Cairo is a city of paradoxes, full of ancient historic sites and neighborhoods, modern suburbs, fantastic museums, delicious and exotic food, and colorful but chaotic and crowded streets. As part of a tour package to Egypt provided by Gate1 Travel, we spent several days experiencing all that Cairo has to offer.
Upon arrival, visitors may be overwhelmed by the city’s chaotic nature. Driving through the sprawling metropolis between the airport and the central city, where most hotels are located, you will see thousands of older, non-descript brown and beige mid-rise buildings, beautiful but decaying French influenced architecture, polluted waterways, masses of people everywhere, older cars and serious traffic congestion. Much of this is understandable given Cairo’s age (nearly 1,700 years old), and metropolitan population of over 20 million people. One needs to dig deeper (pun not intended) to truly appreciate what this historic city has to offer. There are many attractions worth visiting throughout this fascinating city, and we were only able to see a few of them. Our stay included visits to the ancient ruins of Giza, the Coptic Christian quarter, the souk within the Old Islamic district, and the amazing Egyptian museum.
Not all of Cairo is so chaotic. Modern, more orderly sections of Cairo can be found in the northern and eastern suburbs, complete with glitzy high end shopping malls, theaters, parks, new residential towers and a wide variety of restaurants and bars.
The Ruins of Giza – If there is one place on earth that mystifies humans to this day, it would have to be the Pyramids of Giza, built during the fourth dynasty of the Old Kingdom. While pyramids of different styles and sizes are located throughout Egypt, especially along the Nile, the largest are located in Giza. Giza is located on the west bank of the Nile River and the pyramids are located at its western edge. Visitors may be quite surprised at how close the pyramids are to modern settlements.
The mammoth Great Pyramid was built around 2,560 BC as the final resting place for Pharaoh Khufu (the second pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty), and no one is certain as to the construction techniques used. Standing at 481 feet tall, and built of 2.3 million blocks of limestone, each weighing 2.5 tons, the pyramid was constructed by roughly 100,000 skilled laborers over a twenty year period. Other nearby Pyramids include the tombs of Khafre and Menkaure, as well as many other smaller temples and tombs. The pyramids were more than a grave for the Pharaohs. They were also built to facilitate a successful afterlife for the king so that he could be eternally reborn. This is why many of the pharaohs belongings were buried with them. If only I could travel back in time to witness the pyramids at the time of their construction, covered in a smooth white limestone finish and topped with gold block.
A visit to the nearby great sphinx of Giza is also a must. This large statue with the head of a human and the body of a lion was carved from one huge piece of limestone. It was built during the reign of King Khafre, around 2500 BC.
Saqqara – Twenty miles south of Cairo is Saqqara, where the burial grounds for the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis are located. It is here where the oldest stone building complex exists – the Pyramid of Djoser, built in approximately 2,700 BC. This 200 foot tall pyramid is also known as the Step Pyramid because of its’ layered wedding cake shaped formation.
Egyptian Museum – Any visit to Cairo would not be complete without seeing the Egyptian Museum, which holds the largest collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities in the world. The museum is located in Tahrir Square on the east bank of the Nile River. Housed in a Neoclassical building dating from 1902, the museum’s two levels have over 136,000 items on display. We were amazed walking through the massive space, seeing up close a full display of all things Egyptian. The collection includes large scale stone works of statues, reliefs and architectural elements, papyri, coins, textiles and sarcophagi. Items are arranged chronologically from the pre-dynastic to the Greco-Roman period. There are two rooms containing mummies of kings and royal family members of the New Kingdom. Our highlight was touring the relics from the tomb of King Tutankhamun (Tut), including his golden mask and throne.
A new museum called the Grand Egyptian Museum, is being built in Giza, anticipated to open in 2023. It will have the largest, most complex collection of ancient treasures and artifacts in the world. Many of the relics from the current museum, including all relics related to King Tut, will be moved to the new museum. A 3,200 year old statue of Ramses II will greet visitors at the entrance.
Coptic Cairo – About ten to twenty percent of the population of Egypt are Coptic Christians who adhere to the Coptic Orthodox Church. Copts speak the Coptic language, a direct descendant of the ancient Egyptian language. They are said to be the closest blood line to the ancient Egyptians because they did not marry outside the religion after the Muslim conquest of Egypt in the 7th century. Part of Old Cairo, the Coptic area encompasses the Babylon Fortress, the Coptic Museum, and a number of Coptic and Orthodox churches dating from nearly 1,700 years ago. Most of the sites are within the enclosure of the Babylon Fortress which was built by the Romans around 30 BC with the arrival of emperor Augustus. The Coptic Museum holds the largest collection of Coptic Christian artifacts in the world, including metalwork, stonework, woodwork, textiles and manuscripts.
When King Herod of Judea ordered all firstborns to be killed, the Holy Family fled to Egypt. The crypt where they are said to have sought temporary refuge can be found beneath Abu Sarga, also known as the Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus (two Roman soldiers and martyrs), built in the 4th century CE. It is the oldest church in Egypt, and the crypt contains a domed ceiling, nave, and baptistery.
The Hanging Church, so named because it’s nave is suspended over a passage to the Babylon Fortress, was built around 690 CE, replacing earlier versions. It is one of the earliest churches in Cairo and includes over 100 beautiful icons and mosaics.
Old Islamic District – Located within the historic Islamic district of Cairo is the crowded and colorful Khan El Khalili souk (marketplace) that dates to the 14th century. The huge market is the perfect place for maximizing your senses of sight, smell and sound. The market contains hundreds of vendors selling pretty much everything, including antiques, gold and silver jewelry, spices, perfumes, clothing and carpets. We saw many interesting sites including a number of mosques with their towering minarets and medieval Islamic architecture. Nearby Al-Hussein Mosque is one of the largest, and is considered one of the holiest Islamic sites in Egypt.
While strolling through the narrow winding alleys of the souk, you get the feeling of being in medieval Cairo. One memorable moment is when I glanced to see a young man balancing a huge platter of freshly baked bread on his head while riding a bicycle. There are many restaurants and coffee houses where you can try Arabic coffee or hibiscus tea, and smoke shisha from a hookah. Hibiscus tea, also known as Karkadéh, was the preferred drink of the pharaohs, and the beverage is still popular today. We were greeted at many restaurants and shops with this delicious drink. The tea is made by boiling the hibiscus flower, and the drink has a bright pink color. Fishawi’s Coffee Shop, open since 1773, is the oldest coffee shop in Egypt.
Post written by Steve Sindiong