Friday, May 24, 2013

Old Cairo


Our second day in Cairo was dedicated to more recent history.  Bright and early, we headed for Saladin's Citadel.  The Ayyubid ruler built the fortress around 1180 AD to protect Cairo and Fustat.  It looks like something straight out of a movie about the crusades, appropriately enough.  Inside the walls, the Citadel was impressively large and totally empty. 


The Citadel surrounds a number of buildings, including a small palace that was undergoing restoration.  The grandest building within the walls is the Alabaster Mosque, which looms over the city. The mosque was built by Mohammed Ali in the 1800s.  Napoleon's forces withdrew from Egypt in 1801, leaving a power gap.  The Mamluks and Ottomans were expected rivals, but it was an Albanian, Mohammed Ali, who won out.  In 1811, he wiped out the remaining Mamluk forces by inviting them to dinner and killing them all on the way out.  However, he's best known today for modernizing the country. 


The outside of the Ottoman-style mosque has faded to an oystery golden-tan.  It still manages to shine above the city.  We entered through a courtyard, slipping off our shoes and covering our heads (the mosque is a museum rather than an active site of worship today, but you'll still see people praying).  Nibal pointed out a lovely clock in the courtyard which was a gift from France in 1845 - it has never worked, amusingly enough.  The inside of the mosque was less adorned than I had expected.  Nibal talked about Islam and what being Muslim means for her as an Egyptian woman.  Lis listened intently while I listened for five minutes, then wandered around snapping pictures. 


I'll admit, over the past few years I've grown increasingly intolerant of any religion that seeks to impose its values on those who don't share them.  At home, this sometimes puts me at odds with people I grew up around and respect, but in my own culture, I feel I have a voice, an opinion, and a right to share it.  As a traveler, I'm torn.  I want to understand and be appreciative of the local culture, but at the same time, I can't ignore the issues (such as sexism or homophobia) that sometimes come along as part of that.

Throughout the trip, I noticed the difference in Lis's reactions and my own when confronted with these issues.  I'm much more likely to politely nod or stay quiet if I disagree with something that's a local norm.  Lis is a much better listener, but will then confront any issues head on, arguing her point in a friendly manner.  Lis's style is much better for diplomacy and understanding in general (which is probably why she works in a related field), but there were times when I just had to wander away from a spirited discussion - usually about gender roles in Egypt - knowing neither side would be "converted".


Moving along... next up was Old Cairo.  As we headed into the Coptic Orthodox section of town, we were met by more policemen than I'd seen anywhere so far.  Also, oddly enough, groups of boy scouts.  We headed for the Hanging Church, but were thwarted by a visit from the Coptic Pope.  He rolled up in his motorcade, people crowded round the entrance to the Hanging Church, and Nibal hurried us away to another location.  I was disappointed to miss it. Our bags were checked as we entered the rabbit-like warren leading to the other houses of worship. Two policemen glanced inside Lis's and my bags, while a woman went through Nibal's with her hands, leaving Nibal rather incensed by the connotations.


As we walked, Nibal filled us in a little on the Coptic Pope, which was pretty interesting.  Apparently the last Pope was a John Paul II-type - generally loved by Christians and Muslims alike.  The country (which, to be fair, has changed in the past few years) is still waiting to see how they feel about the new guy.  Stepping inside the Church of Saint Barbara, I found myself surprised at the sense of familiarity I felt.  Even though Coptic Christianity is different from Catholicism or Protestantism, it was a building I understood and recognized. Nibal didn't have as much to say about the churches, but did point out where Christ's story ends for Muslims, being a prophet in their tradition instead of the son of the Abrahamic God.


Next we walked over to Ben Ezra Synagogue, now a museum with pretty yellow walls and basil growing by the door.  It felt familiar as well, but also sad and unused in a country with less than 100 Jewish residents.  On our way out, the caretaker pointed to a donations box.  Finally, we visited the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, which was supposed to have been the stop of the Holy Family on their flight through Egypt.  As Nibal and Lis discussed religion, I sat and watched tourists kiss their fingers and place them on the icons that lined the walls. Church-ed, mosque-d, and synagogue-d out for the day, we headed for the Khan el-Khalili.

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