Road to Jordan: Part 2 – Sightseeing in Cairo

During our On the Go tour, we spent a total of 3 days in Cairo: 2 at the beginning of our trip and 1 at the end. We truly hit the ground running. We had assumed that our first day in Egypt’s capital would consist entirely of free time, as we had arrived a day before our Road to Jordan tour was to begin. It turns out we were wrong. On the Go had organised an optional tour of the city for us, covering sights that weren’t part of the official tour itinerary. Of course, we could have relaxed all day in the gardens of our resort but that would have been a waste, so we paid our optional tour fees and headed off.

Our first stop was the Citadel, a medieval fortress built during the Crusades by Islamic hero, Saladin (who was featured in the film Kingdom of Heaven). The Lonely Planet guide is quite dismissive of the Citadel as unimpressive and difficult to get to, but I found it an interesting taste of Muslim Egypt. You see, most tours tend to focus on Ancient Pharaonic Egypt at the expense of anything else.

Personally, I can’t say Islamic Cairo was high on my list of sightseeing priorities before I left for Egypt. However, I was certainly glad to have the opportunity to visit such a striking place. I don’t know much about typical mosque architecture, but the Mosque of Muhammad Ali in the Citadel is beautiful with its hundreds of hanging lamps inside (for the record, this is apparently an abnormality in terms of mosque decoration). And outside the Mosque there is a very good spot for photos of the Cairo skyline.

The only thing to remember when visiting the Citadel is to dress conservatively. You can’t go inside the mosque with exposed arms or legs. You either have to put on a jacket if you have one with you, or hire a long shapeless robe. Also, upon entering the mosque courtyard you’ll have to remove your shoes or wear little elasticised bootie things over them.

After the Citadel we headed off to the the Egyptian Museum, which, next to the Valley of Kings by Luxor, had one of the most crowded exteriors of any place we visited throughout the tour. Cameras are strictly forbidden inside the Museum so unfortunately I have no photos. I will say, however, that the Museum was a place where I was particularly appreciative to have a guide. Although the exhibits are well labelled, unless you are knowledgeable about Egyptian Art and History, it’s likely you’ll miss some significant pieces in the massive, multi-levelled interior without someone to point them out to you.

What you should not miss, however, and what in fact makes a visit to the Museum entirely worthwhile, is the Tutankhamen exhibit, which, surprisingly for Egypt, doesn’t cost you anything extra to visit. Although the young pharaoh’s body is still in the Valley of Kings, all his gold and gem-encrusted treasure is in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. And it’s mind blowing! Frankly, getting up close to Tutankhamen’s iconic death mask is worth the price of museum entry alone.

Other museum highlights include the animal mummy room – where you get to see a full-size mummified Nile Crocodile – and the famous Royal Mummy Room, in which you can gaze down on some of Ancient Egypt’s most famous rulers, including the remarkably well preserved Ramses II (“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!") and the less than stunning Hatshepsut, Egypt’s greatest ever female ruler (yes, much more powerful than the much more famous Cleopatra!). You pay a hefty additional entrance fee – almost double what you pay to get into the Museum itself(!) – to gain access to the royal mummies exhibit, but in the end I think it’s worth it for the solemn, if morbid, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that if you are student, make sure to get an International Student Card before visiting Egypt. You will save an absolute fortune on entrance fees as student rates for the attractions are typically half price. It’s not that adult entrance fees in Egypt are that unreasonable, but when you’re visiting around 3 famous sights a day they start to add up.

Finally on our pre-tour day, we paid a visit to Coptic Cairo, the centuries’ old Christian quarter of the city. You see Egypt is a moderate Islamic country, quite relaxed in terms of Muslim religious practices and tolerant of other faiths. Although intermarriage between people of different religions remains a big no-no, the population of the country is something like 85% Muslim, 15% Orthodox Christian and lives quite comfortably side by side as they have for hundreds of years.

Although Coptic Cairo is no longer populated solely by Christians, with its narrow stone walled passageways it has a definite Biblical feel. I’ve never visited Israel but I imagine Jerusalem has sections much like it. Anyway, in Coptic Cairo, you’re certain to experience a few “Whoa, this is real; this isn’t just made-up stories” moments. For example you can visit the centuries’ old little basilica-style Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, which is apparently built over the cave where Jesus, Mary and Joseph hid in Egypt when fleeing Herod. Although visitors aren’t allowed down into the little cave crypt, you can look partially down into it.

In Coptic Cairo you can also visit the similarly small Ben Ezra Synagogue, which supposedly marks the spot where Moses was found. Rather more importantly, the synagogue contains a plaque which pays tribute to people of all faiths living and working together: Jewish, Christian and Muslim. Out of interest Coptic Cairo also contains the famous Hanging Church, but our tour didn’t include entry to it that day.

Our proper tour of Egypt kicked off bright and early the next morning: Sunday. That may sound like a strange day to begin a tour but in Middle Eastern Muslim terms Sunday is the first day of the working week – the equivalent of Monday in Western countries.

Interestingly, On the Go adopts a chronological approach to visiting the pyramids in and around Cairo, and this strategy helps to avoid the crushing crowds of high season, as tour buses flock to the Pyramids of Giza first thing in the morning.

So first of all we headed out to the farming district on the outskirts of the city to visit Saqqara. Saqqara is the home of the Step Pyramid, the oldest pyramid in Egypt, which dates all the way back to approximately 2500BCE, when architects and engineers hadn’t yet figured out how to safely disperse the weight of the pyramid without using layers. Saqqara also features other ruins, including the hypostyle hall – an impressive roofed corridor flanked by dozens of huge pillars – and is mostly free of irritating vendors trying to force their wares on you, so it’s definitely worth a visit. As always though, be careful of snapping photos of locals and/or camels without asking permission. If you are spotted, a bakeesh (tip) may be demanded of you.

Out of interest we got to Saqqara early enough that there was hardly anyone else there. The tour buses started arriving en masse just as we were leaving.

We only arrived at the Giza plateau where the famous Giza Pyramids can be found, in the early afternoon. Although there were certainly a lot of people around, the site surprisingly wasn’t at all suffocating. It was actually possible to take photos without other tourists in them, especially at an excellent panoramic photo spot behind the Great Pyramid of Khufu (the last of the original Seven Wonders of the World) and the Pyramid of Chephren. It was at this exact spot where we got to pose for goofy tourist shots and our professional tour group photo was shot. Now normally on tours these things are obscenely expensive. When I was on a European Contiki tour, a copy of our group shot was in the region of 15 Euros. In Egypt, it was just 25 Egyptian Pounds, which translates to something like R32. I may not have said this before but Egypt is very, very affordable as a tourist destination.

During a visit to the Giza Plateau, you receive a real sense of the effort that went into building these giant tombs – which incidentally belong to father, son and grandson. The Great Pyramid consists of over 2 million stone blocks, each weighing something like 2 tonnes. We didn’t go inside the Great Pyramid but instead gained (much cheaper) access to the interior of the Pyramid of Chephren. Although photos are not allowed and there is nothing inside the pyramid except for a plain stone sarcophagus in a high ceilinged room, you receive a definite sense of the weight around you as you clamber bent double through the steeply descending, and ascending, tunnels in the suffocating heat. For the record, the Pyramid of Chephren is my favourite of the Giza Pyramids because it still has some of its original smooth limestone covering near the pinnacle.

The final important attraction to visit on the Giza Plateau is the Great Sphinx. The famous carved figure is surprisingly small, but this doesn’t detract from its visual and emotional impact. I found its face to be especially beautiful. Taking decent pictures here can be difficult however, as it is probably the busiest area on the Plateau, especially on the stone platforms alongside the Sphinx.

The last bit of sightseeing we did in Cairo that day was a visit to a papyrus museum. Don’t be fooled by that name however, or the fancy looking exterior of similarly named buildings. These “museums” are just upmarket shops that include a demonstration of how papyrus is made and how to identify cheap banana leaf papyrus. Having been dragged to similar leatherworking and glass blowing facilities in Italy by Contiki, I wasn’t being suckered into buying anything. This said, as expensive as the papyrus paintings were, they were of an excellent quality – easily the best that I saw during the entire trip. Also, our visit to the papyrus museum included a complimentary glass of hibiscus juice. Known as karkaday, this slightly tart, red drink is refreshing and delicious. I wish Kauai would stock it.

Optional activities in Cairo
Our tour of Egypt and Jordan included a number of optional activities that came at an additional cost. In each blog post, I’ll be discussing what was on offer in that specific profiled area.

1) In Cairo, one of the first activities on offer was the Pyramids Sound & Light Show. I can’t say we were misled about the show, but it certainly wasn’t cheesy in the way we expected it to be. We thought it would be something like an overblown Disney World spectacle with strobe lighting and pounding rock music. Instead, apart from a few effective moments of laser-projected figures – in a hieroglyphic style – moving between the Pyramids, it felt more like an over-serious ‘60s Ancient World movie epic, as the Sphinx ponderously narrated the history of the Pyramids. Although you do receive a certain thrill seeing the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx lit up at night, ultimately the show isn’t worth its 175 Egyptian Pound (almost R230) cost.

2) Due to my habit of being bitten by strange animals, I was one of the few people on my tour who didn’t seize the opportunity to go for a camel ride on the Giza Plateau. Going with a tour group seemed to be the way to arrange this activity as there was no extensive haggling over a price beforehand, which there likely would be if you were on your own. There are plenty of stories of people reaching the end of their camel ride only to have a much higher amount demanded of them, or, worse, the original amount suddenly asked of you in a European currency. For example, a figure of “20” can suddenly apply to British Pounds unless it is clarified upfront that you are both talking about Egyptian Pounds. This kind of con can apply to taxi fares just as easily as camel rides, so try to have everything completely clarified before departing else you risk being ripped off.

Another important point to remember about camel rides, or any other kind of animal ride in Egypt (donkey, horse drawn carriage, etc.) is that the country is apparently severely lacking in terms of animal rights. Egypt is, after all, the place that slaughtered every single pig out of an irrational fear of swine flu. Nile crocodiles and snakes are largely absent in the country for a similar reason. If a creature is a threat to Egyptians, they kill it, no questions asked. And this information comes directly from our Egyptian-born and bred tour guide in case you think I’m being prejudiced.

In a round about way, what I’m trying to say that if you are sensitive to animal cruelty, you need to brace yourself during a visit to Egypt. You may see camels lashed viciously by their handlers, or spot cart animals in poor condition, and you’ll just have to deal with it.

Next up: Shopping and eating in Cairo… then Aswan.


Laura said…
Hi! I am so happy to have found your blog, as I'm going on the same tour in May with my boyfriend. I kind of like to overprepare for trips so it's great to find a blog about the same tour... What did you think of the tour hotels? Was it difficult to haul a suitcase around? What would you say are important things to bring/stuff you wish you had brought with you (towel/shampoo/etc)? Sorry if I'm bombarding you with questions! Thanks,

Pfangirl said…
Hi Laura, glad to be of help. I hope some of my future posts on the trip will be useful too. To answer your questions:

1) The hotels were on the whole fantastic. The Egypt ones were a bit more luxurious than the Jordan ones, but the service was excellent everywhere. I don't think I had an uncomfortable bed once.

2) I had a suitcase on wheels and it was very easy to haul it around... especially since On The Go seems to have porters everywhere to help you. Lots of times when you're leaving a hotel, or boarding a train or whatever, you get told to put the bags to once side and they're transported for you. You just have to check that they have been loaded.

3) The most useful things I think I took were a head lamp, waterless hand cleanser and an antiseptic cream.

I always take my own shampoo and conditioner, but everyplace provides them and the same goes for towels. Even beach towels!

I tried to be safe instead of sorry and took a lot of different medicines (flu tablets, etc) but it turns out I could have saved the space in my bag and the expense. There are pharmacies all over and medicines are freely available. You don't even need a doctor's script for antibiotics. You get everything over the counter.
Brandon said…
I really like this format, with each of the optional activites culled out into a numbered list. But maybe that's the OCD in me. Anyway, great writeup as usual. It's great to read about the things I didn't do (like Coptic Cairo, and the mummy room, though I did see the mummified animals) and the things I did. Also glad to see my photo has found a good home :)

p.s. I didn't realize Ozymandias was based on Ramses II. Awesome.

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