At first we hadn’t planned to visit Cairo. The government is building a brand-new museum to host Egypt’s treasures: the “Grand Egyptian Museum,” set to open in 2018. Or 2019. Or early 2020. Or late 2020. Or 2021. Maybe. Locals explained that its being built on Egyptian Time, which is somewhat more vague and flexible than you’d get in, say, New York. When finished it will be the largest archaeological museum in the world, and we figured it would be better to see Egypt and the new museum on a separate trip someday. However, the airlines had other plans for us.
We’re paying for our flights with a stash of frequent flier miles and credit card points built up over 15+ years, and we had a challenge: get from Europe to our next destination (South Africa – about 5000 miles away) without breaking our budget. Furthermore we wanted to do this in an airline seat that wouldn’t leave me crippled for 3 days afterward. After spending more time searching than I want to admit, I found a budget-friendly routing through Cairo that would give us a bit of extra legroom on the long flight south. Once we knew we were going to have to stop over in Cairo anyway, we decided to take a day to see the Pyramids. I’m glad we did!
To make the most of our 30 hours in Cairo we hired a tour company to show us around. The tour coordinator met us at the airport the evening of our arrival and got us through immigration and customs quickly. Perhaps too quickly. “Please give me your passports. I will get them stamped.” He took our passports and visas, bypassed the lines for immigration completely, and disappeared through a door that was clearly a marked as a restricted area. A few minutes later he emerged with stamped passports. Turns out he “knows a guy,” and this is just how things are done here.
He then dropped us at our hotel, where we had eagerly forked out an extra $30 for a room with a view of the pyramids. We then learned the pyramids are not lit up at night, and our view was a whole lot of nothing. Oops.
The sunrise made up for lack of a nighttime view. We were up early for a busy day in Cairo, and found we had great view of the pyramids in the hazy early morning light. In the end our $30 was well-spent.
After breakfast our guide picked us up with her driver. We learned she majored in Egyptology and tourism in university, and she certainly knew her stuff. In our travels we’ve encountered some guides who can answer only superficial questions, whereas the best guides can go deep into detail on a given topic.
We had a full day of touring, starting with the pyramids. Thanks to National Geographic I used to think they were out in the middle of the desert. Nope – that’s just clever camera angles. This city of 20 million people comes right up to the edge of the plateau that is home to the pyramids. There is a 4-story Pizza Hut across the street from the Sphinx.
Encroaching city or not, the pyramids are huge and impressive. It still boggles my mind how old they are. They were well over a thousand years old when the Greek civilization came to power. They were more than 2500 years old when Jesus was born. The Great Pyramid was the world’s tallest human-made structure for nearly 4000 years!
Once you get to the pyramids, there’s not a whole lot to do other than take pictures. So we did that. Lauren and Nate also took a camel ride to get a different vantage point. Remembering the agony of my last camel ride, I stayed behind and admired the view. We also walked around the Sphinx, that proud and enigmatic cat poised to guard the pyramids for eternity.
Our guide then took us through Cairo’s chaotic streets to a couple of local workshops. The papyrus workshop included a genuinely interesting demonstration of how papyrus was made. This lasted maybe 3 minutes, and was followed immediately by a 20-minute sales pitch to get us to buy some papyrus with bad art painted on it. How bad you ask? Some glows in the dark. Enough said. We declined, which made the proprietor unhappy. Sorry bub. It at least had a decent restroom.
The other “workshop” was a jewelry store that could make customized silver charms. We escaped that with minimal damage to our wallets. (To the tour guide’s credit this second workshop was offered to us as optional, and Lauren wanted to go). We skipped the “old market” which (based on the guide’s tone) must be just cheap tourist stuff made in China.
A quick visit to the old quarter followed. This part of town sports a Coptic church and an impressive synagogue.
Lunch was at a large restaurant on the fabled Nile River. We ate traditional lentil soup and a mixed grill of meat accompanied by some tasty bread. The only other people in our restaurant were other tourist groups and their guides. However there were plenty of locals at the restaurant downstairs: Chili’s. 🌶
After lunch we crossed the Nile to visit the “old” Egyptian Museum. This museum dates back to the early 1900s. It’s large but quite tired inside – I can see why they are building a new one. Many exhibits are in decaying, poorly-lit wood cases with hand-lettered paper signs. The collection includes lots of fascinating artifacts like mummies, statues, and jewelry. Some of these are in the process of being packed up for shipping to the new museum, which I hope provides much better presentation of these treasures.
The highlight of the collection is the King Tut room, which houses Tutankhamen’s famous gold death mask and coffins. Tutankhamen was a relative nobody compared to other pharaohs. He died at age 18 without accomplishing anything of note. The only reason he’s famous is that his tomb was discovered intact (long ago grave robbers looted the other tombs we know about). Nonetheless he was buried with incredible riches. His death mask, made from 22 lbs of gold, is absolutely marvelous. Less-famous but equally stunning were the coffins he was buried in. Pharaohs were buried in multiple coffins (like Russian nesting dolls). Tut had 3 of them, 2 of which are on display here. One is made of wood covered in gold leaf, and the other is of gold – more than 200 pounds of it, all ornately decorated. Unfortunately we don’t have pictures; photos are not allowed in the King Tut room.
We finished the day with a leisurely sunset sail on the Nile in a felucca, a traditional sailboat. By this point we were exhausted, and in the evening we happily zoned out at the airport lounge for a couple hours before our 11pm flight.
Egypt has much more to offer than you can fit into a day, and I’d love to come back someday to explore the Valley of the Kings, see the new museum, and more.