EGYPT – Cairo, Gayer-Anderson-Museum & Ibn Tulun Mosque // The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
When the Bond crew came to Egypt, they were looking for charming oriental and Islamic destinations. In Cairo, they found some – probably not knowing, that they were filming in one of the city’s “bloodiest” neighborhoods.
Why Bond was here
After British and Soviet submarines get stolen on sea, a trail leads to Egypt. In capital Cairo Bond (Roger Moore) wants to meet the Egyptian Aziz Fekkesh (Nadim Sawalha), who might introduce him to black marketer Max Kalba (Vernon Dobtcheff). But when at Fekkesh’s beautiful oriental mansion, all Bond finds, is henchman Sandor (Milton Reid). After a short fist-fight on the rooftop of the mansion – and just before his downfall – Sandor gives Bond a clue where to find Fekkesh: “Pyramids!”
Note that another Bond (Sean Connery) also comes to Cairo. The opening scene of Diamonds Are Forever briefly brings 007 to a casino that actually looks like a mix of the Fekkesh mansion and the Mojaba Club, that is used later on in The Spy Who Loved Me. But unfortunately the Mojaba Club was a studio set and not a real Cairo location.
In the movie, Bond first walks along the inner court of more than 2000 years old Mosque of Ibn Tulun. He then enters the adjoining mansion of Fekkesh. Like in the movie, both places sit directly to one another – though in the movie Bond comes from the right into the mansion whereas in reality the mosque is to the left. The mansion is today the Gayer-Anderson-Museum, showing well preserved arts from different Islamic epochs, all collected by British army officer and orientalist Gayer Anderson in the 19th century.
Both the museum and the mosque are situated in the neighborhood Darb al-Ahmar – the “Red Alley” – dubbed after blood that soaked the streets after the fights between the Mamluks and the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century. Darb al-Ahmar lies west of the Cairo Citadel and just southeast of its modern Downtown hub. It can be best described as an urban low class worker neighborhood with lots of little mosques, donkey carts roaming the streets and dust-covered houses draped with laundry. Gayer-Anderson-Museum and the Mosque of Ibn Tulun glint in it like a sand covered doubloon at the seabed.
Coming there by taxi can become a little frustrating due to the narrow alleys and the all the time stucked traffic. A better option is to find a close and good enough to reach hub and then walk the rest. Some 15 minutes west is the metro station of Saad Zaghloul, reachable with the red metro line. Otherwise, just five minutes to the east is microbus hub Salah ad-Din south of the Citadel – many of the fast and adventurous microbuses go here. This spot or the nearby mosques of Al-Rifa’i and Sultan Hassan are also a good address for taxi drivers. From Downtown a fare shouldn’t cost more than 15 Egyptian pound. Good to know
The Gayer-Anderson-Museum was once a real home inhabited by the British officer himself. Being a connoisseur and lover of the Middle East, he collected a vast miscellany of Islamic art. All of it – and how Anderson lived – is shown today in the museum. Better than most of the other (badly preserved) museums in Egypt, this one means living history.
The living room, where Bond meets the wife of Fekkesh, is in the left part of the building behind the ticket office. The roof, where the fist fight ensued, is in the right part. Follow the tiny stairs all the way up, even if a museum attendant says otherwise. The staff is both charming, but mothering too. Though they don’t want any bakshish, they will still try to lead visitors along their known paths – Egypt is a police state after all – and so it can happen, that they convoy guest just past the rooftop.
What then is a bakshish snare is neighboring Ibn Tulun. The mosque is barely used anymore, but some random renovations are going on since years. Workers and caretakers usually sit together at the entry and will ask guests to sell special plastic covers for the shoes. Now, as Bond filmed there, he kept on his shoes – but one really shouldn’t. Ibn Tulun is still a mosque, so bringing in the street dirt would be very impolite. Locals ignore the plastic covers and take the more environment friendly cloth fabrics in the shelf next to them – and then donate something as a courtesy to the imam.
The mosque was built in the 9th century and is one of the oldest and best preserved houses of God in Egypt. A highlight is the Abbassid influenced spiral minaret – with a building structure that is barely seen again in Egypt. What else to do
Cairo is not a place for leisure explorations. The city can be harsh, so can be their inhabitants. But the one who brings time and interest will meet many welcoming and friendly Egyptians and a metropolis that offers thousands of little surprises. The Gayer-Anderson-Museum is a perfect starting point for that.
Most visitors go for the pyramids and get driven into bustling tourist market Khan al-Khalili. That market right next to famous Al-Azhar Mosque is indeed beautiful – but so is the hidden path, one can take from Gayer-Anderson-Museum when walking through Darb al-Ahmar quarter.
The Darb is a maze of narrow, twisting alleyways lined with splendid mosques and medieval wodden facades. Caireens come here for shopping their daily needs or for a shisha on the sideways of the roads. There is garbage clomped into the ground everywhere, with cats picking the pieces in it. Young men on bikes are balancing meter-wide pallets with freshly baked bread, to bring it to customers. Kids are playing with old tires, crazed moped bikers are rushing through – with some shop owners cursing them for it. There are few areas where Cairo is more lively.
The best way to wander Darb al-Ahmar is to walk some minutes eastward from Ibn Tulun towards the two massive mosques of Al-Rifa’i and Sultan Hassan. Just behind them to the north, a small road called Souq al-Silah unwinds. Don’t go for the bigger and more convincing looking Al-Qala’a Street – it will lead to the wrong direction.
When on Souq al-Silah one would and should get lost. Just follow your gut instincts, direction north, and look into alley after alley. Century-old houses and madrasas with ornate facades will be on the way. Sadly many of them are dilapidated – and the government is doing it’s worst to “renovate” them.
To get back some orientation, ask locals for Bab Zuweila, a famous landmark at the southern end of bazaar road Muizz li-Din Allah. The Muizz divides Khan al-Khalilli into an eastern and a western part. Follow the road north to finally reach the bustling touristic part. While the east is more for silver ware and bibelots, the western area is for spices and clothes. Careful: After the revolution of 2011 and with many tourists gone astray the bargain prices reached a new high. Foreigners with no haggle skills will get tricked into fares four times the actual price. Better prices can be found off the main roads.
A must-visit in Khan al-Khalili is famous café Fishawy. The ‘ahwa, as Caireens call their cafés, was once the writing hangout of Egypt’s one and only Nobel laureate in literature, Nagib Mahfouz. It offers tea, coffee, shishas and refreshing lemon mint juice. Best time to come is after sunset, when the tourists are gone and locals join in for a chat after their evening prayers at the surrounding mosques.
We live in Cairo for more than a year now and never get tired of spotting new things. It is just hotels we don’t seem to discover. There are either shabby hostels or monstrous five-star line-ups – but no in-betweens. Our only tip is petite Hotel Longchamps on lush island Zamalek.
© 2015 Huntingbond (1,3,5,6), © 1977 Danjaq, LLC and United Artists Corporation (2,4)