I read somewhere once that you should start the year doing what you love, that is why I decided to go out on the 1st January 2022. I could have never imagined 2023 would start as it did, in Cairo [القاهرة] of all places. As a settlement, Cairo can be traced to the Babylon Fortress, built around the 1st century BCE, but its real foundations were laid in the second half of the 7th century by the Fatimid dynasty. The city survived the Caliphate and kept spreading. Today, it is the largest metropolitan area in Africa, and the 12th in the world with 22 million people.
After waking up around 7:00, I was the first in my group to go down to have breakfast, and when I did, I saw that the breakfast buffet had added a ‘hangover’ buffet – Ibuprofen, Strepsils, painkillers in general… I thought it was hysterical. To be honest, I was tired and sore from the pyramid climbs, and probably a bit hungry since dinner had been… strange. One out of three was dealt with after some coffee and a very… British breakfast somehow – scrambled eggs, potato wedges, roasted tomato, a sausage… this gave me energy for the day, which we were to spend in the Unesco World Heritage Site Historic Cairo.
Departure was scheduled for 9:00 – too late, in my opinion. First, we got caught up in the horrible traffic. Then, when we arrived at our first destination, we had to turn around because the bus parking lot was full. On the way we caught a glimpse of the City of the Dead (Cairo Necropolis, or Qarafa [القرافة]). In this area, tombs, mausoleums and houses cramp together, up and down. Some people have made their houses out of the mausoleums due to Cairo’s crazy urbanisation. The City of the Dead was created almost at the same time as the city of the living.
We also saw the ending of the Cairo Citadel Aqueduct [سور مجرى العيون]. Though originally designed during the Ayyubid period between the 12th and 13th century, it was later reworked by several Mamluk sultans (13th – 16th century) to expand water provision to the city. Today, it does not carry water, and it is under ‘redevelopment’ in order to display it as a heritage monument.
Finally, after way too many scares with the bus, we reached the area called Coptic Cairo. It is located in what used to be the fortress of Bayblon, and in order to access it you have to go down a flight of stairs that feels way too long due to the pyramid climb. I do know a thing or two about soreness, and as I was hopping down the stairs as fast as I could, someone complained that it was unfair that I was ‘fresh like a lotus flowers’ while they were sore. That made me laugh – I guess I’m more used to being in pain than others.
The Coptic Catholic Church is the main branch of Christianity in Egypt. The Coptic Church seceded from Catholicism in the 5th century due to disagreements about the “nature of Christ”. Coptic Catholics believe the same general things as other Christian faiths, and fast a lot – 40 days before Christmas (7th of January), and 55 before Easter. They have a different Pope and rules for priests. Copts are a minority in mostly Muslim Egypt.
Our first stop there was the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus [ϯⲉⲕⲕⲗⲏⲥⲓⲁ ⲛ̀ⲧⲉ ⲛⲓ⳥ ⲥⲉⲣⲅⲓⲟⲥ ⲛⲉⲙ ⲃⲁⲭⲟⲥ ϧⲉⲛ ⲡⲓⲥⲡⲉⲗⲉⲱⲛ]. Christian traditions tell that the Holy Family fled the Massacre of the Innocents. In the nativity narrative, Herod, King of Judea, ordered the killing of all male children under two years near Bethlehem, in order to get rid of the “King of the Jews”. Having been alerted by an angel, Joseph took Mary and infant Jesus to Egypt. According to the tradition, they rested in the cave underneath the church, now turned into a crypt. The church is dedicated to the two martyrs, who died for their faith in Syria in the 3rd century CE. The building, erected in the 4th century, has a central nave and two side aisles, with 12 columns, probably quarried from Ancient Egyptian monuments and temples.
We then made a small stop at a Roman Tower, one of the Roman emperor Trajan’s addition to the original Fortress of Babylon (not that Babylon, the name was probably corrupted from the Pharaonic name). Trajan also created a quay back to the Nile, which has now dried out.
We had a small stop at a bazaar shop, then we went into the so-called Hanging Church [الكنيسة المعلقة or ϯⲉⲕⲕⲗⲏⲥⲓⲁ ⲉⲥⲓϣⲓ], officially Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church [ϯⲉⲕⲕⲗⲏⲥⲓⲁ ⲛ̀ⲧⲉⲑⲉⲟⲇⲟⲕⲟⲥ ϯⲁⲅⲓⲁ ⲙⲁⲣⲓⲁ ϧⲉⲛ ⲃⲁⲃⲩⲗⲟⲛ ⲛ̀ⲭⲏⲙⲓ]. It is called the Hanging Church because it would have been suspended over the water gate of the Roman Babylon fortress – though today the ground is higher and the view is less impressive. It was built somewhere between the 7th and 9th centuries, and holds over a hundred icons. It is built in a basilica style, with 13 pillars representing the apostles and either Christ or Judas – depending on where you read. The rich decoration, with mosaics and reliefs, especially on the outside, mixes Arabic and Coptic motifs.
That was all for Coptic Cairo, as we moved on towards what should have been our first stop – the Citadel of Saladin | Qalaʿat Salāḥ ad-Dīn [قلعة صلاح الدين الأيوبي]. There was going to be a high price to pay for all that time in the bus that morning, we just didn’t know yet. The Citadel was built by Saladin in the 12th century CE. Saladin was the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty. He became Sultan of Egypt in 1171, fought the Christian Crusaders, and conquered Syria. He was considered smart and noble, even by his enemies.
In the Citadel, we visited the Mosque of Muhammad Ali [مسجد محمد علي] in the Southern Enclosure, also called the Alabaster Mosque. It was built in the first half of the 19th century in the Ottoman style, and had to be completely restored in the 1930s due to cracking. It has two minarets, and a metal clock tower – the Cairo Citadel Clock, which apparently was a gift in return for the Luxor Obelisk that currently sits in Paris. The mosque has a courtyard for ablutions, and although the interior is usually carpeted, the carpets were out for cleaning, which created an interesting effect. It was my first time in a mosque, and I was pretty impressed by the huge glass lamps. Most of the courtyard and the interior are covered by alabaster – the upper part of the interior is only wood – and the mausoleum of Muhammad Ali is built in Carrara marble.
Before leaving, the Citadel, we went towards the wall to catch a view of what is modern Cairo, in what we were told is called the Wall of Saladin, which is basically the limit of the Citadel. Looking very carefully, one could spot the pyramids in the background, among the high rises.
Afterwards, we went back to the bus to find the restaurant we were supposed to have lunch at – a “luxury boat” on the Nile that tried to short-change two of us – a travel-mate for 20 EGP and me for almost 60 EGP. We had nothing of it, though I had to be a bit more forceful than he did. We finally got into the most interesting part of the day at 15:17 – The Egyptian Museum in Cairo [المتحف المصري]. Considering that the museum closed at 17:00, this was outrageous. We had to run through the museum, with the tour guide complaining that we were not fast enough – he actually grunted that I was not there when I was. Considering how many people there were, we spent time trotting behind the guy, trying not to lose him.
We saw – thankfully – the Tutankhamun Galleries, with his sarcophagus and mask. I say thankfully because at this time, the treasures were scheduled to move onto the Grand Egyptian Museum next to the pyramids within the same month – and the tour guide could not even tell us where exactly the treasure was. We also saw most of the masterpieces:
- Galleries of Yuya and Tuya (18th Dynasty), containing most everything regarding this couple, including the Book of the Dead
- Statuette of Khufu (Cheops) in ivory, a tiny representation of the pharaoh, the only sculpture of his in existence
- Scribe statue CG 36 (Fifth Dynasty)
- Menkaure triads, in alabaster (Fourth Dynasty). Statues of deified Menkaure.
- Narmer Palette, a cosmetic palette considered the “first historical document in the world”, documenting the union of Lower and Upper Egypt by Narmer (Dynasty 0, 3000 BCE) with the first hieroglyphs
- Bust of Akhenaten, Amonhotep IV
- Sphinx statue of Queen Hatshepsut
- Small wood sculpture compositions from different tombs
- Sarcophagi from several pharaohs and noblemen
- Rahotep and Nofret (26th century BCE)
- Statue of Seneb and his Family (25th century BCE)
- Face of Queen Hatshepsut
By the time he actually cut us loose, it was almost closing time, 16:40. I managed to wander a little on my own, and at least catch a glimpse of some colossal statues and the exhibited pyramidia (tops of the pyramids). I am not going to lie, I was miffed. We should have gone out of the hotel earlier, and if the bus could not enter the Citadel, we could have walked for ten minutes rather than waste an extra hour driving around Cairo. The best, though, was still to come. My travel-mates had come later than me, but they left earlier than me – almost 12 hours earlier. Back in Aswan I had tried to organise a day trip for myself for the second, and throughout the bus rides, I insisted thrice about organising something, but was just told that my pick-up was 14:00.
We were driven around Cairo for a little while after the museum until we reached the area known as Islamic Cairo | Al-Mu’izz’s Cairo [قاهرة المعز], the heart of the Unesco Heritage Site – it is also known as Historic Cairo or Medieval Cairo, and it existed before the current city expansion, built throughout the Middle Ages around the Citadel. It is surrounded by a wall, that can be crossed through a number of monumental gates. We had a walk down Al-Muizz li-Din Allah al-Fatimi Street [شارع المعز لدين الله الفاطمي], the most important artery of the historical city, with a number of historical buildings, such as the Qalawun complex [مجمع قلاون] and the Mosque-Madrasa of Sultan Barquq [مسجد ومدرسة وخانقاه الظاهر برقوق]. At the end, there is a tourist market that we were told was Khan al-Khalili, but I was not able to find the historical part of this famous souk, and to be honest, I did not feel too comfortable hanging out alone – we were given an hour of time to ‘do shopping’ here. Though the street itself was quite neat, and the buildings were nicely lit, again, I was not in too much agreement with the timing, and the shopping area was not welcoming at all – at one point I was sent a child to beg me for a pound, and she kept crying around me. One should never give money to beggar children, as it encourages the practice, but it was hard to force myself to ignore her.
When we came back to the bus, we got on route towards Al-Azhar Park [حديقة الأزهر], and a supposedly famous restaurant with views. Though it has very neat views from the terrace, the set menu was weird. The barbecued meat was okay, but it came after way too much rice and fries. I’m not sure how much the restaurant got from the extra trip price (60€ per person) though.
Most of the group was exhausted and they had to leave at 3:00, so we just bailed out on the rest of whatever was planned. I insisted on the following day and I was told I’d receive a call to my room the following morning. We said goodbyes to the tour guide, and I said my goodbyes to the rest of the group.
I went to bed wondering what time I would get that call. I set my alarm clock for 7:00 just in case.