Monday, February 26, 2007

Things To Do In Cairo When You're Dead

Cairo is the undisputed cultural capital of the Arab world. It is the most populous Arab country by far. It is where the vast majority of Arabic films and pop music are produced. And it is home to the Al Azhar mosque and university, not only the oldest continuously functioning university in the world, but also the most respected authority on questions of Islamic law and Sunni thought. Apparently there are some old, triangular-shaped buildings close by but I haven't yet found the time to go and check them out because there is so much to see and do in the city itself.

As befits a city of 11 million people, and probably the most densely populated city in the world, Cairo is busy. Very busy. It is such a change from the lethargy of Djibouti to constantly hear honking horns, and every attempt at crossing the street requires a quick prayer to Allah to ensure you come out the other side in one piece. My hotel is on the 4th floor of a building smack in the centre of downtown (the elevator doesn't look like it has worked in decades) right above a colourful fruit-and-veg market (cool) and a popular local mosque with particularly loud megaphones (not so cool). If you can survive the roads long enough to get around, the city is a fascinating treasure trove of architectural gems. The relatively modern Downtown area is full of grand Art-Deco apartment buildings that, despite needing more than just a lick of paint, form a surprisingly pleasant urban centre. Further south along the river is the area known as Old Cairo, built on the site of the original Greek settlement of Babylon and now the centre of the city's Christian, Coptic community who form Egypt's largest minority. Christianity has an old and venerable tradition in Egypt proven amply by the age of the churches and their impressive collection of saintly relics (there isn't a church worth its salt that doesn't have at least a holy finger to show off). Wander a couple of miles east of Downtown and you come across Islamic Cairo, the medieval heart of the city with its packed souqs, monumental mosques and narrow alleys. My favourite part of the city is slightly further east yet of Islamic Cairo, just outside the old city walls. Stretching out for almost 5km from north to south is the vast medieval necropolis dating back to the time of the Mamluk sultans. The graves range from simple stone markers through house-sized crypts all the way to spectacular funerary complexes containing mosques, madrassas and accommodation rooms for visitors. Graveyards are often fascinating places in their own right, whether you are interested in the macabre or not, but what makes this one special is the fact that many of the mausolea have now been taken over by poor Cairenes who live side by side with their more illustrious, dead, ancestors. Children use tombs for goalposts and hide behind gravestones when playing hide-and-seek. Truly the oddest cohabitation of the living and the dead that I have ever seen and a refreshing scene of tolerance and respect between the communities.

1 comment:

Ex-Shammickite said...

I'm glad to see you've got to Cairo, and appreciating it's amazing diversity. You're right about the insane traffic, donkey carts sharing the road with stretch Mercs, Imams on Vespa scooters, everyone honking horns for no reason at all 24/7. And the call to prayer on the loudspeaker at 4am is quite memorable! Ah yes, I remember it well! Have you seen the Pyramids and the Sphinx yet? Don't miss them. Try to ignore the Pyramid Gift Shop and the Sphinx Snack Bar... typical Tourist Trap stuff. But the Pyramids are awesome! Have fun.