Journal: Monday 20 January 2003
Giving Abdul a well-earned day off, Sam and I took the Metro this morning a few stops to Sadat station and came out into Midan al-Tahrir. This must be one of the busiest places in Cairo to get across the road, with cars and trucks speeding around the multiple lanes of the busy square while crowds of pedestrians try to weave and dodge between them. Luckily we had only one road to get across to the American University bookshop, but we still felt like we were taking our life into our hands trying to avoid the traffic. We’d already been to the bookshop once on this trip and Sam and I had both bought far too many books, but today I only wanted to buy a street map of Cairo and I found a very good one in book form published by the AUC Press. But this place is just so tempting. By the time I had found Sam browsing at the other end of the shop I had picked up two more ‘essential’ Egyptology books, adding even more to the weight of my luggage on my journey home. Although I now have an Egypt Air Frequent Flyer card, which allows me an extra 10kg luggage, I still have to carry my suitcases home. Thank goodness for wheels!
Back across several roads, we went into the Nile Hilton, a favourite place for coffee. We were both feeling a little lazy today and spent a couple of hours in the terrace coffeeshop, chatting to the wife of the Sudanese Ambassador. She was a lovely lady and she even invited us to her villa for drinks this evening. Not sure why because she didn’t know Sam and I at all, but we politely refused, pleading that we were too busy.
Taking a taxi from outside the Hilton, we next went to the Khan el-Kalili, the ancient market that’s been the trading centre of Cairo for centuries. Leaving the taxi at el-Hussein Mosque Sam and I decided to explore some of the older streets here away from the touristy parts and we took a walk from el-Hussein to Bab el-Nasr, along Sharia al-Gamailiya. This is a more or less direct route through the older residential streets of Khan el-Kalili and the heart of Fatimid Cairo. We walked past the little souvenir shops on the edge of the bazaar and into streets that obviously cater for a more local clientele. Here were the butchers, bakers and grocers that provided local residents with their daily food supplies. There were other ‘essentials’ too, like shops that sold only the huge brass tops for minarets, shops devoted to exclusively to shisha pipes, fabric stalls with dozens of bolts of gaudy materials with tailors who sat at their old treadle sewing machines outside. Now and then there was a general hardware store with a huge supply of bright pink plastic laundry baskets or aluminium pots hanging in the doorway. The street here was dusty and dirty, with gullies full of rubbish along each side of the road and the buildings looked very run-down although it was busy with donkey-carts, bicycles and pedestrians. It had rained heavily last night and we had to skirt around pools of muddy water every few metres.
Gradually, as we left the shops behind there were older and more historic Islamic buildings, some of them in the process of being restored and others boarded up and disused. We stopped often to peer through the open arched doorways of wikalas – ancient warehouses where the goods brought by merchants were stored and rooms were available to rent on the upper floors. One particularly large wikala had been beautifully restored and we went inside to have a look. This was the Wikala of Dhu’l Fiquar Oda Bashi, built in 1673. In the eighteenth century this was one of Cairo’s main centres for the trade of coffee. On the ground floor there were thirty two storerooms which had apartments above for the merchants. On the corner of this building was a Sabil-Khutab, a public drinking fountain and a school where young boys would go to be tutored in the Quran. Madrassas were also Islamic places of learning and we saw several of these large but disused buildings, often combined with the site of a mausoleum.
I thought the architecture wonderful as we wandered along the street, gazing up at lattice-work windows and remains of carved wooden mushrabiya screens that overhung the streets. Looking at SCA plaques on the walls of buildings and consulting Sam’s map of Islamic Cairo we learned about all sorts of early Islamic architecture. In this street alone, there were several buildings whose origins dated back to the Fatimid Period (10th to 12th century AD). Mosque and mausoleum, wikala, madrassa, sabil-kuttab and khanquah, these buildings opened up a whole new area of study that we knew nothing about but that we both found fascinating. Eventually we arrived at Bab el-Nasr, a huge fortified gate in the wall which marks the northern limits of the old Fatimid city. This part of the wall, between Bab el-Nasr and nearby Bab el-Fetou, was constructed in 1087 by Armenian military masons brought in from Mesopotamia. Bab el-Nasr means ‘Gate of Victory’ and is flanked by two square stone towers. Sam and I crossed the main road on the other side of the gate to get a good view of the fortifications. It was very impressive with its huge blocks of stone punctuated by little arrow-slit windows for the defence of the city.
We walked back the way we came and found ourselves suddenly at el-Fishawi’s coffeeshop. At 5.00pm it was fairly quiet and we sat at one of the little brass tables outside in the narrow alleyway, drinking coffee and people-watching until it got late and we took a taxi back to the Ciao to get ready for dinner. We ate later at the KFC on Talat Harb, a restaurant I hate because it’s always noisy and crowded, but it was close, cheap and convenient. Walking back I came across a shop selling real galabeyas, that is, those worn by Egyptian women and not the touristy ones we see everywhere in bazaars. I bought two galabeyas which were quiet expensive, but I wanted something I could wear at home and one of them was a rich thick dark green velvet. I was very pleased with my purchases today as we walked back to our hotel through the late evening crowds of local shoppers.