THIS time, THIS place and THESE people – this is a civilization that has always fascinated me. Over time, the fascination has been heightened, thanks to the Egyptian mythology that has come alive on celluloid and between the pages of a Wilbur Smith novel – a racy imaginary sojourn through the land of the Pharaohs, the Sphinx, the Pyramids and the Mummies.
At some point in my lifetime, I simply stopped imagining, packed my bags and actually proceeded to see for myself the remnants of this great civilization. I traveled with friends and we booked our tickets/hotels/tour bus and guide through a travel agent.
We were met at the airport by our tour guide Vivian Zaki and were pleasantly surprised to find that she was a former archaeologist. For the three days that we were in Cairo, she proved to be an invaluable source of knowledge – her pride in her country’s past so very evident in her descriptions, as was her optimism and hope for its future.
The Saqqara Pyramids
We stopped at the Saqqara Pyramids first, not expecting much, as they are less publicized than the Giza Pyramids. But historically there is much more to see here, mainly the vast ruins and the funerary complex of the Pharaoh Djoser.
This includes the famous Step Pyramid, the first structure that was built completely from stone. It was designed by the ancient architect Imoteph who has left his mark here for generations to see. The whole Saqqara complex is a burial ground that served as the Necropolis for the ancient capital city of Memphis.
Despite my claustrophobia, I ventured into a couple of underground chambers. The walls of the tombs are mapped with hieroglyphics depicting the life of the person buried there. As I went deeper, I had to bend almost double. I could feel the panic setting in and fought the urge to turn back and run (only another claustrophobic can understand this feeling). Glad I went in though – that momentary glimpse into the past is now saved in my mind as a worthwhile experience:)
The Giza Pyramids (Khufu, Khafre, Menkaure)
The Khufu (the tallest), also known as the Great Pyramid of Giza or the Cheops pyramid, stands at 481 feet and is one of the oldest wonders of the ancient world.
Second in height is the Khafre pyramid, in front of which is the imposing Sphinx with the limestone body of a lion and the face of the Pharaoh Khafre.
It is fashioned in such a way that it stares back at no one, but rather prefers to gaze into the distance, perhaps seeing the glory that once encompassed this great mysterious land.
The Menkaure is the smallest of the three. All three pyramids were named after the Pharaohs who built them. If viewed from an exact angle, they form the perfect backdrop for the Sphinx.
The Giza Pyramids are an architectural wonder of unimaginable proportions, built at a time, when there were no modern construction aids. This fact alone can fill you with an awesome sense of wonder.
The only thing that seemed oddly out of place were the chairs arranged in front of the sphinx, in preparation for the light and sound show that would be aired later that night – a necessary lure for the tourists whose numbers had dwindled since the revolution. We attended the show later, but did not find it very impressive.
The River Nile and the Nile Maxim Dinner Cruise
Well, it’s not really a cruise but more of a dinner and entertainment, on board a large boat, that periodically sails a short distance, while you have your dinner. The entertainment included a live band which was fairly good and some belly dancing. Our group had all seen authentic belly dancing before and the general verdict was an uncompromising “she was a good dancer but not a good ‘belly’ dancer.”
The Tanoura dancer was amazing, twirling and spinning like a top to some hypnotic traditional music – loved it. The Dinner was passable but the salad bar was better. Disappointed that we were not given a choice of dessert.
The Mariott Hotel (which organizes this cruise) needs to buckle up on this one and sell a better experience to the tourists. We enjoyed the views on the deck though – the Nile River looked beautiful by night, with the twinkling lights of the city behind it. (Have reviewed this on Tripadvisor as well.)
The Egyptian Museum
I did a lot of staring in the Mummies room of the Egyptian Museum and there was a lot to stare at. I marveled too – like how it was possible for someone to look regal even 3000 years after their death – the mummified remains of King Ramses III seemed to fit this portrayal. I was surrounded by other mummies who were known to Ramses, most of them Pharaohs and members of the royal family, all encased in glass cases, their shrunken bodies lifeless, yet their facial features distinctive even in death, telling a story that dated back eons ago.
You are not allowed to take pictures inside this room and the traces of haughtiness on the mummified faces forbid it even more, still, the pictures that form inside your brain as you gaze at these ancient bodies, will remain forever, and I don’t mean that in a morbid way. The extra ticket one has to buy to get inside this room is totally worth it; it gives you access also to the opposite room that has mummified animals – Egyptians were great lovers of animals and were buried with their mummified pets.
The rest of the museum is a treasure trove of artifacts, mummified masks, coffins, papyrus, coins, antiquities and cultural treasures; most of them transferred for safekeeping from the tombs of the Valley of the Kings; one hall is dedicated completely to King Tutankamen and includes his famous gold death mask.
Except for the mummies room, the rest of the museum is poorly maintained. If you do not have a proper guide, you can feel pretty lost as many of the statues and antiques are unlabeled.
The Coptic Church
We visited the Sts. Sergius and Bacchus Church in old Coptic Cairo. This church is also known as the Abu Serga and dates back to the 4th Century. The Holy Family is said to have rested here at the end of their journey into Egypt, when they were forced to flee from Herod. The inside of the church has three sanctuaries with altars and domed ceilings depicting scenes from the scriptures.
There is also a well here that the Holy Family drank from. Saw a number of visitors accompanied by small children. One mother placed her child on the glass surface of the well as she prayed. Perhaps there is some healing and/or protective power associated with this practice.
We made a trip to the Al-Khalili souk on a Friday afternoon. I have been to many souks in the Middle East and have found them amazing places to shop or browse, so was quite disappointed with this one.
The narrow winding streets were overcrowded and most of the items on display seemed to be made in China. We did not stay long here.
Saw THIS on my way to see THAT!
As our tour bus cruised through the bustling streets of Cairo, we passed the famous Tahrir Square and were reminded of the upheaval that took place here five years ago in 2011; an event that was constantly relayed on television, of a place that marked a historic chapter in the life of all Egyptian citizens. A period when social media aided a protest that called for a new reformed Egypt, one that led to the overnight resignation of Hosni Mubarak.
On another day, we drove past the City of the Dead – an expansive cemetery where the dead shared space with the living. The old tombs and monuments, the numerous domes of the mosques and the tall minarets were silhouetted against the grey sky, as a silent witness to the dead. This was a ghost town of massive proportions.
The Cairo Cityscape in many parts of the town, looked unfinished and depressing. Vivian explained to us that pollution and sandstorms are the reason why many buildings are painted a dull sand color. However, we noticed that almost all of the buildings were left unpainted and their run-down facades gave the city a very gloomy look. You could almost hear the stones screaming ‘color me up.’
I also felt amazed to see Auto Rickshaws on the road. They are known as Tuk Tuk’s here and unlike the Tuk Tuk’s in Thailand look exactly like the ones in India. Not surprising, as I soon discovered they are imported from Bajaj in India. The drivers seemed a bit reckless though.
In the center of the city circle, stands the towering statue of King Ramses II, looking over a city that would have been unrecognizable to him now. Like the Sphinx, he too stares into the distance, as if lost in thought.
There is so much more to see in Egypt. On my future list are ‘The Valley of the Kings in Luxor,’ the ‘Karnak Ruins’ and ‘Mount Sinai.’ Suggestions and helpful hints are welcome.