The Egyptian pyramids, funerary monuments to pharaohs, are incredibly old, a testament to the wealth, government, and culture of ancient Egypt. Above, the first pyramid, the Step Pyramid of Djoser, was built in the 27th century BC, 4,800 years ago. The Egyptian pyramid fields are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As you’ll see, the pyramids are huge and precise. Building them required a civilization with manpower, engineering, and political will. Ancient Egypt had the wealth and organization to specialize crafts and devote tremendous resources to build these tombs, at a time when the rest of the world lagged far behind.
The initial tomb design was a mastaba, which “comes from the Arabic word for a bench of mud”. A mastaba is a solid structure of mud brick. Located in a Cairo suburb, the Step Pyramid is constructed with six steps of cut stone, with each step taking the form of a mastaba on top of the earlier one. Stone is stronger than mud brick, enabling a taller and more durable structure.
Our Jordanian guide told us about T. E. Lawrence and Jordan being surrounded by Israel and powerful Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Egypt. Steve, a person in our tour group, suggested reading Lawrence in Arabia. Knowing little beyond seeing Lawrence of Arabia starring Peter O’Toole, I took Steve’s advice.
Lawrence in Arabia was an eye-opener and sobering. The Middle East is important, and Lawrence played an outsized role. The British looked down on the Arabs. British diplomats lied to the Arabs to encourage their revolt, without intending to fulfill the Arab self-determination they promised.
Above are dunes of red sand at Wadi Rum, Jordan, where Lawrence passed through and where much of Lawrence of Arabia was filmed.
After the Gayer-Anderson Museum, we visited Cairo‘s Museum of Islamic Art, “considered one of the greatest in the world, with its exceptional collection of rare woodwork and plaster artefacts (sic), as well as metal, ceramic, glass, crystal, and textile objects of all periods, from all over the Islamic world.” As expected, the Islamic art focused on geometric and vegetal patterns and Arabic calligraphy.
The museum reopened in January 2017 after “a car bomb attack targeting the Cairo police headquarters on the other side of the street caused considerable damage to the museum and destroyed many artifacts” three years before. We noticed that the police headquarters has a curved blast wall that directs any blast away from the police building and toward the museum.
Inside, there were few visitors on a weekday afternoon, and the museum was excellent.
As we were leaving Cairo‘s Mosque of Ibn Tulun, our guide gestured to a building on the right and asked if we wanted to see the Gayer-Anderson Museum. It wasn’t on the itinerary we negotiated with the tour company, but we had considered it, so we said sure. We’re glad he asked. The museum is “one of the best-preserved examples of 17th-century domestic architecture left in Cairo”
Above, the minaret of the Mosque of Ibn Tulun is framed by the wooden latticework on the rooftop terrace of the Museum. This rooftop terrace was used in the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me.
“Islamic art has focused on the depiction of patterns, whether purely geometric or floral, and Arabic calligraphy, rather than on figures, because it is feared by many Muslims that the depiction of the human form is idolatry”. The Islamic artist has a palette that is more restricted than artists from most cultures; this art can be beautiful. This post shows examples of Islamic art from three mosques of Islamic Cairo, part of a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Above, the Citadel and Mosque of Mohammed Ali are on the hill above Islamic Cairo. Compare the pencil minarets of the Ottoman Mosque of Mohammed Ali with the stubbier minarets of the Mamluk-style mosques on the left. It doesn’t rain much in Cairo, so the predominant color is the sand of the surrounding deserts. After the Citadel, we visited Islamic Cairo and the two mosques on the left and a third mosque where I took this photo from a minaret.
We were surprised to learn that Egypt had been ruled by foreign powers for more than 2,000 years after the pharaohs. On a hill above Islamic Cairo, the Citadel had some buildings of these foreigner rulers:
The watchtower and other fortifications were built in the 12th century by the Arab Saladin, who took Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187.
The green dome in the center is the only mosque remaining from the Mamluks, former Turkish slaves who came to power in the 13th century.
In 1811, the Albanian Muhammad Ali invited hundreds of Mamluk leaders to a celebration for his son and slaughtered them, eliminating rivals for the control of Egypt. Mohammed Ali was aligned with the Ottoman Empire, and his Mosque of Mohammed Ali on the left is similar to Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia.
The Citadel and Islamic Cairo form a UNESCO World Heritage Site. “Founded in the 10th century, it (Cairo) became the new centre of the Islamic world, reaching its golden age in the 14th century.”
After seeing the Egyptian Museum, we visited Coptic Cairo, “a stronghold for Christianity in Egypt until the Islamic era”. About 10% of Egypt’s population is Christian. “It is believed in Christian tradition that the Holy Family visited this area.” The above mosaic from the Hanging Church depicts the Holy Family in Egypt.