By Jimmy Dunn
It is now fairly well believed by most literary scholars that the tales from the "Thousand and One Arabian Nights" probably took place in Cairo during the period of the Burgi Mamluks, rather than Baghdad. Edward Williams Lane (1801-76) made the original English translations and believed that the stories were written by a Cairene in the late medieval period.
Within "The Tale of the Jewish Physician", there is a description of Cairo: "He who hath not seen Cairo hath not seen the world: her soil is gold, her Nile is a marvel; her women are like the black-eyed hours of Paradise; her houses are palaces; and her air is soft, more odorous than aloes-wood, rejoicing the heart. And how can Cairo be otherwise when she is the Mother of the World?".
Of course, as most mega cities of the world, Cairo's air is not so soft these days, but is improving, but there are still palaces, the soil still produces lush vegetation, and the Nile never ceases to inspire us. Of course, the women are wondrous, with beauty as mysterious and charming as the old thousand and one stories.
Cairo is older now. She was a grand city when many of the world's huge metropolises were but babes. Yet she remains a city cloaked in excitement and mystery, dark secrets and bright celebrations. She is a city that often mixes the many cultures of the world with the many ages of the world. She offers up cuisine from her French, sometimes new age culture from her Germans, enterprise from her Americans, all the while embracing her Egyptian heritage from the dawn of civilization. She mixes modern religion with ancient traditions as easily as her streets accommodate Mercedes and donkey drawn carts. America has no claim as a melting pot in relation to Cairo, for Cairo melts both time and culture into one city that can embrace us as no other.
It's history beguiles us with intrigue, weaving gossamer webs of time and events that effect us even today. Here, we see the stone monuments that signaled the readiness of mankind to embark upon the climb into human awareness and culture. It was Cairenes leaders who ended the crusades of old, but also prevented the Mongrels and darkness from rolling over Europe. It was a market that still exists today in Cairo, that gained such a stranglehold over world trade, that Columbus was forced to seek alternative routes, thus discovering the new world. Today, its moderate religious leaders affect the tolerance of a world religion, while the political leaders preach peace, and understanding.
As an American, I have walked her back allies, her living cemeteries, her markets. I have explored her poor underbelly, as well as her grand and sparkling avenues. All the while I feared no evil, because there was none. Mostly only gracious Egyptians who seem, more often than not, excited by the sight of a stranger, curious, as their beloved cats might be. I am welcomed, I am enchanted and it is beyond my understanding how anyone cannot fall desperately in love with this city and its people.
Yet, I know I shall never completely know Cairo. It is too deep, too full of adventures. I suspect even the Cairenes themselves may never know this sprawling city of operas and pyramids, glass towers and medieval tunnels, ancient churches and modern cell phones. But what I understand completely, is that those who never visit Cairo, will never know the world.
For much more information on Cairo, visit our Cairo section.