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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Egypt.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Egypt.
Noisy, wonderful, chaotic, and awash with the smells of spices, incense, and leather, Khan el-Khalili is one of the world’s great bazaars— a sprawling, confusing, enclosed city-within-a-city first set up as a caravansary in 1382.
Everyone here wants your business, your money, your time for a glass of mint tea. Whether you’re shopping or not, bypass the tiny stalls and workshops on the most trammeled pathways (which have become highly touristed) and penetrate deep into the bewildering warren of back alleys, where Cairenes still shop for their dowries, cotton galabiyas, fezzes, and sheehas, or hooka water pipes.
This is the place to practice your haggling technique, but don’t expect to win against merchants with thousands of years of practice in their blood. Almost everything is available here. Mini bazaars within the bazaar specialize in such goods as carpets, gold, fabrics, perfume, and cosmetics (where the tiny pots of eye-lining kohl, Cleopatra-style, are made from burned, crushed olive pits).
Open round-the-clock since 1752, El Fishawy is still the Khan’s most famous coffee and tea house, immortalized by Lawrence Durrell. In a rich 19th- century European ambience of gilded mirrors, hammered brass, and cracked marble-topped tables, puff on a water pipe, have your fortune told, people-watch, and order what is said to be the best coffee in the city, delivered in little brass pots.
Most tour groups head straight upstairs for the gallery dedicated to the mind-boggling treasures of boy-king Tutankhamen. Others make a beeline for the mummy room, only recently reopened after fifteen years.
Regardless of your viewing strategy, the museum houses such an unparalleled collection of treasures (arranged chronologically from the Old [2700—2200 B.C.], to Middle [2100-1800 B.C.], and New [1600-1200 B.C.] Kingdoms) that, allowing just one minute to examine each of its 136,000 pharaonic artifacts, it would take a visitor nine months to see it all.
Another astounding 40,000 items remain crated in the basement, evidence of the chronic space shortage that has plagued Egypt’s greatest museum since it was founded in 1858. A visit here is overwhelming, to say the least; so are the crowds.
After viewing the 1,700 objects unearthed in 1922 in the small tomb of the relatively insignificant pharaoh Tut and the two rooms of twenty-seven mummified royal pharaohs and their queens, the rest of the museum’s exhibits can seem lackluster. A more relaxed return visit can do justice to these other masterworks.
Ranking with Australia’s Great Barrier Reef as the world’s best place to dive, the Red Sea was described by no less an expert than Jacques Cousteau as “a corridor of marvels—the happiest hours of my diving experience.”
The sea is famed for its diverse marine life and the spectacular clarity of the water, with visibility often in excess of 150 feet. (The lack of rain in the surrounding desert means no runoff to degrade visibility.) Much of the uniqueness of a Red Sea dive derives from the dramatic juxtaposition of the stark beauty of the Sinai Desert above and the veritable Garden of Eden below. About 10 percent of Red Sea species are found nowhere else on earth.
At the southernmost tip of the Sinai Peninsula, dive resorts such as Sharm el-Sheik offer a range of day boats out to the spectacular dive sites of Ras Mohammed, Egypt’s first national marine park. But live-aboard boats can bypass the underwater crowds and head for even more pristine reefs, steep drop-offs, sea mounts, and wrecks.
Those who head to the mountain-lined coast of the Red Sea for diving and snorkeling holidays should consider an unprogrammed off-road segue into the Sinai’s desert wilderness with a Bedouin guide. On the Gulf of Aqaba, Nuweiba is the best jumping-off point for treks by foot, jeep, or camel.
It’s near the ancient Byzantine monastery of Santa Katerina, located on the slopes of Mount Sinai, from whose summit God is said to have delivered the Ten Commandments to Moses, and Colored Canyon, where the rock strata contain an outstanding spectrum of colors that change with the light.
Members of some of the fourteen indigenous tribes of nomadic Bedouins have chosen to take up the opportunities offered by tourism, most commonly as guides for overnight (and longer) trips to oases and nomadic camps.
There you can experience life as the Bedouins have known it since biblical times. Book your trip to Nuweiba for mid-January, in time for the annual camel races at Wadi Zalaga, when tribes converge from across the southern Sinai.
Anywhere from 60 to 100 camels race 12.6 miles, while honking jeeps and fellow dromedaries race alongside to cheer on their favorite mounts. The barbecue and party the night before rivals the post-race celebration.
Nuweiba, long a popular ferry departure point for Muslim pilgrims en route to Mecca, is now aiming at more of a resort and diving village atmosphere. The nicest top-end hotel option is the beachfront Hilton Coral Resort, which can arrange any of your Bedouin fantasies.
More than 3,000 years ago, on the 34th anniversary of his reign, the never modest Pharaoh Ramses II ordered the colossal Sun Temple of Abu Simbel to be carved into the side of a cliff—with four 65-foot-high seated statues of himself as a young pharaoh on the exterior and an equally awesome interior.
The immense monument took an unknown number of men thirty-six years to complete. In the 1960s an ingenious UNESCO rescue operation saved this and twenty-two other temples from being submerged forever when a high dam was built at Aswan.
The $40 million effort entailed moving and rebuilding both the temple and the statues on higher ground. Engineers even aligned the relocated temple to reproduce a semiannual phenomenon on February 22 and October 22, thought to be the anniversaries of Ramses’s birth and coronation: When the first rays of the sun reach 180 feet deep into the temple’s sanctuary, they illuminate murals of the deified pharaoh and his fellow gods.
The result of the Aswan High Dam is Lake Nasser, or the “Nubian Sea”—the largest freshwater man-made lake in the world. Long unvisited and forgotten, it was a blind spot on the Egyptian map for decades. But the first cruise ship (and still without question the handsomest) parted the waters for tourists on this 300-mile-long lake in 1990: the fifty- four-cabin M.S. Eugenie, a faux steamboat appointed in homage to the opulent comfort enjoyed by wealthy, fin-de-siecle Egyptophiles.
While the majority of foreign cruise passengers today sail north on the Nile from Aswan to crowded Luxor and its legendary sites, travelers heading south to Lake Nasser on the M.S. Eugenie may feel they have the lake’s temple- dotted shores almost to themselves.
The empty desert beyond is like a moonscape, its wind-hewn natural pyramids and bluffs a quiet source of fascination. The steamboat was named after the French empress who opened the Suez Canal in 1869; the Eugenie’s piece de resistance is the Imperial Suite, six times the size of the average spacious cabin. It would have pleased Her Majesty, indeed.
Toward the south of Egypt, near the Sudanese border, the Nile becomes increasingly dramatic; the desert closes in and palm-studded islands and elephantine granite boulders lend a natural beauty and sense of occasion to Egypt’s (and once the Roman Empires) southernmost town.
Since time immemorial, Aswan’s position at the crossroads of important caravan routes gave its markets a flourishing trade in gold, slaves, and ivory. The souk still brims with spices, perfumes, and produce; it’s Egypt’s most evocative and colorful marketplace after Cairo’s.
Aswan has long been a favored winter destination for foreigners, a restful yet exciting town, where idleness and sightseeing mingle effortlessly. Sail into antiquity aboard a traditional felucca in the late afternoon, or arrange a five-day float downstream to Luxor.
Or book into Aswan’s Old Cataract Hotel, on a picturesque bend in the Nile. Agatha Christie was so captivated by this timeless scenario that she staged and wrote much of Death on the Nile here. When the movie adaptation was filmed, the Old Cataract Hotel was given a plum part. Everything about it suggests a marriage of Edwardian and Oriental elegance, a magical ambience that lured Aga Khan III to honeymoon here and return regularly. He even chose to be buried in Aswan, and his simple mausoleum, one of the town’s most-visited sites, can be seen from some of the guest rooms.
While any of the refurbished rooms in the original wing will do, the individualistic suites have added drama and history. Agatha Christie’s favorite suite has a small balcony from which she could watch the sunset in privacy and retreat to a small writing room at will to pen her Nile romances. And speaking of Nile romances, the Suite of a Thousand and One Nights (now known as the Winston Churchill Suite) will make you want to stay at least that long, or maybe longer.