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History of Cairo

Cairo is one of the most visited cities in human history. Over the centuries, it's played host to Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks, the French and the English, among others. Two million tourists continue to flood the city daily. Were Cairo's historic visitors able to come back and join this throng, would they recognize the place? We thought we'd take a look at Cairo through their eyes and begin our journey with The Savvy Traveler's Tom Verde, just south of Cairo in Memphis.

History of Cairo
by by Tom Verde

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What lower Manhattan is to the city of New York, so Memphis is to Cairo. It's the city's birthplace, though unlike lower Manhattan, it's now deserted except for busloads of tourists who come to take pictures of the gigantic, toppled statue of Pharaoh Rameses II, about all that's left of his city by the Nile.

Guide: "Rameses II, like you see, the statue is made out of limestone. The stone is brought from..."

History of Cairo

As my well-intentioned but tedious guide bludgeoned me with details, I looked around the small, park-like setting and tried to imagine what the place must have looked like when the Greek historian Herodotus visited here in 450 B.C. Memphis was already 2,500 years old by then, founded, Herodotus writes, by Menes, first king of Egypt.

Herodotus: "By Menes, first king of Egypt, on land which had been drained by the diversion of the Nile. There are a great many vessels on the river, the masts of acantha wood, the sails of papyrus. The Temple of Hephaestus stands within the city, a vast edifice. Two colossal statues, carved of the stone of Ethiopia, stand on either side of the Temple. The priests wear linen garments, shave their whole body every other day, that no lice may adhere to them, and wear shoes of papyrus."

History of Cairo

Though Herodotus is sometimes accused of stretching the truth, his report on the religious significance of Memphis was accurate. Even after subsequent pharaohs established new capitals at Thebes and Alexandria, Memphis continued to be the place where Egypt's kings were crowned.

But by the third century A.D., the Nile had shifted, leaving Memphis high and dry beneath a merciless sun, while scavengers and the hot desert wind destroyed most of its temples.

Islam was Egypt's new religion in the 7th century, when the Arabs established a military encampment just north of Memphis, an outpost that would eventually become the modern city of Cairo. The old capital continued to impress travelers, however, men like the Arab historian Abd al-Latif, who visited Memphis in the late 12th century.

History of Cairo

Abd al-Latif: "In spite of efforts to wipe out the city's most minute traces by shipping away its stones, wrecking its buildings, and mutilating the images with which they were adored, still its ruins present a combination of wonders that confound the understanding. The more the whole is considered, the greater the admiration it inspires."

Florence Nightengale: "Memphis! Beautiful, poetic, melancholy Memphis. No one had prepared us for its beauty."

Arriving here by donkey seven centuries later, Victorian-era nurse and hospital reformer Florence Nightengale was just so inspired by the ancient Egyptian capital. Of all the places she visited during a tour of Egypt in 1849, none impressed her so much as the ruins of Memphis.

Florence Nightengale: "I have seen nothing like it except in my dreams. Old palm trees, little pink flowers, delicate dwarf irises, here and there a flock of goats. And in a grassy hollow, by a bright pool of water, lies the statue of Rameses. I had rather look upon that face again than upon anything in Egypt. The art is so perfect that the stone has all the softness of flesh: the high, broad nostril, the short upper lip, and the moulded brow. You're afraid to touch these colossal stone features, for fear of insulting him, and yet he lies so calmly. Memphis has wound itself round my heart, made itself a place in my imagination. I have walked there with Rameses, and with him I shall always return."

Guide: "Rameses here, if you look to the forehead..."

The pool of water is gone, but Rameses still lies here, gazing at a protective canopy now instead of the heavens, as the crowds still come to stare in wonder at him and at the dust of one of the oldest cities on earth.

In Memphis, I'm Tom Verde for The Savvy Traveler

Join Tom next week as he takes us to the pyramids in the company of Napoleon's troops and others on The Savvy Traveler.

Thanks go to Kate MacCluggage, Hunter Steibel and David Jaffee, director of the National Theater Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT for their help in this production.

History of Cairo


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