Sightseeing in Cairo

December 22, 2011

Dear Family and Friends,

Despite the heavy traffic and the early morning smoke and fog, my group’s day of sightseeing in Cairo included several memorable stops.  The Saladin Citadel.  The Muhammad Ali Mosque.  Virgin Mary Coptic Church.  The Ben Ezra Synagogue.  The Egyptian Museum.  Can you guess which one is my favorite?

<--break->The Citadel of Salah al-Din (Saladin) is imposing and dramatic as it overlooks the skyline of the city.  It was built by the Ayyubid ruler and conqueror in the Twelfth Century.  The Mosque of Muhammad Ali dominates the grounds of the citadel.   Built by Pasha Muhammad Ali in the Nineteenth Century, the enormous Ottoman-Turkish style mosque is reminiscent those in Istanbul and Edirne.

Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church, also known as the Hanging Church, is one of the oldest churches in Cairo.  The church is also known as the Suspended Church since the nave is suspended over an underground passageway.  The altar is made of ebony and inlaid with ivory.  The history of a church on this site dates back to the Third Century CE.

Near the Coptic Church in Old Cairo is the Ben Ezra Synagogue.  According to local tradition, the synagogue is located on the site where the baby Moses was found.  The land for the synagogue was purchased in 882 CE by Abraham ibn Ezra of Jerusalem.  The interior of the synagogue contains everything you would expect to see: a mezuzah, a menorah, a holy ark, and even a balcony for the women. 

The synagogue itself is a converted church.  The Coptic priests needed to sell the church to pay taxes.  Apparently the synagogue was never used since the local Jews were reluctant to pray there.   (My Jewish friends know the old story:  “This one I go to; that one I don’t go to.”)

Photography of the interior of the Ben Ezra synagogue was prohibited, and even if it was permitted to take photos inside the Egyptian Museum, I would have refrained.  Sometimes it is better to pay attention to a wondrous sight without worrying about ambient lighting and lens focus.  

Inside the museum we headed straight to the King Tutankhamun exhibit.  King Tut!  Need I say more?  Yet, Maha, our guide asked us to imagine the unimaginable:

The reign of King Tut was brief.  He died as a very young man.  His importance as a Pharaoh is minimal.  Yet his tomb was filled, filled, filled with a storehouse of bejeweled, golden treasure.  What then, had it not been looted, would have been the burial treasure of a truly important Pharaoh?  Unimaginable!

On a busy street in the heart of Cairo, next to a butcher, our final stop was at one of the oldest shops in town.  A food shop?   Well, really, a fast-food beverage stall.  Not pharaonic.  Quite pedestrian.  Of course, my favorite site of the day! 

Behind the counter, one man forces long stalks of fresh sugar cane through a crushing machine that squeezes all the gurgling juice into a large steel pitcher.   Another man pours the frothy lime-green liquid into tall glasses.  Refreshing!  Energizing!  Delicious!  And not too sweet. 

Still, I was expecting a hyperglycemic shock.  One member of our group, Tharwat Abouraya, an Egyptian-American man explained that the tall cool treat contains only a small amount of sugar – the equivalent of about one sugar cube.  Perhaps I’ll order a refill.  

Cheers from your tall cool friend,  

Always sweet and frothy,


PS Most of our group departs tonight or early tomorrow.  Yours truly departs late tomorrow night.  My new friend, Ralph Velasco, the professional photographer amongst us also has an extra day here in Cairo.  So the two of us hired a car and driver for a day trip to … who knows where?


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