Cairo is one of my favorite cities in the world. It is bustling, colorful, exotic, and just a wonderful mix of old and modern. If you like to people-watch, it is one of the best places ever to be! Greater Cairo, in 2022, is estimated to be home to over 21 million people, about double that of New York City and its boroughs. Cairo is like an anthill — millions of creatures are busily going about their business of survival; everywhere you turn your head to look, you see a dozen different activities taking place. From you car window while sitting in traffic, you can see, for example: men digging a hole alongside the road, construction workers tearing down a building, a man riding a camel, 4 young men riding the same small motorbike, a donkey pulling a cart of produce, stray dogs fighting, a woman selling bread from a board on top of her head, a girl feeding a stray kitten, a cell phone store advertising the latest iPhone, a man in a business suit talking on his phone, and old men in dishdash robes playing checkers and drinking tea.
The mix of old and new in Cairo is most evident in its traffic. Cairo’s traffic is notoriously horrific. On a regular day, it can take hours to travel a distance of 5 miles. The streets that were designed for a much smaller city are clogged with a mixture of cars, trucks, buses, microbuses, taxis, motorcycles, motorized rickshaw-type vehicles AND horses, most with carts, donkeys, and camels. To make things more interesting, pedestrians (including children) frequently dash into the traffic, and stray dogs and sometimes goats or sheep, also obstruct traffic. As far as I can see, no one obeys the traffic laws (if there are any laws). The lane lines on the road, when there are any, are completely disregarded, and vehicles regularly brush side mirrors. All the while, horns are honking. It’s a human form of sonar, I guess; you beep to let someone know you are in their blind spot, to signal you are merging in to the flow of traffic, or just to hurry someone along.
Khan al Khalili is the best souq (marketplace) I have ever been to! It is HUGE, first of all. And it is the perfect example of old meeting modern. The buildings are very old and have been there for maybe centuries. If you pay attention, you can see fabulous examples of magnificent old architecture and workmanship, particularly in things like archways, doors, doorways, and mosaics. At the same time, almost every building has a rickety window air conditioner, and has patched-up leaks or damaged spots with shiny new plastic tarps in neon colors. You can buy almost ANYTHING in Khan al Khalili. Much of the souq is, admittedly, there for tourists. Shops sell everything from T-shirts and refrigerator magnets to replicas of the pyramids or the Sphynx (in plastic, plaster, or marble, depending on your budget), to papyrus paintings, jewelry (like a gold or silver cartouche with your name in hieroglyphics), or even a life-size replica of a Pharaoh’s throne in gold lacquer. You can visit one of the earliest cafe’s where the waiters wear fez’s and brocade jackets, yet prohibit photos (that’s just unreasonable). The tourists come from everywhere: Sub-saharan Africa, Asia, the rest of the Middle East, Europe, and the U.S.
However, the locals also shop the Khan for everyday items such as plastic wash basins, juicers, dishes, table cloths, abayas, dishdashes, plastic sandals, head scarves, hardware,and West-inspired fashion like knock-off Crocs, Sponge Bob pajamas, or Hello Kitty socks. Our friend who gave us a ride to the souq was going there to buy a particular brand of Himalayan pink salt for his diabetic sister.
Cairo also has its modern side. There are very nice 4 and 5 star hotels for tourists and business travelers alike. The Four Seasons on the Nile is a particular gem, housing the Chinese restaurant “8”, but I have stayed at, and visited several other nice hotels and restaurants. Modern Cairo still pays tribute to its ancient roots, with a love for big, bold statues and glitzy decor. We were there in late November and one hotel had even decorated for Christmas.
Check out my later blogs for other Cairo highlights!
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