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And so to Egypt I went...

  • Submitted by: Shazil Rehman, United Arab Emirates
  • Submission Date: 07th Mar 2005

My much awaited, short and hectic Egypt tour started on a low note. Arrived in Alexandria at 00.35 on 19th January, one hour late courtesy Air Arabia. Contrary to popular opinion the 5 hour low-cost flight from Sharjah to Alex was quite good (food on offer was bad though, plus you had to pay for it extra!), but the delay was not so pleasant.

Alexandria was bone chilling cold when I walked out of the airport at 3 am..almost felt like the chill of Manali in India! I didnt expect such weather, but it was ok..hired a taxi, without negotiating too much, coz at that time of the night in such weather, u want the cabbie on ur side! My hotel, called Union Hotel was right on the corniche..which is a lovely necklace shaped area just like the Marine Drive in Mumbai..the first impression of Alex was that of a laid-back chilled place..and that was the final impression as well !! Language was a barrier throughout my trip, but with a few Arabic words here n there, was able to manage quite well! The hotel guy was quite helpful even at 3 am, as i discussed with him my plan of action for the morning.

At 7 am, after breakfast, i headed for the nearby tram station. it was pouring rain already, and that was a dampener. Straight to the Roman Catacombs i went, which is a burial ground during the roman reign, consisitng of tombs and graves 100 feet below the surface...apparently this place was discovered when a donkey fell in a grave in 1900, and since then they have excavated a whole area of was amazing to think of how they must have constructed such a precise n perfect place deep down inside, its almost like a mortuary there with places for so many bodies! Plus lots of architecture and stuff on the stop was Pompeys Pillar, just a landmark TALL pillar from Alexanders times! Back to the tram and on the return journey, it felt sooo nice jus soaking in the views.

Alex is still living in the 1930s or 1940s...of course the modern city life is there in some areas, but there is this other side that you see..the normal day to day life of the people..and nothing is hurried or rushed...most the roads are made of cobble stones, and side by side the cars (trust me the newest car in Alex is a 1970s Lada or a Datsun or Fiat, including the taxis!), there are horse carts going clickety clackity while the sweet smell of sheesha (Arabic smoke pipe) envelopes the was just too good..From the cafes came the sound of takbir(Islamic religious verses), as live transmission of an important religious event in Saudi Arabia happened on TVs...And the Alexandrians huddled around the rainy streets making their way to some last minute shopping and preparations for Eid(an important Muslim fesitval), the next day...

Next stop was the location of the ancient lighthouse, which was one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World, but got destroyed in floods and quakes. Next to it was the Fort of Qaitbay, a massive fort well maintained and providing an excellent view of the city of Alex(it was situated on the end of the "necklace" corniche. It was 2pm by this time and i had a train to catch to Cairo by 4, so the last stop was the Kom Al-Dikka or Roman Amphitheatre, which is a location of many archaeological discoveries, and more are taking place right was a pleasure clicking photographs non-stop in this really beautiful location..

Egypt has a very good train system, and not the least bit expensive..The 220 km journey from Alexandria to Cairo on one of the imported trains ( all long distance trains in Egypt are either french or spanish ) took just 2 hours and cost me around US$ 7 in first class, and all trains are precisely on time always. The 1st and 2nd class cabins have comfortable seats, and the train ride is a smooth one! The journey and scenery were exactly like the ones you see in India on a train journey..lots of paddy and greenery and stuff, apart from the slum areas..if you still havent got it, then YES, I'm originally from India!

Cairo.1755 hrs.Dusk was setting in as i reached this massive city on the 18th of January. The first feeling that i got from the railway station was that it resembled Chennai Central station SO much (another city in India!)!! Similar kind of lights and platforms and what not..Since i had lots to do and limited time, i decided to start off right away, and so, bag in hand, i hired a cab to see the Cairo Tower in the suburb island of Zamalek in Cairo. Bargaining is the rule of the street in Egypt, just like it was in Bangkok. No matter where your going or what your buying, you can always bargain yourself into a better deal if your patient and persistent enough. Hence after settling an amount with the cab driver, i reached this massive 120 meter high tower, beautifully built in 1960. It was not a monument, but nevertheless, when i went to the top floor and looked over, i was floored. Stunning views of entire Cairo were on offer, and the timing was perfect. The street lights and the receeding rays of natural light as twilight set in made my first impression of Cairo superb, i just couldnt wait to see more. The Nile, serene in its calmness and beauty, extended in front of me, as pleasure cruise liners made their way slowly along the waters, happy people enjoying on its surface...

Back on the road, my first stop was to hit the hotel and throw my bags into the room before i ventured any further. I was already having cramps on my shoulder due to carrying it all around, so i decided to not waste any more time. One more cab, more bargaining, fifteen minutes of a drive, and i was in front of Sun Hotel, my cute little budget accomodation for two nights in Cairo. When i mean budget, i mean it costs peanuts. Of course, peanuts cost far less, but trust me, it was cheap, around US$ 4 per night for a double room, without bath.

Now i dont know what i did right here, but my hotel was BANG in the middle of the action, in a place called Midan Tahrir. This place houses the famous Egyptian Museum (yes, the place with the mummies and King Tutankhamuns tomb and what not, but more on that later) and has the American University of Cairo nearby and it as such, one of the "happening" places in Cairo.Delighted with my luck, i checked into my room, and got our of the place, heading straight to Khan-E-Khalilil, one of the most famous market places in Cairo. It was 8 pm by now, and the best thing was to explore the markets at this time..Cairo as such is Mosque City, there are soooo many mosques thats its hard to understand why they have so many. For instance, in some places, hardly 5 metres separate two massive mosques! Khan E Khalili houses some of the oldest and finest mosques in Egypt, some of the names of which are Al-Azhar Mosque and Islamic University (founded 970 A.D and it is also the worlds oldest university) and Saeed Hassan mosque. I explored this market, found out relative prices of souvenirs and stuff, prayed, and jus soaked in the sights n sounds as massive loads of tourists from all over the world flocked the place for shopping. The next day was Eid, so even the local egyptians were out on full force, enjoying the preparations for the big day ahead. Dinner was sheesh kabab, kofta, hummus(not the eating thing,but a new drink!) n somethin else. i thought the bill would be quite a bit, but when i saw it, was amazed! cost me just around 15 Egyptian Pounds (LE), thats around 8 dirhams(Dirhams is the currency in the UAE)! I was stuffed. At 2 am, with Khan E Khalilli resembling a carnival of sorts, i reluctantly decided to head back to my room, since the next day the Eid prayer was apparently gonna be at 0630 and i needed to be there!

With a violent jerk, i woke at 0600, thanks to my phone alarm,wondering where i was. Then i heard the chants of takbir in the background, and i knew today was the big day. Not only coz it was Eid, but today was my full and most hectic day in Cairo!! After a hot shower (thank goodness for the hot water, it was around 7-8 degrees man!!), i headed for the 1st mosque to be built in Egypt. Called the Amr-bin-al-aas mosque(642 A.D), this was situated in the area of Futsat, somewhere close to Coptic Cairo (or Christian area of Cairo), also called Babylon in history or Old cairo. This mosque was MASSIVELY was not special in anyway,no special architecture of anything like that, but itwas just simple and big and being in there with atleast 20000 people made me feel a part of them. I could swear that I was the only Indian in there, and im sure that was true..hehe..

First route for the day was the Coptic area (houses all the churches,cathedrals etc of the Christian history of Cairo) which was right next to the mosque. Since it was too early at 730am for these places to open, i had no choice but to see it from outside only. Then i boarded the Metro Rail of Cairo for the first time to a station called Sayedda Zainab, which would connect me to the Islamic section of Cairo. The Cairo Metro is punctual and comfortable, just like the Bangkok Metro, but it is not as clean, and the facilities are also not the same. There are no elevators to the station underground like in Bangkok, you only have stairs, and the announcements are few and rare and mostly in Arabic. But nevertheless, the metro serves its purpose, which is to transport people fast and for cheap!! A long trip would cost around .75 LE (Egyptian pound) or 75 piastres.

I wanted to see the Ibn Tulun mosque (976 A.D), which is of of the biggest and oldest mosques in Cairo, and has some stunning architecture. In the quest for that I started walking from the station…it was a long walk, with locals directing me to the destination as I passed roads streamed with blood as slaughtering of cows and goats was going on in full swing after the eid prayers. Curious westerners, armed with cameras were ready to take pics of this usual ritual for Muslims, and I just walked past them with a smile. After walk of around 1.5 kms I reached the area called Islamic Cairo. This is the area were mosques have been built every 5 metres or so..there are lots of madrassas as well… each and every mosque is a monument..some are soo ruined that prayers are not conducted, it is just for viewing, the other sturdier ones still conduct prayers. Ibn Tulun mosque was massive, more like a fort than a mosque. It is totally open mosque, with a roofless courtyard in the center and sheltered prayer areas in all four sides.

In Cairo, you are SAFE. It might sound odd, but every 10 metres of so, you are likely to bump into the men in black, the policemen in Egypt! Each cop is armed heavily, and you can never escape the cops while you are roaming around. Indeed, extremely unfortunate would be the person who got robbed or mugged in such a police atmosphere! Also, they are extremely helpful, and will give you valuable tips and directions. Of course, everything is done for ”Bakhsheesh” or tips, but if you talk well, you can circumvent that as well. I learnt that being friendly with them goes a long way. For example, most of them asked me where I was from, when I didn’t understand the Arabic they were speaking (much to their surprise!). When I said India, the first expression on their faces was of complete glee, and then “India? AMITABH BACCHAN!!” Yeah, it sounds crazy, but Egyptians are NUTS about this man!! EVERY second person I got friendly with in Egypt knows Bacchan and is a big fan of his Hindi/Indian movies! Little wonder he is called the mega super duper star!! After the India dose, the next qs would be what my name was. I made it a point to say “Abdul Rehman” each time, simply coz Shazil was a odd name anyways, and it did not hint the Muslim touch. Trust me, with India already mentioned, and now a Muslim name, the guys would be over the moon to have a tourist like me ..and it was easy to walk away without any baksheesh given…you would have entered the best books of the guys out there with these two simple steps and they will say “welcome to Cairo” in the most welcoming way!! Of course, the other way to go about it was to say I was from Dubai, and then the next response would be “Shaik Zayed was a great man, I really liked him…it is so sad about his death...” and again your in the good books (Shaik Zayed was the ruler of the UAE till recently)

Anyways, after a few more mosques around the area, I headed for the famous Citadel of Saladin..situated on a hill over looking the city of Cairo. Once again, breathtaking views, and a wonderful piece of architecture in the Citadel…it was well worth the long walk early morning! At 11am, I headed back to the hotel for a short break, coz soon I had an appointment with the Pyramids!!

Traffic in Cairo is CRAZY, to say the least. The road rules are openly flouted, and the taxis and cars are all over the place. If you are crossing a big road, God be with you over that short journey, and better to just run with your life! Reminds me of Bangkok, where the traffic is crazy as well, but not THIS crazy!! Horns are used every 2 seconds, and so are flash lights, those are the only rules to the game!!

The great Pyramids are in Giza, an area 18 kms away from Cairo. A short and cheap trip in an AC bus (2 LE) of around 30 minutes brought me to the ONLY wonder of both the ancient and the modern world. As such, the Pyramids are the only existing wonder of the ancient world nowadays. Goosebumps ran all over me as I stood in front of this massive structure, and my mind went back 4500 years back. I had no words to say. I was thinking. Thinking of the stunning buildings in Dubai, the buildings in India, the buildings in Bangkok and all the others places I have seen. Construction of all types and sizes and magnitudes.. but 4500 years back what did these guys have in terms of equipment and technology to build this precise and correct pyramids on a perfect square base extending into the skies? Each block was bought from Aswan and Luxor around 2000 kms away from Cairo, and each block weighs around 2 tonnes. 2.5 million blocks like this make up this Pyramid of Khufu (the biggest n most famous). My mind was whirling around the facts n figures and this massive structure, I just cannot put it into words. We were like ants in front of it, and so was our technology and intelligence. I did not mean we..just as humans. "We" as the smart, modern, intelligent people were NOTHING compared to the people 4500 years back. How smart were they!! And it is not just the pyramids, everything they did was well planned and executed…!

In the Pyramid complex, everyday at 8am and 1pm sharp only, 150 tickets each are given out for getting inside the pyramids..I was fortunate enough to get at ticket at 1pm, and made my way inside, along with others. Parallel to the sloping surface of the pyramid around 10 meters towards the top is the entrance, a very steep passage way (4 feet height and breadth only!) extending around 100 meters into the center of the pyramids. There are grips for the feet to pull yourself up and forward, and railings to hold on and hike yourself up each step. Extremely claustrophobic and several people gave up mid way and were coming down the same way, but determined to get to the bottom of this mystery I made my way up. After the steep passage were around 10 meters of crawling under low passages, and into the Tomb of Khufu we reached. It was a poorly lit room, which had a simple tomb devoid of anything else. Probably all other stuff were taken away by the authorities. There was not much to see, but it gave me a sense of immense satisfaction to be deep inside the great pyramid!

Back outside, I quickly made my way to the other two smaller pyramids (made for his wife and daughter) and took a short camel ride to the Sphinx, another superb piece of construction. Tired as ever, I reluctantly wound up the Giza sight seeing and caught a bus back to the city after a quick lunch. Unfortunately, I slept off and missed my stop and the next thing I knew, I was in another part of Cairo..hehehe…Since I had time on my hands, I just boarded another bus going back, and well, it was good in a way because this time I kept my eyes open and saw a good part of the non-touristy Cairo! Anyways, on the way back to the hotel, I quickly checked my mail and well, two of my friends in Cairo had mailed me their numbers of I gave them a call, and we arranged to meet up for dinner at 8. Away to Heliopolis I went, which is were the rendezvous was. This part of Cairo is around 10 kms away from the city center, it is near Cairo Intl Airport. It was nice fun to meet Emad, Heba and Ayah, all 3 pure bred Egyptians. Just in case you are wondering, Emad was a guy and the rest two were girls ..hehe.. we all had a nice time in a café catching up, and after dinner and more talk and roaming around, I called it a night at 1 am and went back with Emad who dropped me at my hotel. Tomorrow was my last day in Egypt.

8am,22nd January: After breakfast, I headed to the nearby Egyptian Museum to get my dose of mummies and other stuff. The place was packed with tourists even before opening time, and I managed to get in by 9 am. This place is a huge collection of historical stuff, full of statues and tombs and what not dating back to thousands of years …it also had the Greek and Roman treasures as well as the Pharaonic stuff. The highlight of the museum was the world famous Tutankhamen’s treasures.. King Tut died early as a Pharaoh, and the discovery of his tomb in 1962 was a big big step in history. There is an entire room dedicated to his treasures. Let me just explain. Egyptians mummified almost everything in sight, including animals, after death. They believed in the “Afterlife” a whole lot. After the mummification of King Tut, for example, they put the body into a coffin, then put that in another coffin, and then put the 2nd coffin into a bigger 3rd coffin! Then this was kept in box like structure, and again, 2 more structures like this on top of the other! Keep in mind that EVERYTHING was made of pure gold, including the boxes n stuff. King Tuts face was covered with the 11kg gold “death mask”, and his face with the unmistakable beard is so popular whenever Egypt is mentioned. The special head gear and the funny beard etc which are often seen when you talk about Egyptian Pharaohs constitute that face mask of King Tut, and it was also in the museum. Now, along with these boxes and coffins, EVERY thing necessary for a person to live was provided to the mummy for the “afterlife”. This included gold chairs, tables, cots, slippers, daggers, sticks, rings, masks, toe caps etc..all in pure gold.. Food was provided for the corpse (mummified cows, goats etc) and fruits and other eatables were also present. Wonder of wonders, all of this is still there in that museum and it was so well preserved 4500 years back that it continues to mind boggle people!! I was just speechless seeing all this, while a little shiver came over me as I remembered the curse of the mummy. Apparently the tomb SHOULD NOT be opened ever, and well, it has been opened and is on display, and whoever opens the tomb is doomed. Whether or not this is true I don’t know…but still…when you are amongst corpses thousands of years old, you cannot but help shiver a little…

Next stop in the museum was the Royal Mummy Room. This room was the scariest room, coz it contains 11 of the most treasured mummies in their full glory. Most important of them is the mummy of King Ramses. Extreme care and caution has been taken to preserve these corpses and maintain them for future generations to see. Each mummy is in a glass casket with pressure and temperature controlled. When I went there, there was no one else except another lone backpacker tourist like me from Manchester, named Richard. As I entered, I saw him already touring, and the look on his face was that of awe. Soon I realized why. The general notion of bandages running all over the body of a mummy white and tight is a little wrong. Yes of course the bandages are there, but over the years most have been torn and tattered, and they are certainly not white. I was stunned to see the corpses of Ramses, and other kings and even a few queens, INTACT with hair, teeth, toe nails and eyes. The flesh was almost gone, but the bones were still very much intact, though they were charred black in color. Of course, the other bits n pieces were all blackish in color too..but it was amazing to see the crooked teeth n stuff in the skull amidst the bandages of the mummy. The shivers ran down my spine as I thought about these corpses who were resting peacefully, well over 4000 years in age. Did they know that I was there? Did they know that they were still popular world over 4000 years after their death? Would the dreaded curse of the Mummy descend on me coz I was there? These were the kind of questions going through mine (and I’m sure Richards) mind as we went around. Even the most arrogant person on earth would become humble amidst such a fearful collection of history, and the room was so silent and serene and calm..I cannot explain anymore, it just has to be experienced!

Back to the present. After a quick conversation with Richard, I headed for the mosque for Friday prayers. I decided to go to the Al Azhar mosque in Khan E Khalili, because I was eager to see inside of it. When I reached there, I was greeted by massive security. It was almost as if they predicted riots to erupt all over! Cops cops and more cops… all equipped with helmets and shields and sticks and guns…anyway I made my way to the mosque where a lovely Quran recital was happening..the kind of recitals you normally catch on Middle Eastern television channels when they are mourning the death of a leader or something. It was a pleasure to sit there n listen to it, and after that the Qutba and prayer happened.

At 2pm I made my way into the Khan E Khalili bazaar to do some souvenir shopping, which was another excersise in bargaining!! I wound by 4pm and headed straight to the Nile River, bags and all…I hadn’t been to the Nile yet and time was running out!! The whole Cairo had desceneded to this area, families and kids and teens and what not…it was festival time!! Eid celebrations were on full swing, and I found myself amidst a sea of humanity!! I quickly made my way to the boat area, where short and sweet pleasure cruises were taking place for the Egyptian crowds. A more costlier and touristy cruise area was also there, but I opted for the Egyptian area to get a better feel of the place!! I took 2 short ten minute cruises on the beautiful Nile River, along with blaring Arabic music and general fun courtesy some really active teenagers! It was real fun, and totally enjoyed it, though the bags with me were a bit irritating! Egyptian guys of around 20-30 are like the ones u see in the music videos…quite handsome and well dressed and 90 percent of Egyptian girls are breathtakingly beautiful !! Yes, most of the people go obese after 30 or 35, but the 20-30 age groups as such have healthy people, from what I observed!! Though very Islamic in nature, Cairo has its fair share of girlfriend boyfriend stuff happening, something u normally don’t get to see in Dubai with the locals usually… Western culture is in heavily, and all you get to see is jeans and boots n all the other fashion stuff as well as heavy make up, but covered from top to toe.

5pm. It was time to make a move, as I had a train to catch back to Alex for my flight at 00.35 hrs. Reluctantly, I trudged my way against the teeming crowds, leaving behind happy faces and celebrations and sounds…my mind and heart telling me not to leave, but the thought of being at work at 9am the next day loomed large. On my way back to the hotel, I stopped by for “Koshary”, an Egyptian food. I was dying to try it out but could not find the right place till now, so decided to go for it now. It is a heady mix of pasta, rice, minced meat, beans n other vegetables, topped with some “masala” and the fried onions etc we Indians put in “biriyani” normally. It tasted like heaven!

After goodbyes at the hotel, with bags packed I left to catch my train to Alex at 1900. Reached Alex at 2100, had dinner (Koshary again!!) and left to the airport. I was happy to talk with the cab driver who dropped me at the airport, and I was happy to hear him gush “Amitabh Bacchan” yet again as he heard India from my mouth. So what if I had heard it 10 times from 10 egyptians, this country and its people were so nice to me. The flight to Sharjah was once again delayed by an hour, but I had a nice time talking to a Turkish couple who worked in Umm Al Quwain. They told me all about Istanbul, and I told them all about my place in India-Kerala…suffice to say, if I win a jackpot bumper prize soon, its destination Istanbul for me !

8am,22nd January: Reached Sharjah, rushed home to Dubai, dropped bags, took a shower. 9am back to work. Egypt was a part of my own history now, though the memories are forever going be so fresh. I wouldn’t say the Egyptians were as friendly as in people in Bangkok, but then again, each place is different, isn’t it? Egypt is full of rich culture and history. And more. Sigh. If only life were a long nonstop journey all over this beautiful world.

Shazil Rehman, Dubai