Muhammed Ali Citadel, Islamic and Coptic Cairo, Nile Cruise

I began my final day in Cairo as I had begun the day before, with a long quiet time with God and a bowl of Raisin Oat Brand cereal. I slept well the night before, which wasn't routine during my stay in Egypt. The intense activity of the day before probably took a lot out of me. Honestly, I think I was still recovering from viewing the Pyramids. It's hard to digest something that incredible; something that has been mystifying and awing people for thousands of years.

I decided to hire Ibrahim for a second day as there was still much to see in Cairo. I met him at the subway station and we proceeded to the famous Mohammed Ali Citadel. On the way to the citadel, we passed through the vast Islamic mausoleums of Cairo. Many Muslims prefer to be "buried" above ground in mausoleums and most cemeteries are of this type. Now, there is at present a population crisis in Cairo. There are currently over 12 million residents of the city of Cairo (depending on which census you trust and whether or not you include the region of Giza) and several more million commute everyday into the city. However, the population density is what makes the situation grave. Mexico City, which is the city with the second highest population in the world, has around 13 million people living on 21,000 sq. Km. However, Cairo has over 7 million people living on 214 sq. Km. (as of 1996 - source: Therefore, the density of people is stifling. So horrible is the problem that there is no place to put all of the people. In an effort for the needs of basic shelter, tens of thousands of poor families have taken over the mausoleums and now sleep in the tombs. They eat their meals and raise their children in amongst the caskets and stone monuments of the deceased. The road to the citadel slowly winded through scores of these "neighborhoods" and on that road I witnessed poverty that broke my heart; crowds and crowds of people, mountains of refuge and garbage, pool after pool of standing water and animal feces, and diseases and pestilences I couldn't think of having to bare.

I was in a somber and "eager-to-be-animated" mood when Ibrahim and I arrived at the Citadel. I was hopeful that the Citadel would be a mood-altering tonic for my woeful heart. It did not disappoint. The Mohammed Ali Citadel (as it is sometimes called) was certainly the mosque that floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. Originally built in 1179 by the legendary Salah el-Din (better known as Saladin) it was added to and reconstructed over the centuries. Under the forceful and assertive Mohammed Ali (not the boxer), the citadel and the city underwent a renaissance in the mid-13th century and became greatly populated. Ali constructed a giant and magnificent Turkish-style mosque on the edifice that today dominates the hillside. The entire citadel is often attributed to him today, although technically only the mosque bears his name.

The exterior of the mosque is alluring and magnificent with two daring spires, which soar heavenward with grace and majesty. The interior is equally impressive. A main dome of distinctly European origin is flanked by four smaller ones, each richly adorned with flowery art, patterned painting, and gold. Initially, the ceiling reminded me of the Basilica de Sam Marco in Venice (although there was little gold in the mosque compared to the basilica). However, the feeling of amazement and awe that I felt there was much like San Marco.

Citadel spires

massive walls and domes

dazzling architecture

intricate details

The chandelier was of particular interest and of particularly Islamic design. It hung very low to the ground, yet was connected high above to the very tops of the temple's ceiling. Seemingly hundreds of wires and chains filled the air holding the structure in place. This proved an annoyance for me as a photographer, but intellectually stimulating for me as a curious student. To further complicate issues, the basketball player in me wanted to jump up and swing on the lighting structures, but I refrained from the temptation.

To enter the main chamber, one had to remove their shoes. This left me barefoot since I was wearing sandals. The thought of what disease fungi were penetrating my feet was troublesome, but I had no choice. Once inside the great dome area, Ibrahim and I sat on the floor in a corner of the mosque and talked. Ibrahim lectured me for well over an hour. Ibrahim explained about the history of the Muslim religion, the history of Cairo, who was Mohammed, where the religion stands today, customs of Islamic societies, the differences between Islam and Christianity, what Muslims believe . . . etc. It was like "Islam 101". I loved every minute of it. I felt as if I had learned so much in that short time.

perfect place for an Islamic Tomahawk

Ibrahim making a point

Golden pulpit

unparalleled craftsmanship

intricate details and designs

After marveling at the mosque's interior, Ibrahim lead me outside to the beautiful terrace that overlooked the city. The view of Cairo was astounding. Cairo is so vast and so dense; buildings and neighborhoods stretch out as far as the eye can see, only disappearing into the hazy horizon or the edge of the desert. On that day, God once again provided a wonderful treat for me. As it was the day before at the Pyramids, it was remarkably clear in the city. In fact, from the Citadel, we could see the Pyramids. Ibrahim commented that in his many years of being a tour guide, that was only the second time that he has ever been able to see the Pyramids from the Citadel.

Cairo in the morning

beautiful mosques are everywhere

After a wonderful, traditional Egyptian lunch at a very clean restaurant that caters to American tourists, Ibrahim took me on a tour of Coptic Cairo. Mohammed only recognized two legitimate religions when he formed Islam: Christianity and Judaism. Islamic culture over the centuries has usually permitted the presence of other religions, provided that they do not try to convert Muslims and that they pay tribute (tributary payments ended some time ago). In Cairo, Christianity has remained despite intense persecution. In fact, Ibrahim told me that his grandfather used to tell him that if there was an 8th Wonder of the World, it would be that there is still Christianity in Egypt.

We toured the "Hanging Church" (el-Moallaqah), which takes its name from the fact that it is built several stories above a street and appears to "hang" there when looked at from the facility. Ibrahim explained the intense symbolism present in many facets of the church. It was fascinating. Since he knows much more than I, I will use his words to describe the significance of the church's interior:

Ibtahim's narration:

""If you look up, you will notice that the church looks exactly like an Ark; the Ark of Noah, because the Ark of Noah was the Salvation place. Every Coptic Orthodox church is designed in this way. . .for symbolism. The church is for salvation. . . to save you from the evils of the world outside"

the Ark of Noah

Salvation from the world

"At the front of the alter, you will see Jesus Christ flanked on each side by His disciples; six on one side and six on the other. Any Coptic Orthodox church must be lifted up on 12 pillars. . . to represent symbolically the 12 disciples."

"Another element in any Coptic Orthodox church is the curtain that covers the door to the Holy of Holies. . . and this curtain must be made out of pink cloth, because it is through the blood of Jesus Christ that you gain Salvation.

"Another thing is the very famous and pretty Coptic cross. It has the writing Alpha and Omega. . . because Jesus said, "I am the beginning and the end" and then abbreviations for a long sentence which means, "Jesus Christ Son of God is our Savior". . . embroidered with Gold threads on the curtain."

The Coptic Orthodox Cross

It is through the blood

"We have always been here : Egyptian Christians. We know who are our forefathers. We have always been here. If I were to visit you and go to your house. . . you keep pictures of your family, you might even kiss the picture. We feel related. Somehow along the line, this man or this woman could be my great grandmother or grandfather. . . who had to give up his or her life for my sake to keep the faith. So as a pure Egyptian Christian, I feel related and I keep in my house pictures of these Saints and in the church we keep the relics. . . and sometimes we have even built tombs to remember them. . . and also for the younger generation to come with their parents and to tell them to learn their faith and learn from their forefathers. . . sometime you may have to be killed to keep your faith."

examining the relics

Coptic priest makes a cameo

I was grateful to learn so much about the Copts and hear and learn about the church from someone as passionate about Ibrahim. Perhaps the most significant piece in the church is the beautifully carved pulpit. The pulpit contains one supporting beam in the front (Christ) and then 6 pairs of supporting beams down the side (the disciples). Each of these beams are carved and chiseled from choice alabaster. Incidentally one of the beams is unlike the others and has been made of dark wood (Judas).

Pulpit beams

carved symbols

Ibrahim also took me through other Coptic areas. We strolled down streets and alleyways and entered churches and marketplaces. I thoroughly enjoyed the history he told me and felt much more at home among these Christians than among the masses of Muslims nearby. Before leaving the area, I purchased a gold necklace pendent of Nefertiti (The most beautiful woman in the ancient world and wife to my favorite pharaoh; Akhenaten) and two statues of Akhenaten from the Old Cairo Bazaar (which is by far the best place to ship in the area - their selection is awesome!)

Ibrahim and I traveled back to my cousin's house via subway and taxi. The Cairo subway is cheap and efficient and is a wonderful way to travel, especially for someone on a budget. When we returned to my cousin's, I reluctantly bid Ibrahim farewell. It is such a shame that I will not be able to spend any more time with him. He was an excellent tour guide, a skilled lecturer, and he also became my good friend.

My relatives and I would spend the evening at Lucille's, where I ate several times during my stay with them. However, we decided to hire a felucca and watch the sunset on a cruise down the Nile River. The weather was perfect and the cruise was very enjoyable. It wasn't long before my head was bobbing as I tried to stay awake. The waves and the wind were so relaxing that I had to consciously try to stay awake. It only cost around $10 for an hour cruise on the Nile, which is absurdly cheap. My felucca adventure turned out being the perfect end to a wonderful stay in Cairo.

the Egyptian Supreme Court

sailing down the Nile

Cityscape before dusk

sparkling on the banks

the reads that carried Moses

sunset of dreams

You may download my Egypt 2001 screensavers at Webshots

Traveling to Luxor
Luxor and Karnak Temples
West Bank of ancient Thebes
Final day in Luxor
First 2 days in Cairo
The Pyramids, Sphinx, and King Tut
Touring Islamic and Coptic Cairo

On to Israel!!!!!


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