Wise, wrinkled, weathered faces, and innocent, young faces. Faces of stone. Faces of flesh. Faces of deep compassion.

My perception of Egypt comes mostly from the Hollywood images of Pharaohs and fellaheen, images of kings and commoners that are much too simplistic. After all, it was Egypt that bequeathed the fundamental civilizing influence of knowledge, passed down by the Greeks and Romans that lifted Europe from the depths of its Dark Age. As our world emerges from the confusion of that era and enters into more progressive times, I visited this seminal land and wondered – who are the Egyptians?

The ancient Egyptians, archeologists tell us, descended from one semi-nomadic tribe in the northeast corner of Africa. They’ve uncovered a series of settlement sites along the Nile dating back to 5000 BC to back this up. A simple people who cultivated grain and domesticated animals, they evolved to develop mathematics, art, and leave images of themselves in paintings and statues spread throughout their ruined cities.

However, today’s Egyptians live in a crossroad of racial identities, on a land bridge connecting two continents. Not fully Arab and not completely African, but a blend of both, most are unassuming and see each other as equals. The class lines of the past are often are blurred among them, and a popular joke I heard captures this well:

One child to another.
“Everybody stands up for my father at work.”
“What does your father do?”
“He’s a judge”.

Second child to the first.
“So what. People bow their heads to my dad at work, including your dad.”
“Wow,” in admiration, what does he do?”
“He’s a barber.”

To really understand who they are and where they came from, take a walk and explore the maze of mud brick shops in the back streets of Old Cairo. A veneer of modernity overlays what is seen, but very little here is different from the Cairo of medieval times – old men passing the time with conversation and a shisha (water pipe) in the shade; veiled women in long black coverings, carrying baskets loaded with the daily shopping; a lively game of backgammon with boisterous cheering in the back alleys. Pass through any café door along the way and the elaborate interiors adorned with geometric woodwork and Persian carpets greet visitors. Open up to the locals over a thick Turkish coffee and talk about the common things that unite us, the weather or price of bread. Or the things that divide us, politics and George Boosh. Although my ears are used to a Latin tongue and their speech sounds quite different, the kindness behind the words was immediately recognized. Gestures and smiles sometimes convey much more than words ever will.

Photography by Jason George