I left my Cairo hotel around 1:30 p.m. and attempted to hail a taxi to take me to Khan el Khalili. I was told it should cost me about 10-15 Egyptian pounds, but I soon realized that whatever I am told, it’s really about 10 more. The taxi driver absolutely refused to take me for less than 20 and I wasn’t in the mood to argue, so I just gave in with that. Besides, that comes to about $4 for a thirty minute cab ride, so I really shouldn’t complain.
Half an hour later, I was standing at the Midan el Hussein square outside of Khan el Khalili. Unfortunately, I was dropped off on the opposite side from where my guide had taken me my first day in Cairo, so I was completely disoriented and could not get my bearings. I tried to very discreetly take out the map of Islamic Cairo that I tore out of my Rough Guide but even that didn’t help. After a few minutes of looking around aimlessly, an Egyptian guy approached me and asked in perfect English what I was looking for.
His English was exceptional and he was well dressed, so he didn’t initially intimidate me or cause me to put my guard up like so many of the touts. He said he was a university student studying international law in hopes of being a lawyer. He seemed as far from your typical Egyptian hustler as one can get – the ones that just offer to help you in an obvious attempt to get some baksheesh (tips) from you. After a few minutes, he asked again where I was trying to go and started giving me directions to the bazaar, but then just said, “oh well, let me take you.” I really thought he was just being nice so I followed him, but within a minute or so we arrived at his buddy’s little shop in a back alley where he tried to introduce me to this guy making handmade boxes. At that point, I knew I’d been taken and he was just trying to get a commission from taking me to this place and getting me to buy something, so I turned and walked away, disappointed that I let my guard down.
Back out to the square, I tried a few more turns down various alleys (the whole bazaar is basically a series of dirt roads and alleys), but each time, I quickly realized I was not in the right place. Unfortunately, so many people do try to scam you in Egypt, it makes you very hesitant to ask anyone for help or directions because you don’t know who you can trust. After a couple checks of the map, I finally realized that what I thought was a subway station entrance was actually a pedestrian underpass that led to the other side of the square where I had started on my previous visit.
Once I finally made it to Khan el Khalili, my next task was to find and follow the Muski to a crossroads with two mosques and then take a right up a street called Sharia al Muizz, which would then take me past some interesting mosques and up to the Northern Gates. This was part of a self-guided tour of Islamic Cairo set out in my Rough Guide. This was easier said than done. I couldn’t figure out which street was the Muski and once I thought I had found it, there were no signs confirming that the next street was Sharia al Muizz. I wandered for ages before accidentally finding the restaurant where my guide had taken me for lunch on my first visit. That was marked on my map, so that gave me some sense of direction.
An hour after I first got out of my taxi, I finally found my way and stumbled upon a series of three madrassas/mosques – the Madrassa & Mausoleum of Sultan Qalaoun, the Mosque of el-Nasir Mohammed and the Madrassa-Khanqah of Sultan Barquq. Being by myself and not with anyone guiding me this time, I felt a little more hesitant about just walking into a mosque. I was standing outside of the Madrassa-Khanqah of Sultan Barquq, when a man in the door saw me and waved me in. I walked in and the man led me through a door into another room which, based on my guidebook, I took to be the mausoleum containing the tomb of Sultan Barquq’s daughter. I asked the man if I could take a photo and he said yes. Unfortunately, about two seconds later, another man appeared who seemed quite angry and said in very broken English that I should not be there and demanded that I pay him twenty Egyptian pounds.
In hindsight, I know I should’ve just left at this point, but I didn’t. I forked over the twenty pounds. That seemed to satisfy the man and then I tried to ask the first man about going up the minaret (according to my guidebook, you can go up the minaret for really good views of Islamic Cairo). Just then, the angry man appeared again and told me to come with him. Again, I should have refused, but I didn’t. Instead, I found myself following the angry guy out of the mosque and up the street. I tried to stop him to tell him I wanted to go up the minaret of where we had just been, not some other minaret, but he started telling me about some Turkish House that is rated 5 stars and has good coffee (yes, I was confused by that as well).
I repeated that I wanted to go up the minaret and he just said “ok, come, come.” A minute later, we were standing in front of another, much smaller mosque, the Mosque of Al-Akmar. The man again demanded money, saying “twenty pounds now, twenty later.” Against my better judgment, I handed over twenty pounds, followed him into the mosque, and then up an incredibly narrow, dirty and dusty spiral staircase up to the top of the minaret. The view was decent, but not as good as it probably would have been from one of the taller minarets.
Of course, as soon as we reached the top, he demanded the second twenty pounds, which I dutifully gave him. Then, I took out my camera to snap a couple photos and he started saying “photo ten pounds.” I thought he wanted ten pounds for him to take a picture of me, so I told him no, I could take my own photos (and no way in hell was I handing my camera over to him!). But he kept insisting and I soon realized that he wanted me to pay him ten pounds just to take any photos up at the top! Of course, for all I knew he would grab my camera if I didn’t pay him, so I handed over another ten pounds, bringing my grand total for this adventure to seventy pounds. When we came down from the minaret, he again tried to get me to go to the Turkish House and I just refused, saying I had to meet friends, and I quickly went on my way.
Unfortunately, this, combined with my earlier encounter with the Egyptian “university student” left me feeling very frustrated and upset about the continuous attempts to scam me! I had so many good encounters with very nice, helpful Egyptians, but these two just left me with a bad taste in my mouth.
Nonetheless, I was determined to finish my self-guided tour of Islamic Cairo and headed further up Sharia al Muizz, feeling very self-conscious as I did because I was the only tourist and just about the only woman anywhere in sight. A couple minutes later, I got to the Northern Gates. The significance of these is that, ages ago, the annual pilgrimage returning from Mecca would enter Cairo via Bab al-Futuh (the Open Gate). There is also a mosque right there, Al-Hakim’s Mosque. I would’ve tried to go in, but I was feeling so discouraged from the experience I had just had, that I couldn’t bring myself to try.
So I walked through the Bab al-Futuh and outside the walls to another street and then headed back in toward Khan el Khalili. On my way, I stopped back over to Sharia al Muizz and decided to try to go into the Madrassa and Mausoleum of Qalaoun that I had passed earlier. This time my faith in the locals was somewhat restored when a nice man took me inside, let me wander around, tried to explain stuff to me, let me take photos and didn’t demand any money of me. Of course I gave him some baksheesh, but it was so nice not to have it angrily demanded. And then when I left, another man gave me a thumbs up and said “is good?”
Back to Khan el Khalili, one last experience at the market to restore my faith in the locals. I realized all I had left on me were 100 pound notes and I didn’t want to have to pay with that for my taxi back to the hotel, so I went to buy a bottle of water to see if I could get change (even though water was only 5 pounds). The very nice shopkeeper happily told me he could make change and then proceeded to go to three different shops trying to get it for me. He was so nice that I returned to my hotel with a smile on my face, relegating my experience being scammed to a lesson learned and a fun story to be told.
Note: I visited Egypt in January 2008, pre-revolution. This was originally published in 2010.