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Captivating Cairo

by Laura Gelder | 18 January 2018

“Are these actually Tutankhamun’s flip flops?” I ask, straining over our guide’s shoulder to see a golden, jewelled pair of thonged sandals resting on the worktop. They wouldn’t look out of place in my local branch of Accessorize, yet they are over 3,000 years old.

The director of the not-yet-complete Grand Egyptian Museum is taking us on a tour of its restoration labs, unveiling delicate papyruses painted with mesmerising hieroglyphics, ornate furniture intended for a luxurious afterlife and even items from the Pharaoh’s wardrobe – many of it never seen by the public.

We enter the chilled stillness of the stone restoration room, where rows of statues – kings and queens, gods and goddesses – stand together and stare at us with calm and trusting eyes. Off the wide and clinical corridoors are various rooms, signs above the door indicating their speciality: 'wood', 'fabric' and 'human remains'. I peer through the glass windows of the last to see a white-coated Egyptologist bent over a wizened mummy.

The Museum is set to open in 2018 and, thanks to a huge injection of foreign investment, will house the first full collection of the young king’s treasures, painstakingly restored with new techniques, including the use of fine washi paper from Japan, and housed in a complex just a short drive from the pyramids we visited earlier.

These monolithic Toblerone tombs stand like sentries between the city and the desert and gave me my first blast of primordial energy as I climbed into the cool, dark passageway and crawled up the steep, narrow chimney to an eerily empty burial chamber.

Outside its tombs and climate-controlled museums, Cairo thrums with a different kind of energy. The notorious traffic is both sluggish and antagonistic, belting out exhaust fumes and a cacophony of horns. The grime of pollution clings to the buildings, even new ones. Around the ring roads are clusters of unfinished apartment blocks with windows like dead eyes. We pass a man thumbing for a lift on the side of the road, surrounded by trash but pristine in his white gallibaya.

Downtown, if you look up from the dingy shop fronts they give way to curved wrought iron balconies, green-painted shutters and beautifully-carved stonework reminiscent of Paris or Rome. But from the next flyover we look down into gaudy markets and dimly-lit, industrious alleyways which couldn’t be anywhere but Africa.

Next stop is the Egyptian Museum, the city's current home for antiquities, housed in a pink stone building which couldn't be less state-of-the-art if it tried but I hope that never changes. Inside, arranged around columns are an astounding collection of statues, some so huge and monolithic it's hard to imagine how they got here.

Upstairs, the vaulted ceilings and archways give way to gallery upon gallery lined with dusty wooden cabinets displaying artefacts ranging from broken pottery to scarab beetles adorned with gem stones, gleaming softly. The pièce de résistance is Tutankhamun's golden mask, respendent under spotlights and inlaid with blue, turquioise, red and white semi-precious stones. His eyes are lined with bright blue lapiz lasuli, making the whites sparkle and his huge, obsidian pupils stare defiantly.

It's time to leave the past and experience modern Cairo. Lunch is served by fez-topped waiters at Naguib Mahfouz, a Cairo institution named after the Nobel Prize-winning local novelist. It sits somewhere in the labyrinthine Khan El Khalili Bazaar, surrounded by dark shops piled high with brass lanterns, carpets, silk scarves, spices and tourist tat.

We tuck into chargrilled chicken, crisp Egyptian falafel, made from fava beans rather than chick peas, and mop up silky hummus and baba ganoush with warm, crusty flat breads, finishing with coffee as thick as creosote to fortify us for some haggling.

That night, as the sun sinks behind the tower blocks and the call to prayer echoes its last through the streets, we head to the Ambassador’s residence for dinner. Tucked away from the honking and tooting, the white building with its colonial columns is everything you’d expect from an Ambassador’s residence. Black and white photos of politicians and dignitaries line the walls, antique vases top polished sideboards and crystal chandeliers light the room.

I sip wine on the terrace overlooking the shadowed garden, looking hopefully for a pyramid of Ferrero Rocher to round the corner. We are addressed by senior staff from the embassy and our hosts Abercrombie and Kent, all hopeful and positive that tourism to Egypt is bouncing back. Tomorrow we're headed for the Nile and the heartland of Ancient Egypt, so we'll see for ourselves.

Read more about Egypt next Thursday.

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