Egypt, April 21, 2007
Scoot over, I need more elbow room
Flying into Cairo, Egypt, you might get the impression that you're going to land in a village. From the air, all you see is empty yellow desert, with a streak of green through the middle. But when you land, you are almost instantly thrown into a maw of urban living. People everywhere.
Most sources say around 7.7 million people live in Cairo, squeezed into the Nile Valley which is only few kilometers wide at this point, or on the near desert plateau. Official government statistics estimate the population density of Cairo at 31,000 person per square kilometer.
This is almost unimaginable coming from Washington DC. We have around 500,000 people in the Capitol with a population density of 3,597/km. How can so many people live in such a small space?
Like Hong Kong's vertical living, Cairo goes up. Large apartment buildings dominate its skyline, but these are not sleek New York City towers piecing the sky. No, Cairo has a skyline similar to Washington's - large squat buildings dominating most or all of a city block, imperial yet human in their size.
Waiting for a train in Alexandria, I calculated that the row of apartment blocks visible behind the station housed around a thousand people each, for a total of 10 thousand people on one long city block. Expand that block to a city, and you can understand the volume.
But you can never quite comprehend all the cars required to move those inhabitants. In the Giza section of town, there are so many people with so many cars, traffic, parking, any auto-related transportation activity was a exercise in frustration.
Yet the Nile provides for all this humanity and has for several thousand years too. The great river, feeding, washing, nourishing millions of Cairenes. That is the most amazing aspect of Cairo's population to me, especially since I've white-water rafted the Nile's source. How a ribbon of water 6,700 kilometers long can sustain so many people, and for so many years.