Exploring Cairo and the Great Pyramids

Egypt has been at the very top of my travel bucket list for a long time now. Ever since I was a little girl, reading The Egypt Game over and over again, I wished to be closer to this ancient culture. When the Tutankhamen exhibit was on loan to a museum in LA, I begged my dad to drive me down from Vegas, and then spent hours staring at each artifact like it held the answer to life. And for the Egyptians, it did.

When Layne first began exploring the opportunity to move to Nairobi, one of my requests was that if we were to be that close, we had to go to Egypt. He kept his word, and soon after arriving we decided that it would make the perfect Christmas trip. Being so far from our family would be hard, but spending time in a country so removed from anything familiar, and better yet a country that is 80% Muslim and therefore free of any reminders of the holiday we were missing, seemed like the best way to enjoy our time. AND IT WAS! After years and years of dreaming of it, Egypt did not disappoint. We spent 9 days exploring up and down the Nile, and every moment was magic. So, how to digest the trip of a lifetime?

One city at a time.

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Let's start with Cairo. Well, Cairo and Giza, a metropolis divided into two cities by the Nile. It's where we spent our first two and final day of our trip. Our hotel was located right across from the pyramids. They dominate the Giza skyline, drawing the eye again and again though they have changed little over 5,000 years. On the morning of our second day, we headed straight for them, dying to be closer to the limestone giants.

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Can I just say... Amazing. Nothing captures the scale of these pyramids. They just go up and up and up.

This is about half of the pyramid. 

This is about half of the pyramid. 

Knowing they were built by ancient hands using ancient tools and methods only makes them that much more astounding. Originally, they were all covered in smoothly polished limestone like we see at the top of the second pyramid, Khafre.

We were able to go inside the largest pyramid, Cheops, the oldest and most intact of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was cramped and HOT inside, the cooler December temperatures unable to beat out the strength of the desert sun. You take the Robbers Tunnel, first straight in, then up and up and up, and your posture slowly lowers as you go from ducking slightly to avoid rocks to bending almost in half as you continue to climb. At one point I was even crawling beneath the stone. Eventually, just when you think your heart might give out from the heat and the steepness of the climb, you emerge into the King's Chamber. The rose granite sarcophagus stands empty on one side of the room. Looking up, you see the giant slabs of stone ceiling. I couldn't help but imagine their crushing weight.

All around the 3 main Great Pyramids are smaller pyramids and tombs. It was here that I got my first look at hieroglyphics and the amazing colors that have persevered for thousands of years. The Sphinx is also on the site, located below Khafre. It has been badly damaged, but was still incredible to see. Originally, it was carved out of a single block of limestone! The only way to bring it to this site was to cut it from the quarry and bring it up the Nile. 

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Two rumors about the famous face of the Sphinx: It is said to be carved in the likeness of the pharaoh who's pyramid it guards, King Chefren. The missing nose is often attributed to Napoleon. That guy just had to leave his mark on everything, huh?

Two rumors about the famous face of the Sphinx: It is said to be carved in the likeness of the pharaoh who's pyramid it guards, King Chefren. The missing nose is often attributed to Napoleon. That guy just had to leave his mark on everything, huh?

After thoroughly exploring the full pyramid complex, we hopped on some camels. The base of the pyramids are surrounded by Egyptians in Bedouin dress, with brightly decorated camels. One thing I did not realize was just how TALL camels are. Layne climbed onto his sitting camel first, and then as it stood, I found Layne's tennis shoes at my eye level. Luckily, they found a slightly smaller camel for me. But the experience was hardly comfortable, and as the rebellious camels were led by their owner out into the desert, I found myself holding on and breathing deeply as I rocked back and forth, jostled so the sand beneath me was closer and further and then closer again. Getting off turned out to be the hardest part; the camel sits by bending their front legs first, pitching you forward. If you're not carefully holding on and leaning back, you could easily be thrown off.

This camel was deceivingly cute and clean. Do not be fooled... 

This camel was deceivingly cute and clean. Do not be fooled... 

Does anyone else get their camera back with photos like this? 

Does anyone else get their camera back with photos like this? 

Our guide getting some love from the camel. 

Our guide getting some love from the camel. 

We said good-bye to the pyramids and headed over the to Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. In operation since 1902, the Museum is located right on Tarhir Square, which hosted the revolution in 2011. The Musuem was actually broken into and ransacked during the time; the bookstore has never re-opened. All around Egypt, there are ongoing excavations and the Museum's collection is ever expanding. They have so many pieces at the moment, at times it feels more as though you are walking the back hallways of a musuem than the main exhibit floor. Crates and boxes of rich Egyptian history are everywhere; outside they have sarcophagi just lined up outside the building with no protection from the elements. They simply have no place to store them! They are building a new museum closer to the pyramids which will open in a few short years and hopefully give many of these pieces a more dignified resting place.

Seeing this infamous mask in person is indescribable and surreal. 

Seeing this infamous mask in person is indescribable and surreal. 

You can't go to Egypt without appreciating its history, known to us largely thanks to the papyrus scrolls. True papyrus is sold only by government shops, and they give you a demonstration on the ancient ways. The take the papyrus reed, triangular in shape, and peel the green fibrous outside off. Then they cut the white part of the plant into strips. They pound the water out, first with a mallet then a rolling pin. They then soak it in water for a minimum of 6 days, longer for a darker end product. Then it goes into the press, after laying the pieces flat and weaving them together. Papyrus is waterproof, completely erasable and reusable, and strong. I was in awe the whole time. We bought ourselves a painting on papyrus because I just could not resist. 

We also visited a jewelry shop, a dime a dozen and loaded with Egyptian gold and silver. If you're interested, better to buy from a shop that will guarantee its product than at a small kiosk or bazaar. Egypt is the only country with the lotus as a native flower, and for thousands of years they have used the lotus oil in perfume. We visited a perfume factory, where they will sell you the pure oil in glass jars, and they offer a variety of smells. We couldn't believe how pure the smells were, and recognized the lotus oil as the base of many perfumes we know. Each one we tried was strong and true - lemon, strawberry, mint, frankincense, myrrh - it was really incredible.

Afterwards, we headed to the train station and spent the next week exploring the rest of Egypt, finally returning to spend our final afternoon in Egypt back in Cairo. After grabbing some hot falafel from a local shop, we headed back to the pyramids (honestly - I can never get enough). But instead of using camels to explore, this time we opted for a more modern form of transportation.

Can you tell we were enjoying ourselves? 

Can you tell we were enjoying ourselves? 

I am what you may call "indoorsy." You are more likely to find me curled up with a book than chasing my next adrenaline high. And the last time I was on an ATV, it rolled completely backwards and flipped over those of us on it. That was about 11 years ago. I have been terrified ever since. But I knew Layne would absolutely love it, and he did, so it was worth it. I was hardly a daredevil, but at least I kept up. And I have to admit, I did enjoy it. The wide desert landscape, blood red setting sun, and cool wind wiping past my face was exhilarating.

After our ride, we spent some time in a coffee shop, drinking with the locals and enjoying the streets of Giza. People watching is one on my favorite pastimes, and is always more interesting in a foreign country. And with everywhere in Nairobi behind guarded gates, there is no real ability to stop and just watch the city stroll by. We watched the horses and the donkeys go by alongside the cars, observed a rousing game of dominoes, and tried to stay out of the secondhand smoke that is inevitable in Egypt. On the way to the airport, we stopped at Khan el-Khalili bazaar. It is well worth a visit to explore the winding market streets, though much of the souvenirs are the same you see everywhere else.

DON'T MISS

  • The Pyramids - Duh. Do be sure to go inside one; either Cheops or Mykenios (the smallest)  are open to the public. 
  • ATV ride - It was the only time we were out exploring the open desert, and was honestly a ton of fun.
  • Museum of Antiquities- The King Tut exhibit alone is worth it.
  • Papyrus shop - The demonstration and history lesson were riveting. 

CONSIDER PASSING

  • Camels - they were fun, fine. But if you can't get a good price or are short on time, I'd pass on this one. It is not a super comfortable experience...
  • Perfume and jewelry shops - It was interesting to smell the lotus flower oil, but this felt like it took up quite a bit of time. Again, if you're rushed or not interested in purchasing the oil or jewelry, you are likely to run into both items along your path.
  • Sound and Light show - I didn't even mention this above, because it was soooooo boring. They offer sound and light shows on the temples and pyramids. We did the one at the pyramids on our last night, and it was long, cold, and the storyline was confusing. I would recommend passing, on all of them.