On the eastern side of El Qahira (Cairo), there’s a bastion of rocky hills which encircles the city like strong arms. The sultans of old decided rightly that this was the optimal site for a guardian fortress. In 1176 AD, Salah Al-Deen established a caliphate and began construction of a wall which ultimately led to the imposing complex that we see now.
Visiting the Citadel left me breathless not only because we climbed the sloping rampart leading to the fort. On either side of the rampart, vendors displayed their wares – some were artistic, some…not quite! But leave all that aside, and follow me up to the imposing walls.
Successive rulers and khedives tried to make their own mark on the fortress complex. Over the centuries, various buildings, mosques and palaces were added to the vast complex. But when you walk into the fortress, and see the architectural beauty that is the Alabaster Mosque, you will be dumbfounded by its majesty. This is the most recognizable silhouette of the eastern side of Cairo. The symmetry of the mosque is stunning, its designs and vivid colours are reminiscent of another time. We posed for pictures, but it was the architecture that was the true model.
I have this thing for old buildings, so I was more than happy exploring the buildings in the Citadel. We came upon the terrace which offered up a view that was breathtaking. We could see the whole city from the top. Cairo is called, ‘The city of a thousand minarets’ and I could see why. As far as the eye could see, there were the byways, houses, terraces and minarets of mosques all over the city. Since it was evening-time, many of the locals had converged on the terrace, taking in the cool Nile breeze and stunning views. Despite the presence of TV antennas on the roof tops of the houses, cars and honking buses, it is entirely possible to imagine oneself in a different century. You take your pick – the Ayyubids, the Mamluks and Ottomans, all ruled Egypt from here!
Khan El-Khalili market
Exiting the Citadel, we decided to visit the famous Khan El-Khalili market in Old Cairo. It’s not very far off from the Citadel, and if the thought of bargaining for souvenirs excites you, this is the place. The streets of Old Cairo are jam- packed with people, vehicles, animals – this melange will seem overwhelming at times. You will see people begging on the streets, homeless sleepers catching a wink on the pavement, and others rushing past to their favourite coffee-shop. The hustle is tremendous.
The market is one of the oldest in the Islamic world. Built in the 14th century, this old Arab souk still gives you a feel for what it must have been like in the old days. It is a labyrinth of narrow streets, with historic Ottoman-period buildings dating from hundreds of years.
It was in one of these ancient buildings that we lined up to buy tickets for a Tanoura performance. Tanoura is a Sufi music and dance form. The building itself, Wekalet Al-Ghouri, was an eye-opener. I was utterly charmed! It dates from the 15th century, and was once inhabited by lawyers. The gates were high, and wooden, with huge iron studs. We stood in a crush of people waiting in the narrow lane, to buy tickets to the show. Be aware that you’re going to be pushed and shoved quite a bit, but it’s totally worth it, in my opinion.
Once we managed to get inside, we gaped at the four floors circling a courtyard. Cunning lighting gave us glimpses of half-hidden pillars and mysterious doorways, arches and nooks. A fountain sits in the middle of the courtyard. Already it was filling up with people.
The all-male troupe of whirling dervishes put on a spectacular show. With their traditional instruments and colourful skirts, these dervishes twirl for 30-40 minutes non stop in accompaniment to the music. It’s mind boggling, and really fabulous. I would strongly recommend this show.
- Wear comfortable shoes while visiting Old Cairo
- Take a scarf to cover your head if you plan to enter the mosque
- Best time to visit the Citadel would be the evening, since the winds are cooler
- Do take time to visit the El-Khalili market and haggle all you want
- To catch a Tanoura performance at the Wekalat Al-Ghouri, arrive early and line up
Away from Cairo’s attractions, following winding roads, past canals, small one storied houses, little shacks selling biscuits and bread, carts piled high with ruby radishes and heaps of oranges, we entered a sleepy little town.
Located south of the city, and at one time, an important city in its own right, Memphis was the capital of ancient Egypt. Declared a world heritage site by UNESCO, Memphis’ archeological chops are impressive. We saw the step pyramids of Saqqara on the way.
But in the village of Mīt Ruhaynah, we were able to see the glory of the Memphis of old. The Open Air Museum in Memphis houses the artifacts that were found during the excavations led by Sir Flinders Petrie, among others. This was in 1913, and what Flinders’ team found was stunning. Parts of the great temple of Ptah were found, as were various statues. Ptah was the god of creation and the patron of craftspeople (don’t pronounce the ‘P’!).
But when we first went in, we saw the reclining statue of Ramses II. It is a stone statue, a colossus which originally guarded the entrance to the temple of Ptah. When you see it from the viewing platform, you are awed by the thought that humans carved this out of stone! Originally, it measured 40 feet in length but now sadly, after centuries of being buried in the sand, the lower limbs are missing. Still, make no mistake, the sheer power and energy of the statue which once occupied pride of place at the temple of Ptah, will strike you even today.
Outside, in the museum grounds, we came upon other statuary, but none as impressive as the Sphinx. Now, this is different from the Sphinx in Giza. Yet, this Alabaster Sphinx is arresting in its girth and presence. It weighs about 80 tons, we heard. It was also on guard at the temple of Ptah, and was carved out of a single block of alabaster. Hold on to your jaw falling to the ground!