When Obama visited Egypt last week he took time out from making historic speeches to see the country’s most famous sights–the Pyramids and the Sphinx at Giza. It’s surprising he had the time, considering he was only in the country for nine hours. It reminds me of some of the package tours that zip through the world’s most historic country faster than you can say Tutankhamun.
OK, Obama’s a busy guy, but Egypt is a place you need to take slowly. Here are five sights that every visitor to Egypt should spend a day seeing.
Islamic Quarter of Cairo. Many people only use Cairo as a base for seeing the pyramids at Giza and the fantastic Egyptian Museum. While these are two of Egypt’s greatest hits, Cairo has plenty more to offer. Take a stroll through the Islamic Quarter, the old medieval district of winding alleyways and historic architecture. You’ll pass by thousand-year-old mosques, ornate madrasas, and sumptuous fountains. Take the time to have some tea or coffee in one of the quarter’s innumerable cafes and you’ll be sure to end up in an interesting conversation with the local shopkeepers.
Valley of the Kings. It’s best to get here as early as possible. I arrived at dawn and found most of the guards asleep, but a wee bit of baksheesh (“tip”) got me inside the tombs. I asked them not to turn on the lights. Seeing the tombs alone with only a flashlight for illumination was one of the most stunning experiences of my life. I didn’t enjoy it for long. Within an hour the first tour groups arrived. Although I was already further along in the valley, they soon caught up. But that hour or so I had by myself was unforgettable. With the help of a map, take the trail over the ridge to get above the modern-looking Temple of Hatshepsut. You can then take a trail down to this famous temple of the woman pharaoh, passing the tombs of its builders on the way.
Karnak. The most magnificent Egyptian ruins besides the Pyramids at Giza, this massive temple complex near Luxor begs to be seen at a leisurely pace. The Great Hypostyle Hall in the Precinct of Amun-Re is awe inspiring. It’s a forest of massive columns covered in hieroglyphs. I spent an enjoyable morning from dawn until noon sitting in just this one giant hall watching the light and shadows move over the carvings. Most tour groups ran through here in fifteen minutes or less, but there was so much to study I’m sure I missed half of it. While there are a lot of people selling tourist trinkets, if you hang out long enough they leave you alone. You’ll have to say no to each of them at least two or three times, but the solitude that follows is well worth it.
St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai. Built in the 6th century AD, this monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai may be the oldest functioning Christian monastery in the world. Not only are there historic churches and age-old traditions to experience, but an incredible collection of early Christian art, including some especially beautiful icons. Several tour companies from Egypt and Israel send buses here, and it makes a good stopover if you’re traveling between the two countries.
At least one small town. Egypt has been hustling tourists since the days of Herodotus, so it’s nice to get away from it all by visiting an out-of-the-way place where tourists tend not to go. I spent an enjoyable three days in Minya, a small provincial capital that doesn’t have much in the way of ancient ruins. When I visited the local museum the curator was so excited he insisted I sign the guest book. I was the first person writing in something other than Arabic for several days. I spent my time sitting by the Nile, watching the faluccas while chatting with everyone who stopped by. Nobody tried to sell me anything. Away from the economic pressure of the tourist industry, I found the Egyptians to be warm, friendly, and eager to meet foreigners. I smoked waterpipes and drank tea in cafes, read the paper, and did nothing in particular. It was like a vacation from my vacation.
If you are looking for more about Egypt, check out last year’s post by Matthew Firestone of five other things you can do in Egypt. Interestingly enough, only one of them kinda overlaps with my list.
There are lots of guidebooks to Egypt, but the best cultural and historical guide I’ve seen is the Blue Guide, which is like a crash course on all things Egyptian. Sadly, the last edition was in 1993 and it is now out of print. You can easily find used copies but obviously you’ll need to buy another guidebook to supplement it. Hey, Blue Guides! Do you need a former archaeologist to update your Egypt book?