My Itchy Travel Feet | The Baby Boomer's Guide To Travel

Exploring Islamic Cairo By Night

2011/09/23by Donna Hull

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Bab al-Futuh Gate

What’s the best way for boomers to overcome jet lag? Dive right into exploring your destination. On a small group cultural tour to Cairo, Egypt, with AuthentiCity Travel, rather than resting from the long flight, our group forged right on, exploring the Muslim Quarter on a nighttime visit to Al-Hakim Mosque and the Khan el-Khalili market.

Traffic, noise and the busyness of the Muslim Quarter surrounded me when I stepped out of the van in Islamic Cairo. Men sat at café tables, practically in the street, smoking cigarettes and chatting with friends over cups of tea. The walls of old Cairo, built in the 9th century by the Fatimids, loomed ahead.

Entering through the Muslim Quarter wall at the Bab al-Futuh Gate — also called Gate of Conquest — was like walking back in time. The narrow, cobblestone al-Muizz Street, pedestrian only from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., promised all sorts of ancient discoveries.

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Al-Hakim Mosque

When our group approached Al-Hakim Mosque, Thursday night services had just ended. After worshipers exited the mosque, we paid a visit inside the building that dates to 990. Visitors must be dressed conservatively wearing clothing that reaches to below the knees and a scarf to cover the head and shoulders for women. After depositing our shoes at the front entrance, we walked into the extensive marble-floored courtyard. A fountain near the center of the space offered a place for worshipers to wash their feet — a good practice since prostrating on the floor brings one in close proximity to the next person’s feet. The prostrate prayer position is also why women who choose to do so can worship in a segregated space.

This was my first visit to a mosque. I didn’t expect to find worshipers lounging around the interior, children scampering about as their parents visited or teenagers hanging out. In the main building, carpeted floors included individual boxes with an arrow pointing toward Mecca — the exact size for one person to kneel and pray. Overhead elaborate chandeliers lit up the space. In a far wall, a gilded niche offered a second way to know the direction to Mecca.

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Light shop in the Khan el-Kahili Market

Our walking tour continued but we were no longer on pedestrian only streets. Negotiating the narrow lanes as trucks and motorbikes whizzed by required careful attention by this boomer traveler. As we approached the actual Kahn el- Khalili market, another no-cars-allowed area, vendors called out, “How can I take your money?” Baskets of fresh vegetables lined the street in front of one shop; another held intricately designed lights while paraphernalia for smoking shisha — flavored tobacco smoked in a water pipe — crowded the shelves of a stall across the way. Arabic music blared from some of the shops adding to the I’m in another culture feel.

At Nagib Mahfouz Restaurant, named after Egypt’s 1988 Nobel Literature prizewinning novelist, provided an air-conditioned respite from the humid evening. After our group was seated in the formal dining room with intricate mosaic ceilings, dishes of hummus and other dips complemented by warm pita bread appeared on the table. The food kept coming with lentil soup, followed by falafel appetizers and a mixed grill main course all served by waiters wearing fez hats. Rice pudding ended my first Egyptian meal. I could hear locals in the adjoining lounge singing songs in between puffs of shisha and sips of tea.

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Khan el-Khalili market

Visiting the Muslim Quarter was an exotic start to a week filled with cultural insight. And on the last day in Cairo, our group returned on a daylight visit to Kahn el-Khalili to purchase some of the treasures that we had eyed during our nighttime introduction. After all, we couldn’t go home without taking a piece of Cairo with us.

Have you visited Islamic Cairo? Did you purchase anything in the Kahn el-Khalili market? Post a comment to tell us about it. This boomer couldn’t resist the elegant scarves.

Disclosure: AuthentiCity Travel provided this travel experience.

To see more of my photos from this adventure, visit the My Itchy Travel Feet page on Facebook. Be sure to click the like button while you’re there.

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A boomer travel and lifestyle authority who is exploring the world one activity at a time. Besides writing and publishing My Itchy Travel Feet, she also writes about boomer travel for My Well-Being Powered by Humana, Make It Missoula and is the author of New Mexico Backroads Weekend Adventure.

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Raymond September 23, 2011 at 11:11 am

I loved Cairo when I was there many moons ago. I went to the Pyramids for December 31, 1999 — it was quite the show. The Islamic Quarter is just so exotic and inviting. Very jealous of you right now!
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Donna Hull
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September 25, 2011 at 3:47 pm

Raymond, did you see the light show at the Giza pyramids? That wasn’t on our itinerary but is something that I’d love to see one day.

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Vera Marie Badertscher
Twitter:
September 23, 2011 at 12:34 pm

I love the way this tour plunged you right into the heart of the culture. When I travel, I like to make a walk around the streets near my hotel the very first activity. Hope you got a good night’s sleep that night, but I imagine your head was buzzing with all the impressions.
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Donna Hull
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September 23, 2011 at 3:05 pm

Vera, our day included a walk around the area of the hotel, too. The next morning we were out by 8 a.m. to tour the pyramids. None of us ever had any jet lag. Can’t say the same for my return home.

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Nancy September 23, 2011 at 4:08 pm

So happy for you, Donna! I have fond memories of my time in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt. Savor every second ~
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Donna Hull
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September 24, 2011 at 9:20 am

Thanks, Nancy. My time in Cairo was amazing. Now I’d like to return to visit Luxor and Abu Simbel.

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Mark H September 24, 2011 at 3:03 pm

I love the exotic feel of your photos.
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Donna Hull
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September 25, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Thanks, Mark. I can’t take much credit – it’s the setting that made my photographic job easy.
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Kris
Twitter:
September 25, 2011 at 11:23 pm

That light shop would have kept me entertained for hours! What a gorgeous looking shop – and your photos are beautiful.
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Donna Hull
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September 26, 2011 at 7:16 am

Kris, that light shop had gorgeous lamps. I wanted to bring them home with me. Very romantic lighting.

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judy stock
Twitter:
September 26, 2011 at 8:33 am

Donna,
What a trip! I can imagine it felt like a complete cultural immersion. How wonderful. Sounds like you have a lovely time. Would you go back to Cairo on another trip or do you feel you saw and experienced enough? And, what about the Pyramids? I have always wanted to see them.
judy

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Donna Hull
Twitter:
September 26, 2011 at 11:22 am

Judy, I appreciated the opportunity to explore Cairo in-depth. Now I’m ready to explore other parts of Egypt if given the chance. I’d like to see Luxor, Abu Simbel, Karnak, the western desert and Sharm El Sheik to name just a few.

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Andrea
Twitter:
September 26, 2011 at 12:21 pm

I recently visited a mosque for the first time as well and found the same thing – people casually hanging out, children playing and other visitors just relaxing inside. It seemed like more of a community centre than anything else, which I suppose it should be.
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Donna Hull
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September 27, 2011 at 4:12 pm

Andrea, I had the exact same feeling.

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sheryl September 26, 2011 at 2:11 pm

What an amazing trip and destination. How you plunged right in after a long flight is beyond me. But I’d imagine the activities going on all around you provided enough stimuli to keep you awake. Love your photos, too. They capture the area so well.

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Donna Hull
Twitter:
September 27, 2011 at 4:12 pm

Sheryl, I credit my non-jet lag partly to steps I took before the trip. As you know, I’m working with Nora Lynch on a series about boomer travel fitness. She has also provided several one-on-one sessions so that I can understand the service that she provides. One of my missions before the trip was to get quality sleep and prepare for the trip way ahead of time so that I started the journey refreshed. It made such a difference.

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MyKidsEatSquid September 26, 2011 at 4:51 pm

Has the tourist industry returned in full force then–or did you get the sense that you were one of few? What a fascinating time to visit the country.
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Donna Hull
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September 27, 2011 at 4:09 pm

Tourism is picking up by not back to normal by any means. Many of the tourists that we saw were Russians and Eastern Europeans. The top nationality to visit Egypt is Russia.

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Kerry Dexter
Twitter:
September 27, 2011 at 5:02 am

I’ve yet to visit Cairo, but at one point in my academic career had the chance to study with a world renown scholar of Islamic art. Even though that wasn’t my specialization, I took her courses, and it’s proved an experience tha hast enriched my travels and thinking.
so I was especially interested to read of your visit to the mosque — looking forward to reading more of your time in Egypt.
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Donna Hull
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September 27, 2011 at 4:08 pm

Kerry, we also visited the Museum of Islamic Art which had a beautiful collection. The art seemed to be a window as to how the Muslim civilization has changed over the years. It was the same way with the items that we saw in the Egyptian Antiquities Museum and the pieces in the museum in the Coptic quarter of Cairo.

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Alexandra September 27, 2011 at 7:26 am

Thanks for sharing your impressions. I think you went at the right time. I don’t think I will ever make it to Cairo, so I especially enjoyed this report. Love that lamp shop! There was a really interesting article a few weeks ago in the New York Times Magazine about the Coptic Christians, who were thinking of leaving after the Arab spring. I wonder if you got any sense of this dis-ease in the new Egypt?
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Donna Hull
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September 27, 2011 at 4:06 pm

Alexandra, i didn’t get any sense of unease. However, we did not visit the Coptic village that is famous for recycling, but we did tour the Coptic churches. Our tour guide told us that Egyptians don’t inquire about the religion of their friends and acquaintances. It is considered rude to do so. It seemed to me that they were very tolerant of each other. I saw veiled women, unveiled women, women wearing burkas – it didn’t seem to matter. Do I think that there are isolated incidents of violence against some sects? Probably. As explained to us, there are thugs who would like to undermine stability. They are paid by those trying to influence the situation.

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Alex Berger
Twitter:
September 28, 2011 at 4:37 am

Delightful! Such beautiful and rich cultural architecture and visual styles!
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Donna Hull
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October 4, 2011 at 3:09 pm

Alex, Cairo was a smorgasboard of cultural styles. It was a fascinating visit. I hope the political situation will stabilize so that tourists want to visit.
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Heather on her travels
Twitter:
October 2, 2011 at 6:54 am

I’d love to take one of those lamps home for my hall – it must have been a paradise for shopping
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Donna Hull
Twitter:
October 3, 2011 at 9:14 am

If only I had brought an extra piece of luggage, I could have taken home some of those gorgeous lamps. However, this trip I chose carry-on only, which meant I was already packed to the gills!

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