The Bad, the Good and the Great – Cairo, Egypt

For those counting: Day 41 – 43; Aug 29-30, 2022

August 29th was another move day – onward to from Jerusalem to Cairo where we would begin our final river cruise.  Repacking every few days, especially when one needs to have clothes for the cold of Iceland as well as the heat of Egypt, is a challenge.  And the laundry!  We hadn’t been able to do laundry since the end of our last cruise, about 9 days ago, and it would be another 4-5 days before we got our next opportunity. Ewww, seal that bag up!!

With the usual long airport delays and yet another one getting onto the plane, we ended up arriving at the 5-star Sheraton Cairo Hotel around 11:00pm – but it was midnight to us because we lost an hour during the flight.  By 1:00am we received our luggage and finally fell into bed for a short slumber before our first full day in Cairo.

Our hotel overlooked the Nile River

Up at 6:00am, we hit the restaurant for a quick breakfast before starting our first tour day.  Our group of approximately 23 folks coming from the Israel pre-excursion met up with another 25 or so taking only the Pharaohs and Pyramid Nile River cruise portion.  So we had a new set of cruisers to hang out with over the next 12 days or so.

Downtown Cairo

Steve and I had both dreamed of seeing the Great Pyramids since we were kids. Two years ago would have been the fulfillment of that dream, but thanks to the pandemic our stop here was cancelled/rebooked three times.

We finally made it, but first the bad:

The Nile River passes through Cairo – viewed from our balcony

Usually when we get a bad first impression of a place it improves as we explore and experience highlights of the area. That didn’t happen here in Egypt’s capital. The city lacks good sanitation practices, and trash abounds as citizens simply throw their garbage along the roads and in the alleys. Air pollution is very evident, in addition to the ever-present dust in the air – which of course is a weather phenomenon, not the fault of residents. And the noise! A constant cacophony of car horns from the relentless traffic could be heard from our balcony at all hours. As we walked around near the hotel, armies of peddlers/hawkers/vendors lined the streets, some of them quite aggressive. This is a crowded, dirty, frantic sprawling metropolis. At least that’s our take on it!

The Great Pyramids in the smoggy distance

With that out of the way I’ll turn to the good side of Cairo, the largest city in the Middle East. Ancient and modern Egypt are intertwined, with most of the tourism focused on the Egypt of antiquity. This meant we had to spend some time in Cairo, and we wanted to discover its significant attractions and centuries of history.

Sultan Hassan Mosque

To enrich our experience, Viking provided a powerhouse of knowledge – an Egyptologist who accompanied us during the entire 12 days of our stay in Egypt including the cruise.

What exactly is an Egyptologist, you might ask? They are graduates from universities in a field dedicated specifically to gaining a deep understanding of the ancient civilization here. Mohamed was our expert, and he also shared his insights and anecdotes at each site. It was mind-boggling how he rattled off detailed facts and dates as we went along. What a pro! Anyone visiting a place like this without a professional guide is really missing out.

Egypt’s economy relies heavily on tourism, especially after the Arab Spring of 2011. Because of that, the government is keen to do everything in its power to maintain the well-being of tourists and residents alike. To ensure our safety, all of our coach tours included armed security personnel onboard, and police escorts around us. We felt safe while in Cairo, and during our river cruise (more on that in future posts).

Our excursions here started earlier in the day (on the road by 8:00am) than the ones in Jerusalem. We were happy about that because of the intense heat – I’m telling you it was hot and humid!

Citadel of Salah el Din (Citadel of the Mountain)

Perched on a rocky hill, the citadel with its great domes and towering minarets is an impressive defensive fortress dating back to the Middle Ages. It was here that our history lesson began:

The mosque’s twin minarets are the highest in all of Egypt, each reaching a height of 275′

Monuments were built inside the citadel throughout the centuries, and we visited one of them – the Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha – which dominates the citadel. We toured the mosque and its grounds, and it was here that we learned about the faction among the Muslims. I’ll skip historic details, but it was quite interesting.

The fortress that surrounds the citadel
Inside the citadel is the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, also known as the “Alabaster Mosque”
The central dome surrounded by four small and four semicircular domes
Alabaster covered courtyard
From the citadel we had a panoramic view of central Cairo partially covered in smog

The Egyptian Museum

Next we visited the amazing Egyptian Museum.  We spent a lot of time at this huge place which houses a massive collection of more than 120,000 objects including colossal statues and royal mummies, papyrus scrolls, intricate jewelry and even children’s toys from centuries past. The museum’s exhibits span from the beginning of the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt (approximately 2700 BC) through the Greco-Roman period.

Egyptian Museum

Mohamed took us through sections of the museum dealing with various time periods, and gave us a good background regarding much of Egypt’s ancient history. We had no idea that so many excavated original items even existed, and it was overload seeing it all and knowing it’s the real deal.  It was definitely one of our top stops in Cairo:

Central Hall

Frankly I can’t decide which pictures to post! Each item has its own story from ancient times. It was simply overwhelming:

Akhenaten’s coffin lid, 18th dynasty circa 1351-1334 BC

The crowning glory was on the upper floor – the King Tutankhamun area. It displayed some of the 5,000 items discovered in his tomb in 1922.  Our mouths were literally hanging open as we viewed the mask, coffin components and other solid gold items.  Most of the pieces have been relocated to the massive new Great Egyptian Museum (GEM) which will open possibly this year, but there was still plenty here to blow our minds.  This museum (and/or the new one when it opens) are a MUST SEE for anyone coming to Egypt!

The National Museum of Egyptian Civilization (NMEC)

Our final excursion in Cairo was a visit to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization (NMEC). It opened in 2017 and on display are over 50,000 artifacts presenting the evolution of Egyptian Civilization from prehistoric times to the present day. Our guide began the tour at an almost complete skeleton of a 35,000 year old man.  Wow, I had no idea a human skeleton that old existed!

A young man from 35,000 years ago discovered at Nazlet Khater – Sohag

The main attraction of this museum is the display of the 22 royal mummies that were transferred via a royal parade from the Egyptian Museum to their final resting place here. Residing in a dark maze of hallways were the mummies of the ancient Kings and Queens of Egypt. It seemed a bit morbid to gawk at the mummies in glass cases, but the plaques with descriptions of what each had accomplished during their rule, and how they were related to each other was fascinating.  It helped to link together everything we’d learned during our intense tours of the past few days.

Photography wasn’t allowed, so I can only describe how fascinating – and at the same time weird – it was to look at 3,000 year old mummies.

This place wasn’t as overwhelming as the Egyptian Museum, but it’s an excellent stop worth your time.

The National Museum of Egyptian Civilization

Giza Necropolis

And lastly the great!

I got to herd the group for a while

Well, this day lived up to expectations and beyond!  We braved the heat and humidity some 15 miles from Cairo to see for ourselves the Great Pyramids of Giza. Some who have visited say they were disappointed because the pyramids are so close to the city of Cairo and not isolated way out in the desert.  But looking at them from the standpoint of how they got here and how life must have been at the time they were built was very exciting.  Of course society has expanded toward the pyramids, but they were here first – beginning over 4,000 years ago!

Look at that wide grin! You have to be standing nearby to be awed by its colossal size

A few tidbits: the largest pyramid here took about 20 years to build with an estimated 2.3 million stone blocks, not by slaves as some believe, but by organized and paid workers. Originally covered in limestone with a golden cap, this was the tallest man-made structure for 3,781 years and is still a standing ancient World Wonder. There are about 118 identified pyramids, but of course the three here are the most famous of them all, a feat of engineering in itself.

The Great Pyramids stand roughly in line (left to right), The Pyramids of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure

And yes, we had to ride the camels, and yes, the camel guide expected a (the bigger the better) tip!

That’s a good boy, please don’t spit on me

One disappointment here is the hoards of hawkers who attack constantly. We realize these folks are scrambling just to survive, but it sometimes makes it difficult to enjoy the subject at hand.  It’s exhausting being a walking source of $$$.

With your back to the pyramids, smoggy Cairo is right there. The building in the foreground is the soon-to-open massive Great Egyptian Museum (GEM)

Our final stop in Giza Necropolis was a walk to a closeup look at the Great Sphinx.  The poor thing was pretty beaten up, but still allowed us to imagine the incredible task of cutting the figure from a single block of limestone.  A trip like this is so educational, and it makes one try to imagine how motivated people were to build such incredible structures:

The sphinx looks pretty small in the foreground
The Great Sphinx has greatly deteriorated over the years, and the face has also been damaged

What an amazing day, check this one off the bucket list!

Our two days in Cairo were information overload. Somehow the greatness of the ancient remains failed to dwarf the realities of the modern day Cairo. We were glad we visited and likely won’t return, but everyone should experience this place at least once!

Next we were off for our final cruise, on the Nile River:

Boarding our Viking-chartered flight to Luxor

Next up: One more cruise!

12 comments

  1. Wow, what an amazing stop! I’ve heard so many people say similar things about Cairo, so I’m glad it didn’t completely detract from your enjoyment of the pyramids.

  2. So glad you got to check one more thing off your bucket list! The scale of the pyramids is incredible, thanks for taking us there, a place we probably will never see in person…..

  3. It always makes me happy to see folks we love get to experience things they so very much want to. I know how excited you both were to see those pyramids! Bonus camel rides 😀

    My curious wondering for this post: I wonder why the Louvre is shaped like a pyramid and the GEM is…not!?

  4. How wonderful that you and Steve both dreamed of visiting the pyramids…and you got to do it! It must have been fabulous to have an Egyptologist guide you in your explorations. Viking definitely does it right! I loved the photos of you two on the camels.

    Back in the late 70’s, I drove from Tallahassee to New Orleans to see the traveling King Tut exhibit. It only visited six cities in the U.S., and I was determined to see it. It was extraordinary! I can only imagine how much more there was for you to see in the Egyptian Museum. I doubt I’ll ever travel there, so thanks for the great tour.

  5. I am sorry that you went during the summer months. Yes, it is hot, hot, hot. On the positive note you saw it all. You can now remove the Middle East from your bucket list. Thanks for sharing the beautiful pictures. Take care of yourself.

  6. Thanks for sharing….great info on Egypt and the many wonders that resided there. I would love to see the pyramids and all the other interesting things there, but I doubt I will ever make it to the Middle East.

  7. Thanks so much. We are 80 days and counting for our flight to Israel. This will help us to better understand rather than overwhelmed when we get there. I’m still flip flopping between the choice of the NMEC and the Coptic and Jewish tour. I don’t want to miss anything. Lol

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