GUEST ARTICLE:Visiting Cairo has always been a dream for us. We had initially booked last year and were eagerly anticipating our trip at the end of May 2011. Then the Egyptian Revolution happened in January. As the revolution carried on into February we thought we were going to have to re-book, especially since our Australian Travel Advisory had deemed it unsafe. Fortunately Mubarak finally stepped down on February 11 and we decided not to cancel. The newspapers even felt confident enough to mock Mubarak, an example below cut from a newspaper shows him portrayed as a pirate!
We travelled on Egypt Air from Abu Dhabi and 3 ½ hours later we landed just as the beautiful Egyptian sun was setting. After doing the Egyptian scuffle (as one does there) we all piled out of the plane and off to the baggage claim area. While we were waiting for our bags we were approached by a guy offering a car and guide service. We agreed on a rate and ended up getting a car, driver and guide for 300LE/day. The currency used there are Egyptian Pounds so that hire worked out to about AU$50/day – bargain!
It took us an hour to get to our hotel in Giza and that was using the ring road (thank goodness for that). Traffic in Cairo is renowned for its congestion and especially in the downtown areas. We booked ourselves into the Mercure Le Sphinx in the Giza area right next to The Great Pyramids. We couldn’t have chosen a better location. Being so tourist empty they gave us their best room so we had an excellent view of our pool but most importantly The Great Pyramids! Since it was already dark by the time we checked in we had to wait until morning.
As soon as the sun came up we anxiously jumped out of bed and ripped open our curtains. We stood dumbfounded by the magnificent sight before our eyes – The Great Pyramids. The whole scene just seemed so surreal! Now we were really excited to get out and explore. After breakfast we were picked up as arranged by our driver Ali and our guide Emmi and began our long awaited tour of the Pyramids.
First we drove out to the Saqqara (Sakkara) Monuments Area. The entry fee cost us 60LE/each (AU$10). Driving up to the Djoser Pyramid we were surprised to see only a few other cars in the parkade. Normally this would have been crawling with tour buses. Not that we were complaining or anything but we did find it a shame for the Egyptians that the tourists hadn’t come back yet.
Emmi was an excellent guide and enthusiastically filled us in about the history of the area. The Djoser Pyramid was built in 27th Century BC by the Pharaoh Djoser’s vizier Imhotep. While we were there it was under restoration and the workers on it literally looked like ants! It’s hard to ascertain the actual size of a pyramid until you’re up close and this one was a baby. I couldn’t wait until we went to The Great Pyramids later that day.
Next we went to see the Aper-El Tomb that was only just discovered in 1987 by French archaeologist Dr. Alain Zivie. The tomb dates back from around 1353-1335 B.C., it is believed Aper-El was a vizier who served Amenhotep III and Akhenaten. Since this area also only had a trickle of tourists, we were lucky enough to see the tomb all by ourselves along with the tomb’s caretaker.
We had to climb down some steep steps before entering the underground tomb. After a short scuttle through a narrow and low ceiling passageway we found ourselves in Aper-El’s tomb. The entrance along with some of the walls and ceiling were beautifully engraved in Egyptian Hieroglyphics. It was an incredible feeling to be standing in something that was built over 3,000 years ago.
After our tour of Sakkara it was lunchtime and Emmi suggested a local restaurant in the city. For starters we had traditional dips like Hummus, Babaghnoush and Tahini accompanied with homemade Egyptian bread. And for our main course we had chicken and beef kebabs with rice. It was a simple meal but really healthy and delicious. It was great to eat local food.
Our next and final stop for the day was The Great Pyramids in Giza. After paying our entrance fee we walked up a short dirt road while being accosted in all directions for camel and horse rides and little kids trying to sell us all kinds of touristy trinkets. We weren’t interested so after giving them a polite “La Shakrun” (no thank you) they got the message and we were back on track.
It’s hard to explain the feeling of standing in front of one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. The Pyramid of Khufu was built around 2550 B.C. and is mammoth standing at an impressive 146.5 meters. It held the record as the world’s tallest man-made structure for over 3800 years. Stone blocks that I had seen on TV and pictured in my mind to be but a mere easy staircase were actually huge. Each limestone block was enormous and easily came up to my chest and to think that this pyramid consisted of 2.3 million of them!! It really was mind boggling to say the least.
Just standing in front of this magnificent structure was everything I had ever hoped for and more! There is a tomb that you can see via the Robbers’ Tunnel but it has an extra entrance fee. Emmi told us that the Aper-El tomb we had previously seen was much better because of the hieroglyphics on the walls, so we gave this one a pass. The Great Pyramid in particular is also usually teeming with people, but once again there were just a few tourists visiting.
Afterwards we drove a little further down the road and stopped at a parkade that had a little local trinket bazaar and of course more camel rides. The view of the pyramids from there was excellent and made for some great pics. It was late afternoon by this point and the sun gave off a beautiful warm glow across the desert plains.
To end the day we went and saw the famous Great Sphinx of Giza. This incredible giant single stone statue is carved out of limestone and according to some scholars was carved maybe sometime during the period of the Old Kingdom of Egypt during the third millennium B.C. but really no one can be really sure of its exact date. The Sphinx stands taller than a six-story building! It has the body of a lion and a head of a man. The Sphinx holds many riddles but the Egyptian government has so far denied excavation into its underground chambers so for now its origin, and purpose will remain a mystery.
The next day with driver and guide leading the way we went to see the Ottoman Mosque of Muhammad Ali. It was a beautiful structure with twin minarets. It was built back in 1830 in memory of Muhammad’s eldest son Tusun Pasha who died in 1816. The inside was elaborately decorated with strings of delicate lights, paintings and an intricately carved ceiling with gold trim. Luckily the inside of the mosque was nice and cool. So after taking off our shoes as a sign of respect we sat on the gigantic carpet inside while Emmi filled us in on the Mosque’s history.
After the Mosque we were supposed to go to the Cairo museum but because it was Friday (the Egyptians’ day off) it closed early. This supposedly only started happening after the revolution and that was understandable as there were still small groups of people protesting in Tahrir Square. (We actually saw a mob of people chasing a cop down the square. We don’t know what the outcome of that situation was but we can imagine it couldn’t have been too good for the cop.) So since that excursion was a no go we decided to go on a small boat trip down the River Nile.
Feluccas have been used for centuries on the Nile and are still used as the main transportation today. For 80LE we got to have our own private Felucca for an hour. It was a beautiful peaceful ride. The waters were fairly calm and with a little wind it made for some great sailing. Our captain was a hardened weathered man but very happy and grateful to have us on his vessel. Watching the few other Feluccas also sailing on the Nile was very picturesque.
Later that night we dined on our hotel’s rooftop and watched the sunset with Egyptian wines in hand while gazing at the Pyramids for one last night. Down at our pool area there was a local wedding and we happily watched as the party danced to funky Arabic dance music all night. And every now and again grandma would break away from the dance floor and give her approving Eeeyyyiii Eeeyyyyiii yell into the microphone. It was a really fun and joyous event to watch.
The next morning before our afternoon flight we headed straight to the museum. There weren’t that many people there either! Fortunately we had just missed a school excursion. No photos were allowed inside and we had to check our camera into a holding area just to be sure. (Although I did notice that it didn’t really seem to stop some people from using their cell phones.)
This museum has to be by far the best one we’ve ever been to. The giant ancient artifacts inside are amazing. We really would have to spend a day or two to get a really good look at everything. We saw beautiful carved wooden statues of people with intense eyes made of crystal. They were somewhat eerie to look at but the most interesting wooden statues we’ve ever seen. Next we went to see the Royal Mummies. I can’t believe how well preserved they all were, the hair, nails and teeth especially!
Last but not least we went to see the famous Tutankhamen section. The giant golden mask was exquisitely breathtaking. The detail was exceptional with inlaid jewels and precious stones. It was amazing to think that that extraordinary looking mask was made over 3,000 years ago for the boy king who died an untimely death at the age of 19. The coffin was also pretty incredible. It too was made out of pure solid gold engraved with Egyptian hieroglyphics and weighing a mind-boggling 110.4kgs!!
Our Egypt experience was absolutely one of the best trips we’ve been on. To be able to witness such ancient beauty up close and personal like that was just plain awesome. The history is very interesting and we would definitely recommend you get a guide. (Note that the guides take all tourists to the papyrus and perfume shops. These shops specialize in the soft pressure sell, while insisting there’s no obligation to buy. It’s a bit annoying so it’s worth asking your guide to give those shops a miss).
Overall we found the Egyptian people to be really lovely and very accommodating. They are on a high right now after the revolution and are eager just like all of us to live a free and peaceful life. They eagerly want the world to know that Egypt is safe and tourist friendly! This experience is something we will forever treasure in our memories and ‘Inshalla” we will return one day.
This travel diary has been written by Rob Gower, a friend who enjoys taking the road less traveled!