Impressions of Cairo, Egypt

11/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The mystical feline Sphinx once guarded the ancient site of present day Cairo. She still presides over the place while posing riddles to those who contemplate her.

Only one of the entries on the original list of the "Seven Wonders of the World" that was first compiled back in the Middle Ages still exists. The Pyramid of Khufu -- with its massive protective gatekeeper Sphinx -- was erected in the ancient city of Giza, now part of modern-day Cairo. She let no one enter or leave unless they could answer a riddle she posed. Those who got the answer wrong were killed and eaten by the Sphinx, who dined often.

An Eroded but Lively Culture

Although the Pyramid of Khufu used to be about 480 feet high and is made from an estimated two million blocks of stone that weigh at least 4,000 pounds each, at least 30 feet of the pyramid have already eroded to dust.

Admiring it in all its glory I could not help but wonder who had been tasked with muscling those big bricks into place -- and at what cost. Certainly the early Egyptians had advanced engineering technology, but the tragic fact of the matter is that many of the world's greatest tourist attractions were built on the backs of slaves.

The feline Sphinx was carved from a single block of rock that is almost as long and wide as a football field. Although the head -- made of a denser kind of stone -- is suffering from a lesser amount of erosion, even the powerful Sphinx is succumbing to the ravages of time. But I still kept my proverbial fingers crossed as I listened for her welcoming riddle, having decided to take my chances with getting eaten right there on the well-guarded spot.

Some historians argue that the Sphinx may have protected her turf a bit too well, because as a result the city became isolated from contact with the outside world. And the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Today tourism contributes substantially to Cairo's economy, but people still work exhausting hours to earn in a month what the average American earns during an 8-hour shift -- if they are lucky enough to find a job. Egypt is a rather isolated place in the world and remains a marginalized outsider in terms of the global economy.

Sultan Hassan Mosque

The Sultan Hassan Mosque, completed in 1363, is regarded as one of the most beautiful in Cairo, and Cairo is home to some of the most exquisite and awe-inspiring architecture on the planet. But the mosque itself is also a home to many.

The Sultan Hassan Mosque is one of the largest in the world, boasting an expansive white marble entrance that is cleaned hourly and kept so spotless that I felt I could eat off the ground there. I found the Mosque to be a genuine spiritual sanctuary, and practically speaking it was a welcome reprieve and refuge from the chaotic hustle and bustle of Cairo's frenetic streets.

Before you enter any mosque you must take off your shoes at the entrance. If you are female you are also required to wear a headscarf and have your shoulders, arms, and legs completely covered. I followed the tradition and then entered into the vast emptiness of a gigantic room covered with maroon carpet.

The mosque was actually divided into two large rooms -- one for men and one for women -- and in each of them the carpet was cleverly designed with small, individual prayer rug images woven into it in a symmetrical pattern.

That way each individual could pray in a designated area, while conserving as much space as possible when the mosque was crowded shoulder-to-shoulder with worshippers.

Praying Away the Day -- and the Weight of the World

I realized that not only was this mosque a magnet for the pious,
but it was also an inviting shelter for the poor and homeless and a
social gathering place for those who were unemployed or retired.

The day I visited there were no throngs of worshippers, only a handful of people in the men's section -- reading the Koran, studying, talking quietly with friends, or curling up for an afternoon nap.

On the women's side I witnessed a similar scene, except there was a social circle of about 20 people, including lots of little children running around and playing energetically while waiting for their mothers to finish praying. Two women sat apart from the group, weeping alone. All day people came and went. Others came early and stayed all day, praying constantly.

Because one of my Cairo friends was a member of a prayer circle, I asked him to pray for my family and friends, and gave him a list of their names. He knew that the people on the list were not Muslims and that neither was I, but said it did not matter to him or to anyone who is a true Muslim.

"Muslims care for everybody and love everybody," he said.

Soon thousands of devout Muslims were praying five times a day for my own family members and friends -- who were all in need of some form of miracle -- and it felt wonderfully comforting to me to know that.

Ramadan in Cairo

Before learning about Ramadan from my Cairo friends, I thought it was always
an exceptionally austere and serious time of only self-reflection and sacrifice.

Granted, it is a sacrificial time, and people fast for 8-12 hours a day -- from dawn to dusk -- during the month of Ramadan, the annual Islamic religious observance,. During those special hours nothing passes across Egyptian lips -- not food, not water, and not even a kiss.

But unlike Ramadan in other Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, or Sudan -- where the traditional observance is much more conservative and quiet -- the residents of Cairo stay out all night partying with remarkable stamina and enthusiasm.

Of course they take Ramadan to heart with dutiful fasting and prayer, but once the sun goes down, it's like the ball dropping in Times Square. The party is on and people in Cairo stay up until just before sunrise feasting, smoking, and drinking. They compare it to a New Year's Eve celebration that lasts for an entire month.

How they function with so little sleep and manage to run a city after those wild nights is beyond me, but I suppose it is some kind of divine inspiration which made me curious to participate in this ritual for a few days. So for a three days nothing passed my lips but water (which is officially not allowed) and at sundown I hung out at the Hookah Cafes and enjoyed hummus, tabouli, vegetables, and apple-flavored hookah pipes with my Muslim friends.

From this experiment of fasting and praying during the day and sharing stories with friends in the evening, I experienced deeper sleep, more clarity, and a creative breakthrough.