Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Islamic Cairo

When lost, do you safely backtrack or risk the path ahead, in hope that it will lead you to your destination?

No matter how experienced a traveller you may be, chances are that one day, your ignorance to details will have you paying more than you budgeted for.

Midan Hussein, I confidently directed the taxi driver. We were approaching the heart of the medieval Islamic quarter on a Friday afternoon. I should have known better than to choose a Friday to pay a visit. In front of us was a huge mosque surrounded by a battalion of armed men in black uniform. Luxury cars with heavily tinted screens piled up in front of the mosque. Quite rightly, some dignitaries must have been performing their Friday prayer at the important Al-Azhar mosque.

The main road was blocked. The traffic officer instructed our driver to take the alternative route. Trouble. Mister taxi driver's reluctant expression showed that he could only bring us that far. More trouble. Where is Midan Hussein?, I asked. And he answered in Arabic...

In fact, Midan Hussein was only steps away had we turned right from where we got off. And we would have arrived at Khan al-Khalili, Cairo's most famous souk, in a matter of minutes. But we didn't. The Christopher Columbus in us believed that the lane exploding with textiles on the left was one of the many entrances to the souk. We excitedly entered the noisy, colourful lane. Into a gate and out, we were now surrounded by poultry-slaughtering activities, followed by stalls stacked with delicious-looking fruits. We were now more convinced that we made the right decision.

I can't decide if I'd failed the map or had it failed me instead. I could have used my compass to confirm our bearing but on the other hand, the map should have been more generous with the ink. Minutes down the lane, we expected to see some copperware, jewelleries and spice shops. Instead, there were more fruits and bread stalls while the number of foreigners (or tourists) came down to only the two of us. Clearly, we had entered another neighbourhood.

How many ways are there to say Khan al-Khalili? Why couldn't the locals at the market understand our pronunciation was beyond me. But interacting with them was fun, of course. Despite the language barrier, the locals tried hard to understand and help us. At almost noon, we started feeling hungry. The aroma of freshly baked bread was really appetising. At another stall, cups of parfait-like cut fruits with cream looked good too. Let's not get me started with the enticing assorted skewered meats.

You know that you've walked far enough when you see the grand Citadel, about 1.5 km south of Khan al-Khalili. To get to the Citadel, take a taxi from Khan al-Khalili, wrote one of the guide books.

And that's what we finally did. Of course, we weren't sure if the taxi driver understood us at first. But we did arrive at the same blockage and this time, turned right into an obviously more touristy path. Late lunch was devouring a whole stuffed pigeon, cucumber salad and bread with hummus.

The amazing souk was built in the 13th century. Amazing because it had a complex maze of shops and places of worship, was surrounded by beautiful, often symmetry-inspired Islamic architecture and had this nostalgic charm that I'd only seen in television previously. Be it the well-conserved mausoleums or the broken gateways, every corner seemed to have an interesting story to tell.

Days ago, while flipping through my guide book, I came across sufi whirling and was intrigued by the ritual. Of course, with only a few days to cover the whole of Cairo, it would be impossible to include that in my itinerary.

We observed some sort of carnival taking place at one of the concourses near the Madraset AL Zaher Bebers AL Bandakdary and Mausoleum Of As-Saleh Nagm Ad-din Ayyub. The centre of attraction was a man in a red costume who began to whirl to the music. I believe that it was a public sufi whirling performance! I was really impressed by the artiste's composure and consistency. I would have fumbled after the second whirl.

I had to pay a visit to the infamous Fishawy's Coffeehouse before I leave. But not without a struggle in the confusing maze, of course. Circling the same blocks a few time without success of finding the coffeehouse, we almost gave up. I'm glad we found it eventually, thanks to the familiar faces of tourists crowding the lane of El-Fishawy.

As an independent visitor, every day promised a new adventure in Cairo. Every journey to a new destination was an unforgettable experience. I might not want to get lost again in other parts of this city but to Islamic Cairo, I'll gladly say yes.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Fishawy's Coffeehouse @ Khan al-Khalili

We almost gave up looking for the coffeeshouse. It was daunting to walk through the maze of Khan al-Khalili in Islamic Cairo, especially when the past few hours were spent searching for the khan (market) in the first place. But that itself was an unforgettable and priceless experience, one of which I should dedicate another post to.

Along the narrow lane of El-Fishawy, the faces of obvious tourists crowding both sides of the lane were a clear indication that we've finally found the centuries-old coffeehouse that has been mentioned in almost every guide book there is. It'll take some time to fully appreciate the coffeehouse's charm, which over the years, had inspired many artistic elite. The ensemble of intricate mashrabiya design, colourful tiles and paints is, to me, everything an Egyptian coffeehouse should be. Only more opulent, this.

Except for the month of Ramadan, the coffeehouse opens daily throughout the day and night. It must have been much quieter and relaxing here decades ago. I imagine shoppers and traders from the khan stopping by for some refreshment and rest. It's far from quiet these days, given the high influx of both foreign and local visitors. We also observed a few vigilant security officers around the coffeehouse, which I think is a good safety measure.

There was nothing distinctively different in the shai (tea) and ahwa (coffee) but the Egyptian tea culture is one experience that all visitors should include in their itinerary, I feel. And El-Fishawy is a good introduction, before venturing into the more local coffeehouses.

Fishawy's Coffeehouse
Khan al-Khalili, Cairo

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

HairyBerry and The Temples of Luxor

The travel agent decided to upgrade our free and easy package to Luxor, a compensation for the accidentally thrilling ride from Alexandria back to Cairo. I was hoping that we’d be given the US$70 one-way tickets on the Abela Egypt Sleeping Train, a luxurious way to travel south towards Luxor and Abu Simbel. No such luck. We were offered private tours instead.

It was around 8 pm at the Ramses railway station in Cairo. The directions given by the different security officers were confusing and differed from one another, and the guide book. The fact that all signboards were written in Arabic made it even more difficult for us. But we managed to board the right train and confirmed our seats with the help of a local passenger. At about E£80 for a first class seat, it was definitely a steal. The seat was clean and spacious. At certain times, attendants would push trolleys filled with tea, coffee, bread and butter and other foodstuff to offer the passengers a simple supper. It was interesting to see how these skilled men were able to deliver hot cups of shai without spilling any on the floor, as the train moved.

The journey from Cairo to Luxor usually lasts about 10 hours. I fell into a deep sleep before I could turn a page of The White Tiger.

It was around 4 am when I was startled by a slight jerk. The train had stopped at a station to pick up some passengers. It didn’t occur to me that this was not a direct train, that it would pass a few Nile Valley towns before reaching Luxor. Still dazed from the good sleep, I reached for the map, which didn’t help much as the station’s name was carved only in Arabic. I tried hard to stay awake until we reached Qena, one of the very few stations with romanized characters included on the stone-carved signboard. Beni Suef, Minya, Asyut, Sohaq, Qena, Luxor. An estimation of the speed of the train and the distance between the towns later, I fell asleep again, assuring myself that we would not miss the next station - Luxor.

Waking up to a bright morning and the golden Theban necropolis was wondrous. When was the last time I had such a beautiful morning? I can’t really remember.

We decided to skip the private tours and cramped into a sardine-packed tourist van...for fun. In the following 24 hours, we shared the tiny vehicle with some Japanese, a Japanese based in Chicago, an American couple teaching English in Turkey, a group of Chinese students and an Indian family with the boy speaking with a thick American accent. They were a fun bunch.

The sun rises in the east and sets in the west......

Ancient Egyptians worshipping the Sun God seemed to have considered this law of nature in dividing the Nile banks at Luxor. The east bank, where the sun rises, finds the temples of Luxor and Karnak, where the Gods and pharaohs reside. Mortality ends on the west bank, the Theban Necropolis. Here, in the intricately-tunnelled tombs, countless pharaohs and noblemen were laid to rest.

Strangely, we started off by exploring the west bank. At the Valley of the Kings, no cameras were allowed beyond the entrance. A brief introduction by the guide later, it was a race against time (and thousands of visitors) to visit as many tombs as possible. We only managed a few - Ramses III, Amenhotep II and the most popular of the all, Tutankhamun. Given the vastness, elevated terrain of the valley and coupled with the scorching sun, 3 tombs were already an achievement. No visit to the necropolis is complete without a visit to Deir el-Bahari, where Djeser-djeseru, the temple of the infamous female pharaoh Hatshepsut is located. And of course, passing the Valley of the Queens and the herculean pair of Colossi of Memnon, a part of (once) the temple of pharaoh Amenhotep III.

With the night and following morning free from compulsory activities, it was a good chance to take a breather...

...with a bottle of Stella, an Egyptian beer at Sindbad Cafe, off Sharia Al-Karnak...

...followed by some (though expensive) shai at the souk...

...for breakfast, some fresh bread (with goat cheese, cinnamon or apricot filling) and falafel, with a view of the Luxor Temple.

The Great Hypostyle Hall at the Temple of Karnak was an excellent start to our afternoon tour of the east bank. It'll take some time to really understand the inspiration behind the larger than life, countless pillars' design - a papyrus swamp. Another attraction here was Hatshepsut's obelisks where one remained standing.

Returning to the entrance where the ram-headed sphinxes were lined, the sky grew darker.

We had one more site to visit before catching the night train back to Cairo. I thought we would either be late for the Temple of Luxor or forced to skip this important part of the tour just to catch the train. The sun had set completely when we reached the temple.

It was meant to be visited at night, the Temple of Luxor.

The dim yellow lighting design (perhaps for that mystical effect) combined with the impressive ancient architecture really goes to show that Luxor is indeed the best open-air museum in the world.

The facade consisting of a pair of seated Ramses II and the Luxor obelisk would have been perfect had the missing obelisk pair, which is now planted at the Place de la Concorde in Paris, be reinstalled here.

We had some time before boarding the train but was not so lucky in searching for a proper dinner near the station. Inside the train, I was ready to fall into a deep sleep again, obviously exhausted from the hours spent walking in Luxor.

We shared the train with a group of Egyptian men and women in their 60s. As the train moved, everyone relaxed and started chatting with one another. Soon, singing voices were heard while others were still chatting away loudly. I was annoyed, for it had deprived me of my much-anticipated 10 hours sleep.

A man from the happy, loud group took notice of these two foreigners and walked over to our seats. In perfect English, he asked of our nationality and how did we find Luxor. You could tell from his gestures that he was trying to cheer us up. I wondered why. Before returning to his seat, the hospitable man said, "Well, it's after 12 now, so, happy new year to you. And welcome to Egypt".

I didn't forget the new year, of course. The fact was, my new year had started almost 6 hours ago. Despite the on-going celebration in the train, and without the help of a book, I fell asleep again...bringing with me the wonderful feeling of traveling along the Nile on new year's day.