I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Faith Lapidus with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.
Today, we continue our travels through Egypt to explore one of the greatest civilizations in human history. Last week, we visited the Nile River valley to see the art and architecture of ancient Egypt.
Today, we explore the buildings of ancient Egyptians in and around Cairo. And, we visit other more modern cultural treasures in the capital city.Welcome to Cairo, the largest city in Africa and the Middle East. This huge city is home to about seven million people. Cairo is equally great for its many traditions, cultures, and monuments. We begin our visit in the center of the city on the banks of the Nile river.
Looking at the countless buildings, cars, people, and boats it is hard to imagine the historical roots of this modern place. The beginning of Cairo as a city dates to the year 969 when Muslim invaders from Tunisia took control of the area. The word Cairo comes from the Arabic word "al-Qahira" meaning "the victorious."
Many rulers, such as the Fatimids, the Ayyubids, the Mamelukes and the Ottomans, controlled Egypt over the centuries. Starting in the late 19th century, Britain controlled the country for about 70 years. Each of these cultures left its mark on the culture and building design of Cairo.
In the late 18th century, the French general Napoleon Bonaparte briefly took control of Egypt. He brought with him over 150 experts and scientists to document the monuments, arts, plants and animals of Egypt. Over several years, thousands of artists worked to put together the collection of books called the "Description de l'Egypte."
For many Europeans, these detailed descriptions brought to life a culture that was unknown to them and very exciting. By the middle of the 19th century, Egypt became a popular destination for European travelers, writers, and artists. Ancient Egypt influenced European architecture, art and opera. This interest also had some unfortunate effects. European travelers in Egypt often took ancient treasures illegally. Many important objects ended up in the national museums of Britain, France and Germany
In 1835, the Egyptian government started the Egyptian Antiques Service. Its aim was to stop the stealing of ancient objects and gather a national collection for a museum. Today, visitors can spend many hours enjoying the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. It houses an estimated 120,000 objects from all periods of ancient Egyptian history.
One of the most popular rooms in the museum contains the funeral objects of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun. Last week we visited his burial site. But in the museum, visitors can see the strikingly beautiful objects with which he was buried 3,300 years ago. The skill and imagination of the artisans that made Tutankhamun's treasures are extraordinary.
For example, his detailed death mask weighs 11 kilograms and is made from jewels and solid gold. It gives a stylized image of the young ruler's face.Visiting the area of the city called Old Cairo provides an interesting lesson in religious history. Before Islam came to Egypt, the main religion of the area was Christianity. Egyptian Christians are known as Copts. You can visit the Coptic religious center known as the Hanging Church. This ninth century structure was built on top of an ancient Roman gate.
Or you can visit the third century Church of Saint Sergius. Many people believe the church is built over a cave where Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus hid while fleeing from Judea. Nearby is the oldest Jewish religious center in Egypt. The Ben Ezra Synagogue dates back to the ninth century.
In another area known as Islamic Cairo, there are many historically important mosques.
(SOUND: Call to Prayer)
For example, the Al-Azhar Mosque has been a religious center and university for over a thousand years. The Mosque of Sayyidna al-Hussein is one of the most holy Islamic buildings in Egypt. It is believed to be the burial place of the head of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammed.
For an unforgettable shopping experience, you can visit the Khan al-Khalili. Since the 14th century, the traders of Cairo have been selling their goods there. Today, you can buy anything from jewelry and belly-dancing costumes to spices and floor coverings.
Inside the market area, visitors can stop at the Mahfouz Café to enjoy some mint tea or smoke a sheesha pipe. The café was named after the Nobel Prize winning Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz who grew up in this part of the city. His stories capture the sights and sounds of Cairo and its people.No visit to Cairo could be complete without a trip to see some of the most famous buildings in the world. In the area of the city called Giza, three huge stone pyramids rise out of the desert sands. For thousands of years, these extraordinary buildings have served as funeral monuments honoring three ancient Egyptian kings.
The 19th century French writer Gustave Flaubert wrote this about the pyramids after visiting them: "Khafre's pyramid seems to me inordinately huge and completely sheer; It's like a cliff, like a thing of nature, a mountain …"
His words help express the unbelievable size and power of these limestone buildings.
The oldest and largest is called the Great Pyramid of Khufu, built as the burial place for this ancient king. This tomb is the last survivor of the Seven Wonders of the World. When it was built 4,500 years ago, it stood 146 meters tall. Experts estimate that about 2,300,000 limestone blocks were used to build this remarkable tomb. And, each limestone block weighs two and one-half tons.The famous statue of the Sphinx sits nearby. Experts still debate the age and meaning of this ancient statue, which has the head of a man and the body of a lion.
Experts still do not know exactly how the ancient Egyptians were able to build such technically perfect buildings. How were the ancient builders able to move the huge stone blocks from the quarries where they were cut to the building area? How were they able to raise them to the higher levels of the monuments? And what kind of tools did these ancient builders use to cut stone as hard as granite?
Over the centuries pyramidologists have developed many interesting theories about how the structures were built. Some believe they were built with help from alien creatures from space. Others believe slaves of the pharaoh were forced to build these structures. Our tour guide Maher Haggag has a different theory about why workers built these structures.
MAHER HAGGAG: "Slaves could have never ever created perfection like this. It wasn't slavery, it was a privilege for them. People had a passion to build something like this. Just by their own bare hands. No technology had been involved, just faith and they loved what they'd been doing."
Outside of Cairo, the ancient burial area of Saqqara helps explain the development of the pyramid structure. The architect Imhotep designed the Step Pyramid over 4,600 years ago for the pharaoh Zoser. It is the first known stone monument ever built. Imhotep designed it so that Zoser's burial monument would last forever. Before, royal tombs were built with mud brick materials that were easily damaged over time.
Imhotep's idea of stacking layers of stone led to the development of the pyramid tomb. From Saqqara you can look far off in the distance to see pyramids built for a later ruler of Egypt, Sneferu. The Bent Pyramid starts at a sharp angle, then becomes more flat towards its top. Architects did not yet know the correct angle with which to build a stable pyramid. They tried again with the nearby Red Pyramid. This structure is considered the oldest true pyramid in the world.
After a day exploring Cairo, there is nothing more relaxing than hiring a felucca boat to sail you up and down the Nile. As you watch the sun set on this magical city, you can think about its many cultural treasures, old and new.This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Steve Ember. To see pictures of Egypt, visit our Web site, voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.