Learn about Cairo, Egypt, by reading
by Gary W. Bloom, WTA Member and Leisure Traveler/Writer.
It features a mini, but thorough tour of the destination, plus all
you'll need to know to plan your trip including how to get there,
objective information on places to stay and eat, and things to do.
At the end of the article, we've provided a summary of the contact
information for your easy reference. Enjoy!
By Gary W. Bloom, WTA Member and Travel Writer
The Great Pyramids near Cairo
Cairo is a feast for the senses. From
the roofs of mosques comes the haunting cry of the muezzins’ call to
prayer. The skyline is pierced by hundred of minarets rising above the
round domes of mosques. The cacophonous street noise and the loud banter
of street vendors negotiating with their customers never stops. There are
the smells of tobacco smoke wafting from water pipes and lamb roasting on
spits and the tastes of skewered rabbit and exotic spices.
My wife, Wang, and I immersed ourselves
in Cairo’s sea of humanity. With 15 million people, rush hour seems to go
on from early morning until late at night. Horns are always blaring and
pedestrians always running from the paths of speeding cars. At night, many
Cairenes drive without their lights on, reserving them for flashing at
cars and pedestrians who dare cross their path. Cairo once had the
distinction of having the world’s highest per capita motor vehicle
This is not the place for a relaxing
vacation. We found this out soon after getting off the airplane when tour
guides offering their services accosted us from all sides. We finally gave
in to one half-day tour, and found out later that we paid twice the going
rate. Taxi drivers and paid guides take you to papyrus, perfume, and
souvenir shops, whether you want to go or not. We were ushered in to many
shops, sat down, given tea or coffee, and held captive while the
proprietor hawked his merchandise. The drivers, of course, take a cut of
the profits of anything you buy. When we didn’t buy anything we noticed a
definite change in the driver’s attitude. Cairo is not a place for the
Was the hassle worth it? Without a
doubt. This 1,000-year-old city, called “The Mother of the World,” is at
the center of all routes to and from the continents of Asia, Africa, and
Europe. Like most strategic landmarks, Cairo’s history and culture runs
rich and deep. No other country has as long a history as Egypt. And Cairo,
whose Arabic name means Egypt, continues to be its center of commerce and
The pyramids were the way Egyptians
buried their leaders. Common Cairenes were buried in Cairo’s Northern and
Southern Cemeteries, which are separated by the fortress like Citadel. You
can tell a lot about a city’s culture and traditions from the way its
citizens bury their dead. Cairo’s cemeteries are perhaps the only ones in
the world where there are permanent residents. What better reflection of a
city whose population is so out of control that the last telephone
directory was issued in 1961. But more importantly, a reflection of how
comfortable Egyptians are with death. The ancient sultans used their
family tombs for elaborate parties. The festivities included archery
contests and horse races. The tradition continues today, with Cairenes
visiting their family tombs on Holidays for picnics and celebrations. The
burial place consists of 2 or 3 rooms with the body placed beneath the
floor, interred on its side and facing Mecca. Although some squatters
have taken up residence in unused tombs, many of the residents are
caretakers of the family tomb. The Northern and Southern cemeteries are
home to a half million people. Chickens, cats, dogs, and children roam
about the dirt roads between the tombs. Laundry hangs from lines strung
between cenotaphs. This is truly a “City of the Dead,” complete with
running water, electricity, phone service, schools, shops, and bus stops.
Between the Northern and Southern
cemeteries is the Citadel. This grand fortress was built on a limestone
hill that rises 245 feet above the city. Within its 30-foot high walls are
mosques and museums. The site was known for its cool breezes as well as
its obvious military advantages. The Citadel was a haven for Egypt’s
rulers from the 13-century until the British Occupation. The location
offers the modern tourist the same advantages it afforded the sultans - a
reprieve from the heat, clamor, and congestion of the city below it. The
Khan al-Khalili Bazaar near the Citadel may be Cairo at its most
clamorous. Anything and everything is sold here, from copperware to
carpets. The familiar refrain of “Do you want to see my shop?” is shouted
from both sides of the narrow lanes.
The much more sedate Egyptian Museum,
housed in a building befitting its priceless contents, was completed in
1922. Inside are the treasures of Tutankhamun, including the king’s
chariots, his bows and arrows, and the golden mask. The mummy room
includes the mummy of Ramses V, showing his smallpox scars, and of Pharaoh
Seti I, who had six toes on each foot. The mummy of Pharaoh Seqenenre II,
who died fighting the Hyksos, reveals a skull riddled with wounds, a
tightly clenched fist, and a mouth caught for eternity in a terrifying
Early on the morning of our third day
in Cairo we took a taxi to the Camel Market in the suburb of ImbWTAh.
Hundreds of camels are bought and sold here, mostly for food. The camel
drovers, dressed in white turbans and long gowns called galabiyyas, drink
tea while prices are negotiated with the butchers. The camels are less
than affable after making the long journey across the desert from the
Sudan or Somalia. They have one leg tied up at the knee but can still move
quickly and without regard to anyone in their way. Fortunately there were
no stampedes that morning and we wandered about freely after paying an
inexpensive tourist “entrance” fee.
In Cairo, you are never far from the
Nile. With almost 95% of Egypt’s population living in the Nile Valley,
neither are most Egyptians. The river was not only a means of
transportation and commerce for the city, but its annual floodwater
enriched the surrounding farmland. An annual rainfall of less than an inch
made the floodwaters essential for farming. As with most bureaucracies,
the ancient Egyptian government had to find a way to measure the largess
and levy taxes. The Nilometer is on the southern tip of the island of
Rawdah. Built in 861, it is the oldest Muslim structure in Cairo. Every
government through the British Occupation used the Nilometer to measure
the height of the floodwaters. This measurement determined land taxes,
since higher waters meant a better harvest.
When Herodotus visited the pyramids of
nearby Giza in the 5th century B.C., he declared them one of
the Seven Wonders of the World. Twenty-five hundred years later, it would
be hard to argue with his assessment. Even the most jaded world traveler
steps back in amazement on viewing these grand temples to the dead.
The Great Pyramid of Pharaoh Khufu was
completed around 2600 B.C. The pyramid, at 481 feet in height, is still
one of the largest buildings in the world. Medieval thieves chiseled a
hole into the north side of the Khufu Pyramid looking for treasures.
Instead, they found a maze of corridors that leads to the “King’s
Chamber.” I had to crouch down to make it through the long, narrow tunnel
that eventually reaches the Grand Gallery, a spacious chamber 28 feet high
and 154 feet long. The Grand Gallery’s beautiful corbelled roof was
designed to evenly distribute the tremendous weight from above. Another
passage leads to the King’s Chamber where there is a granite sarcophagus.
The Giza Necropolis is made up of the
pyramids of Khufu, Khafra, and Menkaura, and the Sphinx. The pyramid of
Khafra, Khufu’s son, is slightly smaller than the Great Pyramid, while
that of Menkaura, Khufu's grandson, is much smaller. With the sculptured
head of Khafra, the half pharaoh and half lion Sphinx stands guard nearby.
Near the pyramids are huge boat-shaped
excavations. The Necropolis was a port from which the pharaohs departed
for the afterlife. These excavations in the rock symbolized the ships used
for the trip. Sometimes real boats were buried. One such boat was
excavated in 1954 and is on display at a museum near the pyramids. The
remarkably well-preserved cedar wood boat was probably used during Khufu's
funeral procession and then buried for his use in the afterlife.
Camel vendors are ferocious near the
pyramids. If you insist on taking a camel ride, as I suppose every visitor
to Egypt must, negotiate the price before climbing onto the camel, but
don’t pay until the camel has kneeled down and you can get off. Some
unscrupulous camel vendors try to add a “departure” fee after they’ve
already been paid.
Late in the afternoon of our last day
in Cairo, I walked to a small outdoor cafe on a back street near our
hotel. I was seated at an outdoor table, a water pipe placed at my feet,
and bought a cup of Turkish coffee. Although treated as an oddity, since
the cafe was far from the tourist sites, the waiter was friendly and spoke
some English, as many Cairenes do. He had the now familiar bruise on his
forehead, called a “raisin,” sustained from forcefully bowing his head to
the ground during the five times a day prayer of devout Muslims. Egyptian
politicians are said to have self-induced these bruises before important
public appearances. Even in a place as foreign as Egypt, some things
remain the same.
Across the street a couple of men were
playing backgammon on a small table set up on the sidewalk while another
man was feverishly negotiating the price of a side of beef hanging outside
a shop. I settled back in the wood chair, sipped the strong Turkish
coffee, smoked the smooth tobacco from the water pipe, and watched the
never-ending street show that is Cairo.
Cairo International Airport is
located about 15 miles northeast of the city. The cost of a taxi to
the city should be under $10, but you may have to bargain. A better
alternative may be the limousine service, which is also around $10.
The limousines are lined up near the airport arrivals exit.
EgyptAir is the flag carrier. Other airlines offering non-stop
flights from the US include Delta and TWA. The cost for a
round-trip ticket from New York to Cairo, depending on season and
schedule, is around $900 (based on fares at the time of this article
When to go
Cairo has a desert climate, with
summer days very hot, but evenings pleasantly cool. Fall, winter,
and spring are the best seasons to visit Cairo, with generally mild
temperatures. Hotels charge slightly more during the winter months.
Where to stay:
Saraya Al Gezira Street
Zamalek, Cairo, Egypt
Built around a former palace, the Cairo Marriott is surrounded by
six acres of lush gardens. One of Cairo’s most beautiful hotels, it
is decorated with antiques, murals, and Oriental rugs. Many fine
restaurants in the hotel. Doubles are about $95 to $205, depending
on type of room and season.
Zamalek Atlas Hotel
20 Gameat al Dowal al Arabia
Mahandesseen, Cairo, Egypt
Small hotel with 74 rooms, some with good views of the city. Prices
from around $76 to $94.
22 Taha Hussein St.
Zamalek, Cairo, Egypt
A small, inexpensive hotel on Zamalek Island with a
rooftop restaurant and bar. Located in a quiet residential area
where many foreign embassies are also situated. Doubles from around
$50 to $90.
Where and What
Egyptian cuisine has been
influenced by what has been called “tent cooking,” food that could
be made quickly and transported easily by desert nomads, and has
borrowed from Turkey, Syria, and Persia. Lamb kebab, grilled beef
and chicken are common items on restaurant menus. Appetizers, called
mezze, consist of flatbread, olives, anchovies, and stuffed grape
leaves. Traditional Egyptian food is simple, filling, and
12 Talaat Harb St.
Moderately priced Egyptian food in downtown Cairo. The Estoril’s
decor is vintage 1950’s.
Khan el Khelili restaurant
2 El Badisgtan Lane Khan El Khelili St.
Historic restaurant frequented by writers, artists, and tourists;
this restaurant is located in the market district that shares its
name. Traditional Egyptian cuisine priced around $15 (58 LE) for a
17, Talaat Harb Street, Downtown Cairo.
Recently reopened, this restaurant has served Egyptian movie stars,
painters, politicians, revolutionaries, and writers, including Nobel
Prize winning author Naguib Mahfouz, since 1908. The atmosphere is
early 1900s Cairo, with Continental and Arabic food priced around $5
(20 LE). Open 9:30 am – 1:30 am.
Cairo has a small rail transit
system called the Metro, with limited but good service. Taxis can
usually be found no matter what time or location. Many drivers also
serve as guides. It is best to get the cost to a destination
up-front to avoid arguments. If you are leaving from your hotel, ask
the concierge to get a fixed price before getting into the taxi.
But don’t expect the driver to know where he’s going, unless it’s
one of the more popular tourist attractions. Many drivers know less
about the city than you do.
The Egyptian pound, abbreviated
as LE, is the unit of currency and is divided into 100 piastres. As
of July, 2001, one US dollar was equal to about 3.95 Egyptian
pounds. With the current exchange rate, restaurants and hotels are
Maydan El Tahrir, Cairo
Open daily 9am-5pm.
Entrance fee is LE20
(about $5) for adults, LE10
(about $2.50) for children.
Mummies and the treasures of King Tut are among the highlights of
the world’s greatest collection of Egyptian antiquities.
Solar Boat Museum
Next to Cheops Pyramid, Giza
Open daily 9am-5pm
Entrance fee is LE20 (about $5)
This museum houses King Cheop’s boat, found buried next to the
Pyramid of Cheops. Other exhibits include ancient boat building
352 Ahmed Maher Square, Bab El-Khalq, Cairo
Open daily 9am-4pm
Entrance fee is LE16 (about $4)
With over 80,000
items, this is one of the world’s greatest collections of Islamic
art, including ceramics, coins, and textiles.
Egyptian Tourist Authority
630 Fifth Avenue, Suite 1706
New York, NY 10111
(212) 332 - 2570
Fax: (212) 956 - 6439
Egyptian Tourist Authority
645 N. Michigan Avenue, Suite 829
Chicago, IL 60611
(312) 280 - 4666 or (312) 280 - 4693
Fax: (312) 280 - 4788
Egyptian Tourist Authority
8383 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 215
Beverly Hills, CA 90211
(323) 653 - 8815
Fax: (323) 653 - 8961
Office De Tourisme
Du Gouvernement Egyptien
1253 Mc Gill College Avenue, Suite 250
H3B 2Y5 Montreal, Canada
Notice: This information is current as of
August 2001. It is recommended that you contact the numbers, and/or
above to determine any changes to the