Back in Cairo
After a quick flight from Luxor, we landed in Cairo, checked into the local Marriott, turned around, and went right back out to continue our tour of the ancient wonders: grand houses of worship, the Giza Pyramids and Sphinx, and the Egyptian museum. This was my seventh day in Egypt, the fifth day on the official tour, and there was still so much to see.
Multi-cultural Old Cairo
We spent our first afternoon in Old Cairo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that dates back to Roman times. It has magnificent buildings representing its varied religious history. We went first to the Coptic Church, a stronghold for Christianity in Islamic Egypt that includes the Hanging Church (a nave that is suspended over a passage) and a museum with wonderful examples of Coptic art. They say that the Holy Family (Joseph and Mary) stopped here on the way to Jerusalem, giving it added importance. Next, we visited the Ben Ezra Synagogue, which was built on the site where many claim Baby Moses was found. We were on very hallowed ground!
Great Pyramids and the Sphinx
The following day, we went to Giza to see the most iconic of the iconic monuments: the Great Pyramids, the only wonder of the ancient world that has survived to the present day, and the Sphinx, my favorite.
I didn’t know that this site included the Step Pyramid of Sakkara, known to be the very first pyramid ever constructed in Egypt. New to me, stepped pyramids were an early phase in the development of the better-known pyramid shape with smooth sides. This one was part of a complex with courtyards and columns, much of which still stand. Like all pyramids, it was a mortuary. The steps provided a convenient staircase that the King could climb when he was resurrected to join the Sun God Ra in the sky.
Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure
They have names! The three “big guys” of Giza are elaborate tombs named for the monarchs who would be buried there: King Khufu (a.k.a. Cheops), Pharaoh Khafre, and Pharoah Menkaure. The three smaller pyramids near them are called the Queens’ Pyramids and might have been built forthree wives.
Made of huge stacked limestone blocks, they originally had a white limestone covering. Imagine how they shone in the bright desert sun!
There are many theories about how these pyramids were built. For certain they have an astronomical alignment. Continuing research shows that they were surrounded by a city where the workers probably lived and a port to bring in the needed materials. These mind-boggling, ancient achievements sit majestically in a vast desert but now they are surrounded by an array of present-day tourist offerings — stuff to buy, camels to ride, people to take your pictures for a small price while you act silly. Just one of the many strange juxtapositions of old grandeur and newer less-grand culture.
The Great Sphinx
Even less is know about the Great Sphinx, a monolith carved into the bedrock of the plateau, which also served as the quarry for the pyramids and other monuments in the area. The best estimates are that it was built around 2500 BC for the pharaoh Khafre, who also built the second of the three pyramids of Giza and might bear a model of his face.
As the photos show, by this point, many of us did feel silly. I could have quit here, completely satisfied. I was definitely on overload. Luckily, we had the afternoon to ourselves.
Our last day
Not much could top all that, but the Egyptian Museum offered something different — a quieter, more reflective experience. Despite the fact that much of its contents were in transit to a new larger building, the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM), there were still many, many artifacts and relics that provide a comprehensive survey of Egyptian history.
Museums take time; there is so much to read and absorb. Unfortunately, we only had a few hours. We did get into the mummy room, a very popular exhibit, but we missed a lot. If you go, allow more than a morning. In fact, allow more than a day.
After lunch, our next stop was the Citadel of Salah El Din. Built in the 12th century to protect the city from attacking Crusaders, it sits on a hilltop with spectacular views of the city. The Mohammed Ali Mosque is situated on the summit of the citadel and is relatively modern, being built on the ancient site in 1830s-40s. With its huge dome and twin minarets, it’s the most visible mosque in Cairo.
We all left our shoes at the entrance, the women covered their heads, and our group filed inside to sit quietly in a circle on the floor of the vast interior for a lecture on the building’s history.
Our final stop
We needed one more shopping opportunity! Going directly from the sacred to the profane, we followed our somber mosque visit with a drive through the bustling city and a walk through Khan El Khalili Bazaar, one of the of the biggest commercial centers of the city with vendors selling everything you could want.
The capital city. Cairo, a once magnificent city, is now in various stages of decay. It seems sadly forgotten as the country builds a new very expensive, ultra-modern city to replace its capital. I suspect that money and status will determine what becomes of Cairo and who will be let behind to live there.
The ancient people. The Egyptians were technologically advanced, prolific, and superstitious with a complicated religious culture. Their engineering feats have stood throughout time and their artistic symbolism intrigues us to this day. Mummies and artifacts are still being unearthed from this giant outdoor museum. The mysteries abound. Egyptology is still a vital course of study.
The desert. Egypt is in the Sahara desert, which is considerably dryer than the deserts I know in US southwest. Practically void of plant life, it was hard to find even a cactus growing. The palm trees were often the only greenery; the dust was everywhere. I’d never seen so much sand… and in the middle of it all was a sizable river!
The gender divide. Men (and boys) clearly dominate the public spaces. We met just a few women who were working in the hotel or as guides, all attractively dressed in stylish, modern clothing. I saw no female guards or vendors. The only woman employed on the entire ship was the masseuse. The other women that we saw shopping or walking along the streets were in traditional dress with their heads covered, and some with a niqab or a complete burqa.
Our fortunate timing. At the time, what seemed like harmless everyday interactions could have been a disaster. In addition to our costume party aboard the cruise ship, opportunities for contagion were everywhere. The ships docked three abreast and we walked through every one to get on and off. We served ourselves breakfast and lunch from buffet tables. We shook hands with everyone we met, hugged our new friends. We were close to vendors, touching their goods. And, at every point of interest, we handed our phones to guards and guides to take our photos, only occasionally wiping them off. On March 7, a few days after I returned, a Nile cruise ship was quarantined for a COVID-19 outbreak.
Months later, I think of this trip as a potential super-spreader event, and again realize how lucky we were — lucky to have done it so comfortably (thanks to YTT Journey), lucky to return healthy. Now, as I shelter in my home and stay 6 feet from everyone (whenever I do venture outside wearing my face mask), I shudder to think back to this. And yet…and yet…I loved it all and am very glad I went.