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Did You Know … ?
- Alexandria’s Pharos lighthouse was the world’s tallest (400-plus feet) and possibly the first (third century B.C.).
- Ancient Egyptians created the world’s first national government.
- The Djoser Step Pyramid at Saqqara is the world’s oldest (27th century B.C.)
- The Suez Canal (1869) made possible the first world tour, by the Thomas Cook agency (1872/73).
- Alexander the Great founded as many as 17 Alexandrias, but only Egypt’s survived.
70-plus pyramids, one Sphinx
Egypt’s history reaches back more than 5,000 years, roughly half that consumed in the development and waning of a great empire, and the second half spent as the subject of other nations. The latter phase started with the Persians, who were succeeded by the Greeks and Romans, eventually by the Ottoman Turks and the British. In the first millennium A.D., Christianity and then Islam came to Egypt, too. Egypt regained its independence in the 1950s.
Ancient genius, later conquerors and new religions all left their mark on Egypt, and the evidence is there to see in the tombs, temples, forts, churches and mosques.
But, generally, the main attractions for first-time visitors are the oldest: the pyramids, the Sphinx, tombs and temples left by the empire-building pharaohs. Just those leavings are incredibly numerous: there are more than 70 pyramids in the Nile valley, 26 pharaohs’ tombs in the Valley of the Kings, numerous temples — plus one Sphinx. Cairo’s Egyptian Museum displays more than 136,000 items brought indoors for preservation and protection, and hundreds of thousands more remain hidden in the basement.
When Egypt isn’t all about its amazing history, it is about geography: the Nile River valley and the desert.
Almost all Egyptian life plays out on or near the Nile’s banks. The farmers are there, as are the cities, particularly the humongous Cairo with its monuments, huge Khan el-Khalili bazaar, museums and upscale hotels. The older Alexandria graces a beautiful coastal setting on the Mediterranean and continues to yield its ancient secrets to archaeologists working on land and under the sea.
For the venturous, the desert beckons, and that includes the Sinai Peninsula, site of St. Catherine’s Monastery. Mediterranean and Red sea coastlines also provide active travelers with options for sailing and diving.
Egypt’s tourism has suffered due to terrorist attacks and, more recently, due to post-Arab Spring chaos and uncertainties. Border areas, northern Sinai and a section of the Nile are prone to violence, but Egypt restricts travel to these areas by requiring travel permits. Visitors should watch this situation when planning their trips. Average Egyptians are welcoming, but peddlers can be annoyingly persistent.
Things to do for Venturers
- Walk inside the Great Pyramid to get a look at the essentially empty chamber inside. The passageway is not high enough for an adult to stand upright, and, further, the passage can be uncomfortably hot.
- Scuba dive in the Red Sea. Get really serious about this, and take a multiday dive cruise on the Red Sea to maximize your potential for dives to wreck sites or with dolphins and whale sharks. At some sites, an advanced diver certification is required.
- Arrange for a home-stay experience while in Egypt.
- Take a full-day Jeep safari into the Egyptian desert, for a chance at dune bashing and sand surfing. Or, ride up and over the dunes on a dirt bike. Mountain bikes are an option, too, but not for riding over dunes.
- Take an overnight camel trek into the desert led by Bedouins, the traditionally nomadic tent dwellers.
- Make a pilgrimage to St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai, deemed to be the spot where Moses received the Ten Commandments.
Things to do for Centrics
- Enhance your understanding of Egypt’s multilayered history at the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria, the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo and the Nubia Museum, highlighting the culture and arts of the Nubian people in southern Egypt, in Aswan.
- Shop — no, bargain with vigor — for all kinds of souvenirs. How about a water pipe, or how about modern iterations of papyrus paintings to hang on the wall at home?
- Fish for tiger fish and vundi catfish at Lake Nasser.
- Sail aboard a traditional Egyptian felucca on the Red Sea. Sail from Hurghada or El Gouna on the mainland or Sharm el-Sheikh or Dahab on the Sinai Peninsula. Or, short on time? Take a quick ride in a felucca on the Nile.
- In one of a number of cafes in the Anfoushi Quarter of Alexandria, choose the precise fish you want to eat before settling in to dine The area was once the seamen’s quarter and noted for its (now-shuttered) brothels.
- More than 150 bird species live in Egypt all year, and another 280 make it their summer home. Add birds to your list of sightings at points along the Nile, the Suez Canal, the Red Sea coast or the country’s lakes and oases.
Things to do for Authentics
- Sure, see the big pyramids and Great Sphinx at Giza, but go beyond that to see the still-older pyramids at Dahshur and Saqqara. The world’s oldest pyramid is at Saqqara.
- Spend a lot of time in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum and not merely to visit the extensive Tutankhamen Galleries there. The extent of ancient Egyptian statuary and other artifacts is nearly overwhelming. A good guide will make this visit more rewarding.
- Take a Nile cruise, which is a comfortable and relaxed way to gain access to a series of ancient temples, as well as the temples and tombs at Luxor.
- Take a day tour from Aswan to Abu Simbel to walk through the gigantic temple that was dismantled piece by piece to be moved and reassembled to prevent its destruction by the waters behind the 20th century Aswan Dam.
- Order up a custom gold cartouche with the hieroglyphic characters that represent your name.
- Alexandria’s ancient library was famously burned, but see today’s sleek, super-modern library first for its unique architecture which includes a 525-foot-long cylinder which faces the Mediterranean. The facility houses almost 8,000 ancient manuscripts and rare books, all catalogued, digitized and available to consult in the reading room.
For more information, consult the Egyptian Tourism Authority at www.egypt.travel