The Largest City in Africa

568 words 2 minute read.

Cairo, the capital of Egypt, cannot easily be caught on a skyline, like Perugia or Jerusalem; but seen from the south, particularly from the mounds of debris which once were a city too, Cairo prints minarets and cupolas on an immense sky with colours of the most delicate mushroom and nougat.

More than any other place on earth, more than Damascus, more even than Baghdad, Cairo is the city of A Thousand Nights and One Nights. Seen from this southern vantage point, the very stones of the city seem ready to launch a Persian sorcerer into the air or fall like thunder on men differing for treasure under the protection of the wrong Afreet. On a hill to the right stand Saladin’s Citadel and the ostentatious mosque of Mohamed Ali. Its two pencil minarets reach higher into the air than any other structure this side of the Nile; and beyond the Nile, far away to the left across the palm groves of Giza, the Pyramids are a number of small buff triangles propped up in the heat haze.

This is a partial portrait, and it springs from a partiality. From a higher viewpoint – say, from the Citadel ramparts – the city seems to shrink. The eye can trace its limits; on all sides but the east the horizon is desert, and on the east stretches the putty-coloured Mokattam escarpment. The toast-rack trams strike away to the west through a quarter bewilderingly rich in Moslem architecture, both sacred and profane. Sultan Hussein mosque has a portico so high that the beggar on its step is reduced to the minuscule. Ibn Tulun is a thousand years old; it is a vast, sun-shattered courtyard with a pearly dome over a well in the centre and profound shadows under the colonnade. Inside the mosques there is sweetness, cleanliness and silence; everywhere else is the musty, indefinable reek of the Orient which might be goat or human. The trams clatter, the men and women shriek, flies settle on lip and eye, a sherbet seller clashes his brass cymbals. Yet it is a mistake to say there is dirt and noise everywhere but in the mosques. Some of the bazaars are temples of dignity and quiet, and there are quarters like Saida Zeinab where the lattice windows and delicate ironwork at the balconies are obvious lines of defence behind which elderly gentlemen slumber in a calm chiaroscuro.

The wooden Opera House marks another frontier. Beyond this point, as late as the nineteenth century, were open fields leading to the port of Bulak on the Nile. Today the open fields are modern Cairo. Blocks of Italianate and Frenchified flats, super-cinemas, American bars and department stores make it a city like any other city. The radio reminds one that it is not. The nasal throb of the Koran or the throaty booming of an Egyptian crooner rises at every corner. And everywhere is the astonishing mixture of features that is the face of Egypt: negroid lips, thin lips, mongoloid cheekbones, cheeks round as melons, cheeks with tribal markings, little black moustaches, creamy-white complexions, ebony complexions, brown complexions, yellowish sick-man complexions, for there is a multitude of obviously diseased people. In the coffee-houses men’s voices are deeper, more self-indulgent, than any you hear in Europe. Those are Arabic voices. The Italian, the French, the Greek, the English are higher pitched and they are to be heard on all sides.


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P.H. Newby: later years

P.H. Newby, CBE: novelist, historian, and managing director of BBC Radio. First winner of the Booker Prize in 1969.

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