I had the opportunity to visit some friends in Cairo a few months ago. I only had 3 days and I managed to squeeze in lots of sights and sounds. Despite the negative publicity the city has had in the press, I was pleasantly surprised at how safe and welcomed I felt everywhere I went. Here is a suggested itinerary for a very packed 3 days in Cairo.
In the suburbs of Cairo, Egypt’s largest camel market gathers buyers and sellers from as far away as the Sudan! I’ve written a blog post dedicated entirely to this fascinating market. You can read and see all of the photos here.
Tahrir Square, Downtown and an Amazing Lunch
Starting at the Opera House, walk down the main road passing the 6th October Bridge which affords great views of the city and the Nile River below. The road goes all the way to Tahrir Square, famous as the area where hundreds of thousands of protestors gathered during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. The Square is a wide open area surrounded by the American University of Cairo, some international hotels and the Egyptian Museum. I was surprised by how open and central it was (I mean, it makes sense as a place to protest). Seeing photos now, I still can’t believe how many people were there. We walked around and discovered some interesting political graffiti, most of which has been painted over since the Revolution.
We walked around for about an hour and then headed to the Four Seasons Cairo. This was a special request of mine. I realize that most people want Egyptian food when in Egypt. I did too! But living in Ethiopia, I also really, really miss dim sum and it so happened that the Four Seasons has some of the best dim sum in the city. That, along with a great view of the Nile during our extended lunch cinched the deal for me.
Sunset on the Nile
After a long and delicious lunch, we crossed the street and boarded a sailboat to enjoy the fresh cool breeze and a lovely view of the sunset from the water. I could see spending more time here, bringing something to drink, a blanket and a book to just laze on this historic river which has seen ancient civilizations rise and fall.
Cairo Night Market (Khan el Khalili)
Whew! It’s been a long day already. But I was still ready to keep going so we headed to the night market in Cairo. The Khan el Khalili was one of the most amazing markets I have ever seen! It extends for kilometers and kilometers with everything you can imagine for sale. We got lost a few times but ended up finding lots of cool things- from traditional bedouin hooked rugs, to the various stalls selling cheap chinese trinkets and those selling all kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables.
My favourite place in the market however was this shop where craftmakers still made the well known fez that is associated with Egypt and the Ottoman empire. It was really cool seeing them cut, shape and glue the hats together. This is the very last fez maker in Egypt. Most of the fez come from China these days.
I was really tired at this point and a little intimidated with the huge crowds of people so I didn’t take many photos in this market. If I go back to Cairo, I would literally sleep for half a day so I could spend a lot more time at the night markets to take photos with all of my wits and energy. Until then, well I have some great memories of walking for many hours and seeing vendors sell all kinds of things. I should also mention that during my time at the market, while I was with a male friend, I NEVER got harassed or felt intimidated. Nobody tried to touch me or followed me around. I was expecting the market to be like one in Bombay where I would leave feeling kind of icky but it was an amazing experience. It was also completely different at night than during the day.
Monastery of St. Simon and the El Seed Mural
The Monastery of St. Simon, Egypt’s largest coptic (Christian Orthodox) church is located in the neighbourhood of Mokkatam or Manshiyat Nasir. It also happens to be the largest church in the whole of the Middle East. It is built into a natural cave and can accommodate over 20,000 people!
During our visit to the Church, we were also able to see this amazing mural by the algerian artist El Seed. The mural covers more than 50 buildings in Cairo and is entitled “Perception”. The arabic calligraphy says, ““Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eye first.”, a quote from a Coptic bishop called Saint Athanasius of Alexandria. What was most interesting to me about the artwork was that since the artist had drawn his mural, lots of new buildings and stories had gone up. It obviously doesn’t make sense for people to preserve art in a functional space. The guide at the church told us that the artist was going to come back in order to paint the new additions. I just found something very endearing about a community that didn’t really care about all of the publicity this artwork had received but kept working and living with it. The original painting had been done through consultation of the church and the community but not the Egyptian authorities. Apparently that had caused a few problems too. Whether he would be allowed back in remains another question…
The neighborhood surrounding the church is called “Garbage City” because it is the place where 80% of Cairo’s garbage is brought, recycled and sorted. The inhabitants of the city are called the Zabbaleen (the garbage people) and are descendants of poor Christian Copts who migrated to the Cairo in the 1940s. They came to Mokattam Mountain in order to be able to practice their own religion (and raise pigs which is taboo in the predominantly Muslim city). They also started collecting and sorting garbage in order to find valuable assets in it. Soon, they became specialists at doing just this! The Zabbaleen would sort through household garbage, salvaging and selling things of value, while the organic waste provided an excellent source of food for their animals. As more and more people came to Mokkatam, they banded together and built this church as a place for worship for the community.
I was really excited about spending time exploring Garbage City (also known as Manshiyat Nasir). However, our guide who was female seemed to have never been there and was a little afraid of walking through all of the alleyways. This was pretty disappointing because seriously the people there were THE NICEST and super friendly. Her attitude seemed pretty normal for someone from middle to upper class. The Zabbaleen are pretty marginalized in society and many people warned us about pickpockets in the area. I would like to re-iterate that I felt incredibly safe there and everyone I met was incredibly friendly. I got invited to have some breakfast with a group of men, and people didn’t even mind me taking photos of them. Maybe if I had ventured out to some of the smallest alleyways I might have had issues but I would go back there in a heartbeat to explore more.
We headed to the Citadel, the highest point of Cairo where we visited two mosques and admired the sweeping views of the city. The Citadel was a strategic point built by the Ottoman conqueror Salhadin. The first mosque is called An-Nasir Mohammed Mosque and was built in the 1300s!!! Amazingly some of the gorgeous islamic art from that period has survived to this day. The second mosque, called the Ali Pasha or Alabaster mosque, was more recent but very impressive. It can be seen from may places in Cairo. It’s domed structure and inside is very reminiscent of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Ali Pasha was an Ottoman ruler of Egypt so it makes sense that he would try to replicate the jewel of his country in this city.
We wandered over to Old Cairo for some delicious lunch of koshari, an interesting combination of rice, pasta, beans, caramelized onions and hot sauce and then wandered around the various mosques. Our guide again was a little disappointing, she told us it wasn’t worth getting a ticket to visit inside the mosques (false!). Go inside the mosques. They are beautiful. Walking around the market, I met lots of artisans working on honing their crafts, vendors selling everything from pickles to the top of mosques. The mosques were surprisingly social places with adolescents, children, lovers and families gathered, eating and hanging out.
Pyramids of Giza, the Step Pyramids of Saqqara and the Egyptian Museum
The last day was dedicated to the Pyramids of Giza and the Steps Pyramids of Saqqara (the oldest pyramids in Egypt). I also made a stopover at a carpet making school in Saqqara and admired some amazing carpets. Finally, I made a much too quick introduction to the Egyptian Museum and took a good look at King Tut.
Egypt is AMAZING. I can’t wait to go back and explore some more.