PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — Into Egypt, Day 6

Our last full day in Cairo promised to be full, with much on our agenda,  but it began with a surprise.

Since the start of this trip, I had been in search of a very unique Egyptian dish called Koshary, a mix of pasta, Egyptian fried rice, vermicelli and brown lentils, topped with a zesty tomato sauce, garlic vinegar and garnished with chickpeas and crispy fried onions. It is largely a street food sold by vendors and not in restaurants, and it does not provide the kind of nutrition for breaking fast that people desire, since they want huge meals. As a result, all of the shops that sell it were closed in Cairo during Ramadan since they wouldn’t get any business.

When I went down to begin our tour, I was greeted by our guide, Nahed, with a container of koshary she had made for us to try! I was so happy I will be able to have it and deeply touched by her kindness.

After bringing it to my room so that we could share it later, we set up for our first stop, the Citadel, which is located at the highest point in Cairo, offering a commanding a complete view of the city. Completed in 1183, the Citadel was a fortress surrounded by sturdy walls and towers to withstand attacks from Christian crusaders. Inside, we toured the lavishly decorated alabaster Mosque of Mohammed Ali.

Once again I was astounded by the thoughtfulness of the architecture and the beauty of the design. It is primarily a tourist place now, but we had to arrive early in the morning because at 11 a.m. it closed to be used for Friday worship.

Fun fact — the weekend. Here is Friday and Saturday and Christians adapt and have their worship on Friday morning. We also had a bit of fun using one of the spaces that is commonly used for models posing, to try our hand at it ourselves. Nahed liked to encourage these types of photo shoots.

From there, we took a long walk down Khan El Khalili, a bustling warren of shops where you can bargain for rugs, copper and leather crafts, perfumes and other goods.

We stopped at one of the most famous coffee shops for a cup of coffee/tea and engaged in a little bit of bargaining as I picked up a few items that Santa may put in stockings at Christmas. Well, I didn’t bargain. I am pathetic at it, but Nahed and the young shop owner almost came to blows it seemed. I was pleased with what I had to pay. The Egyptian pound is sadly very weak right now.

I felt very fortunate about the well-planned timing of our walk, since it was not crowded at all. To be honest, I had heard horror stories about space issues in Cairo and the terrible crowds, but it has felt anything but during our travels. I think that is in part because of the Nahed’s excellent timing of when we went. We went when people were mainly at Ramadan services. I was told if we went later it would be packed.

We continued to Al Muizz Street in Islamic Cairo, one of the oldest streets in Cairo. A United Nations study found it to have the greatest concentration of medieval architectural treasures in the Islamic world. Starting in 1997, the national government carried out extensive renovations to the historical buildings. Modern buildings, paving and sewerage have turned the street to an “open air museum” that is decorated with lights and festive lanterns, for Ramadan, akin to our Christmas decorations.

Readers may have noticed that I never mentioned having lunch anywhere. That is because we never did, except when we went to an Alexandria. In fact, stopping at the coffeehouse was the only time we stopped for food on any of our other tours. I don’t know if this is always the case, but I know it was easier for a guide during Ramadan. She would also go off to pray at different times, as is required by the Muslim faith.

We continued our tour with a visit to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, the first of its kind in the entire Arab world. The NMEC presents a comprehensive perspective of Egyptian civilization from prehistory to the present day, taking a multidisciplinary, thematic approach designed to highlight Egypt’s tangible and intangible heritage. A museum of a new kind, the NMEC’s main goal is to “share knowledge”  and to offer international visitors a richer and deeper insight into the meaning of Egyptian culture through the ages.

You would think this was a huge museum, but it wasn’t. It was one room with very targeted exhibits, taken from various museums throughout the area. Sort of a “best of” museum. I found it utterly accessible and a brilliant way to share a lot of information in a very concentrated area. We also visited the Mummies Hall and saw a lot of dead kings and pharaohs.

I was excited about our trip to Old Cairo and a chance to tour Coptic Cairo. This location is the site of a now-closed synagogue, where Moses was said to have been found, as well as one of the first Christian churches. We toured the Suspended Church, known as the  “Hanging Church,” dating to the late fourth and early fifth centuries and continued to the Church of St. Sergius, a fifth-century Coptic Church. This basilica was built on the cave in which the Holy Family stayed when they fled to Egypt to escape King Herod and it is considered a place of profound blessing.

I found I had to bite my tongue a bit during this part of the tour (and sometimes mutter) because the nuances of Christian theology do not easily translate with a Muslim guide, but Nahed clearly knew the facts about the space, even if some of the interpretations of the sacraments were off. It was still cool to visit the place where Jesus, Mary and Joseph lived as refugees. It was also the obvious place to get my one keepsake of the trip —  a nativity of the Holy Family sojourning to Egypt made of camel bone.

Our last place to visit was the Papyrus Museum, or as Cindy put it, the Papyrus Museum and Retail Center. It was super cool to learn all about how they make papyrus, and I’m including some photos to show the items that they tried to sell us once the presentation was done.

We returned to the hotel, and said goodbye to Nahed, whose knowledge of Egypt astounded me. She was very confident and sure  of herself, and her love for Egypt and the Muslim faith was palpable, even fervent. She also held an incredibly kind heart and a desire to do good. I left feeling like I had taken a graduate course on Egyptology and the Muslim religion.

After spending some time regrouping, we had a rather unique experience for our evening meal. We went to a seafood restaurant, where I think we were the only people who spoke English. That has been one interesting thing about the trip. Speaking English is not terribly common among a great number of the people, even in tourist areas. When we came in, there was no menu and we were just led to pick out our fish and sort of guess what we were getting for everything else.

The most amusing moment was when we tried to order mint tea at the end of the meal. We wanted hot water with mint, but they came with caffeinated tea. After trying to show them what we meant, they came back with cold water and mint leaves. Clearly, if I ever play charades and the topic is mint tea, I will lose. We finally gave up and returned to our hotel, where we are packing to leave for our cruise in the morning.


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