Cairo from the air
Al-Ahram Weekly photographer Khaled El-Fiqi took to the air this week to capture unique images of Cairo, which Jill Kamil describes from another perspective
He captures with his lens the pulsating capital of Egypt in motionless splendour. The great and congested city, home to more than 16 million people, is bursting at the seams, spilling into agricultural land, nuzzling against the Pyramid Plateau, but from the air all is silent.
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Gezira Island; the 26th July flyover with the Al-Ahram building to the right of the foreground; Geziret Al-Dahab in the suburb of Maadi; 6th October Bridge during rush-hour; Cairo Tower on Gezira Island
The Giza Pyramids; the City of the Dead and the Autostrada-Salah Salem Street network surrounding the Citadel; the Al-Hakim Mosque on the edge of Fatimid Cairo; a new cemetery near Shorouq City; Shorouq City, one of Cairo's new suburbs
Clearly visible are motorised vehicles on massive flyovers, domes, minarets and modern steel and plate glass buildings. All that is absent is the cacophany. The honking horns of vehicles as they vie for space in narrow streets filled with draft animals, cyclists and pedestrians are not heard from this altitude. Nor the shouts of traders announcing their wares, or the loud bantering over the price of products, or arguments between neighbours -- and the very voices of children.
We see none of the choked traffic or perilous driving and indiscriminate parking habits. Nor can we gauge the contrast between ancient and modern, want and plenty. What we can do is to look, with Khaled, upon Al-Qahira, a city that has lived a thousand years and that happens to be one of the most exciting, captivating and mysterious cities in the world.
The Nile, Egypt's vital artery, runs through the heart of Cairo, leaving densely populated areas on each bank and two equally crowded fragments in the middle of the river: the islands of Gezira and Roda. These photos clearly show Cairo's chief landmark on the eastern bank, riding atop the Muqattam range of hills -- the Citadel which Saleheddin (Saladin) built about 1176 AD. And the landmark on the west: Egypt's most famous of ancient monuments, and probably the largest man-made structures in the world up to the 20th century -- the Pyramids of Giza, built in 4,500 BC. If you look closely you can just make out the Sphinx.
Up to the 1970s there was considerable agricultural ground on what was once the flood plain between the eastern and western plateaus. Today urbanisation has eaten away all but a few plots. And the population of Cairo is steadily growing. Added to the local throng are foreign investors, traders, refugees, sightseers and a regular flow of students and immigrants from other Egyptian governorates. "Turn the desert green", "build satellite cities", "move out of Cairo" was the call 30 years ago. And although large areas of the desert have been reclaimed for agriculture and several satellite cities have been built, the population of Greater Cairo continues to grow. Even the most recent of the settlement schemes, Al-Sherouq, which has sound planning and infrastructure, is so far lacking in those institutions that make for a large-scale exodus from the city: schools, hospitals and industry.
The City of the Dead stretches beneath the Muqattam Hills on the eastern bank of the Nile. Straight streets run between the walls of family tombs and plots. Here the earliest date back to the 9th century (Dhu'l-Nun Al-Misri the mystic is buried here), and the most recent are fine, red-brick structures with elegant façades and window grilles built by the wealthy. It is not known how many people live in this area and its limits are hard to define. The caretakers' families have joined them to turn this area into a large, neatly-laid out village. Family members carry out their daily chores, cooking on primus stoves and watching the news on TV, a life that can be glimpsed through open doorways, but from above the City of the Dead appears no more than a pattern of cenotaphs, even though it is home to an estimated 50,000 people.
Cairo is a city that does not invite comparison, because it stands alone and should be judged on its own merit. "The Victorious" is what the Arabs called it, and it is a city with a unique concentration of mediaeval monuments. It has its conservative population on the one hand, and, on the other, restaurants and night-clubs, sporting and yacht clubs. Cosmopolitan Cairo can never really be known. It has to be felt. And it is this aspect that photography cannot provide. Khaled's images are hushed and calm, adjectives that certainly cannot be applied to living Cairo.