Cairo was the first stop in our Egypt + Jordan trip. Before hitting the pyramids, we had a day to explore the hectic capital, daunting with its 22 million people and crazy traffic.
We started the day at the famous Egyptian museum, where we tried to arrive around 8am (opening time) to avoid as much of the tourist crowds as possible. The ticket was 350 Egyptian pounds (~$20), including the mummies and camera (and I wished I had brought my student ID, because it gets you 50% off pretty much everywhere). The museum is not as massive as e.g., the Hermitage, but there is a ton of stuff and it’s not particularly well organized nor digestible. It took us over 3 hours to see just the highlights and wander around a bit. My favorites were the large sarcophagus in the old kingdom rooms, the intricate pieces in the Amarna room, all the Tutankhamun treasures, the cute dioramas of regular life in rooms 27 and 32, the creepy mummies, the matryoshka-like sarcophagus of Yuya and Tuya, and the papyrus in the eastern galleries.
From there we headed to Islamic Cairo in an Uber (which works fairly well over here). We checked out the Qalaun Madrassa, walked slowly up the buzzing Al Muizz street, stopped at Al Hakim mosque, exited through the gate of Bab Al Futuh to re-enter through Bab An Nasr, then walked down on Al Gamaliyya street and into the Khan Al Khalili market. With the sun setting very early in the winter, we quickly checked out Al Azhar mosque, gave up on Al Azhar park, and climbed up to Bab Zuweila for a bird’s eye view of the old city (and its thousand minarets), before walking out of it through the artisan market to the south.
It was a good walk that allowed us to observe fantastic architecture and some captivating scenes of life (bread baking, donkeys carrying veggies, etc.). But all in all, it lacked the charm of many other historic cities like Istanbul; maybe the dirt and traffic chaos made it too hard for me to really enjoy. We headed over to Garden City, in search of a nicer neighborhood, and the area was indeed more livable, but also more lacking in charm. At least we managed to find a nice Lebanese restaurant, where we had a yummy “linner”.
The next afternoon, after visiting the pyramids (which deserve a whole post of their own), we checked out the other famous area of Cairo we had left: Coptic Cairo. The history of Coptic Christians is fascinating, and I have to admit, I didn’t know anything about it. We visited the nunnery, the church of St. Sergius & Bacchuis (the most impressive one), the synagogue of Ben Ezra, the church of St. Barbara, the church of St. George, and the Hanging church. It was a pleasant couple hour walk in a very different part of Cairo.
I’m glad we spent a day and a half in Cairo, because we had the time and it allowed us to “settle into the trip”. But if someone on a tighter schedule asked me if they should skip it altogether and just do the pyramids, I’m afraid I’d say yes.