The number one natural resource in Egypt is history. Unlike its oil-rich neighbors, the Egyptian economy relies on the foreign money of tourists who fly into Cairo from all points of the compass to see colossal monuments, puzzle over cyclopean architecture, and experience walking where the ancients once lived out their days. This has resulted in an organic fusion of the very ancient with the ultra modern.
No place on earth exemplifies this merger like Cairo. This photo essay takes a look at some instances where the ancient meets the modern.
There is no lack of information in print and online about the city of Cairo. Most anything you read will tell you that it is the capital of Egypt, the largest city in Africa, and is the center of Islamic culture. The official population is around 12 million people, although the actual figure is probably closer to 18 million.
There are infinite was to present the city and its people in words and images—culturally, historically, religiously—and the street scenes vary from modern urban canyons, to medieval bazaars with Roman cobblestones, to dusty residential causeways. From a high vantage point Cairo is a city that stretches off in all directions, disappearing into the horizon with no apparent end.
It can be difficult from mere photographs to get an appreciation for how the ancient and the modern flow together in such seamless intrepidity. The “City of a Thousand Minarets” is a city where the subway burrows under ancient avenues, minibuses jostle with horse-drawn carts, and robed pedestrians cross busy streets more on faith than observation. Rarely does one see the timeless and sacred coalesce with everyday life so naturally.
One of the older parts of the Cairo skyline is the Sultan Hassan Mosque. Ground broke for the mosque in 1356 at the behest of Sultan Hassan bin Al-Nasir Muhammad. The mosque is also a madrassa (religious school) for the four schools of Sunni Islam.
Constructed in the Bahri Mamluk style, it is one of the largest mosques in the world, covering over two acres. The minarets and domes of the Sultan Hassan Mosque appear to have foreshadowed the skyscrapers of modern Cairo, which the design seems to accent rather than condescend.
The mosque has a somewhat dark history, having been built using money levied from the property of victims of the Black Death. In 1360, one of the minarets collapsed killing more than 300 people, and shortly afterwards, in 1361, the Sultan himself was assassinated. Despite its troublesome beginning, the mosque was completed in 1363.
Although not truly ancient, the Abdeen Palace is the end of a thread that winds back into antiquity. Construction began in 1863 on land purchased from the widow of an Ottoman Turk prince named Abdeen Bey, who once had a small estate on the site. The Abdeen Palace was inaugurated in 1874 when Khedive Ismail Pasha, grandson of Muhammad Ali Pasha, moved the royal court from the Citadel of Salah al-Din (See my feature article, Castle in the Sky: The Citadel of Salah al-Din).
The Abdeen Palace remains the seat of Government in modern Egypt, but it’s not just the capitol, it’s also one of the most important cultural sites in Cairo. The Palace contains a vast collection of paintings, priceless objets d’art, period weapons, and antiques that stands on a par with the greatest museums of Europe.
The architecture of Cairo, whether viewed up close or from afar, is only one part of the city’s beauty, and any city is only as lovely as its people. Down at the street level you begin to get a feel for the idiosyncrasies and human vibe which make the city unique. And as with the city itself, you find that with the people little has changed, even as everything changes.
Navigating traffic can be interesting, to say the least. A trip across Cairo typically involves being in a herd of bumper to bumper compact cars travelling like a school of fish at breakneck speeds. The most important part on any Egyptian car is the horn, and traffic lanes are a quaint notion abandoned during the time of the Pharaohs. Factor in the occasional horse-drawn wagon or donkey cart and you learn why the brakes are nearly as important as the horn.
Some Cairene forms of transportation are only nominally more modern than horse and donkey power. Having just delivered a tram-load of apples, the contraption pictured below speeds off with a basket of chickens.
One advantage of live vs. automated transportation is upkeep. Properly fed and cared for, your average donkey rarely needs an oil check or new tires. When hosed off they are self drying, and never require a dust cover.
As the dust covers above might suggest, cars provide for one of the less-desirable interactions between the ancient and the modern. Two million cars grinding their tires onto the hot and sandy streets of a city that gets about an inch of rainfall per year makes for a very dusty place.
Some dust covers are more stylish than the stripes and solids pictured above. The construction site below is enclosed within huge richly-patterned Persian rugs. Whether the intent is to keep the dust inside or the sand out is anyone’s guess. Either way, the heat and grit is enough to make one long for an ice cold Coke…
Of course, some things can’t be kept under rugs or dust covers. Take the pyramid below, for example. How would you like to be the guy who has to Swiffer that floor?
This modern monument offers another juxtaposition of ancient and modern motifs. Built to commemorate those who fell anonymously in battle, The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier appropriately takes the form of a stylized pyramid. It is built on the site where President Anwar Sadat was assassinated, and is also where he is entombed.
Another marriage of the ancient with the modern is Cairo’s world famous suq, Khan el-Khalili. This labyrinthine bazaar was established in 1382 by Emir Jarkas el-Khalil and was largely reconstructed in the 16th century by Sultan Qansuh el-Ghuri.
Some parts of Khan el-Khalili look much as they did centuries ago, while other more developed parts are covered and tiled, and look more like an indoor mall than an outdoor market. The picture below is a glance down one of the hundreds of alleyways of this celebrated marketplace.
The vendor below specializes in hookahs, known locally as hubbly bubblies. This water pipe originated in India but is very popular now throughout the Middle East. Although unfairly associated with the “bong” of Western college culture, the hubbly bubblies can be seen in cafés all over Cairo, and are used to smoke tobacco, often flavored with fruit essences. The man in white was a potential customer, unfortunately, the hookah huckster didn’t have change for a goat.
Security in Khan el-Khalili is a bit tighter than in your average American shopping mall, as the above picture shows, but the guards themselves are no less prone to boredom. As intimidating as the sight of guards with machine guns may be, I never once felt unsafe anywhere.
Cairo is a very friendly city, and the shopkeepers of Khan el-Khalili are the friendliest. If you are unsatisfied with a price they won’t hesitate to barter, even to the point of following you out into the street. And down the street. And into the café. And to the door of your taxicab…
Cairo threads the ancient and the modern together while remaining true to the beauty and function of both. It is a city that straddles the First, Second, and Third Worlds, but where graciousness and dignity are ever-present. It is hoped that this admittedly limited jaunt around town has given you an idea of how Cairo looks behind the images most often seen on TV or the Internet.
Copyright by Keith Payne, 2009, all rights reserved