After marveling at the extreme traffic in downtown Cairo, tourists usually ask the question: “Doesn’t anyone pay any attention to the painted lane lines or the stop signs?” This is always followed with a chuckle from local Egyptians, and they reply: “The lines that designate lanes are simply art work, and stop signs mean nothing unless a policeman is directing traffic.” Therefore, one often observes ten lanes of cars where there are only five painted lanes, and it is nothing to see a car, truck, bus, or even a donkey and cart make a right turn from the farthest left lane. But like a Spec Miata race at Road Atlanta, somehow… it all seems to work.
With more than 20 million people, Cairo is the seventh largest metropolitan area in the world, and one of the most interesting. The modern city dates back to the establishment of a Roman fort in 150 AD. Since then, it has been inhabited by Coptic Christians, Arabs, the Ottomans, the French, and in the nineteenth century it was changed by the influence of Great Britain and the building of the Suez Canal.
After independence from England in the early twentieth century, Cairo continued to grow, both in area and population. Today it is a huge international city that serves as the beginning point to see the great sites of ancient Egypt. Cairo sprawls out in every direction from both banks of the Nile River, which has always been the life blood of this entire country and is the longest river in the world.
One could easily write a book about all the wonders in and around Cairo, which should begin with a sail through downtown on the Nile River in a native felucca at sunrise. As though the morning light was seen through a prism, the rainbow of shades reflected from colorful boats, buildings, and the calm waters paints an unforgettable picture of a huge metropolis awakening to another day.
Following a hearty breakfast at one of the major hotels along the river, a visit to the Egyptian Museum is a must. Including artifacts from King Tut, mummies of the Pharoahs, and unbelievable art from thousands of years go, this museum gives one a small taste of what is yet to come during the remainder of any Egyptian journey.
Even before reaching the heights above Cairo, visitors can see the Citadel, which was the seat of Egypt’s power for seven centuries. Mohammed Ali’s nineteenth century Turkish Mosque dominates the walled city. Its bubble-like domes can be seen for miles above the modern city skyline.
No visit to Cairo would be complete without several hours spent meandering through the Khan el-Khalili bazaar, which serves as meeting place for shopkeepers and tourists. Jewelry items made from gold, silver, and copper, imitations of pharaonic objects, semi-precious stones, rugs, blown-glass dishes, cotton fabrics, herbs and spices, and a plethora of other souvenirs are bought and sold in these shops along the narrow streets and maze of tiny passageways. It is a place to meander for hours, get lost, but never forget to bargain diligently for every thing. Nothing has a price tag and the game is always on between the buyer and seller until they both reach a happy medium that is satisfactory to both parties…then the deal is sealed with a smile and a handshake. Also, be sure to stop at one of the outside café’s and enjoy a cup of fresh mint tea…you’ll be glad that you did! End the day watching a Sufi troupe that performs its colorful dances at the edge of the bazaar. The dance is more about spirituality and is performed by young men who can amazingly twirl for nearly an hour without stopping.
Now, it’s time to come face to face with everyone’s mental picture of ancient Egypt…the pyramids of Giza! These wonders of construction are the most recognizable archaeological monuments in the world, and include the Great Sphinx and the Great Pyramid. They were built on a limestone plateau just south of Cairo on the west bank of the Nile. The complex also features several lesser pyramids, and a few of the tombs.
Today at the Giza pyramids, tourists have to almost fight their way through hordes of panhandlers trying to make a fast buck, so hold on to everything you bring…including your camera. Camel rides are also offered, but one has to be very careful dealing with these people as well. Camel jockeys are not to be trusted!
North of Cairo, the delta spreads out with branches and channels of the Nile giving life to a wider land mass. The whole area is cultivated to grow cotton, rice, fruit, and vegetables that feed an entire nation. It’s about a four-hour drive through the fertile Nile Delta to the port city of Alexandria that has been inhabited since the 13th century BC. Nevertheless, it was never more than a small fishing village until Alexander the Great decided to build a city, which Alexander never visited during the rest of his life.
Throughout Alexandria, the influence of the Greeks is quite apparent, but much of the architectural designs also show the results of the Ottoman rule. This period is especially prevalent in the design of Fort Qaitbay. The fortress was built in 1480 on the site of the Alexandria lighthouse, which was destroyed following two earthquakes in the eleventh and fourteenth centuries.
At one time, it is said that Alexandria was the largest city in the world, and at nearly 4 million people, it is now the second largest city in Egypt. It has always been the intellectual center of the country with a very different feel that reflects more Mediterranean flavor than that of Cairo.
Special point of interest in Alexandria would have to include the Alexandria Library that opened in 2002. The basement of this library contains almost eight thousand ancient manuscripts and rare books.
The Pompeii Column and the Kom-el Shuqafa Catacombs are also nearby and certainly worth a couple of hours to see. Combine this with a walk down the waterfront by the harbor and a stroll through the shopping district, and you will be ready for a drive west along the coast to El Alamein to visit the site of the decisive battle between Allied forces and the vaunted German Afrika Corps in October of 1942. Nearly 80,000 died in this battle that ended German/Italian rule of North Africa, and they are remembered with a huge cemetery, museum, and memorials at the site of the battle.
The Cemetery and Memorial at El Alamein WWII BattlefieldAfter paying respects to the World War II dead, treat yourself to a night at the gorgeous Porto Marina Resort in El Alamein that was opened during the summer of 2005. This resort hotel offers a wide range of water sports, leisure activities, golf, and options for eating out. The villas and chalets are hidden amongst luxuriant plantings and are connected by numerous Venetian-style canals and moorings set by a turquoise sea with nearly six miles of beach. All of that, plus luxury shopping outlets have made it one of the hottest holiday spots in the Middle East.