An illicit bit of history fell into my lap today, totally by accident and most certainly without the necessary permissions or guarantee of personal safety needed to explore such crumbling historical locations. My husband and I were strolling down a street in the Sayeda Zaineb neighborhood (one of the more historical parts of Cairo), walking along a mysterious palace-looking building (one of many strewn about in different areas of the city) when we came across one of its ornate wooden doors open into the courtyard. We took the opportunity to step in and look about in the attempt to ascertain exactly what the building had been, as it was obviously now fallen into disuse and disrepair. To the contrary it had been partially converted into governmental offices (wherever they can stick them I suppose,) as we were later informed. Initially we were turned away by the single guard bent studiously over his Quran who was set to send us out with the single factoid that it had once been a palace when, hearing me ask Mr. MM in English how old it was, instead asked if I was Egyptian. Learning that I was American he eagerly left the desk and, explaining that where he was taking us was against the rules and slightly dangerous, led us quickly past the refurbished government offices into another more dilapidated courtyard and further past into the oldest and most rundown section of the old palace which was built in the mid-1800’s by this guy.
For a moment I wondered if he was leading us to a place where he could rob us in privacy, and I thought about halting and retreating, but the inner-adventurer in me could not resist the experience and so we followed him into the dark recesses of the crumbling palace. Coming from the sunlit courtyard into the pitch black interior of the entry, which had no electricity and was, in fact, filled in with mounds of the dirt and debris of centuries, we couldn’t see much of anything at all. Approaching a gloriously ornate set of wooden stairs (you know the kind seen in Gone with the Wind that crisscrosses itself as it winds its way upwards) I thought he had brought us here to show us only this but to my dismay he indicated that we were to follow him up what were still very beautiful but not visibly stable stairs. When the only thing left standing in the hall (as far as I could see in the dark at least) are a set of wooden stairs it take cojones the size of bowling balls to trust someone of dubious intention and whom you met only minutes before. But, follow him we did. Mwahaha. The only thing that lit our path was the sunlight that filtered in through the holes in the ceiling high above our heads and as we approached the staircase a street dog burst out from the darkness and passed us at a gallop, startled by our presence. In fact the dirt all over the palace, on all floors, was littered with paw prints and feces, but dogs were not the only creatures inhabiting the uninhabitable ruins. As we ascended the top floor I realized that the squeaking I had not immediately registered, much too taken with not falling through any holes or weak spots in the stairs, was that of the hundreds of bats hanging from the ceiling still frescoed (with cherubs and angels of course) and edged with gold painted moldings. Having already cheated death on the staircase I did my best to ignore the winged rats (which were the size of Chihuahuas) and follow our guard-cum-tour guide as he took us around the rooms which were crumbling but still painted and decorated in the French castle style (Louis the Fourteenth can you hear me?) The rooms were enormous, it being a palace of course, but I must admit I spent most of the tour alternately watching for weak spots in the floor and trying to remember what diseases might be caught from breathing in the dust of powdered bat droppings. We disturbed more bats in every room we entered, but we were given, and consented to be led on, a very extensive tour of the palace floors. Descending the steps again, me still with an iron-grip on my husband’s hand, we emerged into the sunlit courtyard alive and well. When we attempted to pay him for his wonderful but dangerous tour he resisted, eliminating the second explanation I had for why he seemed so eager to bring us around despite it being against the rules. And why he had only been eager to take us after he learned I was American. Rob us, nope. Extract money for showing us antiquities, nah. Pride in the history of his country, probably. Either way it was awesome. Check out the pics on my flickr page as soon as Mr. MM figures out where he stashed the cable for my phone. And yes I know I promised to post pics of Marsa Matruh and those will be forthcoming as well.
Afterwards we carried on our merry way through Sayeda Zainab, shopping in the souk and then taking the metro home. I did vigorously wash myself off when we got back and put all clothing down to socks and headscarf into the laundry. If I could only take my lungs out and rinse out the insides… Oh but now my husband is convinced that what I point out when we’re walking after the sun has set is actually a bat flying through the air, apparently he previously didn’t believe there were any bats in Cairo.
Note: Pics are posted on my flickr, find the link in the right hand column, or click here.
For those who speak Arabic check here to find an article that talks about the disrepair, the government renovation for non-historical purposes, and all of those bats. I wasn’t lyin’ peoples.