On the other hand, it was hard to imagine relations warming anytime soon and who knows how things will play out once Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, 79, leaves the scene.
If we wanted to see the pyramids, visit the bazaars and eat authentic koshari now was the time to make a move.
El-Al flies to Cairo International Airport on Sunday and Thursday nights. Since we didn’t want to spend Shabbat in Egypt we took the Sunday flight which gave us four full days before our journey home late on Thursday.
Can you "do" Cairo in only four days?
Absolutely. In fact, we took it at a leisurely pace.
And still we made it to significant mosques, bazaars, the pyramids, the Egyptian museum, and a performance of whirling dervishes.
As we got to Ben-Gurion, we were curious about who else would be flying to Cairo besides us. Since the the Aksa Intifada exploded in September 2000, no Israeli citizen in our acquaintance had made the journey.
Most of the other passengers on the one-hour flight whom we presumed to be Jewish were transferring in Cairo. Also on board were Israeli Arabs and Christian pilgrims – tradition has it that Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus fled to Egypt in order to escape Herod’s “massacre of the innocents.”
And there were several Israeli “businessman-types” whom we imagined to be arms merchants on their way to some African hotspot.
We opted to travel on our US and British rather than Israeli passports and on arriving in Cairo purchased visas ($15 each) at the easy-to-miss foreign currency booth just before passport control.
We’d arranged through the Hilton Nile Hotel for a car and – what turned out to be a “fixer” – to meet us ($30 plus tips) just as we got off the plane.
It was reassuring to be greeted in this foreign port of call by a pleasant, well-dressed man holding a placard with our names on it. He helped us with our landing cards and withdrew to the other side of passport control where he later helped us retrieve our luggage.
Our fixer then escorted us, through no-go areas, past armed security men, to where hundreds of white-clad pilgrims, loaded down with immense parcels, had just returned from the haj in Mecca.
Outside the terminal we found ourselves thrust into a raucous scene.
There were cars, luggage wagons, and people jostling to inch their way out of the compound. In the parking lot, our fixer handed us over to a hotel chauffeur for the 30-minute drive to the Hilton which is located on the shores of the Nile.
Our first – and lasting impression – as we got closer to Cairo proper was of the unrelenting honking of car horns, the near absence of traffic lights, the madcap ways of Cairo drivers, and the ubiquitous, though ineffective, presence of traffic police and an assortment of security personnel everywhere one looked.
At the Nile Hilton compound, our car was cursorily checked by security men and a bomb-sniffing dog. At the entrance, we were ushered through a metal detector and into the serenity of the Hilton lobby.
It was an orderly oasis in an otherwise frenzied metropolis. A classical music ensemble played Mozart in a corner.
AFTER A good nights sleep in our comfortable, spacious 1970s-style room which included a large balcony overlooking Tahrir Square, the Egyptian Museum and the Arab League building, we headed upstairs for a buffet breakfast.
There was plenty of food we felt comfortable enjoying – eggs, vegetables, yogurt, humus, babaghanoush, cheeses, bread, coffee and tea.
We drank bottled water but used the hotel’s tap water for showering and brushing our teeth without any problems.
Though the hotel knew we were from Israel, service throughout our stay was prompt and solicitous. We asked that a tea-kettle and cups be brought to our room and within minutes they were provided.
FIRST THING Monday morning, our plan was to head straight for the Pyramids at Giza, some 45 minutes away.
We had organized a guide recommended through a local Israeli contact. But when it turned out she was indisposed and wouldn’t be able to join us until the following day, we put off the pyramids and headed instead, on our own by taxi, to the Mosque of al-Azhar, a key center of Islamic learning (founded in 970 CE), and located near the glitzy, bustling Khan al-Khalili bazaar, in a section called Islamic Cairo.
The taxis we encountered proved that there is life after mechanical death.
Their interiors tended to be skeletal; knobs and casings having been stripped away or atrophied sometime during the middle kingdom; windshield wipers? – a wasteful accessory.
Many drivers (not just of taxis) preferred to “save their battery” by not to using headlights after dark.
The appalling air-pollution, with cars belching fumes and burning oil, made us long for the blue skies and pristine mountain air of Jerusalem.
Just crossing the street in Cairo is a challenge. With few traffic lights, cavalier attitudes toward the occasional red light, and traffic police as abundant as they are indolent, we relied heavily on shadowing “human shields” – local denizens who are expert at dodging traffic coming from every which way – to get to a sidewalk.
MOST MOSQUES welcome visitors. All you do is tip the custodian to watch your shoes.
We were already familiar with the amplified call to prayer (five times a day) which has long been part of our Jerusalem experience. Muezzins call the faithful to worship from the minarets towers (which in Israel are often illuminated by green lighting at night).
Inside, all mosques have a mihrab, a sort of alcove, which indicates the direction of Mecca. Mosques are distinguished by their tiling, design, lamps, method of construction. But compared to cathedrals, mosques (like synagogues) are relative simple affairs.
We managed to visit the famous Azhar mosque and a half-dozen others including the Abbasid-era mud-brick Mosque of Ibn Tulun (879 CE), and the Mosque of Amr ibn al-Aas (640 CE) which was the first place of organized Islamic worship in Egypt.
That’s also where I bought a string of prayer beads (to help the faithful recall the 99 names of Allah).
Our favorite market was the Khan al-Khalili bazaar. It’s far larger and more varied than Jerusalem’s Old City shuk. You’ll find spices, water pipes, jewelry, trinkets, and places to grab a snack including a pancake café and Arab-style tea room.
We didn’t actually buy anything despite the best efforts of the hawking merchants. Mostly we enjoyed stealing away from the narrow touristy alleyways, to where fewer trinkets and more staples (chicken, meat, and vegetables) were being sold.
ON TUESDAY, the moment we’d been waiting for had arrived.
Together with our guide Iman and a van driver, we’re off the see the pyramids.
We’d imagined that we’d have to traverse a sandy desert until, at last, we’d spy these great wonders. Not so.
Cairo’s huge metropolis (16 million people) leads directly, once you cross the Nile, into Giza whose crumbling buildings and squalid appearance also define large tracts of Cairo proper.
It was only on the way home that we saw Western-style middle-class apartment blocks in the suburbs near the airport.
At any rate, nothing – not the hordes of tourists, not the vehicles clogging the access roads, not the locals trying to sell us everything from camel rides to kaffiyehs, not the huge number of security men – nothing ultimately could detract from the sight of these awesome, monumental tombs built 5,000 years ago.
These immense structures emblemize a civilization that predates the Biblical stories of the Israelite patriarchs and matriarchs.
We explore the terrain, walking (and driving) around the pyramids, visiting the “solar boat” museum containing an actual, reconstructed, full-size Egyptian boat which had been used to transport royal corpses for burial, and we later gawk at the iconic Sphinx which guards the Giza plateau.
Then it is back to Old Cairo for a visit to the heavily-guarded Ben Ezra Synagogue, Egypt’s oldest, and now a museum.
Ben Ezra is also famous for its treasure-drove of sacred texts discovered in its geniza by Solomon Schechter in 1896.
Iman also shows us the nearby Church of St. Sergius, the oldest Coptic Church in Cairo.
ON WEDNESDAY, we dodge the traffic of modern Cairo to walk from our hotel to the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue, where services are held only if enough foreigners happen to be in town.
Most of Wednesday is devoted to a visit to the cold and jammed corridors of the Egyptian Museum.
The museum is a throwback to an earlier era.
Precious little is protected by climate controlled casings. The lighting is poor. The floors are densely packed with artifacts, strewn warehouse-like. Many of the exhibits are unmarked and poorly described. Only some objects have code numbers matching an old handbook loaned to us by a cousin who’d been here decades earlier.
We allowed about three hours for strolling around.
Our favorite exhibit was the lavish Tutankhamun gallery which is set off within the museum building. Also worth searching for is the wood-carved statue of Ka-Aper.
Like at the pyramids, we just kept reminding ourselves that we were in the presence of objects that were practically as old as history itself.
It had probably been a mistake not to have paid an additional entrance fee for the Royal Mummy Room. But after hours inside we were starting to suffer museum fatigue and were glad to have chalked-off another tourist milestone.
AN UNQUALIFIED highlight of our Cairo visit came Wednesday night when we took a taxi to the Al-Ghouri Complex in Islamic Cairo to see a performance of Whirling Dervishes.
These are Sufi Muslim mystics who use musical instruments and, ecstatic, trance-inducing whirling to achieve a closer connection with God.
Security was tight because of long-simmering tensions between the mystics and Islamists. But we were gratified that the audience included locals as well as tourists.
ON THURSDAY, our final day in Cairo, we asked Iman to come back and show us a neighborhood where “regular” people live.
She took us back to Islamic Cairo where the medieval walled city of Cairo once stood.
It had rained the night before and that had overwhelmed the city’s decaying sewer system.
We trudged through the muddied streets (there being no sidewalks to speak of) and watched as Cairones cleared the areas in front of their shops and stalls.
This walk, and one we had earlier taken in Old Cairo on our own, reinforced the impression that many people live in squalid, crowded, rundown conditions, but that basic foods were plentiful and, apparently, affordable.
There was plenty of fresh meat and chicken to be had though some people looked too poor afford it.
A loaf of bread, subsidized by the government, costs about 5 pennies (US) -- though corruption means that the cheap bread is hard to come by.
Presumably, of the 80 million Egyptians, people living in the capital are among the better off. The average annual income in Egypt is $1,250, but some 45 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day; and a staggering 14 million are in dire poverty even by Egyptian standards.
THE CAIRENES we met were generally friendly and curious, though no one was affable out of sheer bonhomie.
People were insistent (a tad in-your-face), but never hostile or threatening.
“Do you want taxi?” we’d often be asked -- even if not necessarily by someone who had a taxi. Everyone wanted to be a fixer.
“Welcome, where from?” was the unvarying greeting.
“England,” we’d reply – knowing that acknowledging we were from Israel would be unwise.
“Happy New Year, Merry Christmas,” the reply came (it was the Muslim New Year as well as the Coptic Christmas during our visit).
JEWISH CAIRO – On one of our walks , we came upon the derelict Ben-Maimon synagogue. There are 12 shuls still standing in Cairo, seven are in the custody of the antiquities authorities, but there is obviously no budget to renovate and maintain most of them.
At any given time there are fewer than 100 Jews in Cairo.
When I put on my tefillin in the morning, I was keenly aware that I might be the only Jew davening in all of Egypt. But the portion of the week was “Bo” – and come to Pharaoh we did.
Locals estimate that there are perhaps 40 indigenous Egyptian Jews most of whom are elderly widows. The putative head of the community is Carmen Weinstein (whom we did not meet). Her main goal, according to press reports, is to preserve and rehabilitate Cairo’s Jewish communal assets without raising the ire of the authorities who do not want to pay reparations for confiscated or nationalized Jewish property.
Across from our hotel, we passed street vendors selling Arabic editions of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Mein Kompf alongside the daily papers and various magazines. There must be a market, probably fed by the Egyptian media’s nasty depictions of Jews and Israel.
So wearing a kipa or letting strangers know you are Jewish or an Israeli is plainly not a good idea.
Still, Egyptians adamantly protest that they are not anti-Jewish, only stridently anti-Israel (despite the peace treaty) because of what they say is Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian Arabs and the “occupation.”
The only book shop we found that carried English-language books about the Arab-Israel conflict not knee-jerk hostile toward Israel was also the overall best source of English-language material we came upon: the book store on the campus of the American University of Cairo.
SOUVENIRS – If like us you don’t much fancy bazaar haggling, it might be worth your while to track down the brilliant gift shop run by Maryse and Ismail Borhan at 17 Ahmed Ibn Touloun Square, just opposite the Tulun Mosque and down the block from another gem, the Gayer-Anderson Museum, which is a complex of homes restored by a British officers in the 1930s.
FOOD - We had no trouble with food in Cairo. In addition to our hotel breakfast, we enjoyed Koshari, a dish comprised of pasta, rice, lentils, tomato sauce, fried onions and (for Elliot) some hot sauce.
We also ate falafel (made of fava beans and parsley) as opposed the Israeli falafel made of chickpeas.
We particularly enjoyed a meal at L’Aubergine, in the Zamalek area, which while not strictly vegetarian, has a good veggie menu and is geared to expats and visitors.
It’s no hassle ordering wine or beer in Western-friendly restaurants (except on Muslim holidays).