Things to See in Egypt

Alexandria – One of the Great Cities of Ancient Times

Out of all the places I’ve visited in Egypt, Alexandria probably had the least to offer the tourist, and yet there was no way I was going to pass up an opportunity to go there, given its illustrious history. I’ve read that “Alexandria is the greatest historical city with the least to show” and that seems to be true, unfortunately. For a map of places visited in Egypt, click here, scroll to bottom of page.

A typical street scene in Alexandria. Very non-touristy!

A typical street scene in Alexandria. Very non-touristy!

Buying some fruit from a local Egyptian vendor.

Buying some fruit from a local Egyptian vendor.

Alexandria was the home of Queen Cleopatra and the city rivaled Rome in beauty. It was the center of scientific learning with a world-renown library (700,000 volumes). It also had a huge lighthouse (called Pharos) that was a wonder of the ancient world (394 feet high) and was in working order for 1,700 years (until an earthquake toppled it in 1303).

Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great (in 331 BC) and was one of the greatest cities of antiquity. Alexander is buried here, but the exact location of his tomb is not known. The city of Cleopatra’s time is now largely under water and about 18 ft. below street level. Every so often there are major finds, such as the Roman catacombs discovered in 1900 when a donkey disappeared through the ground.

Here are a few things to see in Alexandria:

Roman Amphitheater (Kom Al-Dikka). This is the only Roman Amphitheater in Egypt. It is well preserved and if you stand in the right spot on the center stage, the acoustics allow you to hear your voice being amplified around the theater. There are more excavations going on in this area.

The Roman Amphitheater in Alexandria.

The Roman Amphitheater in Alexandria.

Pompey’s Pillar and Serapeum. This area contains several above-ground ruins and underground chambers. The Pillar was erected in AD 291 to support a statue of the Emperor Diocletian and is still standing in its original spot. The pillar takes its name from the Roman general Pompey who was murdered by Cleopatra’s brother (although he has nothing to do with the pillar). The Serapeum was a large temple complex which also had a huge library. The underground chambers show the foundation and library remains.

Pompey's Pillar and the surrounding ruins of the Serapeum.

Pompey’s Pillar and the surrounding ruins of the Serapeum.

Roman Catacombs (Kom Ash-Shuqqafa). Close to Pompey’s Pillar are the Roman catacombs, which is probably the most fascinating historical site in Alexandria. Unfortunately, I could not take pictures in the catacombs (except for one quick shot below). There are three underground levels, the lowest of which is flooded, but the other two levels are open and can be visited with a guide—even the 2nd level has some water on the floor, which you avoid by walking on planks. You descend via a staircase and enter a large rotunda with numerous rooms branching off in every direction. The catacombs were constructed in the 2nd century AD and eventually housed the remains of 300 people. Before visiting, be sure to check opening hours and days of the week.

An ancient sarcophagus at the entrance to the Roman catacombs.

An ancient sarcophagus at the entrance to the Roman catacombs.

One sneaky photo in the Roman catacombs.

One sneaky photo in the Roman catacombs.

The Al-Corniche. Alexandria is a long narrow city built along the Mediterranean shoreline. The Corniche is a popular socializing spot for locals, especially after dark, with street vendors selling all kinds of snacks and young couples strolling hand in hand enjoying the fresh breeze.

The Corniche in Alexandria.

The Corniche in Alexandria.

From the Corniche you can glimpse Fort Qaitbey, which was built in 1480 on the remains of the ancient Pharos lighthouse. The fort is open to the public but our short visit (just one full day) did not afford us time to go out and see it.

Reference Source: Lonely Planet Egypt

Fort Qaitbey is in the far distance at the right edge of the picture.

Fort Qaitbey is in the far distance at the right edge of the picture.

Three Must-Do Sights on the West Bank of the Nile (Ancient Thebes)

As mentioned in my other post on Thebes (located on West Bank of the Nile), there is lots to see in this area just across the river from Luxor, Egypt. The three sights below are “must do’s”, two of which are major tourist sights (the third receives far fewer tourists). For a map of places visited in Egypt click here.

Valley of the Kings

The Valley of the Kings is the number one tourist spot in ancient Thebes. It’s the location of the tomb of the world famous King Tut and many other pharaohs from the 18th – 20th Dynasties (1550-1069 BC).

At the entrance to the Valley of the Kings.

At the entrance to the Valley of the Kings.

Some of the tombs were known and open as far back as Greek and Roman times and others were discovered more recently (such as King Tut’s, which was just discovered in 1922). Many of the artifacts from King Tut’s tomb are found in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (a new Grand Egyptian Museum is set to open in March 2015 near the Giza Pyramids). Your ticket will allow you to see three tombs in one day and the number of visitors to each tomb is limited (King Tut’s requires a separate ticket).

In one of the plain chambers of the tombs I quickly took this picture.

In one of the plain chambers of the tombs I quickly took this picture.

It is just about impossible to get meaningful pictures in the Valley of the Kings since photos aren’t allowed in the tombs and the exteriors are just dark entrance ways with signage. However, the tombs themselves are incredible. Many of the tombs are accessed via long corridors going deep into the hillsides, some have chambers in addition to the main tombs. These tombs are carved out of solid rock and the walls and ceilings of most corridors and rooms are highly decorated with beautiful paintings.

Climbing up to the Tomb of Tuthmosis III - the tomb was dug 100 feet above the valley floor in an attempt to keep thieves out (didn't work!).

Climbing up to the Tomb of Tuthmosis III – the tomb was dug 100 feet above the valley floor in an attempt to keep thieves out (didn’t work!).

The sign at the entrance of the tomb of Tuthmosis III (1479 - 1425 BC). The "KV 34" means it was the 34th tomb discovered in the "Kings Valley."

The sign at the entrance of the tomb of Tuthmosis III (1479 – 1425 BC). The “KV 34” means it was the 34th tomb discovered in the “Kings Valley.”

Sixty-two tombs have been excavated to-date, and there are probably more to be discovered. This remote location was chosen to thwart grave robbers, but even though many tombs were hard to reach, robbers found a way into almost all of the tombs.

Temple of Hatshepsut (Deir al-Bahri)

The Temple of Hatshepsut at the base of a dramtic limestone cliff.

The Temple of Hatshepsut at the base of a dramtic limestone cliff.

This temple was constructed by Queen Hatshepsut in the 18th Dynasty (she reigned from 1473-1458 BC). The setting is dramatic and the temple is in good condition and from a distance is almost looks new—hard to believe it’s 3,500 years old.

The decorated rooms of the Temple of Hatshepsut.

The decorated rooms of the Temple of Hatshepsut.

A carved pillar in the courtyard of the Temple of Tuthmosis III next to the Temple of Hatshepsut.

A carved pillar in the courtyard of the Temple of Tuthmosis III next to the Temple of Hatshepsut.

There are many carved and painted reliefs still in good condition even after thousands of years. There are also some older temple ruins on the site. Be prepared for the crowds here.

Medinat Habu Temple

This temple is huge, and 2nd to only Karnak in size (Karnak is located on the East Bank north of Luxor). However, it receives fewer visitors since it is a little off the beaten track from the Valley of the Kings and the Temple of Hatshepsut.

My mother-in-law, wife and sister in front of the Medinat Habu Temple.

My mother-in-law, wife and sister in front of the Medinat Habu Temple.

The carved pillars in the Second Court of Medinat Habu Temple.

The carved pillars in the Second Court of Medinat Habu Temple.

It is the mortuary temple of Ramses III (reigned 1184 – 1153 BC) and was patterned after the mortuary temple of Ramses II (the Ramesseum, nearby). Medinat Habu has survived in much better condition than the Ramesseum.

Another view of the Second Court of Medinat Habu Temple.

Another view of the Second Court of Medinat Habu Temple.

The temple area was inhabited until the 9th century and was the center of economic life in Thebes for centuries. Allow a couple hours to wander the extensive ruins.

Giza Plateau – Home to the Greatest Wonder of the World

Regardless of which list of the “Wonders of the World” you consider your favorite or the most accurate (my son and I have argued about this), the Pyramids of Giza have to be on every list. For most tourists flying into Cairo, Egypt the first sight you see as your plane turns to make its approach into the Cairo International airport are the Pyramids at Giza. They look a bit surreal from the air, and I could hardly believe my eyes, seeing these massive structures for the first time. The scale and magnificence of the Pyramids of Giza pretty much defy description.

This photo of me by the Great Pyramid of Khufu (or Cheops) puts into perspective how massive these structrues are.

This photo of me by the Great Pyramid of Khufu (or Cheops) puts into perspective how massive these structrues are.

We still don’t really know how the ancient Egyptians (more accurately their slaves) managed to build these structures, with almost perfect engineering strength and accuracy. Built with stone blocks that weigh 2.5 to 15 tons, they have been standing almost 5,000 years. The greatest difference in the length between the four sides of any pyramid is 2 inches.  The largest pyramid is 450 feet high.

The Great Pyramid. 450 feet high. The haze is the smog of Cairo - which was very bad on the day of our visit.

The Great Pyramid. 450 feet high. The haze is the smog of Cairo – which was very bad on the day of our visit.

All this said, Giza was probably my least favorite spot of the places we visited in Egypt simply because the tourist crowds and smog of Cairo made our visit a little less appealing.  My favorite pyramids were south of Giza and Cairo, in Dahshur and Saqqara, which I will cover in another post. The main sights at Giza (which is just south of the Cairo suburbs), include the three large pyramids made so famous in many pictures and the Sphinx sculpture.

My in-laws at the Sphinx (Great Pyramid of Khufu in the background).

My in-laws at the Sphinx (Great Pyramid of Khufu in the background).

The three large pyramids are: The Great Pyramid (also known as the Pyramid of Khufu or Cheops), Pyramid of Khafre (Khufu’s son), and the relatively smaller third pyramid called Menkaure, who was Khafre’s successor).

The third of the great pyramids, Pyramid of Menkaure. It's quite a distance from the other two to this one (the little pyramid at the left is one of his queen's tombs).

The third of the great pyramids, Pyramid of Menkaure. It’s quite a distance from the other two to this one (the little pyramid at the left is one of his queen’s tombs).

These pyramids were built as tombs during 2600 – 2100 BC, making them over 4,500 years old. These were not the first pyramids built in Egypt, the oldest is the Step Pyramid (King Djoser’s Pyramid) in Saqqara (2665 BC). While these pyramids are the main attractions at Giza, there are other less-visited sites such as the much smaller Queen’s pyramids which are more intimate and fun – very few tourists visit these tombs, which are near the largest (Great) Pyramid.

In front of the Queen's pyramids next to the Great Pyramid.

In front of the Queen’s pyramids next to the Great Pyramid.

The Giza site is very spread out and somewhat confusing – there is no signage to speak of and I got differing directions as we tried to find a few other tombs (such as the Tomb of Khentkawes).

I believe this is the Tomb of Khentkawes, which was closed.

I believe this is the Tomb of Khentkawes, which was closed.

At the time we visited a few years ago, it was possible to only visit one pyramid on a given day (they also rotate closures), and we were able to visit the Pyramid of Khafre, the 2nd largest (slightly smaller than Great Pyramid, even though it looks larger).

My mother-in-law and wife in front of the Pyramid of Khafre. It's the only one with a bit of the brillant outer limestone layer left at the top.

My mother-in-law and wife in front of the Pyramid of Khafre. It’s the only one with a bit of the brillant outer limestone layer left at the top.

I could not get a picture inside this pyramid, and the tunnel is very long and steep.  Be prepared to stoop as you climb the whole tunnel length. It is also humid and stuffy in the main room.

Climbing out of the Queen's Pyramid, giving an idea of what the access tunnels are like.

Climbing out of the Queen’s Pyramid, giving an idea of what the access tunnels are like.

There really isn’t much to see, other than the sarcophagus of the Pharaoh Khafre, but it’s one of those things you have to do!  If you’re claustrophobic it’s probably a good idea to stay outside.  For an overview of places we visited in Egypt, click here.

My brother-in-law doing the touristy thing (why not?) in front of the Pyramid of Khafre.

My brother-in-law doing the touristy thing (why not?) in front of the Pyramid of Khafre.

References: DK Eyewitness Travel Egypt, Lonely Plant Egypt.

Egypt – Go Now

The great Sphinx at Giza.

The great Sphinx at Giza.

The news websites and TV stations flash scenes of angry crowds, fires and riots in Cairo and Americans stay away. What we don’t understand is that the news is focusing on a very small part of the country and even a very small part of Cairo.  Although it was a few years ago, we did a self-guided tour of Egypt and had a great time.

My wife and mother-in-law at the Luxor Temple.

My wife and mother-in-law at the Luxor Temple.

With the current political situation in Egypt many people would probably not consider a visit let alone a self-guided tour, and yet now is a good time to go, because there are far fewer tourists.  Over a series of posts I will share the highlights of our trip, but in this post I will provide a few tips and overview of our route (below):

  1. Getting around. I am a pretty brave car driver in other countries, but I have my limits. I will not drive in Cairo. I think Cairo traffic takes top prize in chaos, perhaps on par with India, and perhaps even more so. Our modes of transportation on our trip took various forms: we hired drivers for day trips, flew on Egypt Air (a great airline), and took a couple trips on trains, including an overnight train (in a sleeper cabin) from Cairo to Luxor—which was a fun experience.
    Arriving in Luxor after an overnight ride from Cairo.

    Arriving in Luxor after an overnight ride from Cairo.

    Interior of a train sleeper cabin. (A bed folds down above the seats).

    Interior of a train sleeper cabin. (A bed folds down above the seats).

    Making reservations on Egypt Air’s website for internal flights in Egypt was a bit of a nightmare. The Egypt Air New York office only wants to deal with the lucrative overseas flights.  Once we got to Egypt, it was easy to go into a local Egypt Air office and make changes, get seat assignments, etc. Cairo taxis are a bit of a challenge, in that there are no meters, and you have to guess what to pay the driver, or try to negotiate a fare before you hop in.

    Eating dinner with our driver (on left) and his colleague after a day of touring Cairo.

    Eating dinner with our driver (on left) and his colleague after a day of touring Cairo.

  2. Safety. Except for one taxi incident that my sister experienced in Cairo, where the driver acted a bit threatening and wanted more money (even though my brother-in-law had paid generously), the people were very friendly, and helpful. There were Tourist police (in white uniforms) in many locations and they provided directions and helped us cross very busy streets (cars are king, and pedestrians take their lives in their hands).
    Tourist police at the Pyramids of Giza.

    Tourist police at the Pyramids of Giza.

    We never feared for our safety, and walked the streets of Cairo and other locations at night.  In fact, the night scene is more lively when families and children come out to play (probably due to the generally hot climate).

    Cute Egyptian children.

    Cute Egyptian children.

  3. Tipping. Plan to give lots of tips (backsheesh). The local population lives on these tips, and the tips amount to perhaps 50 cents in many cases. You’ll find many locals at the tourist sites want to show you a few things and expect a tip in return.
  4. Best time to visit.  We visited during early November, and found the weather to be great.  Warm enough to go swimming, but cool enough to wander through the desert sights and not die of heat exhaustion.
  5. Cost. Egypt is inexpensive for the most part, especially if you’re doing a visit on your own. We stayed in a decent hotel in Luxor for 18 (USD) per night.  It was not fancy, but was a decent hotel. About 5 Egyptian Pounds to the USD.

    Purchasing some fruits from a street vendor (great oranges!).

    Purchasing some fruits from a street vendor (great oranges!).

  6. Standard of Living. Egypt is a poor country, and not the cleanest country.  We saw piles of trash in different places and dead animals occasionally. There are many unfinished buildings and others that are falling apart. It’s all just part of the experience.
    Typical housing in Cairo.

    Typical housing in Cairo.

    Street scene in Alexandria.

    Street scene in Alexandria.

  7. Culture shock.  When we flew from Luxor to Sharm el-Sheikh (Sinai Peninsula), we felt like we were entering another world. Sharm felt like Cancun and everything was far more expensive (similar to US prices). The Sinai Peninsula is completely different than the rest of the country. However, the hotel prices in Naama Bay (next to Sharm el-Sheikh) were still pretty good, my sister and her husband got a nice hotel room (Tropicana Rosetta) with a great pool for $50/night.

    Pool at the Tropicana Rosetta Hotel in Naama Bay.

    Pool at the Tropicana Rosetta Hotel in Naama Bay.

Itinerary

We spent about two weeks in Egypt. We started in Cairo for about 3 days, then took the train to Luxor and spent 4 days there, then flew to Sharm el-Sheikh for about 3 days, then flew back to Cairo and drove out to Alexandria for 2 days, then took  a train back to Cairo before flying home.

Major locations visited in Egypt.

Major locations visited in Egypt.