Cairo is a fascinating city, the largest in Africa and one of the largest, most densely populated and polluted in the world, with a population of over nine million. The bustling city is located along the Nile River, about 100 miles from the Mediterranean Sea, and close to many of Egypt’s historic sites. It is the political, economic, commercial, cultural and educational center of Egypt.
My third, recent visit to Cairo was quite different from the two previous ones. This time I didn’t stay in a small traditional “boutique” hotel in the buzzing city center or in one of the historic hotels in Giza close to the pyramids, but in the modern suburb of Heliopolis, established in the early 1900s in eastern Cairo, relatively close to the International Airport and about 30 minutes ride from the city center. My business clients as well as my hotel were both situated there.
The first thing that hit my eye as I was coming from the airport was the traffic. It had become even more congested since my last visit a few years ago. I didn’t think that would be possible, but obviously I was wrong. A myriad of cars were negotiating their way at each intersection (there are very few traffic lights in Cairo), traveling in high speeds in three lanes on a two lane street, and passing around each other horns blaring, many times with an inch or less to spare. Most cars were newer models but many bore more or less visible signs of frequent close encounters.
Death-defying pedestrians crossing the streets between the vehicles added to the somewhat nervous excitement of travelling by car in Cairo. It’s a miracle that not more accidents happen, but I assume everyone is so accustomed to the unspoken rules of the road that somehow the traffic moves without a constant gridlock. The fast and the brave definitely rule the streets!
The second thing that caught my eye was the frequency of many beautiful buildings, both residential and for office use, in this new part of Cairo.
I learned that the specific style common in Heliopolis was a result of a merger of Moorish Revival, Persian Revival, traditional Arabic and European neoclassical architectural styles. These different styles were integrated successfully with an eye pleasing end result visible in the detailing of the facades. I also had an opportunity to visit a few newer buildings where the meld of these different styles had created stunning interior spaces with beautiful detailing and functional floor plans.
This part of the city is also diverse religion-wise, hosting mosques as well as Coptic and catholic churches.
Heliopolis is an affluent suburb, which also means it has modern shopping centers. To my surprise I encountered here the biggest and most extravagant shopping mall I have ever visited, the City Stars Mall. I ventured there to visit a restaurant serving Egyptian food, but that is probably the only authentic feature of the mall – it could be situated in any busy metropolitan city in the world.
This mall is huge, eight stories high above ground (if I counted correctly) and accommodates all possible designer shops and clothing stores you can imagine, shops for art, electronics, toys, you name it. It hosts a huge food court that could be found in any large mall anywhere in the world – complete with fast food from every thinkable country.
It also hosts many restaurants, some serving authentic Egyptian dishes and others featuring Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Mediterranean and American fare. Starbucks is also represented here, in the country of great Arabian coffee. Modern times indeed.
Due to a busy work schedule, I didn’t get an opportunity to visit the pyramids again on this trip, but I ventured to other parts of the city on some of the evenings after work for dining and more authentic shopping adventures. I will share some of these experiences in separate posts in the coming days.