Scotsabroad's Weblog

October 10, 2008

Right at the Fountain

Filed under: Cairo — scotsabroad @ 7:14 pm

What fountain? I was back in al-Matariyya this morning looking for the obelisk of Senusret1. The boys were invited to a swim birthday party at the Intercontinental Hotel that is part of the Citystars complex near Heliopolis. Shona agreed to take the boys with the added incentive of some time shopping alone and using the hotel’s spa. A few hours on my own exploring Matariyya in the car was too good an opportunity to miss. Driving was tricky today, being a Friday, as many roads were closed for prayers. Worshippers literally lay their mats down on the road outside their mosques as the sermon is broadcast through loud-speakers from inside.

I found it. Another hour driving around, using my limited Arabic and going into Chemist shops knowing that I could find someone who could speak English. I also found the fountain, it is behind the railings in the picture above. Not in my top ten. It does not look as if it has ever gushed or even dribbled. Carrying on down the narrowing road I eventually caught sight of the obelisk behind a green coloured mosque. Not the grandest of settings for the last standing part of the Heliopolis cult temple of Re. What can I say? The obelisk, known locally as el-Misallah (I must have been saying it wrong), stands in a little garden in the middle of a large area of waste ground. Waste ground is an accurate description, as on three sides of the garden there is a sea of waste, with every colour of plastic bag imaginable. Scale wise, people resemble ants, crossing, foraging and collecting bits of rubbish. The odd donkey cart and flock of sheep come as no surprise. This is the centre of a city. This is when you realise Cairo has a problem cleaning up after itself. Indeed people in this area seem to use the tram lines as a place for getting rid of rubbish. The rubbish collectors can be seen walking the lines sifting through the bags and garbage. The obelisk is 22 meters high, weighs 120 tons and was carved from a block of pink Aswan granite. It was one of two. The other is missing, said the lady (antiquities inspector) at the booth. She also helped me with the Arabic for the Virgin’s Tree.

Matariyya claims to have later acquaintance with the infant Jesus. I went looking for the Virgin’s Tree. I got lost but ended up at the Church of the Holy Family. A very pleasant scout leader (who could speak Italian) got the key and led me inside the church. One of those magic moments when they switch on the lights just for you. Beautiful church but no sign of a tree.

Along the street, second on the left I found the Virgin’s Tree. The story goes that while in Egypt the Holy Family hid from Herod’s soldiers in the branches of a balsam tree. The balsam has died but was replaced with this sycamore fig estimated to be at least a hundred years old. The nearby well is said to have sprung up with Christ’s touch when Mary needed water to wash clothes. The water is said to have healing properties. Early last century it was reputed that Christian souvenir hunting was so bad that the tree’s owner tied a knife to the branches and put up a sign begging people not to hack at it any more with axes. I left empty handed.


Two brilliant places to visit but not the easiest to find. Thanks to Lesley Lababidi and The Rough Guide to Egypt for a lot of the information and stories attached to these places – but not for the directions and maps! A great few hours lost in the city.



  1. Andy, a great insight into the things to see and places to visit in Egypt. It makes me even more determined to visit what looks like a great place to explore.

    Comment by Forbes M — October 10, 2008 @ 8:40 pm | Reply

  2. Yeah, nice story, Andy. Good to see you’re still getting out and about.

    Comment by Alistair — October 17, 2008 @ 2:41 pm | Reply

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