For several years, I have wanted to make a trip to Egypt. The pyramids are the most recognizable structures in the world, and seeing these is something I had dreamed of for many years. I had considered a trip to Egypt when I was living in Prague in 2011; however, the revolution broke out in January of 2011 and the country was pretty unstable for a few years afterwards. Just recently has the country seemed to have regained its composure with free elections. After doing research, I found that the country is now as safe as ever, so Chika and I decided to take a week-long trip to finish out our time in Europe. With such little time, we chose to do four days in Cairo and three days in Luxor. We started out with three full days in Cairo, then an overnight bus to Luxor, three full days in Luxor, an overnight bus back to Cairo, and then one full day in Cairo before flying back to Thessaloniki.
Tourism has long been Egypt’s most important industries. Luxor’s economy is said to be driven 85% by tourism, a substantial amount. After the revolution in 2011, the country was unsafe but has recently come out of this. People, however, are still hesitant about the safety, and this shows by the continued lack of tourism. Speaking with locals who work in the tourism industry, we were told that Egypt’s tourism industry has dropped 98% since 2011. That’s four straight years with just 2% of a hugely important industry. This meant a few things for us. Firstly, ultra cheap accomodations and tours. We paid about $7 per person per night for a private room. We took day tours for a fee of just $6. Secondly, everything is empty. December is usually the peak season, but hostels were at 10% capacity, many important temples and tombs were completely empty, and we rarely saw other toursts walking in the streets. It felt as if we were a few of the first people discovering the country as tourists, kind of like in Myanmar. The difference, though, is that Egypt has long been a tourist destination for its incredible historical sights. Thirdly, and the most negative aspect of low tourism, was that very few tourists means there is much less money going to towards vendors. It seems that the same amount of vendors are still there, but the amount of tourists has dropped substantially. This means they work extra hard for each dollar they earn. For us, that meant being hastled every step of the way for a horse carriage ride, to step inside their store, or for a taxi ride. In Luxor especially, we were hastled every few minutes by someone wanting something. As you can imagine, this part became extremely annoying and frustrating. Just walking around without being bothered wasn’t a possibility. However, this is just the downside of traveling at this time.
I must say that I always felt safe in the country. Never at one time did I feel in danger or that I was in a place that I shouldn’t be. We did run into a lot of friendly people, as well, but unfortunately friendly people aren’t coming up to you while walking down the street; only the people wanting something will do that.
Everything in the country, except for the sights, were very cheap. Sometimes we would eat lunch for $0.50 per person. A delicious falafal costs 15 cents or maybe even 30 cents, but only two or three of these and you’ll be full. One meal, we had chicken, salad, tahini, and bread for just over $2 per person. Sights were more expensive and did add up. Depending on the sight, it would cost between $5 and $14 for an adult. This most likely added up to our biggest expense, as we would see at least 2-3 sights per day. Outside of this, though, everything was very cheap.
Without further adeu, I’ll get right into it. Here is what we did in the Cairo area:
Because the pyramids are such an important sight in Egypt, we decided to pay for a premium tour so that we had a great experience and learned as much as possible. We decided on a tour with Emo Tours, based out of Cairo. We paid about $80 per person for a private tour, and that included all entrance fees (which all added up to be about $33). We had a local guide, named Galal, and a private driver in a comfortable van. We could’ve taken a cheap tour for possibly $45 total, but we wanted an incredible experience for our one day we had to visit the pyramids. See, that’s what being frugal is all about! Our tour took us to several different important sights, including Saqqara, Dahshur, Memphis, and the Giza:
Saqqara is an important historical site with its famous Step Pyramid (or Pyramid of Djoser), one of the first architectural steps torwards the pyramid. Whereas a pyramid had a flat surface leading up to the peak, the Step Pyramid has different levels, like steps, that lead to the top. Completed in 2648 BC, this was an important stage in setting up the building of the pyramids. The fact that it’s still standing is incredible in itself, a mere 4,600 years later. Renovations have been done on this site for the past few years to ensure that it continues to remain stable, and the scaffolding on the outside shows this.
Just outside of the Step Pyramid is the recently found tomb of Mereruka. The tomb was of Mereruka, an important official outside of the royal family in the 6th Dynasty. Contrary to the pyramids, which feature extravagent and an enmormous exterior, this tomb was buried underground. But inside the tomb were magnificent carvings of offerings and depictions of daily life, many of which still hold their original colors. To be inside such a decorated tomb which was intended to be buried forever is an incredible feeling. Just to imagine the artists carving these depictions over 4,000 years ago is extraordinary. The Egyptians were well ahead of their time when it comes to man-made structures and art.
Dahshur holds two important remaining pyramids. The first is what is now known as the Bent Pyramid, named from the shape of the pyramid’s sides which seem to be crooked as they reach the top. This bent look was caused by an overestimation of the Pharoah Sneferu, who thought the size and dimensions of this pyramid could be done. It turns out that the angles and dimensions didn’t exactly work, and the walls partly collapsed, giving the pyramid a rounded look. This was a failure for the pharaoh, who wanted a massive pyramid structure for his tomb. He was, however, stuck with the Bent Pyramid, which still stands today.
Just 200 meters away from the Bent Pyramid stands the Red Pyramid, most famous for its tunnel that leads down into the tomb of Pharoah Sneferu. Getting into the tunnel, we had to climb about 1/3 of the way up the pyramid to the entrance. Afterwards, we climb down about 65 meters (almost 200 feet) into the tomb. Anyone who gets claustrophobic should not go inside, as we were deep inside a pyramid without too much space and no fresh air as we made our way down. Inside, we two two empty rooms where the tombs used to lay. Seeing the inside of the pyramid is out of this world. The huge stones lie side by side, stacked on top of each other. Each one weighs at least a ton, and they are so well cut that even a razor blade could not fit in between two of the blocks. The inside of the Red Pyramid is now bare, but going down into it is an experience in itself.
Next, we drove with our guide and driver to the site of ancient Memphis, the capital and most important location of the Old Kingdom Dynasties in Ancient Egypt. The actual site of Memphis is still be excavated and one cannot go onto the site, but an open-air museum is set up to see many of the important statues. Included is a sphinx, several monuments featuring hyieoglyphics, and several statues of Pharoah Ramses II, including a massive statue of the powerful Pharoah which is now laying inside a building. Ramses II was an important figure because he ruled for so long, living until the age of 90 and ruling for 66 years. He was known for building many statues of himself around the country to show his authority. Statues were normally made from red granite, sent up the Nile River from Aswan, about 500 miles away. The statues were built to last, and this is proven by the fact that I am gauking at the statue over 4,000 years ago.
Great Pyramids of Giza
Finally, after a lunch of mixed grilled meats, tahini, bobaganoush, bread, and salad, we made our way to Giza to see the most famous pyramids in Egypt. These three pyramids were built at the peak of the pyramid constructions of ancient Egypt. The biggest and most impressive pyramid is the Pyramid of Cheops. Standing at 481 feet tall, it was the first pyramid built of the three. Construction consisted of 2.3 million limestone blocks, each weighing at least one ton. The pyramid was built in 20 years, and this would mean that one limestone block was stacked every two minutes for ten hours per day in those 20 years.
Two other pyramids were built by Khafre and Menkaure . The second pyramid, Khafre, was built very cleverly; although it wasn’t as big as the first pyramid by Cheopps, it was built on a higher level of ground, giving one the illusion that it’s the same size or even a bit taller. The third and final of this cluster is the smallest and less impressive of them. Interestingly, though, is that on the side of this third pyramid is an opening where tomb raiders planted explosives in order to get in and rob the tomb.
Also at the front of these pyramids is the famous Great Sphinx of Giza, built by Pharaoh Khafra in 2500 BC. The human face on the lion’s body turns the king into a god-like figure. The Sphinx sits in front of the three pyramids, almost seeming to guard the tombs of the pharaohs. The Sphinx is bigger than I expected, and more impressively is that it was carved out of one piece of limestone. Although many sphinxes were built during Ancient Egypt, the Great Sphinx of Giza is the biggest and most recognizable. To this day, it is said to be the largest monolithic statue in the world!
The pyramids were made more for propaganda reasons than for any other reason. The pyramids are actually located on the edge of the city of Giza, just outside of Cairo. The pyramids were built so grand so that the common person would see the structure each and every day and be reminded of the god-like powers of the pharaohs. It was used to keep the common citizen in line so that the pharaohs could continue their dominance. This clearly worked, as the pharaohs were able to dominate the country for about 3,000 years. As a normal person in those years, I can only imagine waking up and seeing these massive pyramids rising over the desert along with the powerful sphinx. How else could these be built these incredibly large structures unless the pharaohs were really gods?
When standing a bit of a distance from the pyramids, they don’t seem that large. Because each individual stone is so massive, it feels like an optical illusion while looking up at the pyramid. The size of the stones means that there aren’t that many visible stones leading up to the top. Until you see a person standing on one of the stones do you realize how big each block really is, and you finally have the size of the pyramid in perspective. Each pyramid used to have a limestone casing covering the outside, giving it a smoother look. Over the years, however, this casing has been removed to be used on other projects. Only the very top of the second pyramid at Giza is still intact.
The pyramids are obviously a highlight for anyone’s trip to Egypt. I’m so glad that we decided to pay a premium price for a great tour. We received so much great information and our guide, Galal, was a straightforward guy who did everything to make our tour fantastic.
Cairo, it turns out, has so much more than just the pyramids. So much has happened in the region since 2500 BC, including the introduction and culmination of the Islamic religion in the city. Once considered to be one of the most important Islamic cities in the world, Cairo boasts hundreds if not thousands of mosques dating back to the 9th century AD. Cairo is nicknamed the City of a Thousand Minarets (the tall, slender tower rising from a mosque).
Islamic Cairo is a part of the city that is known for its mosques, Islamic monuments, old markets, and small streets. Walking in this part of town does feel like going back in time 1,000 years, The dusty alleyways and shops selling anything from tea to sheesha (hookah) seem like they could have been pretty much the same as the 10th century. The Gates of Cairo, built in the 11th and 12th centuries, block Islamic Cairo from outside forces, including, it seems, time. There are so many mosques and sights to see in this area that we were only able to visit a few of them. Included in these are Complex of Ashraf Barsbay, Qalawun complex (mausoleum and madrasa), Al-Hakim Mosque, Al-Hussein Mosque, Al-Azhar Mosque, Bab Zuweila and Bab Al-Nasr City Gates. This was all in just an afternoon’s walk!
The most impressive and most important of these is the Al-Azhar Mosque. Established late in the late 10th century, Al-Azhar is also a university; in fact, it’s the second oldest continuous running university in the world (only the University of Al-Karaouine in Morocco is older). After taking off our shoes and walking through the entrance, we step inside the open courtyard, its marble paved flooring and various Mamluk and Fatimid period minarets creating a surreal atmosphere. Stepping inside this courtyard feels like a world away from the crazy streets of Cairo just outside. Many people come to the mosque to pray, to study, or to just take photos. Many young people were sitting in the courtyard and also inside the Prayer Hall reading books that I assume were about Islam. Most of the tourists we saw seemed to be from other Muslim countries, as we only saw a handful of people that looked like Westerners.
The Qalawun complex is a large area consisting of a madrasa (school), a hospital, and mausoleum, and, of course, mosques. Built by the Sultan Al-Nasir Muhammad Ibn Qalawun in the 1280s, it is still an important sight for Muslims. Its mausoleum is considered to be the second most beautiful mausoleum in the world, only behind the Taj Mahal in India. Holding the tombs of Al-Mansur Qalawun and his son, Al-Nasir Muhammad, both important rulers in the 13th and 14th centuries.
The Citadel and Around
On our third day in Cairo, we decided to explore the Citadel and the mosques in that part of town. We decided on a taxi to get to that part of town, as taxis are incredibly cheap. The 20-minute taxi ride cost us just 10 Egyptian Pounds (or about $1.40). Well worth it!
The Islamic fortification located on Mokattam hill was built between 1176 and 1183 AD to protect the city from the Crusaders. The Citadel now hosts the famous Muhammad Ali Mosque, the Al-Nasir Muhammad Qala’un Mosque, and a variety of museums including the Egyptian Military Museum and the Egyptian Police Museum.
The Muhammad Ali Mosque is the centerpiece of the Citadel overlooking the city. One can view the large domes and the minarets of the early 19th century mosque. Relatively new, it was built in memory of Tusun Pasha, Muhammad Ali’s oldest son. Interestingly enough, Muhammad Ali was an Albanian commander of the Ottoman Army, and he is considered to be the founder of modern Egypt with his reforms of the military and economic policies. Likewise, the Muhammad Ali Mosque is very similar to the mosques that are found in former Ottoman Empire territory, including Turkey and the Balkans.
Another interesting fact about the Muhammad Ali Mosque is that it houses a clock that was given to Muhammad Ali by King Louis Philippe of France in 1845. In return, the French were given an obelisk of Luxor which is now in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Ironically, the 19th century clock has never worked. Yet, the obelisk is one of the greatest creations from Ancient Egypt, probably about 3,500 years old and used to stand in the Luxor Temple. I think France got the best of that deal.
The second mosque in the Citadel, and my favorite of the two, is the Al-Nasir Muhammad Qala’un Mosque. It was built in the early 1300s by the Mamluk sultan Al-Nasr Muhammad. Being built during the Mamluk, it has an entirely different design than its neighboring mosque of Muhammad Ali. Its large arches, minimalist internal decorations, and large green dome give it a unique look. I have not seen another mosque with a green dome like this one, which gives it more of a central Asian look.
Next, we walked down from the Citadel to the Mosque/Madrassa of Sultan Hassan and the Al-Rifa’i Mosque. These are two of the biggest mosques in the city, which became clear as we walked in between the two enormous buildings. From afar, we must have looked like ants walking on the sidewalk towards the entrances of these two mosques.
The Mosque and Madrassa of Sultan Hassan is another Mamluk era building, started in 1356 AD and finishing just three years later without a day’s rest. An interesting part of the construction of this mosque is its failures and incompleteness. Although the exterior of the mosque is impressive, the inside is clearly unfinished. The entrance to the mosque is impressively decorated in Mamluk style and the mihrab (indentation in the mosque pointing towards Mecca; this is the most holy place of every mosque) was lavishly decorated, but the rest of the inside of the mosque was strangely bare and unfinished. The mosque was designed to include all four of the Sunni schools of thought: Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanafi and Hanbali.
Just next door is the Al-Rifa’i Mosque, a newer but equally as massive as the Al-Hassan Mosque. It was finished in 1912 and used a similar Mamluk architecture. It is the resting place for many former Egyptian royalty, including King Farouk, Egypt’s last reigning king, who was buried here in 1965.
Finally, we made our way to the Ibn Tulun Mosque. On our way there, we were both overcome with hunger and decided to pick some random place to eat. We ended up at a small restaurant serving one thing, kushari, which is a mix of macaroni, rice, lentils, and crisp fried onions topped with a tomato sauce. We both ordered a bowl of the delicious yet simple dish and walked out full after spending just 7 Egyptian Pounds total, or just under $1 for two people!
The Ibn Tulun Mosque is the oldest surviving Cairo Mosque. The mosque was finished in 879 AD after three years of construction. The mosque is located within an outer wall, acting almost as a line of defense much like a fortress’s moat. This mosque is another that is quite bare on the inside, but this adds to its appeal. The Ibn Tulun is another square shaped complex with covered corridors surrounding the courtyard. In the middle of the courtyard is a domed sabil (fountain) which was constructed in the 13th century.
Another distinctive feature of the Ibn Tulun Mosque is the minaret. The spiral staircase leads up to the top where the Call of Prayer used to be done. Rather than a slender tower, it looks more like a taller building with an outside staircase. It’s the only of its kind that I have seen to date.
Just on the other side of Ibn Tulun, we paid to go up to the top of a minaret for a view. With the Citadel in the distance, the crazy streets of Cairo below, and the Ibn Tulun Mosque just down to the side, we were able to take in what a unique and interesting city Cairo is. I have never been to a place like it, where inside the city of over 8 million people you still see plenty of horses pulling carts of fruits and vegetables and other foods and items. Islam plays such a strong role in the daily life, as mosques and their tall minarets are located all around the city with the call to prayer sounding five times daily.
Another popular activity along the NIle River is to take a felucca ride. A felucca is a wooden sail boat which used to be an important mode of transportation. However, motorized boats now make it easier to get around. Felucca’s are now used mostly by tourists to relax on the Nile from northern Egypt all the way down to the southern part of the country.
To finish out our last day in Cairo before taking a night bus down to Luxor, we negotiated for a 45-minute felucca ride on the Nile. Doing this in downtown Cairo is not as exotic as it may sound, as nice hotels, lots of traffic, and some skyscrapers line both sides of the river. However, it was great to be out on the calm river away from the craziness of the city. The dusty roads full of ridiculous drivers seemed so far away while the wind took us down the Nile. The sun set in the distance, and we were able to catch glances of it in between the upscale hotels.
After coming back from Luxor, we had one full day in Cairo. We intentionally waited to visit the Egyptian Museum as our last sight. We knew we would learn so much more in Luxor which would then let us appreciate the 120,000 pieces of the museum. The museum is located at Tahrir Square, now famous for the events of the revolution in 2011.
The museum is full of incredible statues, crafts, jewelry, arches, sarcophagi, tombs, mummies, and, probably the most famous of them all, King Tutankhamen’s funerary treasures. The items in the museum date back to even before the Old Kingdom, which reigned from 2686 BC, and they range all the way through Alexander the Great’s conquering in third century BC all the way through Roman times. Sadly, the museum is not very well organized or put together. There are inconsistent labels, insufficient space, and items are generally not as well taken care of as they should be. It is possibly the best collection of ancient artifacts, and it’s too bad that they are not well-kept. They are, however, building a new museum out in Giza, so hopefully this will improve the conditions.
One of the most interesting items in the museum is King Tut’s famous funerary mask, which was found when his tomb was uncovered in 1922 by British archaeologist Howard Carter. Whereas most tombs had been robbed in ancient times, King Tut’s tomb had been sealed for more than 3,000 years and the treasures were found intact. The amount of gold and jewelry and other gifts to King Tut is astounding, especially since he was the pharaoh only for 9 years before his death at the age of 19. Just think of the grandeur of the tombs of pharaohs who reigned for 30, 40, of even 50 years!
The other most interesting exhibit is of the mummies that are on display. The museum currently has about 15 mummies, which are placed in glass cases, where you can take a good look at their faces, hands, arms, and feet. The rest of the bodies are still covered in the linen. To see the mummies or some of the most important and powerful rulers, including Ramses II, Seti I, Ramses IX, Queen Hatshepsut, and Amenhotep I.
For me, it was very interesting to see the mummy of Ramses II (click here to see a picture). As you’ll see in my next post about Luxor, he built many large statues of himself around the country to show his dominance. His enormous red granite statue that we saw in Memphis shows him in a marching position with strong arm muscles, muscular chest, and ready to do battle. He was immortalized in these statues. However, seeing his bony skull and skeleton makes him look not so immortal. I guess it shows that even the most powerful and the most god-like pharaoh will face death. And that is no different than anyone else on this planet.
That marked the end of our time in Cairo. The city offers so much to see that even four full days seemed like a rush. It’d be easy to spend at least two or three more days to take more time and visit other parts we didn’t even have the chance to visit.
Now on to Luxor.