Yesterday afternoon we reached Cairo from Luxor.
We first went to the Citadel – one of the largest fortresses in this part of the world built on a plateau that has a beautiful view of Cairo.
The fortress was built by Saladin, one of the greatest Islamic kings around 1176 AD to protect Cairo from the crusaders. During his time he also built a 3 mile long aquaduct to the Nile to supply the fortress with water.
Later the Mohammed Ali family built a palace here (which has been completely damaged by a fire). Mohamed Ali also built a beautiful mosque completely made of Alabaster – a marble like stone which has been used since the pharaonic times. The fountain in the courtyard of the mosque currently not in use is connected to the Nile aquaduct.
Then we went to the Church of St. Sergius (Abu Serga in Arabic) – this is the oldest church built in the 4th century AD in honor of the roman Sergius who followed christianity even before Rome converted. Of course, all of you must know that all of Rome converted only in 395 AD when Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity as the official religion starting the Roman catholic order.
At this point, we learnt some very interesting history lessons from our guide. First, we went to the back of the church to see a stairway leading down below to a small room. It is believed that Virgin Mary and Jesus have visited the room below and stayed for 12 days. Jerusalem is not that far from Cairo, so it is possible for this to have happened. Coptic Church as the church in Egypt is called predates the catholic church. Our guide told us that by 395 AD all of Egypt was christian but they couldn’t proclaim their religion because the Romans persecuted the early christians. They became free to practice christianity openly only after Constantine’s embrace of the faith. This was the first chuch built by the coptic christians.
Then we went to the Ben Ezra synagogue – one of the oldest jewish temples and the only one still open, although there are fewer than 50 jews left still in Egypt. Ben Ezra, a wealthy man, bought a old church and refashioned it as a Jewish temple. His tomb is also inside the temple.
Interestingly, it is believed that the temple is at the original site where tjhe basket bearing infant Moses was found by his foster mother – the pharoah’s daughter!
That covered two of the holiest of holy sites of christianity and judaism.
Then we visited the Roman towers built by Trijian in 98 AD. A church has been built over one portion of these towers and is called the Hanging Church because it has no under structure. We visited the church and in a couple of spots on the floor they have laid some glass for you to see a vast space below most of it empty with the Roman towers below giving it a sense of hanging in the air and hence the name.
Our history lesson continued – by 641 AD a full 20 years after the founding of Islam by Prophet Mohammed, Amr Ibn Ilas conquers Egypt for Islam – a mosque built then still survives. In the next few decades 85 percent of Egypt converts to Islam with the remainder still adhering to Christianity. That ratio 85:15 of muslims to christians holds to this day in Egypt.
From an anthropology perspective, we found it very interesting to note that a group of people had switched from one monotheistic religion Christianity to another Monotheistic religion Islam. Usually, people switch from a pantheistic religion such as the Pharoanic religion to a monotheistic one. Wonder if there are such enmasse conversions elsewhere in human history from one monotheistic to another monotheistic religion?
Then we went back to our hotel, took some rest and then did a short walk around the hotel, had coffee at a small restaurant, bought some souvenirs and went back to the hotel.
Cairo reminds us of any large city in North India – lots of chaotic traffic, liberal doses of grime and garbage. People are very friendly.
On the political front (Joe’s question) – people don’t seem to like Mubarak. Take this with a pinch of salt because we spoke to only our guides and tour manager. It appears Mubarak is pushing his son Gamal to the center stage (sounds familiar, eh!).
Women can’t enter the police force or military or become judges. Mubarak is not doing much to improve the economy – perception here. Elections seem to be gamed to favor Mubarak.
The economy’s main engines are the incomes from Suez Canal operations (masterfully nationalized by Nasser), Tourism and Oil Exports. Gas is quite cheap here – approx 1 USD per gallon.
We are told that it is hard for women to find jobs. Given the general moderate nature of Egypt, we were wondering why no one has thought of using Egypt as the BPO back office of the Arab world.
More to come….