Cairo: City of Contrasts

I get off the efficient French built metro at Opera station, check what is on at the state-of-the-art opera house, built with Japanese funding, Verdi’s Aida of course, which will be on at the end of January, see that there is a performance of the children’s ballet Cinderella on at the moment. Then I make my way to the adjacent Modern Art Museum.

After I cross the bridge over the Nile to Talaat Harb Square and have my morning tea and cake at the art deco Groppi tea room, “once the most celebrated tearoom this side of the Mediterranean”, visited by international celebrities and where ”All admired the art deco design and the wonderful mosaic display by A. Castaman. Soon enough Cairo’s top social and official functions took place there and the rotunda became the rendez vous.”


The mosaic is still there, as are the marble columns and the chandeliers, but the tea room is 1970s vinyl, and the sparse cake stands do a poor job of filling up the acres of space once used for the té dansant. There are a few people there on this 7 January, a public holiday in Egypt to commemorate Coptic Christmas, but chic Cairo has moved elsewhere, to the fashionable suburbs of Heliopolis, or Maadhi, where I’m staying. But on the quiet holiday morning when the fumes and noise of the traffic are not cluttering Taalat Hard Square it is possible, with a little imagination, to imagine you are in Paris-on-the-Nile.


By contrast the City of the Dead is full of life. Throughout the centuries Cairo’s rich, in an attempt to copy the Pharoahs, built themselves huge mausoleums outside the eastern wall of the city. The tradition began with the Mamluk sultans and emirs in the 14th century, who continued the Mamluk tradition of using the mausoleum as a place for entertaining living friends and relations. And even the smaller tombs contained a room for family visitors to stay the night. And many stayed longer, bringing their families, and more poor cousins would arrive. As my Lonely Planet guide says: “The dead hoped they would be remembered; the city’s homeless thanked them for free accommodation”. Large mausoleums would be divided into compartments. Brick houses were built between the mausoleums and graves. Families would rent out rooms. More ambitious buildings would appear. Even a five-storey building. Washing is hung out to dry between graves. Also some basic services such as electricity, water, post offices, schools eventually appeared. After all, it’s not such a bad place to live. You are near your loved ones…


Just over the main road is the Citadel, and I looked, as in 1798 did Napoleon, over the minarets and towers of Cairo, the capital of an Egypt which he thought he had conquered, I visit what look like the twin mosques of Sultan Hassan and Ar-Rifai with their huge vertical stone walls and sixty metre high ceilings and arched entrances, I discover the Sultan Hassan mosque is 14th century and the Ar-Rifai is 19th century, and in the latter have the pleasure of visiting the tomb of the Shah of Iran. But the Shah of Iran, ousted by a religious revolution, buried in a mosque! Well, he was ousted by a Shia revolution, and Egypt is a Sunni country, had friends in Egypt and had lived in Egypt after the Iranian revolution. Then on the huge mosque courtyard, covering 2.5 hectares, of Ibn Tulun, built between 876 and 879 CE, and I climb the minaret to look over the narrow main medieval thoroughfare of Cairo, the Qasaba, which runs along the north-south axis of the medieval city and still contains much of the hustle and bustle of the Al-Qahira, the Cairo of earlier times.

I join the Qasaba, here called Shari As-Siyuqiyya on Shari As-Salbiyya, where horses and donkeys are chewing on fresh tasty grass, fuelling up to do some pulling, next to a narguile, water pipe, café, and in such cafés a large part of the male population of Cairo spend much of their time. Shops are small, often little more than a hole on the wall: a butcher’s shop is looked on enviously by dogs and cats; a tinsmith is hammering out plates; a carpenter’s specializes in beds; at a sweet potato stand a group of tourists are enjoying this local delicacy; a junk shop displays a picture of President Mubarak; then the Al Amir Tarb palace. A Chevrolet pick-up burns oil and annoys at least the tourists. A disused cinema; the Centro Italo-Egiziano per il Restauro e l’Archeologia; the Yimaz mosque; a donkey cart pulling a load of potatoes; a hospital with some piles of rubbish outside hardly a good advertisement; plenty of mobile phone shops; girls listening to pop music on their mobile phones; a miserable dusty shop selling nothing; the Prince Almas al Haddad mosque, which is being restored. Haberdashers, fruit stalls, perfume shops, more cafés, a stall selling sheep’s head sandwiches, then the junction of Shari Muhammad Karim. In the middle of the busy junction there is a tiny watered garden; on the other side “El Bebany since 1802”, with its rotisserie chicken.

Now the name of the Qasaba is Shari Al-Hilmiyya, and then Al-Ganbakiyya, and women in burkhas are running their errands at shops and stalls which individually specialize in: local flat bread; oranges; spices; greens; bones; liver and kidneys; live ducks; hens; pigeons, a delicacy here. Another mosque. Barbers’ and jewellers’. A scooter just avoids knocking down an old fellow, and the middle-aged driver apologizes. One old lady sits on the pavement shelling peas to sell; another sells cauliflowers. A man tries to open the manhole to unblock the drain. The Playstation shop has a picture of Christian Ronaldo and cartoons of Ronaldinho and David Beckham. The driver of a small Suzuki pick-up is arguing with the driver of a horse and cart. The horse has had to stop to let the Suzuki pass and has lost the rhythm to pull its very heavy load of metal cables. It whinnies but can’t get going again. I get past and move on…  We are in the souk, and the shops become touristy: scarves, mats, toy camels. I wander up Tentmakers’ Alley and nearly buy a colourful desert tent. It is near here, I read, that one can find the Midaq Alley of the eponymous novel by Nobel Prizewinner Nagib Mahfouz. 

Now we are at the medieval city gates, Bab Zuwayla, the Gates of Victory, built in 1087, near to which the heads of enemies were impaled on spikes. I climb the towers. just outside the gates a throng of water pipe sellers, apparently an enormous business here; tinkers; tailors; coopers, coppersmiths, masons engraving Arabic inscriptions on marble. Then back to the Qasaba, now Shari Al-Muez Li-Din Allah, and I come to the Rag Market: slinky full-length black gowns with heart or paisley patterns favoured by women here; fox furs (with heads); fluffy slippers, blankets, coats, jumpers, probably from China; wholesale raw cotton merchants; the last tarboosh maker in Cairo, for no one except bellboys in plush hotels and restaurant attendants wear a fez nowadays; and at the crowded corner of Al Azhar St, socks, outsize bras, corn, bread are all for sale as the road narrows near the Al-Ghouri early 16th century complex of mosque, with its red-chequered minaret, and mausoleum.

“Come and see my handicraft shop” for we are now in tourist territory, in the Khan el Khalili, the main tourist bazaar. I climb over the pedestrian bridge with porters, shoppers, tourists, beggars, touts. Pick n’mix perfumes, spices, belly dancing outfits, false mother-of-pearl jewel boxes, pyramids of all sizes, models of the dog god Seth, Isis, Osiris and Horus, Tutankhamen tack, drums, crocodiles, Cleopatras, lutes, Marlboro cigarettes, red Egyptian football shirts, green Egyptian football shirts, Lampard and Messi shirts. “Drink much beer a man like you? Where you from? Germany? Come and see my shop”. “Would you like to enjoy your eyes?”

5.10 p.m.: the call to prayer. Tourist shops give way to silversmiths and goldsmiths and then antique shops and shops selling huge aluminium pans. This area has been nicely restored. The cobblestones are new. People are few. There are several restored Turkish houses and a Turkish Arygoz Shadow Puppet theatre. The Egyptian textile Museum has just closed for the day, as has the Madrassa and Khamqah of Sultan Barqaq (1384-6). Coloured floodlighting is now being tested. More water pipe shops. A huge new mosque, and, at the (restored) city walls our journey along the Qasaba ends.


6 Responses to “Cairo: City of Contrasts”

  1. Sanaa el Hilali Says:

    very interesting and amazing how you could notice and record all this descriptive bits in one visit…

  2. Geraldine Chaia Says:

    John: es un placer seguir tus viajes desde la Patagonia argentina, tus descripciones y las imágenes me remontan al lugar mismo y en el tiempo.
    Un abrazo.

  3. Claudia Says:

    John, você é um ótimo cronista de viagens. Suas descrições são vívidas e fascinantes. Sigo os relatos com muito interesse.


  4. maria villares Says:


    muito bom poder seguir suas descrições e sonhar pelo Cairo que não conheço.


  5. Aina Says:

    adorei o seu blog! é bom pra sonhar (por enquanto so sonhar…) mesmo, além de aprender um poquito!!

  6. Halley Says:

    Very quickly this web page will be famous among all
    blog visitors, due to it’s nice posts

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