A May 1999 trip
to Cairo by billmoy
Quote: Arab settlers founded the city of Cairo in the 6th Century AD. It has grown into a metropolis of 15 million people, the largest city in Africa and the Middle East.
Visitors from most countries (including the USA) need to get a tourist visa before arriving into Egypt.
For some reason, the local Egyptian kids like to ask for pens as souvenirs from foreign travelers. I gave a young lad a pen I salvaged from a Montreal hotel, and he ran into his home as if I had handed him the mask of King Tut. Try to carry an extra pen or two and make a kid deliriously happy.
Some of the beautiful images of Cairo are courtesy of my good friend and frequent globetrotting travel companion, local Chicago architect Marius Ronnett.
You will encounter an endless stream of locals trying to do business with you. Whether they are pushing a restaurant, a hotel, or merchandise, these salesmen are very aggressive and persistent. Just try to be nice with them and they will eventually smile and give up. I can honestly say that because I am not a big shopper, these pesky guys are a real turnoff as far as my entering shops, so I bought very little in Cairo. However, some people may enjoy the challenge of bartering with these folks.
While most prices are listed in numbers, some local establishments may list items in Arabic numerals. For example, the "zero" looks like a dot, and the "5" looks like an "0". Even if you do not learn any Arabic words, try to memorize the Arabic numbers so that you will not succumb to a bad deal at a store.
The Underground Metro system is not bad, but it only has one line. You may not have to use it too much, as many of the main sites in town are walkable. The best way to get to the airport is via taxi (I did get a free pickup from the airport because I took Salah Muhammad's tour, see "Memphis-Saqqara-Giza Tour" section below).
Hotel | "Semiramis Inter-Continental"
The Semiramis has 28 floors and 840 guest rooms, with a round of renovations in 1998. Our room was room 1139, which did not face the great Nile River. However, the city view was interesting enough, with panoramas that included (on a clear day anyway) the Egyptian Museum, the Citadel and the Mohammed Ali Mosque. The room had a little balcony, which was a nice place to stare down upon the maze of streets below. I did have an aerial view of an altercation on the highway below that resulted from a fender bender; the scuffle featured punching and head butting! Our room with two double beds was cozy enough and there was still enough space for a rollaway bed. There is a minibar, writing table, and plenty of cable TV channels. The bathroom was fine enough even with a somewhat dated appearance, and it also had a bidet (does anyone use these things when they are at a hotel?).
Our complimentary breakfast buffet was served in the Night and Day Room, one of the many restaurants and lounges at this world-class hotel. We loaded up on hot and cold items, a variety of beverages, and many sweet rolls (I enjoyed the raisin buns). This was more of a "western" buffet than an Egyptian one, so none of the selections seemed that adventurous. The hotel also features a lounge with belly dancing acts, outdoor pool, fitness room, ATM, concierge desk, valet parking, and even a casino. The hotel staff was helpful as they deftly answered our questions in fluent English. There is even a doctor "on call", as my friend found out the hard way when he came up ill one night and was forced to call for his services. The doctor prescribed a few pills for him and gave him an injection, all at fairly reasonable rates.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on July 25, 2002
PO BOX 60 CORNICHE EL NIL
The Pyramids Park property is located in the sprawling suburb of Giza, just outside of Cairo. This is one of several swanky hotels constructed in the immediate vicinity of the Great Pyramids, the obvious drawing card for staying in this area. There is free parking for guests here. The walk from the front desk takes you past the outdoor pool area, which is attractively laid out as a desert oasis with beach chairs and a swath of palm trees. The hotel itself has two floors and 470 guest rooms. Each room has a balcony overlooking the pool or the gardens, but none seem to have views of the actual Pyramids. There are convention and meeting facilities geared to the international businessman.
There are several restaurants at the resort, including Les Fountaines, a French-influenced international restaurant that served a passable vegetable casserole and French onion soup. The busy breakfast lounge served a decent morning buffet that may or may not be complimentary to guests. It was supposed to be free to us when the room reservation was made, but upon check-in it the front desk clerk said this was not the case. However, we were not charged on our final bill after having the buffet.
The room itself was not bad, but it did not seem like anything special. The room seemed a bit worn, and the running water had a brownish tint to it as if the desert were affecting its clarity. Hopefully recent renovations have remedied these problems. The hotel grounds, as well as the entire Pyramids area, seemed to be teeming with a pesky mosquito population, so be ready with your insect repellent inside and out. All in all, this was a somewhat disappointing stay and I imagine you can do a bit better at one of the other resorts that are closer to the Pyramids.
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on July 25, 2002
Pyramids Park Inter-Continental Resort
Alexandria Desert Rd KM 7.5
The taamiyya is what you may know better as falafel, with meat and vegetarian options. I tried both and they are freshly prepared and really delicious. These are dirt-cheap when made by sidewalk vendors, but the prices at Felfela are reasonable considering that you are dining at a sit-down restaurant. The kushari struck me as an Egyptian version of chop suey, with a mishmash of ingredients. The vegetable casserole is like a thick, hearty vegetable soup. The lamb stew is pretty good too.
The favorite dessert amongst us was the bowl of ice cream, with a rainbow of several fruit flavors with a sprinkling of raisins. Cool and delicious! We had the ice cream time and time again. The "om aly" is like a bowl of granola with raisins, swishing in creamy milk. This was subtly sweet, but it did not quite measure up to the ice cream.
Felfela Cafe (Alexandria Desert Road in Giza) serves a similar quality of food, though this one is plagued (as is the rest of Giza) by the presence of annoying mosquitoes. I seemed to get several mosquito bites on my legs during my meal here, although I did enjoy the partial view of the Pyramids looming across the street. Do not confuse this place with Felfela Village, some amusement complex that features animals, dancers and whatnot.
One thing to note at Egyptian restaurants in general is that the service is very casual and relaxed. In other words, you will not get your food served quickly a la Bennigan's. This is not necessarily a fault of the restaurants, but more of a reflection of the Egyptian attitude towards enjoying a relaxing dinner out on the town. So if you are in a real hurry, do not go to Felfela but go for a fast food outlet or outdoor food stand. Otherwise, take a load off and enjoy a solid meal at Felfela.
15 Hoda Sharawi Street
+20 2 392 2833
Attraction | "Citadel / Mosque of Mohammed Ali"
The north entrance to the Citadel was closed, so we had to walk around the perimeter of the complex, deftly dodging local drivers, dealers and dealmakers. We finally entered the Citadel through the south entrance, and once inside we were away from the pesky peddlers! There are quite a few interesting buildings within the Citadel walls. The views from inside and atop the Citadel are impressive.
The picturesque Mosque of Mohammed Ali is relatively modern in age and style. It was built from 1824 to 1848, with the tin-sheathed domes being rebuilt in the 1930's. This distinctive mosque, with its slender minarets, is glossier and more touristy than other mosques. Creamy alabaster was used on the exterior and interior for a brighter look. My friend and I sat on one of the carpets critiquing the curious interior design, with an intrusive amount of round globe lamp fixtures and chandeliers that belonged more in a hotel lobby or store rather than in a religious mosque. It was interesting to observe cultural differences, as the devout visitors prayed while the uninformed visitors acted as if they were in a hotel lobby or store.
The Citadel also houses a Military Museum, which can be skipped if you are not a big history buff of modern Egypt. Otherwise, stop in for a quick history lesson on the great victories during various Egyptian wars. There are colorful displays, weapons, statues, uniforms, etc. The Citadel contains other notable structures like the Mosque of Suleyman Pasha, the Mosque of Sultan al-Nasir, Yussef's Well, and the Al-Gawhara Palace.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on July 26, 2002
Salah Salem Highway
20 2 512 9619
The Cairo Tower is a peculiar slender concrete structure that has an elevated viewing platform for tourists. There is a souvenir shop at the ground level that is worth a look; this is seemingly one of the few stores where the sales clerks will actually let you look at the merchandise without swarming around you. The Andalusian Gardens hug the west bank of the Nile and form part of a pleasant promenade. The modern Opera House, designed by Japanese architect Koichiro Shikida, opened in 1988 and serves also as a National Cultural Center.
I ventured into the lightly visited Modern Art Museum, very close to the Opera House. The collection of 20th Century paintings and sculptures is not bad, though not necessarily earthshaking in importance. Labeling some of the genial paintings "modern" is somewhat of a stretch. One of the more active artists in the collection is Said, who displayed his talents in a variety of paintings. It was a bit surprising to see a few female nudes by Said on full public display. Egypt is, after all, still a conservative Muslim society that frowns upon this sort of thing. Perhaps Egypt is getting slightly more westernized every day, for better or for worse.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on July 26, 2002
Attraction | "MEMPHIS-Saqqara-Giza Tour (Part 1)"
My late/early British Airways flight arrived into Cairo about 1AM. After an interminable wait through customs, Salah Muhammad met me with my name on a sign. He tried to have me take the tour the very next day (that morning, actually), but I told him that my friends wanted to see other things before taking the tour. I guess he wanted to convince me so that I would not have a chance to change my mind on taking the tour after having provided free transportation into the city. Heck, the tour price is almost worth it just for the airport pickup itself!
A few days later Ahmed, a young man who claimed to be an assistant history professor at one of the universities, met us at our hotel. Ahmed was extremely professional and knowledgeable with his historical information, as my two friends basically agreed with his facts and detailed descriptions. It turned out that we were the only three people on this tour, so this became basically a private tour for us. Our guide drove us in a comfy minivan from our Giza hotel to Memphis, the oldest part of this tour.
Before we entered the local museum, Ahmed explained the early significance of Memphis in the Egyptian timeline. Memphis was the main city and capital of Egypt over 5000 years ago. The remnants of old Memphis are in the current village of Mit Rahina, about 12 miles southwest of Cairo. We took a brief tour of the small museum, highlighted by a prone statue of Ramses II. Discovered in 1820, the colossal statue is viewed by tourists as if he were on an operating table, from above as well as next to the limestone body. The Alabaster Sphinx of King Tuthmosis III is the other major draw here. There are a few minor pieces outside, hounded by stray dogs.
(Continued in Part 2)
24 kilometres south of Cairo
No phone available
Attraction | "Memphis-SAQQARA-Giza Tour (Part 2)"
Time moves us to Saqqara, the vast burial grounds of the Old Kingdom (2705 to 2155 BC) which form the largest archaeological site in Egypt. Much of the site has yet to be excavated as of now. The Step Pyramid of Zoser, designed by the architect Imhotep, is the world's first great stone structure of this scale. This mastaba pyramid has a broad rectangular base, not square, and consists of a stack of six steps. There were other buildings at this vast site, with much reconstruction having been done.
Ahmed then drove the three of us to the nearby Saqqara Restaurant for lunch. This place is packed with tourists on guided tours, and swarms of flies. We have a serviceable lunch platter with several grilled meats and freshly seared warm pita bread tossed over an open pit fire. During a break a local boy came up to our van clamoring for a pen. It seems that the Egyptian lads like to ask foreigners for cheap pens as souvenirs. I gave him a pen from a Montreal hotel, and the boy ran back giddily into his home as if I had given him King Tut's gold mask.
The tour was supposed to continue at a local carpet-making factory. I am not sure if this part of the tour was closed that day, or if Ahmed gauged that the three of us guys had no overwhelming inclinations to buy a carpet. Anyway, we skipped this part and we were now very excited to be heading for Giza. Our tour lasted from 9AM to 3PM, and it would have just been a longer day if we had been taken to the tapestry mill.
(Continued in Part 3)
Attraction | "Memphis-Saqqara-GIZA Tour (Part 3)"
The pure shapes of the pyramids grew larger and larger as we approached Giza. Ahmed circled the minivan around the three Giza Pyramids, one of the original Seven Wonders of the World. Besides the Big Three, there are several smaller pyramids along with hundreds of mastaba tombs for royal family members and nobles. It is windy and sandy and sunny, but the conditions are actually not too oppressive on this particular day. I have seen old movies where the characters climbed up the sides of the pyramids, but the Tourism and Antiquities Police makes sure that you will no longer do such a thing. Local riders have camels stationed at various places, either as set pieces for tourist photos or for actual rides through the desert. My friend commented that he had ridden a camel before and the up-and-down motions of the desert mainstay made him nauseous.
The largest one is the Great Pyramid of Cheops (Khufu), dating from 2650 BC. The immense scale reaches a height of 480 vertical feet, a weight of six million tons, and about 2.3 million blocks. The Pyramid of Chephren (Khafre) is slightly smaller but appears larger because it is a steeper pyramid, and part of the limestone coating remains on its exterior. We climbed into the belly of the Pyramid of Mycerinus (Menkaure), the smallest of the big three. It is a surreal and sweaty experience to be gingerly walking up and down some steps inside an actual pyramid!
Our final stop on the tour is at the enigmatic Sphinx, the unofficial mascot of all things Egyptian. The Sphinx was last renovated in 1998, so we could appreciate the reconstruction of the man-lion in good detail. It would have been nice to just linger and stare at our new comrade the Sphinx amongst the hordes of tourists, but it was hot and Ahmed needed to take us back to our hotel. Ahmed was kind enough to stop by at a local snack shop (he was thirsty too, after all) before the final sendoff.
I highly recommend signing up for this tour, even if the rates are higher now than in 1999. The price is not bad, many hassles are eliminated, and the content of the tour is educational and memorable.
The crown jewels of this museum, so to speak, are the King Tutankhamun collections on the second floor. The King Tut exhibit became famous after its world museum tour years ago, and it became a part of pop culture with its connection to Steve Martin's song and comedy act. The museum dramatically displays a glittering collection of masks, sarcophagi, gold jewelry and assorted antiquities. These items are very well labeled for the tourist who may have time to see only one thing here. The museum also is proud of its collection of mummies, though you have to pay an extra fee to see them. Other highlights include the Amarna gallery and the Fayoum portraits.
I spent about a half-day exploring the very impressive exhibitions. My two friends are steeped in Egyptian history, so it was like walking around with two expert tour guides. They helped fill in the informational gap due to the mediocre text displays. The crowds here can be considerable, as you can well imagine. There is an interesting souvenir shop and cafeteria located on the main floor.
+20 (2) 579 6974
Attraction | "Mosque of Ahmad Ibn Tulun"
The vast courtyard is spacious (covering over 6 acres) and a covered arcade encircles it. There is no imagery on the surfaces, just stark and simple patterns, emphasized by the rhythmic repetition of elements. There is a good amount of gypsum decoration on the surfaces along with some lacy stonework.
You can reach the top of the minaret, entered from the outside of the mosque, by climbing the distinctive exterior wraparound staircase for interesting views of the city. You will need to remove your shoes in respect of Muslim traditions, and you may need to ask a gatekeeper to allow access to the tower.
Midan Salah ad-Din