Day two: August 16, 2015 started after finally getting some decent sleep. Five hours of shuteye felt luxurious after the level of deprivation and stimulation that I experienced on day one.
We were off to visit the churches, mosques and temple(s) of Cairo, and planned to finish with a tour at the Egyptian museum. I made sure I had plenty of scarves; no amount of heat would have me showing skin in a mosque. While we waited an hour for the fellas to get on their merry way, I put in a word with Abdo to make sure that we wouldn’t have another Sphinx-like time shortage at the end of the day.
I specifically said “we don’t want to get to the museum at 4pm when they close at 6, or something”.
On the Road
The drive to Cairo was uneventful other than the insanity of daily life on the streets there. The mini van had curtains, to help keep it cool, but there’s just too much to see for comfort to take precedence.
I noticed that many of the buildings along the highway have these pieces of rebar pointed up, as if they were trying to keep gigantic pigeons off of them. Come to find out, they were actually the beginnings of the next story. Cairo is perpetually going vertical.
Most every apartment building was dotted with random units where the balconies featured full colored paint jobs and murals. Sometimes there would be an explosion of color, as if neighbors were inspired by some friendly competition, like in US suburban neighborhoods that blow up with lights, during the holidays.
We hit a traffic jam, which we wasted no time navigating around. The driver did this easily, but my knuckles were white. The mini van barely stopped before it found its detour, driving over a median, then going the wrong way into distant oncoming traffic and finding an on-ramp that we used as an off-ramp to the frontage road. As I started strait ahead, the driver pointed out of his window at the twisted semi-truck, the smoking wreckage that had stopped up the traffic. I covered my mouth in shock and tried to look away before I could see any dead bodies.
Citadel of Cairo
We entered Citadel and the second thing I noticed, after how close we were to the huge and iconic place of worship, was the quiet. The 6 of us stood in front of the Mosque at a distance to get a good view of the architecture, while Abdo told us in semi-comprehendable English about its history. I covered my head with one of my scarves and made sure that the other one completely covered my shoulders. I felt pretty conservative when I saw other female tourists with their heads covered, paired with short shorts and flip flops. While we listened to Abdo’s spiel, a small group of young men gathered and waited patiently. They wanted pictures with Richard and Jordan. They asked politely and Abdo reluctantly took a break to allow it. I figured that they might have mistaken two, good looking, well put together men for movie stars or something.
We moved around the space and found our way to the inside of the the mosque built by/for the guy that stole all of that limestone from the Great Pyramid, Muhammed Ali Pasha. Abdo said that he did a lot of great things, but in my opinion, he’ll never live that one down. Or, I guess I mean, he didn’t!
We entered, our shoes in hand, mouths open, aghast at the beauty of the space. We were immediately approached by a group of young Egyptians who seemed fascinated by us. Abdo had us sit quietly in a circle on the floor of the historic space to give us more of its history, and annoyed this time, he waved off any and all of the Egyptians that wanted our pictures.
Once he was done talking, I gladly posed with smiling young people whose beaming faces were hard to say ‘no’ to. Plus, it felt kind of flattering. Group after group took turns posing with me. As I looked around for my friends, I noticed that each of the 5 of us were doing the same thing. After accommodating about a dozen photos, myself, I started to say ‘no’.
I found it almost impossible to get a good photo of this breathtaking space, because the most beautiful aspects surrounded us in every direction. It was hard to capture, say, the ceiling, because it was so close and so grand. I did manage a good pic of a huge chandelier, which I’d love to find a wiki about. A gift from the French, or something(?). I loved the way it showed it’s age, but was still well preserved.
When we exited, we left through the opening that pointed out towards Mecca. From the rooftop where we stood, beyond the outermost bastion we could see the whole of Cairo, although I’m sure that greater Cairo circled us. Off in the distance we could barely make out the Pyramids of Giza through the smog, but only because Abdo pointed them out.
Al-Nasir Muhammad Mosque
Citadel contains 3 mosques and a couple of museums. Each were built at different times, with varying architecture and uses. The whole space was tourist central and we were continually asked to be in pictures.
An Islam advocacy group had set up display, some propaganda inside of Al-Nasir Muhammad Mosque. Large words promised that women of Islam were treated as spiritual equals to men. I couldn’t help but think of some of the unmentioned aspects of Islamic gender “equality” that weren’t quite as tourist friendly.
Inside of this mosque, I noticed one of the interior walls with shapes that once were windows, crudely blocked off. I asked our guide and he explained that they were covered up when the city built a highway, just outside. How sad it is to see a society’s lack of consideration for its own history. Maybe the population explosion was just too hard to keep up with. I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that decision was made after Cairo began loosing tourist money.
Cane Juice pit stop
Between Citadel and Coptic Cairo, the van made a sudden stop on the side of the road, or as our guide would say, “rood”. Abdo jumped out and opened our sliding door, handing each of us a frosty mug full of “real cane juice” from a little shack. Richard and I discussed the pollution content of this chilled and special treat, a conversation he closed when he said convincingly enough, “they probably don’t like the taste of city water either.” We toasted and chugged. Jordan had two.
I’d be lying if I said that I wanted to keep on this historical tour of holy places. Abdo was into it and really impressed upon us the idea of how many different religions were practiced and accepted in Cairo, by showing us a ton of places of worship in Coptic Cairo.
It was clearly important to the Egyptians that we have a good time, see lots of open mindedness and tell our friends that Egypt is safe. Their livelihoods and survival depended on it.
What stood out was Abu Serga and the journey through a long, sunken corridor with a small market in it to get there. When we got to the doorway of this partially underground church, it had clouds of dust coming out of it, along with the sound of sledgehammers and wet saws. I thought that maybe we wouldn’t be able to see what we’d come to see, after all. But Abdo stepped in and we covered our noses and mouths with our shirts/scarves, as we passed through the restoration work. We saw the famous mural and even more importantly a little row of steps descending to where THE Mary and Joseph came for refuge with their little baby Jesus, in like zero BC. The church was built there in celebration or honor of what was once the cave where the young family hid.
We also visited the Hanging Church and the Ben Ezra Synagogue, where I embarrassed everyone by taking an illegal picture, because I didn’t see the sign.
Out to lunch
Abdo had his ideas of where to take us to lunch that day, but we took matters into our own hands and ended up at a place that Lonely Planet spoke highly of. We found a parking spot amongst what looked like a traffic jam, but were just a whole lot of double parked cars on the street. The little restaurant was perfect and we ordered all of the traditional Middle Eastern delicacies and then some, avoiding anything raw. We drank bottled water and bottled beer.
After lunch, Abdo warned that we should probably head strait to the museum from there. A few of us were sure that a quick Turkish coffee would be a worthwhile delay. In order to take in as much of Cairo culture as possible, we decided to hit the nearby famed Café Riche. We were seated and a quick coffee order turned into a long long wait. I was blamed for ordering mine as a “French Turkish” which Abdo recommended when I asked if they ever steam milk in their Turkish coffees. I wish I hadn’t. The old old old waiter looked absolutely disgusted by my request. I tried to unorder it, but it was too late. When it arrived, I did really enjoy it. It was delicious, despite the spit that everyone promised me was surely lurking in its creaminess.
The Egyptian Museum
We arrived at the Egyptian museum, bought our tickets and checked our cameras… at 4pm. It was clearly the late start that I had feared. Rumor had it that we had two hours before they were to close. We quickly moved through rows and rows of statues and sculptures and other ancient belongings to see the pieces that Abdo deemed worthwhile. My Lonely Planet suggested that it’s best to reserve a full day to see what the museum had to offer, but that two days would be better.
The place was stacked with artifacts. There were entire rooms dedicated to sarcophaguses aka sarcophagi!
I think that my favorite was a statue of Kaaper. I wanted to sit with that for a while and nearly lost the group in my delay.
I was absolutely amazed as I was being reminded of how much more ancient egypt contained than I remembered from art history class in college. The films I’d watched before my trip focused more on archaeology.
After climbing some stairs and on our way to King Tut’s room, we were told that the museum would be closing in 10 minutes, a whole hour earlier than we’d expected. Eyes wide open, we studied every little detail. I was in complete amazement as we saw the remains of the young Pharaoh, his famous mask and belongings that seemed like something you’d find in much less ancient times. I was so confused when I saw metal knives, painted metal jewelry and chains. When I originally learned about ancient Egypt, I guess that I didn’t realize how impressive it was.
I almost cried as we were ushered back out to the street, strategically planning how I might return before our flight departed to Aswan the next day. Jordan urged us to give it up, because “we are about to spend a week seeing all of the places where this stuff came from”. Travel can be good at reminding you to seize the moment and let go of expectations.
Pool before Happy Hour
The day before we were too late for the pool, so this day I was bent on getting a dip in before they closed it. The main pool of the Mena House Hotel had just been covered by platforms for the wedding they were preparing for (part of all of that noise, the morning before), so we visited the one in the new addition.
The pristine pool was probably artificially cooled, because it was super refreshing considering the consistently hot climate. I took off my coverup and dove in head first, feeling relieved as the thin layer of Cairo’s heat and smog was rinsed away from my body. As soon as I came up for air, I heard a man saying that the pool was closing. I pretended not to notice him, even though he seemed to maybe be speaking directly to me, and immediately went back under, holding my breath for a long time, in the calm of the deepest part of the shallow pool. Richard and Jordan joined me for a few splashes. We toweled off together under a waxing crescent moon set against a bright/deep blue gradient, Egyptian twilight, set against a silhouette of palm trees. It was a view fit for clip art or stock photography, if I had a better camera.
The water evaporated quickly off our bodies, in the warm air and it felt so comfortable to just be outside that night, half naked and barefoot. I felt incredible. The three of us padded around on the concrete grounds, exploring the addition. Another huge and very modern restaurant had recently been built, but didn’t look like it had yet opened. We studied the design, layout and scale, wondering where all of the money came from and if and when people would actually be eating there.
When the topic of what to do for dinner came up, it was then that I realized that what I called our “meat lunch” was still sitting heavily in my surprisingly swollen belly. I thought I might skip dinner, and I did, more by accident. I laid down for a nap after my shower and ended up calling in my cancellation, a no-brainer trade of social plans for a long night’s rest.
Thanks for being a conscientious tourist who actually DOES dress conservatively when visiting conservative places. We saw some Australians at the Taj Mahal (which some people apparently don’t realize is a Muslim mausoleum, with adjacent mosque) dressed in short shorts, flip flops, and tank tops.