We made two quick stops in Cairo, a two-day/three-night stop and then a one-day/two night stop, sandwiched around a trip into the Egyptian desert. While I was excited about going to Alexandria but ended up being disappointed, I wasn’t so eager about spending time in Cairo and ended up genuinely disappointed we didn’t have more time. I guess you can just never tell.
The capital of Egypt, this city of nine million people along the Nile River is the largest in the Arab world. Egyptian friends we made while out in the desert described it as Egypt’s New York City, with all the buzz and excitement and pollution and problems to go with it. There is a lot going on and a lot to see, more than you can do in the three days we had.
The first thing to see, and it is totally a must-see, is the Egyptian Museum of Cairo. With over 136,000 items on display it is by far the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities in the world. And as a bonus it is laid out pretty well, meaning that while yes, your eyes glaze over at some point and you are just kind of going through the motions, you actually learn something about ancient Egypt. Part of what you learn, of course, is just how old it is. I like to remind people that we are closer to the time of Cleopatra (about 2,000 years) than she was to the builders of the Great Pyramids (about 2,500 years). That’s ancient.
And then of course you have to go see the pyramids out in Giza, a 30-minute cab ride out from downtown. The biggest of them, the Great Pyramid, dates from about 2750 BC and can make a lot of claims: one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, it was by far the oldest; it is the only of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still standing; and it was the tallest building in the world for 3,800 years. That last one just boggles my mind.
Of course, everyone has seen pictures of the pyramids so I was not expecting to be that impressed. But I was. They’re just really big and really, really old. With a special ticket you can even go in the Great Pyramid and climb up a bunch of steps. Not recommended, though; it’s steep, you have to bend at the waist to climb up a good chunk of it, it get’s crazy hot as you near the top, and, to top it off, there’s nothing to do or see in there. Really kind of a bust. From the outside, though, the pyramids are worth the trip.
But that’s not all. We also went for a great walk through part of the old city with great winding roads and all the street life you might hope for in an old Middle Eastern city. Definitely not a lot of tourists there but just loaded with atmosphere and really friendly locals.
And still there was more. On our last day we walked down into the Coptic section of Cairo. The Copts are a sect of Orthodox Catholics indigenous to northeastern Africa; not just a different religion, they maintain a separate ethnic identity from Muslim Egyptians and generally reject an Arab identity. The part of the city that is historically associated with Copts has the oldest church, the oldest synagogue, and the oldest mosque in Cairo. One of the of the main tourist draws is a church built around a cave said to have housed the Holy Family when they fled to Egypt to escape Herod’s persecution. I’m not entirely sure how they know that (maybe the Baby Jesus carved his initials into the wall?) but it makes for a good story. The other big deal there is the Shrine of St. George, a big hit for us.
Ultimately it felt as though we almost rushed through Cairo. We had a couple of really good Indian dinners at a restaurant in the Sofitel and a couple good lunches at a classic old restaurant. Oh, and one of the worst meals in a long time at an Italian restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton. I mean, we figured, “How bad can an Italian restaurant in the Ritz be?” Really bad, we discovered.
Would I come back to Cairo? I just might. The weather is gorgeous this time of year and while the traffic and the noise and pollution and all can be overwhelming you just have the sense that there is a lot to discover here. So maybe some day.