Each year, I return to Egypt for so many reasons – family, kunafa, fresh, chunky mango juice and a hit of history.
This year, I teamed up with Ahmed Aziz, an Egyptologist with tour company Abercrombie & Kent, who I’ve been working with for years in Egypt. Ahmed’s been a guide through Egypt’s sites for 16 years, and together, we delved into the newly opened Bent Pyramid in Dahshour, about an hour from Cairo.
He shared some excellent advice for visitors to the Memphis necropolis, which includes the Pyramids of Giza, Saqqara and the lesser-known, little visited Dahshour, including the best places to stay, when to visit and keeping a stash of small notes to tip the haras (the temple guardians, who are drawn from the neighbouring villages).
I’m not great with tunnels – I don’t like the idea of the weight above me. So I was pretty surprised that I was so keen to get into the Bent Pyramid, the earliest of Egypt’s smooth-sided pyramids, out in the deserts past Cairo.
The tunnel down into the heart of the pyramid is 79 metres long, double the distance of the tunnel in the Great Pyramid. It was so low that I actually scraped my spine, as I was so doubled over.
The pyramid was a practice run ordered by the pharoah Sneferu, father of Cheops (who went on to build the Great Pyramid in nearby Giza). It earned its sobriquet because the architect in charge of its construction realised that the calculations of a 55-degree angle for the pyramid was wrong, and changed it half-way through construction, for a rather wonky look, as you can see.
Still sporting much of the white stone cladding that would have let it shine in the desert, the Bent Pyramid recently reopened for the first time in 53 years, and with Saqqara and Giza, makes up what is known as the Memphis Necropolis, a royal burial ground for Egypt’s kings, queens and nobility (also, lots of sacred bulls, just FYI).
Click here to read about the three burial sites, and how they all link in, in my story published in the Traveller section of the Sydney Morning Herald/The Age newspapers. Enjoy!
Recently, I completed an epic trek from Cusco, near Macchu Pichu in Peru, to Cairo, Egypt.
Let me tell you, it took some serious, late-night internet hunting! I could have travelled via Sao Paulo, (Brazil) then across to Casablanca (Morocco) and on to Egypt, or from Sao Paulo via a 12-hour layover in Addas Ababa (Ethiopia) and on to Cairo. In the end, the best connections were flying from Lima (Peru) up to Madrid (with three hours cooling my heels in a secondary airport in Ecuador) with LATAM and from Madrid on to Cairo with Egyptair.
This is my review of the Egyptair flight – I’ve flown many times domestically and internationally with the national carrier – on the Madrid-Cairo route, a direct flight of 4 hours 40 minutes.
I’m going to paste my favourite para here, about the food on board:
Chicken or the beef? The beef arrives cubed in a sauce with spiral pasta, and is surprisingly comforting. It’s accompanied by a dried, tired salad, crackers, chocolate cake, a wholemeal dinner role, butter and a triangle of La vache qui rit (The Laughing Cow, incidentally, is the nickname of Egypt’s deposed military dictator, Hosny Mubarak). Because you needed to know that last fact : )
Over the past decade, I’ve watched Cairo Airport change and grow – definitely for the better – from the raucous taxi chorus and decaying bathrooms of the old Terminal 1 to the snappy design of its newest expansion, Terminal 3.
If you’re coming through the Egyptian capital any time soon, here’s my take on Terminal 2, which sees the major Middle Eastern carriers, Etihad and Emirates, passing on through.
What to remember: security is paramount, and there are plenty of screening points. What to forget: Facebook, as wifi is but a beautiful dream.
Far better to grab a seat and watch the parade of fashions, from central African men in patterned jellibiyas (traditional robes) and matching kufis (caps) to women from the Gulf states in well-cut abayas and heels. You can identify the rare Antipodean by their khaki zip-off pants. If you want to hang with the locals, they’re in the smoking rooms.
Play Batman, colour in, or get cool in the pool – Abu Dhabi ticks all the boxes for travelling with kids.
I did a test-run with the 7-year-old in the United Arab Emirate, which is a natural stopover for Australians en route to Europe (or pretty much anywhere else in the world). With eight hours, three days (or even more) up your sleeve, there’s plenty to do in this super family-friendly town, even in the height of summer.
The highlights for us included the new Warner Bros Movie World, hot laps around the F1 circuit (for the teen in our gang), riding camels in the desert, and plenty of pool time at the five-star Saadiyat Rotana hotel.
If you’re after some pointers (or even a few tips for if travelling without kids), take a look at this feature I wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald/The Age Traveller section, and enjoy!
I’ve been poking around the back alleys and the big-ticket drawcards of Cairo for a decade now (How did that happen? One minute I was setting up this blog on a tiny little Juliet balcony in a pensione in downtown Cairo, the next minute, it’s 10 years later!)
In that time, Cairo’s fortunes have flowed, ebbed, and are now flowing again, after revolutions, currency flotations, elections and a whole vortex of world events that have shaped the old traditions and new fashions in this maniacal city of 20 million (give or take a few million).
It still blows me away, every time I visit. There’s the City of the Dead, which may be home to as many as a million undocumented (living) souls, the rock-carved cathedrals of Mokattam, the wild nights of horseriding around the Pyramids beneath a full moon, and the Nile. There’s always the Nile.
It scratches only the surface, but here are 10 of my tips on visiting the City that Sleeps In Shifts, published in this weekend’s Traveller section in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers.
Lined with palaces, mosques, merchant’s mansions and markets, Cairo’s Al-Muizz is a contender for the Middle East’s most beautiful street.
It’s the ancient thoroughfare of medieval Cairo, the lifeblood of a dozen centuries: every time I return to Cairo, I find myself walking the length of Al-Muizz li-Din-Allah. Like most before me, I’m lured by the street’s imposing palaces and caravanserais, its dusty mosques and vivid markets.
I’ve walked this street countless times over a decade, and each time, I make a new discovery. A forgotten tomb. A synagogue. Cool, dark water cisterns that plunge deep underground or a merchants’ mansion, instructive in the ways of generations of traders, aristocrats, craftsmen and families who filled the streets of Islamic Cairo when it was established by the Shi’ite Fatamid regime in 969AD.
In case you haven’t twigged, Egypt is back on the tourism trail after seven years languishing in the doldrums after its revolution in 2011, which overthrew dictator Hosni Mubarak, who’d run the country as his personal fiefdom for 30 years. They’ve now got another army brass running the country – plus ça change, plus c’est la même.
|Cairo’s Citadel, which overlooks the city. Photo: Belle Jackson|
But finally, with stability and growth taking place around the country (think, highways remade, new airports open, Nile cruise boats dusted off), it’s fabulous to see the return of one of Egypt’s major industries.
Cairo often gets but a cursory glance while everyone rushes to the Pyramids then down to Luxor, but spend the turn of the day in El Muizz for what I think is one of the world’s most beautiful streets.
Thanks to Vacations & Travel for again going ahead of the trend and publishing my feature on this beloved street.
I have an apartment *victory dance*! The trawl through Cairo’s dirty streets has been long and arduous, especially when today I got shown the same apartment, TWICE. In fact, I was shown two apartments I had already seen before!
But I had a good feeling about Hamid, one of many people I’ve spoken to on the street, perfecting the phrase, ‘Badawwar ‘ala sha’a lil igar li midduit shahrayn’ (I’m looking for a flat to rent for two months – it was spelt out in my Lonely Planet conversation guide that has become my Ko’ran.)
I don’t have photos. I don’t yet have a contract. I have put down a little deposit in the form of a crisp 100 egyptian pound note, which the owner and the bowab (like a doorman), kissed before pocketing.
The bowab, Ahmed, and I sign contracts at high noon tomorrow. Like most Downtown apartments, it’s HUGE. High ceilings, walls that haven’t seen paint since the Brits left in 1922, a washing machine that could tear you from limb to limb, two enormous bedrooms, a massive reception and a dramatic timber sideboard that was the real reason I took the apartment. There’s a crazy, browning rustic mural of an idyllic country scene on the main wall that is the first thing you see when you open the door.
The price is very good, I have no idea what I’m going to do with two bedrooms. But it has two balconies that were just made for giving speeches to the waiting masses down below on busy Sharif Street.
I will clean it, then I will photograph it for general consideration… Now I’m feeling all scared that I’m going to miss the pension, which suddenly seems so cosy and welcoming.
PS Mum, the lift is also a DISASTER.
I’m starting to think I have a camel obsession. But their lovely, long fluttering eyelashes, their sweet faces and their thick, matted hair just get me. Which is why I’m now lugging a 4kg camel blanket which I bought in Bahariya Oasis.
The Oasis comprises eight villages strung between sand dunes and dry, barren plains, four or five hours by bus from Cairo.
It took an hour to get through donkey- and pyramid-ridden Giza and out of Cairo’s outskirts, then the new cities started, new towns with such optimistic names as Green Valley, which are also part of Cairo’s 20 million-strong population. It was flat. Really flat. The skyline was obscured by dust, which could be pollution as well as desert sand, and the only buildings on this road were oil maintenance sheds, where a lone passenger would depart, to walk into…where? The empty desert?
After pausing for a split second to dump the lone passenger, the bus would then pick up speed again to 140km, sitting in the centre of the road.
At Birawati, the main town of the Bahariya Oasis, we were spat into the waiting arms of a swarm of touts till I found the driver who’d take me and three others out into the White Desert. Ashraf, in his grubby blue tracksuit, pulled up an old Landcruiser stuffed with sleeping bags, mattresses and food to barrel out into the desert. Sometimes it’s ok being able to speak only English. Of the five of us in the van, the Italian, French-Canadian, Egyptian and Spaniard all spoke at least a few words of English, definitely the linga franca.
That night, Ashraf cooked sensational rice, potatoes and tomatoes, and – mysteriously – chicken (um, from where? We were in a hot car for at least three hours) and we had even managed to prise some beer out of a ‘Bedwin’ shop en route.
The floor of the White Desert is paved with blindingly white chalk plains and eruptions of soft chalk, escarpments that have been whittled away by the wind to fantastical shapes. They are fragile and beautiful…and ideal for travellers to climb upon to get early morning shots. We pulled into a camp area, passed a large bus full of what looked suspiciously like Kiwis and Aussies playing cricket, to find a little alcove where Ashraf laid out the kitchen, we made our beds beneath the stars and that night, tried to fall asleep beneath a full moon so bright, it cast shadows across the earth.
The next morning, everyone else in the desert had gone except us. I watched the big, orange sun break like rich egg yolk over the desert, but Ashraf woke only when I whistled to him and nudged the van (he was obviously over sleeping on the ground like us, and had curled up amongst our bags in the 4WD). We waited for him to complete morning prayers then he laid out breakfast of bread, jam, cheese, tea and nescafe, which the Italian stared bleakly at, unable to bring himself to sit down.
After breakfast, Ashraf kicked over the old Landcruiser again (the starter motor is wired to play a chant from the Ko’ran when it is turned over), and we roared off road into the desert…
I don’t gallop, I tell Mido.
Ok, he says soothingly.
We pass through the gate and into the pyramids, and it’s a full five minutes before he whacks my little Arab stallion’s backside, shrieks haaaaaa! And we’re off! Tearing up the soft sand around the back of the Pyramids.
Mido’s the owner of Desert Storm riding school, which he says has 85 horses. He started with three, 20 years ago, the story goes. Despite wearing a gelabiya that he hitches up to reveal bare legs and a little white cap, he’s glued to the saddle.
After the third gallop, I’m starting to get the hang of it. Sugar, my little stallion (I didn’t realise he WAS a stallion till I got off – imagine in Australia!), was off like the clappers at the first chance, had a little tanty when I wouldn’t let him schmooze a fancy mare, and was a great way to circle the Pyramids which we’d done earlier in the day as I did a quid pro quo deal with them for some photos.
Here’s the proof – ok, I’m a long way away but beggars etc… And here’s one of Mido checking his phone…