Backstory Cairo 1999: I am a writer of landscape stories. Though they are fiction, they all have a real life component based upon my own work and experiences.
Fifteen years ago I visited Cairo for the first time–Cairo and the Nile Delta–for millennia, magnets of human culture and civilization. Not surprisingly the impact of this region’s landscape has impelled me to represent it variously in my landscape stories.
Backstory Cairo 1999 was a website I posted following my first visit to Cairo–a business trip from Kuwait in 1999. It is re-posted below for your information.
Before you begin to read the story
below, please open the following links each in _NEW_ browser windows now
because they are large files and take a bit of time to download. ***2013 Note: this bit of time to download warning is an historical artifact from the original 1999 html. The movies are now embedded further on in this post.***
Pyramids Panorama Movie(2.7MB)
Khan Khalili Panorama Movie(2.7MB)
Cairo Nile Agriculture Panorama
TAKING A RIDE
There were days in my young career as a landscape architect when I believed
that _real_ cities meant walkable cities. I was enamoured with 250,000 person
The French-built, Belle Epoque Ville Nouvelle where I lived was separated
from the 6 century old medina by a kilometer and a small river valley draining
the remnants of the Moyen Atlas.
I often walked the one main road that connected the old and new; and
just after I crossed the river and started up the hill to the medina, began
the tea shops, sweet shops, barber shops and the like, all having one thing
in common, Om Khaltoum on the radio, Om Khaltoum on tape. Her singing silenced
the autos. Yes, my kind of city.
So my trip to Cairo, the home of Om Khaltoum, and the spiritual home
of the minions in her cult following was a bit of a pilgrimmage. But, Om
Khaltoum has died, and her music…second place to earning a buck in today’s
Tarab is an Egyptian word that describes
the landscape of sound, the landscape of music. Tarab describes that music
that successfully takes the listener on a ride. That was Om Khaltoum’s success.
She defined popular music in the 20th century for the Arabo-Muslim world,
and every other country it touched, more profoundly than Elvis or the Beatles
in the West. But, bustling Cairo, 1999…
I came to Cairo from Kuwait, from the East. Cairo’s two airports are
on the east side of the city. I knew from maps that my destination for the
day, the Mena Palace Hotel, adjacent to the Pyramids at Giza, was on the
west of Cairo.
As the plane landed, in mid-day, I saw only the Sinai
give way to the edge of dense urbanization. I saw no green, no Nile, no
On collecting my bags and exiting customs, I was eager to experience
the urban texture of Cairo and grabbed a cab with a choice to Giza–motorway
or straight through town. Hey! No question.
City of the Dead. The Citadel. Six story apartments cheek by jowl, all
with open windows, open doors–code for no AC. It is mid May and well into
the mid-30s mid-day. Street trees in bloom everywhere, Jacaranda, Delonix,
Plumeria, how many different Cassia, palm trees in varieties, and others.
Rivers of cars honking horns as if the horn was attached to each wheel
revolution. This went on and on for 45 minutes three or more lanes wide
in both directions with pedestrians facing off cars everywhere. The only
peace was our passage over the broad Nile.
As we worked west, the pyramids finally emerged on the horizon. The urban
stuff sits in the Nile Valley. The Pyramids sit on the edge of the summit
of a large plateau that marks the edge of the Nile Valley.
So you have…flat, flat, flat, howling, bustling chaotic people/cars
city stuff…bang…precipitous rise…no city…desert…Pyramids…more
The purists may complain that the Pyramids?, …on the edge of town??? I
don’t think so. It is the architectural stability of 6,000 years that the
minions of Cairo have rushed up to. From the cultural and urban design perspective,
those Pyramids look just right with an urban fringe ground cover at their
I could not have been happier taking a cab across and through the center
The panoramas are roughly finished. They are crude. They need better
photography, more Photoshop work and an additional layer of higher quality
content. A narrative will be added before the end of 1999.
Nevertheless, the interactive QuickTimeVR panoramas have enough resolution
to make zooming in and out rewarding. They also are rich in visual context/content. ***2013: the QTVR panoramas have been reformatted to movies.***
Comments are invited.
Shows the two larger Pyramids. Shows the hustlers and their camels, looking
for riders. Shows the parking lot where autos cannot trespass beyond. Looking
carefully you can see the entry into one Pyramid–dark and dank air laden
with the curses of ancient mythology…oh! Really? 🙂
You want to know more about the Pyramids? Use a search engine. For me
it is the scale, the political chutzpah and the engineering marvel all wrapped
up into a huge work of art–still spectacular millennia later.
Khan Khalili Panorama
Ever since I teethed on the medinas of Meknes, Fez, Rabat, Marrakech
and Tangier, I have been further looking for that on-foot urban vibrancy
of activity, craftsmanship, architectural spatial sequence excitement and
sensual extravaganza. Cairo came the closest; but even now the cars are
seeping in and dehumanizing it. In the Meknes medina, the worst thing that could happen
in the medina was donkey dung getting dropped on your foot.
In Cairo, in the Khan Khalili, the worst thing was having your clothes
volunteered to dust off the carroserie of every passing car or truck–there
was no place to hide and the cars would not stop. Other than that, I thoroughly
enjoyed it all, even down to conversations with the young boy and Australian
girl resting on the step of the 400 year old mosque that sheltered us.
It is pedestrian scale and it ‘feels’ so right!!
Richness in agriculture means richness in water, richness in soil, and
willingness of people to work. Egypt will always have a future. And, until
you have lived months in the barren deserts of the Arabian Peninsula/Gulf
Region, you can not understand how one’s eyes can drink fully and be satisfied
by the sight of the green expanses of date palms and their underplantings
as this panorama shows.
My eyes drank in the green and my parched spirit had its thirst satisfied.
Rich in landscape, rich in agriculture, rich in craftsmanship.
The ‘mythical ‘ Pillars of Hercules stretch across the Strait
of Gibraltar. Besides Islam and the indigenous Berbers, Morocco has deep
history linked to the African continent, the ancient Mediterranean and to
legends of Atlantis.
Gibraltar? …from Jbel Tarek, the rock, the mountain named
after the Muslim General conqueror of the area way back before the year
Timboctu? …caravan stop in the southwest Sahara, on the
overland route from the East Coast of Africa which was connected to India
and beyond by dhow traders, way back before the Europeans hit the high seas.
Meknes? …my home, along with Tangier for quite a while…when
I was there it was agriculture before big business hybridizing…many small
growers of tangerines, oranges, grapes, melons of so many varieties in the
market at the same time, shopping in US produce departments has never satisfied
For the best flavor of Morocco, with the shortest read time,
try Tangier, Buzzless Flies or The Tangier Diaries 1962-1979 both by John
All credits for this page go to Virginia Danielson and her
book entitled, The Voice of Egypt: Um Kulthum, Arabic Song, and Egyptian
Society in the Twentieth Century.
Om Khaltoum, the ‘Bedouin’ singer in youth, shown above
Munira al-Mahdiyya, star of musical theatre, costumed for
a play in 1925.
Some quotes from Danielson:
1. Umm Kulthum’s voice itself brought sighs of appreciation. Ordinary
listeners used ordinary language for the sound of her voice. For them it
was simply powerful, beautiful or amazing. The speech of experts directs
attention to its more specific qualities. They speak of power, clarity and
bell-like resonance of her voice.
Still, listeners rarely reacted to the first note she sang but, rather,
to the first phrase. Her rendition of the words was what mattered.
2. The song depends before all else on the words she would say. Throughout
her career she was known for her mastery of Arabic language and poetry.
To her it was fundamental: The singer who does not articulate accurately
cannot reach the heart of the listener. It was said that she tasted each
3. Asked to explain tarab, the state of ‘enchantment’ wherein the listener
is completely engaged with a performance, Umm Kulthum said that it was when
the listener ‘felt’ the meaning of the words.
4. Her artistry was the art of the word, and the art of the rendition,
beyond her gift for singing.
5. She never sang a line the same way twice.
Virginia’s book opens the door onto the place of Om Khaltoum in Egyptian
even Arabo-Muslim society in the 20th century cultural landscape. It was
an audial context in every city.
Egypt, the Nile Delta and Cairo
The following maps are credited to Virginia Danielson’s
book, entitled, The Voice of Egypt.
The Cities of Egypt
The Nile Delta
Maps could be a bit larger but… 🙂
I am sure you get the general geographical context.
This map shows my cab trip from the airport(1) to the Mena
Palace Hotel(3). It shows the location of the three panoramas which identify
three landscape images of Cairo that are most significant–the Pyramids themselves(3); the old
town as shown in Khan Khalili(2); and, the agriculture
of the Nile(4).
From the roots of the Nile, from its very source, how much
is built into the genetic makeup of the Cairoine minions?
The city closes in on the banks, the dams temporarily redirect
flow; but the water still comes from the source…
Wouldn’t you have preferred a better photo that actually
shows the water’s edge recreation facilities on the right? Me too. 🙂
They say that if you touch the Nile you will return to Cairo…I
did not touch the Nile. So, you will have to suffer with this photo alone,
as poor as it is. 😦
But from the flatness you can imagine the potential for
flood devastation. Nevertheless, when I saw the health and strength of the
date palms, especially in comparison to the
ones I have seen in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait…absolutely no comparison…they
are beautiful…they are the result of the Nile and her bounties.
How rich is the source of the river that has nourished civilizations
for six millennia including the fourteen million people in Cairo today???
How do you measure this on your GIS?
Pyramids Giza Cairo 1999
My first trip to Cairo. Common conversation, “Did you
not find the Pyramids a bit disappointing?”
My response: No.
In this photo you see the urban texture
and agricultural soil of modern Cairo give way to the pyramids and the desert…the
desert? Yes, the eastern edge of the Sahara.
Oh, the last buildings in the left middle ground before
the main pyramid…Mena Palace Hotel.
These date groves provided such an image of strength, even
richness. Every place in the cultivated lowlands of the Nile River Valley
where the date palms grew there was an even richer green in the under story
with grains, fruits and vegetables covering all the arable land as far as
the eye could see.
The agriculture panorama movie
demonstrates this graphically, the source water, the date palms, the understory,
the people, the animals, and the little pockets of flower gardens.
December 2013 Conclusion: have now been a couple times in Cairo and the Nile Delta. Details of my observations gradually reveal in my landscape stories.
All comments are welcome.