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The goods at the Camel Market

Cairo isn't a gentle city. Home to more than 16 million Egyptians, Arabs, Africans and sundry others, the 'Mother of the World' is an all-out assault on the senses. Chaotic, noisy, polluted, totally unpredictable and seething with people, the sheer intensity of the city will either seduce or appal.

The city doesn't have the resources for graceful boulevards and cobbled squares and the kind of dolled-up, prettified buildings that cry out to be photographed and stuck in an album. Historic buildings are buried in age-old quarters of the city that have yet to be tamed and made tourist-friendly.

The high population density and lack of room to move throws up startling juxtapositions: mud-brick houses and towering modern office buildings, flashy cars and donkey-drawn carts. Cairenes see nothing strange in this. They aren't driven by the Western obsession to update and upgrade, possibly because they live in such close proximity to millennia of history (the Pyramids are visible from the upper storeys of buildings all over the city). The resulting pervasive sense of timelessness is one of the city's great charms.

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