At this early hour many shops in the Khan-al-Khalili market in Cairo are still quiet. I’m sitting in a cafe on the street enjoying the warm morning sun and sipping strong coffee. It’s the place where two months later a bomb exploded in front of the historic Hussein Mosque.
Only a handful of people are watching me walking the narrow streets of the market. The owner of a shop selling ornated leatherbound versions of the Koran looks sceptical. A street sweeper smiles at me. Children start to cheer and I can imagine how lively it will be in the busy hours of the market when busses of tourists drop their load.
Most tourists coming to Cairo visit the pyramids, the Egyptian museum, and the Khan-al-Khalili market. The natives call the Khan-al-Khalili market the “Japanese market” because tourists are willing to spend astronomic amounts for the treasures of One Thousand and One Nights without negociating the price. Also famous and listed in every travel guide is the Al Fishawy cafe. It was opened day and night for the last 200 years.
Located next to the Khan al-Khalili is the old Islamic market with shops selling spices, perfumes, medical herbs, vegetables, living chicken, camel meat and much more. The quiet and pristine atmosphere contrasts Khan al-Khalili.
A young Egypt addresses me and shows me around. Such casual kind of guides are quite common in Cairo – I met a bunch of nice people who wanted to chat and show me their city. Some of the self-proclaimed guides however try to lead you to restaurants to make a special deal…
In the narrow streets the merchants offer their goods and life seems to be like hundreds of years before. Fluttering chicken wait to be sold, and vegetable hawkers build pyramids of tomatos.
The undercroft below a mosque is about 700 years old. In those days, every arch was occupied by one merchant selling his goods, for example saffron from Iran.
In the spice market, a dignified merchant offers medical herbs. The leafs in a sack are used for treating hypertension. His employees proudly show newspaper articles and letters of customers. There is even a letter from the Prime Minister. In one of the letters, a Dutch family orders more herbs for their mother who’s suffering from cancer. The family holds a lot of hope for cure by the merchant’s herbs.
The shop also sells spices and exotic perfumes like rosewater and jasmin. I get dizzy from all the different odours I’m offered.
My new friend leads me to a very small street where we visit the workshop of an artist. He manufactures wooden boxes with inlaid work of mother-of-pearl. He’s a shy and very friendly man who is proud of his work. It takes him about three days to finish one box. He sells his boxes to the shops in the luxury hotels at the river Nile. They charge about fivefold his price.
Later, after some hibiscus tea, my companion tells me about himself. He is living with his parents like many young people in Cairo. He is thirty years old and has studied English at the university. His girlfriend and him are seing each other about once a week. His professional expectations aren’t too good he says.
Cairo, the City of Thousand Mosques
Cairo is called the city of thousand mosques. In contrast to other Islamic countries, most mosques are open to visitors of different religion.
It is quite difficult to find a mosque where I am allowed climb the stairs as many of the minarets are in danger of collapsing due to earthquakes. Finally, I ask a young guy and he leads me through the narrow streets of old Islamic Cairo to the Blue Mosque which is almost 700 years old. As a reward he asks for my shoes which I still need however…
After some discussion I get the permission to climb the circular stair of the minaret. On the top of the minaret, a woman on a nearby rooftop yells at me and wants to know what I am looking for. The muezzin do no longer climb the minaret for the prayers as loudspeakers have taken over. I wonder if the muezzins previously kept a sharp eye on the adjacent tenements?
Climbing the minaret of a mosque opens the view over Cairo. In the south, the sharp tops of the minarets of the Mohammed Ali mosque appear in the dusk. In the west, the city is divided by the river Nile, and far away the pyramids are located.
As space is very limited, many families put up additional housing space for their children on the flat roofs. I was surprised how many satellite receivers are on the roofs of apparently poor buildings in the old town.
Later I visit the Mohammed Ali mosque and the Citadel. A teacher explains the view to his schoolclass, and later the are allowed to play. There is only one girl without a veil and I guess she’s a Coptic. The kids have a lot of fun running around in front of the mosque.
I walk back to my hotel. In many corners of the streets, small places are reserved for believers. They knee down for their prayers – sometimes in a tiny space between cars. There is a crescent in the dark sky over a minaret in the centre of Cairo near the river Nile.
Streets of Cairo
The older the taxi, the better the price, says the taxi driver who had watched his colleagues and me negotiating fares. His taxi fare has to be very good, I guess. His taxi looks as if it had witnessed a good part of Cairos history. Maybe not the building of the pyramids at the border of the city, but the Suez crisis?
A million kilometers, grins the taxi driver as if he had read my thoughts and we laugh at each other.
Crazy number one, my taxi driver repeatedly says about traffic in Cairo. Cairo is the second largest metropole of Africa after Lagos with more than sixteen million people living in the area. He is honking and gesturing to move forward at walking pace. Every driver uses the horn to communicate. The result is a constant and deafening noise. Rush hour is very busy and traffic collapses every afternoon. People squash into cars or tiny buses or jump onto buses.
“What do you want at Midan Ataba?” he asks after I have told him my destination.
The area is not a typical must see in the travel guides, but it’s incredibly loud and busy and full of live.
Here you can buy anything – but at a fraction of the prices at Khan al-Khalili, the “Japanese Market”. There are whole streets with shops for food processors, remote controls, tools, or bedclothes.
When it’s getting dark, the sky turns into shades of blue and purple, and people stroll about the streets. Young couples go hand in hand – a rare pleasure for many of them as traditional customs are strict. It’s the hour my taxi driver likes best about his city, he tells me.
The Windsor Hotel
Later I walk back to my hotel – the Windsor – which I chose because of its history and central location – and its bar! Built in 1899 as a bath house, it was a club for British officers before being purchased by a Swiss hotelier who had to leave Cairo head over heels at the beginning of the Suez crisis in the 1950s. Today it’s managed by two distuinguished Egypt brothers who care to chat with their guests in the very British hotel bar.
While outside in the streets life is hectic and loud, the bar seems to be an oasis of calm in a city that never sleeps. The Western atmosphere in the bar also contrasts the Islamic customs outside. Veiled females would never answer a stranger in the streets. Here in the hotel, beer is served, and smiling female waitresses chat with the guests. One of them also cooks the dinner which is phantastic. Late in the evening, she leaves the hotel to go home after dressing in her veil.
The hotel has a wonderful old elevator operated by a lift boy. The stairwell shows old photographs of Swiss mountains reminiscent of the hotel’s previous owner. At the reception desk, there’s a phantastic old manual switchboard for the telephones.
Okay, I give you a very good room, the noble concierge says. And he almost seems as if he regrets it.
The room is big but not as prestigious as the bar and the view from its window is somewhat limited. However, there’s a shower in the room – unfortunately only with dripping cold water. Through the window I hear the muezzin calling.