Cairo, Egypt is a sprawling metropolis of more than 17 million people, making it the largest city in Africa and one of the largest capital cities in the world. I visited Egypt as a guest of the Egyptian Tourist Office in July 2011 and wasn't sure what I would find so close after the January revolution.
I discovered a country still in the midst of unrest, filled with excitement yet fear for the future, and people trying desperately to revive the tourism industry so necessary to their economy. I also realized that I had a rare opportunity to see Egypt at a time and in a way few people will be able to enjoy it — without throngs of tourists and during a period of raw emotions and ongoing change. My guide stayed with me throughout the trip and I never felt unsafe, even as the country continued to have protests during my stay. I only had two days before I headed off for a cruise on the Nile River, so here are a few of the must-see highlights I discovered while visiting Cairo.
Arriving in Cairo
I arrived with another female journalist at Cairo's international airport and there were no signs of a revolution at the airport. US citizens are not required to purchase a visa before arriving in Egypt, so I went to an obscurely-marked window, purchased my 30-day visa for $15 (they request US dollars, cash), and was on my way. The drive from the airport to my hotel was nail-biting at times. It took longer, according to my guide, because they had to drive around some areas where protesters still gathered. The traffic, normally busy, is chaotic post-revolution. There are no traffic signals in Cairo. Instead, police usually control busy intersections. Without the police presence there because of the revolution, there was no traffic control. On more than one occasion, we weaved and swerved to avoid collisions.
Museum of Egyptian Antiquities
One of the must-see sites in Cairo is the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, commonly called the Egyptian Museum. This trademark pink building, erected in 1902, sits on the edge of Tahrir Square, now famous as the main site of the riots. In fact, on the day we were to visit the museum, we weren't sure until that morning if we would be able to visit because there were rumors of another protest in the square. However, the protest didn't materialize that day (although it did take place a few days later while I was in Luxor), so I was able to visit the historic museum. It was sobering, walking up to the museum, to see the burned out remains of the National Democratic Party headquarters building standing alongside the museum, a reminder of the violence that took place so recently.
The museum houses over 120,000 items from Egyptian history. It also holds the extensive King Tutankhamun (King Tut) Collection that occupies almost the entire second floor of the museum. There was damage to some of the exhibits as a result of the revolution. It was heartbreaking to see damage to artifacts from King Tut's exhibit — that these items had survived thousands of years to be damaged by 21st century rioters saddened me. The museum is open for shortened hours until further notice, so it is best to check before visiting. I was also disappointed that I wasn't able to enjoy the bookstore/gift shop because they had packed everything up to protect it from looters. On the positive side, though, the museum was almost empty and I was able to explore the treasures at my leisure. I stood for a long time looking at the golden mask from King Tut's tomb and walked in awe through room after room of treasures dating back thousands of years.
Khan al-Khalili Bazaar
The Khan al-Khalili bazaar, now a huge destination for tourists from around the world, has a colorful history and offers a vibrant glimpse of today's Egypt. In 1382, a Sunni Muslim prince by the name of Jarkas Al Khalili denounced Shiite Muslims as non-Muslims. He dug up their cemetery and built the Khan al-Khalili marketplace on the site. It was the main marketplace in Cairo as late as the end of the 19th century. While it is now filled mostly with peddlers catering to tourists, there are a few gems. One is the Naguib Mahfouz Café run by the Oberoi Hotel chain. It's more pricey than the average street restaurant, but it has wonderful tahini and fresh bread.
Throughout Egypt, there are “ahwa” or coffee shops everywhere. The ahwa serve coffee, the famous Egyptian tea, and a place to smoke the shisha. One of the most famous ahwas is in the bazaar. El Fishawy has high ceilings, mirrored walls, is cramped, busy, and noisy. It's the perfect place to sit and watch the fascinating world of Islamic Cairo. As I sat sipping my tea — served classically in a clear glass from a ceramic pot with mint leaves and sugar — I was bombarded with a steady stream of peddlers offering everything from fake designer watches to jewelry to plastic pyramids and manufactured “authentic” papyrus. The funniest of all was the young boy with his shoe shine kit who begged me to let him shine my shoes. I could only laugh and point to my flip-flops. It was far too comedic to be anything you could script for a movie.
City of the Dead
Another interesting site is the City of the Dead. This massive collection of mausoleums stretches for 5 miles through the city. It was created for an interesting cross-mix of Egyptian culture, from Mamluk sultans to Ottoman royals to modern Egyptian pashas (military leaders). It also includes several mosques and even Genghis Khan's great-great-granddaughter is buried there. As much as I wanted to stop and walk through the site, my guide wouldn't give in on that one. The City of the Dead is now home to what is estimated to be 5% of the city's population — its homeless. The view from the hillside above is breathtaking and for those who want a truly unique experience, I can't imagine the stories that might be waiting in those mazes of mausoleums.
Pyramids of Giza
Just a short drive outside Cairo are the Great Pyramids at Giza. One of the seven wonders of the world, you can't go to Egypt and not see the pyramids. I knew they were big, but I really had no idea just how massive they seemed until I stood at the foot of the largest, the Great Pyramid of Khufu. The pyramid, originally 480 feet tall (now 450 feet tall after losing stones at the top), is made up of 2.3 million blocks, each weighing about 2 tons. The miracle of these structures left me breathless. Again, being there during this time of unrest brought with it good and bad. I was able to stroll the grounds of the pyramids with just a handful of other tourists. There were more peddlers trying to get me to ride a camel or buy postcards or miniature pyramids than there were visitors. With that came a sense of desperation, however. Without throngs of tourists, the vendors followed me closely, never taking no for an answer.
After exploring all three pyramids, I also visited the Great Sphinx at the same location. The Sphinx sits 236 feet high. You can no longer go down to the Sphinx due to damage to the structure, but you can walk out to an overlook and gaze down on it. The view looking up at the Sphinx, with the pyramids rising behind it, is something right out of Hollywood.
Traveling in Egypt
Egypt is an incredible collection of sounds and smells and sights. It is almost overwhelming how fast everything comes at you as you walk down the street or around one of the bazaars. When you arrive at a tourist destination, within the first 10 minutes, the touts will likely approach you with every textbook scam — you have to pay me to guide you in there, you have to buy this guidebook before you can go, can you exchange this money for me, the temple isn't open yet so come sit in my shop a little while first, you have to go through my shop to find the exit — but you have to be able to say “no” and keep walking. The Egyptian touts aren't easily persuaded, so you have to be insistent. However, when I stood at the foot of that pyramid and gazed up at millions of tons of stone, I realized that I was experiencing something few people have the chance to enjoy.
Now is a unique time in Egypt. Be sure to watch the travel alerts on the State Department website, check out the official Egypt tourism website, and plan your trip with the assistance of a reputable tour operator. Ensure you have a guide who can help you navigate the city and find the best places to visit, eat, and stay. If you take advantage of it, you might experience an Egypt that will be forever changed in the near future.
Be sure to read about my cruise along the Nile River from Aswan to Luxor as I explored the ancient temples and the Valley of the Kings. You can also read about my discovery of post-revolutionary Egypt.