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  • Writer's pictureCheryl

Cairo, Stepping Stone to the Pyramids of Giza

Updated: Jun 9

Small streams of sand whirl across the runway at Cairo International Airport as our plane lands. A country synonymous with ancient pharaohs and archaeology, if not civilization itself, it’s hard to believe that it’s taken my husband and I half a century of travelling to make it here. It’s piqued our interest for decades, but something always seemed to take precedence. Now, on the cusp of our fiftieth wedding anniversary, we’ve

made it a reality.

We stretch our legs as soon as the pilot switches off the seatbelt sign and without any checked baggage to search for, we’re first in line at Egyptian customs. No paperwork here — paying our $25 USD each for an entry stamp we’re on our way.

But in the present world of travel we need to first buy a local SIM card — always easier to obtain at the airport. Purchase accomplished, we head to the exit encountering a phalanx of men all wanting to to get us a taxi, a room, a tour, or anything else they think we may need. We decline politely and order an Uber. Then the guessing game begins: where’s the pick up point? The website tells me parking lot P5 — but where is that? As often happens a local, this time an Air Egypt pilot, seeing our befuddlement helps us find the correct location.

An Uber driver arrives in a generic white hatchback. But is it ours? The license plate numbers on the Uber app come up as Roman alphabet, but vehicle plates are in Arabic — not something we thought of when planning our trip. 

Not knowing one car make from another we peer at the front for the identifying label. I also ask for the driver’s name to ensure it matches — it does — an effective strategy that later comes in handy on the streets of Cairo where the multitude of cars makes it impossible to differentiate and drivers sometimes masquerade as Uber. 

An oasis like boulevard lined with rose filled gardens takes us toward the city centre, a twenty-two kilometre journey from the airport. As we get closer to Cairo’s gritty core the roses give way to weeds and commercial chaos. But we will soon discover a charming city redolent of history. Surrounded by the Sahara Desert, Cairo, one of the world’s oldest Islamic cities has thrived on the banks of the Nile for more than millennia, relying on the world’s longest river for food, commerce and transportation to this day.

We soon come to a standstill, moving only intermittently — every car in this seething metropolis of twenty-two million people seems to be on the road. Traffic lights coated in layers of dust and grime don’t work and officials directing traffic are rare. But there are rules in this traffic madness, although we can’t fathom them. The honking is incessant but we don’t see any outbursts of anger — our driver remains nonchalant.

Most traffic lights appear to have been non-functional for quite some time. Photo: Noel Van Raes

An hour later we’re dropped off on a busy street, our driver pointing vaguely in the direction of what we assume is the location of our hotel. But we can’t find it in the schmozzle of buildings and signs. I head one direction, Noel the other. “I see it.” I shout over the noise of the traffic. We take note it is on the seventh floor.

Large doors lead us into a cool cavernous entrance, an elevator straight ahead. But despite multiple attempts we can’t get it to function — only later do we find out we need a FOB for its operation. There's no choice but to climb the steps with our packs — all seven floors of them — steps that haven't seen soap, water, or even a broom for what looks like decades. We wonder what our room will be like.

Not surprisingly it looked much better on the booking website. It’s clean but very tiny — no place but the floor to put our packs. We’re careful not to trip over them as we settle in. The bathroom squeezed into a corner is obviously an afterthought. It’s a quick shower or water runs out the raised floor into the room, but at least there’s hot water. There is a saving grace though — a large lovely terrace on the eighth floor where breakfast is served and large comfy floor cushions along with a selection of cold drinks encourage hanging out and enjoying the cooling breeze. 

The terrace gave us a relaxing spot to escape the heat and noise of Cairo.

Peering over the edge, the view is, well, interesting. A hodgepodge of buildings fills every space. During the revolution in 2011 investors took advantage of the chaos to build as many buildings as possible while bypassing all regulations. Unsafe, unsturdy buildings, some unfinished appeared alongside aging structures. Garbage, assorted debris and forgotten building materials lay helter-skelter on the roof tops looking like some sort of bomb has exploded.  

Buildings are squeezed in haphazardly. Photo: Noel Van Raes

Even though Cairo is prone to earthquakes, the Egyptian government has no plans to raze these perilous properties. Economic hard times and a housing shortage combined with corruption leave many citizens vulnerable.

The elevator in our building turns out to be an experience in itself — there’s only room for two, but most concerning there’s no safety door on any floor giving a clear view of those waiting as we pass by. Piped in Arabic music give us the feeling of being on a ride at a fair.

Location is always a prime priority when booking a room. Our current hotel located in the very heart of historic Cairo is only a short walk from The Egyptian Museum where we spend an entire afternoon perusing the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities in the world, including colossal figures and mummies. Information, now barely legible, is printed on crumpled, yellowed pieces of paper presumably placed with the artifacts in 1901 when the museum opened.

The Egyptian Museum. Photo: Noel Van Raes

Only the head remains of this statue.
Statue of a pharaoh. Photo: Noel Van Raes
Mummy of a child.
This fancy sarcophagus was likely a prominent individual.
Over 600 sarcophagus are stored at the museum with only a small number on display.
The museum houses many mammoth statues. Photo: Noel Van Raes
Egyptians believed cats were magical creatures bringing good luck.

A new Grand Egyptian Museum is under construction to better house and display the plethora of objects. Begun twenty years ago with promises of opening by 2021, the road to this promise has been fraught with problems. Although what we saw was stunning, only a very small portion of the planned 5.2 million square feet is finished. 

A row of blue ankhs, symbols of life, are one of the few displays set up in the Grand Hall.

But of course what we’re most excited to see are the Pyramids of Giza. Located on the outskirts of Cairo they are a sight that has inspired our imaginations since childhood. Our Uber arrives quickly and we’re excited to be on our way, anticipation building as we get closer and catch a glimpse of them through the window.

We’re almost there when our driver suddenly stops and in almost incoherent English mutters something about his friend and a store. He beckons us inside what appears to be a perfume shop. Is he trying to sell us perfume? Nope — something else entirely. A handsome middle-aged Egyptian man greets us, immediately extolling the virtues of a camel ride. “You’re old. It’s hot. It’s too far to walk. A camel is much better to go around the pyramids.”

We make it very clear that we don’t want a camel, and insist that our driver take us to the entrance of the pyramids immediately.

We’d hoped to sidestep this hard sell by avoiding taxis — we’re no match for the drivers’ finely honed bargaining skills. Unfortunately, drivers for ride sharing apps have discovered they can misuse them to rope unsuspecting foreigners into purchasing goods or services for which they receive a commission. We revert to taxis after this encounter.

And there they are — The Pyramids of Giza — the stuff of our dreams. The mythical sphinx appears to guard them as they rise majestically above the barren desert. I almost have to pinch myself that I'm here. Absolutely nothing can prepare you for their colossal size in real life. Standing at an original height of 146.6 metres, the 4500 year old Great Pyramid of Giza is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. 

We're blown away by the sights unfolding before us as we trek up to the pyramids..

Great Sphinx of Giza--a mythical creature with the head of a human and the body of a lion. Photo: Noel Van Raes

A salesmen looks for customers wanting a camel ride. Photo: Noel Van Raes

Enraptured by the sight in front of us, we begin the upward trek, constantly refusing the barrage of sales pitches from an endless line of salesmen. “Do you want a camel ride? A horse ride? How about a carriage ride? Maybe a photo of you and your husband with my camel?”

A persistent salesman, his sales pitch well honed, follows me in an attempt to convince me to purchase a ride on his camel. Photo: Noel Van Raes

But the offers don’t stop there. Later in the day while roaming the site a guard surreptitiously offers us entrance inside a closed off pyramid — for a small amount of Baksheesh, (tip).

For lunch we sit on ancient steps beside a pyramid and gaze at the spectacular sight spread out before us as we gorge of Om Ali, an Arabic style bread pudding and national dessert of Egypt. A steady stream of camels lumber by, their pacing gait swaying the tourists atop.

For many tourists riding a camel is a highlight. Having ridden camels previously on longer treks we decline.

Until it was banned several decades ago, you could climb the pyramids. In 2019 a new law was passed criminalizing any unauthorized climbs on the pyramids and instituting heavy fines and/or imprisonment. Guards keep busy blowing whistles and gesturing for law breaking tourists to get off the ancient monuments.

Being on our own, we spend the entire day wandering the site in awe and contemplating the ancient civilization that gave birth to these monuments.

It all boggles our minds. How did they transport heavy stones across a hot desert? How with so little technology did they construct the pyramids? Several theories have evolved over the years. Physicists propose that the stones were put on sledges and the sand moistened under them reducing the amount of friction, making it easier to move. Some theorists suggest that a simple machine using levers and counterweights was used to elevate the blocks. Despite the theories it is still almost impossible to imagine the lifting into place of these stones, each averaging 2.5 metric tons.  

Back in Cairo our hotel owner recommends a restaurant close to our room. Like many small restaurants competing for space in this crowded city it has no choice but to spill out onto the road in front — adding to the maze of Cairo’s streets. We try the national dish — koshari — a delicious mix of pasta, vermicelli, fried rice, and brown lentils covered in a spicy tomato sauce and vinegar topped with crispy onions and chickpeas.

This restaurant put their own spin on koshari. Meals are always accompanied with tea, Egypt's national drink.

As the friendly waiters engage us with their limited English, our still boggled minds swirl with memories and images of our unforgettable day.

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