Sunday, December 23, 2012

Islamic Cairo

My time in Egypt has changed significantly since I arrived in Cairo.  It's been a positive change.

I correlate this with the move in focus away from Pharonic Egypt and towards Arabic Egypt.  The Egypt that is seen in all the tourist books is a manufactured product.  I could not mentally escape from the Egypt that is a staged creation and it dominated my entire perception of what this country was.  However, the Pharonic history may be a part of the land that is Egypt, but what I had been seeing was a faint echo of what was once there.  There was little evidence to me that Pharonic Egypt had anything to do with the modern political entity that is Egypt or the culture of the people other than as something to be appropriated and sold.  In fact, the more time I spent in Egypt, the more I realised that even the Egyptian people themselves had very little to do with the Pharonic history.  They had barely even known that many of the great monuments I had seen were there, having been covered by sand until they had been excavated by the English and French archaeologists.

The Arabic side of this country was different though.  This was true history of this country as it currently was.  It is the past of the people that is continuing to change and develop through to this day.  This side of Egypt represented the culture of the people and I quickly realised that this was what I had been seeking out in my travels.

Accompanied by my lovely American friend Emily, we started walking through the old part of Cairo, also known as "Islamic Cairo".

It didn't take us very long at all to find some towering heights from which to get some better views.  I tried to climb to the highest level of the tower, but my courage deserted my legs.  I was content with staying at the same level as Emily and taking a photo of her in her corresponding tower.
The buildings in this area were captivating.  They were all still working buildings, but that didn't mean that they weren't jewels from the past.
The intricate patterns and designs on almost every building was the highlight of the Islamic architecture I had seen on the trip.  Every details was a beautiful reminder to me of everything I loved about the Arabic world and the imagery it created.  There is a perfect symmetry to each piece of design.  They all sit together within something greater and yet everything is still so unique even when so crowded.
We continued walking through the streets of Islamic Cairo.  There was a dirtiness and grittiness to the place that added a realism to the surroundings.  Some may recoil at the filth, but once again I found it to be just another wonderful part of this place.
As Emily and continued walking, we encountered a particularly ornate building.  We were welcomed into the building by a friendly custodian who explained to us that we were actually looking at one of the major attractions of Islamic Cairo, the old Ottoman sabil.
The place was a clean water dispensary to the local people, providing a source of clean drinking water to the local community.  The building was decorated in lovely Ottoman designs and Turkish script.  This building made me think of what King Faisal said in the movie Lawrence of Arabia, that centuries ago the city of Cordoba had miles of public housing when London was only a village.  The sibal was like Cordoba for Faisal.  It was a beacon of just how progressive the Islamic world had been so many centuries ago in comparison to their Western counterparts.

Standing inside the cistern of the sibal itself I closed my eyes and listened to Emily singing.  Her voice echoed softly inside the amazing acoustics of the empty space.  There was a soft glow of light that bounced off the walls.  It was hard to believe that this had been here for so long.
We left the sabil and continued our walk.

The number of foreigners began to grow and it was clear that we were now in the truly touristy part of Islamic Cairo.  We had in fact reached the "famous" market known as Khan Al Khalili.
This place was awful.

The touts were in full force and the relatively low number of tourists meant that we were receiving the full attention of touts.  Poor blonde Emily from the American mid-west was receiving some particularly intense attention and I was particularly shocked when a child that looked about 12 ran up to her and started screaming truly filthy expletives at her.  Just lovely.
It seemed to be the nature of Egypt that even the beautiful things were more often than not ruined by the horrific.

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