If you are planning a trip to Egypt there is so much to see and do; deciding on where you want to go, what you want to do and see can be a daunting task to say the least! This page provides a brief history with basic information on some of the most famous cities and places to visit in Egypt. We hope you find the information here helpful when planning your trip to visit us.
One of the sources for the Information on this page is courtesy of Egypt Tourist Authority (ETA). ETA is considered one of the most comprehensive online travel guides for travel to Egypt. To visit this site click here
The largest and most vibrant city in Africa . . .
Cairo, a city that never sleeps is home to over 15 million people is a central point of culture and history for over 5,000 years. Through the years numerous kings and queens have lived here creating one of the most sophisticated cultures in the world.
Land marked for one of the only two man-made constructions that can be seen from space—the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Today Cairo is the largest and most vibrant city in Africa. With nightlife, culture, entertainment, and tourism infrastructure—it is no wonder Cairo is one of the world’s most popular tour destinations in the world!
The bride of the Mediterranean Sea . . .
Cutting across 220 Kilometers of the Western desert from Cairo is the city of Alexandria, the bride of the Mediterranean Sea.
The second largest city in Egypt, Alexandria, known as "The Pearl of the Mediterranean", has an atmosphere that is more Mediterranean than Middle Eastern; its ambience and cultural heritage distance it from the rest of the country.
Alexandria was founded in 332 B.C. by — you guessed it — Alexander the Great, who made this strategic port town his capital after completing his conquest of Egypt. While Alexander's forces fought against the Persians all the way down the Nile to Memphis, he returned to the Delta to construct his capital, choosing a fishing village for the site. Alexander paid particular attention to the designing of the city for he saw Alexandria becoming the center of his empire, not to mention a naval base and trading port. While Alexander certainly had great plans for his capital it is doubtful that even he foresaw how successful his city would become.
The setting for the stormy relationship between Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, Alexandria was also the center of learning in the ancient world. But ancient Alexandria declined, and when Napoleon landed, he found a sparsely populated fishing village.
It was during the Ptolemaic rule that the city prospered and grew. A vast city of intellectuals, artists, and scholars, Alexandria was famous for its huge library (containing over 500,000 volumes) and research institute (the Mouseion), both of which drew and produced some very important thinkers. The Ptolemies even commissioned the construction of The Pharos of Alexandria, one of the world's first lighthouses. Reaching a height of 400 feet, the Pharos was so impressive it was considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Alexandria eventually became part of the Roman Empire before falling into Muslim hands in the 7th century. The new Muslim rulers decided to build a new capital named Cairo, far from Alexandria. During this period (long before the construction of the Aswan Dam), the spring floods of the Nile would often cut Alexandria off from the rest of Egypt and the Muslims wanted a capital that was accessible at all times. As a result of this move, Alexandria quickly became neglected and fell into disrepair. Today Alexandria has huge textile and tourist industries, and remains Egypt's largest port.
The Greco-Roman Museum was first built in 1892 as a small building located on Horreya Road. In 1895 it was transferred to the present site near Gamal Abdul Nasser Road. It started with eleven galleries, and has been gradually enlarged in later renovation stages. The 25th gallery was inaugurated in 1984. It contains a very big variety of coins from different countries, chronologically arranged, and dating back from 630 BC to the Ottoman period in the 19th century. The collection, which covers the period from the 3rd century BC to the 7th century AD, is a fascinating record of civilization in the process of change as religions merged and society evolved.
In Alexandria, Graeco-Roman and Pharaonic religions mingled in the cult of Serapis; the shift from pagan religions to Christianity can also be seen in the exhibits which include mummies, Hellenistic statues, busts of Roman emperors, Tangara figurines, and early Christian antiquities.
Another point of interest is the Roman amphitheater at Kom el Dikka, which is thought to have been a place more for public meetings than for performances. The excellent condition of these ruins are attributed to their accidental discovery 20 years ago during a construction project in downtown Alexandria. More recently, ruins of Roman baths have been found — complete with the gymnasium and ancient Roman bathing facilities.
The entire area is thought to have been greatly damaged by the earthquake of 535 AD, and this with the demolition done by Muslim invaders and general neglect mean that the few remaining bathtubs and everything else lying in wait underground can only be partially put back together. However, excavation continues, with a Polish archaeological team carefully scraping away the dirt of thousands of years of Alexandria's history.
A must see is the mighty but mis-named Pompey's Pillar, which was built in 297 AD for the Roman Emperor Diocletian — not Pompey. The Pillar itself is a whopping 9 meters (29= ft) in circumference and it is said that 22 people could lunch on the capital, or flat top of the Pillar. We couldn't imagine how the 25-meter- (82-foot-) high solid pink granite was raised to its vertical position on such a spot, or how it has survived time's passage, when so much else did not.
For example, in 391 AD the Christians arrived in Alexandria and destroyed anything they thought was pagan — that is, whatever they misunderstood. But they left the Pillar and gave it its wrong name in their fury of ignorance.
The island of Pharos was a major port having two huge harbors. The Fort was built in the 1480's by Sultan Qaitbay, on the site of Alexandria's ancient lighthouse. Parts of the remains of the lighthouse can be seen in the construction of the old fort. One of the seven wonders of the ancient World, the lighthouse was an astonishing 125m in height with approximately three hundred rooms at the bottom for workers. Running through the center was a double spiral ascent and hydraulic machinery that raised fuel to the top. The lantern at the top of the lighthouse remains a mystery. Some say it contained a polished steel mirror that reflected light by day, and fire by night. Others say it was made of transparent glass. The lantern and the top two stories fell around 700 AD according to many reports, and the rest of the lighthouse was destroyed by an earthquake around 1100. In its place a Mosque was built, which was damaged by an earthquake in the 14th century. The entrance is through a gateway made of red Aswan granite. Located beside the mosque is a cistern that was used to store water in case of a siege. Also located inside the fort is the Naval Museum which contains artifacts from the Roman and Napoleonic sea battles.
These tombs were tunneled into the bedrock in the age of the Antonine emperors (2nd century A.D.) for a single wealthy family still practicing the ancient religion. As a privately financed project, it is an engineering feat of some magnitude. These tombs represent the last existing major construction for the sake of the old Egyptian religion. They are alone worth the trip to Alexandria. Though the funerary motifs are pure ancient Egyptian, the architects and artists were schooled in the Greco-Roman style. Applied to the themes of Ancient Egyptian religion, it has resulted in an amazing integrated art, quite unlike anything else in the world.
A winding staircase descends several levels deep into the ground, with little chapels opening from it, furnished with benches to accommodate visitors or mourners bringing offerings. There are niches cutout to hold sarcophagi.
These are the main chambers. They are lit by a single electric light bulb that throws the chamber into green, a perfect staging for that composite art. In the center of the facade, the familiar solar disk is carved below frieze of serpents. Left and right are two serpents wearing the crowns of upper and lower Egypt. These are not the lithe cobras of Saqqara or Thebes. They seemed to be designed as modern book comics. In the Tomb Chamber, the dead lies on a lion-shaped bier attended by Horus, Thoth, Anubis, and other familiar funerary deities and funerary equipment: Canopic jars, the priest in his panther skin, and the king making an offering to the deceased in the form of Osiris. These figures are rendered in Greco-Roman style. To the traditional scenes are added bunches of grapes, Medusa heads, and a variety of Greek and Roman decorative devices. The overall impression conveyed is not easily analyzed and yet is unmistakable.
Over 30 years of excavation have uncovered many Roman remains including this well-preserved theatre with galleries, sections of mosaic-flooring, and marble seats for up to 800 spectators. In Ptolemaic times, this area was the Park of Pan and a pleasure garden. The theater at one point may had been roofed over to serve as an Odeon for musical performances. Inscriptions suggest that it was sometimes also used for wrestling contests. The theatre stood with thirteen semi-circular tiers of white marble that was imported from Europe. Its columns are of green marble imported from Asia Minor, and red granite imported from Aswan. The wings on either side of the stage are decorated with geometric mosaic paving. The dusty walls of the trenches, from digging in the northeast side of the Odeon, are layered with extraordinary amounts of potsherds. Going down out of the Kom, you can see the substantial arches and walls in stone, the brick of the Roman baths, and the remains of Roman houses.
This 115 acre complex is surrounded by great walls from the south, east and west, and with the beach on its north side. This area used to belong to the Mohamed Ali family, that ruled Egypt from the mid 19th century until 1952. The construction was started in 1892 by King Abbas II, who built a large palace inside the complex called the Salamlek. In 1932, King Fuad built a larger palace and called it the Haramlik. His son, King Farouk, built a bridge to the sea to act as a water front. The rest of the 115 acres is nothing but beautiful gardens. Palm trees and gazelles cover the area. This is a wonderful spot to enjoy the beauty of Alexandria.
Luxor - Karnak - Thebes
The city of the living; with undying colors that are still fresh laid by hands over three thousand years ago . . .
Luxor has often been called the worlds greatest open air museum, as indeed it is and much more. The number and preservation of the monuments in the Luxor area are unparalleled anywhere else in the world that know of. Actually, what most people think of as Luxor is really three different areas, consisting of the city of Luxor on the East side of the Nile, the town of Karnak just north of Luxor and Thebes, the ancient Egyptians called Waset, which is on the west side of the Nile across from Luxor.
Today, you can walk through history; past statues with the heads of gods and animals, beneath pillars carved with lotus buds and papyrus, and still vibrant hieroglyphic relics. Ride in a horse-drawn carriage, sail in a felucca, take a sunset cruise or see the city from a hot-air balloon.
The city of Luxor is well-known for having one of the most concentrated regions of famous temples, tombs and monuments. Among them include the tomb of King Tutankhamun located in the Valley of the Kings. Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple, named Deir El Bahari is another spectacular site; the only woman to rule over Egypt as pharaoh, named her temple "Djeser Djseru" the Splendor of Splendors.
The Luxor Temple is also known as the southern temple, dedicated to Amon. it was Known to the ancient Egyptians as Ipet reseyet, the Harem of the south.
The Karnak Temples were known to the ancient Egyptians as Iput-Isut, the most esteemed of places, Karnak is built on a gigantic scale. The temple complex covers a hundred acres and its history spans over thirteen centuries.
Typically, tourists to the West Bank will spend a day there, or even a half day. They are shown a few tombs, including several in the Valley of the Kings, and perhaps one in the Valley of the Queens, and they visit several of the temples, most notably those of Deir el-Bahri. To an extent, this provides something of an overall picture of the West Bank, but its complexity and size are often not realized.
A little city known for the temple of Hathor . . .
Maybe you have never heard of Dendera, it's not at the top of the list as a tourist city but don't let this discourage you from enjoying one of Egypt's best kept secrets and we offer a day tour to this history filled spot as an extension tour from Luxor.
Dendera, most notable for the temple of Hathor, is located less than 100 kilometers north of Luxor along the West Bank of the Nile River.
The temple of Hathor at Dendera was built during the Ptolemaic period. It was built for Hathor, Horus, Bes, and Ihy (Hathor's son). The divine triad of Dendera was carved on the south outer wall of the temple. Cleopatra VII added to the majesty of Dendera temple. The approach path to the temple is between two Roman fountains that end at the massive entry gate. The pylons of the back wall of the temple are suggestive of Egypt’s past when mud-brick, wood, and papyrus reeds were the principal construction materials. The outward-curving cavetto cornice is another typically Egyptian motif.
Massive mud-brick enclosure walls surround the Dendera temple complex, most of which was constructed during the late Ptolemaic and early Roman Periods. The area had been sacred for millennia, because ruins dating from the Old Kingdom through the Late Period have been found. There is a painted raised relief of Bes that stands near the Roman Gate of the temple. Bes was the Egyptian household god who protected the mother and child during childbirth. He was a bow-legged, muscular dwarf with a ferocious facial expression; but despite his fierce countenance, he was actually a very gentle god. His protective role was suited to his appearance, which was supposed to frighten away evil spirits.
Egypt's sunniest southern city . . .
Aswan, located about 81 miles south of Luxor, has a distinctively African atmosphere. Its ancient Egyptian name was Syene. Small enough to walk around and graced with the most beautiful setting on the Nile, the pace of life is slow and relaxing. Days can be spent strolling up and down the broad Corniche watching the sailboats etch the sky with their tall masts or sitting in floating restaurants listening to Nubian music and eating freshly caught fish.
In Aswan the Nile is at its most beautiful, flowing through amber desert and granite rocks, round emerald islands covered in palm groves and tropical plants. Explore the souk, full of the scent and color of spices, perfumes, scarves and baskets. View the spectacular sunsets while having tea on the terrace of the Old Cataract Hotel (Named due to the location of the Nile's first cataract located here). Aswan has been a favorite winter resort since the beginning of the nineteenth century, and it's still a perfect place to get away from it all.
Every night Nubian dancers and musicians perform in the Cultural Center, just off the Corniche. Folklore troupes recreate scenes from village life and perform the famous Nubian mock stick-fight dances.
Aswan is a strategic location which currently houses a garrison of the Egyptian army, but which has also seen ancient Egyptian garrisons, as well as that of General Kitchener, Turkish troops of the Ottoman empire and the Romans.
The city proper lies on the east bank of the Nile. Relax here, visit a few mosques, but then prepare for an adventure. The bazaar runs along the Corniche, which continues past the Ferial Gardens and the Nubian Museum, and continues on to the Cemetery, with its forest of cupolas surmounted tombs from the Fatimid period. Just east of the cemetery in the famous area quarries is the gigantic Unfinished Obelisk. Just to the south of this, two Graeco-Roman sarcophagi and an unfinished colossus remain half buried in the sand.
The most obvious is Elephantine Island, which is timeless with artifacts dating from pre-Dynastic times onward. It is the largest island in the area. Just beyond the Elephantine Island is Kitchener's Island (Geziret el-Nabatat). It was named for the British general Haratio Kitchener (185--1916) and was sent to Egypt in 1883 to reorganize the Egyptian army, which he then led against the Sudanese Mahdi. But the island is known for its garden and the exotic plants the Kitchener planted there, and which continue to flourish today.
On the opposite shore (west bank), the cliffs are surmounted by the tomb of a Mara but, Qubbet el-Hawwa, who was a local saint. Below are tombs of the local Pharaonic nobles and dignitaries.
Upriver a bit is the tomb of Mohammed Shah Aga Khan who died in 1957. Known as the Tomb of the Aga Khan, it is beautiful in its simplicity. A road from there leads back to the Coptic Monastery of St. Simeon, which was built in the sixth century in honor of Amba Hadra, a local saint.
Just up river a bit, there is also the old Aswan dam, built by the British, which was enlarged, expanded, but unable to control the Nile for irrigation.
The historic site for one of Egypt's greatest temples . . .
Not only are the two temples located at Abu Simbel among the most magnificent monuments in the world but their removal and reconstruction was an historic event in itself. When the temples (280 km from Aswan) were threatened by submersion in Lake Nasser, due to the construction of the High Dam, the Egyptian Government secured the support of UNESCO and launched a world wide appeal. During the salvage operation which began in 1964 and continued until 1968, the two temples were dismantled and raised over 60 meters up the sandstone cliff where they had been built more than 3,000 years before. Here they were reassembled, in the exact same relationship to each other and the sun, and covered with an artificial mountain. Most of the joins in the stone have now been filled by antiquity experts, but inside the temples it is still possible to see where the blocks were cut. You can also go inside the man made dome and see an exhibition of photographs showing the different stages of the massive removal project.
Abu Simbel was first reported by J. L. Burckhardt in 1813, when he came over the mountain and only saw the facade of the great temple as he was preparing to leave that area via the Nile. The two temples, that of Ramesses II primarily dedicated to Re-Harakhte, and that of his wife, Nefertari dedicated to Hathor, became a must see for Victorians visiting Egypt, even though it required a trip up the Nile, and often they were covered deeply in sand, as they were when Burckhardt found them.
The ancient site of Ombos . . .
The Town of Kom Ombo is located about 41 miles south of Edfu. Kom Ombo is the ancient site of Ombos, which is from the ancient Egyptian word 'nubt', which means 'City of Gold'. It has been occupied since prehistoric times. In ancient Egypt, the city was important to the caravan routes from Nubia and various gold mines. The local industry is primarily agriculture, including irrigated sugar cane and corn. Besides the native Egyptians, there is a large population of Nubians who were displaced from their land when Lake Nasser was created. It is a nice place to visit, but is usually a day trip from Aswan.
The major attraction here is the Temple of Kom Ombo, located on a hill west of the village. There is a wonderful view of the countryside from the Temple, and south of here is the Roman Chapel of Hathor. It was dedicated to the wife of Horus, and is used to store mummified crocodiles form the nearby animal necropolis and a few sarcophagi.
The Greek name was Latopolis . . .
Esna is located about 33 miles south of Luxor. The town's Greek name was Latopolis and here fish (lates) where thought to embody the goddess Neith, who was sacred to the area. Esna was increasingly important during the 18th dynasty due to Egypt's developing relationship with the Sudan. There was a route established between Esna and Derr. Later, the city slowly declined until it received renewed interest during the 26th Dynasty. Later, under the Greeks and Romans, it became the capital of the Third Nome of Upper Egypt.
We also know of an Esna about a hundred years ago from Flaubert, who later wrote Madame Bovary, was propositioned by a 'almeh' while aboard his boat. He went with her to the house of Kuchuk Hanem, where she danced (not so virtuously) the Bee. In other words, wild times could be found here. Mohammed Ali had band almeh (meaning learned women) from Cairo, so they had gathered to make their living in Qena, Esna and Aswan.
But today, Esna is a somewhat sleepy if busy merchant and farming town, with a weaving industry, on the west bank of the Nile where the entertainment more resides in the Saturday animal market. On the covered market street, one may purchase fabric, or have the fabrics made into clothing. There are some fine old houses about with fine brickwork and mashrbiyya screens. There is also a barrage just outside of town which was built in 1906. About 4 miles southwest of town is the Deir Manaos Wa al-Shuhada (Monastery of the Three Thousand Six Hundred Martyrs), who's 10th century church is said to be one of the most beautiful in Upper Egypt. Perhaps this monastery is a lasting commemorative to Emperor Decius (249-51 AD) who degreed that all Christians would suffer death if they did not sacrifice to the pagan gods. His cartouche was the last to be carved on the walls of the Temple of Khnum in Esna.
But the main attraction is the Temple of Khnum, which lies beneath the level of the houses in a pit. Most of the ruins of around the Temple and the old city are yet to be explored as they lay under these modern dwellings. This was not the first temple here, for during the reign of Thutmose III, a temple was built here that preceded it. There are blocks from an early Christian church in the forecourt of the temple, foretelling of a time when Esna was an important Christian center. Near the Temple of Khnum on the stone quay along the corniche are carved cartouches of Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
The Greek city of Apollinopolis Magna . . .
Edfu is a religious and commercial center. Located about 33 miles south of Esna and 65 miles north of Aswan, this is a friendly town which produces sugar and pottery. It is also a hub of a road network. It was the capital of the second Nome (Horus) of Upper Egypt. The main attraction here is the Temple of Horus, which is considered by most to be the best preserved cult temple in Egypt, but there is a mound of rubble to the west of the Temple which is probably the original old city of Djeba. The town was known as Tbot by the early Egyptians, by the Greeks as Apollinopolis Magna and by Atbo during Coptic times. It was the capital of the second Nome (Horus) of Upper Egypt. French and Polish teams have excavated some of the ancient city, finding Old Kingdom mastabas and Byzantine house.
The Egyptian Museum is one of the most important places in Cairo. Packed to the point of overflowing with more than 100,000 relics and antiquities, it is a feast for the eyes and brain. We had only a few hours, so we saw only the biggest and most important things.
The Egyptian Museum is a fantastic collection of rooms that are packed with hundreds and thousands of big and small statues, figurines, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, rings, coffins and sarcophagi, boats, weapons, glassware objects, wood and metal tools, masks, coins, seals, mummies, cloth, papyrus drawings, stone and clay tablets with hieroglyphics, jugs, amulets, models, photographs, etcetera. Etcetera. Etcetera.
Wandering from room to room is like taking a stroll through history by appreciating the tools and objects that the ancient Egyptians used when eating, gardening, farming, reading, cooking, writing, celebrating, sleeping, preparing for parties and religious events (and maybe even dates!), mourning, traveling etc. Think about all the things that you use during your every-day routine and then imagine someone putting them all in display cases in a museum. That's what the Egyptian Museum is all about.
Know from the beginning that you will probably not have the energy to see everything in one visit, so start out with the main attraction in the museum; the 1,700 or so objects on display straight from the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun, better known to us today as King Tut.
In 1361 BC, a young boy (only about 9 or 10 years old) named Tutankhaten, ascended to the throne as Pharaoh of the New Kingdom. His rule of nine years, until 1352 BC (he died suddenly and without leaving any heirs) was not marked by anything unusual or spectacular. And yet, known today as Tutankhamun, he seems to be the most famous Pharaoh of all.
In 1922, a British Egyptologist named Howard Carter, after several years of searching, found King Tut's tomb completely intact and full of a glorious array of ancient treasures! This is important because all the other tombs of all the other Egyptian pharaohs were looted by robbers over the centuries. Even though all tombs were meant to be secret, of the 60 known tombs in the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings in southern Egypt north of Luxor, only that of Tutankhamen was left untouched until Carter's discovery.
The most famous of all the objects discovered in the tomb is proudly lit up in the center of one of the central rooms in the museum; the legendary gold mask that was placed over the head of King Tut's mummy. It is still mesmerizing beautiful, especially after so many thousands of years hidden away in the desert. But most people don't know that this is just one — although probably the most spectacular — of 11 layers in which the body was placed, including more masks and body wraps (made of gold and precious rocks), coffins of different sizes (also made of, or covered in, gold) and large gold-covered wooden shrines. Even his inner organs were kept in four compartments of a beautiful alabaster container. In addition, the body was accompanied by enormous amounts of exquisite jewelry, beds supported by animal sculptures, chairs, boats, chariots, and lots of other assorted goods intended to be used by King Tut in his next life.
In one sense, the pyramids represented a high water mark for the Egyptians. Only a civilization skilled at mathematics, engineering and architecture could have designed such buildings. Only an enormously wealthy and powerful government that was capable of commanding and organizing a huge labor force could have carried out the construction. Simply building the causeway by which the huge stone blocks were dragged up the ridge to Giza, took tens of thousands of laborers many years to complete.
Although the Egyptians' engineering skill remained, the political and economic might of the Pharaohs gradually ebbed in the following centuries. The Pharaohs no longer had the resources or the political might to build such expensive tombs. Indeed, Old Kingdom Egypt's decline can be gauged by the decreasing size of the subsequent pyramids. By 2200 BC, Egypt fell into anarchy.
Which brings us to why these monuments were built in the first place. The pyramids were essentially giant tombs built to house the corpse of a Pharaoh. Placed in the dead center of the pyramid, the chamber is accessible only by a narrow passageway that slopes up steeply from the entrance on the eastern side.
The Egyptians were very religious and believed strongly in a life after death. They thought that after you died you simply passed into a new stage of life. For this reason the tombs of the Pharaohs contained all the things that they would need — food, drink, clothing, weapons, and of course, most of their worldly possessions. In the case of the Pharaohs, this included lots and lots of treasure. But to ensure that the Pharaohs' spirit would survive in the afterlife, his body had to be preserved as well. Hence mummies, and a long line of bad horror films.
Pharaohs also tried to build tombs large enough and secure enough to ensure that their bodies, their spirits, and their possessions would not be disturbed. Hence mastabas, and then later, pyramids. Unfortunately, it would seem that most of the Pharaohs were not able to enjoy a peaceful afterlife. Even before archaeologists and tourists began tramping through the burial chambers, thieves looted every (known) royal tomb in Egypt with the exception of King Tut's.
But the pyramids were more than just big tombs to protect (or fail to protect) the corpses of the Pharaohs. A pyramid comprised only part of a much larger complex, which contained burial sites for members of the Pharaohs' family and staff and places of worship for the Pharaoh's subjects. In Ancient Egyptian civilization, the Pharaoh was considered the son of a god, and worshiped as such. Finally, the sheer size and majesty of the pyramids served as hard-to-miss reminders of the power of the gods, and in particular of these gods on earth.
The second great pyramid, that of Khafre, Khufu's son. Khafre was too respectful a son to make his pyramid as large as that of his father's, but he did have it built on slightly higher ground, making it seem at least as high. Since the original limestone casing is still clinging to the top of this second pyramid you get a better idea of how the pyramids must once have looked.
Just on the southeastern edge of Cairo, not more than a few hundred meters from the modern buildings of the suburb of Giza, lie three huge pyramids. The tallest and oldest of these pyramids is called the Great Pyramid, or Khufu's pyramid. Built nearly 46 centuries ago to house the tomb of the Pharaoh Khufu, this structure originally stood 147 meters high (481 feet) with each side of its base measuring 230 meters (756 feet — that's 2-1/2 American football fields). Its base covers 5 hectares (13 acres).
The Great Pyramid once had a smooth limestone covering, but that and the very top of the pyramid (which was probably coated in platinum) have long since fallen away. Still, after over 4500 years it's only lost nine meters (35 feet) in height. A lot of blocks. Experts estimate that the Great Pyramid contains well over two million limestone blocks, each weighing between two and fifteen tons apiece. A quick calculation in our heads (2-1/2 million blocks weighing about 3 tons apiece) will leave you with the mind-numbing estimate that the pyramid weighs at least fifteen billion pounds! Then add that it took an army of 100,000 slaves — working without the aid of any animals — twenty years (actually they only worked during the three or four month-long flood season every year) to complete Cheops' pyramid, and you come up with a bunch of numbers that are nearly overwhelming.
A sphinx is a mythical beast with the body of a lion and the head of a human. Its most famous portrayal is the huge statue located just in front of the great pyramids at Giza. Though dwarfed by the pyramids, the Sphinx at Giza is still pretty big. Its body is 172 feet (52.4 meters) in length while the height to the top of the head is 66 feet (20 meters).
The Greeks, as is common with the closely inter-related civilizations of the Mediterranean, borrowed the idea of a sphinx from the Egyptians, and it is the Greek legend of the sphinx with which we are most familiar. In that legend the sphinx asked every passerby a riddle and devoured anyone that failed to answer it correctly. After many travelers were eaten, Oedipus answered the riddle correctly and killed the sphinx.
The Egyptians, however, did not seem to have the same sort of legends about the sphinx. Indeed, no one really knows what the Sphinx represented to them. Some Egyptologists think that the Sphinx represented the sky-god Horus, but there is certainly evidence to indicate that the head of the sphinx portrayed the reigning pharaoh. If this is the case then the face staring out eastward towards the Nile is that of Pharaoh Khafre, whose pyramid lies directly behind the great statue.
The mystery of the Sphinx at Giza extends to the strange circumstances surrounding the loss of both its beard and its nose. No one seems to know when or why these pieces of the Sphinx fell off. The most common story is that occupying Ottoman (or French, depending on who tells the story) soldiers used the Sphinx for target practice and essentially shot the nose off its face. Or it could just have fallen off with the passage of time. The issue is whether the monument should be restored to its former glory. Of course the question of a face-lift is complicated by the fact that the British snapped up the nose and are keeping it in the British Museum even though the Egyptians have long demanded its return.
The major attraction of Sakkara is Zoser's Pyramid, also known as the Step Pyramid. In the 27th century BC, the reigning Pharaoh, a powerful leader named Zoser, decided he wanted a final resting place more grand than the underground tombs or low, flat brick buildings (mastabas) in which most previous kings had been buried. Fortunately, Zoser had in his service an architect of brilliance, named Imhotep. Under the direction of Imhotep, Zoser's tomb started as a large mastabas but soon evolved into a much more ambitious structure. Imhotep kept stacking mastabas until Zoser's tomb became a six-tiered pyramid 62 meters (203 ft) high, built of thousands of carefully cut stones and encased in a fine limestone shell.
Certainly one of the oldest standing stone structures in the world, Zoser's Pyramid was also the biggest stone building constructed up to that time. Somehow Imhotep found solutions to the problems of moving, precisely placing and securing each of the thousands of blocks it took to complete the pyramid. The building of the Step Pyramid provided the inspiration and technical expertise that ushered in the age of pyramid-building. And while not as large or well preserved as the Great Pyramids in Giza, Zoser's Pyramid still deserves to be listed among one of the most impressive monuments ever built.
It takes nearly an hour to make it through Cairo traffic and down the Nile to Sakkara. You will probably be amazed at how big Cairo is, but even more amazed at how abruptly the city ends and the farms begin. The scenery changes from gray concrete to brilliantly green farmland in just seconds. The green seems that much more green because you can see the brown of the desert hemming in both sides of the valley.
If you would have taken the same ride 4000 years earlier, the urban and the rural areas would have been reversed. You would have been leaving rich farmland to enter a big city, instead of vice versa. Although there is little indication left within the valley itself, during the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt (long before Cairo had been founded), the nearby settlement of Memphis was the largest city and capital of Egypt. This helps to explain why there are so many archaeological treasures in the desert near what is today a tiny village.
As impressive as Zoser's Pyramid itself was the huge funerary complex that surrounded it. The pyramids might have been the center point of the pharaoh's cemetery, but it was always surrounded by an elaborate complex of temples, chapels, and the burial sites of relatives and friends. So, to enter the Step Pyramid site you have to walk through a long hallway of tall columns which brings you to a large central courtyard just in front of the pyramid itself. In this courtyard were the ruins of Zoser's two thrones (which symbolized the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt). Surrounding the pyramid are a number of ceremonial temples, including a mortuary temple at which Zoser's relatives were supposed to pay him homage after his death.
Just next to this temple is a stone structure known as a serdab, in which you find a large wooden box with holes drilled into it. Peering into the hole you are startled to find Zoser himself staring back out at you! It's just a statue, but spooky nonetheless.
After walking around Zoser's pyramid, you can climb to the top of the wall that once surrounded the entire complex. You will be rewarded by a nice view of the entire area. Besides the small pyramids of Unas, Sekhemket, and Userkef, which are only a few hundred meters from the Step Pyramid, you can also see pyramids stretching off into the distance to both the north and south. In one direction the Great Pyramids at Giza were just visible across the desert; in the other direction you can identify the impressive "Bent" pyramid and "Red" pyramids in Dahshour. You may feel like you are standing in a field of pyramids — many of which aren't very big, or have long since deteriorated — that stretched over 30 km (19 mi) along the desert ridge just west of the Nile. If you try to imagine what the site must have looked like thousands of years ago, when as many as 70 pyramids lined the ridge, you can understand why this whole area is a included on UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites.
The sites at Sakkara also provide a good illustration that not all pharaohs were buried in pyramids, not even during the pyramid-building phase of Old Kingdom Egypt. They, and many of the other prominent members of Egyptian society, also had less impressive but still fairly elaborate tombs — some underground chambers, some mastabas. Indeed, when surrounded by all the non-non-pyramid archaeological sites, you realize that dozens of Pharaohs, and thousands of ancient Egyptians are buried around you. It's like a huge city of the dead.
Just south of Zoser's pyramid you can wander through a number of ancient tombs, all of which were in various states of excavation and renovation. None of the mummies are still around, but you can find a lot of neat art and hieroglyphics on the walls. Particularly interesting were the tombs of Akhti-Hotep and Ptah-Hotep, father and son officials during the reign of the Pharaoh Djedkare. Inside their tombs we found pictures of the father-son duo in various settings — from hunting scenes to depictions of them receiving manicures. Although over 4000 years old, the pictures have been restored to their original bright color.
Another interesting place is the Serapeum, the ancient burial chamber not for pharaohs or their servants, but for mummified bulls! As gods on earth, these bulls too received special treatment in death. A monument to the sacred bull, Apis (who is the incarnation of Ptah, the god of Memphis), the Serapeum is a huge but dimly light underground chamber which once held the mummified remains of dozens of sacred bovine. All that remains are the gigantic outer coffins (sarcophagi), but these are impressive enough — some are over 3 meters (10 ft) high and 9 meters (30 ft) long, carved out of black granite. To get these immense coffins into the chamber, the builders dug a big hole, filled it with sand, dragged the sarcophagus on top of the sand, and then dug the sand out from under it, slowly lowering the sacred remains into their final resting place.
Included also in interesting sites is the Mastabas of Ti, the tomb of a prominent member of the Pharaoh's court. Again the paintings and hieroglyphics on the walls of the tomb were remarkably well preserved and colorful. These decorations vividly portray everyday life in ancient Egypt, depicting such activities as the harvesting of grain, the butchering of cattle, and the brewing of beer. It also showed how well the elite of Egyptian society lived. Ti himself is shown floating down the Nile on a barge, sniffing sweet smelling flowers while being fanned by slaves!
Islamic Cairo (sometimes called Medieval Cairo) lies East of central Cairo and is a dizzying maze of streets filled with sights and smells that overwhelm your senses. It is not surprising that it is yet another UNESCO World Heritage site. With the highest density of people in Cairo (and perhaps the Middle East), Islamic Cairo hums with activity. Walking along its streets, trying to find our way from one site to another, it was not difficult to lose yourself and pretend that you are living in another time. Vendors line both sides of the streets, selling spices, fruit, fish, bread, clothes, shoes, tools and any number of handy (and not so handy) household items. Everyone seemed to be talking at once, shouting greetings, prices and the latest sales and news.
As these sights and smells swirled around you, you can walk along and were passed by donkey-led carts and people carrying impossibly huge bundles of goods. Kids raced around you heading for school (most of them will say things like "Hello! How are you? What is your name? Welcome to Egypt!"), dogs, cats, and chickens seem perfectly at home dodging between the feet of passing donkeys and horses. Every tea store and juice stand seems to be filled to capacity. If it were not for the occasional Michael Jordan T-shirt and exhaust-spewing truck or car you could easily feel like you are walking around in Cairo of hundreds of years ago.
Perhaps the most spectacular part of Islamic Cairo is the Citadel, a medieval fortress perched on a hill overlooking the entire Nile valley and Cairo. The Citadel looks west towards Cairo and the pyramids at Giza and dominates the entire area.
Islamic Cairo is characterized by a large number of medieval mosques that seem to tower over the area. We set out for Islamic Cairo with our guidebook under our arm, a bag of fig cookies in our hand, and a general plan. While there are 150 sites of historical interest in Islamic Cairo, you will have to limit yourself to only a few mosques but be sure to include the Citadel.
Starting at the base of the Citadel, on the Midan Salah ad-Din ("midan" means" square," as in "town square," not the shape) with the Mosque of Sultan Hassan (constructed by the most famous Muslim general, remember?). Built between 1356 and 1363 AD with stones believed to have been taken from the Great Pyramids at Giza, this mosque was originally a Madrassa (theology school) and is a classic example of Mamluk architecture. Each of the four iwans (vaulted halls) served as classrooms for each main school of Sunni Islam. To make it easier for worshipers to concentrate on their prayers, the interior does not have any decoration. The only remotely ostentatious elements in the mosque were the immensely long chains hanging from the ceiling that held oil lamps. The minarets (towers) connected to this mosque were some of the largest we had ever seen (they are the second tallest in all of Cairo!).
If you cross the street you can tour the Ar-Rifa'i Mosque, which was built much later (in 1869) by Khushyar, mother of khedive Ismail (khedive is a Mamluk ruler), to serve as a tomb for her family and future khedives. Here we visited the tombs of King Farouk (former king of Egypt during the British occupation) as well as of the Shah of Iran.
As you walk around the walls of the Citadel it was not hard to imagine the Crusaders gazing upward at the same walls and wondering how in the world they were going to attack. In the courtyard if you look up you will see a clock that was given to Mohammed Ali by King Louis-Philippe of France in exchange for the Pharaonic obelisk from Luxor (in southern Egypt) that still stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. The French seem to have gotten the better part of the deal — the clock has apparently never worked! The interior of the mosque was quite large and ornately decorated. Back outside, the minarets seemed to reach up into the clouds they were so tall.
The word "Coptic" is used to describe the monastic, desert-dwelling life of solitude that developed during the short-lived times of Egyptian Christianity. Nevertheless, the traditions and practices have been maintained throughout the centuries by a small, but sometimes important population. (The most famous Copt is Mr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former Secretary General of the United Nations.) The Coptic sect even maintains an ancient language, although it is rarely used.
"Coptic" Cairo is, however, not devoted entirely to landmarks or houses of worship belonging to this religion. This area is particularly important to all religions because of the many legends about important religious people and their experiences here. In this very neighborhood, Moses' floating basket was said to have been found by the pharaoh's daughter as she sat along the Nile. It is also believed that the prophet Jeremiah is buried in the area. But that's just the beginning.
To get to Coptic Cairo we took the Egyptian Metro, which can be confusing for tourists since many of the interior maps are in Arabic. The relatively new underground station is a pleasure — surprisingly clean and serene, complete with piped-in classical music and informational television screens near the seating areas. The Metro (still very new) is expanding — which is great news, since other solutions to the traffic problem in Cairo seem few and far between.
After a short trip, the first thing you will see as you approach the walled area of Coptic Cairo are the ruins of the Fortress of Babylon. Built in 98 AD, this ancient Roman town was at that time strategically placed on the Nile. With time, however, the river slowly but surely changed its course westward.
A markedly more serene part of town. According to the Bible, King Herod, having heard rumor that the Savior had been born to a couple living in his kingdom, ordered that all the infant, first-born, male children be killed. Mary and Joseph fled into Egypt with their baby and apparently spent some time in the settlement that preceded the Fortress of Babylon. One spring nearby is even supposedly where the baby Jesus had a bath.
One nice place to visit is the very dimly lit Church of St. George the Martyr. Amidst a fury of burning candles, art of many different styles, periods and media (metals, oils, and mixed media) depicted scenes from St. George's valiant fight for Christianity. In the nearby Convent of Saint George there was also a dramatic chain ceremony that many people took part in as acknowledgement of the suffering and persecution of St. George and others.
One fascinating element of this fast-paced jaunt through so many houses of worship, especially if you visited many mosques in Islamic Cairo, are the similarities of decor and architecture. The way the structures seemed to have developed and the doorways were used, the art work, alters, and different podiums used for special prayers all became comprehensible, and the commonality of purpose was very clear — regardless of the religion. Somehow the universality of all religions in terms of the importance of community and meditation, expression and reflection was solidified.
This is even more intriguing given the diversity of the other people worshiping around us. It can be easy to forget that religion, race, and nationality are often not the same. Hence, the presence of people of Arab heritage walking around and praying with other tourists may seem at first a curiosity to you.