City of Marvels

From Memphis to Mongol invasions, medieval markets and modern luxury, Belinda Jackson returns to explore Egypt’s thriving capital, Cairo
June 2018

It’s dusk and the great African sun sinks down over Cairo’s skyline of turrets, domes, skyscrapers and minarets. The blood-red sphere hits the broad sweep of the River Nile and suddenly, this great, gritty city of 20 million turns to gold, as the voices of a hundred muezzins call the faithful to prayer.

The sunset splashes through the windows of my spacious room on the 12th floor of the Nile Ritz-Carlton Cairo. Surely occupying some of the best real estate in town, the landmark five-star hotel was in a former life the Nile Hilton, and the top choice for society weddings and gatherings of heads of state. Today, the glamour has been restored and the famous mosaics of Pharaonic Egypt are still in the lobby, the ideal backdrop for an “I’m in Egypt!” snap. 

The Nile flows broad and deep on one side of the riverfront hotel, while the incongruously pink Egyptian Museum sits on the other. It’s said only a tenth of the treasure trove’s riches are on display: the rest sit in vaults awaiting the eventual opening of the new Grand Egyptian Museum near the Pyramids of Giza – currently slated for late 2018. 

Turning on its lavish charm, the Ritz-Carlton sits on Tahrir Square. Six years ago, the square hit the world’s headlines as the epicentre of the Arab Spring, the populous uprising that saw Egypt depose its iron general, Hosni Mubarak, who’d ruled the country or 30 years. Today, neat gardens are watered and gently  lipped, the museum has been spruced up, the construction hoardings are down and the square is looking its best in decades. 

It’s time to return to Egypt: the luxury market has dusted off its feluccas (sailboats) and gellibayas (swishy robes), and while the mass tourism crowds are down, it means rare, unfettered access to the world’s oldest tourism sights. 

To follow the Nile is to trace a line of Egypt’s ancient metropolises, from the Mediterranean city of Alexandria in the north, then south to Luxor and Aswan and all the way to the border with Sudan, where the mysterious Abu Simbel casts its gaze over hundreds of miles of desert and the vast, still, man-made Lake Nasser, which flooded the lands of Nubia just a few short decades ago. But it always starts with Cairo, in Arabic Al-Qahirah, the Victorious City.

Sure, the pollution is ridiculous, the noise intense, and you can stick out your finger and poke the energy that makes this city vibrate. But to skimp on Cairo is to miss one of the ancient country’s greatest treasures. 

While gleaming luxury shopping malls ring the ever-expanding megalopolis, medieval stone walls cast their hulking arms around the old city, guarding and protecting as they’ve been doing for more than a millennia. The 11th century gates (babs) of Bab al-Futah to the north and Bab Zuweila in the south have repelled Mongols and Mamluks, and inside the wall’s grasp, the busyness of business prevails, as gold souqs and donkey-drawn tomato carts vie for customers with equal vigour. 

The traders of Khan al-Khalili have been plying their wares here for six centuries, overlooked by the minarets of mosques, universities and palaces. It’s still a meeting place for locals and tourists from the villages of the Nile Delta, the oases in the west and the historic cities and rich farmlands of Upper Egypt, to shop for spices and scents. 

Incense and perfumes compete with the fragrance of cardamomlaced coffee and the plumes of apple-tinged smoke pouring from the shisha pipes lined up along the renowned El Fishawy café, which it says hasn’t once closed its front door since it opened a few centuries ago. With my guide Lamia, we shop for traditionally printed fabrics, leather bags and admire glorious, Arabian-style lamps, all handmade in the tiny workshops behind the stalls by generations of craftsmen. 

On the edge of the city, the story is far older: the Pyramids of Giza continue to hold court since their construction 2,500 years ago, shimmering in the desert heat. The last of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, their story is as famous as their silhouettes. Yet 20km down the plains and another 2,000 years into the depths of Egypt’s rich past, the step pyramid and resting place of the Pharaoh Djozer waits for its share of adulation from the few tourists who come to see the world’s oldest stone building in the Saqqara necropolis. Nearby, in Memphis, the ancient capital of the Old Kingdom of Egypt, we pay homage to Ramesses II. An 11-metre, red granite colossus lies here in state, the image of a king and a god who still dominates the country, 3,200 years after he passed into the next life. 

He himself is not here, on the outskirts of Cairo. His tomb is in the Valley of the Kings, on Luxor’s West Bank. It’s a tussle as to who’s the biggest celebrity: the master storyteller Ramesses II, with his many alleged war victories, even more wives and 200-odd children, or his neighbour in eternity, the socalled boy king Tutankhamun, whose solid gold death mask has pride of place in the Egyptian Museum. There’s a saying that if you drink from the Nile, you’ll always return to Cairo. Does that count for drinking beside the Nile? My journey has ended with icy, mint drinks in the Ritz-Carlton’s garden restaurant, Bab el Sharq, which translates poetically as Gate to the East, and looks over to the museum.

Admiring the confection of neoclassic architecture, I toast the city of marvels, and glasses are raised to Cairo’s past and its future.

For more information regarding A&K's journeys to Egypt, click here.