I love watching Anthony Bourdain’s snappy takes on places he visits for his Travel Channel show No Reservations. But how can you travel to Egypt and just drive by the pyramids? “I never saw them except as shapes, seen through the haze from the window of a passing car,” he said. Stop the car, Anthony! Go back. Watch the haze lift as the sun god Ra lights the point that has defined history and stands as the only remaining wonder of the ancient world.
We arrived in Cairo on a Saturday morning, eager to see antiquities, inhale spicy aromas and glory in the color of this ancient civilization. Like most travelers, we placed the pyramids foremost on our list. Our driver, Islam, steered onto a three-lane highway that quickly turned into six freeform lanes as cars, buses and trucks jockeyed for a better position in the chaotic, zigzagging tangle of traffic. A numbered series of honks seemed to serve both as a caution and an identifier to other drivers that you were going ahead. As we waited in the back of the van, we found ourselves staring into the unblinking eyes of a cow straddling the back of a small pickup in the “lane” next to us. Her calls to “moo-ve” went unheeded. Suddenly, off to our left, beyond a wall of unfinished apartment blocks, a pointed shape appeared, and then two more. Islam smiled and said, “Yes, when we return from a trip, we always look to the pyramids and say, ‘We are home.’
Photographs do not prepare you for the immensity of the pyramids or how majestically the Giza Plateau rises to meet Cairo. A city of close to 17 million, Cairo has sprawled westward beyond the Nile’s lush green banks to encompass Giza and form what is essentially a desert suburb. Standing in the brisk wind swirling the sands of time around our faces, it was impossible not to feel connected to the past and awed by what travelers have marveled at for over 4,500 years.
Visitors are allowed inside the Great Pyramid’s burial chamber twice a day, and you must queue up early to buy one of 150 tickets available for each viewing. I waited outside while Alan did the bent-over shuffle into the heart of the pyramid. The verdict? There is not much to see except stone walls and the back of the tourist in front of you. From the Great Pyramid of Khufu (or Cheops), it is a long walk or fast car ride across the 13-acre complex to reach the Pyramid of Khafre, where you should take a camel ride down to the Pyramid of Menkaure (the third and smallest). On that bumpy ride, we had a chance to idly gaze over the surrounding region and realize that there are, in fact, many pyramids dotting the dusty Egyptian landscape, though none as impressive as those of Giza. After Menkaure — in perfect alignment with the other two pyramids and facing true north to reflect the three stars of Orion’s belt in the night sky — it is a short walk down to the Sphinx, where you can gaze into the all-knowing eyes and be introduced to the sound you will hear more often than the muezzin’s call to prayer: “No Hassle.” That is the call to shop.
Scarves, beads, necklaces, a profusion of caps — all are offered with the promise of “no hassle,” though the reality is anything but. You will be dogged to the guarded gates at the top of the Sphinx. If you glance back, it is over. Decide your price and hold firm, for you will buy. Bring lots of U.S. dollar bills. It is the preferred currency among street vendors.
If you are not interested, the one Egyptian word to learn is shokran (thank you). It is both a sign of respect and the polite way to say you are not interested.
Clutching bags of purchased treasures, we were off to the warren of narrow, twisted alleyways that define Coptic Cairo, the oldest part of the city. It is believed that there was a settlement here as early as the sixth century B.C. The Hanging Church dominates this neighborhood, so named because it sits above the gatehouse of Babylon Fortress, the Roman fortress of old Cairo. The Copts, the Middle East’s largest Christian community, today make up between 6 and 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million people and remain active in a few churches throughout Cairo, including this one, where we happened upon a special mass in the ornately carved wooden basilica. Behind the Hanging Church, a short walk through narrow alleyways brought us to the Ben Ezra Synagogue, originally a Christian church, sold to Abraham Ben Ezra of Jerusalem in 882. The Nile River once lapped up to the church’s foundation, and it is said that it was here among the reeds that the basket holding the baby Moses was found.
Cairo boasts Africa’s only metro subway system and, though limited, does have a stop one block from the Hanging Church (Mari Girgis Station). This brings you to the Sadat station, a short walk to the Egyptian Museum, where admittance is one Egyptian pound (a little over 20 cents). The first carriage is for women only, where hajibs (head and neck covers) are more common than full-body burkas. The ride is surprisingly clean and faster than a taxi in the crowded streets.
The Egyptian Museum owes its existence to the Egyptian Antiquities Service, established by the Egyptian government in 1835 to limit the looting of Egypt’s priceless artifacts. The artifacts on display are oddly lacking in organization and description. A major highlight is the Tutankhamen tomb collection on the museum’s upper floor. The tomb of “King Tut” was found intact by Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings in 1923, where it still resides today in a climate-controlled glass box. Here in the museum you can view his famous gold funerary mask and sarcophagus, four huge gilded boxes that fit inside each other, an ancient trumpet, thrones and even a royal toilet seat. Throughout the museum, massive granite and limestone statues abound, though my favorite is the Sheikh al-Balad, Egypt’s oldest known life-size sycamore wood statue, estimated to be from the Fifth Dynasty (about 2500 B.C.), found in a tomb at Saqqara. Unlike the stylized tall, thin and elegant statues of pharaohs, this wooden priest is overweight, with wrinkles and all. He has a round face; full cheeks; and eyes, inlaid with white quartz rimmed in copper, that seem to stare into your soul.
Plans are underway to move the museum to a new Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza, about one mile from the Great Pyramid. King Tut’s mummy will be rejoined with his possessions, and all 120,000 artifacts will be displayed, including those that have been sitting in warehouses for decades. The design calls for a dramatically angled roof aligned with the pyramids and a translucent alabaster façade that will glow at night. A completion date of 2009 was announced in 2005. As of 2010, all that is visible is an empty, sandy expanse.
At midday, the best spot in Cairo is on the terrace of the Mosque of Mohammed Ali on Mokkatam Hill within the fortress walls of the Citadel, built in the 12th century as a royal residence and barracks. Muezzins throughout Cairo begin the call to prayer, and the city resounds with an aural barrage of loudspeakers, overlapping and competing in pitch and volume. Despite the dense haze, the view across the city dotted with minarets is inspiring. To go inside what is also called the Alabaster Mosque, you must remove your shoes or pay someone 10 Egyptian pounds ($1.75) to slip canvas booties over your shoes. The body of Mohammed Ali, an Albanian mercenary whose forces defeated the Ottomans and Mamluks in 1805, lies buried in a white marble cenotaph inside the intricate Ottoman structure. The mosque dominates Cairo, and its lights define the night skyline.
Back downtown, a walking tour of Islamic Cairo is a trip back in time. Medieval street patterns steer you past ramshackle houses and Ottoman-era monuments to splendid Mamluk palace complexes. Its beating heart is the Khan-el Khalil bazaar. This is the one you’ve heard about. Try your luck at haggling, but be reassured this has been here since the 14th century and most peddlers are masters in bargaining. Enthralled, we forged ahead down the main alleyway and suddenly found ourselves on a dirt path in the back of the marketplace. There were no peddlers, scant light and only artisans pounding copper pots. The path led uphill, and we thought we might loop around. Not so. We were deeper and deeper in a maze of dark alleyways. If not for one gracious citizen who spoke a few words of English, we might still be wandering today. He pointed out a hidden steep metal staircase squeezed between two buildings and promised we would be on the main path when we descended. He was right. A few pounding heartbeats later, we were back in the middle of the Khan and headed for the El-Fishawy Café to meet friends and relax with a shisha and some coffee. Shokran to our Egyptian friend.
Info To Go
Cairo International Airport (CAI) is 12 miles outside the city center. Taxis are the only option unless you have arranged for a driver. The taxi price is about $14. Do not attempt to drive; adherence to road rules of etiquette is scant, and drivers ususally do not use headlights at night.
Cairo Marriott Hotel & Omar Khayyam Casino
A former palace, the renovated Marriott has Cairo’s best public spaces and gardens, along with a large pool and casino. 16 Saraya al-Gezira St., Zamalek, tel 202 2728 3000, $$$$
Sofitel Cairo El Gezirah
A cylindrical glass tower on the southern tip of the island of Gezira, this is Cairo’s most stylish hotel. Stunning Nile views. 3 El Thawra Council St., Zamalek, tel 202 2737 3737, $$$$$
The Windsor Hotel
Close to the Egyptian Museum, the Windsor has not changed since the 1950s, and that’s part of its charm. great funky bar. 19 Alfy Bey St., tel 20 2 2591 5810, $$
Abou El Sid
A hot spot in the trendy Zamalek district, with classic Egyptian dishes and, finally, alcohol and shishas. Try the tasty molokheya with rabbit. 157 26th of July St., Zamalek, tel 20 2 2735 9640, $$$
This renowned Cairo classic, open 24/7 for centuries, offers a chaotic scene with tourists and locals from all walks of life drinking, shouting and smoking shishas. In the Khan-el-Khalil souk $
Tucked into a downtown alleyway, the elegant and romantic restaurant has a classic Arabic menu with a French twist and a decent choice of veggie dishes. 12 Talaat Harb St., tel 202 574 3102 $$
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