Cairo, Egypt: Embracing the Complexity

The call to prayer floats over the city. The eternal sounds, the ancient melody is both beautiful and calming. It competes with the more mundane sounds of traffic, and forms a counterpoint to the driving base of horns and treble of screeches.

Cairo Egypt at
Cairo is buzzing, honking, barely organized chaos.
Alive and vibrant.
Sirens are the bird songs of the city.
Punctuating the honking horns.

Four lanes of cars struggle to fit down roads clearly marked for three lanes. More than this, the city of 12 million people, streaming in and out every day, seems to have no traffic lights. I'm sure there are a couple lurking somewhere, but they certainly aren't evident.

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Pedestrians are as fearless as the drivers. They have to be or they'd never cross the street. Since traffic is so heavy much of the time, it isn't quite as dangerous as it sounds. But it was enough to cause several of our group to gasp in alarm.

Cairo has days of blue skies but there are also days when you can see and smell the air. The legacy of all those cars. That's the real story behind those marvelous atmospheric shots of minarets rising out of the haze.

Ancient wall air conditioners adorn the buildings, even office buildings. Some seem to have two or three in a room. Only the tourist hotels seem to have central air conditioning.

The Nile Hilton is a venerable but still elegant hotel on the Nile -- request a room with a river view, although gazing down at the Egyptian Museum lit up at night is another fine view. When the hotel isn't hopping with people checking in and out, waiters circulate with glasses of cold hibiscus tea. Made from the flowers of the plant, it's delicious and refreshing.

The traffic makes it impossible to make a left turn into the hotel driveway. There's actually a police officer who goes out into the middle of the road to stop traffic. Situated on a major thoroughfare it was also filled with the sounds of the city. The area around the Grand Hyatt and Four Seasons, in contrast, seems tucked away in the greener oasis with side streets to explore.

Head scarves are ubiquitous. But I notice that in some parts of the city it is often as much a fashion statement as a statement of religious piety. Even though the hair is completely covered, these are elegant head coverings, and the women who wear them are stylishly dressed. One evening a woman in the hotel lobby was covered from head to toe in black, but the black robe glittered with gold appliques, and her makeup was stunning. In other parts of the city, the dark head scarves go with long dark coverings and those not similarly attired provoke looks of disapproval.

This is not a nation of timid women. Although I'm sure there are some who are under the thumb of male relatives, the women we met -- headscarved or not -- had no compunction about taking charge. At the pyramids, when one of our group was accosted by an overly assertive hawker, our petite guide came charging out of the bus yelling so vigorously the hawker vanished in the other direction. Women sit at sidewalk cafes and enjoy smoking tobacco (sheesha), run small shops, hold important corporate positions, own their own businesses, and seem quite capable of taking care of themselves.

Pyramid at Giza in Cairo Egypt at


Once its own place, today Cairo has expanded and expanded until Giza, and the stolid sphinx -- implacable and ageless -- has been penned in by development. It now sits in a public park and is slowly being ravaged by pollution. Soon the eternal and ancient wonder will be sharing land with modern Cairo.

Not so the pyramids. Although in the same area, these ageless wonders still reach high over the plains on the Giza plateau. Although it's not permitted to actually climb to the pyramids, visitors can clamber up several rows of ancient stones. The odd result is tiny people climbing, standing, and hollering down to friends at the only extant wonder of the ancient world. They looked like industrious ants climbing up and down stones four and five feet tall. None the less, standing at the bottom of the largest pyramid built by King Cheops around 2650 BC is a humbling experience. Anything that was built over 4600 years ago, using 2.5 million blocks of stone, generates awe and wonder.

The whole area is filled with new construction, nightlife and clubs. The canals are being dredged. Although easily reached by major roads, unless you are staying nearby it's probably better to arrange for a tour through one of the major hotels.

The souks and marketplaces we visited are totally touristy, but definitely atmospheric and fascinating to walk through. Khan Al Khalili is one of the most famous with narrow shop-lined streets, minarets and ancient mosques. Tour buses regularly pull up and a flood of tourists hit the warren of streets.

Egyptian Museum (Museum of Egyptian Antiquities)

Opened in early 1900s to provide a safe home for the growing number of priceless antiquities, the treasures of the Egyptian Museum are clearly outgrowing the available space. Although there are some rooms that have neatly labeled cases and spot lights highlighting gems of the collection the museum has been aptly compared to an attic filled with treasures. There are coffins stacked four high -- each in its own glass and wood container. Column after column of these coffins stretching down the long cavernous hallways. Lines of tiny child coffins, and sarcophagi.

Many museums have exhibits but it's impossible to understand the vastness of the artifacts, until you see room after room after room filled with the bits and pieces of centuries of Egyptian history.

Sobering to think that they tried so very hard to defeat death, to hold on to all their wealth, to protect their bodies and their treasures to insure their continuation in the after-life, and thousands of years later, we stand there staring at their remains.

The tomb of Tutankhamun has been reproduced on the second floor. We look at it today as an amazing display of wealth and craftsmanship, but he was a minor ruler who died too young to truly accumulate significant treasure. As I stood there, I began to wonder what marvels the plundered tombs of older rulers contained.

The room with the mummies incurs an extra charge, and no photography is allowed within the museum (although we were told it is possible to get permission to take pictures but that has to be arranged well in advance).

Another museum, the Grand Egyptian Museum, is planned to open near the pyramids of Giza. It will be able to shelter and display far more of these priceless objects.

The wonders of Cairo go far beyond what we were able to see in one short trip. This city by the Nile can only be experienced slowly, layer by layer, savoring a civilization stretching far back in time.

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Neala Schwartzberg McCarten

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author


Updated: May 20th, 2016