and painted outside walls. Every now and then, we would hear of a collapsed building taking lives. The authorities don’t do anything about it. So they became symbols of the city.
The Pyramids of Giza – One of the ancient seven wonders of the world.
When I saw photos of them I got the impression that these pyramids are in the middle of the desert. The fact is, they are within walking distance of the city. What makes the illusion is that it is on a slight hill.
When in Egypt, I was curious to see many temples, pyramids, and tombs, but not palaces, fortresses, and such, which I saw in Europe and Turkey. I was told the ancient Egyptians considered that life is short, and they only concentrate on the afterlife, which they think of as eternal life. “And to ensure their afterlife can be lived comfortably, they buried all their treasures and valuables with them.” (I am quoting Rami Romany, Egyptologist).
So we see these huge pyramids but no palaces. The only palace I can trace is that of Queen Cleopatra which is now underwater in the harbour of Alexandria city. But it will be years before they can excavate it.
The Saqqara Pyramid
The Saqqara Pyramid very first pyramid to have been dated back to 6000 BC. Unlike other pyramids, it’s a step edifice with only six steps, steps to heaven so to speak. It is the tomb of Pharaoh Djoser. It is also the only pyramid in the whole kingdom in which 11 of the king’s daughters were buried.
Interestingly enough, the architect who designed and built it possessed good knowledge in medicine, and science that seemed way ahead of his time. His name was “Imhotep”, which translated as “He who came in peace”. Does that ring any bells? (quoted Dr. Zahi Hawass).
The Three Principle Pyramid
The designations of the pyramids – Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure, correspond to the kings for whom they were built. Imagine in the days when the 140 metre high pyramid faced the ray of the rising sun while polished with highly reflective white limestone, what a brilliant appearance when viewed from a distance. Archaeologists did not find any bodies or treasures in any of these three pyramids. The record shows they have been plundered in ancient and medieval times. Or, there wasn’t anything actually not buried there.
In 2017, a group of archaeologists received help from an unlikely source: cosmic rays, subatomic particles that rain down from space. In fact, a team of physicists has found a previously unknown void within the pyramid by imaging it with muons, high-energy byproducts of cosmic rays that are created when protons and other atomic nuclei strike the atmosphere. The void is as large as the statue of liberty. They have yet to find a way to get into it, but it’s certainly something to look into in the near future as to what will be found.
The Great Sphinx of Giza is a limestone statue of a reclining sphinx, a mythical creature with the head of a human, and the body of a lion. Facing directly from west to east, it stands on the Giza Plateau on the west bank of the Nile in Giza, Egypt. The face of the Sphinx appears to represent the pharaoh Khafre. It was once buried by sand and from the 16th-19th centuries, European observers described the Sphinx as having the face, neck, and breast of a woman. In school, children were told that the nose was blown off by Napoleon, but in fact, it was by a conservative fundamentalist Islamic ruler who believe the sphinx to be a god figure. Luckily, only the nose was removed. (quoted Rami Romany)
There were tourists, vendors, and a strong presence of security forces. But standing there, under all these great monuments, with so many questions to be answered it was a privilege in life to be there.
The Egyptian Museum
Being in Cairo, a visit to the Egyptian museum is a must. It houses close to 4000 artifacts and this number is increasing every day. Artifacts age from 3000 to 1000 BC. Most are funerary art designed to save the souls of the pharaohs. Status filled with symbolism, written prayers, and offerings to deal with the gods and assure a happy transition into the afterlife.
Wandering around inside, I had an eerie feeling, because, everywhere I looked were funerary items, and mummies, all with that earthy colour. It is a different kind of experience. Certainly not the kind of place I would walk alone in the dark.
Among them, two of the most important findings, one is the Rosetta Stone, and the other is treasures from the Boy King Tut’s tomb.
The Rosetta Stone
The Stone is a broken part of a bigger stone slab. It has a message carved into it, inscribed in three types of writing. In hieroglyphs (suitable for a priestly decree), Demotic (the cursive Egyptian script used for daily purposes, meaning ‘language of the people), and Ancient Greek (the language of the administration. The importance of this to Egyptology is immense. When it was discovered, nobody knew how to read ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Because on the stone, its inscriptions say the same thing in three different scripts, and scholars could still read Ancient Greek, the Rosetta Stone became a valuable key to deciphering the hieroglyphs. Sadly, what I saw in the museum is a replica. The original has been sitting in the British Museum since 1802 when the British ruled Egypt. And the British have no intention of returning it.
Treasures from King Tutankhamun 1400 BC
The Boy King, Tutankhamun, son of King Akhenaten, died at the age of 19. The discovery of his tomb in the Valley of Kings in 1922 caused great media attention. It was the time when Egypt gained its independence. The seal to the tomb was untouched, and the legend of the curse fascinated the world. Especially as it was supposed to have caused the death of a number of westerners who were involved in exploring the tomb.
Now the mummy and the treasures are all housed in the museum, including his internal organs in an alabaster box and the gold mask that weighs 24 lbs.
Outside the museum is another famous place. Tahrir Square.
As famous city squares go, few can have played a more prominent role in shaping a country’s history than Tahrir Square in Cairo. Best known for providing the stage for nationwide protests, which led to the ouster of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the public gathering place is one of the capital’s most important sites. For 18 consecutive days, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators — some reports put the number at millions, the so-called “Arab Spring” — descended on the square before Mubarak finally resigned after 30 years in power. Now a decade later, people are still wondering if the movement is getting the result it deserved. Today, the square is still the major place for any protest and movement gathering.
The Grand Egyptian Museum
In January of 2002, the Egyptian government announced a worldwide competition for the design of a new museum complex. When the Grand Egyptian Museum fully opens to the public, it will be the largest archaeological museum complex in the world and host to more than 100,000 artifacts. For the first time ever, King Tut’s entire treasure collection will be on display alongside artifacts from pre-historic times through Egypt’s many thousands of years of pharaonic civilization through the more modern ancient Greek and Roman periods of Egyptian history.
The Egyptian government previously announced that the GEM would open its doors to the general public in 2018 and again in 2019. And in April 2021, downtown Cairo came to a near standstill one Saturday night as 22 mummies were moved from the Egyptian Museum where they had resided for more than a century to their new home, transported atop custom-made vehicles in a glittering, meticulously planned procession. The fanfare — broadcast live on state television and complete with a military band, a 21-gun salute, and a host of Egyptian A-list celebrities — served as both a grand opening of sorts for the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization where the country’s oldest monarchs were set to land and an invitation to tourists to return to Cairo after the pandemic.
You can watch the procession in this YouTube presentation here
The latest news is that it is set to open in November 2022. That will certainly be enough reason for me to go back.
Old Quarter – Mega Medieval Bazaar Khan Al-Khalili
Any traveler to Cairo cannot skip a trip to the 600-year-old Old Quarter, once a major stop on the caravan trade route. Walking down the narrow cobblestone street while the merchants hustle the tourists can be intense and annoying, but it can also be fun.
Bargaining is the name of the game. My friend brought a $60 souvenir which he bargained down to $10 only to find out that was only worth $5. But look at it this way, they all have a family to feed.
The first thing that you’d notice when visiting Cairo, is how busy it is! Traveling in Cairo can be quite overwhelming, and it can take one some time to get around town and become familiar with the new culture, dialect, and Egyptian society overall. If you can stand Arabic music and culture, you will enjoy Cairo. It is not the city that you’d exactly call “calm” or “tranquil”, because it’s usually chaotic. You can hear noise 24/7! If you cannot stand noise, crowds, cigarette smoke, aggressive vendors, and traffic, and do not have a good sense of humour, or are not ready to accept local people as they are, then it may not be your kind of place.
I, on the other hand, love Egypt, it is the only country that I vowed to return to even before the trip was over. It is not safe, because of the political situation, the public health, and the logistics. The country is poor, and the pollution is bad. But the proud Egyptian people are great. And it’s definitely for travelers who like to get out of their comfort zone and explore.
On a final note, during our Cairo experience, we were escorted by two plain-clothed policemen with automatic machine pistols tucked under their suits at all times. Two days after my return, a bomb exploded outside a restaurant I had visited. Three tourists were killed and nine were wounded.
SGW is grateful to our old friend, reader, contributor, and rock climbing mentor, Allen Lai. We look forward to his next contribution.
Thank you for visiting Stewart Goes Walkies. I hope you enjoyed this post. Please feel free to leave a comment and, if you would like us to publish an adventure of yours, you can contact us here:
Take a look at the T-Shirts we have on offer.
Help us to make a commitment to the reduction of plastics in our environment. Don’t buy drinking water in plastic bottles when it’s easy to bring it from home. Let’s work together to save the planet.