Most mornings in Cairo began with a cup of tea and the quotidian dawn muezzin name; it had develop into my each day ritual to take a seat within the lodge balcony and watch the scene unfold beneath. The town wore completely different appears all through the day, and at daybreak, the solar forged a glow on the calm roads. The empty 15th Might Bridge that went over the meandering Nile River and the skyscrapers lining the banks of the rich Zamalek neighbourhood have been shrouded in silence that was damaged solely by the azan.
It has been a yr since I visited the buzzing capital of Egypt with my household of two moody youngsters and a nonchalant husband. These have been the pre-pandemic days, when life had a unique rhythm. The boys’ winter break had turned out to be the proper time of yr to take in the nice December climate of the nation that’s a part of the fertile crescent area and residential to the world’s earliest human civilisation. I had learn up and watched documentaries about Egypt’s wealthy pharaonic heritage, with its intriguing theories of the afterlife and the magical Nile. However, it was Cairo Time, the Arab-Canadian director Ruba Nadda’s 2009 award-winning movie, that had supplied a peek into the town’s cultural life even earlier than I landed there. The film is a love letter to this beguiling place within the African continent, and it lured me into visiting. Whereas my journey to the town of a thousand minarets was made to expertise and perceive its tradition and historical past, New York-based Juliette, the protagonist of Cairo Time (performed by the chic Patricia Clarkson), travelled there to vacation together with her husband, a United Nations official working in Gaza.
She took her time getting snug, initially discovering the town’s giant inhabitants and teeming visitors overwhelming. However I felt solely at dwelling within the metropolis that, like India, bustles with folks and carries a narrative in each avenue – resembling this partaking anecdote concerning the lodge we checked into. Now known as Cairo Marriott Resort & Omar Khayyam On line casino, the previous Royal Palace Al Gezira was in-built 1869 by the then ruler of Egypt, Khedive Ismail, as a visitor residence through the Suez Canal inauguration celebrations. Well-known historic personalities, together with Empress Eugenie, spouse of Emperor Napoleon III, have stayed on this neoclassical palace.
From the lodge’s balcony, I noticed the 15th Might Bridge come to life by 10 a.m. each morning as vehicles and buses moved at a snail’s tempo, contributing to Cairo’s notorious visitors points. Surprisingly, I hardly ever heard the Cairenes use their horns, one thing that’s so widespread with drivers again dwelling. And within the distance, the sand-hued homes of Cairo’s not-so-affluent households. The Cairo Tower, one among Egypt’s trendy monuments, with its pineapple-like facade, stood out at 187 metres and pierced the sky. Photographs of Mohamed Salah, the well-known Egyptian soccer participant, adorned metropolis billboards. Because the day progressed, Cairo’s skyline turned hazy, and by night it was bejewelled with 1000’s of glowing lights.
I puzzled how Juliette will need to have felt as she sat alone in her lodge balcony on that first day of her arrival, watching the ebb and stream of the town and taking in its many sights and sounds. Certainly, Cairo could be overwhelming for a lone girl. Her husband had not acquired her on the airport as he had been held up in Gaza. As a substitute, his former Egyptian safety officer – the smoky-eyed Tareq, performed by Alexander Siddig – accompanied her whereas she explored the town. The time they spent collectively gave rise to a relationship that was greater than platonic however by no means consummated. Their reticent love is barely depicted via flickering eyelids and deep, craving appears.
As for me, the invention of the town started with my household attending a Sufi present within the courtyard of the wikala of Sultan Qansuh al-Ghuri, a caravanserai constructed within the 16th century. Not like the well-known, white-clad Turkish dervishes, the dancers on this troupe wore vibrant vests and robes with weighted, ankle-length multicoloured skirts known as Tanoura. Most vacationers are unaware of this efficiency, however I used to be eager to expertise the paranormal type of Islam.
Accompanied by conventional music, the Tanoura (because the dance can be known as) is a must-see when in Egypt, which is dwelling to 77 Sufi orders. The efficiency that we watched began with gradual, deliberate steps. The lead dancer performed the sagat or Egyptian finger cymbals whereas others carried out on the goblet drum, pharaonic lute and different percussion devices. They appeared to be in a trance, connecting with the Almighty as they twirled rhythmically. Quickly, the music gained in tempo. Hypnotically quick gestures changed the chic actions and reached a feverish, psychedelic pitch. The vitality was palpable because the mesmerising dervishes moved fervently in circles, calling out to Allah with their eyes closed. I had by no means witnessed a Sufi present, and this distinctive expertise gave me a way of Egypt’s religious tradition.
That night time, nonetheless jet-lagged, we stepped into the darkish and moody interiors of Abou El Sid, a restaurant well-known for native delicacies. Patrons have been busy smoking shisha as Egypt’s legendary vocalist Umm Kulthum’s throaty songs performed within the background. The identical contralto voice that had so impressed Juliette. On my first night time within the nation, I used to be launched to the Egyptian tarab – a state of rapturous enchantment – due to the diva’s enthralling singing, whilst I dug into the molokheya (a well-liked leafy vegetable) served with rooster and rice.
The subsequent morning, 50-year-old Marwa Elessamy, a neighborhood Egyptologist, greeted us within the lodge foyer. I used to be trying ahead to the day’s outing and unravelling a few of Cairo’s little-known secrets and techniques. I had all the time related Egypt with its dominant Islamic religion, however I discovered that Christianity has lengthy been present within the nation, from as early as the primary century AD, and it noticed the rise of a brand new department of the religion known as the Coptic Orthodox Church. The Copts, as they’re identified, are mentioned to be descendants of historical Egyptians. Elessamy approximates that about 20 per cent of the inhabitants in Egypt are Copts. I walked via the slim streets of Coptic Cairo (the oldest a part of the town, with settlements relationship again to the 6th century) and climbed the steps of the Hanging Church with bell towers that resembled Noah’s Ark. Constructed on high of the gates of an outdated Roman fortress, the church is dwelling to many non secular icons. However my actual curiosity lay within the close by Church of St Sergius, Cairo’s oldest church. It’s believed that the cavern on its grounds was dwelling to the Holy Household for 3 months throughout their escape from King Herod, earlier than it grew to become a church within the Apostolic Age. Elessamy additionally took us to the Ben Ezra Synagogue to offer us a glimpse of the once-thriving Jewish group of multifaith Cairo.
On the Historic Cairo quarters, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage web site, we walked previous the Sayyidna-al-Hussein. This mosque is taken into account probably the most sacred Islamic websites as a result of it’s regarded as the burial place of the top of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Mohammed. Elessamy then led us via the noisy, crowded lanes of Cairo’s medieval market, Khan el-Khalili. It’s a caravanserai supposedly constructed through the Mamluk interval, and its distributors greeted us with, “India – Maharaja! Welcome to Egypt!” With items of each sort beneath the solar on show – pharaonic souvenirs, Egyptian clothes, incense, heady perfumes, spices, carpets, handicrafts – it was like strolling via the set of an Arabian Nights manufacturing.
I couldn’t assist questioning if it was via these labyrinthine alleys that Juliette had walked with Tareq throughout her metropolis escapades.
After some procuring, we headed to the historic El Fishawy cafe on Elessamy’s advice. Tucked away in one of many alleys of the market, the cafe is greater than two centuries outdated and was frequented by Egyptian artists, writers and musicians. The famed Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz was apparently one among its common patrons. “These cafes are men-only. It’s solely after I accompany vacationers that I get to go to these locations. I really like these social joints,” mentioned Elessamy in a passive tone. Although the Western-bred Juliette had been shocked by the absence of ladies in cafes, smoking with males, consuming espresso and taking part in chess, her expertise as proven in Cairo Time (to not point out India’s personal patriarchal social norms) had ready me for my encounter with Egypt’s segregated society. On the 24×7 El Fishawy, I ordered Karkade (the nationwide drink), a tea made by steeping the petals of the hibiscus flower, which could be loved both sizzling or chilly. Whereas my husband and Elessamy relished the mint tea, chilly karkade quickly grew to become my favorite drink throughout our keep on this heat nation.
I used to be slowly getting the hold of Cairo’s tradition and historical past, however we have been but to go to the pyramids — the explanation that almost all guests flock to Cairo. We had deliberate to go to the Giza Governorate on the final day of our keep. “The Nice Pyramid of Giza is the tomb of King Khufu. You possibly can stroll into the pyramid; it’s a unique expertise,” mentioned Elessamy. Whereas Juliette by no means entered the pyramid and had been comfortable to take a seat beside Tareq on one among its 2.3 million stone blocks, every weighing greater than two tons, we determined to discover its interiors. The children have been kicked by the concept of venturing into the megalithic web site, mentioned to be 4500 years outdated. As I trudged into the construction huffing and puffing, it was a bit of cake for them. Whereas varied debatable controversies encompass the existence of the pyramids, I like to think about it as a religious granary with electromagnetic vitality, a sound therapeutic construction, or a non secular centre for ceremonies.
That night time, we determined to discover Cairo on foot. It was New Yr’s Eve, and the town held a festive look. Zamalek was waking as much as its nightlife. Excessive-end inns just like the Sheraton Cairo Resort & On line casino and Cairo Marriott Resort & Omar Khayyam On line casino had many occasions lined as much as rope within the New Yr with music and dance. We walked on the Qasr El Nil bridge and headed in the direction of Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Sq.. Children have been busy taking photos with DSLR cameras and ring lights, a pair was getting cosy and a coachman tempted vacationers with a horse carriage trip. Decked-up floating eating places cruised on the Nile. Cairenes youth sat outdoors crammed eating places having fun with dinner al fresco with shisha, and an outdated man tried to promote us a room in a “respectable” lodge. There was an excessive amount of taking place throughout us, and I used to be attempting to soak up every little thing in a really quick time.
Egypt was our final household trip because the pandemic broke out quickly after, and my wandering thoughts typically goes again to Cairo’s mesmerising streets and cafes the place socialising is the norm. I had discovered it to be endlessly charming with its conventional coronary heart and trendy outlook; I, too, had fallen in love by the tip of my journey. However like Juliette’s wistful romance with Tareq, travelling again there stays a distant dream for now.