“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain
Cairo is a city that seems to try hard to make a good first impression on tourists, at leat those coming by air. Exiting the shiny new airport, the first suburb you arrive at is where the “rich” live. Palaces, converted to museums, sprawling well lit gardens, home to many government employees, ex-home to ex-president Mubarak. Impressive and modern. Not the city of antiquities that most come to see.
Driving through Cairo at night is overwhelming. Next to its shining brightness, the cities and monuments of the last two weeks in Morocco appear a poor cousin (though not without their charm and uniqueness). Enormous mosques with their domes and towering minarets reach to the sky, lit up like beacons pointing the way to Mecca. This city of lights gives the night sky a never ending dusk-like quality.
Driving to our hotel, traffic, though busy, is not crazy in the sense of Asian city traffic. In fact I conclude that despite what I’d been led to believe, it would be quite easy to drive Cairo – being that one is mostly just sitting in traffic and not actually doing much driving. After an hour and a half trip of what I suspect was only a few kilometres we arrived at our home for the next few days, before starting our Gecko’s tour. King Hotel in Giza City, pretty central to major attractions such as the Egyptian Museum.
I’m overly excited to hear the rooftop restaurant and bar is opened til 1am… It’s 10.30 and lunch was non existent – dinner was airline food. The view from this bar is fantastic. Stretches across the city in all directions, selection of tapas, wines, beers and cocktails and best yet… 10 flavours of Sheesha @ 7 Egyptian pounds or about $1. Dinner and drinks end up costing about $7 for both of us. Surprisingly cheaper than Morocco has been. Good cheap food, good wine, great view – the best way to end the day.
…Sun streams into our room and wakes me in a panic that we’ve slept away our first full day in Egypt. It’s 5am…or as I’m still on Moroccan time, 3am. I check the time on my iPhone just in case my watch is being hinky! Nope it’s crack of dawn, though the sky would indicate otherwise.
And in the light of day, the glitter of the previous night fades away. Further from the airport, half constructed red brick apartment buildings have a slum-like appearance, rubbish lines the streets and clogs the canals, a constant layer of dust and pollution rests like a mantle across the city. Cairo is a sprawling unfinished metropolis – housing around 24 million people. The entire population of Australia crammed into a city bursting at the seams, and during the day they all hit the streets.
Venturing out to get some Egyptian culture I review my thoughts on driving in Cairo. Now that I can see what’s going on the roads…. and after driving in Hanoi, I should know it’s better not to look.
If you can brave the traffic there are sites well worth seeing around the city, though I recommend negotiating a price with the taxi driver rather than using the meter. And they will always try to raise it once you are halfway to your destination. The cost of transport itself is not expensive in Egypt… its the waiting, so let the cab go when you get to your location. Empty cabs are always around the main tourist sights when you are done.
There are a number of must sees on any Cairo itinerary that make it worthwhile to face the Cairo streets.
The Egyptian Museum
Without a doubt if you want to to see egyptian artifact, the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities is the place to go. The museum was first built in Boulak. In 1891, it was moved to the Giza Palace of “Ismail Pasha” which housed the antiquities that were later moved to the present building.
The Egyptian Museum is situated at Tahrir Square in Cairo. It was built during the reign of Khedive Abbass Helmi II in 1897, and opened on November 15, 1902 ?107 halls house over 120,000 artifacts. A walk around the ground floor from left to right will take you on a journey through the dynasties, from the Old Kingdom through to the Greco-Roman period. The upper floor houses small statues, jewels, Tutankhamon treasures and the Royal Mummies. For the most part wandering through looking at statues and treasures, a great many of which are un-named will suffice. If you are a history buff or fanatic – buy a guide book so you know what you are looking at.
Unfortunately photos are no longer permitted in the Museum, though you can snap away at the gardens and statues outside before checking in your camera.
Next to the Museum stands burnt out government buildings, a stark reminder of the revolution. The museum was lucky to be saved from the fires, with only minor damage and some looting. We are three weeks from the first democratic elections in Egypt’s history…ever… Rule has always been by pharaohs, conquering empires, colonial powers or dictators. Sounds of demonstrations can be heard from nearby Tahrir Square. It’s a history-making time to be in Egypt, though in reality I will be pleased to be out of Cairo before the elections and any fall-out. In all likely hood the Muslim Brotherhood will take power, and the opportunity to see Egypt in relative ease will be greatly reduced as the government takes a more conservative approach.
Although a predominately a Muslim country, 15% of Egypt’s populations is Coptic and an afternoon of wandering the narrow alleyways of Old Cairo, the home of Cairo’s Coptic Christian community is like discovering an island set apart from the ret of the city. The Coptic Orthodox Church traces its founding to Saint Mark the Apostle in 42 AD, and is thus arguably the world’s oldest Christian denomination. While the majority of Egyptians converted to Islam in the 12th century, the Church has survived through centuries of persecution, not only from hostile Muslim rulers such as the Fatimids, but also at the hands of the Crusaders, who viewed the Coptics as heretics.
There are a number of churches to see once you enter the precinct.
Ben Ezra Synagogue. Egypt’s oldest surviving synagogue, dating to the 9th century and housed in a former church constructed in the 4th century. The synagogue was established in 1115, in what was previously a Coptic church, when the Copts were forced to sell it to raise funds to pay taxes to Ibn Tulun.The famed Geniza Documents, discovered in the synagogue basement, are of great interest to modern scholars of the medeival period in Egypt
Church and Monastery of St George, Mar Girgis St. The Church of St. George dates to the 10th century or earlier. However, the current structure on the site was built in the early 20th century, having been rebuilt after a 1904 fire. It should be noted that this church is the Greek Orthodox Church of Agios Georgios (Saint George) and it is frequently mislabelled as a Coptic church. A sign in Greek outside the main entrance testifies to this. The church stands on the same grounds as the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria’s offices and the Greek Orthodox cemetery. One explanation for the church’s unusual circular ground floor plan may be that it was possibly built on ancient circular Roman ramparts. The remains of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchs can be found in one of the underground levels of the church. The cemetery contains another Greek Orthodox Church, that of the Dormition of the Virgin.
The Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (Abu Serga) is a 4th century church and today is considered to be the oldest of Cairos Christian churches It is dedicated to two early martyrs and traditionally believed to have been built on the spot where the Holy Family, Joseph, Mary and the infant Christ, rested at the end of their journey into Egypt. Whether you are religious are not its awe inspiring to look down into the crypt where Jesus may have been.
Known in Arabic as al-Muallaqah (“The Suspended”), the Hanging Church is the most famous Coptic church in Cairo. The church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and is thus also known as Sitt Mariam or St. Mary’s Church.
The Hanging Church is named for its location above a gatehouse of the Roman fortress in Old Cairo; its nave is suspended over a passage. The church is approached by 29 steps; early travelers to Cairo dubbed it “the Staircase Church.”
Memphis & Saqqara
It is hard to imagine the vast enormity of the ancient Egyptian capitol city of Memphis. Most historians believe it extended approximately nineteen miles along the eastern shore of the Nile If the size of the city alone is not impressive, the age is mind-boggling. It is long held to have been founded by the first pharaoh of the first dynasty, and was the first capitol of a united Egypt – making it well over five thousand years old!
For centuries Memphis, Egypt was the political and administrative hub of the country, and nearby Saqqara with its vast number of royal burial sites attests to the significance of the area. Even after the turmoil created by the reign Akhenaton, who relocated the capital to Thebes and built his own special temples to the Aton, or sun, the pharaoh Tutankhamun returned to Memphis.
As centuries passed however, Memphis began to fade as a powerful location and with the end of Pharaonic Egypt came the dismantling of many of Memphis’ temples and large structures. Medieval construction in Cairo and the rise of Alexandria caused much destruction in the once grand city.
Today, all that remains of this city is an open air museum with a few recovered monuments, the giant statue of Rameses II the main attraction.
Nearby Saqqara was the necropolis for Memphis. Used as a burial ground for thousands of years, Saqqara hides its secrets well under desert sands. Despite virtually continuous excavations for some two centuries, much of the area remains to be excavated. The site stretches six kilometres from north to south and more than 1.5 kilometres across at its widest point.
The site’s best-known feature is the step pyramid, the world’s oldest major stone structure. It was built in the 3rd Dynasty (around 2630 BC) for King Djoser and its construction was overseen by his vizier Imhotep.
All over Saqqara can be found tombs of different periods. Those open to the public date to the Old Kingdom.. Around the northern-most of Saqqara’s pyramids is that of the 6th Dynasty pharaoh Teti. Adjacent to the pyramid are the mastabas (free-standing tombs of earlier periods) of his officials, some of whom had marvellous reliefs created for themselves.
Street vendors in Saqqara are particulary persistent and have a nmber of scams to try to get you to take them as guides. Anyone waving key at you and sayng you cant see the tombs unless they come and unlock them are not to be believed, there are no additional charges to see any of the areas inside the complex, even if tourist police ask you to pay. And when anyone says no money to take you to a tomb – they seem to suffer memory loss when you go to leave. This generally amounts to some arm waving, yelling in arabic and me storming off telling them to “imshee” (go away).
The Pyramids of Giza
The Pyramids of Giza are the most famous monuments of ancient Egypt. These massive stone structures were built around 4500 years ago on a rocky desert plateau close to the Nile. But the intriguing Egyptian pyramids were more than just tombs for kings. The mysteries surrounding their symbolism, design and purpose have inspired passionate debate. It is likely that many of these mysteries will never be solved.
The Great Pyramid of Khufu is the largest of the pyramids. Khufu (Cheops to the Greeks) ruled about 2589-2566 BCE when the Old Kingdom of Egypt was nearing a peak of prosperity and culture. His pyramid is astonishing for both its size and mathematical precision.
Some believe that the pyramid was built by slaves but this is not true. One hundred thousand people worked on it for three months of each year. This was the time of the Nile’s annual flood which made it impossible to farm the land and most of the population was unemployed.
The pyramid was originally encased in smooth, white limestone that must have gleamed in the harsh Egyptian sun. Unfortunately, this was plundered long ago to provide building materials for Cairo. This colossal structure was originally 146 meters high until it lost this outer casing and its capstone.
The Pyramid of Khafre, is the second-largest of the Giza pyramids and the tomb of the fourth dynasty pharaoh Khafre (Chefren). Many people mistakenly believe this to be the great pyramid as in photos it looks to be the largest of the three. Khafre, out of respect for his father built a smaller pyramid, but cleverly built on higher ground, giving it the appearance of being substantially taller.
The Pyramid of Menkaure, is the smallest of the three Pyramids of Giza. It was built to serve as the tomb of the Fourth Dynasty Pharaoh Menakaure, grandson of Khufu.
The Sphinx is one of the best known monuments on Earth and dates back over 4,500 years to the Old Kingdom and the time of king Khafre – builder of the second largest pyramid on the Giza plateau on Cairo’s outskirts. The head of the Sphinx probably depicts Khafre, while the body is that of a recumbent lion.
The Sphinx is about 73.5 metres in length. It was originally sculptured from a limestone outcrop and, for most of its history, the Sphinx has been at least partly covered in sand. The first recorded clearing took place in the 18th Dynasty when a prince, who later became the pharaoh Thutmose IV, ordered that the sand be removed. This happened after he supposedly had a dream in which he was told that he would become pharaoh if he cleared the Sphinx.
Unfortunately, in recent centuries, the Sphinx has suffered greatly from the influence of man and exposure to the environment. Numerous attempts have been made to restore the figure and additional modern limestone blocks have been added around the base.
Cairo is the start of a new tour – which means the chance to meet a new guide, new travelling companions, and maybe at the end come away with some great experiences and new friends. Its a larger group this time with three tours sharing itineraries. Ahmed, our tour guide meets us a couple of days before the tour, to see if we need any tips or help with sightseeing during our spare time and introduces us to WIll and Sophie who have just finished working a ski season in Canada and as it turns out live 10 minutes away from us back in Oz. The second time that’s happened on one of our trips. We meet the rest of the crew later on. Dave and Sarah, moving back to Australia after living in the UK for 9 years, Mel – an environmental planner from Sydney, Lakshmi – a lawyer from Hobart, Simon – from “farming country but I’m not a farmer” in the UK, Brian – a CFO from San Diego and lastly Jack from Detroit, who’s just finished four years in the airforce, stationed in the middle east. A diverse group.
After four days in the mayhem of Cairo, I miss the relative calm of Morocco (yes even the Fes medina is an oasis of quietness in comparison). It’s time to head out and explore some of Egypt’s greatest wonders.