|Cairo Travel Guide|
Northeast of Midan Tahrir, within the triangle of Tahrir, Midan Ramses and Midan Ataba, is Downtown. Centred on Midan Talaat Harb, Downtown is the noisy, busy unmistakeable commercial heart of Cairo. Its streets are packed with glitzy shops and above is a beehive of countless thousands of small, dusty businesses. Much grand architecture remains but the character of the area has changed considerably from its cosmopolitan, cafe-society heyday. Look up at the surviving architectural gems as you walk around to catch a glimpse of a far more elegant Paris-on-the-Nile-era Cairo. Imagine wide, tree-lined boulevards, tearooms, grand hotels and open-air cafes with dance bands.
Further out, the Manial Palace Museum, built in the early 20th century for an uncle of King Farouk's, has some wonderfully overblown interiors; a thoroughly overstocked Hunting Museum - animal lovers beware; and a private Throne Hall complete with red carpet, gilt furniture and ranked portraits of illustrious forebears. The magnificent garden, with its diverse variety of trees and plants, is the largest private garden in Cairo and well worth a visit.
Without doubt, the exhibit that outshines everything else is the treasure of the young New Kingdom pharaoh Tutankhamun - don't miss the astonishing solid-gold death mask.
Other highlights include the Royal Mummy Room; the Amarna Room, devoted to Akhenaten, the 'heretic king' portrayed with Mick Jagger-like lips; the Graeco-Roman Mummies; the glittering galleries in Room 2 that display an astounding array of finery extracted from New Kingdom tombs found at the Delta site of Tanis; and the larger-than-life-size statue of Khafre (Chephren), which many consider to be the museum's masterpiece.
They are the sole survivors of the Seven Wonders of the World and the planet's oldest tourist attraction. Built by successive generations of pharaohs, they were already more than 2500 years old at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ. Despite all the evidence, there are still those who refuse to accept that the ancient Egyptians were capable of such a stupendous achievement.
The oldest pyramid at Giza and the largest in Egypt, the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) stood 146m (478ft) high when it was completed around 2600 BC. About 2.3 million limestone blocks, weighing around 2.5 tonnes each, were used in the construction of this giant. Although there is not much to see inside the pyramid, the experience of climbing through such an ancient structure is unforgettable. Along the eastern and southern sides of the pyramid are five long pits that once contained the pharaoh's boats. You can see one of the boats in the Solar Boat Museum.
Southwest of Khufu is the Pyramid of Khafre (Chephren). At first it seems larger than Khufu because it stands on higher ground and its peak still has part of the original limestone casing that once covered the entire structure. Check out the substantial remains of Khafre's mortuary temple outside to the east. At a height of 62m (203ft), the Pyramid of Menkaure (Mycerinus) is the smallest of the three pyramids. A deep gash in the north face is the result of an unsuccessful attempt by a caliph to dismantle the pyramid in 1186.
Known in Arabic as Abu al-Hol (Father of Terror), the Sphinx is carved from the natural bedrock at the bottom of the causeway to Khafre's pyramid. Recent geological and archaelogical survey has shown that the Sphinx most likely dates from Khafre's reign, and probably portrays his features, framed by the striped nemes headcloth worn only by royal personages. Unfortunately the monument is suffering the stone equivalent of cancer, and recent restoration attempts have sped up, rather than halted, the decay. The gaudy sound and light show held near the Sphinx is a fairly expensive, though amusing, way to see the Pyramids at night.
While there are few must-see sights in this elegantly faded suburb, the area is a great place to stroll free from the crowds of Downtown. It's at its best around dusk, when pinkening skies add atmosphere and bats start to flit between the trees. The suburb's most extraordinary sight is the Baron's Palace (Qasr al-Baron). The personal residence of Baron Empain, it was modelled - for no known reason - on the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
Other highlights include the Basilica, a miniature version of Istanbul's famous Aya Sofia, and Sharia Ibrahim Laqqany, lined with fantastical architecture. The best way to get to Heliopolis is the airport bus (No 356), which can be caught behind the Egyptian Museum in Midan Abdel Moniem Riad.
By far the best place to enter Islamic Cairo is the great bazar, Khan al-Khalili. Jaundiced travellers glibly dismiss this as a tourist trap, but Cairenes have plied their trades here since the 14th century and it's possible to find almost anything for sale. From the bazar, head north up the side of the Mosque of Sayyidna al-Hussein, one of the most sacred Islamic sites in Egypt, toward the old northern gates. The square-towered Bab an-Nasr (Gate of Victory) and the rounded Bab al-Futuh (Gate of Conquests) were built in 1087 as the two main northern entrances to the new, walled Fatimid city.
South of Khan al-Khalili, a busy market street runs down to the twin-minareted gate of Bab Zuweila, the sole surviving gate from the old city's southern wall. The view from the minarets is one of Cairo's best - access is through the Mosque of Al-Muayyad. Continuing south from Bab Zuweila, you pass through the Street of the Tentmakers, Cairo's only remaining medieval covered bazar, filled with artisans specialising in applique work and ceremonial tents. You emerge in a large square dominated by the 1356 Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan and the more modern Mosque of Ar-Rifai.
Other highlights of Islamic Cairo within easy walking distance include the Citadel, home to Egypt's rulers for 700 years, whose impressive fortifications offer superb panoramas of the city. The nearby Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan is the finest piece of Mamluk architecture in Cairo, while the Madrassa and Mausoleum of Qalaun is one of the most lavishly decorated Mamluk interiors. The Northern Cemetery, where the city's homeless squat cheek to jowl with the city's dead in mausoleums, is home to the Mosque of Qaitbey, whose exquisitely carved dome is a must-see. The Southern Cemetery hosts the rococo Haush al-Basha tomb complex, a riot of decidedly non-funerary color. There's also the Museum of Islamic Art, which has one of the world's finest collections of Islamic applied art. James Bond fans may recognise the Orientalist fantasy Gayer-Anderson Museum, the only fully furnished medieval house in the city, from The Spy Who Loved Me.
Old Cairo is also home to the city's remaining Jewish population. The area's Ben Ezra Synagogue, Egypt's oldest, is said to be where the prophet Jeremiah gathered the Jews after they fled from Nebuchadnezzar, destroyer of their Jerusalem temple. There is also a spring which is supposed to mark the place where the pharaoh's daughter found Moses in the reeds, and where Mary drew water to wash the baby Jesus. The easiest way to get to Old Cairo from Midan Tahrir is via the Mar Girgis metro station.
There isn't a whole lot to do at Al-Fayoum, and the grimy Medinat al-Fayoum (Fayoum City) should be avoided at all costs. Qasr Qarun and the Pyramid of Meidum are deserving of a visit, the vicinity of the lake is attractive and the desert scenery around Wadi Rayyan, just beyond Al-Fayoum, is gorgeous. The oasis is about 100km (62mi) southwest of Cairo, and because it's so spread out, having your own transport is best.
Birqash Camel Market (Souq al-Gamaal)
The Bent Pyramid is so named for its change from a 54° to a 43°-angle during building, after the structure showed signs of stress. A rare thing among the pyramids around Cairo, it still has most of its outer casing intact. The Red Pyramid is the world's first true pyramid, and represents the lessons learnt from the Bent Pyramid. It is named for its red-toned limestone inner casing, though some say it's due to the red graffiti scribbled on it in ancient times. Both pyramids were built by Pharaoh Sneferu, father of Khufu and founder of the 4th dynasty. The same height, the two pyramids are the third-largest in Egypt, after the Great Pyramid and Pyramid of Chephren at Giza.
The simplest way to visit Dahshur is as part of a tour to Saqqara and Memphis. Alternatively, you could hire a taxi and cover Abu Sir, Memphis and Saqqara on the way.
Port Said was bombed in 1956 during the Suez Crisis, and again in the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel; the damage can still be seen here and there, although the city was extensively rebuilt. The original settlement was established on land reclaimed from Lake Manzala, and the city sits on an isthmus connected by causeways to the mainland. Ferries cross Lake Manzala to Al-Matariyya and across the canal to Port Fuad.
The star attraction here is Zoser's Funerary Complex, dominated by the world's first decent attempt at a pyramid, the Step Pyramid of Zoser. Also of note is the Pyramid & Causeway of Unas, the site of funerary hieroglyphs known as Pyramid Texts. The Serapeum, where sacred Apis bulls were entombed, provides an eerie walk through barely lit galleries to see macabre sarcophagi. The Mastaba of Ti is perhaps the grandest and most detailed private tomb at Saqqara and one of the main sources of knowledge about life in Old Kingdom Egypt.
Saqqara is a great place to play Indiana Jones and explore half-buried ruins surrounded by peaceful desert. You really need to set a whole day, if not two, aside to get even a superficial view of the area, and transport to get around the Saqqara site is essential. It's best to hire a taxi and visit Memphis, Abu Sir, Saqqara and Dahshur.
Deir as-Suriani boasts Coptic wall paintings and icons, some of which
date back to the 8th century. At Deir Anba Bishoi you can explore the
fortified keep just inside the walls, entered by a drawbridge. Deir al-Baramus
has five churches and an unusual refectory, while Deir Abu Makar is the
most secluded and permission to visit must be obtained in advance. The
region is about 100km (62mi) northwest of Cairo, and there are hourly
buses from Cairo to Bir Hooker, from where you can hire a taxi to do the
rounds of the monasteries.
The Graeco-Roman Museum contains relics that date back to the 3rd century BC. There's a magnificent black granite sculpture of Apis, the sacred bull worshipped by Egyptians, as well as an assortment of mummies, sarcophagi, pottery, jewellery and ancient tapestries. Another highlight is one of the few historical depictions of the Pharos of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The only Roman Amphitheatre in Egypt was rediscovered in 1964. Its 13 white marble terraces are in excellent condition and excavation work is still under way, although the dig has shifted a little to the north of the theatre.
Pompey's Pillar is a massive 25m (82ft) pink granite monument measuring 9m (30ft) around its girth. The pillar should rightfully called Diocletian's Pillar, as it was built for the emperor in AD 297, and was the only monument left standing following the violent arrival of the Crusaders around 1000 years later. The Catacombs of Kom ash-Shuqqafa are the largest known Roman burial site in Egypt, and consist of three tiers of burial tombs, chambers and hallways. The catacombs were begun in the 2nd century AD and were later expanded to hold more than 300 corpses. There's a banquet hall where the grieving would pay their respects with a funeral feast. Experts are hoping to discover Cleopatra's Palace under the sea bed off Alexandria; platforms, pavements and columns have been found, and in 1998 a black granite statue of a priest of Isis and a diorite sphinx were raised from the sea. Cleopatra's Library was destroyed by the Crusaders.
Luxor Temple was built by Pharaoh Amenhotep III (1390-1352 BC) on the site of an older temple built by Hatshepsut and added to by Tutankhamun, Ramses II, Alexander the Great and various Romans. Excavation work has been under way since 1885. The Temples of Karnak are a spectacular series of monuments that were the main place of worship in Theban times. They can be divided into the Amun Temple Enclosure, which is the largest; the Mut Temple Enclosure on the south side; and the Montu Temple Enclosure. The lonely statues of the Colossi of Memnon are the first things most people see when they arrive on the West bank, though the Valley of the Kings, including the spectactular tombs of Nefertari (currently closed) and Tutankhamun, are the big attraction. Luxor is accessible from Cairo by buses or trains which run every day.
Nearby, Al-Qasr is an ancient little town with much of its traditional architecture still intact. The medieval atmosphere is accentuated by the narrow covered streets (built to provide shelter from the summer sun and desert windstorms) and the animals that roam through them. Many of the houses and buildings have lintels above their front doorways inscribed with the builder's name, the home-owner's name, the date and a passage of the Quran - the earliest of these dates from 924. There are three buses daily from Cairo to Dakhla.
About 145km (90mi) southwest into the desert is the Tomb of Sayyed al-Shazli, who was an important Sufi leader in the 13th century. His tomb was restored earlier last century, but you may not make it through the checkpoints.
Sidi Abdel Rahman
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