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  • Writer's picturevsigston

Cairo's hidden gems

Our final day with our guide Reem was also our warmest day in Cairo, the clouds were finally lifting and that blue sky we'd been hoping for was trying to make an appearance.

By this point we were all pretty tired, especially the boys, and so we cut down our schedule a little to make sure we could see the really important stuff without losing anyone along the way!

We started the morning at the Salah Al Din Citadel which is an enormous site comprising great walls of fortification around the central building, the Muhammed Ali Mosque (known locally as the alabaster mosque).

The citadel was completed in 1183 ACE, made to keep the rulers, religious leaders and politicians secure plus give them a good vantage point down over the city. We were shocked to learn that some of the walls and buildings in and around this citadel are built using limestone blocks taken from the Great Pyramids themselves! Our guide was telling us that in times past the pyramids were not hugely respected and people would often take blocks for building materials, they would gauge tunnels into the sides of the tombs and even use dynamite on the site. It's a wonder they survived at all!

The mosque was the thing I really wanted to see though, it's hugely impressive. Built in the early 1800's, it's two huge minarets, along with it's high location make it the most imposing mosque in Cairo. There's a clock in the courtyard that was presented to Egypt by King Louis Philippe of France in 1845 and Reem was telling us how it has never worked because it was damaged as it was lifted into place. Numerous attempts over the years have been made to fix it with no luck but there is a renewed effort happening right now and it would be amazing if they could finally get it working.

Inside the mosque the lights and decoration quite literally take your breath away, and as had happened many times in Cairo I found myself really enjoying the peaceful feeling this religious site gave me.

The boys however had had their fill of history and mostly enjoyed running and climbing in the gardens and walkways outside the mosque itself. Kris and I were worried they'd be disturbing people but we needn't have, the guards and other visitors found it highly amusing watching Dexter try to catch his big brother and even helped show him some short cuts during their game, and, as everywhere in Cairo there were enough stray cats hanging around looking for food and cuddles to keep them occupied while I took my time admiring the building.

From here we headed out to the brand new Museum of Egyptian Civilisation. Fully opened in April 2021 this is a flagship building for Cairo and one they are super proud of. As a family we'd been fascinated watching Egypt's "Golden Parade" on the internet where they had moved 22 mummies through the city from The Egyptian Museum at Tahrir Square to this new site with much ceremony. I highly recommend watching some snippets of the celebrations on YouTube, the Egyptians certainly know how to honour their ancestors! Reem told us that Egyptian women have a new joke now, that of course Egyptian husbands take their wives out to fancy parties, you just have to wait 4,000 years for the invite!

The museum is so well done, keeping adults, teens and younger kids suitably engaged. The mummies are in their own hall, laid out in age order with plenty of interesting information about the Pharoahs and their families. You can't take photos or have guides with you in this section as, understandably, the curators don't want it taken over with people chatting in groups and instead they keep it dimly lit, quiet and respectful.

As we were exploring the rooms Kris remarked that, in some way being displayed in this way was the eternal life that these people had so craved. They are remembered, we know their names, we know how they lived their lives, even though anyone who knew them before death is long gone. Eternal afterlife, just not at all as they had imagined.

The rest of the museum is bright and easy to navigate. Showing the evolution of civilisation in Egypt from prehistory to modern day and there were some real gems to be found in the exhibits. Lots of space to move around and plenty of interactive displays make this a real family friendly space.

There is the obligatory over priced cafe on site and we did stop for a coffee and juice, it was nice to be off our feet for a while. The cafe is positioned to look down over a stunning natural lake called Ain Al Seera, which, in past generations was believed to have healing properties and would attract people from miles around to bathe in its waters. Until recently though the lake had been horribly polluted and abandoned. In fact the whole area around the new museum had been a place of real poverty and troubles. The government is working hard to turn things around here and the beauty of the lake now is a real testament to that. I just hope that the money that will inevitably come into the area as things continue to improve makes it way down to the people who call this place home.

From the museum we ventured further into Old Cairo (the area known as the Coptic City) to find The Hanging and Cavern Churches. As you arrive in this part of town you get a real sense of being somewhere "different".

The streets are much smaller and the buildings much older. We were glad to have Reem with us to guide us through the maze of small roads and alleyways, there were even streets we walked down that had newer roads built over the top of them. But luckily the originals have been preserved and you really do feel like you are stepping back in time.

The Hanging church (Al-Moallaqa) was constructed over the top of an old Roman Fort and there are places where you can see the new and old fitted together in real harmony. As well as being suspended over the fortress (using palm tree logs and stones to create a foundation) it is also unique in having a wooden roof in the shape of Noah’s ark. Jam packed with wooden screens decorated with ebony and ivory and over 100 icons (devotional paintings of Christ and his stories), it was good to have Reem with us to make sure we didn't miss anything.

I was so struck by how different the figures in the paintings looked compared to the images I had grown up with in a Church of England school in the south east of England. They were warmer somehow, with bigger eyes and softer features. In Kefalonia I had started to read parts of the Quran in an effort to try and understand the religious beliefs of this country we'd be spending time in, and this visit fuelled my desire to learn more about all religions.

Our last monument, The Cavern Church (as the name suggests) has rooms deep under the ground. It's official name is the Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church but it's also known as Abu Serga.

As well as being one of the oldest Coptic Churches in Cairo it is most well known because of room built within a cave where, if you a believer of the stories, Mary, Joseph and Jesus stayed when they arrived in Egypt after fleeing Palestine. It felt quite humbling to be in a place associated with, arguably, the most famous story of all time and although by this point in the day both boys had pretty much switched off from listening I did make sure that they both heard the importance of where we were standing.

Leaving the church and making our way back up the old city streets I felt emotionally exhausted, we'd seen so much in our 4 days here and I couldn't help but think about all the people who had walked these streets before us and those who would come afterwards.

Reem had arranged for us to have a late lunch in the old part of town and here we rested our weary feet, ate some delicious Kushari (koshari), which is a traditional Egyptian dish of pasta, rice and lentils served with a spicy tomato sauce, fried onions and chickpeas and watched the world go by.

None of us can remember any of the day after that, other than saying our goodbyes to Reem, it's as if we filled our brains to full capacity and then had to sleep to reset! Whatever we did that last full day in Cairo was certainly one we'll remember for a long time. Next we'd be moving on and following the Nile down to Luxor and so much more adventure to come.

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