It was with some trepidation that we set off from Jerusalem for a four-day mini-vacation to Cairo. Tensions had spiked over the ongoing crisis in Gaza, and the Egyptians had all but declared Israel's foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, persona non grata.
Then again, relations were unlikely to warm anytime soon, and who knows what will be once 79-year-old Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak leaves the scene. If we wanted to see the pyramids, eat Egyptian falafel and visit the bazaars, then now was the time.
El Al flies from Tel Aviv to Cairo on Sundays and Thursdays, making a three- or four-day trip viable. We arrived on Sunday night, purchased our visas at the easy-to-miss foreign-currency booth, and were soon heading toward the Nile Hilton in the car we had booked ahead of time.
Our first — and lasting — impression as we approached Cairo proper was of the ceaseless honking of car horns, the near absence of traffic lights, the madcap habits of Cairo drivers, and the ubiquitous though ineffective presence of traffic police and other assorted security personnel.
As we were ushered through the metal detector in the Hilton lobby, we felt we'd arrived at an orderly oasis in the midst of a frenzied metropolis. Indeed, our spacious 1970s-style room with a large balcony overlooking the hubbub below, the plentiful buffet breakfast and the doting service made the Nile Hilton a welcome refuge.
We found that four days was enough to "do" all the de rigueur tourist sites; had we planned it carefully, three days probably would have sufficed.
Our first stop was Islamic Cairo, with the Mosque of al-Azhar, a key center of Islamic learning founded in 970 C.E., and the glitzy, bustling Khan al-Khalili bazaar.
We headed there by taxi — in itself an experience. Cairene taxis prove that there is life after mechanical death — interiors tend to be skeletal, knobs and casings having been stripped or atrophied away sometime during the Middle Kingdom; windshield wipers are a wasteful accessory. Many drivers (not just of taxis) prefer to "save their battery" by not using headlights after dark.
The appalling air-pollution, with cars belching fumes and burning oil, made us long for the clear skies and, by comparison, pristine mountain air of Jerusalem.
Al-Azhar, like most mosques, welcomes visitors — the conditions being that you give the custodians who watch the entrance your shoes and a little baksheesh. Inside, mosques all have a mihrab, a sort of alcove indicating the direction of Mecca. Outside you'll find minarets from which the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer.
In addition to al-Azhar, we managed to visit a half-dozen other mosques during our trip, including the mud-brick structure of the Abbasid-era Mosque of Ibn Tulun (879 C.E.) and the Mosque of Amr ibn al-Aas (640 C.E.), which was the first place of organized Islamic worship in Egypt.
To get to the Khan al-Khalili bazaar, we needed to cross the street. Fortunately, this is facilitated by both a pedestrian bridge and an underpass (the only ones we came across). Elsewhere, when crossing a street — with few traffic lights, cavalier attitudes toward the occasional red light, and traffic police as indolent as they are abundant — we relied heavily on shadowing local "human shields" who were expert at dodging traffic coming from every which way.
The bazaar is spectacular: bigger and more varied than the shuk in Jerusalem's Old City and not as fancy as Istanbul's Grand Bazaar. We found spices, water pipes, jewelry, trinkets, a few places to grab a snack and Arab-style tea rooms. We returned to the area to see the breathtaking Tantura at the Al-Ghouri center, a performance of Sufi whirling dervishes and a definite must, offering an unrivaled combination of meditation, music and dance — and, possibly, the earliest form of "trance."
We had decided to see the Giza Pyramids with a guide and driver, imaging that we would have to traverse a sandy desert to reach these great wonders. Not so. Cairo's huge metropolis (16 million people) leads directly, once you cross the Nile, into Giza city, whose crumbling buildings and squalid appearance define large tracts of Cairo proper.
Nothing — not the locals trying to sell us everything from camel rides to kaffiyehs, not the huge number of security men — could detract from the magnificence of the awesome, monumental pyramids built 5,000 years ago. We remind ourselves that these immense structures and tombs emblemize a civilization that predates the biblical stories of the Israelite patriarchs and matriarchs.
We explored the terrain, walking (and driving) around the pyramids, visiting the "solar boat" museum, containing a full-size Egyptian boat used to transport royal corpses for burial and gawking at the Sphinx, which guards the Giza plateau.
Making full use of our guide and driver, we headed back to Old Cairo, which houses several churches, including the oldest Coptic Church St. Sergius, and the heavily-guarded Ben Ezra Synagogue, Egypt's oldest, and now a museum.
Ben Ezra is also famed for the Geniza treasure-trove of sacred and other texts discovered by Solomon Schechter in 1896. The only other synagogue in Cairo that can be visited is Sha'ar Hashamayim, located downtown near our hotel.
Though well-maintained, explains a Hebrew-speaking Egyptian caretaker, services are held only if enough foreigners happen to be in town.
Even closer to our hotel was the Egyptian Museum. A throwback to an earlier era, precious little is protected by climate controlled casings. The lighting is poor. The floors are dense with artifacts, strewn warehouse-like. Many of the exhibits are unmarked and poorly described. Most visitors were on guided tours.
We allowed about three hours for strolling around. There was no question that the lavish artifacts in the Tutankhamen gallery — set off in an area of its own within the complex — went well beyond expectations. Also worth searching for is the wood-carved statue of Ka-Aper. As we did at the pyramids, we just kept reminding ourselves that we were in the presence of objects that are as old as history itself.
Heading back home, we agreed that our fears had been unfounded. People were friendly, though no one was affable out of sheer bonhomie. Cairenes are a tad in-your-face insistent, but never hostile or threatening.
So, if you're moderately adventurous and you yearn to see a little of the Arab world, put Cairo on your itinerary.