Table of contents for An Egyptian Diary
- Cairo, the city of a thousand minarets
A ghumakkar loves serendipitous moments, when one comes across something remarkable but totally unexpected. I had such an experience a few minutes after landing in Cairo. The drive to the hotel from the airport was rather uninteresting as the architecture was pretty drab, just row after boring row of grey, rectangular concrete blocks . All of a sudden, I saw a building which looked like a Hindu temple. I rubbed my eyes in disbelief and asked the driver what that building was. He shrugged his shoulders and said “Qasr El Baron”, which meant Baron’s Palace in Arabic.
This building was built for a wealthy but eccentric Belgian entrepreneur, Baron Edouard Empain by the French architect, Alexander Marcel. It is now in an abandoned state after a property dispute. In the late 1990′s, some Satanic rites were reportedly carried out by some occultists in its premises and entry into the palace grounds is banned. It could have been marketed as a tourist site, but there is no dearth of places with touristic potential in this city.
Cairo, the capital of Egypt is the largest city in Africa and in the Middle East, a huge metropolis, home to over 15 million people. Officially, it was founded in the 10th Century AD, but if one considers all the urban settlements in its immediate vicinity like Memphis, Babylon, Giza and Al Fustat, it is much older than just over a thousand years.
Cairo, Al Qahira (the victorious) in Arabic, is known as the city of a thousand minarets. It is also one of the three main centres of learning in the Islamic world, the others being Baghdad and Damascus. Egyptians refer to their capital city as Umm-al-duniya or the mother of the world. It is also a very popular tourist destination, given its proximity to the famous Pyramids of Giza.
The most prominent Islāmic landmark is the Citadel, built in the 12th century, CE, by Salahuddin, the Ayyubid Sultan who is referred to as Saladin by European historians. Built on the Moqattam hills overlooking Cairo, the edifice was fortified to withstand attacks by the Crusaders. The Citadel served as the seat of Government of Egypt for nearly 800 years.
The Citadel is dominated by a massive Alabaster building known as the Mohamed Ali Mosque. Built in Turkish style, construction work started in 1830 and it was fully completed in 1857. It is a magnificent structure, having a massive central dome, 21 metres in diameter, which is surrounded by four smaller semi-circular domes. It rises to a height of 52 metres and is flanked by twin 82 metre minarets which are capped by conical spires, typical of Turkish mosques.
The Citadel offers a panoramic view of the city. It also houses three museums, one of which is housed in the building which served as the residence of the Khedives, the last dynasty to rule this ancient land. Some scenes featuring Akshay Kumar and Katrina Kaif in the Bollywood movie “Singh is King” were shot inside the citadel.
Situated on the Gezira isle on the river Nile and soaring to a height of 187 metres is the Cairo tower, the tallest structure in not just Cairo, but in the entire African continent (till recently). Former President Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered its construction in 1956 and it was completed in 1961; it recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. Its architecture is inspired from the Nile lotus and the papyrus reed, symbols of its Pharaonic heritage.
The entrance ticket is quite pricey (EGP 70; about Rs. 500) and an express lift takes visitors to the top. There is a revolving restaurant offering spectacular views of the city, especially at night. It takes about 70 minutes to complete one full rotation. Above this restaurant is an open air viewing gallery, which offers breathtaking vistas, but is rather windy. The spire at the top serves as an antenna for TV and radio broadcasting.
When in Cairo, one should be wary of guides who are on the prowl for gullible tourists. They will approach you with a smile and ask “India?”. If you nod your head in affirmation, they will join hands and say Namaste and tell you how much they love Amitabh Bachchan (Indian films are very popular here). Then they will take you around before aggressively demanding a baksheesh (this word is not Indian but Arabic in origin) for their unsolicited services . Nothing less than $10 will please them but they can be pacified with $5. One must learn to say no unless one is an Ambani. Everybody expects a baksheesh, from the doormen who say salaam and the janitors in the toilet for handing out tissues to practically everybody else. Once I asked a well-dressed gentleman for directions to my hotel and guess what ? He insisted on accompanying me to my destination and then told me a sob-story about how he lost his wallet, etc. To cut a long story short, my wallet got lighter by 10 Egyptian Pounds.
The biggest attraction in the city, by far, is the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, better known as the Egyptian Museum. Built in 1902, it houses over a lakh exhibits; many languish in storehouses and some of them, like the Memphis triad, have been kept on display in the open (Thank God for the small mercies, or else I would not have been able to photograph any as cameras are not allowed inside the museum). In March 2015, the Grand Egyptian Museum will be inaugurated in Giza, near the pyramids. Most of these priceless objects will find a new home there. Some 10,000 objects will continue to be on display here.
Tutankhamun, probably the best known Pharaoh today, did nothing in his lifetime to deserve such fame. He became a Pharaoh at nine and died ten years later. In course of time, his tomb got buried under rubble and he was forgotten for over 3,000 years. Almost all Pharaonic tombs were plundered by looters over the centuries, but King Tut’s tomb remained in tact till 1922, when British archaeologist, Howard Carter discovered it in 1922. It ranks as one of archaeology’s greatest discoveries of all time.
Over 5,000 items were found, sarcophagi, jewellery, a chariot, furniture, weapons, scarabs, gilded shrines and idols. The most famous of them is the burial mask of Tutankhamun. It is 11 kilograms of solid gold, beautifully sculpted and encrusted with precious stones. The face is a faithful representation of the boy Pharaoh, including the holes in his ear lobes. I spent a lot of time just gazing at this incredible piece of art.
In a separate enclosure, on the first floor, is the Royal Mummies room. There is an additional fee of EGP 100 for the privilege of looking at the mummified corpses of ancient royalty, the likes of Hatshepsut, the only woman to become a Pharaoh and Ramesses II, who ruled Egypt with an iron hand for 67 years and is considered to be the greatest ever Pharaoh. His hair was white but due to the mummification process, it looks reddish-brown today. The teeth and the nails are in tact and it was an eerie experiences looking at the 3,000 years plus mummies of these erstwhile potentates lying supine in glass coffins.
There are policemen everywhere and while it makes the place safe for tourists, one feels a bit uncomfortable seeing gun-toting commandos everywhere. Also, never take pictures of men in uniform. While taking a snapshot of a monument, I got into a spot of bother with some policemen who thought that I was photographing them.
In the next post, I shall write about the famous Pyramids of Egypt.