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A walking tour of Cairo

Zahi Hawass gives his recommendations on what to see in Cairo

Zahi Hawass , Tuesday 17 Mar 2020
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Cairo is an amazing city. It has magic — I myself cannot be away from this city for a long time. It is not because I am an Egyptian. In Cairo there are great things that I miss when I am away.

I want those who are keen on discovering this amazing city, to go to Al-Muizz Li-Din Allah Street in Islamic Cairo to take a walk there and look at the great monuments. They should look at the architecture of the houses, the people, the shops, and visit the Museum of Textiles, the Mosque of Qalawun, and at the end of the day walk through the iconic Khan Al-Khalili Bazaar.

Farouk Hosni, the former minister of culture, and I spent years working to make this Street a great one. We were able to stop the car traffic and make it friendly to pedestrians.

Almost every Friday, I now go to this place wearing jeans and sneakers, not only to walk around its magnificent monuments but also to smell the aroma of Islamic history. I like to visit the Mosque of Al-Hakim Bi-Amr Allah, considered to be one of the most important and largest mosques in Egypt.

Nearby is the newly restored Darb Al-Asfar where a number of traditional houses are on display, such as the houses of Mustafa Ghaafer and the Beit Al-Khurazati. These houses have been restored and are now used for musical performances and other purposes. The house of Mustafa Ghaafer, for example, is now used as a technological centre where young people are taught how to use computers.

If I continue to walk down this distinguished Street, I see the house of Al-Akmar, dating from the Fatimid period. I enter the Ottoman Mosque of Al-Selehdar, which has recently been restored. There is also the sabil (water fountain) of Abdel-Rahman Kathuda, a powerful man who was once an official like the mayor and also served as the minister of interior. This sabil was used to provide water to those who were thirsty and who wanted to visit a kuttab (Quranic school) and hear the Quran recited. Next to it, there was a house for orphans.

I also like to see the beautiful palaces dating to the Mameluke period, which return us to a period of magic and conspiracies. I continue along the Street until I reach the Al-Ghoury Complex and watch the ancient dance of the dervishes, an art form which is over 500 years old. After that, I like to go to the Khan Al-Khalili and have lunch at the Naguib Mahfouz coffeeshop, named after the Nobel Prize-winning author, and enjoy delicious and authentic food.

After this inspiring tour, I go to the Nile Hilton and sit at the Abu Ali café. I smoke my shisha (water pipe), which I enjoy immensely. During this time, I begin to write my bi-weekly column for Al-Ahram or write my archaeological memoirs. This resulted in the publication of my book Secrets from the Sand: My Search for Egypt’s Past by Harry Abrams in New York. Many sections of this were written in the Abu Ali café.

On Fridays, I also like to go to the Cairo Museum and visit my favourite statues. One of the nearest to my heart is a unique statuette of Khufu, the builder of the Great Pyramid. I also love to see the great statue of Khafre, which I like to view in profile so that I can see the hawk behind him embracing him and flying with him to the sky. The artist of this masterpiece was so skilled that I feel that I can see the royal blood flowing beneath the king’s skin.

I was particularly proud of the “Hidden Treasures” exhibition that the museum put on in the basement on the west side of the museum as one approaches the main entrance. This was a unique collection, beautifully exhibited, and including most of the statues that I had found in my career. Perniankhu, the dwarf whose tomb I discovered to the west of the Great Pyramid, was there, as were the four statues of Inty Sedu found in the tombs of the Pyramid builders to the southeast of the Giza Plateau. From the Bahariya Oasis to the southwest of Cairo, site of the famous Valley of the Golden Mummies, there was a statue of the god Bes, protector of the household, and two gilded children, a brother and a sister.

If you are an enthusiast keen on discovering the gems of Cairo, then you should also go to the house of Gayer Anderson located near the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Islamic Cairo. The house is named after an Englishman who chose to live in Egypt after he retired. The house is also called Beit Al-Kritliya and is a perfect example of Islamic architecture in Cairo. It is really two houses connected together by a high bridge.

Cairo is a unique place, where people often stay up until 3am eating, walking, or drinking. My favourite restaurant is the Kebab at the Sheraton Gezira run by my friend Ibrahim Fahmy who was the manager of the Essex House in New York and has now come back to town with his beautiful wife Ann. Ibrahim is a professional and unique hotel manager, and he has made this restaurant one of a kind. In the summer, you can eat outside by the Nile, and in the winter you eat inside still overlooking the Nile. Another favourite spot of mine, especially for lunch, is Christo, a fish restaurant where you can eat delicious food and look out at the Pyramids.

The best Italian restaurant in Cairo is La Trattoria in Zamalek. This is a small, peaceful place which serves delicious Italian food. The son of Omar Sharif, Tarek, who was seven years old when he appeared in the film Dr Zhivago with his father, once owned this restaurant, and I have fond memories of dining with Omar here. They even put up a photograph of Omar and me, so be sure to find it. These are my favourite restaurants in Cairo, and I encourage people to go to enjoy them.

Cairo will witness great archaeological events later this year. The first will be of the 20 royal mummies that will leave the Cairo Museum in Tahrir for their new home in the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation. Each mummy will be shown next to statues of the king, as well as updated information on the results of DNA and CT-scan testing. This parade of the mummies will be shown live to the outside world.

The second event is that all of the Tutankhamun artifacts, such as the golden mask, the chapels, the throne, and others will be taken out of the Cairo Museum and exhibited in the new Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM). The dismantling of the artifacts from the Cairo Museum, the transfer of the objects, and the display of this priceless collection will be shown live to the world. The boat of Khufu, presently located inside a museum south of the Great Pyramid, will also be transported to be shown in the GEM. Experts are now studying how best to move the boat — in one piece or in fragments?

The most important piece of news is that 2020 will witness the exhibition of the mummies in the NMEC and the grand opening of the GEM, the most important cultural project in the world.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  19 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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