Egypt is one of the most fascinating destinations in the world. A visit requires the visitor to become immersed in one of the world’s greatest civilizations. The Egyptian Civilization spanned almost 4,000 years, leaving a legacy of monuments and culture that is staggering in its volume and complexity. Although the country of today has taken its place in the modern world, much of this legacy is preserved for the tourist. It is a must-visit location on any true traveler’s life list.
Below are the major sights in this incredibly rich touist destination.
1. Pyramids of Giza and Cairo
Cairo, Egypt, is the largest city in all of Africa with over 20,000,000 people and the city is appropriately chaotic, to say the least. It is a true mix of ancient and modern and pulsates with activity at all times of the day or night. However, it is also rich in noteworthy attractions and serves as the primary gateway into the multitude of sights which involve one of the longest-lasting and most important civilizations in recorded history, the Egyptian Civilization.
The main square, at least for tourists, is Maydan-al-Tahrir (Liberation Square), just outside Old Cairo. On the square is one of the greatest museums in the world, the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, which has a simply incredible collection of artifacts devoted to the history of this great civilization, which began around the year 3,000 BC and continued, with subtle changes, to about 30 BC when Egypt fell under the Roman Empire.
As with all great museums, it is impossible to see everything in a single visit so choices must be made. Below are the must-sees for the typical tourist in Egypt.
The First Floor is the most important destination because it holds the Mummy Gallery, a collection of real mummies from history, and also several rooms devoted to King Tutankhamen, including his death mask and golden throne.
On the Ground Floor, the Amarna Gallery and the Statue of Ka-Aper are particularly impressive.
The following is a brief description of some of the other major attractions for the tourist in Cairo:
If the weather is clear, ride the lift to the top of the Cairo Tower for grand views of the city and onward even to the Nile delta and the Pyramids.
The Mosque of Ahmed Ibn Tulun, which dates to 876 AD contains an unusual spiral minaret. It is fairly simple but, nevertheless, elegant. Note the exceptional Pulpit, next to the Mihrab, the niche which indicates to the congregation the direction of Mecca.
Another mosque, the Mosque of Sultan Hassan, built in 1356 AD, is a good example of Mamluk architecture. Its 266 foot (90 meter) minaret is the city’s tallest. The Mihrab here is exquisite, and the tomb of the Sultan (although he’s not buried in it) is spectacular.
The Al-Ahzar Mosque is not only the first (10th century) mosque built in the city, but is also the world’s largest university and a leading center for Islamic education.
The Citadel is a fortress built in 1176 AD by Saladin to repel invading Crusaders and occupies the high ground in the city, thus providing fantastic views. It was destroyed by an explosion in 1824 AD, but palaces and mosques were built over the ruins. Here the visitor will find the Alabaster Mosque, a city landmark which was modeled after the Aya Sophia in Istanbul and dedicated to Mohammed Ali, the independent nation‘s first ruler. Also here is the Al-Hram Palace, built as a harem, but now converted to a museum.
One of the most important places to visit in Cairo is the Khan al-Khalili Bazaar, which dates to 1382 AD. Not only are the sights and smells within the bazaar an indication of the true essence of the city, but the architecture is also significant. The maze of alleys and dead-ends of the bazaar are lined with all manner of goods. The displays are not just for tourists, since residents also shop here.
One of the interesting sights in Old Cairo, the ancient walled city within the new one, is the Hanging Church, which dates to the 11th century. It was built on the old Roman fortress of Babylon, which gave it its name. Its interior is exquisite and extremely ornate. Note, in particular, the Sanctuary Screens made of cedar with inlaid ivory. Walking the narrow streets and alleyways of the Old City gives a visitor the sensation of stepping into the past.
To escape, for a time, the hustle and bustle of the city, take a stroll through the tranquil Ezbekiya Gardens.
The most important excursion from Cairo is 15 kilometers (9 miles) west in the suburb of Giza, the home of the last remaining of the original “Seven Wonders of the World”, the Pyramids of Giza. There are three Great Pyramids which were erected as tombs for the Pharaohs of the time. The largest of the three is the Pyramid of Cheops (or Khufu) which was built in 2560 BC. It stands almost 140 meters (450 feet) tall. It is located just south of the ticket office and its sides face the four cardinal directions, with its entrance on the north.
It contains three burial chambers but these and the mausoleums of all three Pharaohs were long ago robbed of their treasures. On the south side of this pyramid is a building which contains the Solar Boat which actually carried the dead ruler down the Nile to his place of rest.
The next pyramid is the Pyramid of Chephren (Khafre) which actually looks larger than Khufu’s but is just on higher ground. There is a 32 meter (100 foot) passageway which leads inside to the burial chamber.
Khafre’s complex also includes a Mortuary Temple which was used for prayers and sacrifices to the Pharaoh, and the Valley Temple, connected by a 500 meter (1500 foot) causeway to the mortuary. The ruler was mummified in the Valley Temple.
Near Khafre’s Valley Temple is the statue of the Sphinx, with the body of a lion and the head of a man. Archaeologists believe that it was either a statue of Khafre or a guardian of the necropolis. In front of his paws is a granite stele which was erected in 1424 BC by Tuthmosis IV.
The last of the Great Pyramids is also the smallest, the Pyramid of Mykerinos (Menkaure). It is only 62 meters (200 feet) high.
Many visitors who visit during the day also return in the evening for the Sound and Light Show, at a theater beside the Sphinx. Giza is also a great place to take a ride on a camel.
Another popular excursion from Cairo is to Saqqara, 27 kilometers (15 miles) southwest of the city. This place was once the royal necropolis of the ancient city of Memphis, once the capital of the First Dynasty. Here visitors will find the famous Step Pyramid of Djoser (Zoser) which dates to about 2800 BC and was the first pyramid-style tomb ever constructed. Prior to this time, rulers were buried under mounded ground in tombs called mastabas.
There are also the mastabas of a number of Pharaohs at Saqqara. In particular, the Mastaba of Ti has magnificent reliefs.
Adjoining the necropolis are the remains of the city of Memphis. Tourists are typically impressed with the Alabaster Sphinx and the gigantic Statue of Ramses II.
Venture out of Cairo into the suburb of Heliopolis, now known as New Cairo, which was a planned, wealthy community, built in the early 20th century, with some interesting and unusual architecture. Much of the original structures are long gone and have been replaced with suburban residences, however, a few remain. Uruba Palace is now the residence of the Egyptian President. The Baron’s Palace was actually based on an Angkor Wat temple. The Sharia Ibrahim Laqqany has an elaborate façade with fanciful turrets.
Luxor, Egypt, is the modern city on the site of the ancient city of Thebes. It probably has more examples of Egyptian civilization than anywhere else in the world. It has also become the most important tourist destination in Upper Egypt. Luxor lies 675 kilometers (420 miles) south of Cairo (see #1 above) and straddles the Nile River. It is also a popular starting point for Nile Cruises.
Luxor and Karnak are on the eastern side of the Nile, while the famous necropolis which includes the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, and the Temple of Ramses II are on the western bank.
The Temple of Luxor, one of the major sights in the area, was built by Amenhotep III and Ramses II and is dedicated to the triad of Egyptian deities, Amun, the father, who later merged with Ra, the Sun-god, to become Amun-Ra, the Creator, Mut, the wife and mother and mistress of heaven, and Khansu, the son and Moon-God.
Outside the Ramses court is a tall obelisk which describes the Battle of Kadesh. There were originally two obelisks, but one was given to France and still stands in the Place de la Concorde, in Paris. Attached to this court is a mosque.
Between the courts of Ramses and Amenhotep is the Colonnade, an impressive series of 14 pillars.
In the Sanctuary of Amun are bas-reliefs which were added by Alexander the Great.
The Temple of Luxor is connected to the Temple of Karnak by a three kilometer (2 mile) walkway (dromos) called the Avenue of the Sphinxes. The Temple of Karnak was built and added to for over 2,000 years by various Pharaohs, each one trying to outdo previous efforts, so it is an extremely grand complex.
The most important part of the complex is the Temple of Amun. The gateway into the temple is 170 feet (almost 60 meters) high. The Hypostyle Hall is an incredible architectural treasure. It is so large that Notre Dame Cathedral could fit inside. It is composed of 134 sandstone columns, in 16 rows, a veritable forest of stone, a symbolic garden. The columns and walls are richly decorated with colored reliefs.
There are many other buildings, obelisks, halls and other structures to explore, and there is a Sound and Light Spectacle in the evening.
On the western side of the Nile is the famous necropolis of Thebes. The Valley of Kings, one section of the necropolis, contains the tombs of most of the Egyptian Pharaohs between 1539 and 1075 BC (the 18th and 19th Dynasties). They are decorated with magical recipes from the Book of the Dead, pictures, and/or biographies.
There are many tombs here, but several which should definitely be visited include the Tomb of Tutankhamen (Tomb #62), the most famous of them all (everyone has heard of King Tut’s Tomb). When discovered, this tomb had an incredible amount of gold, as well as the actual mummy of the Pharaoh, but much of the contents have been removed and reside in the Egyptian Museum (see #1 above).
The Tomb of Ramses VI (Tomb #9) has one of the longest chambers and is noted for the winged serpents guarding the entrance to the burial chamber, and its ceiling with astronomical designs.
The largest is the Tomb of Seti I. It also has exquisite reliefs throughout its eleven chambers and rooms.
Another section of the necropolis, called the Valley of the Queens, consists of approximately 70 tombs (so far) and includes several excellent attractions. The Tomb of Queen Nefertari, the wife of Ramses II, for instance, is completely decorated with pictures from the Book of the Dead, etc. Also notable is the Tomb-Chapel of Prince Amun hir Khopshef, the son of Ramses III.
A third section, actually the closest to the river, is known as the Tombs of the Nobles. Here there are over 500 graves, many of whose paintings offer a glimpse into life in Egypt at the time. A few of the interesting ones include the Tomb-Chapel of Nakht (#52), the Tomb of Rekhmire (#100), the Tomb-Chapel of Ramose (#55), and the Tomb-Chapel of Menna (#69).
Also of note in this section of the necropolis are the Colossi of Memnon, the 70 foot (19 meters) high guardians of one of the mortuaries, and the Mortuary Temple of Ramses III, one of the best-preserved of these ancient monuments.
3. Abu Simbel
Abu Simbel, Egypt, located about 175 miles (270 kilometers) southwest of Aswan, is one of Egypt’s finest relics of the Dynastic period. Although erected in the 1200’s BC, the site was basically buried in sand and only rediscovered in 1813. Its history is further complicated by the fact that when the Aswan Dam was proposed, it would be submerged, so the government decided to move the entire complex in the 1950’s and 60’s. What a monumental feat!
This site is noted primarily for the Great Temple of Abu Simbel, an incredible monument which was carved out of a cliff. It was built to honor Pharaoh, Ramses II, one of Egypt’s most famous rulers, and the tribute is certainly worthy of a hero. The 33 meter (108 foot) façade is graced with four huge (21 meter/70 foot) seated colossi of the king. The Hypostyle Hall has carved figures on its pillars, a ceiling decorated with Osiris-like vultures, and wall relief of battle scenes. The statues of the Sanctuary were once covered in gold.
The other complex at Abu Simbel is considerably smaller but equally impressive. The Temple of Hathor was built by Ramses II to honor his favorite wife, Nefertari. It is similar to the other temple in that the façade is carved from the cliff-face, but the six colossi are only 10 meters (32 feet) high. The Hypostyle Hall here has Hathor-headed columns.
Although there is a road to Abu Simbel from Aswan, most travelers take the short 30 minute flight and then return the same day.
4. Nile Cruise
A Nile Cruise is a necessary part of any trip to Egypt since the river was so important to this civilization. It was the super-highway and life-blood of ancient Egypt and affected the existence of the entire population in numerous ways. The majority of cruise ships (and there are numerous types and styles) ply the waters between Luxor and Aswan, where the river ceases to become navigable.
Typical stops along the way include Esna, 30 miles (48 kilometers) south of Luxor, on the west bank of the Nile, where visitors will find the Temple of Khnum (the Ram-headed god). The Hypostyle Hall is virtually all that remains. Its 24 columns with flowered capitals support the roof whose ceiling is decorated with astronomical pictures.
The next stop is usually Edfu, which is equidistant between Luxor and Aswan, 70 miles (110 kilometers) from each. It boasts the Temple of Horus (the falcon-headed god), the largest and best-preserved Ptolemaic temple in the country. Its impressive First Pylon is 36 meters (120 feet) tall and is decorated with battle scenes. The entrance to the pylon is flanked by two black granite statues of Horus and leads into the colonnaded Hypostyle Court. The Hall of Offerings contains a stairway which leads to a roof terrace which has great views (visitors may have to compensate the guard to gain access). The staircase walls are decorated with an astronomical theme. The Sanctuary contains a granite shrine to the god.
Edfu also is the site of one of several Nilometers which were used by the ancients to keep track of the Nile’s water level and to predict the degree of flooding which they should expect.
Kom Ombo, 30 miles (48 kilometers) north of Aswan, is the next stop. The Temple of Kom Ombo was built in the second century BC and is dedicated to Sobek, the crocodile-headed god, and Horus, the falcon. Its Hypostyle Hall contains eight columns whose capitals have a lotus motif. The Chapel of Hathor displays a number of crocodile mummies.
The last stop on the cruise is the city of Aswan, the southernmost city in Egypt, and the site of the famous dams built to control the seasonal flooding of the Nile. It is located at what is called the First Cataract (rapids) of the Nile and is the terminus of the navigable portion of the river. It is often used by tourists as a stopover for a visit to Abu Simbel. The city itself has a lively street market, the Souq, composed of many tightly-packed, narrow alleys. It also has a very attractive waterfront boulevard, known as the Corniche.
Also in the city is the Unfinished Obelisk which has three completed sides but was abandoned and left still attached to the bedrock when a crack was noticed in the stone.
There are several river islands here that make for a pleasant excursion. Elephantine Island is the most popular and can be easily accessed via ferry. It boasts a Nilometer and two Nubian Villages.
Kitchener’s Island is basically a botanical garden and makes for a great stroll or a quiet respite.
Agilika Island is the current home of the Temple of Isis, moved because it would be submerged when the High Dam was built. This temple, guarded by two granite lions, has a glorious setting, and, in the evening, is the scene of an excellent Sound and Light Show. Other structures on the island include the Temple of Hathor, now in ruins, and the nearby Kiosk of Trajan with interesting capitals on its pillars.
On the west bank of the river here are several attractions which are worthwhile to visit. The Mausoleum of the Aga Khan is an interesting domed and turreted memorial to the ruler. The Monastery of St Simeon, now in ruins, dates to the 7th century AD and resembles a fortress. An ascent to the monastery provides a great view. Finally, the hills to the south are pockmarked with the Tombs of the Nobles. Most have not stood the test of time very well, but the Tomb of Prince Sirenput II (#31) is the best preserved.
Alexandria, Egypt, is located 225 kilometers (150 miles) northwest of Cairo (see #1 above) and sprawls for 24 kilometers (16 miles) along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The city has a storied history. It was commissioned by Alexander the Great in 331 BC and was famous in antiquity as the location of the Pharos Lighthouse, one of Herodotus’ original “Seven Wonders of the World”. It was also home to the greatest library in the ancient world. However, these sights are long gone and the city fell victim to a serious decline, but has recently been resurrected.
Its New Library, a very modernistic, architectural gem, opened in 2002 and seeks to restore the city to prominence as a center of knowledge. Other attractions include the Roman Amphitheater, with its numerous marble terraces and seating for about 800, Pompey’s Pillar, a 30 meter (90 foot) column which dates to 293 AD, the eerie Catacombs of Kom El-Shoqafa, home to approximately 300 bodies, Quaitbey Fort, a fortress on the site of the ancient lighthouse, and Montazah Palace with its lush gardens.
Another city landmark is Saad Zaghloul Square which sits along the beautiful Corniche or waterfront boulevard.