egypt se cairo tak - part 1 (buildings)

It had always been my dream to go to Egypt. Perhaps not unlike other people my age, as a kid I devoured factual books from the library. The idea of improving yourself was intimately tied to the the acquistion of "general knowledge" - and there was even a sense of classical romance tied to it. Before there was the world wide web and post-modernism, the things you could know about the world and about history seemed finite. If you could master this store of information, then indeed you could be the master of the universe - like the smart South Indian nerdy boys who were in Bournvita Quiz Contest and who would later clear the IIT-JEE or well, maybe jump straight to MIT (there was one such child wonder in my school, wonder what sort of life he's having now in this time of infinite perspectives, sigh). So it was that us pre-globalisation kids read along with our Riverdale High and ACKs, Tell Me Why, Wonders of the World and all other manner of encyclopaedically minded books.

When I was 11 my father was posted to Baghdad, Iraq - a desert when it came to books. The only source was the British Council Library and they were choc-a-bloc with books on ancient Egypt. Perhaps in a Reader's Digest condensed book I had also read with great avidity about the curse of Tutankhaman's tomb.

Thus primed, I consumed all the books in the library which were however of a drier nature - yet, absorbing because I think there was a strong sense of individual pharaohs and their stories. Until the age of 13 or 14 I could rattle of the order of the kings of the old, middle and new kingdoms, when their tombs were discovered etc. Thanks to my flighty intellect, this knowledge is now completely lost to me. All I retained was a keen sense of romance about Egypt and a great desire to go there, which I was finally able to do last month.

Cairo did not disappoint primarily because I had so little hard expectation of it - we see very little of Cairo in the media around us and so it has not yet become scaled down in our heads as have North America and Western Europe. It was very familiar feeling - a strange mixture of Delhi and Bombay. The structures are primarily low rise like Delhi - east Delhi with its refugee and resettlement colonies - or central Delhi with its boxy 60s government buildings and flyovers. But the density, the feel is like Bombay. Yet, despite these familiar things it really felt like going to a completely foreign place.

The city is full of layers - ancient Egypt of the Pharaohs, Coptic Cairo of the Christians, Islamic Cairo of the sultans, European influenced downtown Cairo of art deco buildings, Nasserite Cairo with its socialist buildings, contemporary Cairo with its Barrista like Cilantro chain and cool boutiques in Zamalek (a bit like Bandra).




This is the place where there's also a school for whirling dervish dances and they perform free two nights a week. I went on my last but one night there when I was alone. Perhaps it is very touristy but it was still very impressive - especially the old guy who can whirl for something like 45 minutes without stopping.

This old part of the city also has predictably crazy bazaars, or souks, selling all manner of things - pots and pans and plastic and leopard print blankets and glittering scarves. Did I say glittering ;)
Oh yeah!

Basically full of the deliciously glowing reds and greens and roohafza pinks my (Muslim) grandmother would have called muslamani rang.

Of course it's not PC to say it, but it is the kind of stuff you see in the markets around Charminar, just on steroids.

In contrast to the hurly burly of the old city, the Christian mohallah or Coptic Cairo came as a bit of a shock - in fact it altered my entire experience of the city in one look. It's quiet, the streets are wide and empty - it's like stepping into the past.

There's a whole cluster of churches - and it says that one of them is the place where the Holy Family stayed for some time. The churches are interesting because the aesthetic is not how we classically imagine it - not europeanised or Portugese like as much, but definitely having a local inflection - the mosaics, the courtyards, the rounded buildings - and of course the ever present date palms.



The area was at a lower level, below the street and people seem to be living in houses there, and among the tourists you'd see regular kids returning from college, making cell phone rendezvous.

I was most fascinated by this neighbourhood - and it also had the best loos in all of Cairo!


Crossing over from the river downtown Cairo had a lot of lovely old turn of the 20th century buildings, arranged around a series of circles/squares. People said there was a strong trend of degentrification going on, that it was emptying out. There must be a logic of course (maybe like people who live in the old office buildings around Fort, but I don't know really)- but to the romantic eye, it seems hard to believe people don't want to live here.

Downtown Cairo has a famous cafe called Groppi which was once a chocolatier to the royal families of the Arab world and hangout space of artists and cool cats from Omar Sharief to Naguib Mahfouz. And they still serve a mean sundae.


Perhaps the most intriguing place I visited in Cairo was the city of the dead or Bab-e-nasr cemetery. Cairo has miles of cemeteries where people live -they've built their houses in the graveyards, hanging clotheslines across the headstones, using centaphs as tables. Clearly these are very poor areas and you feel uncomfortable being there, taking pictures yet fascinated and unable to tear your eyes away from this parallel life and death, macabre and routine space.

These settlements are built around clearly recent cemeteries - a few decades old. But the practice began a long time ago - it seems that at first the poor built their houses around the mausoleums of the sultans that were built outside the city - those parts now are layered and settled, old city mohallas, quite picturesque and perhaps no longer feeling as if they are next to graves - merely next to old buildings, with enough instances of the old mixing with the new (check out Merc Man below). One of these was just across from where the pictures are taken above.

The building in the picture above is an old and perhaps among the only remaining inns or sarais from some century - i forget - and many buildings in this neighbourhood were part of something called the Museum without Borders - where buildings exist in their regular space - with people around them, having opened mechanics shops and cafes in the stables - rather than as pristine, preserved monuments, although preservation and maintainance work is carried out.

And if you walk through this area you eventually end up back where this post started - near the Khan-e-Khalili, a crowded, crazy touristy (now) market that has existed for centuries - but more about that in the next post.


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