Travellers have marvelled at Egypt’s archaeological wonders for centuries, ever since the Ancient Greeks visited the pyramids. Today, the ancient wonders attract millions of tourists each year to the pyramids, temples, mosques and great monuments of the Nile Valley, as well as the stunning diving resorts of the Red Sea.
Known as the greatest city in the Islamic world, Cairo’s ancient monuments and medieval customs thrive in a cosmopolitan, modern city. A blend of Arab, African and European influences, Africa’s largest city has a population of at least 18 million. Situated on the Nile, the city is polluted and overcrowded, and getting around poses many challenges, although it has greatly improved with the ever-expanding underground Metro system.
In Islamic (or Medieval) Cairo, narrow congested streets are filled with donkey carts, spice traders and imposing mosques. A central landmark is Midan Hussain, a large open square with tea houses around the perimeter, and dominated by the sacred Mosque of Sayyidna Al-Hussain. Adjacent is the famous Khan-el Khalili, one of the world’s largest bazaars, pulsing with commerce and crammed with spices, coppersmiths, perfume and trinkets. Bargaining has been a way of life in these alleyways since the late 14th century and it is easy to get taken in by silver-tongued salesmen. Here, Fishawi’s tea house has been in business for over 200 years, and is still a great people-watching venue.
Nearby is Al-Azhar Mosque, containing the oldest university in the world (AD 970). The pre-Ottoman Madrassa and Mausoleum of Al-Ghouri, has Sufi dancing, and opposite is Wakala of Al-Ghouri, an attractively preserved cultural centre. Exhibits in the Museum of Islamic Art bring Islamic Cairo to life, with arts, ceramics, mosaics and calligraphy.
The Citadel was home to Egypt’s rulers for 700 years; an imposing medieval fortress offering sweeping views of the city. Within it is the Midan Salah al-Din with the unmissable Sultan Hassan and Rifai Mosques. The Mohammad Ali Mosque has classic Ottoman minarets and interior. Within the Citadel, other attractions include the Military National Museum, Al-Gawhara Palace and Museum and the National Police Museum.
City of the Dead (Northern Cemetery) is a Mamluk necropolis with hundreds of thousands of tombs dating from the 12th century. Many thousands more live here in something resembling a shanty town amongst the ornate mausoleums.
Sharia Talat Harb Street and Midan Tahrir (Liberation Square) are typical of the more modern, commercial centre of Cairo – filled with concrete and cars, and containing countless hotels, restaurants, office blocks and museums. Here is one of the country’s greatest attractions; the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities housing over 130,000 exhibits, including Pharaonic and Byzantine art and sculpture, the Mummy Room and the celebrated Tutankhamun exhibition. Behind the museum, bridges cross the Nile, and riverside walks along the corniche bring some relief from traffic. Here, river taxis travel to local docks, and feluccas (sail boats) are available for private trips.
The south is home to the Coptic Orthodox Christians, forming 10 per cent of the population. Originally a Roman fortress town called Babylon, it was greatly significant to early Christians. Here, the Coptic Museum has exhibits from AD 300 to AD 1000, in the world’s greatest collection of Coptic art. The Hanging Church, Monastery of St George and the churches of St Sergius and St Barbara are all in the same area. The Ben Ezra Synagogue is one of the oldest in Egypt, and represents the remains of the Jewish community.
The small island of Gezira is a modern upmarket area with the Opera House (a US$30 million arts complex) containing the Museum of Modern Art, and the Cairo Tower with great city views. The adjacent neighbourhood of Zamalek contains elegant town houses and embassies. On the southwest outskirts of the city is Giza with Cairo Zoo and the University. But Cairo is most famous for the Great Pyramids, Egypt’s most visited monuments. Of the three main pyramids (Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus), the largest is 137m (449ft) high and contains some three million blocks of stone. Exploring the interiors is possible via labyrinthine tunnels and staircases. Adjacent is the bewitching Sphinx, as named by the ancient Greeks, with the head of a woman and body of a lion. Erosion was partly rectified by restoration, which finished in 1998. Early morning and late afternoon are a little less crowded, and every evening there are son et lumière - extravagant light shows telling the story of ancient Egypt. Camels, horses and donkeys can be hired to explore the site.
There are more ancient tombs and pyramids outside the city - more difficult to get to but much less crowded. There are remains of the Old Kingdom’s capital Memphis; the necropolis at Saqqara, with the Step Pyramid older than those at Giza, with well-preserved wall reliefs and royal tombs. Dahshur has only been open to foreigners since 1996, and is famous for its Bent Pyramid and a huge field of royal tombs.
In contrast to ancient sights, the Camel Market (Souq al-Gamaal), is held every morning at Birqash, around 35km (21 miles) from the city, located on the edge of the Western Desert. Hundreds of camels are sold daily, most having been brought from Sudan.
Egypt’s six oases can provide relief from cities. All have accommodation and can be accessed by public transport. The desert forms 94 per cent of the country’s area, yet only 1 per cent of the population lives in it. The largest and most developed oasis is Kharga, with a Berber community, temples and museums. Dhakla Oasis has hot springs, and camel rides over the sand dunes. The nearby village of Bashandi sells handicrafts made by local girls. The smallest is Farafra, an ancient fort town; Bahariyya is made up of several small villages, famed for its olives and dates. Al-Faiyum Oasis is 100km (60 miles) southwest of Cairo, and the area contains small pyramids, the old city of Karanis, and temples. Siwa is the furthest west and remote, but the most picturesque and idyllic. The community is traditional and Berber-speaking.
See more information on the next page... (next)