A trilogy of Egypt: Part 1 - Cairo
Anyone interested in culture or history has Egypt on their list of top ten travel destinations. Egyptian monuments and architecture outdate most other places in the world and possess a style and grandeur that is seemingly impossible. This series of articles explores 3 travel destinations in Egypt; the focus here is Egypt's capital city Cairo.
Egypt's history is vast, complex and influenced by many different societies. To entertain such a history is unrealistic in this article but to appreciate the attractions of the country, the following brief is offered.
Egypt developed a politically organized society around 5000 BC. Two separate kingdoms developed around 4000 BC, one in the delta and one along the Nile. These were brought together under one pharaoh by approximately 3000 BC. From here the pharaohs ruled for 3000 years under 30 dynastic families. The pyramids at Giza were built during the phase of the agricultural Old Kingdom during the 3rd to the 6th dynasties, BC.
The history and development of Cairo is almost as old as Egypt itself spanning over 4000 years and under the influence of a vast array of civilizations and cultures. Depending on its rulers it frequently changed its name but the city itself survived whatever its denomination. Cairo's founders, the Ancient Egyptians, thrived for the majority of the centuries BC. There was Greek influence during this period but it was not until the Persian army invaded in 525BC that any other cultures became more significant in its history. Following Cleopatra's death in 30BC, Egypt fell under Roman control and existed as a Roman province rather than an Egyptian empire.
From this time until 640AD, the Romans had the greatest influence on Cairo. However, then came the introduction of Islam, whereby a muslim army defeated the war-torn Romans and the first Arabic ruler of Egypt was betrothed. Islam had a profound effect on the growth of Cairo with the development of not only many religious buildings but in accordance with the teachings of Islam, also many educational institutes and hospitals. A Citadel which still remains today was also part of the Islamic legacy of this era.
In the following years, many battles over territory and religion were fought within Egypt, until the 16th Century when the Ottomans attacked and conquered Cairo and imposed Turkish rule on the city and region. The Ottomans remained in Egypt for many hundreds of years until their empire was unable to maintain its stronghold on distant lands.
In 1797, the French invaded Alexandria and assumed presence in Cairo. Their reign was short-lived but significant as they were the first people to actually begin to interpret the ancient Egyptian carvings. The British were quick to capitalize on their rivals findings and sent troops to battle for Egypt in 1799; by 1801 they, alongside the Ottomans were the prominent force in the country. They remained influential throughout the 19th Century until after WWII. By 1954 all British soldiers had left the country. Egypt was then declared a Republic, with Mohamed Naguib as the first president.
With such an extensive history as well as a rich mixture of influence, it is not surprising that Cairo is a fascinating place to visit.
Cairo is a vast city with a population of around 20 million. Summers in Cairo are extreme with temperatures frequently in the 40s. Summer in the majority of Egypt in fact is unpleasantly hot and hence it is best to avoid a visit in June, July and August. Most visitors can easily obtain a 3 month single entry visa prior to entering Egypt or even at Cairo airport if necessary.
Once into Cairo, there are many places for tourists to stay particularly in the central area. In this region there are also numerous eatarys both traditional and for the less adventurous, western fast-food joints. Much to the dismay of many, it is even possible to spot a Pizza Hut sign whilst standing next to the Sphinx.
The most well-known attractions of Cairo are the pyramids.
The pyramids were built by the Ancient Pharaohs of Egypt to securely house their body and possessions from tomb raiders so that they would be able to enter the after-life with themselves and all their possessions in tact. Tomb raiders had much incentive to break into these burial chambers as all the Pharaoh's treasures and precious items were placed alongside the deceased Pharaoh.
The pyramids were thought to be a safe haven (but all of them fell victim at some point to the thieves), as well as a place of worship for people, as Pharaohs were the mortal Gods of ancient Egypt.
The most famous of the pyramids are those found at Giza in a suburb of Cairo, but there are also many other pyramids to view, notably the Red and Bent Pyramids.
The first pyramid to be built successfully was the Red Pyramid which can be found at Dahshur. It was built in the 4th Dynasty by Pharaoh Sneferu. The Red pyramid is one of the only pyramids that you can enter inside to view the burial chambers. Visitors ascend part of the way up the pyramid on the outside steps and then are able to move through a small, narrow corridor and then down a few hundred steps into the large burial chamber. The chamber itself is vast and contains reminents of where the pharaoh was to be buried. The descent to the inner heart of the pyramid however is pretty dusty and closed in and not recommended for those in the least claustrophobic.
Under the same ruler, another pyramid, now known as the Bent Pyramid, was also created. This was an attempt at a true pyramid but whilst it was being built the structure became unstable so the angle of the walls were changed from 54 to 43 degrees two thirds of the way up the pyramid.
The Red Pyramid also had structural support issues but these were solved by building a roof chamber inside the pyramid to stabilize the top section.
The Red and Bent Pyramids are the third largest pyramids in the world and are superb spectacles to visit prior to visiting those at Giza. They are easy to reach from Cairo but have fewer visitors each year and you are also able to inspect the amazing architecture without having continual harassment by hawkers.
The Pyramids of Giza are the largest in the world and are possibly the greatest architectural achievement ever. There are three pyramids in this location; the pyramid of Cheops, that of Chepren and the much smaller pyramid of Mycerinus. They have remained for thousands of years, survived earthquakes, erosion, and wars. They were created by thousands of men moving and chiseling huge mounds of rocks without any motorized machinery. Much of the stone used to create the pyramids was transported by boat up the Nile to its present location. Each individual piece of stone is almost half the height than the average adult and at least twice as wide.
Thousands of these blocks were moved and placed on top of each other to create the astounding pyramids. It is not surprising thus that they took many decades to complete. One cannot fully appreciate the pyramids until they actually see them close up and then the size and strength of them begins to be realized. To do this however, you must survive the continual barrage from the almost as infamous hawkers who require a firm and determined negative if you do not want to buy souvenirs or ride their camels.
Next to the pyramids of Giza is the mysterious Sphinx with the body of a lion and the head of a man or God. It is not known why the Sphinx was built although there is much speculation regarding its conception. The face of the Sphinx now has parts missing as a result of vandalism during the Ottomans rule.
After visits to the pyramids and the Sphinx, the next logical stop is the museum in Cairo which is another inspiring experience. The museum isdaily until 5pm. Perhaps most fascinating in the museum are the mummies which are showcased still in tact from their original burial.
Mummification involved removing all of the moisture from the bodies as well as all of the internal organs. The brain was pulled out through the nose as it was deemed not necessary for the upcoming eternal life. The heart was the only organ left in the body and was thought to carry the soul and intelligence of the Pharaoh. The body was covered with a type of salt and then wrapped in linen. Many rituals took place during the mummification which was performed by special priests.
Visitors are also enamoured with the tomb of Tutankhamun, one of the only tombs ever discovered which had not been ransacked by tomb raiders. Hence the museum exhibits some of the treasures found with the Pharaoh. Tutankhamun's tomb was found in 1922 by a British archaeologist Howard Carter. The story goes that once theyd the tomb the archaeologist became cursed. A trip to the museum tells the whole story after that.
Besides the amazing ancient history of Cairo, there are also many interesting present-day cultural aspects to view in the city. For a shopping experience, a good trip to undertake is a visit to a perfume shop. There is an excellent one located close to the Sphinx where you are able to try all the different perfumes available which are pure flower essence not manufactured products like Chanel or Lancome. The shops claim that these flower essences are so pure that only a single drop is needed. It is quite amazing how similar the pure flower aromas are to the manufactured perfumes, and of course at half the cost. Another traditional industry worth viewing is the papyrus making.
For an insight into everyday life of Cairo, a visit to one of the many bazaars is a great day or night out. The vast markets sell a mirage of items from traditional Egyptian food to pots and pans, to tourist souvenirs. The quarter of Cairo known as Khan El-Khalili is a fascinating place where one can easily experience an Egyptian bazaar. Haggling is the only way to buy so if you do want to make a purchase be ready to enjoy the sport and remember the seller will never sell if they don't make a profit so don't feel guilty about working for a fair price.
To get a taste of the more traditional bazaar, walk away from the centre square towards the back of the bazaar. Quickly the glitz of the tourist stands fade and every day items are sold at basic stands in the alleys. Chants ring out from the mosques calling people to prayer, and a bombardment of smells and sights offer a different side of Cairo where money is scarce but culture is rich, and a certain wisdom shows in the faces of the hard-working peoples. To get a real understanding of the area, the famous trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz is a recommended read.
Mingled close to the Bazaar are the stunning mosques such as the El-Husayn mosque. Although they can be appreciated from afar, the intricate design and the absolute devotion demonstrated within the mosques cannot be explored from such a distance. Whatever your faith, it is possible to enter mosques and view the interior but shoes must be removed and out of respect do not visit during the 5 times of prayer each day.
Finally, Cairo is not complete without a taxi ride. The speed and skill at which the taxi cabs drive is unparalleled and surpasses any rollercoaster ride. Three lanes of traffic somehow dilate into five and a new language is born; that of the horn. Cars whisper past each other with centimeters to spare, horns are blasted at various intonations clearly the code for maneuvering although only the foolish would try and interpret whether two or three beeps signals a move right or left or faster or slower. Despite this amazing system, no accidents were seen and the only slightly strange incidence was a car parked upside down on its roof.
It would be easy to spend a week in Cairo and still only touch the surface. However most visitors only assign a couple of days to Cairo which is understandable when Egypt carries so many incredible sights in other regions of the country. Whatever the time frame, most visitors come away with the memory of a captivating, diverse city and many are compelled to return to this absorbing place.
Photos courtesy of Photo Reality
Lonely Planet Egypt. Lonely Planet Publications
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