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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.
Every day of my Nile cruise started the exact same way. I made sure they did. The rays of Egypt’s Saharan sun streamed in through my east-facing floor-to-ceiling windows, flooding my stateroom with light. Each morning I looked out at the river and the array of life that it spawns: shepherds herding sheep, cattle grazing on its shores and low-lying islands, papyrus reeds flourishing in shallow waters. It could have been a portal to a time long gone. Breakfast could wait. If you’re thinking of visiting Egypt and want to be outrageously pampered, but also want to get your hands dirty exploring its pharaonic heritage, take heed if you’ve booked passage on Sanctuary Retreat’s five-star Sun Boar IV. This gleaming vessel, with its Art Deco flourishes and cabana-laden sun deck, doesn’t want to stop you from putting on your pith helmet and wandering off into the desert a la Howard Carter. But be warned. It’s very comfy here.
Designed for Nile cruising, the 40-stateroom Sun Boat IV is sleek and streamlined, its hull looking more like a yacht than the bulky-looking, squared-off hulls of older boats permanently moored alongside ageing piers, the legacy of a tourism downturn that has persisted since the 2011 revolution. I was on a four-night cruise sailing upriver from Luxor to Aswan, although the same itinerary can be done in reverse in just three nights sailing downriver from Aswan to Luxor, helped by the river’s gentle current.
Expeditions into the past – What brings people to Egypt is its unparalleled archaeological heritage, and in true Sun Boat fashion, Sanctuary Retreats acquired the services of the man who must surely have been Upper Egypt’s most engaging Egyptologist to light the way. Mohamed Ezzat’s passion for history took him from secondary school in Qena in Upper Egypt all the way to Cairo’s Helwan University. Approachable and engaging, his enthusiasm, sense of humour and insights elevated each shore excursion – one in the morning and one in the afternoon – to the lofty status of ‘expedition’.
We saw the ‘best of the best’: the temples of Hathor, Luxor and Karnak, the valleys of the Kings and Queens and the tomb of Queen Hatshepsut.We visited Edfu, dedicated to the falcon god Horus, and Korn Ombo, both Greek temples built during the rule of the Ptolemies. Finishing in Aswan, we took a bus to its unfinished obelisk – at 1088 tonnes almost a third larger than any obelisk ever raised in ancient Egypt – and visited Philae Temple, cut into 40,000 pieces and moved to its new island location by UNESCO in the early 1960s after spending decades partially flooded because of the construction of the Old Aswan Dam in 1902.
A sunset cruise on our last night in a specially chartered felucca took us past the Old Cataract Hotel (now a Sofitel Legend property), the hotel where author Agatha Christie set part of her classic novel, Death on the Nile. I wondered if there’d ever been an era when Egypt didn’t fascinate. In 1838 the Scottish painter David Roberts came here and spent months drawing hundreds of sketches and watercolours, soon-to-be-famous windows into a once-great civilisation that would go on to wow Victorian England. His work included the barely visible Gateway to the Temple of Hathor and the columns of the Temple of Horus at Edfu, buried almost to their capitals. If archaeology doesn’t intervene, time, if there’s enough of it, can reclaim all things. Especially paintings.
Endless Treasures to uncover – A selfish pleasure gnawed away at me at the prospect of spending a few minutes alone in the tomb of King Tutankhamun. Queues here once stretched over a hundred metres, but those pre-2011 days are now long gone. So, as the last few in our group shuffled away, down I went. But I wasn’t alone. Conservationists from the Getty Conservation Institute, a US-based private research institute, were hard at work conserving the tomb’s vivid array of wall paintings. Despite its overall excellent condition, localised lifting of paint remains a problem, and still there were those persistent, disfiguring brown spots, noted by Howard Carter himself after he famously discovered the tomb in 1922 – spots that almost a hundred years on have continued to defy explanation.
After disembarking in Aswan four days later I returned to Luxor at a reasonable pace courtesy of Egyptian National Railways and walked to the Winter Palace Hotel to see its Grand Staircase. It was here, in 1922, that Howard Carter announced he had found the tomb of King Tutankhamun, the otherwise inconsequential pharaoh made famous only because his tomb had somehow managed to avoid being robbed. Wherever you go in Egypt you’re never far from an ongoing excavation. The Department of Ancient History at Sydney’s own Macquarie University has been involved for years on the Theban Tombs Project at Dra’ Abu el-Naga’, a 4000-year-old necropolis near Luxor. Hardly a week goes by without something making news. As I was leaving to fly home, a 2.7-tonne torso of an Egyptian pharaoh was pulled from the mud in a nondescript Cairo suburb.
Egypt’s treasures are innumerable. Crates still sit unopened on the floor of the old Egyptian Museum in Cairo, waiting for the new Grand Egyptian Museum on the Giza Plateau to open in 2018. An astonishing edifice, it covers 50 hectares and, when completed, will be far and away the world’s largest archaeological museum. But its staff will only be stewards. Egypt’s heritage has never been its own. Its treasures have always belonged to us all.
Hewn out of a solid cliff in the 13th century BC, the Great Temple of Abu Simbel and the smaller Temple of Hathor are a breathtaking sight. Although dedicated to the patron deities of Egypt’s great cities — Amun of Thebes, Ptah of Memphis, and Ra-Harakhty of Heliopolis — the Great Temple was built to honor Ramses II. Its 108-ft (33m) high facade, with four colossal enthroned statues of Ramses II wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, was intended to impress and frighten, while the interior revealed the union of gods and king.
When the Aswan Dam proved too small to control the floodwaters of the Nile River, the Egyptian government built the High Dam and created Lake Nasser as a reservoir But the rising waters of the lake threatened to submerge Abu Simbel. Concern that the temples might be lost led UNESCO to back an international relief program, and in 1964 an ambitious four-year operation began, to move the two monuments to safety The temples, complete with their artifacts, were cut into 950 blocks and transferred to a higher site against the backdrop of an artificial mountain (relocated temples).
Three of the four 65-ft (20m) high statues — the Ramses II Colossi — gaze southward to deter even the most determined of the pharaoh’s enemies. Their enormous size is thought to represent Ramses’ divinity as a supreme god. The gods and Ramses’ family feature prominently among the other statues. At the feet of the colossi stand figures of the pharaoh’s mother, his wife, Queen Nefertari, and the royal children. Above the entrance to the Great Temple is the falcon-headed statue of the Sun god Ra-Harakhty Hapi, the god of the Nile flood, who is associated with fertility, is featured holding lotus and papyrus, symbols of Upper and Lower Egypt respectively.
Graphic wall paintings and reliefs found in the Great Temple of Abu Simbel and the Temple of Hathor glorify Ramses II as a divine ruler. They tell of his victories and show him fighting his enemies. In the Temple of Hathor, Nefertari’s consecration as divine queen is illustrated. Surrounding the paintings and reliefs are detailed rows of hieroglyphs. This pictorial script, thought to have developed around 3200 BC, is the world’s oldest known form of writing. The word “hieroglyph” means “sacred carved letter” and a complex system of 6,000 symbols was used by the ancient Egyptians to write their names and express their religious beliefs. Stories of the lives of Ramses and Nefertari have been engraved in this way on the wall s of Abu Simbel.
Great Temple Facade
Buried in sand for centuries, this facade was discovered in 1813 by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt.
The second statue on the left lost its head in an earthquake in 27 BC.
Ramses II Colossi
Accompanied by carved images of captives from the north and south, the four colossi on the facade boast of a unified Egypt Ramses’ name adorns the thrones in cartouche form.
The facade is topped by a frieze of 22 baboons, their arms raised, supposedly worshiping the rising Sun.
Scenes showing Ramses and Nefertari making offerings to Amun and Ra-Harakhty adorn this area.
Relocated Temples at Abu Simbel
In the 1960s, as Lake Nasser threatened to engulf the temples, UNESCO cut them from the mountain and moved them to an artificial cliff 688ft (210m) back from and 213 ft (65 m) above their original position
Ramses II sits with the gods Ra-Harakhty, Amun-Ra, and Ptah in the Inner Sanctuary of the Great Temple, which is shrouded in darkness for most of the time. On two days of the year, however, the Sun’s rays reach three of these once gold-covered statues.
Battle of Qadesh
Reliefs inside the hypostyle hall show Ramses II defeating Egypt’s enemies, including, on the right-hand wall, the defeat of the Hittites in the Battle of Qadesh c. 1275 BC.
The roof of this hall is supported by pillars with colossi in Osiride form – carrying crook and flail. Those on the southern pillars wear the Upper Egypt crown, while the northern ones wear the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt.
These held offerings to the gods and ritual items.
Dedicated to the goddess Hathor, deity of love, pleasure, and beauty, the smaller temple at Abu Simbel was built by Ramses II to honor his favorite wife, Nefertari. The temple’s hypostyle hall has Hathor-headed pillars and is decorated with scenes or Ramses slaying Egypt’s enemies, with Nefertari looking on. The vestibule shows the royal couple making offerings to the gods.
In ancient Egypt, the Sun was considered to be the source of all life and the temple was positioned to allow a shaft of sunlight into the Inner Sanctuary twice a year – possibly at the time of Ramses’ birthday in February and his coronation day in October. The rays lit all but the statue of Ptah, god of darkness.
1257 BC: Ramses II carves out the Great Temple and Temple of Hathor.
1817: The Egyptologist Giovanni Battista Belzoni ventures inside the temples.
1822: Jean-Francois Champollion cracks the code to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs.
1968: The work to reposition Abu Simbel is completed.
1979: Abu Simbel is declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The facts and figures about Pharaoh Khufu’s pyramid, commonly referred to as the Great Pyramid, are staggering.
It was the tallest building in the world until the 19th century, and the precision with which it was built, using simple surveying tools, is remarkable: the greatest difference in length between the four 756-ft (230m) high sides is just 2 inches (5 cm). The construction methods and exact purpose of some of its chambers and shafts are unknown, but the architectural achievement is clear. The pyramid is estimated to contain over two million blocks of stone weighing on average 2.5 tons, with some weighing as much as 15 tons.
Dating back to 2500 BC and positioned at the entrance to the Pyramid of Khafre, the Sphinx is the earliest known ancient Egyptian sculpture. It stands 66 ft (20 m) high, with an elongated body, a royal headdress, and outstretched paws. It is carved from an outcrop of natural rock, augmented by shaped blocks around the base added during one of several renovations. It was once thought that the nose of the Sphinx was shot off by Napoleon’s French army, but in reality it was lost before the 15th century.
During the Egyptian 4th dynasty (2613-2498 BC), the Giza Plateau became the royal burial ground for Memphis, capital of Egypt. In less than 100 years, the ancient Egyptians built three pyramid complexes to serve as tombs for their kings. These consisted of the Great Pyramid, the Pyramid of Khafre (r. 2558-2532), and the Pyramid of Menkaure (r. 2532-2530). The Sphinx was added to guard the pyramids, while each king’s close family and royal court were buried in satellite pyramids and mastaba tombs nearby. Of these, one of the most noteworthy is the 6th-dynasty (2345-2181 BC) tomb of Qar, a high-ranking official in charge of maintaining the Giza pyramids. His tomb is decorated with fine reliefs.
The second pharaoh of the 4th dynasty, Khufu (also known as Cheops) probably came to the throne in his 20s and reigned for about 24 years. The Greek historian Herodotus portrayed Khufu as a cruel and oppressive ruler, but this was belied by his posthumous reputation in Egypt as a wise king. Khufu is generally accepted as being the builder of the Great Pyramid — one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Contrary to popular belief, this massive monument was not built by slaves, but by a conscripted workforce, and its enormous scale is a testament to the pharaoh’s skills in harnessing the material and human resources of his country. Khufu’s tomb was robbed long before archeologists discovered it, and his only likeness is a small ivory statue (statue of Khufu) found at Abydos, to the south of Giza.
This probably served as an escape route for the workers.
The chamber was probably emptied 600 years after being built, but, despite holding only a lidless sarcophagus, it was often broken into by treasure seekers.
These may have been symbolic paths for the king’ s soul to ascend to the stars.
This probably held a statue representing the ka, or life force, of the king.
These three small pyramids were built for members of the king’s family, although the actual identity of their occupants is unknown.
The original entrance is blocked, and a lower opening made by the Caliph Maamun in AD 820 is now used.
Soaring nearly 30 ft (9 m) high, this is thought to have been used as a slipway for the huge blocks that sealed the passageway.
This museum near the Great Pyramid houses a reconstructed solar boat that might have been a funerary barque for Khufu. Discovered in 1954, the boat’s 1, 200 individual pieces took archeologists 14 years to put back together.
2589-2566 BC: Pharaoh Khufu builds the Great Pyramid during his reign.
2555-2530 BC: Construction of the pyramids of Khafre and Menkaure on the Giza Plateau.
1400 BC: The Sphinx is restored for the first time; four more conservation phases follow.
1979: The Giza Plateau is i rise ri bed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
My journey to Egypt began over a decade ago when I laid hands on Amitav Ghosh’s in an Antique Land. I was a master’s student of architecture in France, working in Western Africa, struggling and enthralled at the same time with diverse cultures and geographies. Ghosh’s expansive tale starts from a little note he finds in an ancient library that suggests to him the journey of an individual from the Malabar coast to Europe via Egypt. Ghosh writes about ancient trade routes and present-day settings, that of a doctoral student studying an ancient form of Arabic under a scholar in rural Alexandria, and the Kuwait war forcing Egyptians to return home, painting Egypt as a civilisation both frozen in time as well as grappling with contemporary realities.
Recently, my vicarious journey culminated in a real one. I am finally in Cairo. Still dazed from my red-eye flight, we meet our guide, who has the detailed articulation of someone who is aware that we find his accent challenging. He seems Francophone and I mentally name him ‘El Monsieur’. My hotel is situated at the junction of a bridge across the storied Nile; the view from the small balcony is stunning, the river majestic and shimmering in the early morning light. A 1961 tower, designed by the architect Naoum Shebib, and easily one of the most beautiful I have seen, defines the skyline.
But there is no time for lingering on this intensive tour, time for sightseeing. Coptic Cairo, our first pitstop, has a record of sorts for ‘the oldest’ everything: oldest church, oldest mosque, oldest synagogue and, well, the oldest part of Cairo. The Hanging Church is a quiet place. The pastor is in conversation with a gentleman at the entrance passage, the pastor nods to people and blesses them as they pass by. The entrance to this gentle building has large photographs of all past and present presidents of Egypt— seeking the blessings of the Coptic Church is customary. The interiors are beautiful, the walls covered with embroidered curtains, decorated doors, wooden wall panels with inlay work—all set in the warm yellow light from chandeliers giving it an immersive devotional feel.
We walk into the ninth-century Ben Ezra Synagogue through an extra layer of security. It was here in 1890 that over 250,000 historic papers known as the Cairo Genizah documents covering the life and times of North African Jews of the 11th—13th centuries were unearthed. It was the mention of an Indian fisherman working for a Jewish merchant in one of these documents that Ghosh picked up and which eventually inspired his novel. The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities occupies pride of place at the famous Tahrir Square. Despite decades of pillage, the museum retains some of the most important ancient artefacts.
Travellers who are used to the superbly lit and perfectly arranged museums of the West are likely to find this museum confusing and even overwhelming. If all you have are a few hours I would recommend the Rosetta Stone. Carved in 196 BC, it is a large sandstone panel inscribed in three languages—official hieroglyphics, popular demotic and classical Greek—and served as the linguistic key to deciphering hieroglyphics. The Tutankhamun Galleries have a collection of over 1700 objects. The Ancient Egyptian Jewellery room is astounding, even to those who consider jewellery the surest way of frittering away large amounts of hard (or dubiously) earned money.
All the while that we are in Cairo we see innumerable pyramids—in the form of key chains, paperweights, decorative pieces in alabaster, and so on. “All are China made,” is the dry advice of El Monsieur. We are going to the real one. Located at Giza at what once must have been a distance from Cairo but is now within city limits. We approach the pyramids on foot—they are massive, nothing like one imagines them and impossible to frame in my lens. Camel-and horse-ride offers abound and we negotiate our way to the pyramid base. For me, used to the idea of heritage as opulent, intricately carved sculptures, the pyramids are as modern a form as they can get—perfect geometry on a gigantic scale. Endless steps of hum an-height stone cubes taper off to form a pyramid.
The Giza complex is made up of three big pyramids; a number of smaller ones arc more or less lost. A small portion at the top of the second pyramid is still clad smooth and sharp, and one gets a glimpse of what the pyramids must have looked like 4,000 years ago—perfect trapezoids emerging from the deep sands, reaching the sky, gleaming in the desert sun in communion with the gods. Moving further down, we encounter the Sphinx with his nose ravaged by invaders and time. We barely manage to enter the complex before it closes for the day. As the sun sets on the Giza complex, for a brief few seconds the clock turns back and I am witness to a timeless moment of returning camels silhouetted against the pyramids, a sight all the more precious because everybody seems engrossed in their respective selfie projects and so few seem to be seeing beyond themselves.
No trip to Cairo can be complete without a visit to the old quarter, Khan el-Khalili, famous for its cafes and trinket shops. Nobel winner Naguib Mahfouz frequented a coffee shop by the name El Fishawy. It is visited by Cairo gentry, all of them comfortably there as if they’ve owned the place forever. El Fishawy is an animated animal. Waiters work efficiently; each tabletop is no larger than a large dining pi ate, just sufficient for cups of coffee or chai; trinket sellers peddle their wares; an Oud musician is invited by a table to play his stringed instrument and everyone sings what are probably some popular old songs of Umm Kulthum, a legendary Egyptian singer.
Next stop, Alexandria! We are rushing through the desert. This is the northernmost tip of the mightiest desert in the world, the Sahara. At our first stop, the presence of security guards marks it as a heritage site. “Catacomb,” our guide tells us; “claustrophobia,” I respond. But I decide to peep inside. It turns out to be a lovely well with a staircase descending along its walls like aspirai. The Catacombs of Kom ash- Suqqafa are cool and at a certain depth, the staircase opens into a series of chambers and antechambers.
This is all limestone—easy to carve, but also easy to lose due to the action of water, time and exposure. We emerge and finally I can glimpse the sea through the building-lined streets. We drive along the marina to reach an impressive looking citadel called Fort Qaitbey. The Mediterranean, in full view now, is a deep, mesmerising blue. From here we can see a long stretch of the Alexandrian coastline and on that the unusual profile of the Grand Library of Alexandria.
Grab a glimpse into an ancient world with G Adventures’ Best of Egypt trip, as Egyptologist and guide Samer Saled narrates the incredible tales behind the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Sphinx and a collection of the country’s most majestic temples – Abu Simbel, Edfu and Karnak to name a few. Then sail the Nile on a felucca (traditional sail boat), dining with a local family and wandering the bustling bazaars of Luxor and Aswan.
When: 11 Feb 2017
How long: 8 days
How much: From £769 (exd flights)
Egypt has been steeped into history for the longest time. Because there has been a lot of interest in Egypt’s history, historians coined the term “Egyptology,” which is the study of pharaonic Egypt. Egyptology spanned the period between c. 4500 BCE and CE 641. How did Egyptology begin? Scholars going with Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt published the Description de I’Égypte (1809-1828); this publication made huge quantities of source materials about ancient Egypt available for Europeans.
Did you know that written Egyptian documents dated to c. 3150 BCE? This was the first time that pharaohs developed the hieroglyphic script in Upper Egypt. These scripts provided the source material for Egyptological study.
Following the Arab conquest, only the Copts kept the ancient language alive (written in Greek characters). Coptic texts taken Egypt during the Renaissance awakened interest in the Egyptian language. German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher published a Coptic grammar in 1643; European travellers returned to Egypt with antiquities and stories of wondrous ruins. What’s more, Egyptology became an academic discipline in France, England, and Germany.
American museums opened Egyptian collections in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The University of Pennsylvania, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Brooklyn Museum are some of music collections that have done a lot of work in Egypt.
On the geographical front, Egypt has two coastlines on the Mediterranean and Red Sea. It borders Libya to the west, the Gaza Strip and Israel to the east, and Sudan to the south.
Egypt has an area of 1,001,449 square kilometres. The longest straight-line distance from north to south is 1,024 kilometres, and the straight-line distance from east to west is 1,240 kilometres long. The country’s maritime boundaries measure more than 2,900 kilometres of coastline along the Mediterranean Sea, the Gulf of Suez, the Gulf of Aqaba, and the Red Sea.
Most of the country is made of desert. Thirty-five thousand square kilometres (3.5%) of the total land area is cultivated and permanently settled. Most of Egypt is located within the desert zone that runs east from Africa’s Atlantic Coast and connects with southwestern Asia.
Four leading geological regions are present in Egypt: Nile Valley and Nile Delta, Western Desert (also known as Libyan Desert), Eastern Desert (an extension from the Nile Valley until the Red Sea Coast), and Sinai Peninsula. Of the geological regions, the Nile Valley and Nile Delta are the most significant areas, though they cover only 5.5% of the country’s total area.
Although tamed by the construction of the Aswan High Dam, the Nile has not changed much since the distant days when Ramses was a boy. In the 5th century B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus described Egypt as “the gift of the Nile,” and to sail along the river’s ageless green shores is to understand why the ancient Egyptians worshipped it.
The river remains the lifeblood of Egyptian civilization, the heart and soul of its people. The languid tempo of huddled riverside While the Nile’s east bank, where the sun rises, holds the crowning achievements of ancient Egyptian architecture, Luxor’s fascination continues across the river on the west bank.
There Thebans built their City of the Dead, the largest and most famous necropolis of ancient Egypt. Of the many royal tombs excavated in the Valley of the Kings, only that of Tutankhamen was found intact. Visitors can only speculate sadly about what must have disappeared from the plundered tombs of more powerful pharaohs such as Ramses II.
The seven-chambered tomb of Ramses’ consort Nefertari— reopened in 1995—in the nearby Valley of the Queens, is believed by art historians to be the finest now on view to the public, a vividly and intricately painted labor of love by the pharaoh for the favorite of his forty wives.
Sightseeing in Luxor can be taxing: Wake-up calls at the crack of dawn will help you achieve some degree of solitude by the ruins before the hordes and the heat arrive. After a long, dusty day, repair to the Old Winter Palace.
Bypass the new wing and ask for a room in the original wing of the hotel (founded in 1886) for nostalgia’s sake. Its high ceilings, giant armoires, Oriental carpets, and ornate crystal chandeliers hark back to the early days of British imperialism. The garden at the Old Winter Palace, the largest and most beautiful in Luxor, has a dozen full-time gardeners who ensure that this is the coolest place in town for tea.
Covering two thirds of Egypt and the very antithesis of the green Nile Valley, the Western Desert (an extension of the Sahara) is punctuated by only a handful of exotic oases. Picturesque Siwa, located near the Libyan border on a centuries-old caravan route, is famous for its dates and olives.
Despite the recent arrival of television and a steady trickle of adventure tourism, this lush oasis remains an intriguing desert outpost, where the unique Siwan culture and customs continue much as they did when Alexander the Great passed through in 331 B.C. (the discovery of his alleged tomb here made international headlines in 1995).
Siwi, a Berber tongue, is spoken instead of Arabic. Women veiled in raven black still wear the traditional complex braids and cover themselves with Egypt’s largest, most ornate silver jewelry—a local craft whose examples have become coveted collector’s items. The oasis is sustained by 300 life-giving springs and freshwater streams. More than 300,000 palm trees and 70,000 olive trees attract an amazing bird population.
Within this biblical setting, the magical Adrere Amellal Oasis hotel lies within a lush grove of ancient date palms. The lodge is the brainchild of a Cairene businessman bent on proving that luxury and return to nature are not mutually exclusive. There is no electricity, no phones, and no nightlife; instead, there are rock salt houses, candlelit alleys, exquisite meals from the hotel’s organic garden, and fascinating excursions into the Great Sand Sea of Egypt’s Western Desert.
Since their logic-defying construction, the Pyramids at Giza have embodied antiquity, mystery—and far-fetched speculation. “From the summit of these monuments,” cried Napoleon, “forty centuries look upon you!”
The pyramids are the only wonder of the ancient world to have survived nearly intact. The funerary Great Pyramid of Cheops (or Khufu) is the oldest at Giza and the largest in the world, built circa 2500 B.C. with some 2.3 million limestone blocks, weighing an average 2.75 tons each, and moved by a force of around 20,000 men.
Two smaller pyramids nearby belonged to Cheops’s son and grandson. The Sphinx (Abu ’l-Hol, “Father of Terror”) sits nearby, a strange figure with a lion’s body, a human face, and a royal beard. The booming sound-and-light show that takes place every evening after sundown is a melodramatic display, yet a surprisingly entertaining crash course in pharaonic history. As Cairo’s population passes the 15 million mark, the pyramids’ former isolation in the desert has been infringed on by the suburbs that continue to grow around them.
Touts and persistent camel drivers offer their horses and knackered “ships of the desert” to see the pyramids as they were meant to be experienced. They are most magical at dawn and dusk, or when bathed in moonlight and silence.
Giving new meaning to the real estate dictum “Location, location, location,” the elegant 19th-century Mena House is just a stone’s throw from the Great Pyramids. Set within 40 acres of lush parkland and gardens on the edge of the Sahara, this veritable oasis of escape from the amusement-park atmosphere that now often surrounds the pyramids was once the rest house and hunting lodge of the empire-building Khedive Ismail.
The omnipresent pyramids loom in full, unobstructed view from your hotel room, the breakfast terrace (Evelyn Waugh thought it was “like having the Prince of Wales at the next table”), the hotel’s 18-hole golf course, and the garden-enveloped swimming pool. Maintaining much of its colonial air, the Mena House’s original wing was home to the 1943 “Big Three” conference attended by Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Chiang Kai-shek, and was the site where plans for D- Day were initiated, as well as the formal signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1978.
The old, refurbished suites that command a view of the pyramids are far more interesting than rooms in the new annex. The Moghul Restaurant offers the finest Indian cuisine in Egypt, a culinary reminder of the hotel’s membership in the prestigious, Indian-based Oberoi hotel chain.
An amble through this overwhelming medieval microcosm, with what must be the greatest population density in the Middle East, is a remarkable passage through the Cairo of six or seven centuries ago. This ancient quarter of Cairo assails the senses, confounds, and confuses.
Amid barely contained pandemonium, oddly coupled with both intense poverty and one of the world’s lowest crime rates, lies the legendary hospitality of the Egyptian people. Meanwhile, chickens, horses, and sheep walk the narrow, potholed streets, further congested with men on donkey carts collecting garbage, itinerant street vendors, and people going about life as they always have.
The dust and rubble offset the faded architectural grandeur of a city that was once the intellectual and cultural center of the Arab world.
Given a daunting number of sites, start at the spectacular 12th-century Citadel of Salah al-Din; its founder was known throughout Christendom as Saladin, the Crusaders’ chivalrous foe. Perched on a steep spur, this heavily fortified bastion offers a matchless panorama of Cairo’s minaret-punctuated skyline and endless sprawl.
The holiest and most awe-inspiring of the city’s places of worship is the 9th-century Mosque of Ibn Tulun, notable for both its grand scale and extreme simplicity. The Islamic Art Museum’s collection, the most extensive of its kind in Egypt, spans the 7th to 19th centuries.
The Khan el-Khalili’s maze of bazaars is another mind-boggler for its sheer size alone. The richly ornamented Qualawun el-Nasir complex includes a madrasa, or theological school, and mausoleums. Built by three of the most important Mamluk sultans, it is considered a large-scale masterwork of their lavish architectural style.
The list of Islamic Cairo’s highlights goes on, but culture shock may have caught up with even the most intrepid visitor, who by this point has likely had his or her fill of noise, belching bus fumes, and ornery livestock demanding the right of way.