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     Volume 4 Issue 18 | October 22, 2004 |

   Cover Story
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A Roman Column

Al Qahira
James Bond's
and more

Neeman Sobhan

I 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.

This 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.

The 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!).

In a 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.

Another 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.

I have 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.

The 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 my serenity.

We walk 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!

I have 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.

This 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.

But 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.

And 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.

Resigned, 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.'

I can 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.

NEXT WEEK: Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria and Mine

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