A long weekend in... Cairo
The Pyramids of Giza are an obvious place to start any visit to Cairo but it is possible to get away from the crowds and get under the skin of Egypt’s bustling capital city. Cox & Kings’ PR Executive Katie Parsons escaped the cold and spent a long weekend in Cairo, seeing more than just Pyramids.
Nothing can prepare you for the traffic in Cairo. No one can predict how long a journey may take: “You never know. This is Cairo” is the common answer. A journey that may take 30 minutes at the weekend could take 90 minutes on a Wednesday or 60 on a Monday. There are no rules, almost no traffic lights and drivers signal their manoeuvres with their horns. Pedestrians take their life into their hands when dodging moving traffic to cross the road. Miraculously accidents are rare. As a tourist, it can seem intimidating, but once you have mastered the art of stepping out in the flow of oncoming traffic, it’s a breeze!
Saqqara & Memphis
The Stepped Pyramid of Djoser, in the necropolis of Saqqara, was the first pyramid to be built in the 27th century BC. It is currently being restored but it remains just as impressive and is thought to be earliest large-scale cut stone construction. Close by to the pyramid are several mastabas, or underground tombs, with fascinating hieroglyphics, some still with the original colours remaining. 15 minutes from the site is Memphis, the ancient capital of Lower Egypt. As well as a large alabaster sphinx, there is an enormous statue of Ramses II, sarcophaguses and other statues that were discovered nearby.
The heart of Cairo is heaving with people and cars. There is a constant sound of hooting horns that is only broken five times a day with the call to prayer. The Ibn Tulun Mosque, built around an enormous courtyard, is one of the oldest mosques in the city and gives a tranquil place to escape the noise of the city. From the top of the minaret, there are fantastic views of Cairo and the Citadel (see below).
Next door to the mosque is the interesting Gayer-Anderson Museum. The museum takes its name from Major R.G. Gayer-Anderson Pasha, who lived in the house between 1935 and 1942. It is one of the best preserved examples of 17th century domestic architecture left in Cairo, and is full of also for Gayer-Anderson's vast collection of furniture, carpets, curio, and other objects that he collected on his travels.
The Khan el Khalili is a rabbit warren of souks and bazaars selling everything from spices and clothes for the locals to tourist souvenirs. The buzzing atmosphere entices you in and hours can be spent haggling with the sellers. It’s a perfect place to do some shopping for gifts to take home.
After a hectic day of sightseeing, a relaxing trip on a felucca boat watching the sun set makes a perfect end to the day. Away from the traffic noises, the only sounds are of the sails flapping and other passing boats (see below).
Wadi el Hitan
Cairo is a city surrounded by desert. 150 km southwest of Cairo, accessible only with a 4x4 is the UNESCO site of Wadi el Hitan, or Valley of the Whales. 45 million years ago, the area was covered by the ocean, which as it dried up has left a remarkable collection of fossilised whalebones. Nowhere else in the world has the number, concentration and quality of such fossils, nor is their accessibility and setting in as an attractive and protected landscape. Because of their remoteness, very few tourists make the journey and it is not uncommon to be alone at the site. The fossils are fascinating but the 3 km walk through the valley is spectacular: lunar landscapes have been created by the wind and sand, exposing outcrops of harder rock.
Regularly touted as one of the world’s best museums, Cairo’s Egyptian Museum really mustn’t be missed. With too much to see in one day, it’s definitely recommend visiting with a guide, who can show the most interesting artefacts and give explanations. A real highlight is Tutankhamen’s room, where his gold funerary mask is on display alongside many other treasures found in his tomb. There’s an additional fee to go inside the Royal Mummy Room, but it’s worth it as there are 8 or 9 incredibly well intact mummies, one of which is the recently discovered mummy of Queen Hatshepsut.
Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx
No trip to Cairo would be complete without seeing the Pyramids or the Sphinx but be prepared for the hoards of tourists and tour busses! It is possible to go inside the Great Pyramid but only a limited number of tickets are sold each day so you should get there early. As the tunnel is cramped and badly lit, it’s not for those with claustrophobia or back problems. I would suggest a quick stop at both to take a photograph but then head out of the city to some of the lesser-known, and therefore quieter sites of Saqqara or Dahshur.
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- Tags: City Guide, Cox & Kings Staff, Culture & History, Egypt, Middle East & North Africa, Short Breaks