How do you start a post about Egypt? It’s impossible to introduce it in a manner that does it due justice. My interest in Cairo arose from three areas: past history, current events, and future curiosity. No matter the time period in which you investigate Egypt, there always seems to be a dynamic story unfolding that leaves ripple effects throughout the world. Without a doubt, this trip to Egypt was one of the most worth while and rewarding trips that I have taken in my lifetime…
We landed in Cairo International Airport around 1:00pm in the afternoon. Hurrying off the flight, I braced myself to experience some chaos and disorder of which I had been warned. Cairo is a city of 20 million people out of Egypt’s full 92 million. By comparison factor, the next largest “Middle East” country is Iran at 77.5 million, then you would drop to Turkey at 75 million, then Iraq at 33.5 million, then Saudi Arabia at 29 million. In other words, there are a lot of Egyptians – far more than many other Islamic, Middle Eastern countries – and if you decide to classify Iran and Turkey elsewhere, then the numbers really stand out. So, as I mentioned, I was ready to race to the immigration lines. As I walk through the terminal and it opened to immigration, I was impressed – you could have blindfolded me and told me I was in the US or Dubai. It was huge, and the medium size line was moving fast. It only took me two minutes and $25 to purchase a visa. Well that was easier than I thought. Crossing my fingers, we received all our luggage as well – and I have to add out of a large baggage claim area.
While I wrestled with my phone to get our SIM card to work, we eventually decided to take an airport taxi to our hotel – the Mena House Hotel, right next to the grand pyramids of Giza. Now, okay, I couldn’t exactly tell whether the car line to exit the airport was long or not; however, the space in front of the toll looked like an expert Tetris game as not one inch of free space was available, save for the small spot in which our driver used to step out and have a cigarette while we waited. Okay, here we go into Cairo – this was traffic I heard about. And while we did zig and zag in and out of cars without regards to lanes, speeds, or crossing pedestrians in the middle of the highway (#caironeedsmorecrosswalks), there was plenty to take in along the highways – the tall brick buildings housing more people than I could count, the loaded trucks of fresh fruit and vegetables, the brave souls who took to the roads with horses and wagons…
This city was so different than anything else I had seen before – to me, it feels like a city that was building its history from the inside out from the beginning. Modern globalization didn’t build Cairo – the Egyptian people did. And for that, they should be very proud.
Arriving at the Mena House Hotel, there was professional security at the gate, which opened to a beautiful, welcoming circular drive into the lobby. The first buildings of the hotel were built in 1869 for the then King of Egypt, Isma’il Pasha. The property has gone through several renovations and just as many moments of historical significance since its establishment. Even during our stay, President Sisi met in the hotel with Chancellor Merkel, the next night was a beautiful wedding, and the next day Will Smith was there!
Settling into our room, we prepared for our first night out with an Egyptian friend of ours. The agenda was to be a start at Cairo Tower and a walk through Khan el Khalili – fitting in dinner somewhere in between. By this time, my bargain phone was finally working with the SIM card, and we ordered an Uber to take us to Cairo Tower. For any tourists planning to visit Cairo – Uber is where its at, nothing but good things to say about it, even after having gotten lost due to our own operator error…note to self, there is more than one “Mena House” in Cairo, must use “Mena House Hotel.”
Now, Cairo Tower. As an American, it was imperative that I visit what I would call our “unintended Statue of Liberty” for Egypt. There are too many conspiracy theories to count, but the basic gist is, in the 1960s, the US government gave the money to President Nasser (or some other Egyptian government or politician) and somehow what was meant for military arms, or a bribe, or something else more sinister, ended up as Cairo Tower. The tower stands 90 floors tall on Gezira Island in the middle of the Nile River. After riding an elevator, you do need to climb a few stairs in a narrow stairway to the top. Then, the tower is tall enough to see much of the city but not too tall to where you can’t enjoy seeing some details as well. You can see several soccer fields (yes, soccer, I’m American remember), horse stables and golf courses of the Cairo Country Club, the Ritz Carlton across the river which stands on the edges of Tahrir Square, the famous Qasr El Nil Bridge, the Cairo Opera House, and the traffic of the Nile ebbing and flowing. It is a stunning way to first experience Cairo because you see so many eras in history and regular life clashing together. [Recommendations: Take a jacket because there is a strong wind at the top. Aim to go around sunset to catch Cairo in daylight and nighttime. Watch the line for going back down, it can get pretty long.]
After our visit to Cairo Tower, we walked along the Qasr El Nil Bridge to Tahrir Square, which I will go into further detail later when discussing our trip to the Egyptian Museum. Here, we ate koshary in Koshary El Tahrir. How to describe koshary to a non-Egyptian? It has a little bit of pasta, rice, lentils, chick peas, and fried onions. This is topped with a tomato sauce and other types of vinegar, if desired. I am definitely a health conscious, disciplined eater at home, but I really enjoy bending the rules for koshary – it’s delicious. We paid around 50 EGP (roughly $3) for four people to eat, so it’s well within budget to try while in Egypt.
Then, we hopped in a cab to visit Khan El Khalili. Now, there’s an important aspect of Cairo life to consider when visiting. To explain it, if New York City is the city that never sleeps, Cairo is the nocturnal city. It absolutely comes alive at night – even more so than the day. Khan El Khalili is a large souk in the Islamic district of Cairo, which endlessly winds through the surrounding streets. It is full of fresh fruit and juice bars, tchotchke souvenirs, jewelry shops, restaurants, mosques, and a lot of people. Arriving around 11:00pm at night, we were by no means late as the events of the night ran on long after our departure around 2:00am. Walking through Khan El Khalili is an exploration in and of itself. Groups of young Egyptians and old line the streets working their shops or meeting with friends and family. This community feel made me forget about the US travel warnings. In my hometown, we worry about armed muggings in empty streets after midnight, but here, first of all, not so many people possess guns in Egypt and secondly, there were so many people out – even children. Surely, I still had to be aware that I was in a large crowd in an unfamiliar city; however, if I hid in the hotel after the sun went down, I would surely miss the real Cairo, which was not as foreboding as some might think. [Recommendations: Walk around for sometime to enjoy before you start shopping. Dress for walking. Keep alert as you would in any crowd, people will try sell you things as they would in any market. Go for dessert or juices in the small restaurants.]
While walking through the souk, we tried sugar cane juice, which does possess a few health benefits including alkalizing the body and inducing proper kidney function. Also, we did step into a local mosque, in which the door keeper was very welcoming.
Barely able to keep my eyes open, we finally jumped in an Uber to get back to our hotel for some much needed rest. And I had to add, while we did get lost for a minute due an error on our side, the Uber driver was extremely patient and committed to getting us back to the hotel safely. After the first night’s adventure, I had no problems getting to sleep, excited to see what lied ahead in the coming days.