- Karen Frost
Chapter 6: Cairo
Updated: Jul 21, 2021
This chapter touches directly or indirectly on several different subjects. Below are some sources I used in thinking about the setting of the chapter and what the characters would have seen in 1923 Egypt.
When writing about Egypt/Cairo, I used four travelogues:
Burton Holmes's Travelogues (1920)
"Our New Way Round the World" by Charles Carleton Coffin (1869)
The travelogue of Walther and Wilhelmina von Hallwyl, some Swedes who traveled to Egypt in 1900
These travelogues helped paint an interesting picture of what Europeans traveling to Egypt saw during the late 1800s and early 1900s. When chapter six starts, the four members of the Lady Adventurers Club are reuniting in Cairo. The three women coming from abroad would have arrived at Misr Station (also called Cairo Station) on their train from Port Said. The current station was erected in 1892 (and upgraded in 1955).
The Early History of Cars in Egypt
In the 1920s, cars were still relatively new in Egypt. By the end of 1905, there were only around 110 motorized vehicles in Cairo and 56 in Alexandria. The Royal Automobile Club of Egypt (R.A.C.E.) opened in April 1924, and by 1927, it had 600 members, indicating how many more cars had been brought into the country in the intervening years (here's a cool website that briefly summarizes Egypt's history of motoring.). Fiat was one of the makes definitely found in Egypt in the 1920s, and I made the logical guess that it was likely the Fiat 501, based on the production schedule. Here's a video of the Fiat 501 in action. As you can see, not a ton of room for five people to fit in there!
Per Wikipedia, downtown Cairo was designed by prestigious French architects commissioned by Khedive Ismail Pasha, who wanted to make Cairo even better than Paris. His dream was to make it "the jewel of the Orient." Ismail stressed the importance of European style urban planning, "to include broad, linear gridded streets, geometric harmony and modern European architectural style." Indeed, looking at photos from the time, the French architecture at times makes it almost indistinguishable from a French city. Here's a website full of photos of old Cairo, and a Facebook page with the same.
The setting of half the chapter is Khan al-Khalili, Cairo's biggest bazaar. There's a long history of it on Wikipedia, but the highlights are as follows: Khan al-Khalili is located in the historic center of Cairo. Once upon a time, it was the center point of the Turkish community in Cairo. Now, the bazaar is one of Cairo's main tourist attractions. It is also home to many Egyptian artisans and workshops involved in the production of traditional crafts and souvenirs. Since the medieval period, Khan al-Khalili has been made up of several khans/wikalas with souq (market) streets between them. The district underwent significant modifications and re-developments in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, shops in Khal al-Khalili sell souvenirs, antiques and jewelry, while many craftsmen's workshops continue to operate within the bazaar (usually in the courtyards or upper floors of buildings) or in the surrounding districts. There are also several small coffeehouses and restaurants in the bazaar.
Here's a video from the 1970s showing a little bit of the artisans in the market as well
If you've ever thought, "Boy, the Victorians sure were weird," you are not wrong. Among other oddities (who knew the Victorians were into nipple piercings?), tourists in the 1800s liked to buy cat mummies during their trips to Egypt. They also held mummy unrolling parties for the human mummies they bought and brought back home. Luckily, the Egyptian mummy market was ready and able to supply the mummy demand, at least when it came to animals. According to this article about the animal mummy business, one cemetery in Saqqara alone contained 7 million embalmed dogs, while another held 4 million mummified ibises. Then there's this gem: during the Third Intermediate Period, "Tens of millions of embalmed animals were deposited in at least 31 cemeteries throughout Egypt. One cat repository, found by farmers in 1888, was reported to have 'a stratum thicker than most coal seams, 10 to 20 cats deep.'" That's deep. In summary, no matter how many mummified animals the weird European Victorians bought, Egypt always had more to sell them. I had originally included a nod to cat mummies in this chapter, but on draft five took them out. So much for my inside joke.
Modern Egyptian History
Britain unilaterally granted Egyptian independence in February 1922, after protests against the imposition of martial law turned violent. For years, the writing had been on the wall about independence, and the Brits were seeking a way to nominally concede to nationalist demands while still maintaining de facto control of Egyptian resources and foreign policy. December 1923, when the lady adventurers arrive in Egypt, would have been just one month before Egypt's first ever elections, making it a particularly politically volatile time. For anyone interested in the end of Egypt's colonial period, here's a brief but good summary. During its modern history, Egypt had several famous political assassinations, including Prime Minister Boutros Ghali. Ghali was killed in February 1910 by a 23 university student and member of the Watani Party (a nationalist party) for siding with the British in the "Denshawai incident," a violent clash between British officers and Egyptian villagers. Thus when Anna references "Ghali" in the chapter, this is what she's referring to.