The twin streams of Egypt’s history converge just below the Delta at Cairo, where the greatest city in the Islamic world sprawls across the Nile towards the Pyramids, those supreme monuments of antiquity. Every visitor to Egypt comes here, to reel at the Pyramids’ baleful mass and the seething immensity of Cairo, with its bazaars, mosques and Citadel and extraordinary Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. It’s impossible, too, not to find yourself carried away by the street life, where medieval trades and customs coexist with a modern, cosmopolitan mix of Arab, African and European influences.
Egyptians have two names for the city, one ancient and popular, the other Islamic and official. The foremost is Masr, meaning both the capital and the land of Egypt – “Egypt City” – an Ur-city that endlessly renews itself and dominates the nation, an idea rooted in pharaonic civilization. (For Egyptians abroad, “Masr” refers to their homeland; within its borders it means the capital.) Whereas Masr is timeless, the city’s other name, Al-Qahira (The Conqueror), is linked to an event: the Fatimid conquest that made this the capital of an Islamic empire that embraced modern-day Libya, Tunisia, Palestine and Syria. The name is rarely used in everyday speech.
Both archetypes still resonate and in monumental terms are symbolized by two dramatic landmarks: the Pyramids of Giza at the edge of the Western Desert and the great Mosque of Mohammed Ali – the modernizer of Islamic Egypt – which broods atop the Citadel. Between these two monuments sprawls a vast city, the colour of sand and ashes, of diverse worlds and epochs, and gross inequities. All is subsumed into an organism that somehow thrives in the terminal ward: medieval slums and Art Deco suburbs, garbage-pickers and marbled malls, donkey carts and limos, piousness and “the oaths of men exaggerating in the name of God”. Cairo lives by its own contradictions.
For millions of people the Pyramids epitomize Ancient Egypt: no other monument is so instantly recognized the world over. Yet comparatively few realize that at least 97 pyramids are spread across 70km of desert, from the outskirts of Cairo to the edge of the Fayoum. Most visitors, however, are content to see the great Pyramids of Giza and part of the sprawling necropolis of Saqqara, both easily accessible from Cairo. Only a minority make the effort to visit the ruins of the ancient city of Memphis or the exceptionally rewarding Dahshur pyramid field.
Photo by davidstanleytravel on Flickr