Seeped in pagan mysteries, shrouded in pharaonic legacies, and shadowed by phenomenal architecture, Egypt is an eternal enigma with roots in the dawn of civilisation. For millennia, travellers have been lured by the eye-popping mega monuments that line the longest river in the world and an extraordinary necropolis where a trio of cyclopean Pyramids claim a slice of surreal. Basepoint and capital city, Cairo is no sidekick to the whirlwind of wonders.
Cairo’s ancient name - Misr - meaning ‘the capital’ and ‘the land of Egypt’ - reveals its clout in a civilisation with a timeline spanning five millennia. The Mother of Cities can be an unchecked assault on the senses from the word go…staggering in scale, distracting in diaspora and addictive in aura. Medieval and modern juxtapose in an electrifying jumble of desert heat, donkey carts, flyovers and fortifications in a one-of-a-kind city. The cacophony of streets fades into the background and even grit takes on an endearing quality in this gigantic ticket-free living museum.
Eras upon eras of Islamic architecture are piled over each other in an endless cornucopia of Abbasid arcades, Ottoman hammams and Mamluk mosques. Ancient, Coptic and Islamic antiquities narrate their own gripping stories of diverse cultures and craftsmanship. Melody of the muezzin peals above the din of the incessant honking, bustling bazaars brim with handcrafted treasures and boisterous bars vie for the attention of night-crawlers. Egypt’s multi-dimensional capital is a bewitching destination in itself, not just an obligatory stopover for the inevitable pyramid prowl on the sandy stretches of Giza. Stay goggle-eyed from the word go…
Looking through the haphazard cityscape of apartment blocks, retail strips and nightclubs, the first impression of the Giza Pyramids is often less grandiose than you expect. Let the surroundings slip away from your consciousness, create imagery and allow yourself to slip into an illusion of time travel. Its thousands of years ago, before the pointy mammoths weren’t blackened with pollution. You’re facing a trio of dazzlers, visions in smooth white-sanded limestone against the warm-gold of the wide-open desert.
Cut to the present, reality kicks in. Up close, it is easier to marvel at the gigantic funerary edifices designed to last an eternity. The impeccable geometry, ingenious engineering and inventive structure hold your gaze, as your brain tracks a timeline of 3000 years. In your mind’s eye, try to reconstruct invisible temples, chapels, smaller tombs and walls that would have once dotted the elaborate funerary complex. Dig deeper into the undisguised symbolism of the tombs placed to the west of the Nile…a metaphorical connection to the setting sun, the end of life.
Be dwarfed into insignificance at the largest, most celebrated Great Pyramid of Khufu, towers to a height of 139 meters (450 feet), made of two million blocks of stone, averaging two tons each. An aerial view shows how it is aligned with the western side of Khufu’s pyramid and the facade of Menkaure’s pyramid is aligned with Khafre’s western side. An imaginary line linking the southeast corners of the three pyramids points toward the temple of Re in Heliopolis. Precision in location achieved through astronomical references…stars and planets orient the pyramids to the cardinal points in a north-south direction. The Great Pyramid even acts as a huge sundial and signals solstices and equinoxes. All this, with basic chisels, drills, saws, ramps and levers! Backbreaking work under the scorching sun for years on end. It paid off in more ways than one. The pharaohs and the pyramids have both been immortalised in limestone.
Spoiler alert…there are no expansive spaces inside. A tight ascending passageway leads to a taller one, the Grand Gallery, which ends at a small, austere burial chamber for the Pharoah. Claustrophobes, proceed with caution. Hieroglyphic walls narrate stories of the burial procession to the afterlife. Mummies with amulets and jewels in linen wrappings encased in coffins placed inside the sarcophagus, stored in gold shrines. Organs stored in special containers, called canopic jars. Tombs filled with food, water, wine, perfumes, oils, jewellery, fine clothes, weapons and even fans to keep them cool. Funerary boats buried beside the pyramids. Archaeologist digs, grave robbers, deadly curses, otherworld, netherworld…the works. The expedition into the dark and the unknown is pure adventure.
Later, stop to ogle at the Sphinx, the crouching lion with a human head, a monolithic hulk, 66 feet high and 240 feet long. Battered and bruised over time, it still impresses despite being a shadow of its original avatar in vibrant red, blue and yellow colours. Egyptologists believe that the Sphinx symbolises Khafre or the sun god. Stare long enough in complete silence and you may feel its sacred power.
Charisma and chaos
Egypt’s capital, Cairo, with its layers of history, including Ottoman occupations, British imperialism and a host of bloody revolutions, is a classic ancient city by all standards. Omar Robert Hamilton nailed it when he said, “The whole history of the world can be seen from here.” A spirited smorgasbord, studded with mosques, Coptic churches, Arab settlements and Haussmann-style boulevards, it claims your heart, sooner or later. Slide slowly into the chaos. A good place to start is the buzzing Tahrir Square in modern downtown Cairo, the chosen stage of every revolt, revolution and political transition in the city’s history.
If you have to pick a single experience to tick off your bucket list while in Cairo, make it The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, preferably with an Egyptologist. Get your fix of Pharaonic antiquities with endless coffins, papyrus scrolls, and coins from across eras. These are just a gentle preamble to the showstopper of them all. Pulses race and goosebumps form when you are face-to-face with Tutankhamen’s tomb, his bust and all the accompanying treasures, including his Gold Mask made of 11 kilograms of solid gold. And when the long-awaited Grand Egyptian Museum makes a statement opening near the Pyramids of Giza later in 2021, prepare for an opulent extravaganza. Over 100,000 Egyptian artefacts from prehistoric to the Greco-Roman ages, including the prized Tutankhamen collection of over 5,400 rare artefacts will be the ultimate fantasy come true for heritage aficionados.
Head to the heart of Old Cairo, a World Cultural Heritage Site boasting a dramatic ensemble of historic architecture from the Islamic world. Choc-a-bloc with monuments, madrassas, fortifications, and tombs spanning eras ranging from 639 to the early 16th-century, the core of “The City of a Thousand Minarets” is a wanderer’s delight. Hit up the Citadel of Saladin on the Mokattam Hills, to delve into the 700-year long modern history of Egypt’s rulers. Of the three main mosques in the complex, the Mosque of Muhammsd Ali (Alabaster Mosque) is inspired by Istanbul’s Blue Mosque. Linger.
A change of scene awaits at the city’s sprawling souk, Khan El-Khalili. Browse for precious jewellery, incense, and ancient Pharaoh souvenirs antiques or learn to make a leather-bound notebook as a DIY souvenir to take home with you. Fulfil gastronomic urges by tasting Egypt’s national dish, Kushari, a vegetarian concoction of noodles, rice, lentils, fried onions and tomato sauce, often doused with chilli sauce. For a meal-on-the-go, munch on Hawawshi, pita bread stuffed with a minced meat mixture, flavoured with onions, peppers, and chillies…hot, spicy and delicious.
Treat yourself to hibiscus-flavoured Karkade, Egypt’s national drink before strolling into the “world’s largest open-air museum of Islamic monuments,” Muizz Street. Take a crash course in the architecture of dynasties across different periods, from the Fatimid dynasty in AD 970 to the Pashas. Admire peerless specimens of Mamluk architecture at the Qalawun Complex. Finally, land up at the 14th-century Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan, one of Egypt’s grandest mosques. The egg-shaped dome made of wood and decorative chinoiserie style are the design elements worth a second glance, but more compelling is the vision behind the monument. It was built to accommodate four schools of Sunni thought.
For 300 years, from the conversion of Emperor Constantine till the arrival of Islam, Christianity was the prominent religion in Egypt. Discover early Christian history in a labyrinth of churches and monasteries of Coptic Cairo. This neighbourhood is set within the walls of the fortress of Babylon, dating back to the 6th-century BC. Even without landmarks on your list, you can spend hours devouring delicate mosaics and intricate woodwork in the twisting alleys. Stumble upon the oldest church, the oldest mosque and the oldest synagogue in the city. Museum-lovers can trace remnants of the past in the Coptic Museum, and architecture buffs can go in search of beauty at the Hanging Church and Church of St George. The Saint Sergius and Bacchus Church has a 10-foot-deep crypt, believed to be a resting place for Mary, Joseph, and infant Jesus. Surprises galore.
Sail into the sunset
Where indulgences go, nothing beats a private Felucca sail on the Nile. Meander slowly over the blue waters, rocks and roll gently with the waves, off-white sails puffed and stretched with momentum. As the sun dips over the longest river in the world, follow the rhythm of ripples glinting with hints of golds and salute the mythical life source for one of the greatest civilisations in history.
Where to eat and drink
Zitouni: Satisfy your cravings for Egyptian and Lebanese cuisine with exotic spices of the Orient at the classy 24-hour restaurant of Four Seasons Hotel Cairo. Classics include Moussaka, Tabbouleh, grilled meats, Mezzes and a variety of shrimp dishes. Expect warm wooden interiors, walls adorned with intricate calligraphic designs, and an open kitchen seating arrangement overlooking the Nile
Le Deck: Waterfront relaxation meets culinary perfection at the Le Deck restaurant of Sofitel Cairo Nile El Gezirah Hotel. Lounge on large white chairs in the open air space that gently floats on the Nile and is anchored to the banks. Oriental and Mediterranean dishes on the menu by Michelin-star French chef Laurent Peugeot carry an inventive blend of Japanese and French influences.
Sachi: This elegant Mediterranean-Asian fusion restaurant relies on quality ingredients and authentic dishes from Japanese, Greek, among other cuisines. Recommended options include sushi and sashimi with the salmon tataki and shrimp quinoa, butterflied chicken with sun-dried vegetables, and various beef plates. Think contemporary interiors, mood lighting and warm service.
Staying within Cairo
The most centrally located place to stay in Cairo is Downtown Cairo, with its French styled architecture of the 19th-century and proximity to attractions including the Egyptian Museum, Tahrir Square and Khan El-Khalili. Another great alternative is the affluent district of Zamalek on Gezira Island, offering access to boutiques, shops, bookstores and green areas.
Navigating the city
Cairo International Airport is located about 13 miles northeast of the city centre. Taxis are the best way to commute to and within the city. Pick a yellow taxi, which has air-conditioning and a meter, so you do not need to negotiate the fare with the driver. While commuting within the city, the next best alternative to a taxi is the metro
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