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the Minarets of Cairo

Cairo has played innkeeper throughout the centuries for millions traveling to and from Asia and Europe. Like travel today, the quality of the accommodations depended on who you were and how much you were willing to spend. In the final segment of our series on Egypt's capital through the eyes of historic visitors, The Savvy Traveler's Tom Verde finds us a bed for the night in Cairo of the past.

Cairo: History's Crossroads
by Tom Verde

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The Egyptians are famous for their hospitality, a cultural tradition that dates back to Biblical times, when a traveling family from Bethlehem came looking for a room.

Mathew 2:13: "The angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, 'Arise, and take the young child and his mother and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him."

the Minarets of Cairo

Legend has it that the Holy Family stayed a night or two in Cairo during their flight to Egypt. The fifth-century church of St. Sergius supposedly marks the spot where they took refuge. Sergius is one of many Christian pilgrimage sites in the city, a reason the Crusaders were so keen to get their hands on the Egyptian capital. Even though these Christian invaders were considered infidels, the Muslim caliph Al-Adid extended characteristic Egyptian hospitality to a party of knights negotiating Cairo's surrender in 1167. The medieval archbishop William of Tyre recorded the details of their reception in the magnificent Eastern Palace.

William of Tyre: "They were conducted into a large and spacious court open to the sky. There were marble fish pools; birds of many kinds, unknown to our part of the world. Curtains embroidered with pearls hung before the throne of gold where the caliph sat, surrounded by his counselors. After dismissing the envoys, he sent them gifts in token of his royal liberality."

the Minarets of Cairo

The palace is long gone. Today, the Khan al Khalili, Cairo's oldest bazaar, now stands in it's place. Though many a soldier has passed this way since the Crusaders' time, not all have received such royal treatment. Major T.K. Detroye, an officer in Napoleon's army during the French occupation of Cairo in 1798, couldn't wait to get back home.

Detroye: "Once you enter Cairo, what do you find? No comfort, not a single convenience. Flies, mosquitoes, a thousand insects are waiting to take possession of you during the night. Bathed in sweat, exhausted, you spend the hours devoted to rest, itching and breaking out in boils. You rise in the morning, unutterably sick, bleary-eyed and queasy, your body covered with pimples and ulcers. Another day begins, the exact copy of the one before."

the Minarets of Cairo

A good way to avoid Cairo's squalor was to enjoy it from the river. In the mid-nineteenth century, traveling up the Nile in a lavishly outfitted dahabieh, an Egyptian houseboat, was the preferred method. Or so said nurse and hospital reformer Florence Nightengale, who made such a journey in the winter of 1849.

Nightengale: "Our dahabieh, they say, is the best boat on the river. The sitting cabin is a pretty little room, painted with green panels, and a divan all around. Beyond the river, the pyramids loom large in the twilight, frogs sing, and the deep quiet of those solemn waters is so soothing, so gentle, that you could hardly perceive the motion."

Visiting Egypt in Nightengale's day was often a do-it-yourself adventure that meant hiring your own guides, transportation, etc. Yet rapid developments in rail and sea travel around the turn of the century soon put the region within easy reach of Europe. Before long, a new character emerged on the shores of the Nile, the package tourist.

Edwards: "The great dining room at Shepheard's Hotel in Cairo overfills during the height of the Egyptian season with persons of all ranks, nationalities and pursuits."

the Minarets of Cairo

As Victorian-era English travel writer Amelia Edwards reported, the elegant Shepheard's Hotel was to the place to be and be seen when in Cairo.

Edwards: "Nine-tenths of the guests are English or American. The rest, mostly German, with a sprinkling of Belgian and French. There are invalids in search of health; artists in search of subjects; sportsmen keen on crocodiles; collectors of papyri and mummies; and the usual surplus of idlers who travel for the mere love of travel."

A gas station now occupies the spot where Cairo's most prestigious hotel once stood, razed by a fire in 1952. Years later, Helnan, an international hotel chain, built a new Shepheard's overlooking the Nile. A lovely hotel in a beautiful location, but there's no recapturing the glory of the original. Still, in a city as rich in history as Cairo, the past is never very far away.

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

Thanks go to Kate Jennings, Simon Holt, Robert Da Pont, Kate MacCluggage and Catherine Drew for their help in this production.


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