At the restaurant, a woman in our group asks to be seated in the no-smoking section. The proprietor points to a chair nailed to the ceiling. Welcome to Cairo, where everything is just a little twisted. When you visit Egypt’s capital and Africa’s largest city, you soon realize that you are not in Kansas anymore — not by a long shot. Cairo is a shrug, a wink, a tongue in the cheek. This city of 16 million gets right up in your face — but always with a benevolent if desert-dry sense of humor.
In Cairo, babies are born puffing on Camels, or so you might imagine. If smoking sets your neo-Victorian blood to boiling, well too bad. You’ll just have to follow the “when in Cairo…” rule. Heed the surgeon general’s warning at home, but you might actually want to take up the habit here, at least long enough to sample a shisha, a water pipe the size of a toddler. Waiters heft them onto your table and with great flourish fire up a chunk of apple-flavored tobacco; at least, one presumes that it is tobacco.
Feeling somewhat lightheaded after my shisha indulgence, I head for the kaleidoscopic Khan al-Khalili souk, perhaps the largest, most famous bazaar in the Middle East. In the 14th century, Khan al-Khalili was a caravanserai, a sort of medieval truck stop for camel drivers. Today vendors pack its dizzying labyrinth of streets, hawking everything under the Egyptian sun: lilies and figs and dates and nuts, a sultan’s hoard of spices, bolts of shimmering silk, all manner of leather goods, Aladdin-style carpets, Bedouin coffeepots, alabaster chalices, hand-hammered copper ware. Shop owners sing out to you to stop in for a leisurely cup of steaming mint tea. Don’t accept the invitation unless you really want to buy something. Otherwise, it may take you hours to extricate yourself from their grasping hospitality.
I buy a galabia, the flowing white tunic that many Egyptian men wear day and night. My “man dress” is airy and comfortable. In Cairo, I also note, a galabia doubles in function as a sort of cotton Porta-Potty, providing a modicum of privacy for those who opt to squat in the streets when Mother Nature calls. Remember — when in Cairo …
The city is a feast of contradictions. Wizened women roast ears of corn in fire pits flanking world-class restaurants. Ox carts compete with exhaust-belching cars that seem to travel at the speed of light, which puts crossing any street on the order of an Olympic event. Felucca sailboats ply the Nile as they did in Cleopatra’s day, alongside oil- and produce-laden freighters. Skyscrapers cast shadows on ruins dating from the dawn of recorded history.
It is hard to fathom how long Egypt has been in business. The land was ancient when Buddha was a baby. To really appreciate the country’s history, head for Giza, just seven miles — or 5,000 years — away, depending on how you look at it. Here await the majestic Sphinx and Great Pyramids, among the most heavenly of man-made creations. To leave Cairo without spending at least one hour admiring these jaw-dropping wonders would be a crime. But even the seasoned traveler may not be quite prepared for the full-frontal Giza assault. Brace yourself, as at every major tourist destination, you have to pay your dues here before you reap your rewards. That means running a gantlet of would-be guides with the single-minded tenacity of mosquitoes, and avoiding hustlers desperate to move papyrus scrolls and souvenir sarcophagi and wooden flutes that you should, under no circumstances, purchase for your children to torture you with after you get back home. Never, never, never make eye contact with a vendor. And don’t ask a stranger to take your picture. You may not get your camera back without rustling up a generous tip.
When in Cairo… you must follow the rules. A fellow in our group ignored our guide’s repeated warnings to pass up a touristy camel ride. Camels, it seems, are temperamental creatures, given to tantrums. The surly beast dumpe d our friend, who suffered a bloody knee, then added insult to injury by spitting in his face. Presently the police arrived, arrested the delinquent dromedary and carted it off to — camel jail?
If you survive the tourism chaos — and you will — you’re in for a treat. First up is the Sphinx, a postcard come to life. With the head of a man and the body of a lion, the enigmatic monument has enthralled visitors for centuries. No one knows exactly when it was built, but anthropologists say that much of it was carved from a single mammoth slab of limestone.
Even the most jaded of world travelers will be tempted to snap at least a hundred photos of the Great Pyramid of Cheops. Completed around 2600 B.C., it is the oldest in Egypt. Also devote a roll of film or a compact flash card to the smaller, but no less impressive, Pyramid of Chephren and Pyramid of Mycerinus.
The pyramids served as tombs for Egyptian pharaohs and their families. Ancient Egyptians, it seems, were obsessed with death. Modern Egyptians are too, at least in Cairo. See for yourself by visiting the City of the Dead, one of the largest cemeteries in the world. But, as you’ll discover, this city is not just for those who no longer find it necessary to breathe. Thousands of walking, talking souls also live here in shacks beside marble tombs dating from the 12th century. Many Cairo families enjoy holiday picnics on top of graves.
Death also is a central theme at the fascinating Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, which houses more than 100,000 relics, including the gold mask and coffin of Tutankhamen and myriad canopic jars that once held royal viscera. Of course, you’ll also find mummies galore, and not just those of kings and queens. The old Egyptians also were given to preserving dogs, cats — even jackals.
Why did they do it? Why not? This is Egypt. This is Cairo. This, my friend, is another world entirely.
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