Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 March 2006
Issue No. 784
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Walk like an Egyptian

Follow Amira El-Noshokaty 's footsteps to discover the wonders of Cairo on a winter day

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Rare photos on display at Um Kolthoum's Museum; Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque, the oldest in Egypt; the Nilometre; the icon of Mar Girgis decorated with handwritten wishes of believers in miracles

Walking through the streets of Cairo is, without doubt, a unique experience. Here, the streets have lives of their own, and history is very much alive. Indeed, it constitutes part of the daily rituals of local residents. And it is only on foot that one can gain a truly close feel of what lies behind the heritage -- the people. Without doubt, winter is the best time of the year to enjoy a softer Cairene sun, as its golden rays promise warmth and company as one wanders through the streets of this wondrous city.

We started off by A l-Roda Island, Al-Manial district, which lies approximately 20 minutes away from Downtown and Garden City. Set along the Nile, Al-Roda is one of the most beautiful and serene spots in Cairo. Like Zamalek, it is knitted with old buildings that still reflect their own history, and yet retain a beautiful sense of familiarity and closeness. As my walking companion said: "Here, as you walk, the smell of delicious food -- similar to that made for you by your grandmother when you were young -- can cheat you into thinking that somewhere inside one of those houses, she is still expecting you for lunch."

On the main street of Al-Roda, across from a number of little squares, we walked straight until we reached Al-Malek Al-Saleh Street, which in turn led us to the Nilometre, a historical site complex, located at the south-western tip of the island.

The Nilometre is an Islamic monument that dates back to the Abbasid era. It was first built during the reign of Al-Motawakel Ala Allah Al-Abbasi in 861 AD (247 AH). It is the second oldest Islamic monument in Egypt -- the oldest being the Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque. Under a cone-shaped wooden dome lies a marble cylinder that measures water up to 12 metres deep. As the staircase coils around the marble cylinder, three successive holes that allow the Nile waters in on three different levels are revealed. So ingenious is the Nilometre that it continued to be used to take official measurements of the river's water limit and primary indications of floods until 1969, when the Aswan High Dam was built, transforming floods into electricity and the Nilometre into a tourist sight. Inside the hall that houses the Nilometre, beautiful Kufik scripts citing verses from the Quran with references to water decorate the walls.

Just a few steps away lie the remains of the Manasterli Palace. The palace once belonged to Hassan Fouad Al-Manasterli Pasha, governor of Cairo in 1854, during the reign of Khedive Abbas Helmi I. He is buried in the mosque located right next to the Nilometre. The ballroom, which is what is left of the palace, houses highly artistic late Ottoman Rococo paintings, reminiscent of the old Cairo Opera House. In 2002 the ballroom was transformed into an international music centre, and is surrounded by a verandah with a breathtaking Nile view.

To the left of the palace, lies the Um Kolthoum's Museum. Known as the Star of the East, Um Kolthoum (1898-1975) was much more than a great singer. She was an Egyptian icon who has come to symbolise a golden musical era, when her voice in combination with the music and poetry created truly immortal masterpieces. Chanting the works of great Egyptian music composers like Zakaria Ahmed, Mohamed El-Assabgi, Riad El-Sombati along with the sublime poetry of Ahmed Rami, Beiram El-Tounsi, Mohamed Nagui, the result was superb. The museum exhibits the legendary Egyptian singer's life story, her famous costumes and audio and video access to her legacy. There are also showcases of rare photos, and medals and certificates of honour that decorated her life's work from all over the Arab world, among which lies the Order of Perfection Egypt 1946. Her famous crescent diamond pin, her lute and handwritten copies of the verses by famous poets, including Rami and El-Tounsi, that continue to enchant the nation, are also displayed.

Walking away from Al-Roda, we crossed the pedestrian iron bridge to the right of the museum complex to the other end of Al-Malek Al-Saleh Street, and made our way to Old Cairo. Crossing the street, we took the second left, and walked through the narrow streets of the lower-middle class district that promises nothing extraordinary, until we arrived at the Tomb of Suleiman Pasha Al-Faransawi. Located in the street that holds his name, the Arabesque-style tomb where both he and his Egyptian wife were laid to rest was at the centre of the busy square. Suleiman Al-Faransawi was French commander to whom Mohamed Ali Pasha assigned the creation of the first national Egyptian army. He was minister of defence up until the reign of Sayed Pasha. Later he converted to Islam and married King Farouk's great- grandmother.

Further down the street, with the tomb on our right, we took the second left and headed to the Religions Complex. The area is home to relics of the three religions of the book: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. After climbing the iron stairs that cross the subway, right off the Coptic Museum, we finally made it. A great yellowish gate guards the Hanging Church in the heart of the old Roman Fortress, the Church of Abu Serga -- where the Holy Family sought refuge in a cave beneath the altar -- and the famous Mar Girgis (Saint George) Church in addition to the Synagogue of Ben Ezra, among several other convents and Christian graveyards. Right next to the yellow gate is the Mosque of Amr Ibn Al-Aas.

The predominantly dark wood structure of the Mar Girgis Church, along with the candlelight hopes and prayers and colourful glass windows emanated an air of serenity. We silently lit our candles as a young child was baptised by the altar. Downstairs lay the icons of Mar Girgis and Jesus Christ, decorated with the handwritten wishes of believers in miracles. It seems some were answered, as proven by marble "thank you" plates can be seen, hanging in the church.

On the other side of the Christian plateau lie several antique shops and cafés that overlook Al-Fustat Market, the newest shopping complex of hand-made and authentic Egyptian handicraft. Out of the gate and on the same side across the street lies the first and oldest mosque ever built in Egypt. The Mosque of Amr Ibn Al-Aas was first erected by Amr Ibn Al-Aas, commander of Muslim army in their conquest of Egypt. Originally on a scale of 1,500 square cubits, lies the Taj Al-Gawamee, or the crown of mosques. With its 150 white marble columns and three minarets that open into a spacious sahn or court, the mosque served as a court of civil disputes, a school and a prayer area.

Practical information:

FOOD AND BEVERAGES: Bring your own.

Cafés and snacks all along the street facing the Hanging Church. You can also have a bite at the Nile Peking by the Nilometre.

TRANSPORT: You can reach Al-Roda Island by bus.

From Heliopolis:

From Roxy Square: bus number 4 (special bus -- green), LE1.

From Nozha: air-conditioned bus number 362, LE2.

From downtown:

Off Ramses Street, bus number 95, PT50.

You can go to the Religions Complex in Old Cairo by metro: hop on from Al-Malek Al-Saleh or Mar Girgis stations for PT75.

TICKETS: Um Kolthoum Museum: LE2 for Egyptians and non- Egyptians.

Nilometre: LE2 for Egyptians and LE3 for non-Egyptians.

OPENING HOURS: U m Kolthoum Museum: daily from 9:30am to 3:30pm, except on public holidays.

Nileometre: daily from 9am to 5pm.

Religions Complex: no specific timing but visiting during daytime is advised.

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