Last year one of my fellow teachers, who had lived in Cairo for some time, and spoke passable Arabic, offered day tours of old Islamic Cairo to fellow teachers four times during the year. I was lucky enough to join two of these outings and gained a wealth of knowledge about old Cairo in the process. From these outings I got a pretty good lay of the land around the city and ever since those days have been interested in filling in the gaps between the neighborhoods we wandered, with walks of my own. One such walk that has become a favorite, though I take a slightly different route each time, is the area between the Citadel and the old south city gate, the Bab Zouela. The Citadel is the old fortress on the hill overlooking Cairo from which a variety of groups ruled. Into the 1800s the Mamluks ruled or at least influenced Egypt. When Mohamed Ali arrived, appointed by the Ottomans, he invited the Mamluks to the Citadel for talks and when they left, down the sloping exit, bordered by walls on either side (perfect place for an ambush), you guessed it, he took them all out to consolidate his rule. Muhamed Ali then sliced off their heads and hung them out to dry along the Bab Zouela so everyone entering the city could see them. His family, to include King Fouad and Farouk ruled Egypt until Nasser kicked out the British and freed Egypt of foreign rule in 1952. All right. I think most of those facts are straight.
The day is a perfect for a walk as a friend and I start with a taxi from Maadi to the Citadel. It's a good taxi ride because I don't feel like I might die, although the driver keeps asking me where we're going in Arabic; I keep saying Citadel, Mohamed Ali Mosque. He keeps raising both hands looking confused and annoyed. We arrive, me giving him directions as to how to exit the road, all the time him, brow furrowed, still looking peeved, this a bit strange because the mosque, which everyone knows is pretty hard to miss being the most prominent landmark in the city, next to the pyramids of course. The weather is clearer than I've seen on my numerous Citadel trips and the view of city and distant pyramids is full of detail. After taking in the Mohamed Ali mosque and green domed Mamluk mosque we head out and down the hill through the minibus depot, past marble cutters and bronze casters to the mosques of Sultan Hassan and Al Rafa'i. Al Rafa'i is the resting place of King Farouk, and for a while was the resting place of the Shah of Iran, though I'm fuzzy on whether he's still there or not. After these mosques we set off for the neighborhoods that lead to the Bab Zouela and the old main street of Cairo.
Some blocks below the mosques, about the time we reach the 12 year old kid driving a donkey cart full of natural gas canisters we hang a right and head down the narrow streets of old Cairo, past a multitude of local shops, auto parts, woodworkers, motorcycle repair, food stalls, donkey carts, motor scooters, the occasional car, and a constant curiosity to and welcoming of our presence, "sabah el-kheir, ezzayek," good morning, how are you, "ana kwayyis," good, "Shukran" thank you, where are you form? This is not the Cairo of CNN. The roads fork and twist and I rely on the sun to keep us headed North and West, though ultimately I end us up at the edge of Al Azhar Park where I have to think for a moment as to how to navigate us toward the Khan, knowing I can skirt the park, but will miss walking up through the Bab, which I would rather do, when all of a sudden we are attached to by a local who, taking us for misplaced, asks us where we are going and starts to guide us toward the Bab, "just being helpful" "Morsi is bad, Mubarak was good," his English is good, "there are over five hundred mosques in Cairo" and just like everyone who attaches themselves to you here with no agenda he has a sister in America, Arizona in this case, a doctor and he is just waiting for his visa to go there, he has a small shop, but he doesn't want to sell us anything, however we should accept his hospitality and come for a cup of tea. Arriving at the old main street of Cairo, in sight of the Bab, we thank him for helping us out but he refuses to leave until we sadly, after thanking him multiple times, tell him we are fine from here, need to meet some people soon, and finally, on our own again, walk toward the gate to the city. Within moments we are attached to again. I make the mistake of saying I am from "Amrika." This time the sister is in Alaska, he has six kids to my three, no I'm not interested in having him follow us, we know where we are, he just wants to practice his English, he feigns hurt, I've been here two years, I know better, a pointed "ma salaama, good bye.
The old narrow street is packed with locals. From the Bab we walk North past the house in which Napoleon lived with his Egyptian mistress, the wife of a local general, while occupying Egypt, past an old cistern, cotton exchange, more shops full of "ornate" bedding and clothing, Sponge Bob is big here, more mosques, and finally to the main street that leads to the Khan al Khalili. We wade across the traffic clogged artery. Until recently there was a pedestrian bridge across this street. It was taken down after being deemed unsafe, and the pieces stacked by the side of the road while the authorities decided what to do with it. While they debated someone came along and stole it. Headline, "Bridge Stolen." I've heard other such stories.
After lunch at the Khan we don our chain mail and brave our way through the alleys of the market to a continual, "welcome to my shop, very good price," find some beach bags for Kim's nieces, continue to bump and press through the sea of merchants and locals until we find our way to the Ataba Metro Station, pay our 14 cent (each) entrance fee and take the train back to Maadi.
Check out the gallery: Day to Day Cairo: Citadel to Khan on foot.