By around 8 AM, quite early by my standards (especially for a weekend), I started out towards the ancient Christian quarter of the city called Coptic Cairo. I set out to walk all the way to the Tahrir Square Metro station ……on the way, stopping by the Corniche to click a few pictures of the magestic Nile gleaming under the golden rays of the morning sun!
But one of the problems I always faced while travelling alone was getting my picture taken on my camera, as it would invariably be difficult to find a reliable person around to click it for me ……At the big tourist spots, it wouldn’t have been too much of a problem – for there would always be enough camera-savvy tourists around to do me the favour…. but out here by the Corniche that September morning, there were none ! The picturesque view in the background was so beautiful that I couldn’t afford to miss getting photographed with it.
I looked around ……..in the distance there was an old Egyptian man approaching ……He didn’t quite look like the ideal candidate, but I had no other go……I went up to him and in sign language explained to him that I wanted him to click a picture for me ….He nodded his head !
That was half the job done, now for the tougher part ! I instructed him to how to look through the LCD display and click the button…….he nodded his head again, in confidence …..Quick learner, I must say !
I went back and struck a pose ……..He clicked !
And that was the most AMAZING picture of my left foot that had ever been shot !!!
At the Tahrir Metro station, I took one of the south-bound metros and got down at the Mar Girgis station. From the station platforms itself, I could see portions of the tall ancient towers, that were once part of a Roman fort.
I got out of the station and stepped into Coptic Cairo – one of the oldest parts of the city ! It was truly as if I had been instantly transported back in time……quite a far cry from the rest of Cairo that I had seen. This place was remarkably calm and serene, and had such an ancient feel to it ….. but at the same time, was very well preserved and very much functional. The streets were narrow and cobble-stoned.
There were ancient churces all over. Every single structure around had a huge history associated with it. It was truly an archaeologist’s gold-mine !
I started with the Hanging Church, that was just down the street. This was one of the most famous and among the oldest of Coptic churches.
The Copts are a sect of Christianity, local to Egypt, but almost as old as the religion itself. This Church is called Al-Muallaqa (or ‘Hanging’) because it was built on the edge of the remains of an ancient Roman fort. It dates back to the end of the 3rd Century A.D, but some historians believe that it was built earlier, and it might have been a pagan Roman Temple that was later converted into a Church !
The architecture of the church was amazing, the walls and the ceilings – extremely ornate ! There were marvellous paintings and murals adorning the walls, just like any European church.
That morning, there were lots of local worshippers around and a service was in progress as I entered the inner chambers. I quietly stood in a corner and witnessed the whole event.
The chamber was candle-lit, and the choir being played presented a very poignant backdrop to the stunning ambience ! The Copts seemed to be a beautiful race, and looked distinctly different from their fellow Egyptians. Their costumes were different too, with the men adorning traditional suits and the women, floral frocks …….. sort of the like the Anglo-Indians back in India !
I came out of the church and walked down the street, passing by the ruins of the ancient Roman fortresses, into a few more churches ……each of them extremely beautiful and ornate. There was the Mar Girgius (St.George) church , the Coptic Cemetery, the Abu Serga Church ……..
Now what is special about this church is that below it is a crypt, which is believed to be the place where the Holy Family – Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus, lived for a while during their exile into Egypt, when the ruler of Jerusalem had ordered that the first born of every family be killed ! The exact spot was marked by a board written in French ……Thanks to my French classes at the Alliance Francaise back in Bangalore a few months back, I could comprehend what was written 🙂
There also was a well in the crypt, which is where the virgin Mary is supposed to have drawn water from !
Truly amazing !
By now, the day was starting to get warmer…….I walked around and explored the many narrow, winding streets of Coptic Cairo….
Nothing much had changed here since the times Jesus is believed to have walked around this place ! The architecture was the same, the houses would have been the same and the streets – not different at all ! There were Copts still living in these small ancient houses, and little kids were playing around in the court-yards.
I quickly visited the many smaller churches around, and finally came to a large souvenir shop that was thronging with western tourists.
As I entered inside, I couldn’t help being enchanted by the huge collection of artefacts being displayed for sale ! The shop was big …….sort of like a super-market of treasures ………and it was being manned entirely by young Coptic girls !
As I stood around, aimlessly examining the many collections on the racks, a Coptic girl came forward and offered to help me out. I thanked her and politely told her that I was ‘just looking around’ [ euphemism for ‘I am not going to spend a single penny here, so you might as well save your time and energy on some other potential customer !’ ].
But being the determined sales-person that she was, she still accompanied me from one desk to another and explained about the various artefacts that were on display. Finally she led me to a deck containing a set of sparkling pendants and necklaces !
Out of the blue, she asked me ……..
“Do you have a mother or a girl-friend ???” ………. [ Boy, the Egyptians never cease to surprise me !!! But frankly, I had heard similar questions before, from the touts at the Pyramids ….who had wanted to sell me souvenirs for the girl-friend I didn’t have !!!]
“Yeah, I have a mother …..”, I replied to her [ how else, did she imagine I came into this earth ? Drove-in from Neptune in a BMTC bus ??? ]
…… “but no girl-friend !!!”, I continued.
“Why ?????”, she asked trying to seem genuinely concerned .
“Well…..thats a big story !” , I replied, but as her eyes continued to probe, I gave her the classic reply, “Ok…I just didn’t find the right girl !”
“Then what about me ?”, she asked satirically.
I was taken aback ……..
[ Had this been good ol’ Kuwait, I’d have asked her how many oil-wells she had ! but this was Egypt …there ain’t any oil-wells here 🙂 ]
“Oh, are u available ?”, I joked ………Both of us knew that all she wanted was to sell me those pendants and strictly meant business……and with yesterday’s experience at the Pyramids, I knew the better of Egyptian women to trust them .
…….After all, this was the land of Cleopatra. When Julius Caesar came in to Egypt to invade it, she had seduced him and subsequently bore a child with him! Now, who apart from a manipulative woman could have done that ??? [ Not the child-bearing part ….that of course, is their prerogative ! But the act of ‘sleeping with the enemy’ to one’s advantage ! ]
In fact, later she had even taken their son Ptolemy to Rome to ask Caesar to name him as his heir, which apparenty didn’t happen, thanks to the intervention of Caesar’s Roman wives.
That didn’t end there ……..Interestingly, after Caesar’s death, Cleopatra had managed to seduce his General, Markus Antonius – known to the English speaking world as ‘Marc Antony’ …..Such is the weakness of man, that Antony defected from the Roman side and joined hands with Cleopatra against the very man he had fought alongside a while earlier – one Mr.Octavian, who later went on to be the Emperor Augustus Casear….. Antony and Octavian had earlier battled against the armies led by Brutus and Cassius – the purpoted murderers of Caesar ……and ultimately avenged Caesar’s death !
But now Antony turned against his own countrymen and fought alongside the Egyptians in protecting Cleopatra’s empire against Augustus Caesar ….sadly the ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ saga did not enjoy a typical ‘Mills and Boons’ ending ! Instead, their armies were completely routed by the Romans……Cleopatra committed suicide, followed by Marc Antony too, who took the nasty step by diving onto his sword. Ptolemy Caesar – Cleopatra’s son and the only established son of Julius Caesar was mercilessly killed, thus quashing any possibility of a claim to the Roman throne !
Ok ….so the Moral of the story is “never trust Egytpian women ( however beautiful they are !)” ….Though its been several milleniums since then, I’m sure there is atleast an ml of Cleopatra’s blood flowing somewhere within the veins of every Egyptian gal 🙂
I excused myself from the shop, telling her that I’ll be back ….and quickly headed for the inner segments of the Coptic town.
I soon realized that the tourist police – in their neat white uniforms and huge guns were omnipresent across Coptic Cairo…..not surprising, considering the Copts were a minority community within Egypt’s predominantly Arab society.
As I walked around the maze-like, winding streets, I finally reached a place where a few Tourist Cops were standing guard. There was a narrow gate to their right, but not wanting to take the chance, I turned back and decided to leave.
“Hey India …!!!”, shouted out one of the cops…..
[Ok, I guess that would have got to be me ! ]
I turned around and looked at him. He pointed towards the gateway and said “More …..”
I thanked him and followed his advice. The gateway led into more narrow cobble-stoned pathways…ultimately at the end was a very ancient building ….There were more tourist policemen there at the entrance to the building …A small board said that it was the Ben Ezra Synagogue !!! I was instantly excited and at the same time, quite surprised ! [ After about half a dozen wars with Israel in as many decades, and being largely constituting of Arabs (thus anti-Jewish) , I was amazed that this Synagogue actually still existed here in Egypt ! ]
I’d always wanted to see the inside of a Synagogue ! All my life, I had visited countless temples, quite a few churces, a couple of Mosques …… but never before had I ever entered a Synagogue !
[ Closer home, there is a famous ancient Synagogue in Cochin, Kerala……but whenever I’d been there to the historic Jew Town area, it coincidentally had to be exactly on the one day of the week that the Synagogue is closed to public 😦 ]
The Ben Ezra Synagogue was small but magnificent ! I overheard a guide telling some Western Tourists that according to local legend, it was somewhere near this spot that the baby Moses was found floating in a basket, by the queen ! Though the Nile is a about a dozen kilometres away, it is widely accepted that it had changed its course over the centuries and back then, the area of Coptic Cairo had been on the banks of this holy river.
In all, Coptic Cairo was much more than what I could ask for ! …….. I had never expected it to be so interesting and fascinating ! In fact, frankly, I liked this place more than the more popular Pyramids of Giza !
As I had some more time on my cards, I decided to go back into the Hanging Church and photograph the altar (which I couldn’t do earlier this morning, as the prayer services had been going on when I went there)
As I entered the church, I noticed a western couple seated on a bench outside the chamber, who seemed to be more interested in each other, than the historic surroundings they happened to be amidst! Now given the circumstances, I knew that there could just be one couple who would do that, and my guess wasn’t wrong at all……
It was indeed Tanner and Amanda – the couple I had met inside the inner-most chamber of the Pyramid of Cheops yesterday, at Giza !!! [ refer to my earlier post ‘The Great Pyramids‘ ]
They instantly recognised me too ! We sat down and chatted for a while…….. we discussed about our respective jobs, our homelands……They hadn’t heard about Bangalore, and Amanda asked me if it was a ‘Touristy’ place or strictly a ‘Work’ kinda place. I explained that once upon a time it was more of the former, but sadly now was in the latter category. They were interested in visiting India sometime, and wanted to know about the kinds of places to see there ….
[ By the manner in which they’ve been ‘seeing around’ Egypt, I knew that they were quite capable of travelling all the way to Agra and not look at the Taj Mahal at all !!!]
We took a couple of snaps, exchanged business cards and split up.
It was just a little past noon, so I decided to visit the areas of Islamic Cairo as well, and headed towards the metro station.