Cairo—Guarding the Treasures of Antiquity

written by | Posted on September 28th, 2011

Cairo skyline from the Citadel's ramparts.

 

Cairo, the “city of minarets” and the sprawling capital city of Egypt with an estimated 24 million residents, is a city that seems to be destined to inexorably creep further and further into the desert, absorbing change and history like a massive municipal chamois.

Its skyline fairly screams out this city’s unique past with dozens of minarets vying for attention with a variety of Coptic churches dating back to the fifth century when the early Christians moved into the city. Modern skyscrapers blend in with centuries-old buildings and Roman ruins still stand, testaments to the ever-changing fates of history and myriad civilizations.

Yet with all of its eclectic architecture, tradition still runs rampant here, as the call to prayer rings out over the city, mindful of its Islamic roots with its hypnotic, sacred chant and turbaned men in traditional gallibaya—long robe-like clothing—sit in doorways and tiny restaurants smoking from their hookah, while many of the women bustle about with their heads covered and not a few fully covered in the traditional burqa.

But this is also a very contemporary city with all of the modern day blessings and banalities, not to mention the seat of a 21st century revolution that marked the beginning of the Arab Spring and the end of an oppressive regime, sparking huge changes that are still in their infancy as the country struggles to return to normalcy. But despite the massive social changes, to the average visitor, the rhythm of everyday life is as constant as it’s been in the past. There are no threatening crowds or disturbing disorder, security is everywhere and if anything, travelers are more welcome than ever, with the Egyptian people themselves—whose Arab tradition in itself demands a focus on hospitality—consistently friendly, warm and welcoming no matter where you go.

Which, by the way, makes this the perfect time to go to Egypt, since many North American travelers are wary and unsure of the security in the country, a mindless and totally erroneous fear that’s crippling the tourism industry in Egypt and cheating potential travelers from some of the best vacation values they’ll ever see. What used to take hours on sightseeing tours to crowded attractions, are a joy to visit now with sightseers just a fraction of what they had been less than a year ago. Hotel pricing, too, is the best value it’s been in years.

One of the first places we visited on a recent visit to Egypt was the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Cairo located on Tahrir Square, known also as “Freedom Square,” the birthplace of the revolution earlier this year where up to 1 million Egyptians successfully demanded the end of the Mubarack regime, marking it as a contemporary historical site, as well as the home of Egypt’s most sacred treasures of antiquity. More than 120,000 items are on display, including much of King Tutankhamun’s burial treasure including chariots, jewelry, the massive tomb within a tomb where much of the treasure was found and the famous Gold Mask, as well as the king’s solid gold inner coffin, a truly magnificent piece of ancient art.

The collections in this museum are truly some of the most unique found anywhere, including the original Rosetta Stone, displays from the various dynasties including many from the reign of Ramses III and hundreds of deity representations, massive statuary and historical documents. It’s a must-see in Cairo but don’t try to see it all at once. If you can, it’s a good idea to make at least one return trip so you can actually absorb more of what you’re going to see and marvel at. And again, with the exception of a few small European tourism groups, without the normal crowds you can see a lot more of the artifacts in a relatively short period of time.

Next stop is Giza, located about 13 miles from the center of Cairo on the west bank of the Nile and home of the Great Pyramid and two others, plus a couple of smaller ones reserved for the wives of the dead pharaohs—all guarded by the omnipresent Sphinx standing timeless duty at the entrance to the plateau. Normally, there’s a relentless line of tour buses coming and going all day, currently, however, there’s but a few, making photography easy without having to shoot around hundreds of tourists popping in front of the lens. The camel drivers and horse jockeys are still there, competing with one another for the paltry pickings of visitors and the tourism police are all there, ensuring the safety and security of the tourists, and shooing away some of the persistent hawkers selling souvenirs.