I've been traveling seriously for almost ten years and to be honest I'm not really sure why it's taken me so long to get to Egypt. In the romantic minds of travelers across the globe, Egypt probably ranks in most people's Top 10 list for places to experience, but there always seemed to be a shiner destination on my horizon. I actually had tickets booked for an exploration through Egypt back in 2011 but a quick look at a historical timeline will tell you that was right when the Arab Spring took hold and consequently my flights were canceled as chaos unfolded and foreigners were evacuated out of the country enmass.
Fast forward a few years and I'm looking for cheap one way flights out of Senegal to just about anywhere in the world and Cairo pops up as one of the lowest priced options. Locked and loaded, here we go!
GIZA & SURROUNDING AREA
This is what you came here for, right? It goes without saying that for most people in the world the mention of Egypt immediately conjures up images of the iconic, historic, infinite Pyramids. Wanting to maximize my view of some of history's most storied constructions, I skipped my normal lodging search parameters and instead focused on finding a hotel that might afford me a lovely view from my window. So I booked with the Pyramid View Inn Bed & Breakfast for my first few nights in Egypt. I arrived well past midnight so when I went to bed that night I had nothing but the faintest of outlines of the Pyramids and not a clue of the spectacular sight that awaited me the next day. As you can see, not a bad view for $43USD/night.
While the Giza Pyramid complex holds Egypt's most iconic and recognizable pyramids, the country itself is dotted from north to south with well over 100 total. I was, unfortunately, unable to get further afield in Egypt this year than the Cairo metropolitan area, but even within an hour's drive of Egypt's capital one can find several other pyramids. While tourism is on the way to recovering after the Arab Spring uprisings that rocked the Middle East several years ago, it's still nowhere near the levels the country once saw which consequently means a trip to one of these nearby pyramids is often an adventure in solitude. This is a photo of the Bent Pyramid, more formally called the southern Pyramid of Sneferu, where the only other soul in the area besides myself and my driver was the lonesome security guard sitting under an awning.
While the pyramids themselves are outdoor "museums", the Giza plateau does offer a handful of more traditional indoor museums where you can escape the sun (and rampant touts offering you camel rides) for a spell. The biggest attraction is likely the Solar Boat Museum, a facility next to the Pyramids that displays a 143 ft long, 20 ft wide reconstruction of a boat found buried next to the Great Pyramid. The reconstructed boat hangs from the museum's ceiling, suspended above the floor so that visitors can circle the entire display on raised walkways that give a 360 degree view.
Speaking of those camel ride touts, I wasn't kidding when I said they were everywhere. At times it almost felt like you couldn't turn around without a new person appearing from the shadows to offer you a ride through the Sahara with a wide smile. Some of them even road their camels around the base of the pyramid trying to entice visitors to come over and go for a ride. Thankfully I was able to politely decline their offers while I was focused on seeing the Pyramids, though I saw a few other interactions between touts and other visitors that didn't go so kindly. With the reduced number of tourists coming to Egypt there's a highly competitive space to secure business by many.
Advertisements or general graffiti? I'm not sure, but I'm a sucker for street art whether it's impromptu or corporate sanctioned and the rainbow coloring of the Arabic script was eye popping to me. I took two years of Arabic language study a few years back so oddly enough I can read most of this but I have no idea what it says because while I've retained my memory of letters and the sounds they make I have very little memory of any vocabulary!
I don't think this man was an officially licensed tour guide, but that didn't stop him from sitting on this ledge near the Pyramids while smoking a cigarette and spouting off information about the iconic structures to anyone within earshot.
A bit further south of Giza but a bit north of Dahshur is Saqqara, a historic site featuring several pyramids as well as temple ruins, crypts, and other crumbling structures from the storied history of Egypt. In all honesty I felt the touts at Saqqara were much more aggressive here than they were in Giza, which forced me to abandon my guide for awhile as I sought refuge in some of the quieter corners of the ruins.
Let me emphasize again - $47USD/night for this view. A gentle reminder that while five star hotels have many merits, sometimes you're giving up a lot more than a ton of cash to stay at them.
Camel touts are the most obvious but there's also quite a few horse touts as well. Like just about every animal-related tourist activity, almost all of the horses and camels I saw around the pyramids appeared to be either malnourished or actively being abused by their handlers/owners. This is hardly an issue exclusive to Egypt as I've seen poorly treated animals on every continent I've visited. As a general rule I avoid any activity that involves animals beyond looking at them from afar in their natural habitats when traveling.
When you see the Pyramids on television or in pictures it's sometimes hard to really gauge the sheer majesty and size of each one. I think this shot gives a really good idea of the scale of the structures, people dwarfed next to the bulk of one of history's most impressive accomplishments.
For many people the city of Giza is simply a place to drop in on the Pyramids and the Sphinx and then head back to the chaos of Cairo. As I mentioned above I stayed in Giza for a few days during my trip and took a little time to explore the city itself. It was a bit "rough around the edges" but still quite charming. Dirty roads and run down family businesses. Cars darting in and out of traffic and around tourist buses headed to the Pyramids.
Looking for a third way to get around the Pyramids? Horse-drawn carriages are an option as well.
Train transport is possible in Egypt though not nearly at the level that it is in Europe or some parts of Asia. Here's a set of lonely train tracks south of Giza running across a Nile River tributary.
Some of the nicest sights in Egypt are the bright fabrics against the stark background of the beige Sahara. Much like Senegal, which I was in immediately before Egypt, the vibrance of the colors adorning the people (and animals!) really stood out.
I'm sure you've heard the stories about how the urban sprawl of Cairo runs right into the urban sprawl of Giza which in turn runs up to the base of the Pyramids. And it's all true. There's even a KFC across the street from the entrance to the Pyramids. If you want the unobstructed desert view of the Pyramids you'll have to head out behind them. There's a road that takes you out that way if you have a car or a driver, or you can work with one of the animal touts mentioned before (which I still urge you to not do, but you do you.) Even out a bit, you'll never completely escape the urban landscape around the Pyramids, as it'll still peek through in the background.
Some families across the globe go to the park to have a little picnic lunch. In Giza, you have a snack on the Great Pyramid.
A camel that was in much better shape than most of the ones making their rounds at the Pyramids. He was "parked" by some fencing near the Sphinx while his owner took a break from the hubbub of the day.
Might as well end things in Giza with one last photo of the beautiful sunsets over the Pyramids I had every night from my hotel room.
It's impossible to capture all of Cairo in a single photo without the help of a pretty badass drone, but I did my best from the balcony next to the Mosque of Muhammad Ali (not that Muhammad Ali, this Muhammad Ali) at the Citadel.
Speaking of the Citadel, it's one of the biggest tourist sights in Cairo. Built on a hill near central Cairo, the Citadel was fortified under the rule of the famed Saladin to create a defensible position against European Crusaders. While many of the buildings are older, the walls themselves went up between 1176 and 1183 CE. Not very large at all, it's easy to spend half a day wandering through the Citadel taking in the beautiful architecture.
Another one of Cairo's most iconic sights is the Khan el-Khalili souq, a quintessential Middle Eastern market filled with tourists, locals, and every item for sale you can possibly imagine. I just happened to wander through during Friday prayer time. which meant most of the locals and many tourists were missing for a solid portion of my wander.
Thanks to the deserted alleywalls winding through Khan el-Khalili, I was able to grab a delicious bag of falafel to go from this man frying them up in a dark passageway. I skipped the "Bebsi" (Arabic form of Pepsi since there's no "P" in the language!).
Depending on the list you're looking at Cairo is the world's 14th most populous metropolitan area and the 2nd largest in Africa. So imagine my surprise when I came across this man quietly sitting on a bench in what is one of the world's most jam-packed megacities with not another soul in sight. Again - the power of Friday prayers in a city filled with devout Muslims.
Not everyone in the city adheres to the tenants of Islam though. While 9 in 10 Egyptians are Sunni Muslims, the tenth person is likely a Coptic Christian - an orthodox branch of Christianity dating back to the first century. The Coptic Cairo neighborhood is another one of the big hubs on the Cairo tourist trail that features the Church and Monastery of St. George, Ben Ezra Synagogue, and the Church of St. Barbara. All of those sights were beautiful and interesting in their own right, but I thought the street scenes were the real attraction.
A quick snap shot showing some of the various types of modest dress you'll find on women in Egypt's capital. As you can see it ranges from full covered burka to colorful scarves covering just a woman's hair accompanying modern dress.
Speaking of modesty, the ceiling of the Mosque of Muhammad Ali (also called the Alabaster Mosque) is far from it. Beautiful geometric patterns and Quranic script carpet the ceiling while elaborate chandeliers dangle precariously overhead. One thing you'll notice in most mosques is that the decorating is up high on the walls and ceiling while the eye-level view is rather simple/plain. I'm told this is so that worshippers can focus on the word of God and their devotion while praying as they're low to the ground while kneeling and looking forward. The worldly beauty of design is saved for parts of the mosque that aren't easily visible during prayers.
Apparently that rule doesn't apply when the mosque you're inside is also the tomb of a famous historical figure like Muhammad Ali. This is the intricate, stunning door leading to his tomb just inside the entrance to the mosque.
Back to those empty streets during Friday prayers. It really was a bit surreal to have some time in this seething metropolis where it often felt like I was all alone.
Here's the view looking into the shops pictured above. A man quietly prepares food inside his small store anticipating crowds returning after prayers while next door some sort of thrift store sold random bric-a-brac.
And just like that the people reappear. I kind of love the juxtaposition between the women here with modest head coverings and the skimpy belly dancing costumes for sale (to tourists) behind them.
If belly dancing kitsch isn't your thing, you can always pick up a faux gold plate with various Egyptian motifs.
If you're more of an experiential traveler than a souvenir collector, perhaps smoking sheesha with some local men on a street corner would be more up your alley. Based on commentary from other travelers I know who've been to Cairo, I actually expected way more sheesha smoking while exploring the city. You can't take three steps without running into someone smoking though.
If the crowds get to be too much just dip back into a mosque for a little bit of peace and quiet. Just make sure you remove your shoes before you enter. Like many temples and shrines outside of the Christian sphere of the world, shoes are to be removed before entering a house of worship.
Mosques also have a location outside where you can get some water to cleanse your body prior to entering. This ritual practice is called "wudu" and generally sees worshippers wash their hands, mouth, nose, arms, head, and feet. Similar practices can be found in other major religions such as dousing your forehead with holy water in a church or cleansing your mouth and hands before entering a Shinto shrine. The washing station outside of the Alabaster mosque is quite beautiful and ornate.
Don't forget to take a moment while washing yourself to appreciate the beautiful windows and light fixtures that surround the courtyard outside of the mosque.
Though there's still quite a bit of political tension in Egypt, I felt completely safe during my time in Cairo. Sure, you'll have touts harassing you at the Pyramids or perhaps a few aggressive shopkeepers angling for your business in the souq, but it's nothing you wouldn't find in other parts of the globe. Security is still pretty tight in the city though and police are posted quite visibly in most public areas.