One of my wife’s friends, a straight-laced, Washington-based reporter, recently passed through Cairo and told her – at length – what a ghastly experience it had been. I listened to his comments amid the booming bustle of downtown Midan Talaat Harb, in my sixth-floor, £6-a-night hotel room, coming to the end of a wonderful month in Egypt, and I couldn’t help it: I wanted to wring the man’s neck. He had maligned one of my favourite places on the planet.
Of course, Cairo is over the top. It is overwhelming, suffocating, intoxicating. It is squalid, august, monumentally inspiring, deeply depressing. Cairo invites extreme reactions. And in this, there is nothing new. There is nothing new in reactions to the Mother of Cities, capital city of Oum al Dounia, the Mother of the World, a place that has been collecting travellers’ superlatives for more than 1,000 years.
Consider the effect the city had on Ibn Khaldun, the pre-eminent 14th-century Arab historian, a man by no means given to exaggeration. “What one can imagine always surpasses what one sees, because of the scope of the imagination – except Cairo, because it surpasses anything one can imagine.”
Such size and capacity are virtually beyond belief. Cairo seemed vastly incomprehensible when I first visited in 1988 on a partially doomed bid to learn Arabic. You can explore the city for days at a time and still see only an infinitesimally small fraction of its lazy grandeur. You can wander through Islamic Cairo and you will soon tire of fending off requests for baksheesh from guileful caretakers. You will start to believe you have metamorphosed into a baksheesh ATM and take as much pleasure from simple street scenes that strike you as madly medieval as from the formal monuments strung along Sharia al Muizz, a maelstrom of mosques, minarets and dusty domes.
For three miles, this wonderful street snakes through the city, tracing its serpentine path from Bab Zuwayla to the northern gate of Bab al Futuh. Once the primary axis of Fatimid Cairo, today it is a free, scruffy, occasionally filthy open-air museum with some of the most exquisite pearls of Islamic architecture. You could happily spend half a morning in the madrassah and khanqa of Sultan Barquq, announced by a serene octagonal minaret rising above an inflated dome, a complex of religious college and hostel for Sufi travellers, where the mind is lulled into quiet contemplation a stone’s throw from the boisterous streets.
And yet this is just one of an apparently endless series of monuments amid a vista dominated by noble facades and portals, alternately slender and fortress-like minarets lancing into the skyline. Across the street – blink and you’ll miss it – is one of the best-preserved palaces, the Qasr Bashtak, with dripping stalactites and splendid mashrabiya windows.
A little further north is the incomparable mosque of al Aqmar, literally “the moonlit”, a 12th-century monument whose small yet stately facade is as magnificent as the evocative name suggests. Built by the Fatimid vizier, it represents a seminal moment for Cairene architecture, remarkable, among other things, for having the first carved stone facade in the city. There are so many royal buildings here on Sharia al Muizz that a section of it was once known simply as Bayn al Qasrayn, “between the palaces”, a name that the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz used for the first book of his celebrated Cairo trilogy, Palace Walk, as fine a literary companion to the city as you’ll find.
Then, still on the same street, there’s the mighty mosque of al Hakim, the princely madrassah, mausoleum and mosque of Qalawun, the Sabil Kuttab, squat Bab al Futuh itself, the 11th-
century Gate of Conquest. Why even bother with the stultifying Egyptian Museum, you might start to wonder, lost among all this splendour?
Yet, lured by the shining treasures of Tutankhamun (and of Ramses II, Amenhotep III, beautiful Nefertiti, heretical Akkhenaten), you will make the pilgrimage to the polluted mess that is Midan Tahrir and traipse along the museum’s superannuated galleries. With the roving imagination of which Ibn Khaldun spoke, you will lose yourself in admiration for Cairo, for Egypt, for the history of the world. You will appreciate the wisdom of Lady Duff Gordon’s observation in the 19th century that “this country is a palimpsest in which the Bible is written over Herodotus, and the Koran over that”.
You may even, because most visitors do, make the obligatory journey to the pyramids, to be importuned by men offering camels, horses, photos, papyrus, never-before- seen tombs and lost treasures, companions to make your nights less lonely. If you can, you will shut out the extraneous noise and clutter and maybe you will be less bouleversé by the size of the pyramids than by the simplicity of their perfection, seen to the most sublime effect in the granite darkness of the Grand Gallery of the pyramid of Giza and its ultimate destination, the blank King’s Chamber, which some Egyptians consider the height of boredom and many visitors find exceptionally moving.
Some of these visitors take their pyramidal pilgrimages very seriously indeed, delving deep inside the chambers – and their consciousness, apparently – after midnight, their passage assisted with large wads of dollars. You’ll stay here a while, trying to survey this vast city in peace and then, when all the guides and touts and horsemen and pedlars and camel-drivers and pimps have raised your blood pressure beyond comfortable levels, you high-tail it back to medieval Cairo and plot a visit to the City of the Dead or the Citadel, Khan el Khalili, ibn Tulun Mosque, al Azhar, Coptic Cairo or the Islamic Museum – the Mother of Cities is inexhaustible.
Justin Marozzi was a guest of London-based Cox & Kings