5 – Finally visiting Cairo!

05.10.2017

After the rather comfortable and shortish (6 1/2 hours) bus journey I was finally in Cairo. A place that was high on my bucket list. I was happy that I made it.

Usually I visit cities without any guide, exploring the place in my own (very slow) pace, trying to see the highlights and maybe less touristy place. However, having only 2 days and my desire to visit some of the pyramids I did something unusual for me – I got myself a guide and car. Doing some research it was interesting to see the difference of prices and tours on offer. One guide I contacted wanted around €30 per hour, plus car & driver. After doing some research, speaking to a few agencies and checking reviews I booked a 2 day tour with Excursion Cairo Day Tour. I had a few emails with them, and agreed a day tour through Cairo and a day trip to the pyramids for $52 per day, including a guide, car and driver. During that email conversation I also got the impression that I could ask for some changes to the itinerary, as long it is within the agreed time for each day.

So getting out of the bus, my guide Mina was already waiting for me, a sign with my name in his hands. Wow – that worked perfect already. Short welcome and he ushered me towards the car waiting for us. So no need to worry about my backpack during the journey – perfect. The driver for the two days was Ahmed, and I can already say – I felt perfectly save in the car.

However, the first ride was rather short, as after 2 minutes I had to get out of the car. We already arrived at the first destination of the day: the Egyptian Museum. I must confess, I was very excited about this. I read a fair bit about it, and that you can spend hours in here, and still only see the highlights. The ticket was included in the tour, so I only had to pay 50LE. That is €2,50. I happily pay that to allow taking photos inside. Though before we could enter we had to wait a little bit. The bus arrived so early,  we were there before the doors opened at 9am. No problem for me, it gave me some times to take some photos of the square in front of the entrance, with a little fountain, some old statues and a nice view of the building. it seems it is a popular activity as everyone did it (no permit required for that). At least I got one nice shot of me in front of the museum. This must count as proof that I was really in Cairo!!!

The doors opened, and thanks to Mina we somehow managed to get in very quickly. And wow, even at the entrance you could see how impressive this museum is. And why you can spend hours in here. After the metal detector you enter the main hall, with century old statues, sarcophagus and other stone tablets. Mina started the tour turning left, where the oldest pieces are. He showed me some of the first pieces of the various dynasties, providing some interesting facts. We passed some old stone gates found in the various ruins, covered in hieroglyphs. I couldn’t really imagine the ages of some of the pieces. I am from a city founded by the romans, with ruins dating back to the first century, but some of the pieces are 4.000 years old!!!!!

I realised very quickly that a guide in the museum is a great investment. Mina told me about the different dynasties, the material of the different pieces, the history about some of the artifacts. No book or audio guide could do that. For me having a person with you is priceless. Even though I have probably forgotten most of it again.

After covering the oldest artifacts on the ground floor we headed to the first floor, with some interesting, like some golden boxes that were filled with smaller boxes presented next to each other. Again, hard to believe when it was all created. On this floor is one of the highlights of the museum – the Tutankhamun exhibition. In here is the famous mask and other golden relics belonging to one of the most famous Egyptian pharaoh. Seeing these items are something special, and it is worth to read the various description for each item. Please note that no photography is allowed in this room – even with the permit you might have bought. For me, entering this room was something special.

Mina continued to show me around the first floor and once again, learning about the history was fascinating. Though I must admit, while Mina’s decision to cover the left side of the ground floor and then heading up to Tutankhamun exhibition was great to avoid the crowds, I now realised how busy it can be. Tourists standing closely around small items, so you have to wait to see what it is. So certainly make sure you get to the museum as early as possible. Though I still found time for some selfies as well.

So after 1 hour we made it to the Mummy room – and here Mina gave me two options. We leave the museum now, or I head to the mummy room (in his opinion not worth the 200LE) and explore a bit more of the museum. So I told him I want to see the mummies and to see more of the museums – so he told me to meet me outside the museum in 40 minutes. Well, I was a bit surprised and just agreed. I was hoping to spend more time at the museum with a guide. But I just let it go.

So off I paid the entrance fee for the mummy room and got in. Whatever people might tell you – in my humbling opinion it is worth every single $, €, £ or LE. I have never seen anything like that. It is a room you walk around three rows with mummies, but if you think you can walk through it in 5 minutes you might be mistaken. I found it fascinating to see the little details of these mummies, centuries old and still seeing their teeth, fingers, hair etc. It can be a bit creepy, but wow, it is impressive. I loved that room, and I only left after 15 minutes as I wanted to see more of the museum. I should add, that I love to take my time to experience places. It was the same here.

After the mummy room I walked a bit further around the museum. Seeing all these artifacts is just mind-blowing (sorry if I repeat myself here!!!). You will hear a lot of people saying that you can spend a lot of time in this museum and still not see everything. And they are right. Besides the sarcophagus exhibited, old gates and other items maybe the most impressive item is clearly the large statue of Amenophis III in one of the main central rooms on the ground floor. Yes, it is very big and impressive.

Unfortunately time was running quite fast and I agreed to be outside at 10:30 – and it was already 10:45. So unfortunately it was time to leave the museum. So at the exit one person had clearly some sense of humour, considering the sign on top of an exhibit. Loved it.

Meeting Mina outside and walking back to the car I must admit that I would have preferred staying longer inside the museum with a guide One hour is clearly not enough, I think walking around  1 1/2 hour plus the mummy room would have been slightly better. Maybe even 2 hours.

Back in the cold car we headed out and I could see Tahir Square properly. For some reason I imagined it different, and not this busy square full with cars. Well – with the amount of people in the past it just looked different…

Driving through the city I got another impression of Cairo. Here in the city centre I could see some stunning old building – and not as grey as the buildings I spotted on the way into Cairo. We passed a few mosques and markets, and seeing these places I had the desire to say stop the car and lets walk around here. I just love local markets and little alleys when visiting a city. But I stayed quiet and we headed to the next destination – the Saladin Citadel of Cairo, the old fortress in the centre of Cairo, located on a hill.

Arriving at the bottom of the citadel I was glad to see that I had to walk uphill for a little bit….not!!! But I must say, seeing the wall from the outside was a bit impressive, and it got better being inside (seeing my camera bag going through security like anywhere else in Cairo). Mina offered to take a little Golf Cart to the top, but I declined. I am not that old yet. So up we walked, heading up a few stairs until we arrived in front of the most impressive building inside the citadel – the Mosque of Muhammad Ali. With the few domes and two minarets it is just stunningly beautiful. Mina pointed out where to get a good photo of me and the mosque in the background, so obviously I did as I was told. And yes – the photo looked great. But now I was keen to get inside. First we entered the large courtyard of the mosque. With the alabaster pillars and walls, and a fountain in the middle. This section alone was already very impressive. I liked it.

Then it was time to enter the mosque. And was I impressed seeing the mosque of the outside, it was nothing in comparison from the inside. It was a huge open room, with a number of domes above your head. The walls and ceilings were just beautiful, the huge chandelier in the middle of the hall. You certainly look tiny inside this mosque. One highlight was the prayer that took place. The sound of the song was intense, but beautiful. The acoustic in there is just breath-taking. I was 100% lucky to be there at the right moment. I really was impressed. A great place to visit. And by far the most impressive mosque I have visited so far (and I must admit I only have visit some smaller ones in Turkey before…).

One important notice, please note that this is an active mosque. So please be respectful when visiting it.Take your shoes and hat off and keep your voice down to a minimum! It should be common sense, but too often have I seen tourists behaving inappropriately at religious sites.

Out of the mosque I was welcomed to another impressive site – a platform with a grand view over Cairo. From up there I really realised how big Cairo actually is. I saw some rather impressive Mosques that I thought would be nice to visit. Some older buildings and a lot of the brown buildings I have seen before. It is just stunning. And then I spotted something that made me shortly speechless. In the far distance I saw the pyramids. I knew I would see them very soon, but having a first glimpse of them was just amazing. And made me even more excited. I felt a bit like a child on Christmas eve seeing all the presents wrapped up, knowing soon I was allowed to open them!!! I was certainly very happy.

After a last longish look at the Mosque of Muhammad Ali we walked back to the entrance, as it was time for lunch. In hindsight I should maybe have spent more time to see more to the citadel, as I only saw a few old towers and the walls. 

Mina gave me some options for lunch and for a change I choose the most touristy option – having lunch at he river Nile. Come on, I am in Cairo, so having lunch there is a unique option. So the A/C car brought us to the river, and I was standing in front of a boat – our lunch spot. However, I was slightly confused as the as some of the signs looked a bit Chinese. I really hoped that I was not getting a Chinese lunch.

Inside it looked a bit busy, but we got a table next to the window looking out towards the river. Great!!! For lunch I had an option to use the buffet or getting a barbecued chicken with rice. I chose the chicken. Mina and Ahmed joined me for lunch, and it was nice to spend some relaxing time with them. I learned more about Mina and his family, and life in Egypt in general. The food was actually nice. So while it was touristy, it was ok. In the end I paid 300 LE, which included the food for all 3 of us. So I was ok with that. Besides, I can claim that I was ON the river Nile.

Back in the car we headed to the next stop – the Coptic area. The ride there was rather interesting to see more of Cairo and some interesting looking grave yards. I was actually looking forward to this, as I love exploring little alleys and churches, so I was happy when we arrived. And it turned out that Mina is Coptic, so I was getting some interesting insights! Obviously I am not the only person interested in the area, so I saw quite a few touristy. And I was amazed that even here you can not walk around without walking into Chinese groups. They are everywhere, wherever you go on this planet you will most likely meet a Chinese tour group!!!

Passing the remains of the Babylon Fortress, with is now home of the St. George Monastery, and one of the old Romans towers, we headed to one of the highlights in this area – the famous Hanging Church.

Before entering the actual church you walk into this little courtyard (after the usual security check). With the little trees and flower beds it looked very simple, but peaceful and beautiful. And then there are for me the highlights of the yard –  a number of mosaic paintings on the wall, covering the story of the journey of Holy Family. They are just beautiful, and add something special to the yard. And then there is the entrance to the church, the two towers raising behind the stairs. Inside the actual it is not allowed to take any photos, as it is an active religious site. While I fully understand the reasoning for that, deep down I was slightly disappointed as the church is beautiful inside, with a lot of wooden pillars and planks as well as various icons, adding a simplicity and beauty to it. Mina told me a little about the structure of the interior, and also pointed out where the name of Hanging Church comes from. it is very simple, the nave of the church has no fixed ground, but is suspending above a passage. You can see this marvellous structure through some holes on the floor. So it is certainly an impressive building, and a rather beautiful church.

Having visited the first highlight of the area we continued the tour, walking inside the narrow alley of the Coptic area. I was actually now in my element, as I love walking through such alleys when visiting a city. It was no different. The main alley is quite narrow, with souvenir stalls on both sides, selling books and some religious items. The alley itself was quite dark due to the walls of the old, beautiful buildings, with some wooden streams connecting the buildings on both side. It was just stunning. From that main alley you could see smaller alleys turning right and left, and I would have just loved to leave the main alley and explore the smaller ones. They looked so inviting. Instead we continued the main path until we reached one of the most important churches – the Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church.

It is believed that the church is built above the cave where the Holy Family stayed during their journey in Egypt. So many people visit the church to visit this famous cave. But before I actually visited the cave I entered the church, and my first impression was just very simple – WOW. It is a stone building, the red and white bricks clearly visible, adding a nice colourful contrast. The beautiful wooden ceiling is resting on top of you, with a little dome standing at the back of the church. Add the stone pillars on both sides and you have one beautiful church. Again, it has a simplicity to it (if you compare it to Cologne Cathedral, St. Peters in Rome etc), but it makes the church actually stunning.

At the back of the church a small staircase brings you down to the cave, where the Holy Family stayed. Down there you can find a little altar and signs describing where Jesus slept as a baby. It also sign post where the well was. So for a Christian, this is an important site to visit. And yes, you are allowed to take photos down there, but please consider that people visit the site for their religious belief. So do  not stand in anybody’s way.

Outside in the alley we had one more stop – the synagogue. On the way some little details really got my attention. Like the stair leading to a door that seemingly leads to nothing, the beautiful buildings on both sides. I think it is easy to miss these things, but I think they make this area so fascinating, and not just the religious buildings.

The synagogue itself is a smaller building with a beautiful interior. Unfortunately it is apparently not an active religious site, so it is open mainly for the tourists.

It was time to head back though. I would have loved to explore the small alleys a bit longer, but at that time I thought we go somewhere lese now. Well, sometimes I am a little bit naive. back in the car I was advised we are heading to my Guesthouse in Giza. I asked if it would be possible to explore some of the fresh markets or alleys. Unfortunately I was advised for safety reason that was not possible. I was slightly disappointed, as it was only 2:30pm, and I could have spent more time at either the citadel or the Coptic alleys. Instead we drove towards Giza, crossing the river Nile.

But were we heading straight to my guesthouse? Of course not. Like all the group tours we stopped at a Papyrus shop, where I was told about the history and shown how they are produced (and yes, it was interesting), with some times to walk around to see if I liked one of their work (I know – surprise surprise). I took the chance and looked around, and there was some impressive work there. And I really was not planning to buy anything. But yes, there are some very good sales people in these shops. So seeing some smaller papyrus with the chance to get someone’s name on it was a great present for a friend. So I admit / I crumbled and got one of these. Nothing beats a personalised present. And it looked good, though the staff writing the name in hieroglyph could have been more patient, as he started straight away, and while only three hieroglyph were needed the first one was too close to the top, and the third one was too close to the bottom. Well, it still looked nice. And then they tried to sell me another one. And yes, I am not happy to admit, but I bought one of their “classics”, the calendar one, for myself. So after 30 minutes, and 700 LE poorer I was back in the car. I declined the obvious attempt of another shop (perfume) we only stopped at one bazar as I wanted to buy a fridge magnet. Yes, it sounds silly but I buy one of every place I have visited. Though while the owner of the bazaar tried very hard, I did not buy anything there. So it was time to go to my guesthouse.

A little bit earlier than expected I was at my accommodation at 15:30. I could have easily spent some time to explore more of Cairo, so I was slightly disappointed at the early finish. But maybe having some time to get some rest after a short night and long day might be a good idea.

It actually took a while before deciding where to say the night. I heard about the advantages staying in the centre of Cairo, but in the end the perspective seeing the pyramids from a guesthouse was too difficult to resist. So after checking more reviews I decided to stay at the Guardian Guest House because of the location. And yes, after arriving and open the curtains of my rooms I knew immediately it was the right choice – I had a perfect view of the pyramids and the Sphinx. It was one of my biggest Wow factors I had traveling. Here is the review of this great guesthouse.

While unpacking I unfortunately realised that something was missing. I checked everything twice and I was right, I left my phone in the car. Quick call to the agency and poor Mina and Ahmed had to turn back after being so close to the office. I felt quite guilty about that. At 16:30 I was united with my phone and I was able to relax a little bit in my room.

But not too long, as I took advantage of the location of the guesthouse and went up to the terrace, set up the camera and made myself comfortable in a chair with a cup of tea. From there I had a clear view of the pyramids and Sphinx and it was great to relax and seeing the sun set over this Ancient Wonder of the World. I saw so many photos of the pyramids, but seeing them with your own eyes is something complete different. And have the pleasure to see the sun set over them is just another level. I had quite a few Wow factors travelling around the world. But the sight here is still one of the best I have seen. It is on the same level as seeing Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat or the Cologne Cathedral (yes, I am slightly biased here…) – you will not forget this for the rest of your life. I was just sitting there enjoying the view for over an hour before another highlight started.

Every night a light show happens here. This show combines, surprise surprise, lightning up the pyramids in different colours with music and a story about the history of the pyramids. At 7pm the first show started in English, and I had free prime seats. I was excited…very excited.

To summarise this event – brilliant, amazing, wonderful, stunning. These word all cover this show. Seeing these impressive constructs in different colour – red, yellow, green or blue, was a delight for your eyes. Thankfully the volume for the music and the narrator was loud enough to hear it at the guesthouse as well. Overall it was a wonderful show, and I can highly recommend to watch it. If you decide to stay in Giza, make sure you stay at a Guesthouse with a clear view…I think you have better view than from the paid area.

After this lovely entertainment I realised that I was hungry. After a quick check with the staff I made my way to a nearby restaurant. Unfortunately even during the short walk you were approached by quite a few people trying to sell something, or lure you into their shop. I was actually happy to reach the restaurant. Checking the menu I went for a starter of local sausages (I am German…so I could not miss trying the local version) and a Tagine. Unfortunately, like in Asia, the concept of having a starter and main course is different to the Western World, as I got both served at the same time!!!! So I had a huge plate of sausages, that tasted very nice, and the tagine in front of me. Maybe one dish would have been enough. Overall the food was nice, though I had better Tagine in an Arabic restaurant in London. It was all very nice, but nothing special.

Food part done I headed back to the hotel and after checking emails etc. it was time to get some well deserved rest from a very long, but also very interesting day. And the thought of visiting the pyramids the next day made me even more excited…

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