One of the best things about Cairo is the never-ending discovery of parts of the city. However many times I go to Old Cairo, which houses the Hanging Coptic Church and the Ben Ezra Synagogue, and no matter how many times I step into Islamic Cairo of Al Azhar mosque and Khan el-Khalili, it really feels like there is something new to see. Having my mother visiting me in the city for a month has been a delightful chance to explore some of these places, enabling me to fall back in love with Cairo.
Our first stop was Al Azhar Park in Islamic Cairo, a stunning spot of about 74 acres of green spaces in the middle of an old and poorly kept area. It was created mainly by a fund from the Agha Khan Trust for Culture and cost more than US$30 million (Dh110.2m). Before its development, the park was nothing but a mound of rubble and garbage called Darassa, in between the eastern edge of the 12th century Ayyubid city and the City of the Dead. It was created in response to the growing size of Cairo, to provide a breathing space and a beautiful location for Egyptians to enjoy.
The views over the walls of the park are stunning. In the background the shadow of the Citadel was visible through the Cairo smog on a not-so-clear day, majestically overlooking the rest of the city. Underneath the park, slums sprawl far and wide, a reminder that many Egyptians may actually not be able to afford the $1 entrance fee. Planners have also developed archaeology around the area, namely the 12th century Ayyubid wall, and the 14th century Um Sultan Shaban Mosque. At each end of the park, cafes and restaurants provide a rest stop for strollers and those wishing to have a meal with a spectacular bird's eye view of the city. My mother was surprised to see such an expanse of greenery. Water bubbling in small fountains, man-made brooks and a small waterfall could be heard throughout the park, providing a relaxing atmosphere for visitors.
From the lushness of Al Azhar Park, I took my mom into the dustiness of the desert where we went to visit Saqarra - the stepped pyramid an hour outside of Cairo that I hadn't visited, despite three years of living in Egypt. Farther than the famed Giza pyramids, and not visited by tourists in the same numbers, Saqqara is a stunning testament to the power and majesty of the pharaohs. The massive burial ground, first used in the First Dynasty (around 3100BC) has a number of pyramids, including the famous Step Pyramid and the oldest known stone building complex. Egyptians continued to use the area as a burial site for more than 3,000 years and well into Roman times.
My mother loves music, and living in Canada one doesn't really have the opportunity to attend Arabic concerts. Which is why I also made sure to take her to the Tanoora show in the Ghoury Complex in Islamic Cairo. Inspired by the Sufi tradition, Egyptian male dancers wearing large, colourful skirts whirl to religious music sung by the a troupe specialising in Sufi and religious singing. While the Sufi dancers in Turkey wear pure white robes and seem to float on air as they whirl, the Tanoora dancers use their layers of colourful, patterned skirts and perform with smiles on their faces, encouraging the audience to interact with them. But the music is still very spiritual for those who understand Arabic and I caught my mom closing her eyes, moved by the words.
The performance hall itself adds to the magic of the occasion too. The Ghoury Complex, also known as Wekalet al Ghoury, is a stone structure from the Mamluk era originally built in 1504AD by Sultan Qunsuwah al Ghoury. It was a place used for rest by merchants and their horses. Inside, renovations to the building show stunning arches, mashrabeya windows and arabesque designs. Cool breezes that come in from the top of the building.
As an Arab living in Canada, most of the things you hear about Egypt come from Egyptian immigrants you socialise with. They mostly complain about the heat and the crowd and the traffic and the disorganisation, but hardly mention the hidden gems that must be sought out in the city. I'm hoping my mom will have something else to add to conversations about Egypt with her friends when she goes back home.
Hadeel al Schalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo.