Monday, December 16, 2013

Travel blog - 2 - A trip to Cairo

A few years ago, Utta and I went on a short but memorable trip to Cairo. It was a couple of years before the uprising in Tahrir square. Hosni Mubarak was still comfortably ensconced in power and the city was eerily tranquil with the muted signs of militia everywhere.

I loved Cairo because it was so much like India. The sunshine, greenery, palms and old architecture were very much like Chennai and burbs, and the pervasive tall and mid sized flats with clothes drying in the balconies, very much like Mumbai. Also like in India, there were ample signs of life and living everywhere - from young nubile couples in clandestine encounters by the Nile, funerals in the cemeteries, children playing in the dirt in the crowded back alley souks, men balancimg trays of tea as they negotiated the pressing crowds in all places of commerce, to flirtatious young men sitting around street corners on Roxy Square serenading the beautiful young women walking down that street. The magnificent ancient pyramids and mosques, with courtyards the size of football fields, were almost incidental. In fact, when we were in Old Cairo, it came up to their noon hour prayer and the mosques opened up to welcome all Muslim worshippers. The trip to the Giza Pyramids and Sphinx was quite like arriving at the Shore Temples in Mammalapuram, smack in the middle of a crowded town, where people went about their lives, apparently unaffected by the five thousand year history of one of the world's architectural marvels in their backyard.

Cairo is a holy place with a confluence of religions and cultures. Islam, of course, is the dominant religion today. However, predating the arrival of the Arabs, over the last two millennia, Egypt experienced Greco Roman influences with the Ptolemaic period and before that the rich dynastic tradition of the Pharaoh kingdoms going back to 3000 BC. Legend has it that Cairo is the birthplace of Judaism, the location of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo the place where a Pharaoh's wife found Moses after he had crossed the Red Sea. The synagogue is surrounded by the Babylon fortress and a hanging church. Among other firsts, Egypt boasts the first monastery dating back to 300 AD under the Coptics, a sect of Christianity which still flourishes, their art a blend of pagan traditions and expressive Christianity. More recently, Egypt was also a French colony and there is some of that influence evident in its peoples and food. In short, a veritable pot pourrie of eastern and European cultures, Egypt is a country of beautiful mixed race people, varied cuisines and diverse architecture. The language, however, is predominantly Arabic, with a few French speakers. English is practically non existent.

What’s a trip to Egypt without a pilgrimage to the pyramids. Particularly memorable was my 10 metre climb into one pyramid's funerary chamber, down a very narrow passage. The tombs are equally astounding and the preoccupation with death, dying and tomb architecture quite fascinating. King Tut knew not just how to live and but also how to die, so elaborate were his plans for his afterlife. The Nile, the only enduring witness to these thousands of years of history, tamed in recent times with the Aswan dam, has influenced every aspect of life in this historic place as is evident from the art and elaborate sailboat sculptures in the tomb architecture. Today, she is there a benevolent and bountiful goddess in the middle of the Sahara.

Our gap toothed taxi driver, Nabil took us around everywhere in his 20 year old Peugeot. He spoke broken English but showed us all the sights and bid us a tearful farewell. Amidst all those crooks who prey on tourists, we had found a gem.

It was wonderful to hang out with an adult daughter sipping tea in cafes, experimenting with the sheesha (water pipes), haggling at the Khan Al Khalili markets and trying out different cuisines at the restaurants. The trip left me with wonderful memories and a fresher perspective on the world and our present state of being.

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