Next month it will be 20 years since I first visited Egypt and first experienced the pyramids, Citadel of Salah Al-Din and Mosque of Mohammad Ali, Saqqara and the step pyramid. And it is 10 years since I have visited some of these major tourist attractions in Cairo.
You may wonder how could I make so many visits to Egypt, then live here for two and a half years, and not see the pyramids more than twice?
Usually I am in Cairo in transit between other places, I am there not as a tourist and have things to do and friends to see, and if I have time I try to explore less well known sites.
This two days of revisiting these special places so central to Egyptian history, and for my first time with a digital camera, was a great opportunity to reawaken my appreciation of them and to get fresh photos.
Cairo is a sprawling city with a long history, and it is impossible to do more than scratch the surface of its wonders in two days. This tour included some of the highlights.
Our guide Nasser is continuing his studies in archaeology and has a deep knowledge of Egyptian history, and a lively and engaging way of explaining it. We started the day at the Museum, and were led on an overview of Egypt’s past with highlights of the exhibits explained, including the treasures from the tomb of Tutankhamun. Seeing the museum first gave everyone a grounding in Ancient Egyptian history and understanding of how the people lived, before going to see the pyramids.
Before arriving at the Giza plateau, we had enticing views of the pyramids from the restaurant during our lunch. Walking around the pyramids and sphinx is an awesome experience, they live up to all your expectations, and they still impress if you have visited before. I had views of the pyramids from my hotel room and could watch them merge into the darkness as the sun set, before we went out in search of dinner. We tried Egyptian specialties at GAD, including pigeon stuffed with rice, shwarma (roasted meat), and rice with seafood (shrimps and calamari), served with soup and fresh salad. No need to say I slept soundly, despite the hotel being on the main road.
The second day began with a drive to Saqqara to see the first pyramid, the Step pyramid. Nasser explained in detail the different construction styles, and also how hieroglyphic style changed, when we were looking at graffiti in one structure.
We had plenty of time to wander around the sites and take photographs, or just to take in the awesome achievements of the ancient architects and imagine how life was for the rulers and the workers of the past.
The drive to and from Saqqara runs past lush green farms, and gave glimpses of life along the canals. Back in the city, next stop was the Citadel of Salah Al-Din. Inside this fortress we visited the mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha (or Alabaster mosque), sitting on the carpets with lights above us and admiring the great dome. Nasser explained the features of the mosque and demonstrated the dome’s ability to carry sound, by making the Adhan, the call to prayer of Islam.
In complete contrast to the tranquility of the mosque, next up was Khan el-Khalili, the large souk or bazaar filled with every sort of souvenir you could dream of, from woven rugs to sheesha (water pipes), and traders hungry for tourist dollars and Euro. Now I am a local, I emerged without giving in to the temptations and pleas to “just look, no money” and “look here – this for only five”, which we knew would turn out to be five dollars, not five Egyptian pounds. If the store that sells old Egyptian postcards and magazines had been open, I may have been tempted to add to my collection.
Activities for the rest of the two days could have included a visit to a papyrus maker and an essence (scent) maker. Our group chose a relaxing boat cruise on the Nile, which gave a different perspective of Cairo. While they cruised, I took the opportunity to walk along the Corniche beside the river, always one of my favorite things to do in Cairo, to watch young couples courting, old men discussing, children swimming in the river, and admire the food and drink stands.
The Museum and the Nile cruise were close to Tahrir Square, the centre of the ongoing demonstrations, but we felt safe and secure and saw no trouble during our visit. As we traveled between sights, some of the guests were texting or Facebooking to family and friends at home, assuring them that they were enjoying a great experience of Cairo.
video from the past – Giza railway and the pyramids c. 1910 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3oTKK4IS8M