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Ancient and modern: a trip to Cairo

Eesha Kheny
November 26, 2019

Travel guide Lonely Planet has ranked Cairo among the top city destinations for 2020. DW reporter Eesha Kheny made her way to Egypt to find out what makes the city so special.

Egypt - a camel in the sands in front of a pyramid
Image: DW/E. Kheny

Praying not to lose my nerve halfway I took my first step into the tunnel. A fleeting sense of surrealism hit me for braving my intense claustrophobia to enter Giza's second-largest — 136-meter tall (446 ft) — Pyramid of Khafre. The air felt thin and the temperature rose significantly in the narrow 54-meter long (177 ft) sloping passageway, which ended in a dimly-lit burial chamber. Taking a quick look at the embedded solid granite sarcophagus while trying not to think about the countless stone blocks above me, I took a deep breath and made the challenging return climb to daylight.

Egypt,the pyramids and the Sphinx lit up at night
The pyramids and the Sphinx spectacularly displayed in a sound and light show — which is narrated by the Great SphinxImage: DW/E. Kheny

Three generations, three pyramids

I had actually caught my first glimpse of the Pyramids of Giza the night before, where I attended the sound and light show. Costing €17 ($19 USD) it is entertainment on a large scale involving backlighting, hieroglyphic animations, and the narrators' voices echoing through the Sahara Desert. Spellbound by the stories of the Pharaohs, their families, and subjects, one hour passed swiftly. In their unwavering devotion to the many gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt, 30 dynasties spanning 3,000 years (3100 BC - 332 BC) built numerous pyramids, temples, and tombs all over the country.

Egypt - The Great Pyramid
The Great Pyramid is the last standing wonder of the ancient worldImage: DW/E. Kheny

In the Fourth Dynasty of ancient Egypt, the large, world-famous true pyramids with a square ground plan and smooth surfaces running to the top were created. Pharaoh Khufu — also known under the Greek name of Cheops — began the first Giza pyramid project. For him the Great Pyramid of Giza was built, followed by slightly smaller ones for his son Khafre and grandson Menkaure. Since then on these three principal iconic pyramids of Giza, about 15 kilometers (9.3 mi) from the center of Cairo, remind us of three father-son generations of the Old Kingdom.

In the shadow of the Great Pyramid 

Egypt, woman takes selfie in front of the pyramids
The obligatory selfie taken in front of the pyramidsImage: DW/E. Kheny

The modern city of Giza (which belongs to the Greater Cairo Metropolitan Area) is moving ever closer to the three pyramids, almost destroying the illusion of immersing oneself in history. Only busy congested roads separate the sprawling city from the desert around the pyramids, where humans cavort like ants. There are buses and cars everywhere, and people on camels and horses are thronging to the three great sights that are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the peak tourist season in Egypt and this can be seen in the number of tourists. I drift with the crowd and arrive in the shadow of the Great Pyramid of Giza (also known as the Pyramid of Khufu). A pleasant break from the harsh Egyptian sun. The building towers 139 meters (456 ft) into the sky. Looking up the large stone blocks of limestone and granite seem to have been endlessly stacked on top of each other. The pyramid is said to consist of more than 2 million of these blocks! I let my hand slide over one of the smooth stone blocks and pictured it being mined in the quarry and transported on the Nile river. More than 4,600 years ago! When it was completed, the pyramid was entirely covered with white polished limestone. Today this layer is no longer visible, so visitors have to imagine the past splendor of this still impressive building.

In the next hours, I learn that all pyramids served as tombs for the pharaohs, which were equipped with everything required to travel to the afterlife. In ancient Egypt, people believed that the blue sky was a sea to be crossed after death in order to live on forever. And for this the pharaohs needed ships. Five long pits have been excavated, which were known to contain boats used by Pharaoh Khufu during his lifetime. Such a vessel, found in 1954 and reconstructed with 1,224 pieces of wood, can be seen in the museum next to the pyramid. Here visitors can see how the ancient Egyptians planned a burial.

Egypt's revolutions have damaged tourism

Pyramids of Giza on the outskirts of the Egyptian capital Cairo
The pyramids are not far from the city centerImage: Getty Images/K. Desouki

After an exciting morning in Giza, I headed for downtown Cairo, to Tahrir Square. It was the epicenter of the protests during the 2011 revolution, which led to Egypt's then-President Muhammad Hosni Mubarak being ousted from office. Since then, the square has had a reputation. And that can still be felt today. On the one hand daily life prevails, on the other hand heavily armed policemen patrol it. The square is under constant close surveillance. So too are all the tourist attractions. There are many security precautions such as car inspections, metal detectors, security forces and cameras. And yet I feel safe. The signs in English, the friendly people and the tour guides who help me to overcome the language barriers give me an even greater sense of security.

35-year-old travel guide Muhammad Samara explains Egypt's recent history to me: "We not only had a revolution in 2011, but also in 2013. Both had a strong impact on tourism. During this time only few visitors came here, about 3 to 4 million. For three years I could not work in the industry, but had to earn my money in a call center. Now it's back to the way it was. Every year we welcome about 14 million tourists." Muhammad is confident about the future. Currently, it is mainly German and French visitors who spend their holidays in Egypt, but the number of Chinese visitors is increasing. Muhammad is passionate about his work as a tourist guide and loves his country. He studied history and has been an English tour guide since 2007 — which has always been his dream job.

Gold and mummies

Egypt, chair of Tutankhamun made of wood and layered with pure gold
This chair of Tutankhamun is made of wood and layered with pure goldImage: DW/E. Kheny

Only a stone's throw from Tahrir Square you will find the famous Egyptian Museum with around 120,000 exhibits. Muhammad leads me from one room to the next and shows me artifacts, tells stories and explains symbols. We walk past a small ivory figure of Cheops, the world-famous Narmer Palette — an impressive example of some of the earliest hieroglyphs carved into siltstone — and other works of art thousands of years old. I could list many more exhibits, but my absolute highlight were the artifacts related to Pharaoh Tutankhamun. He was a member of the 18th Dynasty and ruled for 10 years. He died at the age of 19 and his real fame came after his death. In November 1922 the British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered his completely preserved tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. Particularly spectacular and famous is his death mask made of about ten kilograms (22 lbs.) of solid gold, which is on display in the Egyptian Museum. I gaze in awe at the display cases full of gold, silver and precious stones.

Egypt, close-up of the face and hands of a mummy
The mummy of Yuya was discovered in 1905 in the Valley of the Kings in LuxorImage: DW/E. Kheny

One highlight followed the next. I thought I'd seen all there was to see when I found myself standing in front of Tutankhamun's great-grandparents: Yuya and Thuya. Their well-preserved hair, lips, nails and cheekbones ran chills down my spine. The two mummies were discovered in a very good condition, which indicates high-quality mummification. This ancient Egyptian ritual to preserve the dead body lasted 70 days. Systematically the brain and the internal organs were removed, then the deceased was rubbed with palm wine and aromatic essences. Sodium was used to withdraw water from the body, and finally the embalmed bodies were wrapped from head to toe in bandages.

The hustle and bustle of Khan Khalili Market

After a day packed with information, I wanted to do nothing other than losing myself in the labyrinth of shops at the Khan Khalili Market. The old souk dates back to the late 14th century and is a popular tourist attraction. Here the crush of people is immense visitors as well as smooth-talking merchants advertising their goods. I find papyrus rolls, hand-woven carpets, painted alabaster mugs, and fragrant spices. At the marketplace, skillful bartering is expected as here everything from medicine to clothing is haggled for. I came prepared, and I didn't do badly. Apart from the worry of being pick-pocketed, I felt safe and comfortable among the predominantly English-speaking tourists and Arabic-speaking locals. 

Egypt, interior market stand selling lamps
Oriental, colorful, many-sided — the Khan Khalili MarketImage: DW/E. Kheny

When I arrived in Cairo, I was immediately struck by how chaotic and noisy the city was. A cloud of constant desert dust lies in the air, five times a day muezzins sound the call to prayers from the minarets and the streets choke in the rush hour traffic. A visit is therefore exhausting, but also very exhilarating because there is so much to experience here. In the space of a short time, I saw the sunrise over the Nile River from my hotel window, ventured deep inside a pyramid, stood face-to-face with a mummy and immersed myself into the turbulent city life. In Cairo, ancient history meets modernity - a highly interesting mixture!