don't want to spend the whole morning at the Citadel, fascinating
though it is. But, still a lot to see here. We leave the
Mosque of Mohammad Ali, the Albanian pasha who emerged from
the Mamluk-Ottoman wrangling and the French occupation,
and subsequently forged the modern state of Egypt. We cross
over to the Gawhara Palace.
European inspired palace was built by Muhammad Ali to replace
what was the residence of the Ottoman governors from the
time of the Mamluk sultans like Qa'it Bay. In fact, it was
here that Muhammad Ali as governor, invited 24 Bays to dinner
and on their way out through the Bab al Azaab had them ambushed
and massacred. Such are the treacherous secrets of the Citadel.
palace's east wing is in ruins but the west wing, Muhammad
Ali's private apartments, can be visited. Crammed with non-descript
19th century European furniture, these rooms contain nothing
of any historical interest except for the portraits of the
descendents and, at the end of the Audience Hall, a mannequin
display of Muhammad Ali in typical clothes of the time seated
on a divan surrounded by petitioners, ministers and the
soldiers of his western style army, the Nizam al-Gadid.
(Normally, that Arabic word would be 'jadid' ('new'), but
becomes unfamiliar because the Egyptians pronounce the 'J'
as the hard 'G'. Elsewhere, Muslims call a performer of
the Hajj as Haji, but in Egypt he is a Hagi; Friday is not
Jumma but Gumma, Jamal is Gamal, Majda is Magda… Sets
my teeth on edge!).
side room is a portrait of Egypt's last and famous King
Faruq with second wife, Nariman who replaced Queen Farida,
the beloved of the public. Farida's criticism of Faruq's
wanton life style and her failure to produce an heir led
to their divorce in 1948. It was an unpopular act with the
Egyptians, worsened by Faruq's honeymoon during the fasting
month of Ramadan. The divorce turned public opinion against
him, and Nariman's son arrived just six months before the
1952 revolution that brought General Nasser to power.
room contains six fragments of the 'Kiswa', (black brocade
drapery used to cover the Ka'ba, Islam's holy landmark and
direction of prayers in Mecca). From Mamluk times till 1962,
Egypt yearly produced the Kiswa for the Hajj, and the old
Kiswa was divided and distributed as relics.
had enough of palaces and mosques. We leave the fortress
Citadel for the Coptic quarter, the oldest part of Cairo.
The Roman fortress of Babylon makes me feel at home as do
the cobbled alleys. Through ancient gates and underground
streets I enter Biblical times. We stop before the doorway
of what looks like someone's house. This is the famous 5th
century Church of St. Sergius (Abu Serga) whose steep stairs
take us down to a crypt where legend says the Holy Family
with infant Christ sought refuge during their four-year
flight from the persecution of King Herod. There is nothing
here to see, but a profound presence of history.
Hanging Church of Babylon, rebuilt from 3rd to 11th century
is next, and even as I climb a long flight of steps to reach
it I am not sure that it is in suspension. Then Magda points
at the floor of the nave. Through a crack of gaping space
I glimpse the suspended part. Quite a drop! I cling to the
main part of the church, not ready to make too literal a
leap of faith! The rich columns in cedar, ebony and walnut
inlaid with ivory and marble, and the spectacular collection
of early Byzantine icons, dating to the10th century, restore
around the Church of St. Georges or Mar Gargis, also the
name of the metro station. (The introduction of the underground
system, along with over passes and highways, has relieved
Cairo's traffic problem substantially. Will Dhaka learn?)
At the 11th century Church of St. Barbara we witness a baptism,
then rest inside the oldest synagogue next door. The peaceful
coexistence of religions is the strength of liberal Egypt.
Imagine a Taliban-esque government here obliterating its
non-Islamic and Pharaonic past!
done my duty to politico-religious history. Now it's time
for civilian history, my favourite. Entering the Gayer-Anderson
house's courtyard, I look up to the mashrebbeya covered
lattice balconies rising at various levels. If I were a
dashing young man in the 17th century, I would probably
be hearing the twitter of feminine voices as laughing ladies
hidden from view playfully appraised me from above.
mansion, also called the House of the Cretan Woman, was
actually two 17th century houses bought by a British Major
who joined them by a bridge and restored them in the 20th
century. Major Anderson worked as a physician in the Egyptian
government. He filled the house with antique Egyptian furniture,
carpets, paintings, statues, musical instruments and other
artefacts. At his death he donated the house as a museum.
From the mashrabbeya covered roof terrace, I can see the
Ibn Tulun Mosque and minaret nextdoor.
before that, I take my time wandering all over this atmospheric,
eccentric theatre of a house, soaking up the shaded rooms
and lattice-filtered light; the dusty drapes and upholstery;
the wooden furniture that creak and the brass accessories
that clang. Here, Persian carpets are worn thin by trespassers,
and the glass-globed lamps and coloured windowpanes are
cloudy with time. I climb over thresholds and descend narrow
steps, crouch through low doorways and emerge into grand
halls. The hum of Cairo is lost in this hibernating world
turned inwards like the eyes of a blind old woman, once
a great beauty. I feel its mystery and secretive nature.
I have been here before, twenty years ago, but all I recollect
is the atmosphere of intrigue, heavy as incense smoke, the
memory of being in a room with a guide who suddenly vanished
behind my back, reappearing from a secret alcove in the
wall. I always wanted to see that hiding place but was never
sure I had not imagined it. I try asking the caretaker to
no avail. Magda has not been here and doesn't know what
I'm talking about.
I follow my guides to a landing on our way up when the caretaker
suddenly points to a three-corner almirah fitted into the
corner. He opens it to show us a narrow closet. He shuts
the door, then grips the frame of the almirah and pulls;
the whole thing comes away revealing an alcove. I step in
and there it is---the secret chamber of my dreams! Two window
seats before latticed openings give me a bird's eye view
of the drawing room below to spy from. The unsuspecting
people down there would only see two ventilators high on
the wall. I laugh aloud and the caretaker says something
in Arabic to Magda from which I only decipher 'Games Bund.'
Magda turns to me and asks if I saw the James Bond film
'The Spy Who Loved Me.' I did not. She smiles, 'If you had
you would have known this secret alcove, for this house
was a setting for that film.'
imagine this medieval house in other non-Hollywood plots,
filled with romantic trysts, secret assignations and treacherous
twists. I leave agent 007 behind as I climb to the roof
through Anderson's study at the attic level and view Cairo
as a cocktail of the imagination, both shaken AND stirred.
WEEK: Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria and Mine
(R) thedailystar.net 2004