Sam Bowker: The Grand Tour Diary (2005 - 2006)

This is the archived journal of a 2005-2006 'Grand Tour' around the Eastern Mediterranean and along East Africa, written by Sam Bowker, whilst in search of his PhD topic.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Egypt - East of Bab Zweylah and Beyond

Dedicated to Young Mohammed of the best carpet shop in Egypt.

Although I've been exploring some of my favourite areas of Cairo over the last few days, we've been moving into new discoveries each time.

In the City of the Dead we climbed the minaret of the Ma'a Azan mosque, overlooking the second half of the vast modern tomb complex which I never realised existed. Some day I hope to explore that area on foot, to find out if there are any more monumental Ottoman necropolises out there. Since I last visited, our friends who run one of Cairo's last glassblowing workshops near the Quaitbey mosque have branched out into a new showroom, and fortunately remain without signage or tourist prices.

We ate huge serves of incredibly cheap koshari as we drove to the Khan. Spiced, complex, and loaded with carbs in the form of fuul (lentils), chickpeas, pasta and rice. We dropped by a few shops to pick up items our friends had been eyeing earlier, then trekked through to Bab Zweylah, the most spectacular of Cairo's three remaining medieval gates. We climbed one of the twin minarets to the very highest extremity, just in time for the late afternoon call to prayer to ring out across the city, like ripples from a handful of stones in a pond.

Undoubtedly the highlight of the day was meeting our friends who run a carpet shop near the tentmaker's souk. After from the jovial banter and swapping of news that fills in the time between choosing carpets and agonising over excess baggage, Mohammed and his younger brother took us on an impromptu tour through the region east of Bab Zweylah. This took us through all kinds of "real Cairo" streets, through people's houses and apartments, via a seriously disorienting network of courtyards, subterranean passages, and sheds of craftsmen building things for the tourist markets. Our mates couldn't have asked for a more immersive experience, seeing the types of things kept well backstage from the conventional tourists of the Khan el Khalili!

We bought inlaid boxes from the craftsman who makes them in a closet-like shed for the five star hotel giftshops. We found the men who sit at machines that lathe walking sticks, cobbler's lasts, embroidered leathers, and make intricate game boards that can cost up to US$1000. We were led to the carvers of bone chess pieces, the parquetry chair makers, and the one-crowded-room factory responsible for a great deal of the pyrex perfume bottles found in all the souvenir shops. We saw the lantern workshops, where men with green fires welded ornate sheets of incised metal together, and we encountered purveyors of black market counterfeit and smuggled socks. Our mates stocked up well on these - how often does one get the chance to buy black market socks anyway? It was a seriously fascinating evening, led by a hilarious local friend, and I hope we can find these places again next time.

This morning, Valentine's Day, was spent out at the Camel Market again. It was very similar to my last blog post on that topic, expect that our racing camel Shakal (now the first place champion of the Sharm el Sheik race) was in an exceptionally nasty mood that morning. On the other hand, it was good to meet my lovely Morroccan girlfriend again, she has such sublime eyelashes and long dark hair. The afternoon was spent on a whirlwind spin of the Egyptian museum, in which I was shown rooms I had not realised existed, and proudly sought out my favourite oddities for our mates.

Tomorrow is going to be spent catching up on various tasks I have been replacing with far more exotic time consumption strategies. Should anything interesting happen, I'm sure you'll hear about it soon.


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