We could not complete a tour around the world without visiting the legendary Great Pyramids of Giza. It's arguably the most extraordinary ancient Wonder of the World, and at over 4,500 years old they are the oldest manmade structures we'll ever encounter in our lifetime.
Similar to Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal, witnessing the Pyramids magnificence up close seemed like an unattainable dream prior to this trip. Arriving in the chaotic city of Cairo had us very excited, knowing that we were only moments away from achieving this life goal.
The only downside to seeing these ancient goliaths is that one must visit Cairo first.
Cairo is hectic. It's loud, obnoxious, polluted and overcrowded. It reminded us of Mumbai, India with its architecture, congested streets and mixture of Western modernization and traditional religious values.
It's not that we dislike Cairo; we just found it hard to actually like Cairo.
It was frustrating walking the streets because the relentless touts were all over us. It was undeniably the worst place we've ever visited for harassment. The problem is that you can't trust anyone in Cairo. Everyone seems to have a hidden agenda; those that don't are so few that it's just not worth the risk, making it very difficult to get to know the true Egyptian culture.
Random men will approach you on the street and ask if you need help. They do so with a booming smile and a "welcome to Egypt". They seem genuine. They seem friendly and charming. Some even carry fake Tourism Authority cards to fool you into thinking they are legit. You feel tempted to oblige and allow them to assist you, but if you do they will later try to extort money from you for doing so. No good deed is free in Egypt!
If you decline and politely say "no thank you", they will stalk you and literally follow you for blocks. They get aggressive and make you feel very uncomfortable. We thought that the pestering was bad in India and SE Asia but nothing compares to Cairo. Unfortunately it leaves visitors with a bad taste in their mouth… but that could also be from the unrelenting exhaust fumes!
Crossing the streets in Cairo is an adventure on its own.
There are no traffic lights and cars seem to pile on top of one another, inching forward trying to squeeze into the tiniest of spaces… it's survival of the fittest, or most aggressive. The process of crossing the street was similar to Vietnam… look for an opening, follow the lead of a local and no matter what… walk slowly and confidently.
The difference was that in Vietnam we were dodging motorcycles and rickshaws; in Cairo we had to dodge cars and trucks that seem to enjoy scaring you. We prefer tiny motorcycles!
Occasionally some intersections will have traffic police blowing a whistle to direct traffic, but mostly you're on your own. The enormous roundabouts have so many exits it's hard to know which direction you're going or where the next wave of vehicles is coming from.
Locals will shout at apprehensive tourists to "walk like an Egyptian", referring to the popular 80's song. It's an intense experience until you get the hang of it!
We spent our first day in Cairo acclimatizing to the new environment.
We stayed at 'The Canadian Hostel' because it was cheap and centrally located (and the name didn't hurt either). However, the only thing Canadian about it was the homemade flag that was prominently displayed behind reception. It was a comfortable hostel and a great place to meet people and swap travel stories; it had been a long time since we met other backpackers.
Most people are aware of the popular Central American, SE Asian, South American and European backpacking trails, but we were quite surprised to see how popular the Middle Eastern circuit is. We've actually met more foreign travelers in Egypt then we did in SE Asia and South America. Who knew?
Our second day was spent in the illustrious Egyptian Museum.
The walk through Egyptian rich history was amazing, unfortunately we couldn't bring our camera into the museum so we have no photos to share. The country has so much history and so many cultural influences from different ruling periods such as the Greeks, Persians and Pharaohs. The museum is literally busting with ancient artifacts, it's enough to make your head spin! Our Lonely Planet guidebook sums it up best - "if you spend only one minute at each exhibit it would take over nine months to see everything".
The museum highlights were clearly the immense collection of tombs and the mummies of pharaohs, queens and royalty (including King Ramses II, III, V and IX). It was a surreal feeling overlooking the preserved bodies of kings that ruled over 3,500 years ago!
The bizarre thing is that the mummies are simply displayed behind a thin glass box. When we were in Arequipa, Peru we saw a mummy that had been retrieved from inside a volcano glacier. It was secured in an air-sealed box with temperature gauges and glass that seemed bulletproof.
It was the complete opposite for these twenty Egyptian mummies; very little display security and no oxygen or temperature controls (at least not visible to the tourist). It seemed very strange, but I assume it's because they are already so well preserved?
Interesting story - the process of mummification was an essential part of the Egyptian funerary process (especially for Pharaohs and royalty). It was important to preserve the body and prevent it from decay so that it would be recognizable on its journey through the afterlife.
The body would be stripped of all its internal organs including the brain (which is said to have been extracted through the nasal cavity). The important organs, except the heart, would be put into four separate canopic jars that would later accompany the mummy inside the sealed tomb. The sacred ritual would take approx 70 days, with the first 40 used to dehydrate and dry out the body. Then it would be wrapped in resin soaked bandages with a variety of sweet smelling aromatics and oils.
An elegant, symbolic death mask would be placed over the head before the mummy was closed into the bejeweled tomb. The decorated casket would often be placed into another larger casket, finally being sealed into a large stone sarcophagus. Many tombs were discovered in deep burial chambers inside the sandstone mountains of Luxor (typically robbed of its jewels and treasures). It's amazing to see that 3,500 years later many bodies are still decipherable!
We went to bed early that night, excited because the following morning we would stand in front of humanity's greatest architectural accomplishments… the Great Pyramids of Giza!
October 15th, 2009