Source: National Geographic
By Carl Hoffman
Writer Carl Hoffman traveled to Egypt in February 2011, a week after popular demonstrations led to the president’s resignation. These are his observations.
The air was smoky but sweet, the sounds unmistakable: glasses clinking and dominoes and backgammon dice clacking, newspaper pages turning, and the constant low hum of voices.
In Egypt there is a coffee shop on every corner. Sometimes in the middle of the block, too, and even right next to another one. They’re all different and all similar—open to the street, often old, with feral cats prowling underfoot and ceiling fans slowly turning overhead. Men drink tea, smoke water pipes, play table games, and talk or read the newspaper. Some cafes are tiny holes in the wall; others are large and sprawling. Often they fill whole alleyways, especially at night.
Called ahwas, the shops are an Egyptian institution. Mostly you’ll find only men in them, though tourists are almost always welcome, and in parts of downtown Cairo, accompanied Egyptian women are seen.
As protesters and revelers moved in and out of Tahrir Square I took refuge from the action to slip inside an ahwa for a shisha and sweet tea.
The tea is always in glasses served on an aluminum tray and the shisha, or water pipe, comes with fresh, flavored tobacco topped by hot coals. The smoke is smooth and gentle, even to a non-smoker like me. Sit as long as you want; there’s never a hurry, and there’s always time to talk.
One afternoon I fell into conversation with Shady El Tawansy, 26, who gave me the lowdown on Egyptian dating.
“We don’t date,” he said, taking a long, slow drag on the hookah. “You go out in groups. To the mosque on Fridays. The parents and families are very involved in the process all along the way. It is very complicated.”
The cannon is a very distinguished symbol of Ramadan in Egypt as it is used to announce the end of the daily Ramadan fast. There are two historical stories that explain the origin of this tradition and, not surprisingly, both stories are quite similar.
One story relates that Egypt’s ruler at the time; Mohamed Ali Al-Kabeer, had bought new and modern cannons to fortify the Egyptian military forces. It was Ramadan and he had decided to try one of them out. By complete coincidence, it was at sunset time in Ramadan, and the city’s citizens took this as a sign that the day’s long fasting had ended. They were so grateful for this sign that they thanked the Wali for this announcement, thinking it was intentional. Consequently, the Wali was forced, out of courtesy, to repeat this custom daily.
Another story relates to why many Egyptian call the iftar cannon Hajja Fatma. It is said that in 859 AH (Hijri), Khoshqadam the Wali (ruler) of Egypt was busy toying with his new cannon in the open courtyard atop the Citadel overlooking Cairo. The cannon went off accidentally and a loud boom reverberated everywhere. The city’s residents took the blast as a sign to break their fast and declared it a new tradition. However, when the cannon failed to announce iftar time in later days, the city’s elders gathered and went to meet the Wali to ask him to endorse the tradition. Upon their visit, they were greeted by the his wife; Hajja Fatma, who informed them the Wali was away but promised to portray their wishes to him. For this reason, many call the cannon Hajja Fatma, in honor to the woman portrayed the people’s wishes in endorsing a timeless tradition.
The tradition indeed survived until today and fasters across Egypt still await the loud “boom” that announces the end of their daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan. Iftar in Egypt just isn’t the same without the cannon blast.
Egypt itself is known as a world fascinating travel destination due to its ancient temples, amazing pyramids, heritage palaces and many more. Alexandria, Luxor and Sharm El Sheikh are the best places to visit in modern Egypt, however Cairo is also another famous city which mixes up modern and ancient cultures of Egypt. Tourists as well as Egyptian nationals never miss to visit such an astonishing city. Below the Nile Guide gives us a historical run-down on Cairo’s most beautiful religious relics nestled in Old Cairo – which are definately worth seeing!
The Masr Edima is one of the oldest districts of Cairo and home to the Hanging Church also known as The Saint Virgin Mary Coptic Orthodox Church. It is the most famous Coptic church in Cairo, and one of the oldest Coptic churches in Egypt that is still in use. The Hanging Church was built towards the end of the 7th Century AD, though it is believed there was an earlier church here dating to the 3rd or 4th Century. By the 11th Century AD it became the official seat of residence of the head of the Coptic Church (the Patriarch of Alexandria). It is known as the Hanging Church because it is built over the gate of the southern tower of the Roman Fortress, Babylon on the Nile. Its nave is suspended over the passage (the church is known as al Muallaqa in Arabic, which means “the suspended”). Make sure you look down through the plastic viewing ports in the floor to see the proof that you are not actually on the ground! The Hanging Church is lavishly decorated, with a beautiful vaulted wooden ceiling, marble columns and pulpit, and lots of ebony and ivory screens. It also contains over 100 religious icons, the oldest of which dates to the 8th Century. Services still take place here in the ancient Coptic language, believed to be related to ancient Egyptian.
Travel to Beit al-Souhaymi which is part of the lovingly restored Darb al-Asfar district of Islamic Cairo, situated down an alleyway just past al-Aqmar Mosque. Beit al-Souhaymi is a typical example of the family mansions built in Cairo from the Mamluk period all the way to the 19th Century. It costs 30 LE to enter, but is well worth it. You emerge in to a pretty, tree lined open courtyard complete with singing birds, around which the rest of the house is based. In fact, the Beit al-Souhaymi complex actually merges with two other houses to the west. The whole area is a maze of stairs, passageways and hidden rooms, all of which have been restored, and many of which are wonderfully decorated. Spend some time poking around the nooks and crannies, and you will find rooms with colourful marble mosaic floors, vividly painted wooden ceilings, exquisite mashrabia lattice work (to allow the women to observe the goings on in the house without being seen), and ornate mother of pearl chests that have clearly been the inspiration behind many of the souvenirs sold in Khan al-Khalili. You could easily get lost for an hour or two exploring Beit al-Souhaymi; just make sure you finish your visit in the second, even greener, open courtyard, and take a rest before rejoining the hustle and bustle of the outside world.
Ibn Tulun mosque is stunning and considered to be the oldest in Cairo that has survived in its original form, and is the third largest in the world by area. Completed in 879 AD, Ibn Tulun Mosque was built by Ahmed ibn Tulun, founder of the Talunid dynasty that was ruling Egypt at the end of the 9th Century. The mosque consists of a huge open courtyard, including fountain, and is surrounded on three sides by enclosed wings known as ziyadas. The art and architecture of Ibn Tulun Mosque has a distinct Iraqi flavour (Ahmed Ibn Tulun was born in Baghdad) – make sure you check out the crenulated tops of the walls, which look like the paper-chain dolls that children cut out. Interestingly, a local legend claims the mosque was built on the hill where Noah’s Ark landed after the flood, and that the floral frieze that runs around the arches was originally carved on to the ark. Finally, a trip to Ibn Tulun Mosque is not complete without climbing its minaret. With the staircase spiralling up the outside of the tower, the minaret is unique in Cairo, and offers fantastic views of the city.
Al Azhar Mosque is one of the most beautiful mosques in Egypt, if not the whole world. It was established in 972 AD, the first Fatimid monument built in Cairo. Its name means “the most blooming”, after one of the prophet Mohammed’s daughters. Al Azhar Mosque has been renovated and extended over the years, and it reflects a number of architectural styles. The large main courtyard is a particular highlight: 275 by 112 feet, made of glistening white marble, and home to hundreds of ancient columns. The five minarets are particularly elegant, and can be seen from much of Cairo. It is possible to climb some of the towers, though they are often locked and you should remember to give the porter a little something for his trouble. Al Azhar Mosque is also arguably the most significant in the whole of the Sunni Muslim world: it is home to the second oldest University in the world, established in 975 AD, which specialises in all forms of Islamic studies. The scholars of the university are very well respected, and are often called upon to issue fatwas, or religious rulings.
Amr Ibn el-Aas Mosque is the oldest mosque in Africa, prayers are still held in this large mosque dating back to 641 CE. Muslim leader Amr Ibn el-Aas is said to have ordered its construction upon receiving a sign from God in the form of a dove nesting in his tent. When the doves brood was raised, the mosque was built on the site. It has been altered throughout the centuries and incorporates many different styles. No two of its 150 columns are identical.
Al-Hussein Mosque is one of the most beautiful Cairo mosques. Situated in Midan al-Hussein, next to Khan al-Khalili, al-Hussein Mosque is named after the Prophet’s grandson, who was killed by the Umayyads in Iraq in 680 AD during a battle over the succession of the Caliphate. It was this conflict that caused the schism in Islam that gave rise to the two main subdivisions of Sunni and Shia: with the Sunnis recognising the legitimacy of the Umayyad claim, and the Shi’ites maintaining that only a blood relative of Mohammed could be the Caliph. Hussein is revered as a martyr in the Shi’ite world, and although Egypt is predominantly Sunni Muslim, Hussein is still regarded as a saint here too. His head is buried inside al-Hussein Mosque. Technically, the mosque is closed to non-Muslims, though the caretakers will sometimes let you in if you appear respectful enough. Al-Hussein Mosque is elegant and restrained: a huge prayer hall with hundreds of light grey marble pillars, tasteful hanging lamps and chandeliers, and high vaulted ceilings. The mihrab is gorgeous: white, blue, grey and black marble arranged in to traditional geometric designs. The shrine to Hussein is a huge engraved silver affair surrounded by shining white marble, and offset by soft, almost otherworldly green lighting. You will often see pilgrims from all around the Muslim world at Hussein’s shrine, walking slowly around it, chanting.
The Citadel is one of Cairo’s most popular and readily identifiable attractions. In the 12th Century AD Salah ad-Din (known as Saladin in the west) recognised that Cairo needed a fortress to help protect the city against attack by the Crusaders. He chose this prominent limestone spur, that is now on the edge of what is known as Islamic Cairo, for his stronghold. It later became the seat of government, until the middle of the 19th Century. It has always maintained some sort of military garrison, even up to the present day. The Citadel offers some of the most spectacular views of Cairo, and it’s great fun trying to identify sights from here that you have already visited. You should even be able to make out the Pyramids! It also contains three mosques that represent very different architectural styles: the Mamluk an-Nasir Mohammad Mosque, the Ottoman Suleiman Pasha Mosque, and the Mohammed Ali Mosque. The latter is huge and opulent, and its spires dominate the skyline of Cairo.
You’ll find most of your time spent in Old Cairo, where getting lost is all part of the fun! Spending time in one of the most colourfully enriched locations in the world makes Old Cairo definitely well worth the treat!
By Nevine El-Aref, Ahramonline, April 7, 2001
Minister of Antiquities Zahi Hawass will put on a touring exhibition representing the Egyptian revolution in an effort to revive tourism.
During a meeting with a delegation of the 25 January Revolution Youth, Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs Zahi Hawass decided to hold an art exhibition that tells the story of the struggles of the Egyptian Revolution.
Hawass explains that the exhibition will first be shown in Cairo and then tour 14 European countries. The exhibition will consist of art in various media created by Egyptian artists and that reflect their views on Egypt’s Revolution.
It will also include a photo gallery showing scenes of Tahrir Square as well as the demonstrators. A committee of representatives of the 25 January Youth as well as officials from the museum department of the Ministry of Antiquities will be exstablished to produce the exhibition.
Mohamed Abdel Fatah, head of the museum department, stated that a collection of archaeological replicas would be included with the exhibition. These replicas, said Abdel Fatah, would help reflect some of the themes of the revolution — for example, a replica statue of the Egyptian goddess of truth and justice, Maat, while peace and prosperity would be symbolised by the god Osiris, god of the afterlife.
Ahmed Kamil, director of the technical office of the museum department, said that photographs of some of those who died during the revolution, as well as some of their personal belongings, such as clothes and flags they held when killed, would also be displayed in the exhibition.
A collection of books about antiquities would accompany the exhibition, including those printed by the Ministry of Antiquities, a selection from prominent archaeologists, and those of Hawass.
In addition, a collection of brochures and newsletters concerning Egyptian archaeological sites and tourist attractions would be on display in an attempt to promote tourism to Egypt. This section of the exhibition, said Kamil, would be financed in collaboration with the Red Sea governorate and four travel agencies.
After the exhibition has completed a tour in Egypt and Europe, Hawass announced, it would be placed on permanent display at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC), now under construction in Al-Fustat area of Old Cairo. The purpose of NMEC is to gather the history of Egyptian civilisation from prehistoric to modern times, and this exhibition will make it complete, Hawass stated, being the latest episode in Egypt’s modern history.
The Spanish independent travel website Locuraviajes.com lists ten locations around the world that everyone should visit before they die and the great news is that Cairo ranks among these dreamlike locations!
Here’s the Top 10 as published by Locuraviajes.com:
1. New York […]
2. Paris […]
3. Venice […]
4. Rio de Janeiro […]
5. Masai Mara, Kenya […]
6. Alaska […]
7. Mont Saint Michel, France […]
8. The Great Wall of China […]
9. Cairo. “One of the most visited cities in the world despite its desert climate is the capital of Egypt. The complex of the Giza pyramids, mummies and museums of Egyptian culture are reason enough to travel to North Africa. However, the smells, sounds and sensations that offer the largest city in the black continent, are unforgettable for tourists. The gallery of Tutankhamun at the Egyptian National Museum, the Sphinx, Old Cairo, the Citadel of Saladin, are some of the sites that any visitor should see while in Egypt.”
10. Taj-Mahal, India […]