Cairo holds one of the worlds highest density of people per square kilometre, with around 16 million mostly Arabic and African people living in this relatively small pocket of land. This makes arriving in Cairo a completely overwhelming experience. There are so many sights, sounds and smells to take in that it makes your head spin
|Cairo and the pyramids
The traffic is jam-packed and there doesn’t appear to be any lanes or rules. Our taxi weaves in and out of the other cars and pedestrians run alongside us, waving various goods through the open window. One man passes some kind of ornament into my hand when we stop. Once he realises I’m not buying he has to sprint to catch up to our moving taxi and retrieve the ornament.
The bus next to us is so crowded that people have their heads stuck out the window and are grabbing onto the roof, as if to avoid popping out the sides of the vehicle. The bus doesn’t stop to pick up passengers, instead it slows down so they can run alongside it and make a flying leap when they want to board.
The bazaars (markets) are just as chaotic. There is constant noise of people haggling, Arabic music playing and horns beeping. Vendors bustle along with tea, roasted sweet potato and Kushari, a delicious traditional Egyptian dish made from black lentils, noodles, fried rice, fried onions and a tomato based sauce.
Men sit at the coffee houses throughout the bazaars smoking shisha pipes and watching all the activity. The pipes are an ancient water pipe used to smoke flavoured tobacco. I notice that many of the men have smudges of brown dirt on their foreheads from touching their heads to the ground as they kneel down to pray a number of times each day.
The vendors call out to us as we wander by, ‘No hassle, you look for free. Everything in my shop is free’.
|Inside the Blue Mosque
We wander down the backstreets in old Islamic Cairo and are followed by a few men with machine guns. At first we think they are the tourist police but we soon realise they are just trying to steer us into certain tourist attractions so they will receive a kickback for our custom. We aren’t really sure what the guns are for, and we don’t particularly want to know.
We have to step aside to let five trucks full of prisoners by. The prisoners hang out the bars and hiss and yell to us as they pass. After much searching we find the Blue Mosque and the sign reads free so we enter. We are met by Mohammed who proceeds to take us on a tour of the mosque.
The mosque was built in 1347 and its name originated because the interior walls are covered in blue and turquoise tiles. The tiles were imported from Damascus and Istanbul and were added when the mosque was restored and modified in 1652. Sadly, a lot of the mosque was destroyed during an earthquake in 1992 but the top of the minaret tower still offers great views over Cairo. The biggest challenge in all this is that to reach the top we have to climb the pitch-black tower by putting our arms out in front of us to feel our way along the walls. Going up isn’t too bad but heading down is terrifying.
Looking out over the city of Cairo is like looking at a city covered in mud. All the buildings are brown concrete, and are squeezed together, with live chickens, rubbish and satellite dishes lining the rooftops. Most of them are half finished as Mohammed tells us that the government makes you pay more tax as soon as your house is finished so most people keep their homes like this forever.
As we leave we pay Mohammed some baksheesh (a tip) for his tour but of course he asks for more. The Egyptian people are very accustomed to tourists and are industrious when it comes to making money off them. At the pyramids many kids pretend to be official tour guides and then ask for baksheesh. A group of us had our photo taken by the pyramids and half an hour later a man ran up to me trying to sell me a developed, coloured photograph of us all. He must have had a lab on site.
Whenever we go on a tour or accept the advice of the locals we inevitably end up at a perfume or papyrus shop. Papyrus is a material used for painting on. This trickery is usually done in good humour and with so many of Cairo’s residents living in poverty they need to be entrepreneurial when it comes to dealing with tourists.
Tourism is a major industry in Egypt and it is in the government’s interest to protect tourists. Security has increased since the massacre of 58 holidaymakers at the temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor in 1997. Now all tourists are escorted by a police convoy to visit any of the major tourist sites in the country. These convoys usually leave at the crack of dawn and often drive so fast that some of the tourist buses are bound to lose them anyway.
Visiting Cairo is a truly fascinating experience. The city is unique and crazy, the locals are passionate and interesting and of course there are the pyramids, the Egyptian museum and many other must see sites. You will either love or hate Cairo but there is no way you will come away from this amazing city indifferent.
Copyright © 2007 Annika Dash