Timeless pleasures of Cairo

The capital of Egypt is a showcase for old Arabesque and merry urban chaos. Plan your trip as the country recovers from turmoil
The facade of the Sultan Hassan mosque in Cairo
The facade of the Sultan Hassan mosque in Cairo

From the plane, the vast windswept desert and the red-brown mountains of the Sinai peninsula look like giant swirls raked across a sandbox. Then I see what looks like a discrepancy in the muted palette of browns and reds, and I look once again. Beyond and before the ribbon everything is brown. And yet there&rsquos this impossible green. Speed dissolves the mirage &mdash and, in the nothingness of the endless Western Desert that stretches across all of North Africa, appears the Nile. A thin blue line, with a green brush stroke on either side. As we start descending, minarets appear like pinheads in the clear sky. Indistinct greens resolve into palm trees and sugarcane fields, and the vast low-lying urban sprawl of Cairo emerges from the sands like a miracle.

8th July, 5.36pm The first thing I notice when I exit the airplane is the smell &mdash it&rsquos a clean, crisp, slightly burnt smell of baking sand. It&rsquos pleasantly muted, yet pervasive. It drifts on the winds that blow in from the desert that almost abuts the runway.

6.30pm It&rsquos Saturday and the traffic is thin. For a moment, it looks like all the car junkyards from across the Middle East have emptied onto Cairo streets. Beat-up old Peugeots, vintage Beetles, our very own Maruti 800s, and a hundred other brands of cars which I didn&rsquot know existed, speed along the highway. The only thing common to most is the decrepitude &mdash fenders held together with rope, doors that seem a little askew. &ldquoWhat&rsquos the cost of gasoline here&rdquo I ask Sasa, my ever smiling guide. &ldquoOne pound (eight rupees) a litre,&rdquo he replies, in his lilting, urgent accent.

8.14pm The Helnan Shepheard Hotel is located on the Corniche El Nil &mdash an endless promenade that runs along the east bank of the Nile. It&rsquos also where all the main hotels in Cairo &mdash the Hilton, Four Seasons, etc &mdash are located. What they lack in architecture &mdash they all look like gaudy Soviet-era mass housing &mdash they make up for in views of the Nile. Downtown Cairo, where all the offices and the preponderance of shops selling women&rsquos clothing is concentrated, is a five-minute walk away. With a few differences (galabiya-clad men, women in scarves) thrown in, this part of town could pass off as Manhattan &mdash the buildings are high, the traffic thick and fast, and the sidewalks packed.

A bewildering variety of buildings sit sandwiched together &mdash colonial British buildings with pilasters, leaning wrought-iron balconies and peeling plaster, pre-fabricated apartments turned sooty by the immense pollution of all those vintage cars, and an odd modernist office of steel and glass.

I&rsquom a rather jaded traveller, and rather suspicious of the idyllic, but from the seventh-floor balcony of my hotel room, the sight of the sun setting over the west bank of the Nile looks beautiful, and eerily calming. On the street far below me, a siren goes wailing by, the sound ricochets off the buildings, eclipsing the muted hubbub of thousands of people promenading along the river. Party barges start making their way down the river. And a few feluccas (wooden sailboats) tack from side to side, their tattered sails straining to catch the breeze. On the west bank of the river the lights of the Cairo Tower, emblem of modern Egypt, sparkle to life.

9th July, 7am The pyramids are a long way from the hotel. We cross the river and head south into Giza. The rich green fields on either side of the elevated highway alternate with two- and three-storeyed brick houses with tiny windows.

Getting off the highway, we pass through residential areas. The chai-shops have opened, and people sit around with the morning papers in hand. As we turn a corner, the Great Pyramid of Khufu appears, silhouetted in a haze of dust. It just stands there &mdash looming over the sugarcane fields and apartment blocks &mdash at the edge of the desert, and the threshold of the Nile valley.

8am At the Pyramids complex, a few tourist buses have already arrived. This close, the pyramids leave me temporarily speechless. There&rsquos a brute, simple beauty to them. They seem to reach up to the sky, a bridge between life and the afterlife. There&rsquos a touch of arrogance to them &mdash the hauteur of &ldquoa wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command&rdquo an assertion of the might of the Gods against the &ldquolone and level sands&rdquo (Ozymandias).

12pm There&rsquos a single spot on the plateau not far from the pyramids, from where you can capture all three pyramids in a single photo frame &mdash and this is the spot where the sellers of Egyptian memorabilia have set up shop. A row of tent stores on the desert floor sell everything from glass pyramids to King Tut death masks, canopic jars, marble cats, Ankh key chains and fake papyrus paintings. A number of camels sit around, chewing bits of grass, while their owners try to persuade tourists to go on a desert ride.

&ldquoYou Indian,&rdquo hailed a kaffiya-wearing man as I walked past. It sounded faintly derogatory to me, but I decided to play along. &ldquoYou come, I take a photograph,&rdquo said the man, seeing the digital camera in my hand. &ldquoI don&rsquot want a photograph,&rdquo I protested. &ldquoI friend, take no money,&rdquo he cajoled, taking the camera from my hand, and leading me to where his camel sat. &ldquoSit,&rdquo he said, pointing to his camel. I did. And then things happened fast. Someone put a kaffiya on my head, and the camel began to lurch alarmingly from side to side. &ldquoI don&rsquot want a camel ride,&rdquo I wailed, half afraid that I was being abducted, cursing myself for having been caught unawares yet again. &ldquoFine, fine,&rdquo said my tormentor, paternally, taking on a semi-exasperated tone of someone dealing with a petulant child. &ldquoCamel sit.&rdquo And he then proceeded to photograph me, half-terror stricken, half-relieved, sitting there kaffiya-clad, on a decidedly bored looking camel, with the grand pyramids in the background. &ldquoBaksheesh,&rdquo he demanded as I tried to escape. &ldquoFor camel...&rdquo

10th July, 9am Cairo has seen a long and continuous line of civilisations, each of which has left its mark on the city. The Hanging Church at Coptic Cairo is so called because it&rsquos suspended over the ruins of a fortress. The pews are worn with age, and images of the patriarchs hang in the corners. It&rsquos a small but elaborately decorated church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The interior of this 9th century church has three barrel-vaulted wooden roofed aisles. There are more tourists in the church than worshippers today &mdash a large number of Cairo&rsquos Copts apparently come on the weekends.

11.45am The Citadel of Saladin is a world away from the narrow cobblestone alleys and small courtyards of Coptic Cairo. It stands on a limestone spur east of the city, and was home to the city&rsquos Islamic rulers for over 700 years. The alabaster mosque of Mohammed Ali, the main attraction here, can be seen from most parts of Cairo. Its classical Turkish domes and minarets rise upon each other.

Inside the mosque, there hangs a huge chandelier with 365 bulbs. Lying on the cool carpeted floor, looking at the elaborate patterns on the ceiling, lit by the soft glow of 365 bulbs, I fell asleep.

4pm The Khan Al-Khalili souq (market) opposite the Al Azhar University is a warren of lanes, with hundreds of shops on either side, selling everything from alabaster bowls to gold (most of which is fake), to key chains and sheeshas. The market and its surrounding areas were the subject of Naguib Mahfouz&rsquos famous &lsquoCairo Trilogy&rsquo. Mahfouz apparently spent most of his afternoons at the Feshawi Coffee Shop. The shop doesn&rsquot look like it&rsquos changed much. Chairs and tables are laid out in the narrow alleyway, where most people prefer to sit. The interiors of the coffee shop have floor-to-ceiling mirrors in carved wooden frames, and dark wooden shutters, which have apparently never come down since the shop, opened. Here in the middle of the screaming of hawkers and the bustle of tourists is a small oasis of calm where you can spend hours smoking a sheesha, or quaff glasses of cold orange, mango, strawberry or banana juice (all grown in the Nile valley).

11.15pm A surprisingly cool breeze is blowing down the Corniche. Hundreds of people stroll up and down &mdash families with kids board barges on which disco lights flash and loud Arabic pop blares, courting couples stand hand in hand gazing across the river, young men sit on the plastic chairs on the sidewalks of the Qasr-e-Nil bridge drinking chai and smoking cigarettes. Hawkers sell balloons, cold drinks and beans. And the traffic runs bumper to bumper. You&rsquod never think it was the middle of the night. &ldquoDuring the summer holidays people only come out at nine,&rdquo Sasa had told me in the afternoon. I never expected this midnight carnival though.

I move off the Corniche and start walking towards Midan Orabi (Orabi square). A little beyond Midan Orabi, the pavement has been taken over by a café. I sit down and order a strawberry sheesha. &ldquoIt&rsquos good,&rdquo says the gentleman sitting next to me, smiling at my obvious lack of familiarity with the device. And then I take a deep puff, making the subtle strawberry smoke gurgle through the water. Though Cairo puzzles me, I feel like I&rsquove arrived at the calm centre of a much older world.

Through my veil of smoke, I see a man come towards me, with a cardboard box in hand. &ldquoWant&rdquo he says, handing me an electric epilator. &ldquoMe&rdquo I smile, &ldquoWhat will I do with it&rdquo He just stands there.

And then the hilarity of the moment strikes me, and I burst out laughing. In that Flaubertian moment I imagine myself puffing a leisurely sheesha, handing out epilators to four beautiful Egyptian belly dancers (I&rsquod seen some really sensuous dancing the night before), who dance around me and feed me fresh grapes from the Nile valley. A vagabond in Cairo, a pasha on the pavement.

The information

Getting there

Egypt Air (www.egyptair.com.eg) flies from Mumbai to Cairo. Most tour operators offer the standard package, which is a night or two at Cairo, then flight to Aswan, Nile cruise down to Luxor and then flight back to Cairo.

Where to stay

There&rsquos accommodation for every budget in Cairo. Getting around Cairo can be an extremely time-consuming affair, so (depending on what you are planning to do) choose the location of your hotel carefully. If you&rsquore not planning to focus on a particular part of the city (Islamic Cairo, Coptic Cairo, etc), stay in one of the hotels on the Corniche El Nil &mdash the views are spectacular, and the streets are buzzing at all times of day and night. Very close to the Egyptian Museum is the Nile hotel, formerly called the Nile Hilton and later taken over by the Ritz-Carlton group. Then there are properties from Kempinski, Fairmont, Four Seasons and InterContinental chains. An extraordinary location is that of the Oberoi Mena House, literally in the shadow of the pyramids.

What to see & do

A sunset ride on the Nile in a felucca (wooden sailboat) is a quaint and thrilling experience. It also gets you away from the chaos of Cairo traffic. Feluccas are available on the Corniche El Nil near the Nile hotel. Boats can be hired for an hour.

The Sound and Light Show (www.sound.light.egypt.com) at the pyramids is probably one of the best in the world. The show is narrated by the Sphinx, and features some dramatic lighting of the pyramids. Shows are held in different languages, and timings vary in summer and winter.

The vast collections of the Egyptian Museum (https://www.sca-egypt.org/eng/MUS_Egyptian_Museum.htm) could keep you busy for days. The Tutankhamun Galleries have everything from his gold death masks to remains of his clothing and footwear. The museum is badly organised and few exhibits are labelled, so it&rsquos worth hiring a guide to show you around. For more information see www.egypttourism.org.

Top tip

Luxor, located about 670km to the south of Cairo, is the heart of Pharaonic Egypt. The Valley of Kings, Valley of Queens and the magnificent temple of Hatshepsut lie to the west of the Nile, behind cliffs that protect the valley from the sands of the Western Desert. On the east bank lays the Luxor temple, and the massive temple complex of Karnak. The highlight of any trip to Luxor is wandering through the stone papyrus forest in the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak. It&rsquos also worth spending a morning wandering through the beautifully decorated tombs in the Valley of Kings. The Luxor museum, though small, is extremely well organised. If you&rsquore game for some adventure, take an early morning hot-air balloon ride from the west bank. Or sail down the Nile to Banana Island in a felucca.

Related Stories

No stories found.
Outlook Traveller