cairo: islamic and coptic cairo

We had an awesome day of sightseeing today; I have much to report.

We had planned to ask our hosts if they could connect us with a guide for Cairo sightseeing for Sunday. The plan was to do the Egyptian Museum today and sightsee with a guide tomorrow. While we were having breakfast, Abdul, our guide extraordinaire, appeared. Yes, he does urban tours, and yes, he’s free, let’s go today. He quoted us an extremely reasonable price, and asked us not to tell the Pyramids View guys. Fine with us. The one who does the work should reap the reward.

On the way into town, Abdul told us about modern Egypt’s political history -- views on Nasser, Sadat, Mubaruk, and Morsi. He told us how the election of Morsi was 100% democratic, the first real election in the history of Egypt, and how people loved Morsi for cleaning up police and army corruption -- and how those benefiting from that corruption made sure his presidency could not last. This came complete with a fake revolution in which incarcerated felons and friends of the police were paid to stage a fake coup in Tahrir Square.

We were soon driving on narrow, winding streets, where we parked in someone’s dirt yard and walked a few back streets to our first site.

This is what we saw.

First, Coptic Cairo. I learned that the word Coptic originally meant Egyptian, so a Coptic Christian was merely an Egyptian person who practised Christianity. Now the word has evolved to mean Egyptian Christian.

Hanging Church. This 9th or maybe 7th Century church was built on top of a Roman fort (hence its name, hanging on top of the Roman pillars). There are some beautiful mosaics when you first enter, in a style something like folk art. There’s also beautiful inlaid woodwork, and a bunch of creepy paintings and icons. It’s very cool to see the Roman remains, built by Hadrian, of England-Scotland wall fame. 

Church of St Sergius and Bacchus (Abu Serga). From the Hanging Church, we walked down, down, down, to walkways below the city streets, past a long display of books in both Arabic and English. The walk ended at a church known as Abu Serga. This was filled with intricate wood inlay and brick, very quiet and understated. The ceilings of both churches are made of wood beams, created to recall an upside-down boat. Coptic legend says that old Cairo was the landing place of Noah’s Ark. Also, since Egypt figures prominently into the story of the Holy Family fleeing King Herod, there are maps charting that journey, overlaid on the map of the modern Middle East.

Synagogue Ben-Ezra. In this same section of town, we visited the oldest of the 10 synagogues in Cairo. I have chosen to keep my Jewish identity private on this trip, so I listened with great interest. Abdul said this is a “Jewish temple”, that “Muslims worship in a mosque, Christians in a church, and Jews in a synagogue, and those are just different words for the same thing, a holy place of worship”. He described the various parts of the synagogue and what they signify. He used different expressions than I would have, but everything he said was correct.

The security officer wished us Shalom and asked where we were from. He said, “Canada good. Canada good”, nodding and smiling.

I said to Allan, “You know how sometimes I say, ‘My father would have loved this,’ such as an African-American becoming President, or my strike? This is the opposite. My father would be rolling in his grave right now if he knew I was pretending not to be Jewish.” Allan said, “That’s reason enough to do it.” Tee hee. I feel that declaring oneself as Jewish here is fraught with meaning that I don’t want attached to me. What am I going to say, “I’m Jewish but I’m also an atheist and I support Palestinian freedom?”

After seeing the synagogue, I asked Abdul about religious freedom in Egypt. He said Egyptians can be either Muslim, Christian, or Jewish. They must declare themselves one of those three religions. They cannot be a nonbeliever and they cannot openly introduce any other religions into the country. They can intermarry, but then must choose one religion from then on.

Garbage City. On our way to the next site, we drove through something called Garbage City. I had envisioned a vast landfill dump with people and dogs scavenging. But no. We drove through a rabbit-warren of extremely narrow streets, which was a veritable factory of recycling. In huge garages, people were sorting and packaging trash. One was all paper and cardboard. Others were all plastic bottles, another all strips of plastic, another car parts. Abdul said organic waste is sold for agriculture, plastic is sold and shipped to China for their factories -- with plenty of money changing hands in the middle. There was garbage everywhere in various stages of reclamation, from piles to bails to large compressed bricks.

Naturally no one was wearing gloves, face masks, or protective clothing of any kind. Many children were barefoot. But there were convenience stores, tiny cafes (imagine eating there?!), clothing stores -- and smartly dressed women with well-dressed children. The whole thing was fascinating and very strange. And we kept the windows closed.

Cave Church. The Cave Church was one of the most beautiful houses of worship I’ve ever seen. Biblical scenes and verses are carved into a sheer wall of limestone, all created by one artist named Mariusz. You walk down a ramp that is tunneled into the rock -- very wide, a gradual slope, not scary -- which leads you to the level of the altar. An amphitheatre of benches rises behind you, with more New Testament scenes and scriptures carved into the rock. It had the same effect on me as the great cathedrals of Europe: I felt small and awed. (Despite my hardcore atheism, I am extremely susceptible to spiritual feelings.)

From the Cave Church, we began the Islamic Cairo portion of our tour.

Citadel Saledin and Mosque of Mohammed Ali. The Citadel is a massive fortress commanding the highest land of Cairo. There’s a lot of history attached from the first Islam invasion through modern Egypt. There are sweeping views of the city, including the tops of the Pyramids in the far distance. The first mosque we visited is on the same site as the Citadel. We were given (for a small tip) coverings for our shoes and I brought a scarf with me for my head. (Many female tourists did the same, but not all.) This mosque has a huge shining white dome and four smaller domes. Abdul pointed out the difference between the various minarets on the skyline, the pencil-shaped ones from the Ottoman period, and the “jar top” style from the Mamluks. (This made me realize that my own art history courses completely skipped Islamic art!)

I love the geometric designs of the mosques, and the way text is used as art. Muslims believe (as do Jews) that there be “no graven image”, the mosques were a welcome change from the images in the churches, which I often find gruesome.

In the Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hussan, the security guard would not let us re-use our shoe coverings, demanding that we remove our shoes instead. Abdul got into it with him for a bit, then said it was best to let it ride. We took off our shoes and hid them in a corner of the mosque. Abdul said the shoe-check guy pockets the fees, and we would foil him.

This mosque was also full of beautiful inlaid wood, text designs, and soaring open space. A madrassa is the Muslim version of a yeshiva, a place where students live and study their religion. Have you ever noticed how Judaism and Islam are practically the same religion? Montheistic, dietary restrictions (including special butchering of meat and no pork), a lunar calendar, fasting, separation of men and women, head coverings, no hierarchy of special privilege (i.e., imams and rabbis are regular people, teachers, not representatives of god), no images... probably more that I can’t think of right now.

Mosque of Ibn Tulun. This is a huge, old Islamic monument, said to be the first building to use the arch that would later be called the Gothic arch -- 200 years before Europeans used it in churches. This mosque has a beautiful minaret with a spiral staircase. Allan tried to climb it for the view, but when the staircase changed to the outside, he returned. I was conserving my bad knees.

We were very much aware of how difficult or impossible it would have been to see these places on our own. The day was relaxing and enjoyable, as a vacation should be, instead of frustrating and unproductive. We wanted to take Abdul out for lunch, but he said he wanted to save his appetite for the big family dinner this evening. We told him how fortunate we were to meet him, and he said we were helping his family, and that it was very mutually beneficial. This made us feel better. Our money goes so far here that we worry we are not paying him enough.

Abdul is arranging a friend of his to drive us the whole time we’re in Luxor. It will be considerably cheaper than the hotel price, yet put much more money in the driver’s pocket. He explained the economics to us, and it made great sense -- a week of guaranteed work at double his normal earnings, and still less than what we would pay the hotel. Plus it will be someone who Abdul recommends.

After the last mosque, on our way back to Giza, we stopped at Felafila, a local take-out chain. We ordered shawarma, hawawshi, falafel sandwiches, and fries. We brought it all back to the hotel to eat on the roof, but not before Abdul stopped to buy us more desserts. Today it was rice pudding, which I have never liked before, but I devoured this. It’s a good thing rice pudding doesn’t taste like that in Canada. I also thought, these Felafila people should come to Mississauga, they would be instant millionaires.

After eating our desserts with Abdul, he made some suggestions about our visit to the Egyptian Museum tomorrow. He also said that he had overheard us talking about getting ourselves and our luggage from the hotel to the Giza train station. He decided that hotel to museum, then museum to hotel to station would be too much back-and-forth for us, and instead he would pick up our bags and meet us at the station. We thought this was too much, but he insisted.

Then we paid him for today; it was quite a bit more than the agreed-upon price. Some time later, he appeared on the roof again. “Guys, this is a lot of money.” We said we felt very lucky, that he had increased our enjoyment of our trip so many times over. He then insisted that tomorrow’s drive with our luggage to the station would be a gift from him. He was quite insistent. I told Allan (privately), it’s good to be generous, but we also have to respect Abdul’s wishes. Maybe he feels he didn’t earn that much money, and it feels more “even”, more appropriate, for him this way. Perhaps an overly large tip feels like charity. On our end, we feel like we’re ripping everyone off, because 100 LEs, a large sum, is only $7.00!

The people who run the Pyramids View Inn are the friendliest, most helpful staff imaginable. Every time you turn around they are offering you water, tea, or coffee, and often appear with a plate full of some delicious sticky desert. It’s a low-budget hotel, but perfectly clean and comfortable. I would much rather spend my money on a sightseeing guide than a fancier hotel room. I like nice hotels for, say, a weekend in Montreal.

Random notes:

-- With our lunch in Memphis, we ordered fresh mango juice. It was so thick, you practically needed a spoon to eat it.

-- Everyone smokes here. In restaurants, in ticket offices, in banks. When you order a coffee or tea, they bring your drink and an ashtray.

-- We asked Abdul how much a street kabob should cost. It turns out that our four skewers for 62 LEs was a good price. Also, they are normally sold by the kilo, so each stick was probably a quarter-kilo. I had never met a dishonest street food vendor, and I’m glad I can still say that.

-- More street food: men set up an oven and cook sweet potatoes. They sell cut-up chunks in little cardboard dishes.

Photos of Cairo can be found here.


johngoldfine said...

Reading this reminded me of the extended family of Coptic Christians, refugees from persecution in Egypt, who settled in Bangor. I taught English to three of the women in the family, two sisters and their cousin. They wore headscarves in class, long sleeves, high-necked tops, and long skirts or loose trousers. What I remember best are the tiny tattooed crosses each had on their wrists--the tattoos would peep out occasionally from those long sleeves.

Each woman in due course left Bangor for a church service in Boston where they would be formally engaged to a man their family had found for them in the larger Coptic community.

RJ Johnson said...

Sounds so amazing. I want to try the food so much. I am sure nothing like the shwarmas in Canada.

James Redekop said...

The geometry of Islamic art is amazing, and tightly related to the importance of the Muslim world to the history of mathematics. It's no coincidence that "algebra" and "algorithm" are descended from Arabic words (they come from the title of a book, "Al-kitāb al-mukhtaṣar fī ḥisāb al-ğabr wa’l-muqābala", and the name of the book's author, Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī -- al-Khwārizmī also wrote the text which introduced Hindu numbers, which we call Arabic numbers thanks to that text, to the West).

There were some periods/places in medieval Islam where human figures were permitted, and some of the art from those eras is wonderful. Much more sophisticated that what was happening in Europe at the time, and reminiscent of Hindu art in some ways.

laura k said...

John, interesting the girls were covered up just like devout Muslim girls. In the last house we lived in, our downstairs neighbours were Coptic Christians. They loved their apartment because there was a bus that went right from our corner to the big Coptic church in Mississauga. Why did these girls end up in Maine, did someone in Bangor sponsor them?

James, thank you, very cool. :)

Jenna, thank you for reading! The shawarmas here are amazing. They chop up a big mix on the grill -- tomatoes, onions, parsley, probably some other stuff -- into very small pieces, and mix it all together, kind of like salsa. The meat is on the spit, same as in Canada/US, lamb, chicken, or beef. They shave off pieces and it gets combined with the veg mix and put in a giant piece of bread, and put in a press, like a burrito. Super delicious.

I had no idea I would enjoy the food so much. I thought, Middle Eastern food, OK, I like that well enough. But YUM.

Amy said...

This sounds more like a day I'd have enjoyed! Good for Abdul!

I was, of course, interested in your experiences in the synagogue and with being Jewish in Egypt. Is there still an active Jewish community? Have you read The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit?

Garbage City sounds like something out of a sci-fi book---though I'd think they should call it Recycle City to sound a bit more politically correct!

Hope your trip continues to be as fascinating as it has been so far.

johngoldfine said...

The longer I taught, the less likely I was to ever ask any direct question about anything the least bit personal, Laura--I think an unintended consequence of my refusal to satisfy my curiosity was that people tended to write more personal stuff than they might have otherwise.

So, I don't know how this family happened to wind up in Bangor Maine. But I do know they attended the Greek Orthodox church here but went to Boston to the Coptic church there for weddings, christenings, and so on, all the important stuff.

The cousin, who was younger than either of the sisters, was already becoming Americanized by the time she came to my class: smartphone, more daring clothes, less studious, less 'respectful' (or, one might say, intimidated.)

And I just remembered: I had a long discussion with one of the sisters about koshary, which I'd never heard of before, and since have added to my menu rota.

laura k said...

Amy, Abdul said the Jewish community in Cairo is small but active. There are about 10 synagogues in Cairo and another 10 (give or take) in Alexandria.

I have not read that book. I avoid writing about Jewish communities, Jewish immigrants, etc. I have heard good things about it, though.

John, that's an excellent policy. It must have been interesting to see a bit of her journey. Plus koshary!

laura k said...

Garbage City was definitely sci-fi material.

allan said...

Or dystopian.