Cairo: Citadel and Mosque

Another unbelievable, mind-numbing day in Cairo! I can hardly describe how much I’m enjoying these days; my mind and body are being continually assaulted but I’m revelling in it.

After breakfast in the dining room we struck out on foot to the Bank of America, near Tahrir Square. Just walking down the street is an adventure; so many people intent on going who knows where, the endless honking of horns, shouts and snatches of song, pungent aromas wafting out of doorways as you pass. Ane epic journey later we were at the bank, where we had to wait about half an hour for my cash advance to be cleared. I withdrew 500 EP (about £100), and ended up with a wad of forty tens and a huge wad of one hundred ones. It’s essential to have small change on you, and almost impossible to get change from taxis, etc.

It was quite an effort just crossing Tahrir Square, but we then went to American Express so C could cash a traveller’s cheque. Afterwards it was time to eat, so we went into a cafe/restaurant (grotty by our standards, luxurious no doubt for Egyptians) – I had a turkey burger and C an omlette. Then back to the hotel, in the meantime accosted by a charming young Egyptian who chatted for a while then wanted to show us some Beduoin perfumes just come this way etc etc – “no thanks!” Another sight that sticks – dirtiest man I’ve ever seen pushing a rubbish wagon while munching on a fruit – unbelievable whiff as he passed by, hands and face black with grime, pushing his wagon with purposeful strides along the street.

After a quick recharge in the coolness and peacefulness of our hotel room we took off again. I forgot to mention that the desk clerk looked at the indeciferable train tickets our taxi driver of the first day had got for us, and told us they were second class. The Windsor Hotel is at our service thank goodness, as by the afternoon they had refunded the tickets and bought new ones – we leave tomorrow at noon.

This very helpful and patient man also booked our hotel in Luxor, gave me a free map, and helped with advice. More points for the Windsor!

After all this rigmarole it was threeish and at last we had some time to sightsee. After one con-artist taxi driver we got a car, after grumbling, to take us to the east gate of the Citadel begun by Salah al-Din in 1178, for an OK price. We drove east, and suddenly found ourselves passing precipitous cliffs with ancient walls and buildings of exactly the same dirty brown colour of the cliffs. The walls of the Citadel loomed up on our right. A few tourists about but a bit more peaceful – we paid 10 EP each to enter, and walked up the road inside the Citadel to the dominating Mosque of Muhammad Ali, a huge domed building with tall, thin minarets. After a bit of searching we found the entrance to the interior courtyard on the opposite side, and took off our shoes and socks to enter.

The courtyard was large and peaceful, centred by an ablutions pavilion and looked over by an incongruous Frence clock, which was “presented to Muhammad Ali by King Louis Philippe of France to reciprocate for Ali’s gift of the Pharonic obelisk that now stands in Paris” (Let’s Go). Inside the mosque was breathtaking. The decoration of the ceiling was beautiful, and low, lit lamps and a chandelier, all hanging from the roof, seemed to accentuate the feeling of space rather than detract from it. Like other scattered groups, we lay full-length on the rug strewn floor and gazed upwards at the decoration.

After a quick glance through a gilt screen at Muhammad Ali’s richly-carved tomb, and shrugging off an Egyptian asking for donations “for the mosque” (maybe), we walked out and on to the Mosque of al-Nasir Muhammad. This had the layout I studied in Art History class: the empty courtyard surrounded by cool, pillared colonnades, the wall facing Mecca with its prayer niche.

Everything looked very old, dirty and crumbling, though apparently it has been recently restored. On our way out a man got our shoes, briefly dusted a stone for us to sit on, and then stood over us awaiting baksheesh. C ignored it as usual; as usual I gave in and handed over 25 piasters (about 10¢). C knocks me for being too soft-hearted!

Wandered around for a bit, until we entered the palace rooms (19th century decorations) where a man immediately pointed out the portraits etc and squeezed his baksheesh from me. I wanted to see Joseph’s Well, dug by the Crusaders, but it was closed for restoration. Fantastic view of the smoggy rubbish heap that is Cairo from atop the Citadel walls; the occasional minaret shot up from the brown jumble. The sound of car horns wafted through the air.

We left the Citadel and were immediately accosted by a taxi driver, whom we strongly refused, but after a bit of a think we went back to the group of drivers. I said “taxi?” and the guy we’d refused said gruffly “no taxi”. I laughed with the group of them, then on impulse put out my hand in a ‘gimme five’ motion and he slapped it. There followed a bit of good-natured bantering, and we finally got a lift to Ibn Tuloun mosque for three EP.

We got there 15 minutes before closing – the driver waited to take us home for another 5 EP – and the ticket woman huffed at us several times as we paid our 5 EP to get in. A spectacular mosque – not spectacular in decoration, but large, solemn, crumbling, majestic, spacious, of a uniform dark brown dirty colour. The wide courtyard was serene and beautiful; we padded about in our bare feet on the dusty stone among the columns surrounding it. Then we walked between the exterior and interior walls around to the minaret, an incredible square and circular tower with a precipitous exterior staircase, seemingly on the verge of collaps. The view from the top was incredible, and as we descended the voices from the minarets all over the city rose in a cacophony that sounded like a madhouse. I stood for a moment alone on an exposed ledge looking out over the city while this unearthly howling went on – I can’t describe the bizarre effect. I t was a moment I’ll always remember.

Back to the taxi, a ride through the fascinating older streets of Cairo and finally to our wonderful hotel for a shower, a drink in the bar while writing postcards, dinner and coffee. We’re both happy and relaxed and really getting into the rhythm of this crazy city. I feel exhilarated and excited all the time.

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