Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Day in Old Cairo

It is December 2007. I am researching the 15th book in my Roman Mysteries series, this one will be set in Roman Egypt.

entrance to the souk in Cairo Old Town
Our tour group is planning to visit Tanis, on the eastern Delta, in order to look at some more pyramids and hieroglyphs. They will be driving for nearly three hours there and it will take them longer to get back. They will be in a military convoy. Unable to face another day at a desolate site with nothing but rocks, I ask Richard if he minds a lazy day in Old Cairo. He welcomes the idea of breakfast at 9.00 instead of 6.00am.

I ring Omar, the wonderful taxi driver who took us to the Pharaonic Village and he says he is at our disposal. I find out later that he was suffering from flu but came to our rescue anyway.

We meet in the hotel lobby at 10.00am and Omar drives us to Old Cairo where we see the so-called hanging church, built in the late 3rd century above the Roman Walls. We also descend to a crypt where Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus stayed during their sojourn in Egypt. We wander through the sunny gardens of a Greek monastery and graveyard. It is green and peaceful, with little birds twittering. I have not heard much twittering on this trip. Just the cawing of crows and ravens at the ancient sites.

Cairo rooftops & minaret
We go down a covered street to the synagogue, then re-emerge and find Omar, who's been enjoying a mint tea in the sunshine. I say I would like to see the City of the Dead, the extensive graveyard of Cairo, with its population of poor and homeless, and he takes us to see some Islamic crypts. He helps us scramble on top of the crypt and from here we can see the rooftops of Cairo. It's a perfect day.

Omar teaches us the difference between Fatimid, Ottoman and Mamluk minarets. He takes us to a place where we can see mosques with all three minarets and expects me to take a photo. I wish he'd driven more slowly through some of the old, poor parts of Cairo where you still see boys carrying buckets of hot coals and women balancing trays laden with bread and men smoking their hookahs. What I really want to see is the bazaar.

Gayer-Anderson House, Cairo
Omar agrees to take us to the bazaar but drops us at the Gayer-Anderson House first. He says we'll like it. We do. A British major named Anderson refurbished two Cairo mansions in the 1930's and made them his home. Although he converted some rooms, he left most with their wonderful carved wooden screens. In the major's little private museum I see a replica of my favourite Egyptian cat, now in the British Museum. Now I know why it's called "The Anderson Cat"! There is a secret room behind a cupboard and a wonderful rooftop. Scenes from The Spy Who Loved Me were filmed here, too. (You can see a fun article about movies set in Egypt here.)

Omar in the antiques shop
Omar parks his car and leads us into the bazaar. He knows I like Roman things and takes us to an 800 year old hole-in-the-wall antiquities shop. The owner, a tall, ascetic-looking man -- takes us upstairs to his holy of holies and orders mint tea. We make polite conversation for a while. Then he brings out a small marble head. It looks vaguely Roman, but does not seem to represent anyone in particular. If authentic, the carving round the eyes would suggest a late date: 4th or 5th century AD. Then he makes the mistake of bringing out three more heads, all obviously by the same workshop. If he had produced just the one, I might have been convinced, but now I suspect a con. Anyway, the heads are ugly.

antique sharp-nosed fish?
Something in a glass case does catch my eye, however. It is a small bronze model of an 'oxyrhynchus', a sharp-nosed fish, about as long as my thumb. These were worshipped in the town of Oxyrhynchus, famous for its papyri. Perhaps it was a votive offering at a temple in the Fayum. The dealer says the asking price is £150. 'How old is it?' I ask. '1800 years,' says the dealer. 'How can you tell?' 'By the patina.' Deeply sceptical, I offer £5. But we are so far apart that negotiations cease then and there. Anyway, isn't it illegal to take real antiquities out of the country?

Perfumer in Cairo Souk, 2007
On the way out of the bazaar I buy ten little glass perfume jars for £5, about a dollar each. That's more like it!

Richard buys some spices in the spice market (after waiting for the staff to finish afternoon prayers) and I finish off my shopping with a bottle of lotus oil from an Aladdin's cave perfume shop.

We are back in Giza by 6.00pm, too late for Richard to do a watercolour, but early enough to have a delicious meal at Felfela, an excellent and inexpensive restaurant near the hotel. Three hours later the rest of our group arrives. They are tired and hungry, and even though David spotted a Seth animal, I'm secretly glad we spent the day in Old Cairo.

P.S. If you liked this you might enjoy my blogs about Upside Down Egypt & 12 Fun Facts I learned at the Pyramids. Also A Week on the S.S. Karim.

[I was researching Roman Mystery 15, The Scribes from Alexandria. It is now available in paperbackKindle and as an abridged audiobook, and is perfect for primary schools studying Egypt in Key Stage 2.]

1 comment: