In January 2011, my brother spent a weekend with me in St. Louis. We were planning to take a trip together over Thanksgiving, and after much consideration, we chose Egypt as our destination. During his visit, we mapped out a rough itinerary, looked at flight options, and researched hotel options. Two days after he left, the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 began. Because of safety concerns, we opted to travel elsewhere. Since then, I’ve been waiting for the right time to visit. As a single woman, I thought it was wise to go with a guy, so I jumped at the opportunity to join two of my friends recently. They planned a weekend trip to Egypt prior to traveling to Jordan, so all I had to do was book a plane ticket and a hotel room. All of the other details were arranged by them!
I’m glad I only had a few weeks notice, because in that time, I could not get the song, “Walk like an Egyptian” out of my head! The ridiculous thing is that those four words are the only ones I know in the song, so I had a single phrase on repeat in my mind!
You might be shocked that Egypt can be visited in a weekend. I admit, it was a bit ambitious, but the direct flight from Geneva is less than four hours long, making Friday afternoon to Monday a possibility! After some drama in getting to the airport, we were off!
To keep logistics as simple as possible, we stayed at a hotel near the airport – Concorde El Salam. We arrived just as a bride was walking down the spiral staircase in the lobby to a REALLY loud celebration – drums, singing, clapping, yelling, etc. What an entrance!
On Saturday morning, our driver picked us up at 8:00. In most Middle Eastern countries, the weekend is Friday & Saturday. Think about how quiet most Sunday mornings are in your city, and you can imagine Cairo on a Saturday morning. It was also raining a little bit, which meant even fewer people were out. This didn’t last all day, but we enjoyed light traffic in the morning allowing us to make it to our first sites quickly.
As I came to understand during the course of the day, traffic in Cairo is among the worst in the world. There are 22 million people living in the Greater Cairo area. It’s the largest city in the Middle East and Africa. There are so. many. cars! But not only cars. You can also find herds of sheep, horses or donkeys pulling carts, an occasional camel, bikes, motorcycles, and pedestrians. Oh, the pedestrians! Our guide joked that Cairo is the only city where cars are more afraid of pedestrians than pedestrians of cars. I am not kidding when I tell you that pedestrians walk wherever they want. It is ALWAYS a driver’s fault, if a pedestrian is hit. Pedestrians will run (or sometimes even walk) in front of cars on busy streets. I’ve never seen anything like it! Beyond the congested streets, there is also a lack of rules as I know them. There are almost no traffic lights or stop signs. And lanes are truly optional. It’s a miracle that everyone isn’t running into each other, but somehow, it seems to work. We saw trucks practically overflowing with produce or other goods. But more than any of these things was the sound of car horns. It genuinely sounds as if every vehicle on the street is honking at the same time! Coming from the quiet land of Switzerland, the horns were quite shocking! This YouTube video is a few years old, but it gives a glimpse of the scene…and the sound!
Our first stop was the Pyramids of Giza. I was so surprised to see how close to the city they are. They are almost part of the skyline. Our first glimpse of them was from the car as they peaked out over the top of tall buildings. I imagined them to be way out in the desert, but they’re not at all. The other thing that surprised me was the state of the buildings all over the city. Very few of them are complete, and almost everything looks to be under construction. We learned that you do not have to pay taxes on a building that isn’t complete. Because of this, many people finish the inside of the home, but leave the exterior “in progress.”
The Pyramids did not disappoint. They are HUGE, and I was blown away by them. The Great Pyramid was built in 2560 B.C. – more than 4,500 years ago! It was the tomb of Khufu. It is 481 feet tall, and archaeologists estimate that it was the tallest man made structure in the world for approximately 3,800 years! The stones they used are much bigger than the small cinder blocks I imagined. Our guide said it took many thousands of people nearly 20 years to build it! What’s crazy is that the sarcophagus inside the pyramid (which held the coffin) was too large to fit in any of the passages, so they must have put it into the pyramid during construction. Originally the pyramid was covered with a limestone casing that made it shine. In the 14th century, an earthquake loosened the stones, and over time, they were removed to build other things.
If it looks cold and windy, it was. The Egyptians thought it was FREEZING. While it was warmer than Switzerland, the cool temps caught me by surprise.
The second pyramid is called Khafre’s Pyramid. You can still see the casing at the top of this pyramid. It is not as tall as the Great Pyramid.
We bought a ticket to go inside the second pyramid. This image shows the path we took – entering through the descending passage (number 2), taking the upper descending passage (number 4), and going all the way to the burial chamber (number 5).
It was so cramped to enter! We were fully bent over with our knees were bent. We walked down a steep tunnel before we could stand upright. Then we squatted and bent over again to climb up the next tunnel to the burial chamber. There’s nothing in there any more, but it was fascinating to see how they structured the interior of the pyramids. It was pretty claustrophobic!
After taking in the pyramids, it was off to see the Valley Temple and the Great Sphinx. The Sphinx is one of the oldest & largest statues in the world. It is made of limestone. There’s some uncertainty about when it was built and for whom, but our guide shared that it’s believed that it is the face of Khafre – the Pharoah who built the second pyramid. It is the largest sphinx in Egypt. I have to say, it was really, really amazing to see this. And even more amazing that we dodged the overwhelming number of selfie sticks to get a photo!
[Trying not to laugh while going in for the kiss. Sphinx wasn’t having any of it.]
On the way to lunch, our guide gave us the option of chicken or beef. Instead of answering him, I pulled out an email from an Egyptian colleague listing all of the foods we needed to try while in Egypt. This went against their normal procedures, but he placed a special order with the restaurant. In the end, we were able to try several traditional Egyptian dishes including: koshari, foul & tamia, fattah, molokheya, basbousa, and konafa. it was delicious!
After lunch, we headed to the Egyptian Museum. This museum is home to the largest collection of Egyptian art in the world. It spans 5,000 years and includes items like the entire content of King Tut’s tomb. (I learned that this was the only tomb to be found completely in tact in the Valley of the Kings. The treasures of nearly every other tomb were stolen throughout history. The museum was mind blowing – partly because of the age & beauty of the collection and partly because of how many pieces were crammed into every room. Most of these items would warrant a room of their own in most Western museum, but here, it was literally overflowing with works to display. They are currently working on a new museum, but they still have at least a couple years of construction left. The strangest thing I saw in the museum? A mummified crocodile. It was HUGE!
The Rosetta Stone (housed in the British Museum in London) and the 3,000 year old bust of Queen Nefertiti (housed in the Neues Museum in Berlin) are the two prominent pieces of Egyptian art they hope to bring back to Egypt at some point.
During the recent NESCAFÉ Marketing Seminar, I met an Egyptian colleague. She was available to meet up with us while we were in town, which was so great! She brought along a new friend and fellow Nestlé colleague. We met at the Egyptian Museum and spent the rest of the day together!
The museum sits on Tahrir Square, which is now heavily guarded following the 2011 Revolution.
[Mubarak’s National Democratic Party headquarters was the first building to be burned during the Revolution. It remains like this as a symbol.]
From the museum, we went to the Citadel of Salah Al-Din. The Citadel is a medieval Islamic fortification. There is a large mosque in the style of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul as well as sweeping views of Cairo.
The views of the city were pretty awesome – especially because you can see the pyramids as part of the skyline on the left side of these pictures!
After the Citadel, we left our guide to spend the evening with our friends. They took us to the bazaar where we braved crossing a busy street in Cairo as pedestrians. This is not for the faint of heart!
They took us to dinner at a fabulous Egyptian restaurant called Abou El Sid. The atmosphere was cozy and beautiful. We sat in plush chairs around a large round table with a “lazy Susan” turntable in the middle – perfect for sharing all of the food we ordered. We tried so many different things! I couldn’t even decide what was my favorite, because it was all so good! It’s so fun to hang with the locals. They were wonderful hosts!
Our driver picked us up REALLY early on Sunday morning to go to the airport. (Can you say 5:45am?) In our attempt to see as much of Egypt as possible in two days, we took a day trip by plane to Luxor. The flight was quick – maybe 45-60 minutes. Somehow we were sitting in Business Class, so we ate some breakfast, and I was introduced to Guava juice, which is one of the best things I’ve ever had!
In Luxor, our driver met us at the airport, and we were off for another really full day. My first impression of Luxor was that it was WAY more peaceful than Cairo. There was a lot more green along the Nile River, and there was significantly less traffic. It was also much warmer than Cairo. Along the way to the Valley of the Kings, we saw the many sugar cane fields – one of their key agricultural items. Our guide explained to us how drastically tourism has declined since the Revolution. In the past, a place like Valley of the Kings would have around 7,000 tourists per day. Today, it receives around 1,000 tourists. This is great for avoiding lines and crowds, but it is hard for those dependent on the industry.
I knew NOTHING about Luxor prior to my arrival. I didn’t read anything in advance of this trip, so the day was full of surprises. I learned that it is known as the “World’s Finest Open Air Museum,” because of all the ancient treasures that can be found here. We saw quite a few gems during our short stay.
The Valley of the Kings is where the Pharaohs and other nobles were buried over a period of 500 years (from 16th century to 12th century B.C.). 63 different tombs have been uncovered in the area – most notably, the tomb of King Tut. As we learned in the Egyptian Museum the day before, this particular one is significant, because it was found completely in tact. Robbers didn’t find it to steal any of the treasures. Today, his tomb is empty, since the treasures are in the museum in Cairo. Because of this, we decided to skip it and visit three others.
I thought that we would be venturing into empty, bare rooms. Little did I know how complex and ornate these tombs were! What I took away from our guide was that the ancient Egyptians believed they needed to include everything in their tomb that they would need in the after life. This is why furniture, jewels, clothes, and other possessions were found in their tombs. They also memorized The Book of the Dead when they were living, so they would be able to complete various challenges presented to them on their way into the after life. In order for them to remember everything from The Book of the Dead, artists carved and painted the text on the walls and ceilings of the tombs for the Pharaoh to reference, if needed. The artwork in these tombs is 3,000-4,000 years old, and STILL there are vibrant colors visible. There is obviously some damage, but there is plenty preserved to get an incredible picture of how ornate and complex the tombs were.
[I don’t know how robbers even found the tombs. Who would think to start digging for buried treasure in a place that looks like this?!]
We visited three of the tombs:
- Ramses III
- Ramses IX
They do not want pictures taken in the tombs, because people will use flash. I smuggled a couple of poor images (sans flash) in an attempt to show the colors and detail of the paintings & carvings. These tombs were HUGE and simply incredible.
With my mind blown, we left the Valley of the Kings to pay a visit to the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut (also known as Al-Deir Al-Bahari Temple). Our Cairo guide told us that one way to try to pronounce the name of this queen is to think of blurring together the words “Hot Chicken Soup.” I don’t know about that, but I do know that she had a really impressive temple. Most of the Pharaohs focused on building a temple and a tomb when they came to power. Despite being a woman, Hatshepsut wore the traditional elements of a Pharaoh, including the false beard – all of which were meant to symbolize her power. The carvings and drawings on the walls and pillars throughout the temple were impressive – especially considering its construction in the 15th century B.C.
[Yours truly thought it would be fun if each of us posed in front of one of the statues of Hatshepsut. Unfortunately, in my attempt to dodge an Asian tourist also taking a picture, I didn’t align myself properly. This explains why the person taking the picture was trying to cut me out.]
We passed some really cool ruins after leaving the temple. The largest and most impressive being the Colossi of Memnon. These have been standing for 3,400 years!
We took a short motor boat ride across the Nile River to get to lunch.
[Can’t you just imagine baby Moses floating in a basket in these reeds?!]
After lunch, we were ready to see more of Luxor’s open air museum, and Karnak Temple did not disappoint! The amount of carvings we saw throughout the complex was staggering! As were the 134 ENORMOUS pillars! The temple was built more than 2,000 years ago, and it is the largest religious building ever constructed.
[Not sure why this guy wanted a picture with us, but we obliged…]
Our guide took us back to a hotel for a rest before our flight. But of course, we couldn’t miss out on squeezing in a few more stops before flying back to Cairo. We decided to walk to the Luxor Temple. It was only supposed to take 15-20 minutes, but when we were bombarded with people trying to sell us taxi rides, horse & buggy rides, and all kinds of souvenirs in the first minute of exiting the hotel, we decided to jump into a carriage to avoid being harassed the entire way to the temple.
We agreed to 5 Egyptian pounds per person before jumping in, and our driver chatted away and took pictures during the ride.
Just before arriving to the temple, the driver started whispering to my friend asking him how much money he had. When he confirmed that we were paying 5 Egyptian pounds per person, the driver freaked out claiming we agreed to 5 euros per person (nearly 10 times the original agreement). I don’t know if he anticipated the response that came out of the three feisty Americans in his carriage. Let’s just say that we paid him our originally agreed upon price expressing how disappointed we were with his dishonesty. Never a dull moment.
The sun was setting when we arrived at Luxor Temple. It was another impressive and beautiful temple. The “avenue of the sphinxes” outside of the temple originally stretched from Luxor Temple to Karnak Temple (the one we visited earlier). It’s roughly 1.5 miles long and was originally lined with approximately 1,800 sphinxes! Much of the avenue is covered by modern buildings, but the city is working to restore it. Around half of the original sphinxes have been uncovered. The temple itself was built around 1500 B.C. I cannot believe how old everything is!
[The most frightening ladder I’ve ever seen! Four ladders tied together. I don’t think you could pay me to climb it.]
We only had a short time to grab a quick snack before going back to the airport, so we stopped in McDonald’s (where I tried a McArabia). An entire group of tourists were in the restaurant prior to us. After a few minutes, we realized that nearly all of them were buying a special Egyptian edition of a McDonald’s beach towel. Not just one per person, but MANY towels per person! It was utter chaos. I was laughing SO HARD. The store manager had the biggest smile on his face. I’m sure he met his annual quota that night! We watched them sell between 80-90 towels to a single tour group! I just kept wondering, “how are they going to fit all of these towels in their luggage?!”
We landed in Cairo at 11:30pm, and I began my overnight journey back to Switzerland. With no direct flights to Geneva on Mondays, I experienced a day of planes, trains, and automobiles. Despite the madness, it was worth it to spend an incredible weekend taking in some of the oldest manmade statues, drawings, and buildings on earth.