“Even the birds have to be louder here to be heard across the din of the traffic!”
Climb up to the top of the El Azhar Park and you will, at a glance, know that Cairo is chaotic. Right next to the monstrosity that are modern skyscrapers is a forest of minarets outdoing each other in trying to dominate the skyline. Closer to the eye, you can spot a hotchpotch amalgamation of slums: a mud-brick shanty town with children and mothers spending time on the streets instead of inside the suffocating, dark homes (most of which were on the verge of collapse!). I took a microbus where the Egyptian passenger strangely addressed me in French and dropped me off at the necropolis— the Bab el-Wazir cemetery. Imagine graves all around and an abandoned city, and walking through the dirt and dust alone. The longest 30 minutes of my life. Past that, don’t trust Google maps, because the arrows always point in the wrong direction. And while I was trying to find my way across the street, a 15-ft manhole without any guardrails whatsoever was just inches away. Never mind the kids running around the road that was destroyed thanks to the torrential downpour the day before. Finally, on reaching the Ibn Tulun mosque, I was bombarded by a bunch of eager kids professing the ‘I love You’ and ‘Welcome to Egypt’ that they had picked up and maybe that they would put to use in adulthood. Overall, an exhausting day, but as they say Rome (or Cairo) wasn’t built in a day and neither can you explore it in a day!

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Places to visit:

  • Egyptian Museum
  • Giza Pyramids Complex
  • Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara (we rented a private taxi from the Giza metro station and went to the Giza Pyramids for EGP20 one way. The driver offered to take me from the Giza Pyramids to Djoser’s Pyramid and back for EGP 200)
  • Pyramids of Abusir, Dahshur and Memphis (I went along to the Giza metro station the next day to negotiate the best price on taxis, after having gone to Giza the previous day. For EGP 650, we took the taxi and even negotiated with local ‘guides’ to take us to locations that are way off the tourist trail and ones that can only be accessed by private cab)
  • Islamic Cairo: Mosque of Mohammad Ali, Citadel of Salah El Din Al Ayouby, Mosque-madrassa of Sultan Hassan, Al Rif’ai mosque
  • Ibn Tulun Mosque (one of the oldest mosques in Egypt, and you get a splendid view from the top of the minaret, it’s not officially a government tourist spot and hence you just need to pay a donation for the mosque and get led in by a bunch of babbling kids!)
  • Gayer-Anderson Museum (right next to the Ibn Tulun Mosque)
  • El Azhar Park with a view onto Mansheya Nasir—‘the city of garbage’ that shot to fame with the 2009 documentary by Mai Iskander, Garbage Dreams. What was shocking was that even as Cairo privatises its garbage collection, only 20% of it gets recycled against the traditional zaballeen (a 20,000 to 30,000-strong Coptic Christian minority that lives in Mansheya Nasir) garbage collectors who recycle rate is 80%. Go to any leading restaurant chain and you would be shocked at how families of 5-6 members order food that is always 50% in excess of their needs. And what happens to the rest? It is filled into plastic bags and thrown in the garbage. On a journey back from Siwa to Mersa Matruh, near the Libyan border, we literally saw an entire 1-km stretch of the desert littered with unrecyclable plastic as far as the eye could see.
  • Khan-el-Khalili Market (how to reach: Ataba station, the metro costs EGP2; and a micro-bus which costs EGP5; the cab costs EGP15)
  • Cairo Tower and strolls along Gezira Island
  • Al Muqattam (highest point in the city) with its Coptic cave churches (you will have to take a cab back and forth because there is no public transportation available, besides, this is best visited during sunset)
  • Tahrir Square
  • American University in Cairo (AUC Bookstore)—what really caught my eye, for my fascination with Middle-Eastern geopolitics were Jerusalem by Nicholas Blincoe, The Impossible Revolution—Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy by Yassin Al Halsaleh, Egypt After Mubarak by Bruce K. Rutherford, Syria and Iran by Jubin M. Goodarzi, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Ilan Pappe and the works of the Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz. Amongst the famous Egyptian authors, you could also look out for Jaques Hassoun, Harry Tzalas, Ahmed Youssef, Azza Heikal and Robert Solé (all of whom I’d read about thanks to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina)
  • Old Cairo (Mar Girgis): get off the metro station and within walking distance is the Hanging Church, St. Sergius and St. Bacchus church—believed to be the resting place of Mary during her flight into Egypt, St. George shrine, Fortress of Babylon

If you have additional time and are accompanied by hard-nosed parents/elder siblings, only then do you need to consider the remaining sites on this list!

  • Abdeen Palace
  • Manasterly Palace
  • Cairo Opera House
  • Museum of Islamic Art
  • Mukhtar Museum
  • Coptic Museum

Places to eat at:

  • Kaber Sobhy restaurant (it’s wise to book in advance as the waiting lines can get very, very long—but the wait is totally worth it for the sheer quantity of food and its freshness. The owner started out his outlet as a butcher’s shop, which still exists at a corner of the restaurant—can’t get fresher than that!)
  • El Karnak Pastry, Tahrir Square for Qonbela ice-cream with fruits
  • City Stars, Mall of Arabia
  • Kebdet Elprince (for camel) in Cairo
  • Pizza Place, Nasr City
  • City Crepe, Tahrir (Elwahsh: EGP30) and (Hbesha: EGP35-40)—even though we couldn’t locate it using Google maps :/

Places to stay at:

  • Dahab hostel (EGP100 per night because of the AIESEC discount). But you need to reserve ASAP because they fill up very soon
  • Otherwise, the Vienna Hostel (in the same building, on the 3rd floor) where you can bargain and bring the room rental down to EGP80


    Too many mummies in here!
    Graeco-Roman funerary portraits (Faiyum portraits) have such a haunting quality
    The only statue of the guy who built the ‘Great’ Pyramids, Khufu (a.k.a Cheops). The irony!
    Howard Carter,you lucky man! This is the throne of Tutankhamun, where he is lazing in the sun (with the outstretched blessing hands of the Aten) and having his sister-wife, Ankhes-en-pa-amun have oil applied on him. This guy overturned the monotheistic cult introduced by his dad, Akhenaten, and even changed his name to please the old gods, from Tut-ankh-aten to Tut-ankh-amun! Badass @ the age of 9. That’s when he ascended the throne BTW, died @ 18 though 😦 
    Battle scenes (obviously, which king doesn’t!)—vanquishing Nubians and Syrians
    Tut-ankh-amun’s head rising from a lotus bloom (ancient Egyptian beauty par description)
    Even kings had a childhood: Tutankhamun’s sandal
    Art from the Amarna Period, during the reign of Akhenaten (reigned 1353-1336 B.C.) ushered in a period of realistic (and not stylishly athletic) bodies of the royal family in their most intimate moments (children playing on the laps of their parents and Nefertiti in a lip-lock with her daughter). The royal family was to be worshipped by ordinary Egyptians while Akhenaten and his family ushered in the monotheistic worship of the solar disk—the Aten, to counter the increasing influence of the priests of Amun at Thebes. Right after his death, however, the Egyptians returned to their traditional polytheistic ways and even completely abandoned the water-starved new capital at Tell El-Amarna (then called Akhetaten). His son, Tut-ankh-aten took the throne at age 9 and renamed himself Tut-ankh-amun to seal the fate of his father’s anachronistic religious revolution
    Graeco-Roman funerary portraits (Faiyum portraits) have such a haunting quality
    Throne again (he had way too much gold to handle)

    What an adventure. Bump into two French-Moroccans and go to the entire gamut of pyramids: from Saqqara (that of King Djoser, built by the deified Imhotep) to Abusir. Life seems to go by while the sarcophagi of these god-kings lie in neglect, just beyond which the desert ‘stretches far far away’. I was so reminded of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, ‘Paradise Lost’. Egypt, you have been so much more than I could ever ask for. Have to be back for more, and maybe stumble upon a discovery myself!


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