Mount Sinai (city of Saint Catherine) to Cairo is around 520 km by road and was the most exhausting leg of the whole trip. Wake-up call was at 4AM and by 5AM we were on our way complete with packed breakfast. The ‘helpers’ in the bus became five for this road-trip – main guide, two helper guides, bus driver, and a gun man – the gun man, provided by the Egyptian authorities, is mandatory for all tour buses. Egypt was under a transitional military rule following the revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in power. People seemed relieved to have seen the last of Mubarak – the guide repeatedly attributed all the problems of Egypt as the cause of the revolution.
Crossing the Suez Canal is a major landmark along the desert landscape of this road-trip. The canal is 180 km long and the tunnel across to Africa is 1.8 km. Suez Canal, connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, is a military zone and hence cameras are not allowed. On the average around 100 ships use this Canal daily so the odds are high for sighting a ship while using the tunnel to reach Africa. Immediately upon crossing the Suez Canal on the African side of Egypt, we stopped by a coffee shop named Sinai Rest House. The place has a smallish ‘museum’ with a number of original historic photos of the Suez Canal and an art piece inside a glass cabinet showing the canal in miniature. It is definitely worth a short-stop to see this and appreciate the engineering marvel.
Cairo, spread over 175 sq miles, is considered a mega-city with a population of around 8 million. Urban part of Cairo is over 2500 sq miles and hosts almost a fourth of Egypt’s population. Nearly all of the 80 million population of Egypt reside along the banks of River Nile, an area covering 15,000 sq miles out of Egypt’s total 387,000 sq miles. Alexandria, the 2nd largest city with a population of 4 million, is a tourist attraction with many beaches and museums. Our itinerary did not include Alexandria – those keen on visiting the place are encouraged to opt for tour programs that include an overnight stay in Alexandria. Cairo is an extremely crowded city and traffic can seem a mess to the uninitiated. It is normal to see vans with open doors and donkeys used as transportation modes.
The first stop in Cairo was at the Egyptian Museum located in Tahir Square. As our itinerary for Egypt was crowded only a couple of hours were allotted for this world famous museum. Construction near the Square slowed us down a bit too. The museum is organized chronologically starting as far back as 3000 BC. The two major attractions are the King Tut’s treasures on Level 2 and the Royal Mummies Gallery. King Tuts treasures include the 11Kg gold crown, two gold-plated coffins at over 111kg each, jewelry etc. The Royal Mummies Gallery has a separate entrance fee – $20 adults and $10 kids. Royal Mummies are a major archaelogical find from the 1920s. The main sections did not have mummies on display and we did not squander away our chance to see them. The gallery has two sections on either side of the main isle on Level 2. At the entrance to the first section the ticket is torn in half and one half returned. This half gets you into the section on the other side of the aisle. Given our tight schedule we took advantage of our guide’s suggestion whereby we purchased one adult ticket and one child ticket - two of us visited one section and the other two visited the other section – while the cost is halved the obvious tradeoff is seeing only half the gallery. Our time at the Egyptian Museum was beyond doubt a run-around – to give justification to the 120,000-odd items on offer, it is best to plan atleast a day for this museum. Lunch was at the Taj Mahal Indian restaurant (Misr Helwan Road) – decent Indian buffet food with live entertainment.
We proceeded to Giza Necropolis for the pyramids, about 14 km from the Egyptian Museum - across the Nile River and to the end of Al Ahram. The mere sighting of these mammoths from afar is a humbling experience. This universally acclaimed archaeological site consists of three pyramid complexes together known as the Great Pyramids, the famed massive sculpture the Great Sphinx, cemeteries, worker’s village, and an industrial complex. The Great Pyramid was completed around 2560 BC and is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and the only one to remain largely intact. It towered as the tallest man-made structure in the world for over 3,800 years until the Lincoln Cathedral of England was completed in 1300 AD. The Great Sphinx is another significant landmark of Giza Necropolis. It is the largest monolith statue in the world at 73.5 meters long, 6 meters wide, and 20.22 meters high and is believed to have been built around the same time period as the Great Pyramid by Pharaoh Khafra. The origin and purpose of the Sphinx is a matter of debate. There is an entrance fee for going inside the pyramids - $20 adults and $10 kids for the Great Pyramid and a little less for others. Stepping inside the Great Pyramid has a profound effect – more so to the tech savvy generation. The path is via the giant cut-out inside with multiple flights of steep and long stairs leading up to the upper room – it is located at roughly one-third the total height of the pyramid which is about 140 meters. The government ‘guide’ in the upper room spoke very little English but still convinced us to shell out a tip :). The necropolis area has numerous street vendors whose offers range from curios to camel rides around the area. They can also be aggressive although pricing in general is rather cheap – one or two dollars for artefacts and a wee bit more for a camel ride.
On the way back to the hotel, the tour guides offered the choice between visiting a ‘certified’ papyrus shop or a perfume shop (athar) and we chose papyrus. From the manner the guide put it, we gathered it was a government run place, but from the enthusiasm of the people employed there it was evident the place was a private establishment. Nevertheless, we were given a good demo on papyrus making – Remove the green parts from the stem of a papyrus plant, do vertical cuts, cross-connect to make a sheet, place it under a heavy press for 5 days to get rid of the moisture, soak it in water for 5 days to do away with cellulose, dry it in the sun – the water is changed every day to get ‘white paper’ and reused to get ‘brown paper’ – no chemicals none whatsoever is used. They also demoed the strength of papyrus – by first drenching the paper and then pressing it to remove the water and straightening the paper out. Pricing at the shop was expensive – around $15 and up depending on size and subject after roughly 50% discount from the published prices. Overnight stay was at Horizon Pyramids Hotel (~4 KM back on Al Ahram), a good 4-star facility – good sized room, smallish pool on the front, and decent food.
- Holyland Trip Report - Jordan - Mount Nebo, Madaba - Day 1.
- Holyland Trip Report – Israel - Yardenit, Tiberias, Tabgha, Cappernaum, Ginosar, Sea of Galilee (Day 2).
- Holyland Trip Report - Israel - Nazareth, Cana, Tel Aviv, Jaffa, and Bethlehem (Day 3).
- Holyland Trip Report - Israel - Jerusalem (Day 4).
- Holyland Trip Report – Israel – Jerusalem, Jericho, Dead Sea (Day 5).
- Holyland Trip Report – Egypt – Red Sea, Sinai (Day 6).
- Holyland Trip Report – Suez Canal, Cairo - Day 7.
- Holyland Trip Report - Old Cairo - Day 8.
- Holyland Trip - Gotchas to avoid.
- Holyland Trip - Jordan - Other Sites.