Cairo, Egypt Tuesday, February 14, l995
I would have been surprised if our tour of Islamic Cairo had turned out to be wonderful. It didn't.
Mona was downstairs and soon we were off with our favorite bus driver at the wheel. Lots of hands clasped to breast and so forth between us. We slipped Mona her tip on the way to the Sultan Hassan Mosque, self-proclaimed as the greatest Islamic building in the world. It's a huge pile of stone built in 1356 A.D. We take off our shoes at the entrance. The ritual reminds of of the exchange of shoes at a bowling alley. Inside and up the stairs is a large open courtyard with a gazebo-like structure in the center. It's a fountain for ablutions before prayer.
Hassan was one of the Mamluk rulers of Egypt. The typical Mamluk color palate is on display here-white, black and yellow with touches of red. The decorations in Arabic script in the niche high up on the wall are actually prayers and are quite beautiful to look at. Mona tells us about praying five times a day and the five pillars of Islam: 1. Worship God and His prophet Mohammed. 2. Pray five times a day. 3. Charity. 4. Ramadan (which occurs eleven days earlier each year). 5. Pilgrimage to Mecca.
We go inside. It's very dark but there is a lovely dome up above and carved wooden arch supports just underneath. No one seems to know exactly what happened to Hassan. The person buried here is his brother.
Right next door is the Mosque of Al Rafa'i. Al was a priest to the Royal Family. The mosque was built in his honor by the king, then enlarged in l912 to its present size and role as the Royal Mosque. Mona thinks it's too beautiful. Real mosques should be simple.
A separate room reveals the wood with inlaid mother of pearl tomb of Al Rafa'i himself. We also see the tomb of King Farouk, his father, King Faoud and his wife, and finally, the tomb of the Shah of Iran.
We reboard the bus and head up to the Citadel where we get the obligatory view of the city, then walk around to the Alabaster Mosque, modelled after Hagia Sofia. It is formally dedicated to Mohammed Ali Pasha, founder of modern Egypt, and was built between l834-1857. It features a clock tower acquired from the French in exchange for the obelisk from Luxor. Bad trade.
Outside the mosque a vendor tries to scam me with the old no change but take the crackers any way routine. He says he'll have change when I get back. Of course he won't and I'll have already eaten the crackers. However, having smelled the scam, I get the right change from some members of the group. We enter the mosque through an arcaded courtyard with a symbolic fountain for ablutions. Then we enter a truly beautiful space. Lights hang low from the high ceiling in circles under the dome. The rugs are red and the dome is flanked by four smaller corner domes and four half domes. We take it all in, the color, the space, the lights, then head back to the bus. Naturally, my vendor friend is still without change when I return, but I'm not.
We depart for the Khan el Kalli bazaar at last. The bus lets us off and I slip the driver LE 20. We won't see him again. Mona walks us into the alleys of the bazaar and deposits us in a gold shop. We say goodbye to Mona, look but don't buy anything in the shop. We head back to Saad of Egypt for silver and there meet Mona again. Bruce makes a purchase and we wander a few alleys, but it's all tourist crap so we decide to walk to the Readers Corner Bookshop at 33 Sarwat Street. Bruce decides to come along.
We walk along the main street then cut down an alley of fabric merchants and emerge into the main pedestrian street of the Muski. It's like a giant flea market, lively and fun and crowded. We cut down another alley and back to the street. The sidewalk is narrow and we're often forced into the street to proceed. We pass several shops selling nothing but plastic hosing, then cross to the other side and look in on a remarkable alley of butcher and raw meat under dangling light bulbs. The street is amazing and the noise level ear shattering.
With my trusty map in hand and guided by the overhead highway we land on Sarwat Street and the lovely, English-language books only Readers Corner. Upstairs we buy several David Roberts prints and the proprietor gives Susan a blue ceramic cat as a gift. We cab back to the hotel where we say goodbye to Alan, Arturo and Theresa and head upstairs and spend the afternoon in the room.
At about 5:30 we head out. Susan wants to go back to the Khan el Kalli for Iftar (late breakfast) at Fishwari, a cafe in the bazaar. We cab over and get out about a block from our previous drop off point. The scene is extraordinary. All the sidewalks have been turned into outdoor cafes and restaurants. Low tables with metal dishes, smoke from sidewalk grills and mobs of people. Lights are strung everywhere, colorful fabrics are draped over poles to create ad hoc tents, families are picnicking, a mosque is letting out. It's one the most fascinating and exotic moments ever. I'm marveling that we're walking through this scene as casually as this.
Then suddenly we become trapped as people get squeezed between a car and some tables. They're pushing from behind and pushing from in front. I've got Susan's hand so we don't get separated and then my wallet's gone. I knew it the second it happened even though I never felt a thing. The wallet was very well stocked-Amex, Visa and AT&T cards, $80 in cash, $300 in travelers checks, my driver's license plus all my currency exchange receipts which I'm told I'll need at the airport. The pickpocket apparently even got the Gourmet article in my front pocket that had the restaurant address. All I had left was LE 200 and my passport which was in my other pocket. Fortunately, Susan still had all her credit cards. We got into a cab in the middle of the mob to get back to the hotel and report the theft. The driver nearly got into several fist fights as he tried to extricate himself from the alley.
Back at the hotel I called Amex to report the lost travelers checks and credit card. I also called Visa and AT&T (good old USA Direct). We contacted the assistant hotel manager in order to make a report to the police. He took us to the tourist police office in the hotel where I made out a report including what happened and what was taken which was then translated into Arabic.
Since everything that could be done had been taken care of we took a cab to Paprika, a restaurant on the corniche just beyond the Ramses Hilton. It's a pleasant, dark, wood paneled space that was mentioned in the Gourmet article that Susan got from Janet Cohn. We put ourselves in the maitre d's hands and soon had more food than we could eat. In all fairness, he had warned us.
We walked back along the Nile and lots of couples celebrating Iftar, Ramadan and the lovely night. Back at the hotel I changed most of my LEs back into dollars, connected with Khaled (who was upset at our little bazaar adventure) and headed for the airport.