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  • Brian Johnson

Egypt: Cairo


For the first time on our trip so far, we slept in today. I mean we really slept in. It had been almost 2 am by the time we had showered and crawled into bed, after a day that had started at 7 am. Today we planned to relax and enjoy the luxurious Steigenberger El Tahrir Hotel before hitting the Egyptian Museum a few hundred feet away. I should mention here that Covid had devastated the Egyptian economy, with the result that the value of the Egyptian pound has plummeted. We couldn’t afford something like this at home, but here it was a cheap splurge. It was 10:30 before we finally roused ourselves from the comfortable king bed, and that was really just to order room service. We noshed and lounged and enjoyed the view from our window, with the museum to our right, the Nile visible beyond the square and downtown Cairo sprawling all around us. Tahrir Square is the heart of Cairo and a safe and exciting place to stay. If you’re ever in Cairo try the Steigenberger. The nicest hotel we’ve ever stayed in, with impeccable service. We felt thoroughly out of place, kind of like imposters in a posh world, but we soon got the hang of it. It was 12:30 before we lazily walked over to the museum.

The Egyptian Museum opened in 1902 and houses the greatest collection of Pharaonic treasures and Egyptian antiquities in the world, with over 120,000 items on display and another 150,000 stored in the basement. This is in process of changing as a huge new museum has been built on the Giza plateau, but it has been under construction for 20 years, and even though its been scheduled to open every year for the last four years, is apparently still not ready for visitors. In the mean time the grand old museum continues to house a collection that spans 3,300 years of ancient Egyptian history from 3100 BCE to the second century CE. We wandered kind of aimlessly through both enormous levels, stopping to admire exhibits that caught our attention. We enjoyed the statues and the funerary masks, as well as the ornately decorated sarcophagi.

The centerpiece of the museum has always been the Tutankhamun gallery, and Lynn, the Tut Nut, especially wanted to see the famous golden mask, but we weren’t sure it was still there. It is supposed to be moved out to the new museum at any time, but no one seems to know when. Even Walid, our wonderful Egyptologist tour guide on our Nile cruise, didn’t know if the mask was still there at the old museum. We spent over three hours wandering around the place and never came across it. Then, just as were making ready to leave, I happened to overhear a tour guide of a large group utter the word “Tutankhamen”, so I grabbed Lynn and we followed the group back upstairs. Sure enough, they lead us right to the gallery, with a crowd of people lined up outside slowly shuffling in. I know, I know, how do you spend over three hours wandering around a place and miss the most famous exhibit in the world? I’m telling you, the place is HUGE, and there were no signs directing people specifically to that gallery. Yes, they had a map at the entrance to the museum, but it was wrong, as some exhibits have already been packed up, and many others have been moved to different places as they rearrange everything in anticipation of the new museum. They plan to keep the old museum open after the new one opens, but no one seems to know what will be exhibited where, except that the Tut exhibit is going to the new museum. Anyway, we found it and got a close up view of all his treasures, including his famous gold mask. Photos are not allowed in that specific gallery, so I can’t share, but the important thing is that Lynn got to see it, and I was able to bank some husband points.

The Museum fortuitously closes at 5 pm, meaning we found ourselves in the swank hotel bar in time for happy hour. We enjoyed our cocktails and pretzels before dinner, but somehow never made it to the actual restaurant. For some reason it just didn’t appeal, so I took a beer up to the room, Lynn raided the stocked mini fridge for some wine, and we ordered a pizza from room service, which we ate in bed while watching an English language movie we found on the television. Call it date night.

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I had arranged a tour today, our last full day in Egypt, to take us around to see some of Cairo’s most famous sites. Our driver, Mohammed, and guide, Mahmout, picked us up promptly at 8 am and we set off through Cairo’s harrowing traffic. Egyptian driving would be a good topic for a whole separate post. Let’s just say any foreigner who drives in Egypt is nuts. It would be like entering an MMA ring with no prior training or conditioning. Lane markers mean nothing to Egyptians and they drift back and forth, often just straddling the line, and using the shoulder as needed. It’s not unusual to see a car full of Egyptians all on their cell phones, including the driver. Its also not uncommon to see up to seven cars abreast. On a four lane highway. People riding double on motorcycles and scooters are everywhere, weaving in and out of traffic, usually without helmets. Pedestrians cross wherever they want, trusting cars to swerve away from them. Our first driver had joked that to drive in Cairo you need three things: a good horn, good brakes, and good luck, but that applies all over Egypt. In Luxor we encountered something I will never ever forget. A couple of young girls in an old car passed us on the shoulder of the road. This in itself would not be unusual, but they were in the oncoming lane, going THE OPPOSITE DIRECTION, but their lane had more cars, so they swerved across in front of us, to the shoulder of our lane, going the wrong direction, passed us, and swerved back across to their lane and kept going. I used to think drivers in Rome were crazy, but they’re just bad driver novices compared to Egyptians.

Our first stop was the Citadel, a fortress built by the famed Salah ad-din in 1175 and home to Egyptian rulers for over 700 years. It sits on a high hill with tremendous views over Cairo. The centerpiece today is The Great Mosque of Muhammed Ali Pasha, also called the Alabaster Mosque, built between 1830-1848 and modeled on the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. It’s an imposing structure with a large central dome surrounded by several smaller domes. Think of something on the scale of Notre Dame or Westminster Cathedral. Muhammed himself was an interesting character. Originally of Turkish and Albanian origin, he was sent by the Ottoman sultan to re-take Egypt from Napoleon. After Napoleon withdrew he was appointed governor, but eventually went native and kicked out the Turkish Ottomans and declared Egypt independent. He is considered the founder of modern Egypt and his descendants ruled Egypt until 1952. We had another informative guide and learned a lot.

The next stop was the Museum of Egyptian Civilization, a fairly new museum designed to highlight Egyptian culture past and present. It had some interesting exhibits but the highlight of the museum is the Royal Mummy Hall, containing 20 Royal New Kingdom mummies discovered in the 1880s in one of the greatest finds in archaeological history. The exhibit was stunning, with the most amazing one being the mummy of Queen Hatshepsut, who still had a full head of luxurious hair after 3,500 years! Photography was not allowed, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

After the museum we toured the Coptic area of Cairo, the oldest area of the city originally built with the walls of a third century CE Roman fortress. Christianity was introduced into Egypt in the first century and was the dominant religion from the third century until the Muslim conquest in 451. The first church we saw was the Hanging Church, considered the most beautiful church in Cairo with an ornate interior and a marble pulpit. The other church we went in was the Church of St. Sergius and St. Bacchus, the oldest church in Cairo. Legend has it that the Holy Family sheltered in a cave below the altar during the flight into Egypt. We did venture down to see the spot.

After lunch at a nice downtown restaurant we spent the rest of the afternoon at the Khan al-Khalili Bazaar, built in 1382 and today one of the largest bazaars in the Middle East. This place is wild! It’s the kind of place you imagine a fabled Arabian bazaar to be like. Thousands of little shops and stalls crowd a maze of narrow streets and tiny, twisting alleys, selling all manner of crafts, spices, clothing, rugs, gold, silver, jewelry, brass and copper goods, souvenirs, and trinkets. It’s an exciting swirl of sights, sounds, and pungent odors of spice and incense. It was a great end of trip experience.

After heading back to the hotel and packing for our early morning departure, we went out for our last dinner at a little Chinese restaurant, of all things, overlooking the Nile.


We are home now, after an exhausting day of travel. Our flight time was changed shortly before we left home, forcing us to leave for the airport at 3:30 in the morning. We were not able to check in ahead of time, due to some kind of security protocols in place, but we didn't find that out until after a long and difficult customer service experience, both online and by phone, with British Airways. It would help if they had a modern, functional web site. I'm still annoyed with them. Otherwise, we've had a truly grand time. Egypt, both ancient and modern, is an exciting and fascinating place. I’d like to go back again. If I can find a dozen adventurous souls we can have the whole Nile boat to ourselves. Anyone interested?

It was truly the adventure of a lifetime. So far…

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