02 August 2009

Paris on the Nile

At last we've been able to cast off the long sleeves and properly thaw out now we're in Cairo and the average daytime temperature is a slightly warmer 36 degrees C.

We've been really surprised by Cairo. It has a bit of a reputation for being overcrowded, dirty and full of scam merchants. Ok, so it is a bit busy but then 20 million people do live here. Being as the city is on the edge of the desert everything has a coating of fine sand but at least the streets aren't covered in piles of litter. As for the people, everyone is either incredibly friendly or completely barking! This is the first city we've been to in Africa where it's completely safe to walk the streets, even after dark, without the fear of a mugging. In fact the average Cairene is in more danger of giving you a hugging.

We're staying right in the heart of downtown Cairo near Midan Talaat Harb and a few minutes walk from the East bank of the Nile. The downtown area feels incredibly cosmopolitan and bizarely like Paris. During the mid 1800's Khedive Ismail, then ruler of Egypt, remodeled Cairo on the French capital and many of the buildings here wouldn't look out of place on the Champs Elysee.

It's not all Paris chic though as there are plenty of horrendous 50's and 60's Soviet style concrete monoliths thrown in just to liven things up.

We're staying at a place called the Nubian Hostel which we found through a great website for the budget traveler called Hostel World. The Nubian puts to shame the majority of the overpriced and grimy places we stayed at in Sub Saharan Africa. For £14 a night we get a clean en-suite room with air con, satellite TV, breakfast and free internet. And to top it all off it's located in one of those beautiful Parisian style mansion blocks, although the interior design is still definitely budget hotel!

For our first day in Cairo we headed to the Egyptian Museum, which feels incredibly ramshackle despite being one of the worlds most important museums of ancient history. Most of the exhibits look like they are still in their original display cases from the early 1900's with a centurys worth of dust on them. For some strange reason the museum is also painted a rather lurid shade of pink.

The exhibits more than made up for what we thought was the Egyptian Museum's disappointing Tutankhamen exhibition at the O2 in London last year. You're not allowed to take your cameras in so we can't show you pictures of King Tut's death mask or coffins and the 3,500 year dead pharaohs in the royal mummy room.

For our second day in town we headed out to Islamic Cairo which is centered around Khan al-Khalili, a market that was started in the 14th century. Walking around Khan al-Khalili is like being in the middle of one of those stereotypical bazaar scenes from a James Bond or Indiana Jones film. It's Jam packed with smelly donkey carts and smooth talking galabiyya clad Arabs trying to sell the usual range of tourist tat.

The area is known as Islamic Cairo as for centuries it has been one of the centres of Islamic learning. The madrasra at the Al-Azhar Mosque, which was founded in 988AD, is the second oldest educational institute in the world. The whole area is packed full of medieval mosques, which for a little baksheesh, the caretakers will allow you to visit.

We had a look around the Mosque of al-Ashraf Barsbey where the caretaker invited us up onto the roof to "see the stunning view of Cairo".

We ended our second day in Cairo with a traditional Egyptian sheesha or hubbly bubbly pipe.

Liz said that from this angle it makes my pipe look big!

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