Cairo is a city of mass. With more than 20 million inhabitants in the greater metropolitan area, it contains a quarter of Egypt’s population.
It has a “City of Garbage,” where half a million people live off of recycling the detritus of the capital, and a “City of the Dead,” where around a million or more people live in and amongst the tombs of a four-mile-long cemetery. In essence, Cairo bears more resemblance to Mexico City or Mumbai in India in scale and even in looks than it does to other cities in the Middle East that pall in the comparison.
It was mass that created Egypt and makes it an attraction for tourism from all over the world. The 4,000 miles of the Nile provided the water for the canals and agriculture that led to an epic civilization stretching back more than 5,000 years. This mass, with millions of people toiling in ancient Egypt, gave birth to the Cairo’s most epic tourist attraction, the pyramids at Giza.
The Great Pyramid at Giza was constructed over a 20-year period in 2500 BCE, long before the time of Abraham. For 3,800 years it was the tallest man-made structure in the world at 146 meters. It contains “only” 2.3 million giant stones – the largest of which weighs up to 80 tons and was transported “only” 800 km. It remained largely intact until the 15th century, when Muslim rulers began carting away pieces of the polished white limestone that once made up its façade to build mosques. It is a testimony to the fact that the engineering and skills of the builders of the pyramid were of such high quality that they were unmatched and re-purposed by local craftsmen even millennia later.
Egypt is a society deeply influenced by the past. Driving from the airport toward the center, the avenues are six lanes wide and dominated by military infrastructure.
The large apartment blocks and infrastructure remind one of the 1970s and 1980s brutalism. The government has plans to build a fancy new administrative capital, but so far Cairo is the anti-Dubai. Instead of gleaming, it is laboring to stay afloat economically. Hotels for air force officers and other soldiers line the areas near the airport, along with murals of Egypt’s army crossing the Suez Canal in 1973 to fight Israel. It is a reminder that Egypt has one of the largest armies in world – and the largest in the Middle East and Africa with almost 500,000 soldiers drawn from national conscription and outfitted with American weapons.
Alongside the military edifices, the drive takes one along Orouba Street and through Heliopolis, the playground of the elites in the early 20th century and today.
The most iconic of the old villas here is a house modeled after a Hindu temple built by Baron Edouard Empian, a Belgian businessman.
Like many things Egyptian, it was built 100 years ago and after the 1952 revolution of Gamal Abdel Nasser, it lay abandoned as Europeans and others fled or were expelled from the country, their properties nationalized.
Closer to the Cairene center, one passes the ‘City of the Dead,’ which tour guide Yasser Fouly assured me was only accessible to tourists with coordination and possibly security. Then one comes upon the Khan al Khalili bazaar. Of course, it’s Cairo, so it’s not just a one-lane shuk, it’s a huge maze of little shops and small alleys. For a few dollars, a nargilla and tea were brought and I enjoyed watching the passersby. A decade ago this touristy area would have been flooded with Western faces, but today the tourists are mostly gone. Locals have picked up some of the slack, but it is unclear who buys the mostly Chinese-made statues and faux-belly- dancing outfits. A pestering elderly man agreed to provide a shoeshine, promised at $1, but it became $3 (50 Egyptian pounds) after some haggling. After all, a man who has your shoes must be paid.
To see the influence of religion on the country, it is worth traveling to what is called “Old Cairo.” The area around here on the Nile was founded in the 7th century after the Muslim conquest. Among the stonewashed alleyways and past the dilapidated metro station is the Ben Ezra synagogue, whose foundations likely date to 880 BCE or before. The current modest tan structure is from the 1890s and has been refurbished in recent years. It has a pretty interior and reminds us of the thousands of years of Jewish history in the country.
A short walk from the synagogue one sees a series of Coptic churches, many dating from a similar era. Saint Mary’s Church, often known as the Hanging (Suspended) Church because its nave is suspended over a passage, is packed with Coptic Christians who come to visit it. In the foyer are photos of Coptic popes meeting with various Egyptian leaders dating back to Nasser. Missing is an image of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, who was elected president in 2012 and removed by the army in 2013 after mass protests. His name shall be blotted out from history, people say. During the time of the protests against him, the Brotherhood unleashed their Islamist thugs to target Coptic Christians, destroyed dozens of churches and killed people.
Churches are also targets of terrorism today. In December 2016, 27 people were murdered by a bombing in the Botroseya Church carried out by ISIS. Today Reverend Andrea Zaki, the head of the two-million- strong Protestant churches in Egypt, is hopeful for the future of coexistence in the country.
“Come here a year from now and you’ll see changes,” he says, referring the economic situation. “Security is much better, you feel it everywhere.”
One place to feel secure is at Mena House in Giza. Leaving the dusty, crowded, traffic- clogged Cairo behind and journeying 40 minutes to Giza (around $3 by taxi) to be at the base of the pyramids is worth it. Sure, Cairo has its night clubs, such as the famed Café Groppi (closed for renovations), and its bars, like the Ambassador’s Club at the Intercontinental, and it has its Nile River cruises with belly dancers (like much of Cairo, the cruise ships seem to date from the 1970s), but Giza has pyramids.
For a bit over $200 a night, one can sleep at the base of the pyramids on the peaceful grounds of a hotel that dates to the 19th century. With pools and gardens, an Indian restaurant and local fare, the hotel is a must-see. Here is where Winston Churchill and many other dignitaries stayed.
In the morning, the Great Pyramids are a short walk away, towering in the distance.
You’ll have to navigate through busloads of Chinese tourists at the entrance, but once inside, you gain an even greater appreciation of one of the Seven Wonders of the World. A short distance away is the Sphinx, which honestly seems like a little cat compared to the lion-like pyramids.The author traveled to Egypt with Keshet Educational Journeys and the Middle East Policy and Information Network.