In February 2011, around 300000 Egyptians gathered around Tahrir Square and protested against their President Hosni Mubarak. What happened over the next few weeks, would not only change the political scenario of the country, but would also make Tahrir Square famous worldwide. People would see it on their television screens, and hear about it on radio while they drove to work. They would read about it on newspapers and chat about it on Twitter. And in June 2013, it would happen all over again.
Looking at it from the balcony of Cairo Downtown Hotel, almost a year later, I could still feel the energy. Except this time, they were out there enjoying their Sunday evening. Families were sitting on the lush green grass, enjoying cotton candies and peanuts. Kids were running around, while the teenagers stood in groups, talking, laughing and smoking. Cars whizzed and screeched past the roundabout while the roadside shops enjoyed their peak business hours.
Several nights a week, the roads surrounding Tahrir play host to a huge night bazaar and people from all walks of life come out and shop for clothes, perfumes, flowers and grocery items. There are plenty of good restaurants and coffee shops around where people would sit for hours and talk politics, football and weather while sipping on hibiscus tea and smoking fruit flavoured hookah.
If you take a walk through these roads, past, what I call the T-shirt alley where the shopkeepers stand on a wooden table and scream out their hottest offers, you will come across a few local movie theatres. If it is a Friday night, you will not need to buy a ticket to see something incredible. The box office would get crowded with men trying to buy tickets. Queuing up is too much of a chore on a Friday evening. They would be shouting on top of their lungs at the ticket clerk and at each other. They would jump on top of each other, with a bundle of notes in their hands while their wives and girl friends stand on the side of the road, licking ice cream and proudly watching their gladiators in action.
The same holds true for ice cream stores as well.
Every once in a while, a pickup truck full of loud, obnoxious young men shouting slogans would honk its way through the crowded roads.
Trust me just taking a stroll in the night bazaar can be quite an experience.
If I crane my neck a bit from the balcony, I could see a big pink building with a dome on top. It is the Egyptian Museum, one of the largest museums in the world. They say if you spend just one minute in front of each of the artefacts, it will take you 825 days to see the whole museum.
Inside, among other cool things, you can see some royal mummies, the jewels and throne found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen, and many ancient statues.
Hundreds of army men and commandoes stand in the vicinity of the museum, with their advanced weapons, tanks, and barbed wires, all day, every day.
“Are they expecting a war?” I had asked a local during my visit there.
Apparently, during the protests of 2011, the museum was vandalised and several artefacts, including a couple of mummies, were stolen.
The Citadel, which is about half an hour’s drive from Tahrir, is also a place worth visiting. Apart from being a fort built for the protection of the city, it has been the residence of many rulers. It is said that the Citadel has been built from the fallen rocks of the Giza Pyramids. It is also home to Cairo’s Military and Police Museums.
There are a few mosques inside the Citadel as well, most impressive one being the Mohamed Ali Mosque, which is modelled on the Blue Mosque of Istanbul.
Mohamed Ali is considered the founder of Modern Egypt. He strengthened the army and built up the infrastructure of the country. Under his leadership, Egypt blossomed. He developed the railroad from Cairo to Alexandria and ensured the growth of the cotton industry. Though he was a great leader, he sucked as a party host.
Sometime around 1811, before he was the ruler, he threw a grand ceremony and invited all the notables from the ruling clan, the Mamelukes. He served them with delicious food, drinks and engaged in polite discussions. Then he ordered his soldiers to massacre them, and assumed power.
I will not be surprised if no one showed up at his birthday parties thereafter.
“Honey, Mohamed Ali invited us to his birthday bash!”
“Oh my God, he wants to kill us! I am calling my travel agent. We need to leave..now!”
The historic Mosque and Madrassa of Sultan Hasan are a short drive away. The Madrassa is the first and the largest Quran school in the world, and students from all over Egypt stay and study there. There is a legend that the day Sultan was murdered, one of the two minarets collapsed.
If “mosqued” out, one can drive a bit further to the churches of the Coptic Christians. The Hanging Church and the Church of St. Sergius are worth visiting. There is also the Coptic Museum, in case someone wants to delve a bit deeper.
And then there is the Khan El Khalili Market. It is the oldest and the largest market in the Middle East and is definitely an experience not to be missed.
It is similar to the Chatuchak Market of Bangkok with an Arabic twist to it. So, instead of finding shops selling Pad Thai and soups, you will find shops selling Koshary and coffee. Instead of the mild mannered Thai vendors, you have big Egyptian men, yanking your arms to get you inside their shops.
No, that was a bit much.
They don’t do that.
They shout. They scream. They hustle. They sweet talk.
As a foreigner walking through this market, you will find the vendors asking you questions like, “Where are you from?” and “What is your name?”
Engaging in a conversation with the shopkeepers is fun but somehow I always ended up in a dark room, with shelves full of big bottles of perfumes of different colours, carrying mysterious names like The Arabian Nights.
“This is called Tutankhaman.” One of the shopkeepers once said while he rubbed a generous amount of the perfume on my right arm. “Smell it.”
King Tut apparently smelled like wet mud.
If you use your wits and bargain to your heart’s content, you will definitely get some super good deals.
People usually come to Cairo, see the Pyramids and then move on to places like Luxor or Alexandria and ignore all these wonderful places that the city has to offer. No matter what the political situation or the weather is like, Cairo never stops. It is always chaotic, always awake and always amazing.
The cool evening breeze and the festive atmosphere are encouraging me to leave my cosy hotel balcony, go downstairs and take a walk.
Maybe I’ll check into a small eatery thereafter and try out a shwarma, or hang around with the locals at a coffee shop and watch a game of football on TV.
Or maybe I’ll take a short taxi ride and sit on the banks of the Nile and appreciate the fact that I am in the “Land of the Pharoahs”.