Journal: Monday 17 November 2003
I’ve had a fantastic holiday. I sat with the group for an early breakfast this morning and was quite sad that Val, Elizabeth, Tim and Judy, Kevin and Tom were leaving soon for the airport to fly home today. We talked about our desert experience over coffee and rolls and made promises, as you do, to keep in touch back in England. At the same time, I was quietly ecstatic that Sam and I were staying on in Egypt for another two weeks. Today is the beginning of my second holiday!
Mohammed took the group to the airport in the minibus and then he too was leaving for the long drive back to Luxor. Abdul was going with Sam across the river to hire a private car for the next leg of our adventures. What to do with my free day? I still don’t know the city that well and with a little trepidation I took the metro to Tahrir and once there, I would decide how to spend my day. Starting at the Nile Hilton, I browsed in the shops and bought a few presents in Nomad before the smell of the Hilton’s excellent coffee became just too much to resist. After whiling away another hour on the terrace at my favourite occupation – people-watching – I set off for a walk.
I’ve read many books about Cairo’s varied past and while hating the idea of colonialism I’m still captivated by the city’s history of the past couple of centuries; the street names, the architecture, statues of pashas and beys in every square. Walking by the river on the Corniche I gravitated naturally towards Garden City, the focus of many historical novels by both European and Egyptian authors. I had read that this district was born around the turn of the 20th century. Home to genteel palaces and villas, Garden City was designed by a European engineer José Lamba, who shunned the grid-like wide avenues, squares and boulevards of the rest of Cairo in favour of a maze of winding tree-lined streets that more often than not deposited me right back where I started as I wandered through them. Later in its history, the beautiful buildings of Garden City that began life as upper class residences, hospitals or private schools, were mostly occupied by embassies and banks. The exotic street names from my much-loved fiction have changed over a century from honouring European founders then Egyptian ruling families and stories of the pre-war intrigues of Garden City élite are many. Today, I saw no European nannies watching over their semi-royal charges playing in the gardens, no richly liveried Nubian bawaabs (door-keepers) and no chauffeured Rolls Royces waiting discreetly at the curb. Nowadays the district feels forlorn and forgotten and while it is still secluded, the roar of lions from Giza Zoo across the river can no longer be heard in the breeze.
From its earliest days Garden City was subject to many changes. The district has the distinction of being the location of Cairo’s first skyscraper, a 30-story concrete monolith built in 1957 that was by far Cairo’s tallest building. It was nick-named Emaret Belmont because of its cigarette advertisment on the roof. The name stuck, though the sign has changed many times and I regard this building as the beginning of Cairo’s architectural downfall. Over the years, changes in Egyptian property laws prompted many of Garden City’s owners to convert their sumptuous villas to more lucrative luxury apartment blocks and even these have been usurped in their turn by insurance companies or other commercial enterprises. Large Nile-side tourist hotels now form Garden City’s western edge, the most recent being the most expensive, the Four Seasons Hotel. The secluded leafy Garden City of my imagination seems now thoroughly doomed with only the occasional glimpse of former splendour still surviving.
Walking back along the Corniche towards Tahrir, I crossed the river to al-Gezira Island over the Qasr al-Nil Bridge, narrowly missing being run over by the constant stream of traffic. I had spotted the Cairo Tower, soaring some 187m into the sky and this was my goal. When I finally reached the tower it looked run-down, its concrete lotus-styled latticework cracked and broken in places and it had the air of being long-forgotten by tourists. When it was completed in 1961 this was Egypt’s greatest landmark and the tallest building in Africa. The tower, though at first it didn’t look it, was open and I walked up a pink granite staircase and admired the mosaic walls in the entrance foyer before taking the lift that whisked me up to the restaurant and observation deck in less than a minute. The restaurant at the top of the tower is supposed to revolve, but today it was static. I paid my LE50 which included a drink and piece of cake and saw that there were telescopes on the observation terrace to view the city laid out below, but the view was misty and obscured by a layer of smoggy cloud. I could just about make out the Giza and Dahshur pyramids away to the west with the naked eye. To the east, the river and Garden City lay far below me and Cairo’s impressive skyline was bounded by the far-away Mukkatam Hills. I could see the Citadel with its crowning glory the Mosque of Mohammed Ali, and closer still, Tahrir Square and the Nile Hilton. The new gleaming white Cairo Opera House was almost directly below me at the edge of Gezira Sporting Club. Apart from the hazy cloud, it was very windy outside the restaurant and difficult to keep my camera still enough for photographs. By the time I went inside I was freezing and very glad of a hot cup of coffee.
Leaving the tower I wandered around the island, where Zamalek to the north, seemed to consist purely of large buildings housing colleges, schools and libraries of every type, as well as all the embassies that have been ousted from Garden City. Gezira, the south of the Island is mostly covered by the lawns and racetracks of the Sporting Club but there are also one or two small museums, galleries and cultural centres on the fringes. I must have walked miles today. Consulting my Cairo map I was pleased to see that I could get all the way back to Rameses Station from the Metro at Opera on the island which saved me having to walk back across the bridge to Tahrir again. A wonderful invention, the Metro!
I finally met up with Sam again around 6.00pm in the hotel and we walked through the crowded streets to Downtown Cairo for a low-key meal in an Egyptian restaurant. This of course was followed by our customary several hours in a coffee-shop somewhere in a back alley. While galabeya-clad Egyptian men sat smoking shisha and watching a noisy game of football on the huge TV inside the cafe, Sam and I sat on orange plastic chairs outside and talked to a motley crew of hungry street cats while catching up with each other’s day. She has managed to organise a hire car that she can collect tomorrow.