I think people often consider The Sphinx as a bit of an afterthought to the pyramids, and while it’s certainly smaller, it’s every bit as impressive. The Giza Plateau in general is a really beautiful area, and (if you can manage to block out the roaming salesmen) can be surprisingly peaceful if you have the time to just sit down and take it all in…
I’ve been spending a bit of time reminiscing over my trip to Egypt lately; two years ago, and it’s still so vivid in my mind. I know a few other people who’ve visited Egypt, more or less to tick off the big tourist draw cards. Great, seen the Sphinx. Pyramids? Tick. Felucca on the Nile? Yup. I’m not necessarily saying this is a bad thing, or that I wasn’t looking forward to these things as well, but honestly, they’re not the things that stand out in my memory, or the main reasons I wanted to go there. I’ve written a bit before about my reasons for wanting to visit Egypt, but basically I’ve been studying the country’s history and mythology since I was a kid (literally, primary school). I find it all fascinating. And while I was looking forward to the pyramids, Luxor Temple, Abu Simbel, I was really looking forward to the discoveries I hadn’t already read about. The Hanging Church was one of those things.
This place was fascinating on so many levels. It was hidden in plain sight, appearing seemingly out of nowhere. It was built above one of the gates of the old Roman Babylon Fortress, and is actually a Coptic church. It’s a stunning site, with the most beautifully intricate geometric patterns carved into the large wooden doors and windows, like this one..
The inside of the church was just as beautiful as the surrounding structures. Unlike the temples we’d visited so far, this was a church that was actually in use, which made a big difference. There were quite a few worshipers praying at the time we visited, which made for quite a spiritual and solemn experience. It felt real, not just a place set up for tourists with people trying to sell you postcards and tacky souvenirs. It was a humbling way to see the reality of so many Egyptians, to “hear” the silence and to see their history. This was an experience I hoped so much to have in Egypt, and I’m really grateful to have had the opportunity to have seen this church. If you Cairo, make sure you ask your tour guide or hotel concierge about getting there!
It’s hard to believe this was two years ago, almost to the day… Throwback Thursday it is, indeed.
I’ve written a bit over the past year about the life changing time I spent in Egypt back in 2013, but haven’t really yet touched on the fact that we happened to visit in between flare ups of rioting and fighting. The trip had been booked and paid for well in advance, and we weren’t about to cancel it without an extremely good reason. The official travel advisories stated that in the week we were to be there, it would be sufficiently safe; that was good enough for us! We were only in Cairo for a few nights, anyhow, and didn’t think we’d be getting too close to the troubled areas of the city anyway.
Turned out we arrived a day before the rest of our tour companions did, and our brilliant guide Medo had an offer we couldn’t refuse – a private tour of the city. Absolutely; we figured it’d be our only real chance to see it safely. It was a confronting experience, but I’m glad we did it.
The first thing that was blatantly obvious, was that I stood out like an elephant wearing a tutu. I felt like a zoo animal being walked around on a leash for the day. I was covered up, wearing pants, a long sleeved top, closed shoes. I left my hair out to cover my neck and partially hide my face. I wore sunglasses, and all of my tattoos were hidden. I wore no jewellery other than a simple black leather bracelet, a silver necklace chain and my wedding ring, turned around so that the diamonds were in my palm. I did my best to keep myself hidden in plain sight. But I couldn’t hide the fact that I was a lily white Western woman, with freckles and auburn red hair. That made me different enough for unending stares. The strange thing was, they weren’t rude stares; merely inquisitive. I didn’t feel like people were offended by my presence, I just felt like they were very curious about me. Medo put me at ease instantly, letting me know that I was as much a tourist attraction to them as the Nile was to me.
The second thing was the damage that had been caused as we reached Tahrir Square. Windows had been smashed. Buildings had been gutted by fires. Cars upturned. Store front boarded up and spray painted. It was exactly as it had been depicted in the media, yet I still wasn’t ready for it.
Again, Medo urged us not to worry; he explained that the locals understood very well that their livelihoods relied mostly on tourism, and as such, if any rioting was to break out, we could rest assured we’d be left completely untouched and unharmed. The riots were a hell of a lot more organised than we’d been led to believe from the media reporting, too; they were planned and announced, for the most part, in advance. That’s how the news reporters knew where and when to turn up. Hotels also let their guests know when to avoid the square for these pre-planned events. Real life on those streets was far less frightful than the news would have had us believe.
We came from Melbourne to Cairo; “polar opposites” would be the phrase that first comes to mind. Coming from such a safe city, being afraid to leave my house for fear of fighting or rioting is not a notion I have ever had to entertain, not even in my most ridiculous dreams. I’ve never avoided an area in my city for fear of my personal safety. It’s second nature for me to walk around with whoever I want, wearing whatever I want, doing exactly as I please. I know that not everyone has that privileged, yet it’s not something I’ve ever considered myself lucky to have had. I’m glad we weren’t there on the day of a riot, because the aftermath was scary enough for me. But honestly, other than being the unwitting and uncomfortable centre of attention, I felt surprisingly comfortable in Cairo with Medo as our guide. The locals were as curious about me as I was about them, nothing was hidden, it was all put out there for the world to see. Somehow, that’s more comforting. It was an encounter I’ll always remember, and something I’m so glad I had the opportunity to experience.
Pharaohs Hotel, 12 Lotfi Hassouna St. Dokki. Giza Egypt
This was the view from a window in our hotel the morning after we arrived in Egypt. We’d had a very, very long journey to get there, and were woken unexpectedly at the call to prayer in the early hours of the morning. We were exhausted on that first day. Anyway, it wasn’t until the following afternoon that we started to really appreciate our temporary home, our hotel in Cairo. It was fantastic. At first glance, it may not have appeared so; it was just another building amongst the many, many others in the tightly packed city. As you can see, the view isn’t spectacular. But the rooms were clean and comfortable.There were travellers from all countries and walks of life staying there. And, surprisingly, the hotel restaurant was probably the best I’ve ever been to.
Hotels the world over are notorious for housing sub-standard “restaurants” and travellers often avoid them at all costs. After a day of walking the city streets of Cairo with our guide, I was mentally and emotionally exhausted. Despite the warm weather, I was wearing long pants and a long sleeved top, socks and shoes, and left my long hair out to cover my shoulders and shield my face. Every single one of my tattoos was covered up, and I made certain to stay as close as possible to my husband without physically touching him. I believe that when travelling through parts of the world that have a very different culture to the one you are accumstomed to, it is only right to respect their customs. Despite my best, well-meant intentions, I was essentially a zoo animal let out of her cage for the day. A western woman with no veil, auburn red hair, freckles, and very pale skin, walking around with two men. I was stared at; men actually physically stopped in their tracks, halted mid-step to elbow the buddy walking next to them, to stop and stare at me. Even the women and children stopped to watch me walk past. It was beyond bizarre; it was also very confronting. But back to the point of this post.
After an almost full day of that, I was exhausted. We needed dinner, but there was no way I was going back out onto the streets of Cairo at night, without a local to look after us, and so soon after the riots. We decided to eat at the dreaded hotel restaurant.
We picked out a few dishes from the menu, assuming that for the low prices they’d be small portions. That was our first mistake. We got a LOT of food. The falafels were hands down the best I have EVER had, anywhere – I can still remember how crispy and tasty they were! The pile of rice that came with the skewers was enormous, and the tabbouleh was amazing. So was everything, to be honest! Husband also remembers with particular affection the waiter, a lovely gentleman (and I do mean gentleman) who attended to our every whim, waiting far enough away to give us privacy while we dined, but close enough to come running as soon as he saw us run out of beer, water, bread, napkins. We were fortunate enough to be able to eat there a few more times before our time in Egypt was over, and I truly can’t speak highly enough of this place. If you ever visit Cairo, even if you can’t stay in this hotel, do yourself a favour and at least go to have a meal there! It’s one I’ll certainly never forget, and for all the right reasons 🙂