Five must-see places in Egypt (other than the Giza pyramids)
Yes, I know, when you think of Egypt, you automatically picture the pyramids. I mean, it’s hard not to. For thousands of years, our collective imaginations have been enthralled by what ancient Egyptians did – build those stunning stone structures that have been one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Those burial complexes which housed the remains of the Pharaohs have bewitched us! Remember our school lessons on Ancient Egypt? How thrilling and macabre was the idea of mummies, unlimited wealth and tomb raiders, right?
When I got a chance to visit Egypt, I leapt at the opportunity without hesitation. Our dear friends live in Cairo, and were nearing the end of their deputation there. It was now or never. So with my youngest daughter and another friend in tow, I was ready to explore the fabled land.
I came away with a myriad of experiences, but the foremost thought in my mind is that there is so much more to the country than the pyramids. Let me list you my top five:
- Wadi Al-Hitan (Valley of the whales)
- Memphis museum
- Ain Sokhna
- St Antonius monastery
I’m going to tackle each of these in separate blog posts, and explain to you why I think they are mesmerizing must-sees. But before I do that, let me also give you my impressions about the Giza pyramids. It wouldn’t be fair otherwise!
Pyramids of Giza:
We went to the Giza complex on a Friday afternoon. Now you know what that means – it’s the weekly holiday, and that the sun-god Amun Ra was riding high in the Egyptian sky! Temperatures climbed to the high 30s, and we were sweating buckets. The driver deposited us in front of a milling crowd swarming the ticket office. Nothing grand, mind you, the ‘office’ was just in a plain-looking one storey building with barred windows. The officials sat behind the windows and issued tickets after collecting the money. Since the signs were in Arabic, we could not read, and randomly chose a line. After about 15 minutes, we realized that the reason everyone was looking at us three ladies strangely was because it was a men only queue.
After a wait of half an hour, we got our tickets and proceeded to push our way to the ‘entrance’, which was a short walk through the office building interiors, out into the open. Lots of pushing and shoving, people chattering excitedly in multiple tongues, and then we found ourselves exiting the office, and climbing a smallish ramp. We had our first sight of the great pyramid of Giza or the pyramid of Khufu. Built almost 4500 years ago, the gigantic structure left us open-mouthed. The size and weight of the blocks forming the pyramid was astounding to say the least.
But being contemplative in front of the Khufu pyramid is almost impossible because of the enormous activity all around. Camels with their herders, young men with their friends, families out to enjoy their holiday, taxi drivers, photographers for hire, touts selling god knows what, tourists from all over the world – everyone was exclaiming, snapping pictures, climbing the stones, perching themselves against the pyramid walls for pictures. The frenetic activity was unbelievable.
Hany, our kind Egyptian driver and guide warned us not to talk to anyone who was trying to sell us stuff. So accordingly, we waved away offers of peanuts, straw hats and small replicas of the pyramid with a polite ‘Shukran’, the Arabic word for ‘Thanks’. The camel herders brought their animals close to us, trying to persuade us to mount the beasts. I wasn’t brave enough. The camels themselves chewed contentedly, nonchalant and seemingly impervious to the hustle and bustle. They sported cheerful coverings of red, black and yellow on their humps.
“The outer walls were made of limestone,” Hany pointed out sadly, “but not there now.”
Only those enormous limestone blocks that weighed more than a ton each stacked up against each other in a wonderful symmetry. I saw some daredevil youngsters climbing the sides of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, though there was a sign in Arabic and English which warned against this activity.
“They will be arrested when they come down. Young devils!” Hany grumbled when I pointed them out to him.
It was time to see the other pyramid complexes on the Giza plateau. In a field a short distance away, we gazed in silence at the three conical shapes arising out of the desert haze. Nearer the pyramids, I could just make out the figure of a camel with his rider. But otherwise, there was just the desert, and the pyramids. I can tell you, I liked these three much more than the Khufu pyramid. Here, I could marvel at the sheer engineering feat required to build these structures.
The pyramid plateau has a famous guard, and I was very excited to meet him. Who would not be thrilled to see the Sphinx? The enigmatic beast with the head of a man and the body of a lion reared its girth solidly in the desert, performing its duty even after so many years. Hany said that the nose of the Sphinx was chopped off during the invasion of the Ottomans. Some interesting facts about this creature:
- It was carved out of a single mass of limestone in Giza
- It is 66 feet tall and 240 feet in length
- Scholars suggest that the Pharaoh Khafre himself commissioned the Sphinx
- It was built using stone hammers and copper chisels
So my take-aways from the Giza plateau included these thoughts:
- Come prepared to be awed, but not overwhelmed
- Get an English-speaking guide before hand
- Refuse firmly, but politely, all offers from random people
- Offer exact change at the ticket office
- Wear lose-fitting comfortable clothes, head scarf plus wide brimmed hat
- Slather on the sunscreen; don’t forget your sun glasses