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Egypt

                                   Official Flag of Egypt bearing the national emblem of the shield of Saladin

          Best Places to Visit in Egypt

Best Places to Visit in Cairo

Overview

Cairo - A chaotic City

Cairo has a sprawling region with the largest population of any city in Africa.  Its urban area is nearly 200 square miles (518 square kilometers) populated with approximately 18 million resident or one-quarter of the population of the entire country.  Formally founded nearly 1200 years ago, Cairo and  its surrounding areas have been inhabited for millennia.   Although the area was the site of many important historic cities, perhaps  the most notable was  Memphis the capital of Egypt over three thousand years ago.

Cairo is crowded to the point of being chaotic. Thursday nights preceding the holy day on Friday usually finds Cairo in an advanced state of gridlock.  Cars can hardly move and all drivers seem to use their automobile horn to play a continuous symphony of disgruntlement at the lack of movement or at darters who frequently change lanes without signaling. If you arrive at the airport on Thursday evening, expect a very slow ride to your hotel.  During that ride, you might notice that there are very few cars in Cairo that do not show a large number of dents and scrapes.

Cairo, is an Arabic city with a noted Islamic heritage.  However, its identity in some locations appears blended with the architectural preferences of its many conquerors, including, the Ottoman, Turks, French, and more recently the British. 

Cairo suffers from over-population, severe air pollution, poverty and some of the world’s worst traffic congestion.  Many tourist arrive in Cairo, quickly tour its leading sights, travel to Giza the see the Pyramids and then fly to Luxor for a Nile river cruise.

While there are many  interesting attractions in Cairo, the city is currently too unsettled for us to recommend touring it or even walking from your hotel to get a sense of the city.  If you are going anywhere in Cairo, do it with a tour group or ask your hotel to arrange transportation to and a return from your destination. 

The "must see" attraction in Cairo is the Egyptian Museum.   Often a trip here is combined with a tour to the Citadel and the Mohamed Ali Mosque.  While a visit to the Citadel is not compelling, the ride across the city is a good way to "see" Cairo.

Tahir Square      

Although Tahir Square is a name now emblazoned in the history of the Egyptian Revolution, we suggest that any viewing of the area be done from a tour bus while you are on your way to somewhere else. Rallies and violence and common at Tahir Square and events in Cairo can be unpredictable. Although the experience of witnessing this location is quite powerful, Tahir Square is a relatively plain empty space within Cairo that is filled with traffic and has little to recommend it.   It is particularly unsafe location for women, even those accompanied by others.  You will likely pass near Tahir Square on your way to the Egyptian Museum or the Citadel.

Egyptian Museum

Dating from 1902, the Egyptian Museum at Midan el-Tahir in Cairo (down the block from the now famous Tahir Square), houses the world’s most important and comprehensive collection of Egyptian antiquities.    No photography is allowed in the museum and you must leave your camera at a kiosk near the entrance (to the right of the ticket booth as you face it).  You will be given a wooden token with a number that will allow you to reclaim your camera when you exit.  Providing a small tip (baksheesh) for the staff of the kiosk is recommend.   Note that you will pass through security (including a metal detector for you and an x-ray scanner for anything you are carrying) at the entrance to the grounds, and once again a few feet later when you enter the museum proper.

Click the image above for a brief photo tour of the Egyptian Museum

The museum has not been maintained at a high level and the enormous number of items in the collection on display almost defies categorization.  During our recent visit, maps to the collections on the two floors of displays were not available, nor were many displays labeled (either in English or Arabic), which can be somewhat confusing since over 120,000 pieces are on display.  There is a map of the facility painted on the wall inside of the main entrance that may help guide you around. 

We recommend that you buy one of the printed guides to the Museum after you enter, as these contain maps and recommendations on the masterpieces of the Museum.  Alternatively, shortly after you enter the Museum grounds, near where you buy your tickets (currently 60 Egyptian Pounds ($16), you will find a gaggle of guides who speak numerous languages and claim to know the museum inside and out.  Generally they will be willing to accompany you and tell you what they know about the museums for around 100 Egyptian pounds ($16).  We highly recommend seeing the Egyptian Museum on a formal, arranged tour, which we have found to be the best way to enjoy and make sense of  its many displays.

For most visitors, the highlights of the Museum are the stunning "Treasures of Tutankhamen" (included in entrance fee) and the two rooms housing the collection of Royal Mummies including that of Ramesses II (separate fee 100 Egyptian Pounds ($16)).   Both of these unique exhibits are located the first floor, which is above the ground floor.  While visitors are drawn to these two attractions,  the Egyptian Museum is filled with interesting and important antiquities that represent some of the best of the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms, as well as those of the  Ptolemaic (Greek) and Roman periods. 

While  you might be tempted to rush through the displays, there are unexpected treasures everywhere you look,  While examining one of the many display cases, we found that its three inch tall sculpture of Cheops (of the Great Pyramid at Giza) was the only image of this pharaoh that exists in the world. 

Be sure to see the Jewelry collection on the first floor (above the ground floor) and note that many of the larger pieces of statuary  from various monuments are found scattered throughout the ground floor.

We visited the museum twice, once with a guide and once without.  To be honest, one visit just was not enough to begin to sample the amazing  treasures of the Museum.  We recommend you read a guidebook to the museum that includes a map and a list of the highlight attractions before your visit.

A new museum for antiquities is being built in Giza, but it is not expected to be completed until August 2015 at the earliest.  When the new museum opens, we suspect that tourists may skip Cairo  and take a room at one of the hotels near the Giza Plateau to see both the pyramids and the Egyptian Museum.

The Citadel

If you have any interest in Saladin, whose defeat of the Crusaders in various battles led to their departure from the Holy Lands, you might want to take a peek at the Citadel he built in the 12th century after being declared Sultan of Egypt (and ruler of a wide swath of the Middle East).  Perched atop the only significant hill in Cairo, the Citadel was Saladin’s attempt to protect and fortify the capital city of Egypt.  The Citadel covers a large area, mostly comprised of impressive battlements.  

The Mosque of Mohamed Ali Pasha crowns the Citadel and offers  extraordinary views of the city from the terrace that surrounds it. The attractive mosque is situated at the top of the Citadel was built by Mohamed Ali, in memory of his son Pahsa.  Mohamed Ali is regarded by many as the founder of modern Egypt.  In the mid-19th century he led the country by weaving a careful route through potential aggressors from Europe. 

Ali was responsible for many efforts at modernizing the  country and streamlining its inefficient bureaucracies. The mosque reflects an Ottoman sensibility,   It has a large central dome,  two  extremely tall  minarets and a considerable amount of alabaster was used in its construction. The mosque was built over the ruins of former Mamluk palaces  (the Mamluks were a military caste in Egypt composed of people who were or non-Arabic origins who ruled Egypt during the Middle Ages).

Click the image above for a photo tour of the Citadel and the Mohamed Ali Mosque

In the courtyard outside of the mosque is a somewhat dilapidated clock tower containing a rusted  clock that the Egyptians claim never worked.  The clock was presented to Egypt by King Louis Philippe of France.  In turn, France received the fabulous obelisk from the Temple of  Luxor that now graces the Place de la Concorde in Paris.  Citizens of Cairo are quite fond of saying  “We want our Obelisk back”, as Egypt clearly was shorted on the exchange of gifts. 

The views from the Citadel, especially from the area around the mosque, are quite striking .  Several well-known and nearby mosques (the Mosque of Sultan Hassan and the El Rifai Mosque) can be observed from the terrace.  Also, visible is  is the modest skyline of Cairo, intertwined with areas of obvious poverty. 

There are other mosques and museums to see at the Citadel, but the if you have followed our itinerary, you will likely have exhausted your interest.

Khan  el-Khalili Souk 

The 600 year-old  Khan el-Khalili souk is one of the most well-known bazaars in the Arab world. It features shops, coffee houses, restaurants and several impressive workshops where craftsmen create high quality goods for your purchase.  The market was the scene of two terrorist attacks in the last decade, which has caused it to lose some luster with visitors.  Tour organizers have been quietly avoiding this area and we suggest you follow their lead.  If you are determined to visit, you will find a wonderful selection jewelry and the decorative arts, but few real bargains.

Islamic Cairo

While somewhat of a misnomer, since Cairo’s residents predominately practice the Islamic faith,  Islamic Cairo is an older section of the city that is typified by neighborhoods that seem misplaced in time.  Winding lanes, street vendors, local markets and numerous mosques mark this landscape which is mainly to the east of the center of modern Cairo.  Not many tourists wander this area and we do not recommend a visit at this time.

      

Click the image above for a few candid shots of street life in the Cairo area

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Best Places To Visit in Egypt

Overview
Cairo
Giza
Luxor
Nile - Luxor to Aswan
Aswan Area
Abu Simbel
Lake Nasser Temples

Other Topics

Nile River Cruising
Travel Tips
Things to know about Egypt

 

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