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.

The Baron's Palace is a hotch potch of Hindu and Buddhist architectural styles. It is located in the posh Heliopolis suburb of Cairo.



The gateway to Baron's Palace is reminiscent of the one at Sanchi

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.

On the left is the 14th century Sultan Hasan Mosque. The Al Rifai Mosque (on the right) was built 500 years later to architecturally complement it. King Farouk, the last ruler of Egypt and the Last Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, are buried here

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 Citadel, built atop the Moqattam Hills overlooking Cairo served as the seat of the Government for nearly 8 centuries

 

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.

The 614 foot high Cairo Tower is the tallest building in North Africa

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 Egyptian Museum is located in the famous Tahrir Square

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.

Many precious antiquities are left in the open like the one above

The Memphis Triad: Nefertem, the god of healing and beauty flanked by his parents, Ptah the Egyptian Vishwakarma and Sekhmet, the lion-headed Goddess of vengeance

A replica of Tutankhamun's Funerary Mask. The original is in the Museum where cameras aren't allowed.

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.

17 Comments

  • Very Beautiful pics DL

    very good narration. thanks………………

  • Silentsoul says:

    Good naration and fotos. Thanx

  • M. Kini says:

    Very good photos and historical background given makes it interesting. Useful for anybody planning to visit Cairo.

  • D.L.Narayan says:

    Thanks a lot, friends, for taking the time to go through my post and for your kind appreciation. Sorry for the typos, which have somehow crept in.

  • Mahesh Semwal says:

    Very informative post, helpful for the follow Ghumakkars.
    Narration & pics , both are awesome.
    Wish you a happy Ghumakkari !!!!!!!!!

  • Mukesh Bhalse says:

    A very informative and attractive post as usual. Both narration and pictures are cherishing.

    Thanks.

  • Nandan says:

    Brilliant log DL. The title reminds one of that thousand suns book. Egypt and Cairo are on my list and so far it is not able to win over more glamorous spots but I am sustaining.

    How many days one should plan for Cairo and if one is interested in walking through bylanes, eating at local joints and visiting all the thousand minarets. Also, please give us an idea of the kind of expense it entails (broadly).

    The photos (the one of two mosques is my favorite) have some out splendid.

  • D.L.Narayan says:

    Thanks Mahesh and Mukesh for your kind words of appreciation.

    Nandan, Cairo is a fascinating place and it reminds one of Mumbai, especially the downtown area, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the Fort area. Four days will be more than adequate to cover all of Cairo (the Islamic, Pharaonic and Coptic Christian sections).

    The street food is fantastic, cheap, quick, delicious and filling. Indians. Even though I am a vegetarian, I had no problem finding veg food in Egypt. A meal on the street might cost you EGP 5 per head, while it might lighten your wallet by EGP 20 in an ordinary restaurant or EGP 100+ in a 5-star one.

    As far as costs are considered, they will set you back as much as say, Delhi or Mumbai. Rs. 2,000 a day (about EGP 250) should be adequate for hotel and food, unless one prefers to stay in a 5 star hotel.

    In my 3-part serial on Egypt, I had to cut off a lot of stuff in the interest of brevity. Do you think that I should add a 4th post detailing the gastronomic delights of Egyptian cuisine and the lives of ordinary Egyptians?

    I am leaving early tomorrow morning on a drive to Bastar district in Chhattisgarh. I shall be totally incommunicado for a couple of days.

    Wishing you and all my fellow Ghumakkars happy holidays.

  • Naveena Israni says:

    Dear Narayan ji,

    Cairo has been on my wish list for a long time and your post makes me want to plan a trip there soon. The place looks fantastic and almost dream-like in the pics! Looking forward to reading your remaining posts on Egypt…

    Warm regards,
    Naveena

  • D.L.Narayan says:

    Thanks a lot, Naveenaji, for your kind words.

    Yes, you should visit Egypt someday. The people are warm and hospitable and the place is not frightfully expensive.

  • Nandan says:

    In my 3-part serial on Egypt, I had to cut off a lot of stuff in the interest of brevity. Do you think that I should add a 4th post detailing the gastronomic delights of Egyptian cuisine and the lives of ordinary Egyptians?

    @ DL – YES. Yes. and Yes.

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Dear DL,

    Thanks for taking us on an exotic and highly informative tour of Cairo. This is one of the best write ups on Egypt I have read so far.

    The pictures are simply scintillating.

    Yes, I could recall the sequences from Singh is King shot in Cairo.

    And of course, you must add the fourth post detailing the gastronomic delights of Egyptian cuisine.

    Trust you are having a good time at Bastar.

  • Naman says:

    Beautifully written and supported with equally good pictures! Splendid post Sir. :)

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