Thursday, June 21, 2012

My Last Entry

This will be my last entry for this blog. If the spirit moves me, I’ll keep writing but with another blog title. Time will tell. We are back, our bout with the intestinal virus we smuggled in from Egypt has passed, and we are busy watching American TV, reading a real paper newspaper every morning, and catching up with friends and self-care (read: lots of doctor’s appointments).

I went to New York on the 8th for dinner with Noel Taylor and Mike Whitlow after a year’s absence. Happily, we Skyped often, so it didn’t feel like much time had passed. Harris stayed home, nursing his virus, while we went to dinner in Battery Park City at a fantastic place there, North End Grill (another of Danny Meyer’s amazing restaurants). I made a point of eating pork and raw oysters, neither of which I ate in Egypt. As we strolled around Battery Park after dinner, I was struck by the openness of the area, with its harbor for fancy yachts and the rising replacement to the World Trade Center.
I had to wear my Egyptian styles in New York!

Battery Park City's yacht basin

The new tower

In fact, the whole time I was in the city, I kept remarking to myself how quiet and clean it was—we are talking about Manhattan, folks. The fact it seemed so tells how used to the noise and garbage typical of Cairo I had become.

One behavior that will never leave us is following the news in Egypt. The imbroglio of the elections has distressed us deeply, and I am sorry to say that my private prediction back in March that the military would stage a coup seems to be right. Malesh. Both of us want peace and prosperity for Egypt, and the prospects are dimming for the now. At least we have video Skyped with Sarah, Mark, Emad and family, and they are fine.

Returning also meant a return to Planned Parrothood--Nelly and Dickens are home to roost. They were spoiled by their Aunt Annie in Brooklyn, and are now spoiled again. They have one house, and like the 1%, also have a vacation home next to the glass doors with a view of the backyard. We call it The Resort. As you might infer, they have the run of the area, though cockatiels' innate territoriality makes them prefer staying in known locations.
Dickens tucks into a bowl of healthy treats

Nelly more delicately enjoys her treats

The Resort

Catching up included my family. Brother Bruce—whom you can see in the blog entry “Christmas on a Dahabeya”—came up for a surprise visit last week, making great time driving from Virginia. We enjoyed ourselves in New Haven, then drove up to New Hampshire to see my sister Ann, David, and the kids, Mary and Jack. Since one of my life’s missions is to spoil Mary rotten, I worked on that.

Mary and me

Mary, the 13-year old

Harris and Jack put together his electric race cars, and pretty soon, all the boys were mesmerized.
Boys and their toys

The visit included outlet shopping and a New England seafood feast at a local restaurant in southern Maine. Yummy.
Steamers with Harris, Bruce, and Ann

On our 20th wedding anniversary, we finally got a delivery of our alabaster lamps from Cairo. Two were broken (one far beyond repair) but considering the distance, that’s not so bad. They bring some of the atmosphere we cultivated in our flat in Ma’adi to New Haven, and it makes us happy. We have also hung our appliquéd hangings from Hany in the Street of the Tentmakers.

A few alabaster lamps glowing in the living room. Wiring them for 110 is Harris's passion.
I certainly don't wish to jinx what is not yet done, but insha'allah, I got a promotion! Again, this is provisional until the papers are signed. But Bill Barnett, the enormously capable Director of Graduate Studies at Trinity, asked me if I would become Associate Director of American Studies. Wonk that I am, I was delighted to say yes. A raise, new office, and new business cards are forthcoming. This should work well with the more visionary director, Paul Lauter, since he’s a far-seer and I’m a clean-desk person.

We depart next week for a real vacation at our cottage in Bonaire, and other than tinkering with syllabi, I plan on doing no intellectual labor harder than figuring our how much bottom time I have left while diving. It’s hard to give up this blog. It’s allowed me to focus on all the things that made our year so thrilling—not always beer and skittles, but always thrilling—and I’ll miss the focus it brought. Let me know if you have an idea for another blog!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


We are back in New Haven as of Sunday night. The flights were just fine, easy and comfortable, but I should warn you of possibly the worse movie ever made: "John Carter," a combination space opera and shoot-em-up in which no one could act and the movie so bad it was mesmerizing.

The house was perfect, thanks to Stasia, and our 8 pieces of luggage all arrived (one late, but arrived nonetheless) and we owed NO duty, perhaps because I presented the customs officer with a printed list of every blessed item we either bought or were given. I suspect he felt anyone so compulsive isn't lying.

Harris and I are both sick with a viral intestinal bug I picked up in Cairo probably last Thursday, and between runs to the bathroom (pun intended) and loperamide, we sleep prodigiously and unpack slowly. Truly prodigious--14-15 hours a day. Eating little, but insha'allah, that will change.

Our cars are registered and plated, started right up (!!). but we are still using the rental since neither of us have the strength to go out and get everything right (oil changed; Harris's smells like mice pee, he says).

Tomorrow is our visit to Costco, where I will buy a little camera to replace my broken one, so the next entry will have photos. I'll have to consider a new blog name if I want to keep this up. Suggestions welcome!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Elections and Farewell

I had put aside Wednesday and Thursday, May 23rd and 24th, for grading my students’ final work; not coincidentally, these were the election days for Egypt’s first open presidential election. Many workplaces closed or shortened hours (we gave Nagat Wednesday off) so people could vote; as the photo suggests, polling places often had long lines. Emad, in his role as my local informant, promised to call if there were anything I needed to know. When we spoke, the news so far was all good. People waited patiently.
Lines at polling stations (internet photo)

It looks like the election results are less than what our friends had hoped. The two candidates with the most votes (around 24% each) are less than ideal from our friends’ perspectives. Morsi stands for the Muslim Brotherhood and is conservative religiously and ideologically; Shafiq is a holdover from the Mubarek regime. As one columnist wrote, it’s a choice between shades of bad, and no one’s sure which is which. Malesh.

Saturday was special. Jimmy Carter has been in town for the elections, and he spoke at at the Cairo Opera House, sponsored by AUC, Saturday evening. Security was tight, no surprise; to get passes, both of us had to apply and be vetted by American security. Though Carter’s speech started at 6PM, we had to be inside no later than 5:15. Harris joked (quietly) that he was sure the Secret Service agents were secretly wishing they were in Cartagena….

Carter is the real deal, whose heartfelt beliefs in peace and peaceful processes come from a combination of intellect and deeply felt faith. He spoke with only an outline for half an hour, then spent half an hour taking questions from three AUC students who represented the student body. We were impressed by his idealism about Egypt’s future—may he be right, despite the election results—and also by his frankness. For example, he bluntly said a number of times how Israel had not held up their end of the Camp David agreement by offering peace with the Palestinians. This got applause every time he mentioned Palestinian freedom, including from us.
Carter speaking

Carter talking with AUC students

Afterwards, a group of us—including our buddy Chris Evens—went to dinner at a famed Lebanese restaurant, Taboula, nestled in Garden City near the Canadian Embassy. One of our table, a Cairo resident studying Arabic, ordered for us, and the serious of non-stop appetizers added up to a huge meal. The Lazy Susan featured in the center of the table was very handy.
Chris Evens and friends at Taboula

Harris at Taboula

Sunday was our chance to host three AUC students, Habiba Koura, Shadden Fahmy, and Farida Swelim (Tarek’s daughter). Habiba and Shadden were students both fall and spring terms, and we met Farida thanks to Tarek; in addition, Shadden and Farida are cousins. The girls were a blast to have over for our last party before the alabaster got packed up. Nagat made moussaka (of course) and baba ganoush, I made salad, and the girls brought a mousse cake for dessert.  Yummy!

Of course, the necessities must be tended to prior to departure, including hair and nails.
Preen we must!

I have also been compiling a list for Customs once we reach JFK. Everything we bought here to bring back must be declared. Duty will be paid, I am sure. While I got my hair done, Harris supervised the pros from International Express, who packed and are shipping our alabaster lamps door to door. We are paying for the service but not having to go to JFK and spend the day at Customs is worth it. The flat now looks very bare.
The nearly-empty apartment and its lazy occupant

No alabaster lamps

It’s also really hot, which makes laundry dry fast but keeps us indoors if possible.
99 degrees

Monday was scheduled to be our last event of this year in Egypt, a reception and concert in honor of departing director of the Binational Fulbright Commission, our friend Bruce Lohof and his wife Annemarie. It was held at AUC’s Tahrir campus; as we inched our way through traffic, getting later and later, it turned out that a demonstration was heating up in Tahrir Square (right next to the AUC buildings), protesting the election results.

Given the absolute low numbers of the top two candidates, Shafiq and Morsi, one can infer they were hardly the popular choices, and the youth of Cairo agreed. They demonstrated against both, preferring a more liberal candidate Sabbahi, who won in Cairo and Alexandria. Harris and I chose the safest path, and Emad turned the car around and we ended up securely in Ma’adi. It turned out that the protesters set fire to Shafiq’s campaign headquarters about an hour after we returned to Ma’adi, so it was probably a good thing to avoid the area.
Protest in Tahrir, 28 May (internet photo)

Shafiq's HQ guarded after being burned (internet)

At least we got to spend time with Amira and Emad even though we never made it to Fulbright

However, it made both of us sad not to bid farewell to so many with whom we have had a good year (with a leavening of politics). Insha’allah, British Airways will be doing business as usual Sunday morning and our flight will depart safely.

We are emptying out the flat, spending evenings with Sarah and Mark for last visits.
Harris, Mark, and Sarah in their apartment

Since our cars at home need license plates and registration, not to mention getting started, we will drive a rental car until that process is done. I can hardly imagine driving, particularly where people drive in the lanes, don’t drive the wrong way on one-way streets, and stop for lights and stop signs. We suspect we will be ticketed for jaywalking and erratic driving…

We lose internet in our flat on May 31, so this will be my last posting until we return and settle into New Haven. Call if you need me! +20-2-2516-6514; my US phone is 1-203-776-5736; or Skype name “melprof” once I am back stateside. Rather than say goodbye to Egypt, we say au revoir. Until the next time.
Another dinner at China Winds

The heat does bring out the flowers

Anyone know what these trees are called? They are blooming like crazy.

PS: I’ve pasted in a document I wrote over time here, “Mel’s Cairo Tips,” for any of you planning a move here!
Mel McCombie’s Cairo Tips

Bring only comfortable shoes that you can wash. They will wear out. No need to bring shoe polish since it’s available everywhere. Maybe one pair of medium heels at most. Dedicate a toothbrush or nail brush to washing your shoes, and put sneakers in the wash from time to time. Sandals are not very useful since Cairo is so dirty. One pair of flip flops does it for me.

Bring cheap clothing since it will wear out (it has to be washed after each wearing); wash with a good brand like Woolite detergent since Persil, the local brand, is really harsh. Dress up your clothes with nice scarves, etc.. Easier than crying as your favorite clothing falls apart. I brought four good quality handbags and that worked well. Underwear and socks wear out fast, from use and sweat, so bring extras.

Winter is colder than you think. Bring a wind-proof coat, a couple of sweaters, etc..

You can’t get good cotton sheets here unless you pay a fortune. Buy Kirkland brand at Costco or whatever you like; don’t worry that the sizes are different, you can make a US king fit a local king. Pad your bags with down pillows. They don’t exist here for love or money. If you need a mattress pad, MasterBed (all over the city) has memory foam pads for about $450. Amortize that against a night in a good hotel with a comfortable bed. Or buy a cheap egg crate-style foam pad and pad your bag with that (or two twin ones).

Cosmetics are expensive and selection poor. Bring your favorite stuff. Don’t bother with shampoo, body lotion, toothpaste, etc. since the basics are all here. Bring insect repellent, particularly for felucca rides on the Nile. Lots of mosquitoes.

If you bring a printer, bring LOTS of ink cartridges. They are expensive here and often not even available. Sizes of US and African cartridges by the same company are often different.

Mini-Maglites are fabulous for tombs, dark uneven streets, and closets. I keep mine on my keychain and carry another small flashlight in my bag. LED works best. Batteries are available all over Egypt.

Bring some personal stationary; checks and deposit slips; and US postage stamps. You can send mail through AUC’s faculty services offices, or see if someone is headed to the US to carry it for you.

Always carry water.

Bring a good backpack. You’ll need one and a regular Jansport costs about $100 in Cairo.

Buy wine and beer from Cheers, not Drinkies. It’s cheaper and they have a great selection. Tel. is 19131, and they deliver everywhere. I particularly like the wines from Jardin du Nil (organic) and Caspar.

You can get great coffee roasted and ground to order from Shaheen Café. They are in Mohandiseen but deliver all over on various days. We get French roast, filter drip grind, but you can get exactly what you like. Tel: 19180.

If you live in Ma’adi, I think the best cleaners are Victoria Clean. Tel. 2521-4547.

Gourmet Egypt ( is a lifesaver. The only really decent meats we found, really good frozen salmon and shrimp, good organic veggies. is a restaurant site that offers almost everything. We like The Roastery and Abou El Sid best, but they have everything and deliver everywhere.

My favorite stores: Markaz in Ma’adi, Road 199 at 233, for gorgeous handmade scarves, table linens, quilts and coverlets, decorative pillows, and lots of other stuff. The profits go mostly to the co-ops in Upper Egypt that make the stuff. Also love Luxor Alabaster, where we have bought lots of big alabaster lamps and a zillion tea lights. Great gifts. Road 231 in Ma’adi, other locations around the city. In the Khan, beautiful scarves and linens at Atlas Silks (near the Naguid Mahfouz Café).

The best driver and smartest man in Cairo is our driver, Emad Hussein. He lives in Ma’adi and never gets lost (he is busy and will only work with you if you live in Ma’adi). Emad’s number is 0122-379-3603. Pay him at least LE50 per hour including waiting time. He will pick up your mail, get you to and from the airport, fix your glasses, etc.. He’s known amongst those who work with him as “Omda” (the Mayor). He is always early, not just on time.
We also heard from friends about another driver, Mohammed; tel. 0106-866-2867

Hoard small bills for tipping and get a Ziplock or mesh zipped bag to carry your cash. American wallets won’t work with the wads of cash you need. If you bank locally, we have liked HSBC. Don’t go to the bank (inside, not the ATM) on a Thursday since it’s very busy. You can get foreign currency at the bank, which is helpful for travel.

Vodafone has the best cellular coverage. You can go to their stores, or buy a cheaper phone at the many places with phones. We do pay as you go, and it’s cheap. If you travel, get a Vodafone thingie for your computer so you can get internet anywhere. Even Siwa.

Duty free is best at the airport, where you can buy 4 bottles of booze rather than 3 at the local duty frees. Do not buy Egyptian-made distilled spirits; only buy imported. Stories abound.

I hate regular taxis, which is why we have a driver. It’s been worth the money.

AUC Faculty Services has a listing of recommended housekeepers. Contact Louise Saint Laurent at

Gyms are expensive but helpful in keeping your sanity. I like Samia Allouba. About $400 for a year.

If you are interested in scuba diving, contact me. I’m a PADI Divemaster and we’ve dived all over the world and of course, the Red Sea. It is MUCH colder than you think, so bring a 7mm wetsuit and a drysuit. And hoods, gloves, etc..

Wash your produce—and your eggs--in a sink filled with water with a big spoonful of regular Clorox added. It’s gross but there are so many microorganisms that you will keep yourself healthy. After 15 minutes of soaking, let your stuff air-dry. Take Lacteol Forte probiotic (available at all pharmacies) and eat yogurt.

Don’t let your housekeeper wash your floors with Clorox. Dettol is just as good and doesn’t bleach your sock soles.

Bring a coffee press, drip filter, or whatever you like because it’s hard to buy them here—though buying paper filters is easy. Go know.

Bring a knife sharpener and a decent knife. We got ours from the Henkels line at Target, didn’t pay much, and are happy. If you can, bring a cast iron skillet. Simply unavailable here and the best for searing meats.

Bring earplugs. Horns honk all the time, and since the revolution, there’s a lot more street vending and noise.

Bring a camper’s water filter just in case. Bring a dozen extra passport photos. Bring your original or certified marriage license if you have different last names. VERY important. You can not get residency visas for both of you unless you can prove you are married but have different last names. Original or certified copy of your marriage certificate only.

Portable speakers to dock with an iPod are great. Ours were battery powered and also worked with a power cord. They amplified sound while watching streamed TV or movies on the computer and were great when traveling, since we did not find any hotels with iPod docks.

There’s more street crime since the revolution so keep alert, hold on to your bag on the side away from the street, and walk on sidewalks if they exist.

Carry tissue packs with you for toilets (as well as one pound coins), and use disinfecting wipes before you eat out. You can’t wash your hands too often.

CSA (Community Services Association) in Ma’adi has great trips, website, can organize custom tours, and offers a seminar for new arrivals  and is worth the money.

Bring dvds of your shows and movies. You can stream TV on sometimes, but often it messes up. If you belong to a Usenet, you can download stuff to an external hard drive overnight. The Internet is often the Inter-Not. My friends like Apple TV but it needs the internet.

Buy as many Euro Surge devices as you have electronics to protect, and lots of other sites. The power often goes out and when it comes back on, can blow fuses and melt hard drives.

Back up your computer 5 different ways, from the Cloud to flash drives to external hard drives. You won’t be sorry, and if you don’t, you will be sorry. We are Mac users, and you can’t get decent support here, so you need to take extra precautions. Your back-up hard drive should be bootable in case your internal hard drive develops a problem. If you bring your laptop, you should also consider bringing a back-up power supply, the right DVI to VGA adapter for presentations (AUC IT has them, but they can be a pain to get for a specific occasion), and all the cables (USB, Firewire, Ethernet, iPod, mini-plug audio, etc.) you can ever imagine using. Tech Tool Pro revived a external hard drive that disk utilities couldn’t fix, so I would recommend bringing a copy of your favorite drive utility app. You might want to bring a 220 V compatible printer/copier/scanner, but you can get them cheaply here and sell them when you leave. Remember that you will need step-down (220 to 110) voltage converters for all the 110-only devices you bring. (AUC provides one 1000 watt converter, but it has only one 110 outlet and is bulky.) You can buy them here, but they are pricey.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Bucket List

I promised Harris some free time so he could finish his work (now weighing in just under 300 pages on one topic and 130 on another) before we took off. It’s part of my Cairo Bucket List project. Emad and I went off on Saturday for a boondoggle to view sites I knew Harris was not hellbent on seeing. Our first stop was the Museum of Islamic Ceramics in Zamalek, an obscure museum in a beautiful 1920s villa of Islamic style architecture surrounded by gardens. It was closed for renovations. Phooey.

Our next try was the Manial Palace, built by a rich family member of Mohammed Ali’s in the late 1800s. I’d seen it in 1996, and liked it for how each room represented one of the decorative traditions of Islam. It, too, was closed for renovations.

Next try was the Cairo Tower, built in 1961 under Nasser with money from the U.S. that was, according to my guidebook, earmarked for buying American arms. Instead, he had a tall needle constructed with a distinctive basket-weave shell. The view from the top was splendid: all of greater Cairo was laid out before me, from the Pyramids to Moqattam Hills. I circled around twice and realized that as I gazed and recognized various places, it made me blue. Time to descend.
Cairo Tower, with its distinctive basket-weave exterior

View looking south

After a bit of koshery at Abu Hanafy’s, Emad and I went to Coptic Cairo. Though the weather had turned hot, we trekked around tirelessly. First stop was the Church of Saint George, martyred under Emperor Diocletian for his Christian beliefs, but better known for slaying a dragon. The spaces were small and a little smelly. 
Mosaic of Saint George at the church

From there, we walk through the pedestrian-only covered alleys of Coptic Cairo to the church of Saint Sergius, built (according to legend) over a cave where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus hid from Herod’s slaughter of the innocents in their flight from Jerusalem into Egypt. Like all the churches in the area, it is basilica-style, and combines decorative motifs from Islamic art with Christian iconography.
Pedestrian-only alleys of Coptic Cairo

Exquisite inlay at Saint Sergius

Saint Barbara’s was next, as well as a walk through the Greek Orthodox cemetery, remarkably beautiful even in the hot sun. We stopped in the Hanging Church, built over a water gate, visible through a glass slit in the floor. A group of Indonesian Christians wearing baseball caps with “Holyland Tour” stitched on them livened it up.
Hanging Church from the air; note the Roman walls in the background

The most interesting place to me was something unexpected, the Ben Ezra Synagogue. It is one of the oldest in the world, built first in 350 BC, rebuilt under Ibn Tulun (whose mosque we saw last week) in the 9th century, and restored by the Supreme Council of Antiquities and the Canadian Center for Architecture in the 1990s. It, too, is basilica-style, and for a period functioned as a Coptic church; two small confessional rooms on either side of the altar where the Torah is kept are still there.

Ben Ezra’s carefully restored decoration fuses the decorative traditions of the three Abrahamic religions as well as ancient Egypt. There is a well where the daughter of Pharoah found Moses (the Nile was closer then); the altar is decorated with exquisite inlays in mother of pearl and ivory of arabesques in traditional Islamic designs; the basilica format is Christian; and Hebrew and Arabic inscriptions give the name of God. In 1896, a treasure trove of written materials were found, a geniza (funeral) stash; since anything with the name of God written on it can not be destroyed, these documents were “buried.” They now reside at Cambridge University, and include a letter from Maimonides, deeds of sale, parts of ancient torahs, and various documents dating from medieval Cairo to the end of the 19th century.
Interior of Ben Ezra
Fragment from Ben Ezra's geniza

When we returned to Ma’adi after this wonderful outing (with a stop en route to buy two large suitcases—we are probably bringing eight checked bags home)—Harris had crunched a huge amount of work, so my junket served its purpose.

The president of Bryn Mawr College, my alma mater, came to AUC on Sunday and I joined other Mawrters for a lunch in her honor. Jane MacAuliffe’s specialty is Islamic studies and cross-religious studies; she was in town for one day en route to a festschrift (essentially, a festival of scholarly papers) honoring an archbishop with whom she had worked, and put Cairo on her itinerary. It was fun.

I pick up my students’ final work tomorrow, and then spend the 23rd and 24th grading as Egypt votes. All eyes are on this election. Jimmy Carter is coming to town, and there is a chance we will get passes to hear him speak on Saturday. I’ll post again after the elections. We live in interesting times. BTW, all my photos in this posting are from the internet; my camera is messing up.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Old Cairo (Al-Qahira)

 Now that teaching is over, we are devoting some time to seeing things here before the clock runs out. On Monday, we went on a boondoggle with Sarah and Mark Mineart, led by Emad. I’d been curious about the church of Saint Simon the Tanner, carved into the living rock of Moqattam, and the centerpiece of the community of the zaballeen, the garbage collectors and recyclers.
Alley in zaballeen city

Zaballeen city from above

Another view of zaballeen city

Garbage is sorted by type

Trucks loaded with garbage go in and out

After winding through the streets of the informal city of the zaballeen, complete with its own post office, members of Parliament, schools, and churches—for they are almost entirely Coptic—Emad brought us to Saint Simon the Tanner.
Saint Simon the Tanner parking area

Emad, Harris, and Sarah in Saint Simon's parking area

The rocky escarpment into which the church is carved is itself carved with scenes from the Bible. From the outside, it was not terribly impressive—I’d read it could  hold 20,000 congregants, and it did not look that big. But when Emad led us into the amphitheater, we all gasped. My photos do it little justice (though here they are). But check out its website,
The unprepossessing exterior

Part of the amphitheater of Saint Simon's

Now you can see how they might hold 20,000!

Simon, according to the church guide Maged (and checked online) was a devout Coptic leatherworker at the end of the 10th century. The Caliph of Cairo enjoyed a good debate, and when debating with the Coptic Pope Abraam, he asked if what was written in Matthew—that if one had faith even the size of a mustard seed, one could move mountains—were true. The Pope assented, and the Caliph demanded proof, or he would put all the Copts to death.
Maged explaining the miracle, illustrated behind him

After days of prayer at the Hanging Church, a vision of Mary told the Pope that a modest saint would provide the miracle. While praying in a large congregation, Simon’s faith was such that Moqattam Mountain lifted up in the presence of the Caliph, and the Coptic population was saved. The Caliph and Pope became good friends.
Harris contemplates carvings  in the amphitheater

The body of the saint was discovered in 1991 along with his clay bowl for carrying water to the sick and poor. Images of Simon carrying water abound; he is depicted with one eye gouged out as his way of dealing with temptation according to one of the more violent commands of the Bible. The reliquary with bones of the saint is nearly covered with prayers, photos, and letters requesting his intervention with Jesus.
Emad in front of reliquary

Detail of reliquary with prayers

There is an ancillary church carved into adjacent rock, holding only 3000 congregants (!), the Chapel of Saint Mark’s. It is the “winter” church since it is roofed—indeed, carved into the rock like the Bat Cave. Scenes from the old and new testaments were carved into its walls.
Saint Mark's, AKA, the Bat Cave

Mark and Harris

Simon's miracle carved into the rock 

Emad the Enabler also led us into temptation at the workshop for Luxor Alabaster, which is in the garbage city. Not only is there a retail section, where we did our bit to help the local economy, but a yard filled with raw stone and a workshop where the stone is turned into exquisite objects, first with a massive band saw. It was possibly the noisiest place I’ve been, dusty with stone chips, clearly not OSHA compliant, but fascinating.
Raw alabaster and onyx

Alabaster detail

Alabaster workshop

Using a band saw on alabaster

After visiting the churches, all of us were peckish, so Emad zipped us over to one of the premier koshery restaurants in Cairo, Abu Hanafy. For under $2 per person, we gorged ourselves on the best koshery any of us had ever eaten, laden with fried onions, garnished with tomatoes and wonderful sauces, and washed down with Diet Pepsi. Sarah and Mark agreed that until Abu Hanafy, they had not understood why people liked koshery so much. Now they know! Koshery in Cairo provokes the same kind of loyalties and arguments that pizza does in New Haven.
Abu Hanafy from the street

Mark about to try a sauce

Koshery. Yum yum!

Next stop was possibly Cairo’s least-visited historic site, excavations of the original Arab city of Cairo, Al-Fustat, founded in 641AD after the Arab conquest of Egypt. It grew to 200,000 people until the 12th century, when it was burned; by the time of the Mamluks (13th-16th centuries), it was a garbage dump. Yet this was the center of power for centuries, known for its glorious gardens, and home to rulers, elites, and thinkers like Maimonides. It formed the core of the city of Cairo.
Fustat excavations

A floor of Fustat partly exposed

Emad and Sarah at Fustat

Column remnants at Fustat

Detail of a Fustat column

The excavations show us glimpses of its glory, carved column capitals, cisterns, mudbrick walls—yet it is just beginning. It asks you to imagine a lot and awaits serious archeological work. It is so little-visited that the guides working there had to scrounge around to find the tickets we needed to enter.

Cairo today was called Al-Qahira around 1087 when the Fatimids ruled. On Thursday, we went on another junket with Tarek Swelim to visit the best sites in Old Cairo, his particular speciality (his Ph.D. is on Islamic art and architecture), beginning with the exquisite Mosque of Ibn Tulun from the 9th century. Tarek is wring a book on this site, so his knowledge was profound. It’s Cairo’s oldest intact functioning Islamic monunent, built by Ibn Tulun, who was sent from Baghdad to rule the outpost of what was then Fustat. Drawing inspiration from his homeland, his mosque is most notable for its particular details drawn from Iraq, such as the crenulations like paper dolls atop its walls, and particularly its minaret, spiraling up like the much earlier famous minaret of the mosque of Samarra in Iraq.
Exterior, Mosque of Ibn Tulun

Ibn Tulum minaret as Tarek walks

Samarra in Iraq, aerial (internet)

Pilgrims climbing Samarra's minaret (internet)

The mosque is huge, big enough to accommodate all of Fustat for Friday prayers, with long covered sides to hold the faithful. The side with the mihrab indicating the direction of Mecca and the minbar from which the imam preached is the deepest. Its windows are each unique, with different carved screens. The view from the top of the minaret is breathtaking—old and new Cairo spread out below.
Courtyard of Ibn Tulun from the top of the minaret

Cairo old and new, top of minaret

Mel n'Harris, tourists, atop the minaret
Allah's name in ancient Kufic script in relief

No fear of heights here!

One of Ibn Tulun's windows

We then drove to another part of old Cairo to begin a dazzling walk that began with the complex of Sultan Qalaun from 1279, part school and part mausoleum. It is probably the most splendid mausoleum in a city filled with gorgeous ones, with a huge dome, inlaid marble, a space for worship—all in all, breathtaking. It had been under restoration and only opened a couple of years ago. It began the walk between the two palaces made famous by Naguib Mahfouz’s “Cairo Trilogy,” particularly the second book, “Palace Walk.” BTW, because the monuments were so dazzling, I may have mixed up one mosque or mausoleum with another. Apologies in advance; malesh! 
Mel examining the mihrab with a flashlight

It is worth examining

Palace Walk buildings

Palace Walk detail

Another gorgeous building on Palace Walk

Carved detail

Detail of a door

Strolling down Palace Walk, avoiding the sun (it is seriously hot now), we passed buildings with exquisite architectural details.

Just north of Sultan Qalaun’s complex, we walked into the complex of school and mausolem of Sultan Al-Nasir Mohammed, built in 1304 by a Mamluk ruler. Its door was a thumb of the nose at the Crusades, taken from a Gothic church in Acre in 1290, with the name of Allah inscribed at the apex. Ironically, Al-Nasir Mohammed is not buried here but next door in the mausoleum of his father, Qalaun. I guess he could tell that no matter how hard he worked, his dad’s place was more beautiful!
Agog at the masoleum

The complex is mapped out, thankfully

Mausoleum details

Another view

The name of Allah in Kufic inlaid marble

A block down from Al-Nasir Mohammed, we walked into a fascinating complex, another school and mausoleum for Sultan Barquq, a Sufi ruler who took power (my guidebook says “seized” power) in 1382. This was one of my favorite sites. It combined large blocks of porphyry taken from Pharaonic sites, a marble inlaid floor that bent as if it were carpeting an irregular corridor, a splendid mosque with a marble inlad mihrab and neat inlaid marble resembling prayer rugs.
Courtyard of Barquq's mosque

Inlaid marble floor like a carpet

Inlaid marble "prayer rug"

Barquq's mosque's mihrab

Then things got personal. Tarek’s family had long been involved in restoration work of this historic neighborhood. His father in law, the late Doctor Asaad Nadim, had an office on the street that Tarek keeps up. Inside, we gazed at “before and after” photos of buildings on the walk. The office is near an important narrow lane, the Darb Al-Asfar (“darb” means “path”), a medieval street whose buildings sport mashrabiyya screens designed to keep sun out, let air in, and keep any ladies from public view (hey, it was patriarchal then too).
Darb el Asfar

Medieval building on Darb el Asfar

View from Dr. Nazim's office

The house of Beit el-Suhaymi sits on the Darb, and finished our tour. This enormous house museum of about 64 rooms dates from the 17th and 18th centuries, and is a warren of beautiful rooms with fountains, tiling, gardens, a hammam, and a lot of giggling schoolgirls. It did not seem possible we could have ended the tour with something as beautiful as that with which we began at Ibn Tulun but Tarek did it again.
Nice tiling in Beit el-Suhaymi's house

Relaxing in Beit el-Suhaymi's house

Another view from Dr. Nadim's

At this point, it was hot, hot, hot, and we repaired to the poolside restaurant at the Four Seasons for shade, lunch, and sheesha. Be sure to try an Egyptian special drink that makes thirst evaporate: lemonade with mint.
Lunch by the pool

I’m going to post this now since there are so many photos. I am working on a see-Cairo bucket list to fill in things we have missed. Last night, we had a lovely dinner with my arts department colleagues at the beautiful Cairo Marriott (a former pasha’s palace). Sarah and Mark are in Spain for a vacation, Harris is finishing up his book, and I am awaiting my students’ work. On Sunday, I will go to campus for a lunch with Jane MacAuliffe, president of Bryn Mawr College. AUC is rife with Mawrters! Next week combines some work, some play, and laying low on the 23rd and 24th, which are election days. I expect to get some State Department warnings then. PS: Happy Birthday to Sarah, whose special day was 16 May!
Prettiest car we have seen in Egypt. A Mercedes but anyone know which type and year? Just in: Tom Markus identified this as a 1950 Mercedes 170D; you can buy one for about $200,000!