Visiting Old Cairo – and Feeling Cairo

I am fortunate to have visited Cairo two times:  once in 1998 and then in 2007.  The first with friends and the second for work.  However, while we hit some of the key places to see in Cairo in the first trip, one grave mistake was not to explore Old Cairo…

A First-Timer in Cairo in 1998
Let me take a step back and tell you about the first visit to Cairo.  For that trip, I joined 4 friends about 2 weeks before they were to depart due to an opening in my work schedule in between projects.  There were no pre-defined itinerary or arrangements except the plane ticket and the hotel for the first night in Cairo as we were landing at night.  I didn’t fly with them as I was using miles to get there so I flew from Atlanta via Newark, Paris, and Istanbul to get to Cairo (I was going to visit Istanbul after Egypt).  The first thing that struck me as I got off the airplane and walked the steps was the smell of burning wood, followed quickly by the sense of being in a dry place!

My friends and I were supposed to meet at the airport (I was arriving after they did) but, when I got there, my friends were nowhere to be found.  Eventually, I was taken by a customs (or was it immigration?) official eager to take me to his cousin’s taxi business (funny how that works…).  I got his “cousin” to let me use his phone to ring our hotel in Cairo – my friends were already there!  What happened?  The airport had 2 different terminals and we had landed on opposite ones so they ended up going to the hotel.  I ended up riding with the customs official’s cousin who, try as he did, could not hit a pedestrian…

I will admit that I was uncharacteristically anxious being there my first time.  It was the year after the massacre of tourists at Queen Hatshepsut’s temple in Luxor where many were gunned down execution style.  It took the first full day of being in the city to get past this initial anxiety.  People’s friendliness made me feel welcome and comfortable and pretty soon I was back to normal mode:  ready to explore!

We decided to not spend too much time in Cairo but did want to see the essentials. As happens to most tourists, we were offered a camel ride to see the Pyramids “from behind” by first being taken to someone’s store or house (hard to tell the difference) where we were swayed to hire them with tea and plenty of smiles and friendliness.  Riding the camels was a fun ride but they ride differently than horses…  However, we did not see the Pyramids up close so we were left still wanting to do that. We tried again the next day to get close to the Pyramids by hiring horses to get us there.  I emphasized to our guide that if I didn’t touch the Pyramids, I would not pay – I really wanted to make sure we didn’t get cheated again from seeing them up close.  So he made my horse gallop super fast either to pay me back for being demanding or to make sure he could get us further than he had planned in the time he had!

Yet ANOTHER picture of the Pyramids!

Next on the list:  The Mohammed Ali Mosque in The Citadel ( which was spectacular (as was the Citadel itself).  For sure, one of the best places to see!

Dome of Mohamad Ali Mosque at the Citadel in Cairo, Egypt

Mohamad Ali Mosque

We visited the Egyptian Museum which, as you can imagine, have some neat things to show from pharaonic times for those who enjoy the topic.  We also hired a car to drive us to Saqqara, a step pyramid south of the city.  The site was worth the trip but the drive to it also allowed us to see life outside of the city (e.g., bread being made on a wood burning “stove” by the side of the road).

The end of our stay in Cairo came quickly and we took the overnight train which would take us to the southern city of Aswan.  So ended my first visit to Cairo back in 1998…

Cairo Re-Visited Almost 10 Years Later

I returned to Cairo on business to attend a conference with colleagues from around the world.  Having gone once and checked out the main sights, it was actually very nice to return and not feel the pressure of visiting a must-see list of places.  Instead, we discovered hole-in-the-wall places to eat at, hired a boat for a group of us to cruise up and down the Nile at night, visited Khan el-Khalili (the bazaar or souk), etc.  It was a very nice way to enjoy Cairo and just be.  In fact, we return to el-Khalili another day not only to shop but, again, to sit and watch life go by – so enjoyable!

Around one of the entrances to Khan el-Khalili in Cairo, Egypt

Around one of the entrances to Khan el-Khalili

Exploring Khan el-Khalili in Cairo, Egypt

Exploring Khan el-Khalili in Cairo, Egypt

An alley in Khan el-Khalili in Cairo, Egypt

I did add to my list of visited sites the Old City which I missed the first time there.  What a tremendous miss on a visit to Egypt!  The Old City is a phenomenal corner of the large metropolis and full of neat architecture and history…  I am glad I got to “re-do” Cairo so I could correct my rookie mistake from 1998!

We first visited the Amr Mosque (Mosque of Amr ibn al-As), first mosque built in Egypt (and Africa) initially built in the 7th century but built-on and expanded over the centuries.

Mosque in Old City Cairo

Mosque in Old City Cairo

…then the Church of St. George (originally built in the 10th century but completely re-built in 1904)…

Church of St. George in Old City Cairo, Egypt

Church of St. George

Church of St. George, Cairo, Egypt

Light in the dome of the Church of St. George

St. George slaying the dragon in St. George Coptic Church in Cairo, Egypt

Detail at the entrance to St. George Church: St. George on his Arabian horse slaying the dragon

… thenthe Hanging Church (St. Virgin Mary’s Church, largely rebuilt in the 10th century but originally built on the 7th; the main nave is built over a passageway, hence the name “hanging”)…

Mural in the entrance to the Hanging Church in Cairo, Egypt

Mural in the entrance to the Hanging Church

First entrance to the Hanging Church

First entrance to the Hanging Church

Facing out from the front porch of the Hanging Church in Cairo, Egypt

Facing out from the front porch of the Hanging Church, a narrow entrance in a crowded part of town!

Doorway in the Hanging Church in Cairo, Egypt

Doorway in the Hanging Church

Interior of the Hanging Church in Cairo, Egypt

Interior of the Hanging Church

and the Ben Ezra Synagogue.  However, this was not a matter of just visiting important sites as I had always been curious about Coptic Egypt.  I really liked the Old City as it was loaded with history and meaning:  just about anywhere you look, there is an interesting site or alley!

Crypt of the Holy Family under St. Sergius Church in Old City Cairo, Egypt

Crypt of the Holy Family under St. Sergius Church

Cairo – Always Something New to Experience
My second trip differed significantly from the first in many ways.  However, Cairo offered me great experiences both times. The city itself awes you (or intimidates you!) as it teems with so many people, so many cars, and so many sounds (and do watch out for those cars!).  Some of my favorite images are those of the people I interacted with or saw in their day-to-day life.

Tea server crossing street in Cairo with a tray full of tea

The world’s most dedicated and daring tea server: crossing the crazy streets of Cairo with a tray-full of tea!

Taking bread from the bakery around Khan el-Khalili in Cairo, Egypt

Taking a load of fresh bread from a bakery around the suk in Cairo, Khan el-Khalili

Tea drinking at Khan el-Khalili, the suk in Cairo, Egypt

Sipping tea while watching others play a game in Khan el-Khalili

It can be initially daunting but then, if you let yourself wander a little and soak life in, say, at a local tea shop, you can begin to see beyond the main things that draw us to go there in the first place – really get a feel for the tempo of and life in this ancient and fascinating city.

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