We went to dinner last weekend at a friend’s home in Mohandiseen, an area of downtown Cairo. This is one of the neighborhoods that we were considering, and there was a four-bedroom apartment available for us, but we opted for Zamalek. After seeing her apartment though (in particular, the bathrooms), I asked Ron if we should re-consider.
The apartment was on the ninth floor, with windows more than half way around the living/dining area, great light, 3-4 bedrooms, huge wall-length built-in closet-wardrobes, and multiple beautiful bathrooms that made me drool a little (let’s be honest, a bathroom can “sell/kill” a place, right?). Oh, and it had a “pyramid view.” Now, the view was only attained after standing on her balcony, leaning out over the street below and peering through the highrises to see two hazy bumps on the horizon they were claiming were the tops of the pyramids … apparently I have now seen the ancient pyramids of Giza. I do hope to get a slightly closer look at some point.
I know I have yet to post anything in-depth about the driving here, but that’s because any outing in a car results in more tales to share, but I’ll try to get the first one posted soon (and I’m sure driving tales will continue infinitum). But as I may have mentioned, the office loaned Ron the “office car,” which is a gargantuan white Chevy Suburban. The best thing about this car is that it’s ridiculously large and has diplomatic plates on it. It’s truly the only time I’ve seen way-ward pedestrians or self-absorbed drivers get out of the way. Ron’s doing a great job driving, and people say it’s good to get used to driving in “the beast” so when you get your car, which invariably is smaller regardless of what you own, you feel like you’re in a sportscar. We have taken a few trips in it and consistently have gotten lost coming or going each time. But in doing so, we see more of Cairo, and expand our experiences, right?
This last outing was this past weekend. We decided to head to one of the local malls, yes they have malls here, called City Center. Its anchor store is Carrefour Hypermarket, which is essentially a French Wal-Mart (whee, oui, oui). We were given basic directions to head to the commissary, but after the guard post and before the mosque, turn left into the desert. Um, okay. And head through the desert on a road (… with no name… ☺) that will appear to disappear at times, but you should be able to find it again.
They were right. The road starts off normal, albeit with some gaping potholes and piles of rocks (which is normal for here) and we headed out into the desert toward masses of half-finished highrise buildings. We wound around these, stopping once to ask a taxi coming the other way if we were headed in the right direction. He said yes, (pr. “aye-wa”), and to keep going, turn left, right, left, etc. Yeah, right. But we did, passing some packs of feral dogs along the way, women washing clothes from a spigot near the construction site, and children playing among the bricks and sand.
Suddenly, on the horizon, sprouted a mall. Oh, glory of glories! And there was the parking garage that we had been advised to park on the second floor of (which was always empty as people were too busy fighting for spots on the first floor). And as it came closer, our excitement built, and then our concentration zeroed in on our need to find the entrance to the parking garage… and there it was… and there it went. We didn’t see how we could pass over the median to get to it, so we continued around thinking there must be another entrance. Well, there was, but it was for the Cairo “Ring Road,” which is essentially I-495 for those in DC. It’s a huge highway that circles Cairo. Without any other choice we merged with the masses and started to circle the city.
We continued to see lots of interesting things, gaggles of sheep (packs, hordes, families?) standing around as if they were waiting for a bus, car dealerships next to mosques, huge outdoor markets (pr. “sooks”) – photos were taken from a moving car, so forgive the quality – the inevitable donkey carts (poor things), and markets selling pearly pastel-colored toilets (need a big bag to carry those home). For whatever reason we continued to miss various turn-offs and u-turn options – I think we were in a bit of a visual-overload-haze – there was just so much going on all around.
We also came upon Cairo’s City of the Dead. The story here, according to TourEgypt.net, is:
Previously, Cairo rulers chose [this] area for their tombs outside the crowded city in a deserted location. ‘This area was used as a burial ground for the Arab conquests, Fatimids, Abbasids, Ayyubids, Mamlukes, Ottomans, and many more,’ (said Malak Yakan, an anthropologist and tour guide). The historic belief in Egypt is that the cemeteries are an active part of the community and not exclusively for the dead. ‘Egyptians have not so much thought of cemeteries as a place of the dead, but rather a place where life begins.’ said Yakan. In modern times, because of Egypt’s housing crisis, a lack of satisfactory and affordable housing for a rapidly growing population, many poor Egyptians have made these rooms their permanent homes. These invaders have adapted the rooms to meet their needs. They have used the grave markers as desks, and shelves. They have hung strings between gravestones for their laundry to dry out… The cemeteries built in the City of the Dead are much different than the western idea of cemeteries. This is because traditionally, Egyptians buried their dead in room-like “burial sites” so they could live in them during the long mourning period of forty days…
And we came upon the Citadel. According to TourEgypt.net:
The Citadel is one of the world's greatest monuments to medieval warfare, as well as a highly visible landmark on Cairo's eastern skyline… The area where the Citadel is now located began it's life not as a great military base of operations, but as the "Dome of the Wind", a pavilion created in 810 by [Governor] Hatim Ibn Hartama… Between 1176 and 1183, Salah ad-Din (Saladin to Westerners 1171-1193 AD), an Abbasid Ruler, fortified the area to protect it against attacks by the Crusaders, and since then, it has never been without a military garrison. Originally it served as both a fortress and a royal city.
It obviously has a long and varied history and we’ll go back to tour it, but it was amazing to see as we drove by. We finally were able to turn around in a possibly-legal u-turn area, and headed back. We opted to nix the Carrefour attempt for the day, and instead head to the commissary. We drove around the ring road and saw signs for Maadi (one of the words I need to be able to recognize quickly in Arabic, as not all the signs have English). And then we didn’t. I love this place! Suddenly we knew we’d done something (else) wrong as we were now heading out of the city again, into more desert with large cement factories pumping away. Ron knew that the cement factories were outside of Maadi, so we did another u-turn, and headed back with fingers crossed. We do have a good map of Maadi and Cairo, but by this point we were off of it… and we need to obviously purchase one that extends farther as I’m sure our driving-getting-lost adventures will continue.
On the route back, we passed trucks carrying enormous blocks of limestone. They obviously mine it out here. Ron mused out loud if they were building another pyramid somewhere. When you look at the size and mass of these blocks, it gives you great pause to think of the pyramids being built over 4,500 years ago (they say they were constructed around 2570 BC), without the aid of flat-bed trucks, cranes, machines, etc. There are times when the ingenuity and determination of humans, for a GOOD cause, continues to impress me.