During the night I found out that the “Blue Nile” riverboat moored nearby (see previous post) was a nightclub which played very loud music into the early hours of the morning. The songs were clearly audible in my hotel; the volume inside the boat must have been deafening. The nightclub, combined with the honking of car horns, the screaming of police sirens and the early morning call to prayers from the nearby mosque all meant that I slept badly. Like New York, Cairo is a city that never sleeps.
In the afternoon I was due to fly to my next destination, Aswan. I would come back to Cairo for a few days at the end of my trip, but today I had to choose which of the city’s attractions to see in a sleep-deprived morning. I opted for Coptic Cairo. The Copts are a minority Christian group and their church – the Coptic Orthodox Church – is one of the oldest branches of Christianity, which legends say was brought to Egypt by St Mark in AD 42. Under the Romans, Christianity eventually became the official religion of the whole empire, and for a while was the main religion of Egypt. The Coptic Church split from the main Christian church in 322 following a disagreement about the exact divine nature of Christ. After the Arab conquest of Egypt in 642, Islam gradually displaced Christianity to leave the Copts as a small minority.
Coptic Cairo is a small enclave of old Cairo which houses many churches, but also the Coptic Museum, a synagogue and a mosque. To get in, you need to pass through a bag check and every hundred metres in the main street, armed police were stationed. Egypt has had a long history of bloody terrorist attacks, and security for any area that draws crowds is always tight.
Once through the security check, it was like entering a different world. The anarchic traffic of Cairo was replaced by one empty central street (cars are not allowed in) and a wonderful calm. I started my visit at the Hanging Church, so called because it was built on top of the gate of an old fortress. The church was originally built around 690AD, though a new façade with two bell towers was added in the 19th Century. It is probably the most famous of Cairo’s churches.
Next, I found the Greek Orthodox Church of St George
And then the Coptic Museum, which I strolled around for about an hour. It had collections of Coptic art, icons and fabrics; the old building it was housed in was as interesting as the collections themselves.
Finally, leading off from the only road, I found a little maze of side alleys, leading to yet more churches and a synagogue. When I arrived, Coptic Cairo had been quiet, but now there were many visitors – some Egyptians on a weekend outing, and some foreign tour groups, which mostly seemed to be Russians.
It was time to move on, and I grabbed an Uber back to my hotel to pick up my bags and then another one to the airport. It was Friday, the first day of the Arab weekend, so everything went very smoothly with no traffic jams. At the airport I was treated to one of the toughest security checks I had ever had – shoes, belt and watch all had to be removed and scanned, and then I was thoroughly “frisked” for concealed weapons in my fur.
The flight flew over endless yellow desert sand, interspersed with a few mountains. Occasionally I caught a glimpse of the blue ribbon of the river Nile lined with bright green vegetation on both banks. I arrived on time in Aswan, a town on the Nile that was the historic boundary between the ancient Egypt of the Pharaohs and the rival Nubian state. The latter enjoyed brief periods of independence but spent most of its history occupied by, or subjugated by, its more powerful southern neighbour. Today, Aswan is also known for the famous Aswan dam.
My guest house was on Elephantine Island, a place only accessible by boat. It has several ancient ruins, one ugly modern hotel, and many small townhouses. Some of these were painted with distinctive Nubian bright patterns of coloured geometric shapes. My guest house was on the other side of the island, and its owner picked me in his motor launch to take me there. It was the first of many times I got to experience the pleasure of sailing on the Nile.
I arrived just in time to have a welcome drink on the roof terrace. The view was beautiful, and the owner pointed out local landmarks like the Mausoleum of the last Aga Khan (head of the Ismaili Muslim sect) and the Monastery of St Simeon. After the chaos of Cairo, it was wonderfully peaceful……if rather chilly after sunset. I was glad of my fur!
I decided to explore the island and see if I could reach the hotel, which had a panoramic terrace and bar in its ugly modern tower. I walked through a maze of twisting and turning small streets with no names…amazed to find that Google Maps could navigate through the area. When I had nearly reached the hotel, someone told me that it was surrounded by a wall and only accessible by special ferry from the main city. Instead I found a restaurant at the river’s edge, and enjoyed a beer watching the lights of Aswan city in the distance and listening to the boats chugging past.
I had dinner back in my guest house, and enjoyed freshly caught Nile perch……..
…… before wrapping myself up in warm blankets in bed.