Sunday, December 3, 2023

Exploring Cario

Trip date: January 2023

Cairo, the last stop on our Egypt trip, is the largest city in Africa and the 6th largest city in the world. 24 million people live in the 1000 year old capital which also boasts 1000 minarets. It is crowded, dusty, smoggy, and loud! 

We chose to stay in Zamalek, which is an island neighborhood on the Nile. It's quieter here, and a bit more metropolitan. It's also where most of the embassies are located, not that we would need one, but the architecture on them was lovely. Our hotel, the Hotel Flamenco, was basic but had big rooms, a bar, and was well located.

One day we spent the entire day exploring our neighborhood, starting with one of the best breakfasts we'd had on the entire trip at Zooba! We ordered a selection of things including ful, taameya (Egyptian falafel), baldi bread, labneh dip, eggs, fries, and for dessert Zooba rice pudding. The rice pudding was mind blowing it was so good!! Angel hair halva, honey, mixed nuts, and orange zest on sweet and rich rice pudding. Heaven! We ended up having dinner at Zooba a few days later because it had just been so delish but found it not to be as good. So try Zooba when in Cairo, but do it for breakfast/brunch.

As we wandered around afterwards, you couldn't help but notice all the different street vendors. Anything from nuts, to bread, bananas, to roasted sweet potatoes were for sale on the streets. 

We stopped in a grocery store, which is always one of the best places to shop anywhere in the world, and also a few boutiques. One in particular, Madu, sold the most beautiful linens (some of which are now in my house).

We dropped our purchases back at the hotel and headed to the Marriott for a drink in their garden. This is a stunning property with some interesting history. Originally built as the Gezirah Palace in 1868, it was opened for the visiting dignitaries during the opening of the Suez Canal. In fact, Verdi's opera Aida had its debut here for those guests. But owner Ismail Pasha had to sell the Palace ten years later due to debt, and it then it became a private residence before being turned into a hospital during WWI and then turned again into a hotel. 

We decided to leave Zamalek to check out The Bar at the Four Seasons so we called an Uber and away we went over the bridge to the area called Garden City. 

Even though The Bar is only on the 3rd floor of the hotel, there are great views of the Nile and a handful of window facing tables. The drinks were expensive but they were very well made, so good we decided to stay for 2 rounds!

We headed back to Zamalek for dinner at Abou El Sid which had been recommended by a few people. We were all a bit disappointed however as the food was just ok, most of it either overcooked or flavorless or both. I'd pass. 

Walking home we passed many coffee shops crowded with people smoking shisha. 

The next morning Sherine picked us up again, this time she had a small van with a driver for us, and we headed to the Egyptian Museum. We were so happy to have a private guide here as the collections are overwhelming!

Upon entering, we immediately stopped at the Rosetta Stone. This unfortunately is a replica, the original was found by Napoleon's army and is in the British Museum. But it is still fascinating to see the same text in three scripts (Demotic, hieroglyphic and Greek) which led to being able to understand hieroglyphics! 

There are just so many cool things in the museum. Some highlights for me were the Narmer Palette, an over 5000 year old stone with some of the earliest hieroglyphic inscriptions ever found, the collection of sarcophagus' in the Central Hall, the collections of jewelry and tools, and the items recovered from the tombs of Yuya and Thuya, including their mummies, papyrus, canopic jars, etc, which were missed by tomb robbers!

But of course, most visitors to the museum are there to see the Tutankhamun exhibit. Since the Grand Egyptian Museum had not opened in Giza yet, the exhibit was still at the EMC. No photos are allowed inside, and there is a queue that you move along inside, but it is a spectacular collection. I'd seen one of the traveling shows before, and actually recognized a few pieces, but this was almost the entire collection!

There is really just so much to see that if you visit EMC I would highly recommend getting a private guide to show you around. We spent about 3 ½ hours and definitely did not see it all.

It was lunchtime and we were all excited to try a local specialty called koshary that we had been hearing about. We were going to Abou Tarek, which is the place for it. In fact it is the only thing they serve!

Koshary is a very hearty meal of pasta, fried rice, vermicelli noodles, lentils, and chickpeas, topped with tomato sauce and garnished with crispy fried onions. On the table were decanters of garlic vinegar and hot sauce for adding to your personal taste. It is a super traditional dish, inexpensive and super filling. It was also really good! 

Sherine suggested we get the rice pudding for dessert, which we did, but it was very basic compared to the one at Zooba the day before. 

We were off again, this time Sherine was going to show us Coptic Cairo. Coptic Orthodox Christians are the native Egyptian Christians, it is the largest Christian denomination in Egypt. 

The pedestrian only complex here predates the founding of Cairo in 969 AD. Inside the Babylon Fortress, built by the Romans around 100 AD, there use to be a canal which connected the Nile and the Red Sea and it's here where Moses was reportedly found in a basket in the reeds. 

The Abu Serga church is the oldest in all of Egypt, it was built sometime between 300 and 400 AD.  It's so unique, unlike the interior of any other church I've seen, all wood with marble inlay.

The church is built on the site where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were reported to have stopped on their journey into Egypt. You can go into the church's crypt and see the cave where they were believed to have lived, and the well they drank from. Even as a non-religious person, this whole area was pretty amazing.

Next we walked to the Hanging Church, named that because because it was built on top of a Roman fortress; its nave suspended over the original ground level.
This church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and has an impressive 110 icons, the oldest dating back to the 8th century. I also thought the pulpit was very interesting and read this about it "The marble pulpit of the hanging church is surmounted by 13 pillars that depict Jesus with the other 12 disciples. One of the pillars is black, which represents Judas, another one is grey representing Thomas".

We left the Coptic area and drove to Citadel Square where Sherine took us through two of the city's Mosques which are right next to each other. This was the only time in the entire country that Forest, Caitlin, and I needed to cover our heads with a scarf. We also were all required to remove our shoes to enter. 

First was the Mosque-Madrasa of Sultan Hasan, one of the largest mosques in the world built between 1356 and 1363. I'd never been inside a mosque before and it was great to be there with someone of the Islamic faith to explain things. 

The huge internal courtyard has 4 vaulted halls (called Iwans), each for one of the schools of Islam. A fountain for ablutions sits in the middle.

Behind the Qibla Iwan is the Sultan Hassan's mausoleum, which is a very odd location as the Iwan is in the direction of Mecca therefor anyone praying to Mecca would also be praying to the Sultan. Add that to the fact that he isn't even buried here, as he was murdered by his army commander and his body was never found, but 2 of his sons are laid to rest here. 

Next door, we visited Refa'i Mosque, also known as the Royal Mosque and built 450 years later. Another huge building with a prayer hall that can hold up to 10,000 worshippers!
Inside the mosque are tombs of members of the royal family, including Farouk I, the last king of Egypt.

The last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, died in Cairo after living in exile for 1 ½ years and is also buried here. 

I thought it was really interesting touring both these mosques and learning more about the religion and customs. There are also a lot of beautiful design elements in the architecture and they are very calm spaces, keeping out the sounds of busy Cairo.

That night was our last evening all together, it had been an amazing holiday and we had all learned and experienced so much! We toasted over cocktails at the Ritz Carlton's rooftop bar Nox. This is such a great spot, if the air quality isn't too bad, and they hand out cozy blankets at night if it gets chilly.

Before heading back to our hotel to pack up, we stopped at Pier 88 for a drink also. It's a fun location, right on the river, and the drinks were pretty good.

The next morning I had an Uber pick me up from the hotel at 6:30am. Ugh! It was still dark as I left, and the folks at the front desk thought I was leaving without paying even though we had explained that the entire bill was to be billed to one of the other rooms. It would have been comical if it hadn't been so early! 

As the sun rose I could see it would be another smoggy day in Cairo. There was no traffic at that hour so the airport was a very quick 15 minute ride. I checked in and had time for breakfast in the EgyptAir lounge before my flight to my next destination... Dubai!

All photos of Cairo here

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