History is at every turn in the ancient city of Cairo.
It was a scorching afternoon in late July, the sun burned in a cloudless sky - and my taxi had stalled on the way into town. I got out and waited while the driver, Mohammed, a turbaned man in a cream-colored robe, tooled around under the hood of the rattletrap Hyundai Pony. Trucks barreled by on the 6th of October Bridge - Cairo's traffic-choked main thoroughfare - and just below, the world's longest river continued to the sea, undisturbed and eternal.
The Nile. I stared in a jet-lagged trance, deafened by the road noise, mesmerized by the murky waters. Ptolemy said its source was in the Mountains of the Moon, somewhere in central Africa. That seemed just as likely as Burundi, more than 4,000 miles away.
There were sailboats in the distance, the flat-bottomedfeluccas that have roamed the river since the time of the pharaohs. Hire one for a sunset ride, one man told me, and you don't sail so much as socialize. You feel the breeze. You watch the lights blinking on the bank and enjoy the semi-silence of an evening on the water. In Cairo, I soon discovered, that's the only kind of silence to be found.
But I was not on a felucca. I was on the bridge, and Mohammed - a wrench in one hand and a thumbs-up in the other - was motioning to me to return to the car. The Pony was ready to ride, at least for another few miles. Off we went, puttering into the smog-filled center of Africa's most populous city.
The Sofitel El Gezirah, my 5-star hotel for the first few nights, was located on Zamalek, an island in the Nile that divides Cairo roughly evenly between east and west. Zamalek, I learned, is where Ismail Pasha, the great reformist khedive of the mid-19th century, kept his collection of exotic plants. And it's where, in 1988, the Cairo Opera House, a gift to Egypt from the nation of Japan, was inaugurated, replacing the one that Ismail had built - and that later burned down - to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal.
After a short stop at the hotel, I headed for the Islamic part of town, so-called Medieval Cairo, to explore the storied Khan El-Khalili. One of the largest of the Middle East's ancient souks, it's a major tourist attraction full of vendors hawking knick-knacks and backpackers buying them. I had read about the bustling bazaar before my trip and was a bit worried that the throngs of other tourists might sour me on the whole experience.
Yet as I wandered the dusty lanes and witnessed the same sort of bartering that has gone on for centuries - albeit over plastic pyramids instead of, say, livestock - I felt truly transported. This wasn't Cairo at its most genuine, perhaps. But it seemed close, and it was like nothing I'd ever experienced before: chaotic, colorful and palpably real.
Like most tourists, I stopped in the legendary El Fishawy Coffeehouse, a many-mirrored haunt buried deep in the warren of souvenir stalls, for a mint tea and shisha - a water pipe used to smoke tobacco cured in molasses, a social tradition dating back to the early 17th century and common to many countries throughout the region. At El Fishawy, which claims to have been open every day, 24 hours a day, for the past 200 years, locals and visitors alike gather for long sessions of idle chitchat, the gossip mingling with the apple-scented smoke, while the crowds rumble by outside.
By mid-week I had moved to the suburbs, Giza, to be precise. I had hit as many of the in-town hot spots as I could - the impressive Egyptian Museum, the marvelous Hanging Church, the Al-Azhar and Ibn Tulun and Hakim mosques and the mighty Saladin's Citadel.
At some point, I retired to the Mena House Oberoi just down the street. Ismail, I discovered , had built this, too, in 1869 - as a hunting lodge amid jasmine-scented gardens. It had served as a military hospital during World War I, as the headquarters of the British Eighth Army during World War II and for the past 40 years as a 5-star hotel with up-close views of the pyramids. The marble hallways of the Garden Wing were lined with black-and-white photographs of Bedouin guides leading camel trains of early British tourists. And it was strange to think, as I looked out on the same scene more than a century removed, that I was, quite literally, following in their footsteps.