Old traditions and new unite in one of the world’s most intriguing civilizations.
By Linda Bendt
In all my travels abroad – from New Zealand to Beijing, from Istanbul to Sydney – no trip compares in history, culture, and utter enchantment to that of my adventure though Egypt. Even before we left the United States, the fun started. Just telling people of the exotic trip I had planned sparked interesting conversations and questions. “Why Egypt?” people wondered. I even wondered that myself. Egypt wasn’t on our “top 10” list of places to see, but we had a close friend living in Cairo and figured it was our best chance to experience an insider’s perspective of this mysterious, ancient land. Now, Egypt is at the top of your list of places we’d love to return.
City at the Center
Our adventure started in Cairo, the capital of Egypt. This sprawling metropolis covers more than 175 square miles and about seven million people call it home. The bustling city is the region’s primary tourist, commercial, and administrative center and supports dozens of government offices, universities, cultural venues, and other businesses. Surrounded by desert to the east, south, and west, while the Nile delta cradles it to the north, Cairo is an intriguing city that fills its visitors with wonder.
One of my favorite spots, definitely a “must see” in Cairo, is the Egytian Museum. It’s located in the center of downtown Cairo in Tahrir Square on the East Bank, which is easily accessible by taxi cab if you’re already downtown, or by the Metro, Cairo’s subway system, if you’re in the suburbs. (Keep in mind that the front one or two cars are typically designated for women only.) The price of admission to the Museum is inexpensive (about $6 U.S. for adults and less than $3 for children), but be prepared to pay an additional amount if you want to take your camera or video camera inside ($3 for an amateur’s camera and nearly $30 for a video camera). Built in 1900 and currently exhibiting more than 120,000 objects, the museum’s vast assortment of ancient statues, jewerly, pottery, and artwork gives visitors a glimpse into the lives and traditions of people who lived centuries earlier. Make sure to give yourself enough time for the two most fascinating exhibits: the mummies and the tomb of Tutankhamen (King Tut). Mummies are an eerie concept for many westerners, but there is deep tradition and meaning behind the hundreds of mummies on exhibit. Egyptians of centuries ago believed that preserving a person’s body through mummification ensured a safe passage to the afterlife. Eventually, Egyptians gave up the art and science of mummification, but not before more than seventy million people were preserved in this manner throughout a 3,000-year period. The best preserved and most carefully cared for mummies were those of the Pharaohs and their relatives. There is a section of the Egyptian Museum dedicated to the world’s most well-known Egyptian Pharaoh, King Tut, often referred to as the “boy-king”. Discovered in 1922, King Tut’s tomb was the only Pharaoh’s tomb found that was still intact (most other tombs were pillaged by grave robbers). The tomb revealed many riches, including artwork, furniture, weapons, and the infamous Gold Mask. Fortunately, these ancient treasures can be admired by visitors today.
While you’re exploring Tahrir Square, the area surrounding the museum, walk down any side street for a flavor of some of Egypt’s local cuisine. There are many small restaurants where you can taste kosheri, a dish consisting of lentils, rice, and spicy sauce; foul, a bean dish; and other local favorites.
Cairo’s Other Treasures
Although you could spend days at Tahrir Square and the Egyptian Museum, don’t miss out on the other wonderful attractions awaiting you in Cairo. If you’re a shopper and are looking for authentic Egyptian merchandise or gifts, visit the Khan El Khalili Bazaar. This vast market features items unique to the region, including mother-of-pearl, wood items showcasing Arabic design, intricately woven tapestries (pillow cases, blankets, carpets), and other beautiful goods. When you visit the bazaar, remember that prices are not firm. Negotiating is almost a game to the merchants, so have your bargaining hat on.
If you’re in the mood for some cultural entertainment, I recommend going to see the whirling dervishes at the Ghuriya Cultural Center in Al-Ghuri’s Mausoleum. (One man “whirls” for nearly forty-five minutes!) The rituals of the dervishes stem from music and dancing as a way of shedding earthly ties and abandoning oneself to God’s love. Performances are typically held on Wednesdays and Saturdays around eight o’clock in the evening. You may want to call ahead to make sure there’s a scheduled performance.
If your travels take you into Old Cairo (another section of the city, on the east side), visit Saladin’s Citadel. This complex is home to many palaces, museums, and earlier mosques. One of the most breathtaking mosques to visit is the elegant Mohammed Ali Mosque. Open daily in winter from eight o’clock in the morning to five o’clock in the evening and in summer from eight o’clock in the morning to six o’clock in the evening, the Citadel – if you climb to the top of it on a clear day – offers a stunning view of the pyramids of Giza.
Venturing Outside of the City
As a visitor to Cairo, I realized that the city was not only a hub of activity in itself, but also served as a center point to reach other popular destinations in Egypt. Luxor, Alexandria, and the Red Sea are all easily accessible through Cairo. For example, Isram World of Travel offers great package deals to Egypt that take travelers virtually anywhere they want to go – including tours of Cairo and cruises along the Nile. Isram World’s eight-day Jewel of the Nile excursion takes travelers to Cairo, Luxor’s Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, and Edfu’s Temple of Horus, the best preserved of all the large Egyptian temples.
One of our excursions out of Cairo led us to Sham-el-Sheikh, a small city tucked between the mountains and the Red Sea. We drove an hour from Sham-el-Sheikh to Dahab, a popular recreation village for diving and snorkeling. The views of the sea were breathtaking. If you want to see more stunning views below the water’s surface, you’re in luck. This is one of the world’s most popular places for scuba diving and snorkeling.
Before we returned to Cairo, we set out to ride up Mount Sinai, southeast of Cairo (depending on your budget and timing, you can either fly to Mount Sinai or take a bus trip). We rode by camel on a switchback trail that wove its way up the side of this rocky mountain. I use this word “ride” loosely – I wasn’t exactly feeling stable as I sat more that six feet above the ground on my camel, who definitely wanted to take his time getting me to the top! Many people choose to hike up the mountain, but for those who want to experience a camel ride, camel handlers are waiting at the base of the mountain for tour groups and individuals.
We passed the legendary Burning Bush (which marks the place in Christian fait where God spoke to Moses through fire) and spent the next hour making our way up the mountain range. Arriving at the top at sunset, we witnessed an amazing blend of red, orange, and pink hues dancing throughout the layers of mountains and foothills. We chose to walk back down, with the moonlight lighting our path – yet another memory I’ll treasure.
When we returned to Cairo, we were better able to appreciate how a blend of cultures shares the land in Egypt, which is getting more and more Westernized as the years go on. In the same day, visitors see artifacts and hear stories of Pharaohs who ruled before Christ, and later pass by crowded McDonald’s restaurants teeming with locals sporting Levis.
English is spoken in most areas of Cairo and throughout Egypt and the people are kind and welcoming of tourists in general. However, it’s important to be aware of and show respect for Egyptian culture. For example, dressing conservatively will garner more respect from the locals. The respect you show the local people will be graciously returned.
The Pyramids at Giza
Without question, Egypt’s most recognizable landmarks – the pyramids and the Sphinx – lie just outside Cairo. Located between the desert and the suburb of Giza, these pyramids served as burial grounds and tombs for ancient Pharaohs. The largest pyramid, called the Great Pyramid, stands nearly fifty stories high. Early Egyptians built more than ninety royal pyramids, like this one, by hand. Researchers estimate that 2.3 million stone blocks were used to build the Great Pyramid – a feat that becomes even more incomprehensible when you’re standing next to the ancient giant. If you’re looking for a fun way to experience the Pyramids, rent a horse or camel at the landmark’s entrance. Your ride will take you into the desert and around the monuments. On calm, clear days, the sunsets behind the pyramids are truly breathtaking.
Although Egypt has embraced contemporary culture, the rich history that lies withing its boundaries will never be erased. So deep is the country’s culture that it gives a renewed perspective to many of the Americans fortunate enough to visit its rugged terrain and bustling cities. This sense of history, some of which dates back to 2600 B.C., is perhaps the best and most lasting of the many gifts Egypt gives to its visitors.