I first saw Cairo in 1961. Imagine two tender, blue-eyed girls from a small town who had yet to read the Alexandria Quartet. At least one of us had a cultural level that reached (and perhaps stayed at) Sigmund Romberg’s operetta The Desert Song. That said, we were aware that the city would be unlike anything in Europe. Sadly, we were a few years too late to enjoy the famed Shepheard Hotel that attracted so many historic international figures—socialites, politicians, soldiers, spies—but the new Shepheard’s was almost as wonderful and paid due tribute to its past.
We had arrangements in Cairo for a local guide for several days. I remember Suleiman well. He said his father was the mayor of Heliopolis, an upper class part of Cairo. Did I believe him? Sure, why not? He was an educated man, several cuts above the throngs of would-be guides clamouring for attention outside the hotel. The souvenir hawkers, ready to pounce at every step, respectfully backed off from Suleiman’s stern wave. One place he wanted us to see (my pre-genealogy days) was Cairo’s Necropolis area where I had my first sight of above-ground tombs. We walked a few streets to see some of the vaults occupied by relatives visiting their ancestors. Culture shock. The Necropolis is a large city in itself with plenty of foot traffic and architectural wonders. Rich and poor memorials jumble together, places where family visitation was a regular social custom.
Cairo, Necropolis, photograph at World Wisdom (http://www.worldwisdom.com/public/eproducts/wallpapers.aspx?ID=15&Type=I : accessed 2 October 2009).
Aside: Today, well over a million homeless Cairo people live more or less permanently and conduct their business in that same city of the dead. The mausoleums provide desperately needed living space. Smoke and smells from cooking fires add to the “living tomb” phenomenon. Now, I doubt many inhabitants are related to the deceased whose hospitality they receive. The site is not featured on most tourist agendas these days.
Suleiman took us to Giza to see the Sphinx and the Pyramids. In my recall, the place was a rather quiet, sandy village with little in the way of visitor comforts. To be expected, some vendors and entrepreneurs were present at the ancient sites to offer souvenirs and camel rides. We carefully climbed the steep tunnel into the Great Pyramid, as instructed. A claustrophobic tunnel with light bulbs here and there; no steps, just wooden cross-slats to keep you from slipping backward. The constricted height only allowed a bent-over, semi-crawl position. We emerged into a central burial chamber to gaze, with some irony, on an empty room. Whatever sarcophagus or paraphernalia it once contained had long ago been removed. I don’t remember if we retreated the same way we came in. Certainly there was no room in the tunnel for ascending and descending at the same time.
Aside: Today, the famed site is protected, although urban developments appear to encroach alarmingly in places. Giza is a much larger town now, the streets teeming with people, camels, and donkeys. Not to mention tour buses. The presence of a Hard Rock Café was very unnerving! No wonder the local mullah was shouting invective at the infidels. His Friday sermon was blasting from the mosque loudspeakers to a largely oblivious audience of non-Muslim tourists. Our tour leader squirmed with embarrassment when I questioned him about the message.
How could I almost forget to mention my first camel ride. It might appear to have been more of a photo opp, but in the suffocating August heat, a camel was a godsend on the long way between pyramids! Long enough that Suleiman hired a donkey for himself. From the camel’s mouth into my keffiyah ... I’m sure he asked me to come back again. Fickle as I am, I don’t remember his name.
Additional photographs from the collection of BDM.
. . . an occasional series.
© Brenda Dougall Merriman 2009