After the 2011 popular uprising, tourism collapsed and it is only now starting to recover. One of the unintended consequences is that you can be almost alone at some of the world’s greatest historic sites.
The lack of people doesn’t, however, extend to the general city. Honking vehicles belch toxic fumes, families of four squeezed onto scooters defy other traffic, men strapped with tea urns walk the pavements, and horses pulling carts of vegetables or scrap metal still clod the streets. It may be chaotic but I have to admit it is colourful and exciting.
There are several ‘must-see’ sites in Cairo but don’t miss the opportunity to walk around by yourself just taking in the whole scene.
Nothing can prepare you for what you’ll feel when you first lay eyes on the Pyramids and the Sphinx at Giza. Towering over both the urban sprawl and the desert, these majestic structures symbolise the Ancient Egyptians and their fascinating civilisation.
At 147 metres in height, the Pyramid of Cheops is the largest in the complex, followed by the Pyramids of Chephren and Menkaure, Their construction was a huge undertaking. The Pyramid of Cheops alone consists of around 2.3 million stones, each weighing thousands of kilos.
Entering the pyramids is a unique experience but not for anyone who suffers from claustrophobia. You cannot climb on the structures. Riding a camel through the desert to see the pyramids in their true setting is highly recommended although the official charge by the government for the experience is high.
The Great Sphinx is located on the east side of the complex. This mysterious creature has the body of a lion and a human head with royal headdress. With a length of 73 metres and a height of 21 metres, the Sphinx is the largest ever sculpture carved from a single piece of stone.
The Giza Necropolis was eventually abandoned, and the Sphinx was buried up to its shoulders in sand. This has helped preserve the lower parts. Attempts to excavate it have occurred over many years and the entire Sphinx was finally excavated in 1925 to 1936.
Other sphinx statues exist throughout the remains of ancient Egypt. Sphinxes are generally associated with architectural structures such as royal tombs or religious temples.
Egypt is 10 percent Coptic Christian, and the history of Christianity in Egypt goes back to the first-century visit of St. Mark. But the Christian presence is small and deliberately low-key in this Muslim-dominated country.
Cairo’s Coptic Museum, set in the restored walls of the ancient Roman fort, is small but charming. The nearby Hanging Church was originally built in the 4th century but was destroyed and rebuilt in the 11th century. It is well worth visiting to see its distinctive twin bell tower facade, the marble pulpit, and the delicately carved sanctuary screen.
The present museum in the central city is to be replaced next year by a huge new structure out near the pyramids which is set to become the largest museum in the world. The present building is stuffed with artefacts including all of the amazing contents of Tutankhamen’s tomb. The riches here are amazing.
Elsewhere, the museum contains gorgeous jewellery, lovely furniture, and beautiful stone carving and sculpture. Many displays seem a bit dusty but as this is the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities in the world, you need to see it. There is a cafeteria, bank, post office, gift shop, and library and guides are available. There is an additional cost for photography and to enter the Royal Mummies Room but, in my mind, both are worth paying.
This is one of the largest markets in the Arab world, and it was a great tourist magnet. This labyrinth of narrow alleys filled with exotic merchandise and souvenirs is a fabulous place to explore even today. See the spices, hear the banter of the merchants, and enjoy its rich blend of colours and textures: Khan el-Khalili is a feast for the senses.
People have been buying, selling and bargaining here since 1382. There are lanterns, water pipes, gorgeous bags, jewellery, essential oils, vases and pots and all sorts of other merchandise. The further you go into the souk, the narrower the streets and perhaps the more authentic the products. We felt happy to walk around by ourselves in this quite foreign environment.
And this was one of the big surprises with Cairo. Everywhere we went we felt safe and we were welcomed. The huge drop in tourist numbers has meant that those in the tourism industry are making extra efforts to ensure that visitors are happy.
The low accommodation and food prices are just another reason why Cairo should be on your holiday radar. Now would be a great time to go.
Direct flights are available from London on Egypt Air and British Airways. Flight time is about 4.5 hours. Cheaper flights are sometimes available on one-stop routes with other airlines.
IMAGES: Phensri Rutledge
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