Omar pulled up in his red Toyota on the edge of the traffic circle in Tahrir Square, where just six years earlier, he and tens of thousands of other Egyptians had converged to protest the presidency of Hosni Mubarak. I hopped in and we sped north up the Nile Corniche, windows down, taking in the lights of downtown Cairo and enjoying the softest of breezes coming off the Nile — after another 95-degree day, any respite was welcome.
Traveling with his wife and young family, Omar (he asked me to only use his first name because of ongoing political tensions in the country) sat next to me on the flight into Cairo and was chatty and outgoing when I asked him to recommend things to do in the capital. Now, in the car, he was introspective about the past and his role in the protests. “It was incredible, as a people, to discover how much power we had,” he said. “I can’t explain it.”
But his memory of the Arab Spring is bittersweet. “We didn’t really understand what would happen,” he said. The economy has suffered since the uprising: Egypt’s currency is now worth less than half what it was in 2011, and a once-reliable stream of tourists has slowed to a trickle. Violent events like the recent attack on a mosque in the Sinai Peninsula, killing 305 worshipers, haven’t helped.
But Cairo itself is as engaging as ever, and I felt no less safe traveling around the ancient capital as I have in any American or European city. The staggering amount of history, with its impressive relics and monuments, remains a dramatic accompaniment to serene desertscapes and welcoming people. The best part is what a trip to Cairo will do (or rather, won’t do) for your bank account: It’s a great destination for bargain seekers, in no small part because of dwindling tourism numbers (5.4 million tourists traveled to Egypt in 2016, less than half the number before the Arab Spring).
A couple of logistical notes before leaving the airport: I picked up a SIM card in the lobby — eight gigabytes of data from Vodafone set me back 130 pounds (a little over $7). Also, don’t worry about getting a visa ahead of time: American citizens can purchase a visa stamp upon arrival for $25 at a kiosk before passport control.
“Where are we going, inshallah?” asked my Uber driver, Mostafa, before educating me about the excellence of Amr Diab, Egypt’s biggest pop star, and blasting some choice numbers. Despite its well-publicized problems, Uber can be a real lifesaver when overseas — there is a sense of security that comes from dealing with a known entity when traveling. Best of all, the 13-mile ride into downtown was just 85 Egyptian pounds (less than $5) — less than half what the local taxis were quoting. If you’d prefer to use a different ride-hailing app, Careem is a reliable alternative.
I arrived at the Berlin Hotel, on the fourth floor of a dusty old colonial style building in the heart of central Cairo — it was a bit more shabby than chic, but the owner spoke English well and the staff was responsive. My room was huge, with two big balconies overlooking the city and, thankfully, a mostly functioning heirloom of an air conditioner. Moreover, the price couldn’t be beat: Less than $20 per night. It also was a great home base for exploring the city, close to the functional (but limited) subway, more upscale attractions on Gezira Island, in the middle of the Nile, and with easy access to the beautiful churches and mosques on the city’s east side.
It wasn’t, though, particularly close to the Pyramids of Giza — a conscious choice on my part. For all the splendor of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure, you don’t need me adding to the millions of words already written about what may be the most recognizable buildings on earth. Instead, I chose the less frequently visited Pyramid of Djoser — not as famous as those in Giza, but also of great historical significance.
I headed to Saqqarah, home to the Djoser step pyramid — made from six progressively smaller quadrangles, one on top of the other — about an hour south of my downtown hotel. Formal tours to the area weren’t egregiously expensive (in the $60 range), but I wanted to explore on my own and so again called on Uber, and asked the driver to leave the meter running, so to speak, while I explored the pyramid and nearby museum.
Signage at Saqqarah states that Djoser is the first of all Egyptian pyramids (circa 27th century B.C.). It was created as a burial chamber for the Pharoah Djoser; the design for the roughly 200-foot tall structure — reportedly the first man-made structure built from cut stones — is attributed to Imhotep, Djoser’s chief minister who eventually became deified as a god of medicine. This pyramid was a forerunner of the Great Pyramid of Giza, which would follow a century later — and would hold the title of world’s tallest building for more than3,800 years.
After paying 80 pounds for a ticket, which included museum access (and another 2-pound ticket for the driver’s car), I ventured out in the dry midday heat to explore the pyramid. You’re not allowed to enter Djoser itself, but can explore the surroundings and mortuary complex. You can also do what I did, if you’re so inclined, and hire one of the local men hanging around the site to take you on a quick horse or camel ride.
“Can I climb the pyramid?” I joked to Ahmed, who was sitting on his horse, Amira. “You? You are too heavy,” he replied. After a minute of bargaining, I paid Ahmed 150 pounds for a ride into the surrounding desert, where we could see the Giza pyramids from afar. It was slightly more than I wanted to pay, but he was a nice guy and it was a fun opportunity. (Take care to have small bills when traveling around Cairo — you don’t want to find yourself in a bargaining situation and then need to ask for change.)
My next stop, within the same complex, was the Imhotep Museum, home to decorative masks, a wooden sarcophagus of Imhotep himself, and a mummy of King Merenre I from the 23rd century B.C.; it is said to be the oldest complete royal mummy in existence and is in amazingly good condition. Heading back toward the city, I had my Uber driver drop me off on the southern tip of Rhoda Island, one of two large Nile islands in Cairo. Three hours had elapsed since he first picked me up. The total cost was 183 pounds, or about $10 — a huge savings over a tour.
I made a beeline for the Nilometer, a 9th-century tool that gives insight into the crucial role the Nile played in the health and productivity of the city. The Nilometer building houses a big pit that plunges deep below sea level, connected to the river through a system of tunnels. An octagonal column rises up from the bottom of the pit — a measuring stick, so to speak, of the flood levels of the mighty river. Though it is no longer in use, the Nilometer remains an elegant reminder of the past, with an intricate domed ceiling dotted with a series of small windows. Admission was just 15 pounds.
I walked up El-Malek El-Saleh Street, observing the daily life of the city: Kids splashing in the Nile, daring others to jump off a small footbridge; the harsh clang of metal plates that signaled the coming of a tamarind juice peddler (I paid a few pounds for a glass of the tasty but exceedingly sweet nectar). I bought a quick cup of tea and bottle of water (10 pounds total) at a small cafe on the corner of Al Miqyas and Al Malik Al Mozafar with “Bonjorno” scrawled on a green awning before heading back over the river.
Directly east of the Nilometer are a couple of other sites worth checking out, including The Coptic Museum (admission, 60 pounds) across the river. Within you’ll find well-preserved fragments of reliefs and friezes that are centuries old, examples of famous Coptic textiles, and four gospels written in Coptic from the 1200s. Saint Mary’s Church, also known as The Hanging Church, is nearby. The fourth-century house of worship, which was built on top of a fortress constructed by the Roman emperor Trajan, is free to visit.
Getting back to downtown Cairo was easy on the subway. It was a bit of a scrum buying a ticket (4 pounds) but the trip up to Jamal Abdulnasser station took about 20 minutes. Not all attractions are as easily accessible by train, though: From downtown, you’ll want to go by car to the fantastic Saladin Citadel of Cairo (admission, 60 pounds), which I visited one afternoon. The massive fortification, built by Saladin in 1176 to ward off Crusaders, was the seat of Egypt’s government for nearly seven centuries. It contains the Muhammad Ali mosque which, while not the oldest or most historically important mosque in the city (it’s not even 200 years old), is still worth a visit. Its position in the citadel, perched high above the city below, means the views are dazzling.
Getting a handle on the sprawl of Cairo can be difficult, with its pounding dry heat and unforgiving traffic (crossing the street is, shall we say, an adventure). You’ll need food to fuel your exploration. Fortunately, khoshary, an Egyptian specialty with lentils, chickpeas, macaroni, fried onions and a spicy tomato sauce, is a delicious and calorie-laden carbohydrate explosion. Fifteen pounds buys you a generous bowl at Khoshary Abou Tarek, perhaps the best-known khoshary restaurant in the city.
If you’re still hungry, there’s a small shop a few doors down on Marouf Street that sells small ta’ameya (Egyptian falafel) sandwiches for just three pounds. Follow that, perhaps, with a tingly cup of sour sobia (10 pounds) from Sobia El Ramani in the El-Sayeda Zainab area. The viscous, fermented drink, tasting of grain and coconut, was one of the more interesting discoveries of my trip.
Enjoying tea and a hookah filled with fruit-flavored tobacco is a favorite post-meal (or anytime, really) pastime of Cairenes. I was able to get my fill after a hearty meal of grilled lamb at the reasonably priced Ibn Hamido. Afterward, my friend Ibrahim and his wife brought me to a small sidewalk cafe across the street from the El Salam Theater on Kasr El Ainy, just south of Tahrir Square.
Three cups of strong mint tea and two water pipes stuffed with a sticky tobacco-and-molasses mixture ended up costing just 35 pounds. We discussed money, history, religion (Ibrahim and his wife are Coptic) and, of course, politics — From Nasser to Sisi (the current president) and everyone in between. Between plumes of smoke from the hookah, we watched cars race toward downtown and wondered about the future of Cairo — a city that has struggled to find its footing these past six years, but is striving once again to retake its place on the world’s stage.
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