Not now. Oh, the streets are as chaotic and litter-strewn as ever, with vendors cooking sweet potatoes in makeshift wood-burning metal stoves while pushing their carts through lanes crowded not only with people but also with mounds of pita, live turkeys and chickens perched atop leaning towers of crates. Auto store hubcaps spill out onto the sidewalk, tangling up customers of the cafe next door as they pull their chairs to the curb to smoke shisha. And everywhere, drivers strike their horns, whether they need to or not, sounding the heartbeat of the city. Awesome!
And yet there we were, my husband and I, in awe. On a short four-night trip to Cairo, we found ourselves walking blissfully alone around attractions usually surrounded by fleets of buses, overrun by long lines of tourists and immersed in a din of languages. The revolution here, with its attendant uncertainties, has made tourists keep their distance, to the profound regret of a nation that depends on them.
This is the time to visit — quick, before it gets way too hot and while hotels are a relative bargain. Not only did I appreciate the solitude — and the souvenir bargaining leverage — but the Egyptians we met were inordinately grateful for our presence, equally eager to tell us about their dreams of democracy or to take us by the hand at a crosswalk and guide us through harrowing traffic. Visitors are welcome, and I felt safe wherever we went.
We had taken a cab from our hotel, the lush Marriott in the Nile island neighborhood of Zamalek, to the Ibn Tulun mosque, deep in Islamic Cairo. A caretaker tied protective cloth over our shoes, awaited a donation for the mosque — we gave 20 Egyptian pounds, a little more than $3 — and then returned to his mostly undisturbed post at the door.
We walked unhurried along the passageways of the mosque named after Ahmad Ibn Tulun, an early ruler of Egypt, and built in 879, dwelling on the grace of the arches and thinking of the unimaginable number of travelers who had come before us. As we gazed across the courtyard, admiring the minaret with its unusual exterior spiral staircase, I spotted two figures climbing upward, above the crenulated walls.