With so much culture and history at your fingertips, you may have a hard time deciding which site to see first, second, and so on. Rest assured, tours abound in Cairo for every type of traveler and for any wallet size.
The Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx are a powerful testament to the ingenuity of the ancient Egyptians. The best time to visit the area is early in the morning. As the day wears on, the crowds increase, especially during Egyptian holidays, as does the chance of being assaulted by dozens of postcard vendors and men offering rides on camels. The Giza pyramids are easily reached by city taxis or public transport.
The Pyramids are a marvel of engineering, and archaeologists have puzzled over exactly how they were built - and more esoteric types have wondered why. It is, however, generally accepted that the Pyramids were built as tombs for the ancient kings, an evolution from the single-stepped mastabas that designated burial sites in earlier times. Pyramid building was popular from about the 3rd to the 13th Dynasty with the biggest and best examples to be found in Giza.
The Sphinx, an ancient monument, has sparked many controversial theories. Egyptologists, however, agree that the Sphinx was built by Khafre's workers. The enormous lion statue has recently had a face lift, as experts endeavored to save the structure from further environmental damage and undo some earlier shoddy restoration work. Visitors can view the Sphinx only from a distance now, but it is still possible to see the Dream Stela between the forepaws, erected by King Thutmose IV, who fell asleep one afternoon in the shade of the then-buried colossus and in a dream was told to clear the sand which had engulfed it. The Sphinx has sat as a silent sentinel for nearly 4500 years, gazing to the east, witnessing the growth of the ever-changing Cairo.
Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops)
Soaring at nearly 147 meters (482 feet), the massive granite Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops), is the largest and the most enigmatic in Egypt. The smooth Tura limestone that once encased the granite structure is no longer intact, and the pyramidion (capstone) is long gone. A separate ticket is required to enter the Pyramid, and since the authorities have limited visitors to 300 a day, it is advisable to arrive at the nearby ticket-kiosk early in the morning.
From the entrance, the descending passage takes you down to the Subterranean Chamber, currently closed, while the ascending passage takes you up to the so-called Queen's Chamber, which is not, by the way, a burial chamber. Continuing the ascent, the spacious Grand Gallery, with its high corbelled ceiling, brings you to the King's Chamber, where the granite sarcophagus of King Khufu lies empty. Unlike other Pyramids, the King's burial chamber is above ground. Two small openings can be seen in both the King's and Queen's chambers - these are the controversial "air shafts," which have spawned all sorts of interesting theories. That eerie hum you might hear inside is not spiritual energy channeling through the structure, but a ventilation system that was installed several years ago.
The interior of the Pyramid of Khafre (Chephren) is currently closed for restoration, but the complex is visible. Some of the limestone casing near the top still remains, giving the pyramid an interesting profile. The ruins of the eastern mortuary temple are still standing, and the causeway (in ancient times a covered passageway) takes you to the remains of the valley temple, where the mummification ritual would have taken place.
Outside the Pyramid, to the east, you will find the black basalt pavement where the mortuary temple once stood, and a causeway which in ancient times would have led to the valley temple. Three small Queen's Pyramids also stand on this side, near the Solar Boat Museum (admission EGP10). This museum has an exhibit of a wooden boat that was excavated and subsequently reconstructed by Ahmed Youssef. The boat, from one of five boat pits surrounding the Pyramid, symbolically offered passage for the king into the afterlife.
Surrounding the Pyramids' area are numerous souvenir shops, and towards Saqqara and Dahshur you can find a lot of carpet stores where weaving techniques are demonstrated. Popular restaurants nearby include Andrea, serving delicious grilled chicken in a garden-like atmosphere, Christo, offering fish meals and a good view of the Pyramids, and the lower-priced Felfela, serving a range of traditional Egyptian fare. The nearby Mena House Oberoi Hotel is a relaxing place to stop for a drink after touring the site, and offers an exquisite Indian restaurant called The Moghul Room, as well as Al Rubayyat, which serves continental cuisine. Many of the area's bigger hotels also offer dining options. For those who have more than a casual interest in Pyramids, Mark Lehner's book, "The Complete Pyramids" is quite comprehensive and available at most bookstores and hotels in Cairo.
Pyramid of Menkaure
The "little" Pyramid of Menkaure (Mycerinus), standing a respectable 62 meters (203 feet) high, was unfinished at the time of the King's death, and completed by his son. The nasty gash on the north face was caused by earlier explorers trying to dynamite through in order to find the entrance passage. The pyramid is open to visitors, and lately seems to take the bulk of the tourists denied admission to the Great Pyramid, so is therefore not for the claustrophobic. The burial chamber is empty; the sarcophagus was removed and subsequently lost at sea in transport when the ship sank on its way to Great Britain.
Outside, you can see several courses of granite casing, and the desert in front of the entrance is littered with stones removed from the Pyramid itself. Like all of the Pyramids of Giza, Menkaure's was once seen as a convenient stone quarry for medieval builders. To the east stands the remains of the mortuary temple and the causeway, while to the south are three Queen's Pyramids.
An alternative way to enjoy the pyramids is to attend one of the nightly Sound and Light shows, presented in several different languages. Though it may seem a bit too "touristy" to some, the narration has some historical interest, and the light show is truly beautiful. Others prefer to rent horses from one of the many nearby stables and have a gallop in the desert surrounding the Pyramids. Take care as many of the Pyramid horses are poorly trained, and riders have reported more than a few nasty spills.
If you still have energy and time after wandering around Giza, head south to the Saqqara complex, dominated by the Step Pyramid of the 3rd Dynasty King Zoser. Built before the Pyramids of Giza, this Pyramid shows the evolution of design from the single stepped mastabas to the final smooth-sided Pyramid structures that would follow in the next dynasty. Other beautifully-inscribed tombs of noblemen and officials, as well as later dynasty Pyramids, are also open to visitors. The eerie Serapeum, a funerary catacomb built for the sacred Apis bulls, is currently closed for restoration.
South of Saqqara is the rarely visited site of Dahshur, where Khufu's father Sneferu built the Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid. The latter's unusual profile was caused by a change of building angle halfway through construction. The Red Pyramid gets pretty close to the architectural perfection of the Giza Pyramids, and you can explore the interior without the claustrophobic crush of the Giza crowds. In the distance is the unusually shaped mud and brick pyramid of Amenemhet III.
A word of advice: It is best to rent a car to visit Saqqara and Dahshur, as the sites are far from the main road, and transportation back into Cairo is not easy to find.
Old Cairo, or Masr el-Qadima, provides a historical link between Pharaonic times and the Islamic period. This district was the center of Cairo during Roman times, until after the Arab invasion. The historical sites in this area, which has been continuously inhabited for around 2000 years, are surrounded by modern residences. Old Cairo is easily reached by the Metro. The Mar Girgis stop is directly in front of the cluster of Medieval Churches and the Coptic Museum. While here, check out Al Khatoun for traditional Egyptian art.
As you leave the Metro station, you arrive at the twin towers of the western gate of the fortress of Babylon Fortress, Coptic Museum & Hanging Church, built by the Roman emperor Trajan (98-117 CE). These towers were built on what were the banks of the Nile at that time. The Orthodox Church of St. George stands on top of the left-hand tower. Along from the towers, the Coptic Museum houses an extensive collection of Coptic art and artifacts, as well as secular items, collected from old churches and houses. There is much to admire here-old icons, textiles and manuscripts; so it will take a few hours to fully peruse the collection. If you enter the grounds of the Coptic Museum, you can walk through the gates and see the old gatehouse under the Hanging Church.
The Al-Muallaka (Hanging) Church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, is so named as it is suspended above the gatehouse. It was founded in the late 7th Century. Destroyed 200 years later, it was rebuilt and eventually became the center of the Coptic Patriarchate. Over the years the structure has seen several renovations, and though the Patriarchate has moved, Coptic Masses are still held in the sanctuary. Often, members of the Coptic community are present and offer free in-depth tours of the church.
Greek Orthodox Church of St. George
The nearby Greek Orthodox Church of St. George has the same circular design of the Roman tower upon which it was built. Founded in the 10th Century, and alternating between Greek and Coptic ownership, the original building was damaged by fire in 1904, though fortunately most of the relics and icons survived. The present church was rebuilt on the site, and is the center of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria. The adjacent monastery does not usually admit visitors.
A subterranean gateway, accessible from Mar Girgis Street, leads you through the narrow alleys of the oldest part of the district. The main building of the Convent of St. George is a nunnery, and not open to the public. You can, however, visit the remains of a Fatimid house on the site, and a small chapel containing the relics of St. George. To the left side of the Convent, you can also visit a small room used for the chain-wrapping ritual, symbolic of the persecution of St. George by the Romans. The attending nuns still perform the ritual, wrapping visitors in chains and reciting the appropriate prayers.
Continue down the narrow alley to the Church of St. Sergius, the oldest in Egypt, built originally in the 5th or 6th Century. It is located at the site of a crypt where it is believed the Holy Family stayed when they were in Egypt. Like the other churches in the area, it has been rebuilt several times since its founding, but still retains its original design. Further along on the left is the Church of St. Barbara. As the legend goes, St. Barbara was murdered by the Roman Governor for preaching the gospel in the 3rd Century.
To the south of St. Barbara is the Ben Ezra Synagogue, the oldest in Egypt, built on the site where it is believed that the Pharaoh's daughter found Moses. The synagogue does not hold services anymore, but has been completely restored. During rebuilding in the 19th Century, the Geniza (a cache of medieval manuscripts, including secular and religious documents) was discovered.
The cemeteries surrounding the churches are ideal for a peaceful stroll. At the northern part of the compound is the Church of St. George, originally founded in 681 CE and rebuilt in the 19th Century, and the Church of the Virgin, rebuilt in the 18th Century.
A short distance from the fortress proper are a few other sites of interest, including the Mosque of Amr Ibn al-As. Originally founded in 641 CE, and rebuilt several times since, the mosque is regarded as the oldest in Africa. The remains of the city that would become modern Cairo-Fustat - are to the east and parts have been excavated. The area around Fustat was once full of potters and craftsmen, but they have been recently relocated.
In addition to all the gems found around Cairo, various tour companies offer balloon, helicopter, safari, mosque, church and boat tours to help complete your stay in Cairo.
Safari Egypt Tours ( http://www.safariegypt.com/ )
Planet Tours ( +20 12 398 9689/ http://www.planetours-eg.com/ )
Culture & History Tours
Summit Tours ( +20 24 478 8921/ http://www.cairotours.net/ )
Travel EG ( +20 22 392 9569/ http://www.traveleg.com/ )
Egypt Unexpected ( +20 12 141 8581/ http:/egyptunexpected.com/ )
Cairo Tours ( +44 20 7706 0900/ http://www.egyptreservation.com/)
Float along the Nile
Pack2Egypt ( +1 416 799 7333; +20 10 542 0600 / http://www.pack2egypt.com/ )
Egypt Unexpected ( +20 12 141 8581/ http:/egyptunexpected.com/ )
City Discovery Tours ( +1 419 244 6440 / http://www.city-discovery.com/ )