May 4, 2012

Khan El Khalile in Cairo Egypt and Interesting Facts

Somewhere to Stay, 1855
Richard Burton

The “Wakalah”, as the Caravanserai or Khan is called in Egypt, combines the office of hotel, lodging-house, and store. It is at Cairo, as at Constantinople, a massive pile of buildings surrounding a quadrangular “Hosh” or court-yard. On the ground-floor are rooms like caverns for merchandise, and shops of different kinds tailors, cobblers, bakers, tobacconists, fruiterers, and others.

Khan El Khalile
A roofless gallery or a covered verandah, into which all the apartments open, runs round the first and sometimes the second story: the latter, however, is usually exposed to the sun and wind. The accommodations consist of sets of two or three rooms, generally an inner one and an outer; the latter contains a hearth for cooking, a bathing- place, and similar necessaries.

The staircases are high, narrow, and exceedingly dirty; dark at night, and often in bad repair; a goat or donkey is tethered upon the different landings; here and there a fresh skin is stretched in process of tanning, and the smell reminds the veteran traveller of those closets in the old French inn where cats used to be prepared for playing the part of jugged hare.

The interior is unfurnished; even the pegs upon which clothes are hung have been pulled down for fire-wood: the walls are bare but for stains, thick cobwebs decend in festoons from the blackened rafters of the ceiling, and the stone floor would disgrace a civilised prison: the windows are huge apertures carefully barred with wood or iron, and in rare places show remains of glass or paper pasted over the framework. In the court-yard the poorer sort of travellers consort with tethered beasts of burden, beggars howl, and slaves lie basking and scratching themselves upon mountainous heaps of cotton bales and other merchandise.

This is not a tempting picture, yet is the Wakalah a most amusing place, presenting a succession of scenes which would delight lovers of the Dutch school a rich exemplification of the grotesque, and what is called by artists the “dirty picturesque”.

I could find no room in the Wakalah, Khan Kahlil, the Long’s, or Meurice’s of native Cairo; I was therefore obliged to put up with the Jamaliyah, a Greek quarter, swarming with drunken Christians, and therefore about as fashionable as Oxford Street or Covent Garden. Even for this I had to wait a week. The pilgrims were flocking to Cairo, and to none other would the prudent hotel keepers open their doors, for the following sufficient reasons.

When you enter a Wakalah, the first thing you have to do is to pay a small sum, varying from two to five shillings, for the Miftah (the key). This is generally equivalent to a month’s rent; so the sooner you leave the house the better for it. I was obliged to call myself a Turkish pilgrim in order to get possession of two most comfortless rooms, which I afterwards learned were celebrated for making travellers ill; and I had to pay eighteen piastres for the key and eighteen ditto per mensem for rent, besides five piastres to the man who swept and washed the place. So that for this month my house- hire amounted to nearly four pence a day.

Above the seething city of Cairo the minarets continue to point heavenward, still dominating the skyline, and, unless one is too dazed by the traffic-covered veneer of the city, the visitor can still be as astonished by Cairo as Reverend Smith was in 1868. Many have felt in Cairo that they had wandered into the world of the Thousand and One Nights.

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