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Mosques, minarets and misfits

The day started with a shady Nile cruise and ended with a visit to the magnificent Citadel

sunny 25 °C
View Unnamed Trip on davecallan's travel map.

This, our second full day, was very similar to the first weatherwise, although it dawned ever-so-slightly hazier and muggier, then cleared beautifully later. Our itinerary for Wednesday contained three facets: a cruise on the Nile, preferably on a felucca as that's what Callan really wanted; a visit to the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Islamic Cairo; and a detour to the Citadel - a large, walled fortress which overlooks eastern Cairo and contains the towering, evocative Mohammed Ali Mosque.

We saw Cairo downtown proper, or at least parts of it, and it was an unbelievable experience, although tainted by the wheeling-and-dealing that is an integral part of touring Cairo. Said picked us up at 8am. His price for a day spent in his 'care' is E£275, with a tip of about E£45, which is expensive but as Callan noted we certainly get 'bang for our buck'.

He is on-call from 8am-5pm, taking us anywhere we want to go, then waiting where necessary to shuttle us on to the next attraction. He has a comfortable, air-conditioned car, luxurious by Egyptian standards, and although he still tries tirelessly to persuade Callan (or 'Queens' as he calls her) to consider buying perfume and papyrus from his mates, he isn't offensively pushy. Today, however, we became unwittingly embroiled in haggling skulduggery of the Cairo variety. It was an expensive lesson, and one that has left us with a financial dilemma: we may not have enough money left by Saturday and so may have to spend the morning at the hotel when I wanted to see the Sphinx and pyramids at Giza one last time as I don't know when (or if) we'll be back.

On picking us up, Said told us he had arranged with a friend of his to get us on a boattrip of the Nile. It soon transpired that it was to be a motorised boattrip and not the felucca ride (see image directly below) we'd specifically requested. It took an hour-and-a-half to drive to the Corniche (see image second below) on the Nile near central Cairo and when we got out, Said's friend, a smooth-talking man in a robe, ushered us solicitously onto a small, double-decker boat (see image third below) and showed us the 'menu' in Arabic.




At the bottom of each page was a price - we could take our choice, lucky us. E£300 for an hour's ride or a staggeringly jaw-dropping E£700 for two hours. Callan was shell-shocked. I said we simply didn't have the money. Said quickly tried to take control of what was threatening, for him, to become an embarrassing situation. He sat us down, 'chased' his friend downstairs in a thinly disguised attempt to show us he really had our best interests at heart, and said in his jolly way: ''Now look, my brudda, we make deal. You tell me how much you can afford, no more!''

''If we pay the asking price, we won't have money left,'' I said. It was as simple as that. Indeed, the price was extortionate - the equivalent of £70 - and the whole scenario stank of the sort of cooked-up double-dealing for which Cairo's taxi drivers are notorious. But Said was determined to save the day. He pointed to a smaller boat (see image directly below) nearby, also owned by his robed mate. ''If you go on that one, Meesta David,'' he said, ''it be much cheaper. How much you can pay for that one?''


We eventually settled on E£200 for both of us - still ridiculously overpriced and Said's friend looked seriously put out. Clearly he'd imagined we'd be throwing our cash at him with a smile. He started to protest but Said, probably for our 'benefit', waved him off and we were set to cruise the Nile for an hour. Romantic this certainly wasn't and I noticed Callan had gone quiet. She was annoyed at the grubby way a price had been reached. Cairo haggling might be part of the experience but it can also ruin an otherwise pleasurable experience.

The cruise was certainly an education. First stop was a small island where I could use the toilet (public toilets are frustratingly hard to come by in Cairo) and where we got to see papyrus, egrets and even a pied kingfisher hovering above the water. A heavy smog had settled over the city, making visibility poor and as a result none of my shots came out particularly well. We passed several small villages, similar to the lagoons in Venice but mired in poverty.

The Nile was dotted with fishermen in small boats (see sequence of images below) and on the islands grew vast banana plantations - well, vast in terms of the fact we were at the centre of one of the most densely populated capital cities in the world. The Nile is a blessing to Egyptians; in fact the country is sometimes referred to as the 'gift of the Nile'. But it is dirty and polluted - not even the most optimistic tourist can deny that. There is litter everywhere, and at one point we saw what seemed to be a lorry-load of garbage sliding into the river (see image beneath fishermen sequence). Egrets pick among the trash and it clogs up some parts of the riverbank yet it doesn't altogether detract from the magic of the place.




At one point Said told Radar to stop the boat at another point on the island and had us get out and look at the banana plantation. I'm not sure what this achieved, other than for me to sink shoe-deep into soft, squelchy mud. We walked a short way, coming across a field in which two cows were grazing. A tallish, important-looking man strode over to us with a half-smile on his face. I instinctively started to back away, wary of the inevitable sales tack but this time it didn't materialise and we were all soon back on the boat.

Some of the scenes were fascinating. Two men were vigorously washing their goat in the river (see image directly below). I'm not sure if they were preparing it for slaughter but it looked to be a serious business. Further on a woman smilingly encouraged her pretty young daughter to row the boat in which they were fishing. The youngster stood up, took the oars and rowed away. She looked directly at my lens with a wide, toothy grin, her eyes almost entirely hidden by her red beanie, her pigtails static in the calm smoggy conditions (see image second below).



On the west bank, a large-ish red truck poured its contents (soil or gravel) onto the riverbank (see image directly below); not far away a man stood on the shoreline and stared into the distance, at nothing in particular. Elsewhere, a tall, thin man in a bright, banana-yellow outfit cast out his net, looking for fish, while his mate steadied their boat. And on a riverside settlement, men in dusty blue overalls and white caps loaded what seemed like a thousand building bricks onto two nonchalant, seated camels. The men looked up as we came past but there wasn't much mirth on their faces (see sequence of images directly below).





So this was what life on the Nile, at least the Nile around Cairo, was all about!

Afterwards, we headed for the Mosque of Ibn Tulun in Islamic Cairo - it is one of the oldest and largest mosques in Egypt and several guidebooks I'd scanned before our holiday suggested if you are going to see only one mosque in Cairo, it should be this one. It was built between AD 876 and AD 879 by an Abbasid governor sent from Baghdad to rule Iraq. To get us there, Said drove through the streets of Islamic Cairo, which was an experience in itself. There were buzzing marketplaces, men on scooters (see image directly below), others driving donkey carts, and rising timelessly above this cacophony of noise and dust were the spires and minarets of the mosques. It was an unfortgettable scene.


After removing our shoes and replacing them with 'booties', we entered Ibn Tulun. A huge dome or 'fountain' is located in the centre of the courtyard (see images directly below), surrounded by pointed arches which are inscribed with geometric designs. The original fountain had a gilded dome but this collapsed in AD 968 and the current dome is a 13th-century replacement. The mosque interior is layered with carpets, some of which were being used by those praying but one of the features of particular interest is the Lectern (see third image below) which is called a dikka in Arabic. It is a wooden platform which is used for Quranic recitations and calls to prayer inside the mosque.




By this time, the smog had mostly burnt off and the sky was as blue as it had been the day before. I decided to scale the spiral minaret (see image directly below) of Ibn Tulun. It was inspired by the tower at the Great Mosque of Samarra in Iraq and offers great aerial views of the surrounding neighbourhoods.


Callan has vertigo, so she gave it a miss while I scrambled up the minaret as quickly as I could. There was nobody else there when I arrived at a tiny room at the top of the spire. The two slender floorboards beneath me creaked ominously but I was totally taken in by the scenes around me. Most impressive are the dozens of minarets of different colours, shapes and sizes which dot the skyline. In the distance, I could see Mohammed Ali Mosque in the Citadel (our next destination) as well as loads of satellite dishes perched precariously atop rundown buildings (see sequence of images directly below).




The sound of the Muslim call to prayer reverberated around me and added to the feeling of being in a mysterious, culturally rich land. This is what travel is all about!

Finally we headed back outside to Said, who now took us to the Citadel (entrance E£40 each), where we spent most of our time around the Mosque of Mohammed Ali, also known as the Alabaster mosque (see images directly below). The Citadel was home to Egypt's rulers for almost 700 years and is, after the Giza pyramids, probably the most popular tourist attraction in Cairo. Although Mohammed Ali Mosque is arguably the most famous mosque in Cairo it was built in a wholly Turkish style between 1830-1848. It was erected on the orders of reformist ruler Mohammed Ali, regarded as the father of modern Egypt.




The Egyptian children here insisted on asking us for permission to take our photos, a bizarre experience which Callan said made her feel like a movie star. The way these children behaved explained much about how Westerners are regarded in Egypt (and perhaps in other Middle Eastern countries). It also made me realise that when we'd been descended upon by a horde of schoolchildren at Giza the previous day, it was not the threat we had initially anticipated - they just wanted to mob us with questions! And when it comes to the questions they ask, there is a definite pattern.

Western social norms dictate you don't just pounce on someone in the street and ask them a string of personal questions. But Egypt isn't the West, and we were the foreigners here, not the children. This was the order of the questions, in every case: ''What is your name?''; ''Where do you come from?''; ''How old are you?''; ''Are you married?''; ''Have you got bee-bee (baby)?''

The questions are fired brazenly although often we saw the boys and girls huddled together beforehand, plucking up the courage from a distance before they approached us. When they got a friendly response to their questions (it is difficult not to be friendly as the questions are asked in an endearing, genuinely curious manner), they requested permission to take photos of us.

This was surreal and exhausting but enlightening too. Out came their mobile phones in order to take a photo of us for the folks back home - the girls asked Callan and the boys asked me. As they pointed their camera phones at us, their mates piled in from either side to make sure they were snapped as well (see image directly below). And when they realised we were obliging, they stuck around, repeatedly asking the same aforementioned questions, as if the answers had not quite made sense the first time around.


We were taken aback by our experience here and pleasantly surprised the questions hadn't involved asking for money. In fact, the human side of things rather overshadowed the tourist side - Mohammed Ali Mosque was an aesthetic treat, both inside and out, and looking down over Sultan Hassan Mosque (see image directly below) was also a great experience but those won't be the main reason we remember the Citadel.


On the way back home we got stuck in the mother of all traffic jams, which Said quite skilfully negotiated. It all started when he decided to take us on an alternative route in order to avoid the congestion. But almost as soon as he told us he was taking a shortcut, we were sucked into one of the worst traffic jams we've ever been in. It was fascinating to watch. There were no lanes on this particular stretch of road; no traffic lights, just roads feeding onto more roads, which was creating more congestion, all punctuated by a ceaseless litany of hooters. Egyptian music was beginning to take on epic proportions.

But despite the undeniable madness of it all, there is a sort of organised chaos to the driving. How they manage to avoid accidents is anybody's guess but despite the absolute mayhem (not excluding the odd camel, donkey and horse wandering into the traffic) we've yet to see an accident or even a scrape. However, during this jam we saw the first real fight since we've been here. Somebody feeding in from the left pushed into the traffic stream and incurred the wrath of the people in the truck behind us. There was Italian-style shouting and gesticulating but this did nothing to stop the offending vehicle.

I watched, transfixed, as the cars edged ever-closer towards each other, neither prepared to concede an inch. And when they were so close that you couldn't fit a camel's nose hair between them, the offended car backed off and let the offender push in. Up ahead we had to rejoin a main roadprimary artery but there were chaotic jams there, too. It was so bad, passengers were jumping out their vehicles and directing traffic themselves. Despite the disagreement we'd just witnessed, nobody seemed to be in particularly bad humour though. After moving at a snail's pace for about 20 minutes, I remember thinking, 'We are never going to get out of here!'

But we did, of course. As quickly as we'd entered the jam, we left it, and within minutes we were being dropped off at our hotel. Our heads were spinning but our first reaction when we got into our room was to look at each other and laugh until we couldn't laugh anymore.

Crazy. But an addictive sort of crazy...

Posted by davecallan 14:52 Archived in Egypt Tagged tourist_sites

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