Egypt - Exploring Cairo
The last few days since Christmas have been spent in Cairo.
Each day has led to the exploration of new areas within the old city. "Islamic Cairo" is the area of the city centre distinguished by the wealth of medieval Islamic architecture, a heritage far more relevant to modern history than the Pharonic cultures that have gripped Western imaginations of Egypt for so long. This is the world of the Orientalists - the artists who brought images of the exotic "East" to intrigued and fanciful Western audiences in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries.
Imagine long lines of camels loping through the ancient and imposing Arabian city gates laden with spices from Timbuktu. They are being led by men with indigo robes and curved swords, skin darkened from exposure to the desert sun, swearing in an alien language. These are all being viewed by beautiful dark-eyed women, veiled in colourful silks, through the shadowed arabesques of a meshrabeyah screened-window, high above the muddy streets.
This scene is a convoluted mish-mash of historically inspired fictions, each component drawn from a different time, region, and context. You'll find heaps of it throughout what can be called the Orientalist genre. It's an area I find very interesting, largely through it's impact upon travel narratives (both implied by authors and constructed by readers) of the nineteenth century. But in certain places in Cairo, you can't help but immerse yourself into these Western idealisations, for these are the very places that inspired them hundreds of years ago.
I have walked from the Khan to the North Gate, through streets teeming with jewellery merchants, coppersmiths, and extraordinary mosques undergoing renovations with jackhammers.
I have explored vast caravanserai, with sleeping cells illuminated by hazy, smoggy sunlight emerging from delicate gaps in meshrabeyah screens. Hyperactive guides, whose limited English was made up for by their sheer weight of enthusiasm, have taken me to rooftops to view canyons of tilted streets and forests of minarets towering over the festering urban sprawl.
I have stepped into the serene tranquility of open mosque courtyards, including the immaculately smooth white marbles of the al-Azhur and the al-Hakim, and felt with my feet the gritty aged surfaces of the Ibn Talun mosque. This was a mosque designed to hold an entire army in prayer, well over a thousand years ago. Now only a few dozen prayer rugs remain in place, and I was told that this was more than last week.
I have wound my way through homes of wealthy families built ten to fifteen generations ago, and marveled at the complexities of their adornments, secret passages, and remarkable intimacy of scale.
I have learnt about the eccentric, dangerous, tragic, and charming lives of ancient and not-so-ancient individuals - the rich, the famous, the infamous, and the possibly mythological.
I have watched a second performance of vibrant Sufi dancers and musicians in the cold night air, followed by an evening of sheesha and unusual aromatic drinks at a bustling Egyptian cafe, surrounded by wonderful locals and good mates.
And I have seen hard working tradesmen continue practicing skills within industries that may, for all I can tell, have remained almost the same since the Bronze Age.
There would be too much to list in detail, as I do not want to bore you here. One day I hope you may be able to see all this for yourself.
This is likely to be my last post of 2005. It has been a very good year for me. I wish that you may be able to say the same for yourself! But all new years come with new hopes and aspirations, and I think it is time I shared one important one here for all to see.
I have revised my travel plans to include East Africa in the Grand Tour. From the 10 January - 10 February I shall be driving from Johannesburg through to Nairobi, in a truck bearing a dozen or so backpackers. This is not my first time to Africa - I visited Kenya as a child, around 1992. The memories of cheetahs warming themselves on the bonnet of the jeep in the early morning sunlight remain vivid, amongst a host of others. I have been exceptionally keen to see this region again over the last few years, and finally reaching the island of Zanzibar bears a special resonance for me.
I shall return to Australia, and thus end the Grand Tour, on the 25th February 2006.
I do not know what you intend to do for New Year's, but if you can make it, you're welcome to join me and a bunch of mates from the Australian Embassy deep in the western deserts of Egypt, at Bahariya Oasis. We leave tomorrow at 8am. Bring a warm sleeping bag.
Happy New Year!