Journal: Saturday 16 December 1995
Next day my friends and I had decided to take one of the hotel’s city tours, it was an easy-option to get a feel for Cairo. We began the day at the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, a vast ornate Victorian edifice, with galleries, high ceilings and dusty rooms full of wonderful treasures dating to a time as far back as when Britain was still in the Neolithic Age. All we have remaining from that period are a few flint tools and stone axe-heads but here in Egypt there were craftsmen manufacturing gilded furniture, fabulous jewellery and the most amazing carved statues and reliefs. I had only enough time to see a small proportion of the collection, spending quite a while in the Tutankhamun gallery oblivious to the jostling crowds and noisy guides, totally captivated by the treasures before me, images which were so familiar from my books back home. Nevertheless, coming face to face with the dazzling beauty of the boy-king’s golden coffin gave me an unexpected thrill. Some of the books say that Tutankhamun’s grave goods are little more than mass-produced junk, hurriedly collected together for his premature burial, but if this is junk, what spectacular riches must the earlier and more important burials have contained? There was no answer to this question because no earlier pharaoh’s tomb has yet been found so completely intact. Wandering through some of the Old Kingdom galleries on the ground floor I eventually made my way towards the exit, marvelling at the ancient people who had the technology to quarry and carve those massive stone statues which had miraculously been preserved for five thousand years, give or take a century or two.
Our next stop was the Citadel, a great stone fortress rising on a spur of the Muqattam Hills which can be seen from all over Cairo. It was begun by the Sultan Saladin to defend the city from the Crusaders during the twelfth century, though the most famous structure within its precincts is the Mosque of Mohammed Ali, the last of the Turkish rulers to reside here. After admiring a spectacular view over the city (partly hidden in the smog) we removed our shoes and went into the mosque to gaze at the ornate alabaster-faced honey-coloured walls surrounding the huge space inside, empty except for the tomb of Mohammed Ali. Overhead a vast Byzantine Dome is flanked by four semi-domes of intricately crafted bronze stained glass and suspended from the ceiling there are hundreds of electric lamps which flood the mosque with subdued light. Back outside in a courtyard fringed with domed porticos, there is a clock given as a gift to Mohammed Ali by King Louis Philippe of France in exchange for the obelisk that now stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. It is said that the clock has never worked.
We drove back through the city past the tombs of the Mamaluks, the so-called ‘City of the Dead’, a vast necropolis of domes and minarets. The cemetery is inhabited by thousands of people. The dead are buried in elaborate tombs which date back to the twelfth century, while the living, some of Cairo’s poorest inhabitants, exist in shanty dwellings packed between the impressive mausoleums.
As we drove on through the streets of Cairo, I began to realise that this was city of stark contrasts. Behind the smart shops in spotless tree-lined avenues we would suddenly turn a corner into a dingy street and the scene was transformed into one of past glories, tall crumbling buildings with faded peeling paint, where children still play barefoot among the rubbish to the ever-present background throb of transistor radios.