x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Cairo's many treasures

A short break in Egypt's beleaguered capital proves a rich, rewarding and unexpectedly relaxing experience.

A busy street in Cairo. Rosemary Behan / The National
A busy street in Cairo. Rosemary Behan / The National

"Are you married or still happy?" My driver, Ashraf, makes light amid the Thursday lunchtime gridlock. It takes 90 minutes to get from the airport to my hotel on the Corniche - plenty of time for him to tell me that his salary has dropped to 700 Egyptian pounds [Dh400] a month because of a lack of tourists and quiz me on all aspects of my life. In response I practise my Arabic, which delights him: "You are queen woman, not ordinary woman!"

Ashraf says the traffic has become even worse since the revolution "because now nobody respects the policeman". I'm just happy not to be robbed as we crawl through some of Cairo's poorest neighbourhoods. My destination, the Fairmont Nile City, part of a vast, multimillion dollar development by Nile City Investments, is heavily fortified with concrete blocks after an incident in which a protester from a local slum entered the property and tried to stab a security guard. Some of the front windows are still cracked when I visit but the momentary chaos has been replaced by elevator music and a reassuring air of calm.

I cool off in the rooftop pool before a sensational lunch from Syrian head chef Adnan Oukla on the outdoor terrace at Bab El Nil, on the hotel's first floor (the interior is a colourful collage of Egyptian pop art). Barbecued chicken wings in a zingy pomegranate sauce, spicy potatoes, fatoush and sautéed chicken livers are served with fresh bread. The fresh mango juice is so deliciously dense I have to eat it with a spoon.

I have a massage in the lovely new Willow Stream spa on the hotel's upper floors, and as the sun sets I banish all thoughts of the massage rooms being invaded by marauding protesters. I feel similarly cocooned in my room on the 11th floor, which has a fabulous view over the river to Zamalek and is insulated from the pollution and incessant beeping of horns but not the late-night antics of in-house wedding guests.

Down in the Saigon Lounge, a melancholic bartender tells me he is still nursing a broken heart because of a cancelled engagement a year ago: "I have tried to meet other people but I am living in the past - and planning in the past."

The past is uppermost in mind the next morning when I set off for a tour of Saqqara and Memphis with Ashraf and 26-year-old tour guide Mina Botros. Botros puts the age of the ruins and the current political strife neatly in context: "The Muslims conquered Egypt in AD 641. The French occupied for only three years, the British 40. Our last revolution was in 1952. The Old Kingdom takes us back to 2,686 BC and it lasted for more than 500 years."

The first ruler of the Old Kingdom was Djoser, and it was he - along with his powerful official Imhotep - who ordered the building of the Step Pyramid at a vast mortuary at Saqqara, some 20 kilometres out of town. It takes less than an hour to reach the site, as Ashraf speeds us unceremoniously across flyovers and out into the countryside. The rubbish and decay decrease as we leave the city and soon it's a beautiful drive past sugarcane fields and through villages filled with livestock and donkey carts piled high with dates and corn.

Even 4,500 years after its construction, the pyramid - the first complete building made of cut stone - is visible from some distance as we approach. Botros tells me that an even older pyramid has recently been located beneath the Earth's surface using Google Earth, but has yet to be excavated.

It's a clear day and from the edge of the ruined complex we can see miles into the distance, including the Bent Pyramid at the adjacent pyramid field of Dahshur. The Bent Pyramid was so named because the angle of inclination was changed during its construction. "This was when they were first learning how to build pyramids," Mina says, almost embarrassed. "Think of it like a baby crawling."

Never busy compared with the much larger Giza pyramids, Saqqara received between 300 and 1,000 visitors a day before the 2011 revolution. "Now they are lucky to get 100 per day", says Botros, a fact confirmed by the trickle of visitors I see and the closure of the famous mastabas of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep. Neither can we go inside the Step Pyramid - "but that's because it will collapse," Botros says.

From Saqqara we make our way to nearby Memphis, the capital of the Old Kingdom. By Memphis one actually means a collection of ruins near the modern-day small town of Mit Rahina. We visit the low-key museum complex and see the city's well-preserved sphinx and a giant statue of Ramses II lying on its back. We are the only visitors and, while this is sad news for the empty souvenir-stall holders, I appreciate the lack of hassle and easy, crowd-free photos.

It's a different story the next day at the Egyptian Museum. Located just off Tahrir Square, I'd expected to find it deserted. Alas, Mina tells me, Saturdays and Tuesdays are still busy because that's when the package-tour groups on day trips from Luxor and Hurghada visit - and his point is proved by the crowds queuing to get in at 9am. The ticket office tells me that, on average, the museum receives between 1,000 and 1,500 tourists per day, down from between 5,000 and 10,000 daily before the revolution.

Inside, we cut through the crowds and the clutter of objects to see the ancient statues of Kephren, the owner of the second pyramid of Giza; a scribe whose rusted copper eyeliner has turned green; a 7.5-centimetre-tall statue of King Cheops, made of ivory; and The Geese of Meidum, a startlingly fresh-looking painting more than 4,500 years old. "The paints were made with coal and egg mixed with copper, iron and limestone," Mina says. "After it dried, they gave it a coat of egg white." I'm also shown a depiction of a Saqqara man being beaten for not paying his taxes, and carved letters in stone about war and problems on Egypt's borders - all still familiar issues.

Mina says that, while some objects were stolen or damaged during looting in 2011, they were quickly replaced with items from the museum's vast storerooms. Still hugely popular are the first-floor mummy rooms (an extra charge of 100 pounds [Dh56] applies) and the room containing Tutankhamun's mask. In the mummy room, Queen Hatshepsut, the great female pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, is described as "an obese female with bad teeth who died between the ages of 45 and 60". The diminutive Tutmoses I still has his eyelashes and teeth, while Tutmoses IV, who died at the age of 30 almost 3,500 years ago, still has an almost-full head of hair and manicured fingernails.

"Still to this day nobody really knows how the ancient Egyptians did it," Mina says proudly. "No one has been able to replicate this mummification technique."

Tutankhamun, who ruled almost as long ago between the ages of 10 and 20 and died suddenly "of a brain tumour or gangrene", according to Mina, was fashioned a funerary mask made from 110kg of pure gold "because at the time silver was more expensive than gold". This hasn't deterred the five-strong crowd that surrounds his mask, and I only manage a brief glimpse.

I make my way through the less-crowded upper galleries that are filled with early chess sets, the first hand fan ever made, complete with ivory and ostrich feathers, folding chairs and beds, stone hinges found at Saqqara, umbrellas and a pair of Tutankhamun's underpants.

Outside in the museum grounds I meet a friend for coffee in the overpriced, low-quality cafe. It's metres away from the burnt-out remains of the National Democratic Party's headquarters; we walk across Tahrir Square, quiet at the time of my visit, to the American University of Cairo and the colourful graffiti on its walls along Mohamed Mahmoud Street.

For just 10 pounds (Dh5) we take a taxi to the serene Al Azhar Park (www.alazharpark.com), where we have lunch overlooking the Citadel before wandering back down the hill through medieval Islamic Cairo. While parts of the old city feature souvenir stalls and tourist cafes, I'm pleasantly surprised at how little has been modernised.

One real improvement is that there is now a single ticket to visit all of Islamic Cairo's monuments. Instead of paying (or bribing) entry into each place for 100 pounds (Dh50), you can now see them all. Highlights include the pedestrianised Muizz Street, which houses the tomb of Negm Al Din Al Salih Ayyub, the last descendant of Salahaddin to rule Egypt, and the Qalawun complex and Bayt Al Suhaymi.

Back in Zamalek, we go to the opening of an exhibition by graffiti artist Ganzeer at the Safar Khan Gallery at 6 Brazil Street (www.safarkhan.com) before dinner at the Cairo Kitchen, a hip, modern restaurant serving delicious and healthy traditional Egyptian street food (118, 26th July Street; blog.cairokitchen.com). We finish off with an hour-long private felucca ride on the Nile with legendary boatman Dok Dok (landing at Garden City, opposite the Four Seasons Hotel on the Corniche, from 30 pounds [Dh17] per hour).

Returning to the Fairmont, I sink into the most comfortable bed I've ever slept in. The following morning I fight my way across the fume-filled street to the river which is full of fishermen setting out for a new day. I leave Cairo rejuvenated, which says much about the spirit of survival in this creaking, poverty-stricken, smog-choked but otherwise rich city of 17 million.


If you go

The flight A four-hour, direct flight to Cairo from Abu Dhabi with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) costs from Dh1,270 return, including taxes

The hotel Double rooms at the Fairmont Nile City (www.fairmont.com; 00 20 22 461 9494) cost from US$238 (Dh875) per night, including taxes