A Touch of Egypt
Cairo, the chaotic capital of Egypt, rich in world-famous history, is the fastest growing city in the world. It is a city of many faces: full of contradictions.
Cairo is a megacity, and with an urban area containing over 22 million people – the eighth largest in the world. But sadly, it's dirty city. And it´s not only having the eighth-worst air pollution score in the world; the streets as well.
I'd suggest hiring a local guide or joining a tour and get around by taxi or Uber. And definitely plan your visit during the cooler months between October and April.
Giza Pyramids and Sphinx
It’s a good idea to avoid the unofficial guides lingering at the entrance of the Pyramids of Giza, as you’re unlikely to get much value for your money. Plan ahead a tour in advance and visit early in the morning so you can get there before the not only to avoid the hordes of other tourists and make it before the closing time.
Here it feels like you’ve stepped back in history. The oldest of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World is located on the outskirts of Cairo. The Giza Pyramid Complex is an archaeological site composed by three different pyramids built as the necropolis of the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom. It includes the three Great Pyramids: Cheops, Chephren and Mykerinos, as well as the famous Great Sphinx and several other cemeteries.
The pyramids were built to keep the remains of the deceased Pharaohs that ruled Ancient Egypt over 4,500 years ago. The pyramids also served as storage of multiple items that the Pharaohs would need in the afterlife, allowing them to reach the new world.
Being next to such huge and old constructions was a breathtaking experience, however if you're willing to visit inside just remember it could get claustrophobic.
The Great Sphinx of Giza is the oldest monumental sculpture in Egypt, and it is believed that its face represents Pharaoh Khafre. Built in limestone, the 20m high statue represents the mythical creature with human head and the body of a lion. Regarding its missing nose, there are many stories including that it was destroyed by cannon balls fired by Napoleon Bonaparte, while some other stories blame the Mamluks or the Arabs. The Sphinx is missing a ceremonial pharaonic beard as well that is believed to be added years after its construction.
The Egyptian Museum
Museum of Egyptian Antiquities or Museum of Cairo is a must. Founded in 1857 by French Egyptologist August Mariette, the museum sits in Tahrir square, where the 2011 Revolution took place. Looters have managed to vandalize and steal some of the historic artefacts whereas a great number of Egyptian citizens formed a human shield to protect the museum.
The Egyptian Museum is not only the first purpose-built museum edifice in the region but also stands as the mothership of Egyptology in terms of the breadth and significance of its collections. The collection has some jaw-dropping artefacts including the mast and sarcophagi of Tutankhamun, also known as the ‘Boy King.’ Housing the largest collection of Pharaonic antiquities in the world, the Museum displays an extensive collection spanning from prehistory up to the Graeco-Roman period. Other than the Rosetta Stone, the Narmer Palette is one of the most important archeological finds. It depicts the first-ever unification of Upper and Lower Eygpt by King Narmer.
Photography was not allowed inside when I visited, I hope you'll be luckier.
By mid 2021, visitors will be able to visit The Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) located just outside of Cairo on the Giza Plateau. You'll notice a definite leap from the 19th to the 21st century with this opening. For example, unlike in the old museum, which simply displayed the treasures, in GEM, entire narratives have been developed in the designs of many of the galleries, to demonstrate King Tut's lifestyle, including what and when he ate, and what he might have been wearing.
Three religions side-by-side in the old city of Fustat
While Egypt is a primarily Muslim country, there have also always been Christians and Jews with their own dynamic cultures. The Mugamaa Al Adyan (Complex of Religions) is home to the three monotheistic religions, with Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque representing Islam, the Hanging Church representing Christianity and Ben Ezra Synagogue representing Judaism.
The original Mosque of Amr Ibn Al-Aas was built in 641 AD by General Amr Ibn Al-Aas, the commander of the Muslim army that conquered Egypt, standing as the oldest mosque built in Africa.
The Hanging Church was built on top of an ancient Roman fortress and covered in mosaics and paintings. To experience more of Coptic Cairo, you will want to visit St. George Church, Abu Serga Church and St. Barbara. You can also find the Coptic Museum in the area. First inaugurated in 1910, the museum holds ancient artefacts, art and sculptures from Egypt’s Christian history.
With remarkable presence of arabesque ornamentation, Ezra Synagogue is one of the last surviving remnants of the Jewish community that once lived in Egypt and is the only one that is open to the public. It is said that the synagogue had an old copy of the Old Testament written by Ezra the Priest. Others also say that this is where Baby Moses was found after being sent adrift on the Nile.
Another islamic must-see is the Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha located within the Citadel of Selahaddin Eyyubi from 1176 that offers excellent views of the city.
The Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan is a massive mosque and madrassa located in the Old city of Cairo, it was built during the Mamluk Islamic era in Egypt. The Al-Rifa'i Mosque was constructed in two phases over the period between 1869 and 1912 when it was finally completed.
The Roman Fortress of Babylon or Qsar el Shamee from 30 BC is one of the existing Roman monuments built with the arrival of the emperor Augustus in Egypt, on the eastern bank of the Nile River.
What else in Cairo?
The four bronze lions guarding the two ends of the Qasr Al-Nil Bridge linking Gezira to Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo were originally meant to stand guard in Alexandria around the statue of Mohamed Ali Pasha. The lions have witnessed a great deal since they were first set up at the end of the 19th century, from the romantic dating of young couples staring at the Nile to the roars of the millions of Egyptians who marched over the bridge during the 25 January Revolution chanting for freedom, equality and the toppling of the former Mubarak regime.
Experience the sounds and smells at one of the world’s oldest open-air markets (souqs). The Khan El-Khalili Souq, established in 1400, is a maze filled with spices, food, clothing, leather bags, jewelry, and antiques. Beware for pickpockets and don't forget to bargain!
Watch the sunset riding down the Nile in feluccas, traditional wooden sailboats. It’s the perfect way to enjoy the views of the modern parts of the city. Also, a dinner on a boat could help you see some music, dance and traditions 😉
You can also pay a daily visit to Sakkara and Memphis from Cairo and I highly would recommend so.
The Saqqara site is located roughly 30 km south of Cairo. It is a large and ancient burial ground which served as the necropolis for the ancient Egyptian capital, Memphis. There are a number of pyramids on the Saqqara Site. It’s estimated that 16 Egyptian Kings built pyramids there.
The most famous pyramid at Saqqara is the Step Pyramid of Djoser which was built around 2700 BC. The structure has 6-tiers and 4 sides and is the earliest colossal stone building in Egypt. It is considered to be the earliest cut stone manmade construction and it is said to represent a crown in a shape that would enable the ascension of the king to the sky. The Step Pyramid is an essential phase in the evolution of the royal tombs until they reached the famous pyramid shape that we can see in Giza.
Other highlights in the area are Unas, Teti & Userkaf and the temple complex of Heb-Sed.
Unas is formed by all the components of the royal funerary complex: a pyramid, the mortuary temple, the ascending passage and the Valley Temple. The inside is just breathtaking, with walls completely covered in hieroglyphs and rich paintings that have remained intact for thousands of years. These are religious texts that help the deceased King in his resurrection, guiding him to reach the sun god Ra in the sky.
Uskeraf is a rather large mound of something that looks vaguely triangular shape but really it’s in a poor condition. It was founded in the Fifth Dynasty and was originally roughly 7 meters wide.
Teti, founded in the Sixth Dynasty, is even more derelict and looks nothing more than a large mound of sand. If you encountered it somewhere else you’d be forgiven for thinking it was just a hill.
The name of Memphis is derived from the Ancient Egyptian name called Min-Nefer, then Greeks called it latter Memphis. It is located about 24 kilometers south of Cairo.
Memphis was founded in the 1st Dynasty (3100 B.C) by King Narmar. It was the capital of Ancient Egypt, and the first capital city founded after the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt.
Though little remains of this pharaonic city, the open air museum here is worth a visit. See the huge fallen image of Ramesses II at the museum.
Alexandria, a Mediterranean port city, is the second-largest city in Egypt. It is about a 2.5-hour drive from Cairo and is well worth the trip. Alexandria has a rich Roman history and a stunning location.
The city of Alexandria was founded in 331 B.C. by Alexander the Great, with the purpose of building a new capital for his ever-expanding empire. The city rapidly became the largest of its time, attracting some of the most famous scholars, scientists and philosophers. With the construction of the famous library by Ptolemy I, the city became a center of knowledge. It is thought that it housed more than 500,000 books.
While it’s not the “original fascinating” ancient Library of Alexandria that housed the most important recordings of human history and research, there is a New Library of Alexandria that is worth visiting!
The White Sails Statue, my favorite, consists of a bull with a tight grip on a beautiful girl symbolizing the city of Alexandria.
The city of Alexandria was famous for being home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: The Lighthouse of Alexandria. It was estimated to be 100 meters in height, and it ended up being abandoned after it was severely damaged by multiple earthquakes. Its ruins survived until 1480 when the last stones were used to build the Citadel of Qaitbay that can be found in that exact location.
The fort was built in the 15th century by the Mamluks after Sultan Qaitbay visited the city and ordered his men to construct a fortified citadel in the same exact place where the Lighthouse of Alexandria once stood. Today, the fort has become one of the symbols of the city, and the area is always full of locals fishing and walking along the promenade.
Here, you can also visit the Roman catacombs, Pompey’s Pillar, Montazah Palace and Abu Al-Abbas al-Mursi Mosque.
I was able to photograph locals, too; they were quite tolerant except for the bagel seller who didn't want his photo to be taken (I didn't realize, sorry!)...
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