March 18, 2012

Glance on Cairo Tourism

The hundreds of first-time visitors I have taken around Cairo are usually most impressed by two places in particular. Their emotions are first touched as they enter the city and come out onto the banks of the Nile, traveling along the road from the airport. And many have had their breath taken away when they first see one of the Great Pyramids. They are finally seeing with their own eyes something they have been told about all their lives. At last they can confirm the actual existence of something which was no more than a shadow in their minds before.

Cairo Tourism
Viewed from above, the desert stretches out in all directions, the color of cafe au lait, divided only by the Nile, a blue ribbon running in an almost straight line across the country from north to south. Some say that since the completion of the Aswan High Dam, the waters of the Nile have become much clearer, and many think that the fertile loam which used to be carried down to the Delta from the upper reaches of the river is now trapped by the dam.

Where the Nile passes through central Cairo, two famous islands rise out of the river, resembling a pair of floating battleships. These are the islands of Gezira, in the north, and Roda, in the south. By tradition, long-time foreign residents of Cairo live in the expensive and luxurious apartments surrounded by trees in the Zamalek district on the island of Gezira. I was fortunate to find an apartment in this district and I rented it for the time I was living in Cairo. One of the visitors I entertained in my apartment was worried that if the area was flooded when the waters of the Nile rose I might drown. I was able to assure him that, unlike the time of the Pharaohs, the amount of water carried down by the Nile is now strictly controlled.

In the center of Gezira Island is a fully equipped sports club which includes golf links, a racetrack, a swimming pool and football field. The racetrack’s fame escalated when the cover of the Israeli spy-Wolfgang Lotz was broken. Masquerading as a racehorse breeder from West Germany, Lotz came and went freely to the racecourse, becoming an intimate of high-ranking politicans and army officers. Living a life as luxurious as that of a James Bond, he was dubbed the “Champagne Spy.”

Standing at the southern edge of the Sports Club is the Cairo Tower, built, so it is said, with funds from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. The money was apparently given to Nasser, who felt it should be used for the country, so he had the tower built. The story is that the CIA secretly built a device at the base of the tower which would have enabled them to blow it up from a ship in the Mediterranean by remote control. When Nasser made his proclamation nationalizing the Suez Canal, John Foster Dulles, then U.S. secretary of state, allegedly ordered the tower be blown up, but before the order could be carried out, Nasser’s intelligence officers discovered the device and disarmed it. As a result, the tower is still standing. From the observatory on the roof it is possible to see all of Cairo spread out below, and to look right across to the Great Pyramids. From the tower’s height, the great width of the Nile flowing past becomes apparent.

Two bridges link Gezira Island to the east bank of the Nile, where the government ministries and other municipal buildings are located. The northern bridge, which gives its name to the road it carries, is called the 26 of July Bridge. It was given the name in 1952, in commemoration of the day when King Farouk signed his abdication, marking the success of the Republican Revolution. On the same day, four years later, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, so that the date has a special significance for Egyptian nationalism. The southern bridge, its approaches guarded by four stone lions, has a name that is also connected with the revolution. Liberation Bridge is crossed by a road of the same name which passes by the Hilton Hotel where it looks out over Tahrir Square. The names of both bridges seem to reflect the deep political consideration of the leaders of the time, because each of them carries one of the two trunk roads of Cairo.
Gezira Island Cairo
The conglomeration of skyscapers on the east bank of the Nile, which were built following the revolution, is popularly known as “Nasser’s Pyramids.” At the northern end of the complex is Television Center, a huge, cylindrical building. Not far from it is the headquarters of the most powerful political party in Egypt, the Arab Socialist Union, as well as the Hilton Hotel and the head office of the Arab League. During the time of the British occupation of Egypt, British troops were garrisoned in this area. Strategically positioned, they could close the bridges immediately at the first sign of unrest among the Egyptians and protect the civilians living in the foreign quarter of Gezira Island.

Television Center contains not only transmission centers for both radio and television, but also the Ministry of Information and the Press Center, the haunt of resident and visiting foreign journalists alike. During my stay in Cairo, I drove to the Press Center everyday from my apartment in Zamalek.

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