Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Excursion to Egypt: Cairo, A City of Sites and Size

Last month, Diane and I took a fascinating trip to Egypt where we visited some of the world's oldest and most famous sights. For those interested in what we saw, did and felt about this adventure, I will post a few entries about it under the title "Excursion to Egypt." You can also see a set of pictures from our trip by clicking HERE.

To kick things off...

Cairo, A City of Sites and Size
The first thing that impressed me about Cairo as we rode in from the airport after arrival was that it is huge. HUGE. Locals will tell you there are anywhere from 18 million to 30 million people living "in Cairo." It just depends on who you ask. I don't honestly think it's that big, even if you factor in all the outlying and connected cities that make up the greater megatropolis. But, for sure the population is in the 10-15 million people range...and that does feel like 22 million. Trust me. It also means pollution. Bad pollution. I thought we'd never see pollution again like we witnessed in Shanghai, but I was wrong. Cairo is just as bad.

And all those people? Most have cars and use them. This makes for some of the worst, most congested traffic we've ever seen. With millions of cars moving around daily, there are bound to be accidents, and we saw three in person.

For all the perceptions of the Middle East as a dangerous place in terms of terrorism or just anti-Americanism, I will tell you definitively that your biggest risk of death or injury in Egypt is a car accident. That's right. It's not suicide bombers, machine guns or anything like that that's gonna get you in Egypt. Nope. Far from it. But a car accident just might. Below are pictures of two of them we saw:

Also, the look of Cairo is not beautiful. At least not to me. The city sprawls endlessly with office and apartment buildings galore. Some of them are ramshackle tower blocks, some of poorly build brick structures and some are more modern, but none are what most people would call "nice looking" buildings. And about 90% of them are either brown, grey or brown/grey in color. This makes colorful buildings really stick out. Here is one building that caught my eye:  

 We did have dinner and wander around the Zamalek neighborhood and that does have what I would call a nicer, more "old Cairo" feel to it with boutique shops, nice restaurants, narrow streets and old architecture. Of course, even in that neighborhood you are only a few streets away from mega freeways, tower blocks, congestion and crowds.

Down by the Nile River, things get better, however. We stayed at the very nice Grand Hyatt hotel with a view of the river and - on a clear day - the Great Pyramids too. For anyone going to Cairo, I would recommend this place as an oasis for the hustle and bustle of the city.

In the end though, you're coming to Cairo to see some major world historical sites and not the streets, buildings and neighborhoods. Here's what we checked out...

Egyptian Museum
The first site we saw as part of our tour was the famous Egyptian Museum. This is the building that holds the largest set of the artifacts from the tombs of ancient Egyptian Pharaohs, including the spectacular and golden contents of the tomb of King Tutankhamen.

 Our group gathered in the crowded front courtyard where large groups of other tourists milled around or formed up into their groups. For the first time on this trip I realized there were a lot of Russians around. Wherever we've been in the world, we tend to see large groups of Japanese tourists and then also usually a good representation of Australians, Germans, Brits and a few Americans. Never have we seen packs or tour groups of Russians. Apparently they like coming to Egypt.

Having sized up who all was there, our small group of 16 people headed on into the building. There are loads of things to see in the museum, but I'll give you my top three:
  1. The first thing most people stop to see is The Rosetta Stone. This is an ancient tablet of rock that has a single message carved into it, but in three different languages - Greek, Demotic Egyptian script and Egyptian Hieroglyphs. Discovered by more modern day explorers in 1799 the fact that the indecipherable hieroglyphs appeared on the same stone with the same message in a known language - ancient Greek - began to unlock the mystery of the hieroglyphs. Unfortunately, the original stone has resided in the British Museum in London since 1802. The one in the Egyptian Museum is an exact replica.
  2. Another impressive thing to see here are the mummies of the ancient Pharaohs. That's right, you get to see the actual Pharaohs! Mummified for thousands of years, these bodies are remarkably well preserved - to the degree that you can see what these people looked like.
  3. The other "gotta see" display in the museum is the comprehensive set of items taken from the tomb of King Tut. Unlike all the other Pharaohs tombs, Tutankhamen's was found in tact and undisturbed. The items in the tomb had not been stolen or damaged - simply sitting there unmoved since they were sealed away all those thousands of years ago. This means today we get to see what a Pharaoh's tomb contained all in one place. With all the gold, inlay, and jeweled work...it is impressive!
You can't take pictures inside the museum, so I have no shots of the wonderful things we saw. But, it's pretty easy to get the idea. For example, click HERE.

The Great Pyramids
The next major thing we saw were the towering and impressive Great Pyramids of Giza. Dating back more than 4,000 years, these are the ones you grew up seeing pictures of.

The first thing we learned was that there is only one "Great Pyramid." It's the Pyramid of Cheops. It's the largest and tallest one - on the left in my picture below. The other two are also massive, but technically not "great pyramids."

The Pyramids were tombs built by Pharaohs as monuments to their rein and to act as vessels for their trip into the next life. Being huge structures visible for miles around, they also attracted a lot of robbers and thieves who within a few years stripped out all items of value. This primarily why the Egyptian kings began building hidden underground tombs in the Valley of the Kings up river near Luxor.

Anyway, seeing these structures in person is impressive. How did they build them? How could they have done this so long ago with such primitive technology? How have they been able to stand so long? These are the questions and mysteries that make seeing these pyramids so interesting. You also really set your mortality in proper balance when you see something that's been around for that long. I mean, if you're lucky you maybe live 80-90 years. These things have been standing for 4,000 years! Wow.

After viewing an ancient Nile River boat that had been found in one of the tombs nearby the pyramids, we proceeded out a little ways and saddled up for a camel ride with a view of the structures. That was fun...and here's a picture to prove it:

Certainly, viewing the pyramids together is a lifetime highlight for Diane and me and I would recommend anyone visiting Egypt should see them too. You should also check out the night time "Sound and Light" show at the Pyramids. It's a fun way to see the structures in a different way and get an education on ancient Egypt.

This is a giant fort topped by a giant mosque. It also offers a great view of greater Cairo. We ventured there with our guide for a delightful tour of the premises and inside the mosque. Here are a few pictures from our visit:

One of the last things we did in Cairo was to visit the massive, sprawling Khan al-Khalili Bazaar. Again, huge. We spent a couple hours strolling the alleys and lanes of this shopping district. Like many bazaars around the world, different streets offer different types of items. One street is for hardware, another grains, another plumbing, another clothing, another decorations, etc., etc., etc. This is how Cairo residents have been shopping for centuries.

And today, naturally, there is a large corridor of tourist related items. Not being in the market for home improvement items or dry goods, we stuck to the shops offering things like carved figures, glass, scarfs and the like. The other thing that the bazaar provides is a fairly constant barrage of guys wanting to sell you things. Diane and I are used to this as we've been in places like this bazaar, so we simply brushed them off with some well timed and directly delivered "no" replies to their requests. One thing I notice that really works well if you need to get rid of a particular annoying hawker is to firmly and directly look them in the eye and say "no, leave me alone." That usually does the trick.
At any rate, we came away with some nice souvenirs and an even better experience.

Whether it is the large collection at the museum, the massive Pyramids, the huge citadel and mosque or the sprawling bazaar, Cairo is definitely a city of size and sites that, despite the crowds and heat, really delivered the goods. I would recommend anyone going to Egypt to spend 2-3 days there

***Bonus Coverage - Eating in Cairo***
We ate at several good places in Cairo that if you ever find yourself there you should check out:

The Mogul Room at the Mena House Hotel
Cuisine: Really good Indian food
Why go: Beyond the food, this restaurant is situated in a beautiful old hotel...which is itself situated right by the Pyramids. So, you get great food, a wonderful setting and you get to see the Pyramids.

Cuisine: Italian and Mediterranean fare
Why go: Good food, nice local joint in the upscale Zamalek neighborhood - gets you off the tourist track, but in a nice neighborhood you can look around in before or after eating.

Cuisine: Lebanese 
Why go: Really good Lebanese food. Excellent. Nice white table cloth ambiance. Inside the Intercontinental Hotel by the Nile River so easy to find and easy to get a cab home from.

NOTE: All pictures featured in this article were taken by me, Marc Osborn. They are copy written in my name and are not authorized for any use by anyone without written permission directly from me. 

1 comment:

Catherine said...

Impressive!! I like what you've done with the trip!! What an amazing time-Thanks for sharing!!
Cathy Miller