Captivated by Cairo

It’s not easy finding the words to recap our visit to Egypt. How do I adequately articulate the feeling of seeing the only surviving Wonder of the Ancient World, temples nearly five thousand years old that ignite in gold and orange as the sun sets, and royal tombs adorned with superb artwork in still vibrant colors? There is an exquisite beauty in this country that is made all the more impressive when you understand the history of civilization that is encapsulated by hieroglyphs, statue fragments, and embalmed mummies. While this alone is meaningful, it should be considered in conjunction with the evolution of a society and culture encompassing five thousand years that more recently has undergone a revolution and is contending with the tensions that arise in a turbulent region of the world.

The Pyramid of Khafre and Pyramid of Menkaure in Giza

Our visit started and ended in Cairo, the largest city in Africa and the Middle East; but during the five days in between, we travelled down the Nile River from the Sudanese border in Upper Egypt to the temple and tomb-filled east and west banks (respectively) of Luxor. Egypt is one grand open-air museum that requires time and patience to appreciate. Time, because there is a lot to see; and patience, because being a tourist in Egypt is sometimes exasperating. While touring Egypt is beyond rewarding, it’s important to acknowledge the impact that tourism has on the economy and people. Many Egyptians depend on the income earned from a very competitive tourism industry and as such, it’s not unexpected that we experienced all manners in which people work relentlessly to solicit the business of us tourists and make a living. A baksheesh, or tip, is expected in almost all circumstances (Need toilet paper? Better have baksheesh ready…) and disingenuous or misleading tactics can throw you for a loop if you aren’t expecting them. Knowing that these frustrations weren’t unique to us was reassuring, and in becoming more aware of the cultural and political setting, we adjusted our mindset and were able to take the really good with the slightly bad.

The Great Sphinx of Giza looking considerably smaller in stature compared to The Pyramid of Khafre

I’m only getting started and it’s easy to see that this is going to be a lengthy post, even though I’m just covering our time in Cairo. I share the details because they are important for providing context on the significance of what we saw. A second post on our time along the Nile will follow, but to start, here’s Cairo!

Sunset over a very small slice of the city of Cairo

A four hour flight from Brussels, our descent into Cairo was made known when our pilot announced that the pyramids of Giza could be seen from the left side of the plane. I had the impression that the plane actually tilted as people eagerly leaned to their left for a glimpse of the towering monuments from above. There was a collective sigh of disappointment from those of us seated on the right side who strained our necks but only saw the backs of the other passengers’ heads. Our first stop upon disembarking the plane was the bank kiosks to purchase the mandatory Egyptian visa that requires $25 in cash per visa and two blank passport pages. We read that we should bring the exact amount in US dollars as it’s not uncommon for people to have trouble getting change or paying with other currencies. At the same counter, we exchanged our Euros for Egyptian Pounds and passed through customs and border control without issue or hassle.

Having been alerted to the horrendous traffic, aggressive driving-style, and oftentimes deceitful tactics of taxi drivers in Cairo, we pre-arranged a driver with our hotel. He was waiting for us just outside the arrival gate and was happy to identify points of interest in the city as he shuttled us the 45 minutes to the Pyramids View Inn in Giza. Arriving in Cairo after 9 p.m., we avoided the heavy commuter traffic and notoriously heavy smog that settles on the city in the morning and as such were rewarded with our first view of the towering pyramids illuminated from afar.  I was in awe as I stared at them out the front window of the car but found myself equally enticed by what I was witnessing on the streets of Giza. Our driver expertly maneuvered around pedestrians crossing the busy streets from every which way. When he made a quick turn onto a tiny dirt road (a short-cut, he said) he swerved to make way for the domesticated camels and horses being led home after a long day of entertaining tourists. The bold methods employed by pedestrians crossing the streets and flagging down the buses on the side of the high-way, which I noted was without lane markings, were eye-opening. My assessment of commuting in Brussels would never be the same!

The Pyramid of Khafre in Giza

Upon arrival at our hotel, we were welcomed warmly by the reception, and after seeing our room, we immediately headed up to the roof-top patio as this was the unique feature that drew us to this hotel for our two-night stay.  From both our balcony and the roof, the three largest of the Pyramids of Giza were right before our eyes – grand geometrical figures that, while no longer illuminated, were set apart against the night sky by the glow from Cairo on the horizon behind them. We admired the view while enjoying complimentary tea, and only after returning to our room did we realize that the Sphinx had also been directly in our line of vision but given its smaller stature, was not easily discernible.

Our view of the pyramids by night and day

Eager for our first day-time view of the pyramids from our own balcony, we awoke before sunrise and were ready for breakfast on the roof-top by 7 a.m. We had the patio to ourselves aside from the friendly but persistent resident cat whose name was Princess… unless I was mistaken and the waiter was calling Dan by that name (HAHA!). By 8 a.m. we were ready for our guide for the day, Nahla, who I found through the ToursByLocal site which connects travelers with tours and local guides.

Dan enjoying breakfast on our hotel roof top

After introductions, Nahla laid out our agenda for the day and provided background on the Egyptian deities and Pharoahs of the Old Kingdom while our driver navigated us out of Giza and towards Saqqara. Per Nahla, we would be viewing the ancient monuments around Cairo in chronological order starting with the oldest pyramid burial site and concluding with the most “modern” Giza pyramid complex. About 45 minutes south of Giza, the Saqqara Necropolis is the location of the oldest complete and intact stone building known to mankind – the Pyramid of the Pharaoh Djoser, or Step Pyramid. The Step Pyramid is the earliest evidence of the successful completion of a pyramid burial tomb and was constructed with six levels (steps) of stones. The interior of the pyramid is not hollow, so the burial chambers of the Pharaoh Djoser and his family are below the pyramid and accessed via a labyrinth of pathways. This maze of tunnels found inside the pyramids is intended to deter robbers from looting the tombs of the pharaohs; nonetheless, the pyramids were robbed long ago.

The unique Step Pyramid of Djoser

The archaeological site also includes a handful of mastabas dating from the Old Kingdom when royals and non-royals alike were buried in the flat-topped rectangular “houses” that pre-dated the burial of royalty in the pyramids. We entered the first mastaba escorted by a local “attendant” who pointed out unique features before requesting baksheesh (tip). Nahla then led us through a second mastaba and explained the significance of the exquisite details in the still well-preserved drawings and the all-important false door that allowed the soul to pass between body and the after-life.

An exterior view and several photos from the interior of the mastabas at Saqqara

Already impressed but with more to come, we got back in the van and headed still further south to Dahshur to see the Bent and Red Pyramids, which are evidence of the transition from the step-sided to smooth-sided pyramids. Demands for a smooth-sided pyramid by the Pharaoh Sneferu led to the construction of the Bent Pyramid which was deemed to be a failure on account of the structure’s instability. Initial construction began with a 54 degree incline but this was decreased to 43 degrees about half-way up to avoid a structural collapse – hence the bent appearance.

The Bent Pyramid of Dahshur

It was at the Bent Pyramid that Nahla suggested Dan and I go inside the pyramid to see the passages and chambers for ourselves. On account of her forewarning that it was very cramped and required crawling on your knees, Dan decided that this adventure was best suited to someone of shorter stature. The interior of the Bent Pyramid has only been open to the public since July 2019, and based on Nahla’s description of the claustrophobic conditions I could expect on the inside, I was a little nervous. I entered the pyramid by way of a raised entrance on the north side and found myself in a steep and very confined tunnel that led about 250 feet down into the pyramid. I wasn’t the only person in this tunnel, but it was far from crowded and it was eerie knowing not only what towered above me but also not knowing what I would find within the pyramid – Nahla did not reveal that to us.

The stairs up to the entrance of the tunnel into the Bent Pyramid

The tunnel through which you descend and then ascend + Photo of Kaitlan inside the pyramid taken by an attendant

I tried not to think about how structurally sound the pyramid was and forged ahead until I met a couple returning back up the ladder, the both of whom were out of breath but did affirm that it was worth the sweaty trek. I trudged on to the end of the tunnel and looked back up behind me; I wasn’t looking forward to the return ascent when it felt like a suffocating 90 degrees inside the pyramid. Up a set of wooden stairs and through another smaller tunnel I knew I was approaching the destination. I passed one other couple in this second tunnel before turning a corner and the passageway opened up into a large chamber. I stood up and took a few steps forward to get a better look at the chamber and the odd dark spots on the walls. It took me a few seconds to realize that the black spots were bats! As calmly as one can upon realizing that they are alone in a chamber full of sleeping bats, I high-tailed it back into the tunnel. I passed the same couple while announcing in what I hoped was more of whisper than a yell, “Bats!! There are bats in there!” They didn’t seemed phased and continued recording their video while I moved as quickly as possible back out the way I came, not even regretting for a second that I didn’t stop long enough for photo evidence of the bats. Although alarming to discover for myself, it was probably best that Nahla didn’t share this piece of information beforehand as it may have deterred me from partaking in a unique experience.

Excuse my heavy breathing in the background of this video that I took while crawling through the Bent Pyramid

Safely removed from the Bent Pyramid, we headed next door to the Red Pyramid – the first successful attempt at a smooth-sided pyramid. Also constructed under Sneferu, its name is derived from the coloring of the red limestones, which is all the more apparent when it rains (not all that often in these parts).

Standing on the Red Pyramid at Dahshur

A short drive from the vast dessert sands and through the agricultural fields extending out from Nile are the ruins of Memphis, the once capital of Egypt during the Old Kingdom. While Memphis doesn’t exist today, what can be seen today by visitors to this ancient and important site is an open-air museum featuring the colossal statue of Ramses II, which was discovered partially intact in 1820. I say partially intact because a fragment of the legs and feet of the statue was broken off, but what remains is impressively well-preserved on account of the statue lying face down in mud for thousands of years until its discovery.

The Ramses II colossal statue at Memphis

It had already been an eventful morning but the much anticipated stop of the day was ahead in Giza at the “newest” of the pyramids. The Giza pyramid complex encompasses the Great Pyramid (or Pyramid of Khufu), Pyramid of Khafre, Pyramid of Menkaure, several smaller pyramids, and the Great Sphinx – all dating from around 2500 BC, in the time of the Old Kingdom . Emblematic of Egypt, they were more impressive than I could have imagined when seen from afar, but I was eager to view them up close to grasp how the construction of such massive and permanent structures from millions of huge stones was possible without today’s technology.

The Great Pyramid up close

The Great Pyramid was the tallest man-made structure in the world until the end of 13th century AD, and Nahla explained that there is a theory that the capstone or uppermost point of the Great Pyramid was once gold. The pyramids used to have a smooth outer limestone layer, but some of this original casing was loosened by an earthquake and then subsequently removed from the pyramid to be used in the construction of other buildings in Cairo. What remains of this original casing is now only seen on the top portion of the Pyramid of Khafre.

The Great Pyramid at a distance

While I was getting a closer look at the base of the Great Pyramid, a man approached me out of nowhere and asked for my entrance ticket. I responded by giving him a funny look. He repeated “Can I see your ticket?” Unwilling to even give away that I was English-speaking, I responded with another funny look and something along the lines of “Ummm…” before directly asking him why. He told me that he worked there and it was standard procedure to check tickets, all the while showing me his “official” ID. I laughed out loud when I saw that in actuality his badge said “Camel Man” and then told him that I would not be showing him my ticket.  Unwilling yet to give up his charade, he instead tried to lure me to his camels on the other side of the pyramid with promises of a good price. I walked away, at which point he turned his attention on Dan and asked the infamous question of “Where are you from?”,  a common ice breaker used by locals (most often by those who are trying to sell you something). Dan experienced an added layer of this inquiry because in most cases the people asking him thought that he was in fact Egyptian. We lost count of how many times he was asked if he was Egyptian, was told he looked very Egyptian, or was simply addressed in Arabic before the other party realized their mistake. I think this may have often worked to our advantage when it was just the two of us walking together as people were more inclined to leave the “local” alone. While he did humor the inquiring person on a few occasions, Dan ignored the Camel Man who finally moved on to his next target.

Fortunately, we were prepared for an encounter like this and therefore my immediate reaction was to respond with skepticism and employ my favorite tactic of all, pretend I don’t understand or speak English. I share this story because, 1) it’s hilarious and 2) it’s an example of the type of interactions you should expect when travelling in Egypt. As a tourist, you will be approached with statements of “it’s free to get on the camel”, “it’s free to take a tour”, and “it’s free to take a picture with me”. It is never free. I prefer not to assume the worst of everyone that interacts with me while travelling, but operating with a healthy level skepticism is prudent while travelling in Egypt. Being prepared for these types of encounters and knowing how to respond appropriately with a firm la shukran (“no thank you” in Arabic) usually had the intended effect, and I could continue on with my sight-seeing.

And finally the smallest of the three- the Pyramid of Menkaure

After visiting the slightly smaller Pyramid of Khafre and turning down a fresh round of offers for camel and horse carriage rides, we were driven to a very popular overlook that allowed for a full sweeping view of the three pyramids. I never know when my Spanish speaking skills will come in handy, but here they were helpful in soliciting the help of a Spanish woman who captured some great photos of us amongst the swarming crowds.

Dan with the pyramid jump
Happy to be seeing these mighty monuments

We headed back to the van and found Nahla and our driver hard at work feeding the stray dogs that had encircled the vehicle. Throughout the day we had come to learn that this was customary for Nahla because at each stop she was prepared with bread and water to share with the stray pups and cats. A little surprising at first, this approach of treating the animals well was much preferred to what we saw from people in charge of the over-worked horses and camels that inundated the pyramid complex. Going into the trip, I didn’t feel strongly about having my picture in front of the pyramids while seated on the back of a camel or in a horse carriage. As iconic as the picture is, I was content to admire from the ground or, for a little elevation, a nearby boulder. Unfortunately, some of the proprietors of the camels and horses at the pyramids are ruthless in trying to solicit as much business as possible from tourists, at the expense of the animals. It’s their way of earning a living; I understand that and furthermore am certain that there are people who are taking good care of their animals. Our decision to forgo the rides was solidified upon seeing a severely limping horse being forced to continue walking and then another horse collapse after breaking its leg while still attached to and pulling a carriage.

Nahla and our driver feeding all the dogs of Giza

Having passed on a camel ride, our final stop of the day was the Sphinx. While no less popular with tourists than the Great Pyramid, it was a little underwhelming in my opinion. Nonetheless, when considering the Giza plateau in its entirety, the Sphinx is an iconic part of these works of art. Nahla explained that the Sphinx was built in that location on account of there being a large quantity of unmovable bedrock in the path between the pyramids and the mortuary temple. Nowadays, the Sphinx has suffered from erosion and is missing its nose, but that doesn’t make it any less kissable.

Dan told me this was a good angle… so here I am kissing the Sphinx

Sweaty, hungry, and very happy with all that we had managed to see in a day, we thanked Nahla and our driver when they dropped us off at the luxurious Mena House after the tour. We headed straight for their patio with a view of the pyramids so we could relax and cool off under the shade of an umbrella while recapping our day. We enjoyed a delicious dinner of lamb kebabs and kofta before heading back to our own hotel. Our Uber ride back was uneventful until we were dropped off and struggled to find the right hotel. There being a dozen similarly named hotels in the area, we walked into the Giza Pyramids View Inn and had to turn around when we realized it wasn’t our own Pyramids View Inn.

Our delicious dinner with a view at the Mena House

There are two pyramid light shows each evening, the first in English followed by another in a language which rotates daily. While we missed the first Pyramids light show during dinner at the Mena House, we did watch most of the second light show back on our hotel roof-top. A 3:30 a.m. wake-up necessitated an early bedtime but our sleep was disrupted when an unexpected third light show, this time in Arabic, began at 10 p.m.

Groggy but excited for the next leg of our trip, we appreciated the hotel arranging not only a driver, but also breakfasts in to-go boxes for us; even dropping off cups of coffee at our room at 3:45 a.m. We were delivered at the airport quicker than expected and made it to our gate where we were joined by more tourists setting out on the Nile River leg of their trip with the first stop being Aswan.

Jumping ahead a few days to our return to Cairo for the last two days of our visit in Egypt…

Swapping our pyramids view for the city center, we stayed in the Garden City district of Cairo. Well-situated just a 15 minute walk from the Egyptian Antiquities Museum, the Kempinski Nile Hotel is right on the Nile River and the Nile Corniche promenade – a busy thoroughfare of the city. On our first evening in Cairo, we enjoyed a very filling buffet-style dinner at Zitouni where we stuffed ourselves with delicious Middle Eastern cuisine like molokhia, lentil soup, more kebabs and kanafeh for dessert.

Walking along the Corniche during a surprising lull in the traffic

Intending to arrive at the museum around the time of its 9 a.m. opening the next morning, we headed out on foot from the hotel along the congested Corniche, turning down a number of taxi drivers who honked and yelled at us as a way of signaling that they wanted our business. The route to the museum was simple enough and our only obstacle was crossing a street near Tahrir Square. Trying to safely imitate the locals who traverse the streets by dodging the oncoming vehicles, we waited for a steady stream of cars to pass before we darted across the intersection. We breathed a sigh of relief and headed to the line at the entrance security check. We entered inside the gated front lawn of the museum and wandered around the haphazard display of unlabeled artifacts before purchasing our entrance tickets and one photo pass. Upon entering the striking pink building and passing through another security check, we were in the main hallway amongst the throngs of tour groups.

The courtyard of the Egyptian Antiquities Museum

There are an overwhelming 120,000 artifacts in the museum – a large percentage of them are on display and most have minimal information presented to explain their significance. For this reason, many visitors utilize a guide to navigate around the exhibits and provide context, with specific attention paid to the more impressionable articles. We considered hiring a guide but instead opted to be outliers and guide ourselves as we supposed that we were likely more prepared than the average visitor and were not confined to a strict timeline. We approached our visit like an archeological excavation – with patience and excitement about the thrill of discovery.  In preparation for the trip, we (especially Dan) spent a lot of time listening to The Great Courses: The History of Ancient Egypt, a lecture series conducted by Professor Bob Brier. The highly-recommended lectures detail the rise and decline of the empire from the Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, New Kingdom, and through the Ptolemaic period that ended when the Romans came to rule Egypt. This familiarity with the history was advantageous throughout our trip, and, when coupled with a very helpful Trip Advisor post (more to come on that) summarizing the locations of note-worthy artifacts on display, we were prepared to take on the challenge.

Just a few of the fun treasures at the museum

I’ll be writing a separate post specifically dedicated to those looking for more details about what they can find on display at the museum, but for now, here are some of my favorite finds from within.

  • The Narmer Palate, referred to as “the first historical document in the world”, is on display just inside the entranceway of the museum and depicts the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt by Narmer around 3150BC.
  • Miniature figurine of Khufu which is the only known depiction of the Pharaoh responsible for the building of the Great Pyramid.
  • The wooden statue of the scribe and priest Kaaper whose eyes are alarmingly realistic.
  • Multiple statues of my favorite Pharaoh, Queen Hatshepsut – in both the regal stance (left foot forward) and as a sphinx.
  • The uniquely distorted features on the statue of Akhenaten, who was the first Egyptian Pharaoh, and likely the first ruler in the history of the world, to practice monotheism
  • The King Tut gallery containing the famous golden mask and a remarkable display of other treasures buried with the boy king (no photos allowed).
  • The spine-tingling Royal Mummies Halls containing the astonishingly well-preserved mummies of some of Egypt’s most well-known Pharaohs (no photos allowed).

The Narmer Palate + Wooden statue of Kaaper + Queen Hatshepsut – in the regal stance (left foot forward) + The unique statue of Akhenaten

Visiting the museum helps you appreciate just how many artifacts have been recovered, identified, and studied. This is perhaps the most astonishing part of visiting Egypt – excavations and research are continuously underway and lead to new and exciting developments about this ancient culture. Just a month before our November 2019 visit, 30 coffins with mummies inside were found in Luxor. It’s amazing to think what still awaits discovery and could lead to an even greater understanding of this ancient civilization. In order to properly preserve and display this ever growing collection, a new Grand Egyptian Museum is scheduled to be opened in Giza in 2020.

A view from inside the museum

Our walk back to the hotel was more eventful than on the way there as we had to cross the Corniche twice.  Fueled by surges of adrenaline, we plotted our maneuvers around the oncoming traffic; risky behavior for us, which Cairo’s residents undertake so nonchalantly. For the second crossing, we found what I think is the one cross-walk in the city and attempted to use this to our advantage. When not even one car slowed or stopped for us while we waited within the lines, we surmised that the same courtesies afforded to pedestrians in other countries were not extended here. Realizing we were on our own, we waved at the drivers to signal our intent to cross while being forced into a game of leap frog with their speeding vehicles.  Safely on the other side and with our heart rates lowered to normal by the time we reached our hotel, we were ready for lunch and then our foray into Cairo’s Ubers that would transport us to the Islamic Quarter of the city.

Walking on the wide avenue within the walls of the Citadel of Saladin

Our final afternoon and evening in Egypt was spent at the Citadel of Cairo or Citadel of Saladin, a strategically placed fortification from the medieval Islamic era. Construction of this impressive structure began in the second half of the 12th century AD; it is now part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Islamic Cairo. From its walls, we were afforded a hazy overlook of the endlessly sprawling metropolis. The view was truly incredible and remarkably peaceful on account of the few people enjoying the late afternoon glow over the city.

Overlooking Cairo from the walls of the Citadel

Also contained within the Citadel walls are four mosques, of which we visited the Mosque of Muhammad Ali. The public is welcome to enter provided you enter shoe-less (carry them in your hands), and while I was not certain that my hair needed to be covered, I did so nonetheless. An interesting fact about the mosque is that the clock tower in the courtyard was a reciprocal gift from France after the obelisk now standing in Paris’ Place de la Concorde was removed from Luxor Temple and “gifted” by Egypt.

The interior courtyard of the Mosque of Muhammad Ali + An exterior view

As I was admiring the ornate interior domes of the mosque, I was interrupted by a group of boys encroaching on my personal space and I realized very quickly what they had in mind. Starting at the museum earlier that morning, I had been hounded by Egyptian children for pictures with them – most often selfies. Although strange to me, I had accepted their requests in a few cases, specifically when asked by less-intrusive girls. This time, it was a dozen boys who approached me along with their teacher who, when I asked why they wanted a photo with me, explained that “it’s a souvenir to remember this special day”. I was reluctant and responded by saying “Okay, you can take a picture with us”, while motioning towards Dan and moving to stand next to him. In response, I found myself with multiple cameras directly in front of my face for selfies with several of the boys. I suggested we take one group photo instead of a dozen selfies but when that suggestion went unanswered and I started feeling uncomfortable, I said that it was too much and I was done. My understanding of this phenomenon is that there is a collective desire to take photos with foreign tourists, perhaps more commonly with women, and I was certainly not the first visitor to experience this. The awkward interactions, while harmless, served as a reminder for me to be cognizant of how I approach taking photos while touring when I’m the one behind the camera.

Inside the Mosque of Muhammad Ali
A view of the mosque from the outside

Back at our hotel that evening, we enjoyed one last Egyptian sunset from our hotel roof-top before heading back to Brussels the next morning. Our driver on the way to the airport was friendly and chatty, explaining that he is Christian and telling us that despite what people think, Muslims and Christians do get along in their daily lives in Cairo; he himself said he has many Muslim friends. Our conversation with the driver was a reminder that I arrived in Egypt with expectations for what I would see, experience, and learn based on my knowledge of their ancient history, but was leaving with a better understanding of the traditions and culture that permeate modern life in Cairo.

One of my most vivid memories from our time in Cairo was from the backseat of an Uber on our ride back to our hotel from the Citadel. I was captivated by the orange and yellow hues of the setting sun that peeked through the arches of a timeworn aqueduct while a soft Arabic song played on our driver’s radio. It was a moment of peace in a metropolis of frenetic energy. For me, it perfectly encapsulated the convergence of contrasts in this evolving city that both confounds and captivates.

A clip of our impressionable drive through Cairo before departing the next morning

Stay tuned for the no less eventful next leg of our trip up the Nile from Abu Simbel to Luxor.

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