In the fall of 2005, I flew into Cairo from
another ancient city, Athens. This is my first
and final impression of Cairo, Egypt - too much
sand … too many people … too much religion … and
lots and lots of antiquity.
Cairo has so much "past" that its future
seems a nebulous afterthought. It was officially
founded in 969 AD as "Al-Qahira" (the
Victorious) by the Fatimid dynasty who established
it as the Islamic capital of Egypt. It came to
be pronounced "Cairo" by its British
overlords centuries later. But there were great
civilizations here long before it was called Cairo.
Four thousand years earlier and until the Christian
era, three dozen dynasties of Egyptian pharaohs
ruled here. Just west of the city is Giza (ancient
Memphis), the site of the great pyramids and the
only surviving wonder of the Seven Wonders of
the World. When the great Greek historian, Herodotus,
visited Egypt in the fifth century BC, the pyramids
there were already 2,000 years old. The Virgin
Mary and Jesus sought shelter in Cairo when they
fled Roman persecution in ancient Israel. After
the pharaohs, Cairo came to be ruled by Greeks,
Persians, Romans, Arabs, Ottomans, French, and
the British - until its new independence after
World War II. The ancient part of Cairo is not
only the pyramids and the Sphinx but its Islamic
history as well, with Saladin's Citadel, and innumerable
great mosques such as the Mosque of Mohammed Ali,
Al-Azhar, Amr, and Al-Hussein.
Cairo is one of the largest cities in the world
- the largest in Africa and the Middle East. It
has more than 16 million inhabitants, with the
accompanying horrors of traffic, noise, pollution,
The Koran is omnipresent here, seemingly suppressing
any other spiritual or intellectual pursuit. Other
than a newspaper, I saw no one reading anything
else but the Koran. Storekeepers read between
attending to clients; customs officials read at
their desks; taxi drivers had the book on their
front seat. And their mosques were full. This
is a country full of religious fervor.
My final "first impression" of Cairo
was the desert - the Sahara to be exact. And if
not for the Nile, that runs through the city,
it all would be inhospitable sand.
Our flight from Athens arrived in Cairo at about
3 a.m. and yet the city streets at that hour seemed
to be bustling. Many of the roads were sand or
dirt clogged; the buildings decrepit; the people
extremely poor. It was a long ride from the airport
in the north of the city to its southwestern border
next to Giza along a road our driver called the
Avenue of the Pyramids. Our oasis was the Mena
House Oberoi Hotel. The Mena House was built as
a hunting lodge in the 1860's and converted to
a hotel in the 1880's. It has undergone serial
renovations since and has been one of Cairo's
first class hotels for decades. Most of the other
quality hotels lie along the Nile closer to central
Cairo. The Mena House is old but well kept with
classic Arabic décor. Its fame arises because
it is also immediately adjacent to the great Pyramid
of Khufu or Cheops, just a few hundred yards away.
When we arrived, before dawn, it was too dark
to see the pyramid. I don't know, but if I had
a pyramid in my backyard, I'd light it up like
Vegas at night, or at least like the Washington
Monument. But when I awoke at dawn, there it was,
the Great Pyramid of Khufu, rising above the main
building of Mena House. I sat on my patio and
stared at it as if it was the house - or pyramid
- next door.
Nearly 5000 years old, the Pyramid of Khufu was
originally 481 feet high or as high as a 40 story
building. It was the tallest building in the world
until the 19th century. Each of its four sides
is 756 feet long and within 2 inches of the same
length. Over two million blocks of limestone and
granite made up its construction with the average
block weighing 2.5 tons. And each side is oriented
almost exactly with the four Cardinal points.
It is a dazzling sight today. But once, polished
white limestone covered the core of the current
stepped stone foundation and its apex was capped
with gold. Originally built as a royal burial
chamber for a god-king, it is understandable that
it became a holy site for millenniums.
Although we had an official tour arranged for
our visit to Cairo and Egypt, it did not begin
for another day. So, we elected to begin our exploration
of the Pyramids of Giza by heading off - on our
own. Just outside the Mena House's entrance, the
third world status of Egypt becomes evident. The
roads leading to this "Wonder of the World"
are ill kept - lots of rubble and broken or non-existent
sidewalks. There are dozens of white uniformed
security guards by the entrance to the archeological
site. Most seem to be doing nothing. Perhaps part
of a government make-work project? The ticket
booth for the pyramids was a small crumbling concrete
bunker, although there was construction going
on nearby for a more tourist friendly and attractive
entrance. Endless desert looms beyond the pyramids.
As you walk around the pyramids, you of course
step in sand - along with lots of camel and donkey
dung. The Great Khufu Pyramid is a fantastic sight
- a towering pile of great limestone blocks erupting
from the desert. And, just a few hundred feet
away, there are two more "great" pyramids,
Menkaure, the smallest, and Khafre - just ten
feet shorter than the Khufu pyramid with the monumental
Sphinx at its entrance. These are three great
pyramids of Giza (and the Sphinx) built by three
pharaohs - Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure - during
a period of just about 100 years in about 2500
Everyone at the plateau of the pyramids is trying
to make a buck. Some are legitimately selling
cards or souvenir trinkets. Some clearly pursue
less savory tactics. "Ticket, please,"
some non-officials demand, trying to get you to
pay them for information you don't need. Even
the uniformed guards urge you to pay them to photograph
you or have you photograph them. Camel drivers
with blackened teeth and classic desert garb hustle
you for a ride or offer to pose for a dramatic
picture. Others push gifts into your hands - like
"lucky scarabs" - hoping you'll pay
for them later. But, despite the bothersome hustle,
I did not feel threatened or unwelcome and could
understand the desperation of poverty here.
We turn our heads every now and then to avoid
mini sand storms. Having seen photos of the Pyramids
and the Sphinx countless times before, it is almost
spiritual to be finally standing here. I wonder
how long the already vandalized and weather worn
Sphinx's face will continue to survive sandblasting.
If it was in Paris or New York, I think it would
be encased in a plastic dome. But it has been
here for 4500 years, I guess it will last a few
The entertainments of Cairo are limited. There
are the belly dancers and there are whirling dervishes.
I had seen belly dancers before. I had never seen
a whirling dervish.
The Whirling Dervishes trace their origin to the
13th century Ottoman Empire. They are Sufi's,
a mystical offshoot of Islam. Their dance is a
sacred ceremony where the dervish spins his body
in a precise rhythm. While it is dizzying to watch
and imagine, the dervishes apparently overcome
dizziness and enter into a whirling trance.
We met with a private driver in the evening to
take us to the Whirling Dervish Show across town.
His car was grossly uncomfortable. We sat so high
in his bizarrely reupholstered back seats that
our heads touched the roof. I had to crouch down
to look out the window and observe the passing
sites. But the ride was an adventure as we seemingly
careened through streets packed with cars, and
buses, and old vans, all sardined with people,
with an occasional donkey cart moving amidst the
rush of motorized vehicles. Makeshift cafes were
set right in the middle of crowded streets with
men smoking hookahs. There seemed to be a dozen
near miss accidents and pedestrian collisions.
None happened. Six Flags doesn't have as exciting
After driving through this chaotic and maze of
a city, we arrived at a gaudy brightly lit façade
that led to a park-like outdoor stage and exhibition
area. There were a lot of tourists and lots of
security. They hustled the locals away to make
room for us. Searchlights nearby swept the sky
as if this were a Hollywood gala. And for Cairo,
it probably was.
I anticipated a brief, amateurish performance.
After all, we were set to watch a show sitting
on tiered rows of dirt at an outdoor theatre.
And then the magic began. About a dozen Egyptian
musicians with drums, flutes, finger cymbals,
and strange string instruments meandered onstage
and began to play a haunting Arabic melody. And
then a single male dancer stepped out several
wearing large round skirts that spun like a kaleidoscope
as he twirled around, and around, and around,
and around - for about 30 minutes. We were nauseous
just watching him - but it was astonishingly beautiful.
After the "dervish" pulled one spinning
dress after another over his head, he finally
stopped and we gave him a standing ovation. And
then, three more whirling dervishes appeared and
began their dance. The show lasted about one hour
and the audience was "entranced."
Our ride back to the Mena House was just as precarious
as our going. Our driver was anxious to procure
as much business from us as possible. He offered
to take us on a drive through the cemetery at
night. It seemed a little ghoulish. But, ancient
Egyptian family tombs were built with a room for
visitors to rest. In this desperately poor city,
whole families of otherwise homeless people have
made these crypts their homes. And the cemetery,
known as the "City of the Dead," is
a living community.
Early the next morning, we met with a small group
of other American tourists to begin our official
tour of the city. Wafa, a cherubic fiftyish woman,
was our Egyptian guide. She did not wear the traditional
head covering as most Egyptian woman did but declared
that she was thinking about it.
Our first stop was again the Giza Pyramids. Wafa
explained more of its history and I was glad to
have another day to be astonished.
There are separate fees to enter the burial chambers
of the pyramids. You enter a long single-body
wide narrow tunnel with low ceilings that require
the "explorer" to hunch over much of
the time. The trip into the depths of the pyramid
is claustrophobic and you are surrounded by tons
of granite blocks set there by people who built
this without a level or an engineering degree
5000 years ago. At first you gently descend, and
then ascend again, until finally reaching the
middle of the base of the pyramid where the pharaoh's
burial chamber lies. The long ago looted burial
chamber of Khafre's Pyramid was an empty room
with a plain granite sarcophagus at one end. The
walls were bare. A French woman was pressing her
back against one wall and starring up. I leaned
next to her.
"Can you feel the energy?" she asked
Now, a lot of people believe in pyramid power
and I can't imagine anyplace more powerful than
the real Egyptian pyramids. But what is this power
of the pyramid? Here's what some suggest. Hyperactive
people will feel more tranquil; the lethargic
more energetic. The body's toxins will dissipate.
Some may feel a sense of weightlessness; others
a distortion of time - either speeding up or slowing
down. Some achieve a transcendental state. Some
have vivid dreams. Pyramid power makes people
and things more perfect.
"Do you feel it?" the Frenchwoman asked
We were deep under millions of tons of granite
"I don't think we're getting enough air down
here," I replied and quickly made my way
back into the sun.
We re-boarded our bus and drove to a hilltop overlooking
the pyramids where dozens of camels and their
(sic) jockeys awaited the tourist crowd. We each
boarded our own stead - Camelus dromedarius, the
Ship of the Desert, the one humped camel. The
camel kneels down on all four knees to allow you
to mount and then it gets up somewhat precariously,
standing first on its hind legs and then on its
fore legs. Our mini-caravan trekked through the
desert with two teenage camel jockeys pulling
us all along. I felt very Lawrence of Arabian.
In the distance you could see half a dozen more
pyramids. Wafa pointed out the "Bent Pyramid,"
which begins to rise at its base at the same angle
as other pyramids but then angles inward. Egyptologists
consider this to be the first pyramid because
prior to it the pharaohs were buried under box-like
mounds called mastabas. Grander burial sites were
then created piling one mastaba atop another to
form a pseudo pyramid like Djoser's Step Pyramid
in Saqqara. This evolved, as stone work advanced
over a period of 400-years, to become the smooth
surfaced great pyramids. We stopped for a moment
to take pictures before the Great Pyramids of
Giza - just us aboard camels, the pyramids, and
sand. The best photo op ever.
The underlying tensions between America and the
Arab world were never far off. As we spent the
days driving about Cairo in our tourist bus, we
had a jeep full of white uniformed security guards
accompanying us. Another armed security guard
sat up front in our bus. Maybe more make work
jobs. Maybe not. But I don't think the Italian
tourists were similarly guarded.
No tour of Cairo is complete without the requisite
"Buy Egyptian" stops. We were taken
to one of what seems like hundreds of papyrus
museum stores in Cairo. Papyrus is the ancient
Egyptian paper made from reeds. There was a quick
demonstration of how papyrus is made, testimonials
as to how this particular store makes "authentic"
papyrus with government approval, and then we
were set free to consider buying papyrus paintings.
Then we were taken to a perfumery. No brand names
here - just bottles filled with the scents of
every fruit and flower imaginable and available
to adjust in strength or mix according to your
The most prominent site in Old Cairo is the
Citadel, a hilltop fortress originally built during
the Crusades by Saladin. The most dramatic building
within the fortress walls is the Mohammed Ali
Mosque, styled after the great Blue Mosque of
Istanbul, and built in the late 19th century by
the Mamluk King of Egypt, Mohammed Ali. From the
ramparts of the Citadel, there are great views
overlooking Cairo - unfortunately diminished by
a perpetual gray haze that blankets the city,
a combination of auto pollution and desert dust.
Coptic Cairo is also part of the old city. There,
in narrow alleyways behind the remnants of walls
of an old Roman fortress, are ancient holy places.
We saw the wood roofed, somewhat gaudily decorated
Coptic Hanging Church and the Church of St. Sergius
which is below ground level and allegedly sheltered
Mary and Jesus in a cave below the altar. And
near those churches is the Ben Ezra synagogue.
There are no active synagogues in Cairo today
and this was just a museum reminder of the former
presence of Jews in Cairo. Most all fled to Israel
Other than the pyramids, I found the most interesting
stop in Cairo to be its Archeological Museum.
This is an old museum with the best collection
of ancient Egyptian artifacts in the world. There
are great pharaonic statues, room after room of
sarcophagi, and mummies of everything - men, women,
children, mammals, fish, and reptiles. But the
best of the museum is the Tutankhamen exhibit.
If you have seen the Tutankhamen touring exhibit
in the U.S., you saw a pittance of what the Egyptians
have on display in Cairo's museum - gold leafed
tomb rooms, one inside the other; an outer coffin
of gold and precious inlays; a smaller inner one
of solid gold; a golden face mask crown of the
boy king; and an endless display of golden jewelry
- necklaces, bracelets, finger and toe covers.
There are also ornately carved stone containers
for his organs and sculpted miniatures of his
subjects and workmen in a variety of tasks.
The Cairo Archeological Museum is a grand museum
with a great antiquity collection. But it is not
air conditioned and with the usual shoulder to
shoulder crowds, the place can be intolerably
hot in summer months. Its bookstores are large
closets with barely enough room to peruse their
offerings and a haphazard cashier system. Wafa
informed me they are building a new and modern
archeological museum near Giza. They desperately
On our last day in the city, we headed off to
Cairo's Bazaar, the Khan al-Kahalili, where vendors
in tiny stores on narrow streets sell their wares
- gold, silver, craft goods, and souvenir trinkets.
On the way, we passed a round museum building
with tanks and military aircraft out front. This,
Wafa explained, was the "6th of October Museum"
which celebrates the Egyptian victory over Israel
in what the Israelis call their victory in the
1971 Yom Kippur War. I guess every nation has
its own definition of "victory."
You can enter the bazaar from one of several streets
next to the Al-Hussein Mosque. This is the holiest
mosque in Egypt. Non-Muslims are forbidden to
enter. Inside is kept a relic - the head of Al-Hussein,
grandson of Mohammed. After the Prophet Mohammed
died in 632 AD, his kingdom was controlled by
the Umayyad clan. However, Mohammed's son-in-law,
Ali, claimed to be his rightful successor. Ali's
son, Al-Hussein, led a revolt against the Umayyads.
He was killed in the Battle of Kerbala, Iraq.
Moslems today are divided into Shiites, who believe
that Al-Hussein was Mohammed's rightful heir,
and Sunnis, who believe the Umayyads are the rightful
We picked one of the streets to enter the bazaar.
If you dare to peruse the wares of any vendor,
you are immediately accosted by a host of salesman.
It is best to keep your eyes straight ahead. As
we extended further into the bazaar's street,
we became virtually trapped as the crowd thickened,
became more stifling and malodorous. And, there
was no place to flee, no side streets, no openings
between vendor's booths. As we ricocheted through
the crowd, men and women carrying ridiculously
huge bundles atop their heads pushed by, others
carried towers of Egyptian "pita" bread,
and even an occasional vehicle made its way through
this fleshy kneading mass. We finally came to
a large cross street with bumper to bumper traffic
and found ourselves completely lost in Cairo.
There were no taxis, no police, and no other tourists.
And so, reluctantly, we turned around and returned
along the same path and gauntlet.
We came to rest at an outdoor café in front of
the Al-Hussein Mosque and sat down to watch the
passing crowd. Here was the scene: White jacketed
tourist police holding hands to keep together
in the surging, anarchic crowd. Western dress
was rare - except for the police. Most of the
men wore the traditional Egyptian gown-like garb
called the gallabia. A few were turbaned. Most
women adhered to religious tenants requiring them
to wear modest garb. A few wore the tent-like
burqua with a full face veil. But most wore the
hijab, a loose dress topped by a headscarf. Crowds
of women with their small children gathered around
them sat on the marbled entrance of the mosques
while their husbands prayed inside. A zealot occasional
moved through the crowd yelling "Allah …
something." And in hand, the passersby fingered
Moslem "worry beads," carried Korans,
smoked cigarettes, and of course, talked on cell
phones. I heard Arabic, French, Italian, Greek,
and English yelled across the courtyard.
The cacophony of the Cairo Bazaar was bizarre,
at once grating and - like strange music - curiously
beautiful, as was the city itself. I was full.
But it was not easy to digest 5000 years in just
a few days.