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Jun 9, 2010 - Cairo    1 Comment

Sultan Hassan Mosque (Cairo, Egypt)

Hours of Operation: Open daily, 0800 – 1700 (October – May), 0800 – 1800 (June – September)

Admission: 25 LE

Get There: The Sultan Hassan Mosque is closest to the Ataba Metro station.  Taxis are also available to transport you to the mosque.

The Sultan Hassan Mosque is considered stylistically the most compact and unified of all Cairo monuments. It is one of the masterpieces of Mamluk architecture. The building was commissioned by Sultan Hassan bin Al-Nasir Muhammad bin Qalawun in 1356 AD as a mosque and religious school for all four juristic branches of Sunni Islam. It was designed so that each of the four schools of thought – Shafi, Maliki, Hanafi and Hanbali – has its own area while sharing the mosque.

Jun 9, 2010 - Cairo    5 Comments

The Fortress of Babylon (Cairo, Egypt)

Get There: Take the metro to Mar Girgis station – the fortress is located in front of the station entrance.

Babylon Fortress was an ancient fortress city or castle in the Delta of Egypt – the largest fortress ever built by the Romans -  located at Babylon in the area today known as Coptic Cairo. It was at the boundary between Lower and Middle Egypt, where the river craft paid tolls when ascending or descending the Nile.

The Fort of Babylon contains several of the Copts’ oldest churches , which are built into or on its walls. These include El-Muallaqa (the Hanging Church) and the Greek Church of St. George.  A number of other Coptic churches are nearby. The area is called Old, or Coptic Cairo (Masr el Atika), for this is indeed the oldest part of the city, and the remains of the fort are Cairo proper’s oldest original structure. Indeed, Cairo owes its existence to this fort.

The Hanging Church

The Hanging Church, built in 690, is situated on two bastions of the Roman fortress and its nave is suspended over a passageway.  The church is free to enter and open daily from 0900 – 1600 (except during services).

The Greek Church of St. George

The Church of St. George dates to the 10th century or earlier. However, the current structure on the site was built in the early 20th century, having been rebuilt after a 1904 fire. The Church is open to the public daily from 0900 – 1700, however the monastery is not open to the public.

Jun 8, 2010 - Cairo    1 Comment

Sayyidna al-Hussein Mosque (Cairo, Egypt)

The Sayyidna al-Hussein Mosque is not open to non-Muslims, but it remains a site to be admired by any visitor to Egypt – albeit from the outside.

Get There: Ataba station is the closest metro stop to Sayyidna al-Hussein Mosque.  Taxis are also readily available.

The mosque, considered to be one of the holiest Islamic sites in Cairo, was built on the cemetery of the Fatimid caliphs, a fact that was later discovered during the excavation. The mausoleum (dating back to 1154) is the oldest part of the complex. The Mosque houses some very sacred items, including the oldest believed complete manuscript of the Quran and the shrine in which the head of Ibn al-Hussein, the grandson of Muhammed the Prophet, is alleged to be have been buried.

Travel Tip

The square just before the entrance to the mosque is one of the most convenient entrance points to the Khan El-Khalili.

Jun 8, 2010 - Cairo    1 Comment

Al Azhar (Cairo, Egypt)

Hours of Operation: Open daily

Admission: Free

Get There: Al-Azhar can be easily reached via the metro (exit at Ataba station) or taxi.

Al-Azhar is one of Cairo’s oldest mosques and the world’s oldest operating university.  Founded in 970~972 as a madrasa, it is now the chief centre of Arabic literature and Sunni Islamic learning in the world and the second oldest degree-granting university in Egypt after the Cairo University. (Though its establishment date may be considered 1961 when non-religious subjects were added to its curriculum.)

Al Azhar University is associated with Al-Azhar Mosque in Islamic Cairo. The university’s mission includes the propagation of Islamic religion and culture. To this end, its Islamic scholars render edicts on disputes submitted to them from all over the Sunni Islamic world regarding proper conduct for Muslim individuals or societies.

Jun 8, 2010 - Cairo    2 Comments

Khan El-Khalili Bazaar (Cairo, Egypt)

Hours of Operation: Open daily.

Admission: Free to get in – how much you spend on Egyptian souvenirs is up to you!

Get There: The bazaar can be reached quite easily by taking the metro to Ataba station, and then a quick walk along Al-Muski street to the entrance of Khan El-Khalili. The bazaar is located off Hussein Square (across from Al Azhar Mosque). Like many places in Cairo, taxis are also readily available to bring you to your destination.

The Khan El-Khalili Bazaar is the most visited tourist market in Egypt. Almost any kind of souvenir can be bought here, but high quality items can also be found.  Venture out of the tourist market and you’ll find bustling local trade, including: Islamic clothes, scarves, belly-dancing equipment, furniture, water-pipes and of course gold, silver and jewels.  Haggling is the rule of the day, and merchants used to tourists often state very high prices at first. Be prepared to bargain!

Be Aware

Khan el-Khalili is infamous for its pickpockets. Stay on your guard in crowds, and don’t keep your money or travel documents in your pockets.

Jun 8, 2010 - Cairo    2 Comments

A Great Day Trip from Cairo – The Saqqara Necropolis and Step Pyramid of Zoser, The Memphis Open Air Museum & The Dahshur Necropolis

Phew! That’s a long title for a blog post.  But really, you can see all 3 sites in one day and they are truly worth checking out.  Hire a taxi for approximately 200 LE for the day, and escape the bustling streets of Cairo for a less crowded look at Egyptian history.

The Saqqara Necropolis and Step Pyramid of Djoser (Zoser)

Hours of Operation: 0800 – 1600, daily

Admission: 60 LE (or 30LE with valid student ID)

Saqqara is a vast, ancient burial ground in Egypt, serving as the necropolis for the Ancient Egyptian capital, Memphis. Saqqara features numerous pyramids, including the world famous Step pyramid of Djoser, sometimes referred to as the Step Tomb due to its rectangular base, as well as a number of mastabas. Located some 30 km south of modern-day Cairo, Saqqara covers an area of around 7 km by 1.5 km.

At Saqqara, the oldest complete hewn-stone building complex known in history was built: Djoser’s step pyramid, built during the third dynasty. 16 other Egyptian kings have built pyramids at Saqqara, which are now in various states of preservation or dilapidation. High officials have added private funeral monuments to this necropolis during the entire pharaonic period. It remained an important complex for non-royal burials and cult ceremonies for more than 3,000 years, well into Ptolemaic and Roman times.

The Memphis Open Air Museum

Hours of Operation: 0800 – 1700, daily

Admission: 35 LE

According to legend related by Manetho, the city was founded by the pharaoh Menes around 3000 BCE. Capital of Egypt during the Old Kingdom, it remained an important city throughout ancient Mediterranean history. It occupied a strategic position at the mouth of the Nile delta, and was home to feverish activity. Its principal port, Peru-nefer, harboured a high density of workshops, factories, and warehouses that distributed food and merchandise throughout the ancient kingdom. During its golden age, Memphis thrived as a regional centre for commerce, trade, and religion.

The ruins of the former capital today offer fragmented evidence of its magnificent past. They have been preserved, along with the pyramid complex at Giza, as a World Heritage Site since 1979. The site is open to the public as an open-air museum.  The museum has many Ancient Egyptian statues on display, the most notable one being the 10m (33ft) Colossus of Ramesses II, which is held in a small indoor building on the site.

Dahshur Necropolis (The Bent Pyramid)

Hours of Operation: 0800 – 1700, daily

Admission: 30 LE

Dahshur is a royal necropolis located in the desert on the west bank of the Nile approximately 40 kilometres south of Cairo. It is known chiefly for several pyramids, two of which are among the oldest, largest and best preserved in Egypt. The site is best known as a more tranquil (if also more isolated) location in which to visit several very large pyramids – at least, when compared to Giza and Saqqara. Visitor numbers are much smaller, queues are way shorter and there is far less hassle.

Jun 5, 2010 - Cairo    3 Comments

The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities (Cairo, Egypt)

An extensive building and massive collection of Egyptian antiquities, the Museum (also commonly referred to as the ‘Cairo Museum’ or, ‘The Egyptian Museum’) is truly a destination in its own right, with at least 136,000 items on display; hundreds of thousands of additional items languish in the museum’s basement storerooms and are added to each year with ongoing excavation and discovery.

Hours of Operation: The museum is open daily from 0900 – 1700.

Admission: 60 LE (or 30 LE with a student card).  This does not include admission to see the Royal Mummies – additional tickets must be purchased to enter the exhibit.  A ticket to view the Royal Mummies costs 100 LE (50 LE if you’re a student with a valid student ID).

Get There: The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities can be reached easily via Sadat Metro station in Midan Tahrir.  Actually, probably one of the easiest ways to negotiate the busy Tahrir Square area is to use the interconnecting underground pedestrian tunnels linking the Metro station with various points in and around the Square. This can save a great deal of time and prevent much negotiation of crazy traffic and the ongoing remodeling of the Square itself.

Of course, taxis are readily available to transport you to the Egyptian Museum.

TheRoyal Mummies

If you choose to pay the extra 100 LE (50 LE for students) to see the mummies, it’s important to note there is 2 rooms you can enter using same ticket.  Don’t miss one of them!  Many of the Pharaohs of the New Kingdom period and later are displayed here in the Royal Mummy Hall, which is at the corner of the first floor lobby. There are mummies of eleven kings and queens that are kept in temperature and pressure controlled glass cabinets on display. Unfortunately, some Mummies are not even identified by the name or the period to which they belong to and other chronological information.

Jun 4, 2010 - Cairo    1 Comment

The Citadel (Cairo, Egypt)

The Citadel in Cairo is a grand castle built by Salah Al-Din, which is famous for it’s great views of the city (as far as the Pyramids of Giza).

A Kurdish Muslim who became the first Ayyubid of Egypt and Syria, Salah Al-Din’s chivalrous behavior was noted by Christian chroniclers.  Despite being the nemesis of the Crusaders, he won the respect of many of them, including Richard the Lionheart.

Hours of Operation: The Citadel is open daily from 0800 – 1700. (Mosques are closed on Fridays for prayer.)

Admission: 50 LE (25 LE with valid student ID).

Get There: The Citadel is located closest to the Ataba metro stop.  Or, grab a taxi to drive you to this exquisite site.

Jun 3, 2010 - Cairo    No Comments

Giza – The Great Pyramids

One of the premier attractions of Egypt, if not the world, the Pyramids of Giza represent the archetypal pyramid structures of ancient Egyptian civilization and – together with the Sphinx at the base of the Giza plateau – are the iconic image of Egypt.

Hours of Operation: The site is open daily from 0700 – 1900.

Admission: 60 LE (30 LE if you’re a student) will get you entrance to the Giza Plateau. If you’d like to venture inside one of the main pyramids during the trip, it costs extra.  (Not to worry though, we have that information for you as well – see below.)

Money Saving Tip: If you don’t want to pay the additional entrance fee to see the interior of the pyramids but still want the experience of being inside one, take a visit to the Tomb of Seshemnufer IV at the Eastern side of the Great Pyramid.  (Admission is included in the entrance ticket to the Giza Plateau.) You will be able to descend to the sarcophagus, giving you an idea of what the interior of a traditional Egyptian Pyramid looks like. Since it’s not one of the main attractions, there are also fewer tourists.  Take your time looking around.

Get There: Most people will tell you that a taxi is the best way to get around Egypt.  It’s true that taxis are readily available and safe.  A taxi  from downtown Cairo to the pyramids should cost about 25 LE (add 5 – 7 LE if you’re driving late at night).  When taking a taxi in Egypt be clear about exactly what you want to see (i.e. Only the antiquities and not their friend’s shop) and ensure you have the exact amount for the fare.  Many drivers will not give change.

For the more adventurous, the pyramids can be reached using Egyptian public transportation.  If you’re using the metro, exit at Giza Train Station (not the terminus) and take the bus for ‘Al-Haram.’  Be sure to make a sign for the pyramids with your hands before boarding to ensure the bus is actually going to the pyramids themselves, and not just the district of Haram, which would leave you with a long walk to the Giza Plateau.  This journey should cost you approximately 3 LE one way.

Buses heading to the Pyramids can also be found behind the Egyptian Museum in downtown Cairo (Midan Tahrir).  Note that there are actually two bus stations – the main bus station for city buses and the micro-bus station behind it.  Catch a seat on a micro-bus heading to Al Haram for approximately 2 LE.  Again, it would be wise to check with the driver before boarding that they intend to visit the pyramids, rather than the district.

Take a Look Inside the Pyramids (at an additional cost) – Open 0830 – 1400, daily

Visitors may venture inside the pyramids for an additional fee.  There are 3 at the Giza Plateau, though not all of them are equally accessible for interior exploration.  The Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities have been known to close them to the public (generally one at a time) for conservation and/or renovation.

The Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) – Also known as “The Great Pyramid” this last surviving wonder of the ancient world once stood 146 m (479 ft) high.  Now slightly reduced to a still awe-inspiring 137 m (449 ft), the pyramid was created using over 2 million blocks of stone and all manual labour.  It is believed that the pyramid was constructed over a 20-year period, ending around 2560 BC.  The Great Pyramid was the tallest man-made structure in the world for over 3,800 years.  A ticket to go inside costs 100 LE (50 LE with a student card).

The Pyramid of Khafre (Chephren) -The second largest of the Pyramids of Giza and the tomb of the fourth-dynasty Pharoah Khafre.  However, because the pyramid sits of bedrock 10 m (33 ft) higher than Khufu’s pyramid, it appears to be taller.  The cost to enter the Pyramid of Khafre is 30 LE (or 15 LE with a student card).

The Pyramid of Menkaure – The smallest of the three Pyramids of Giza, this pyramid was built to serve as the tomb of the fourth-dynasty Pharoah Menkaure, who was allegedly a much more benevolent Pharoah than his predecessors.  Venture into the pyramid for 25 LE (concessions available for students).

Additional Tourist Tips

Arrive Early – It is wise to arrive at the pyramids the moment they open, as your bus activity and the heat quickly make the attractions overrun and difficult to enjoy.

Keep Your Ticket – Do not give up your ticket to anyone outside of the gate checkpoints.  You will need to show it to enter through the metal detectors at the entrance to the Pyramids area, Sphinx area and to enter a pyramid should you choose to pay for that ticket.  There are many folks who will walk up and claim to work for the government and ask to see the ticket, then try and take it to start a tour for you.  They will explain things at a fast pace, and then go on to demand a tip.  Do not give up your ticket and do not be afraid to stand up for yourself and refuse tip. If you want a tour, better ones can be booked in advance and will offer more accurate details of what you are seeing.  Note: A favorite place for them to lurk is beside the tombs outside the Great Pyramid.

Do Not Climb on the Pyramids – Climbing the pyramids is forbidden and dangerous – tourists have fallen to their death attempting to do so.

Use Common Sense – Be prepared for all manner of potential scams including “advice” from official-looking individuals that an attraction is closed or has an alternate entrance.  Also be aware that any “favour” of any kind (offering directions, being shown something, etc) is done in expectation of a tip, so do not accept unsolicited help for locals.

Jun 3, 2010 - Egypt    1 Comment

Cairo, Egypt

Cairo is the capital of Egypt, and one of the largest cities in both Africa and the Middle East with a population of over 16 million.  Best known for its history, various tourist sites can be found amongst the districts of the now sprawling city.  To help you better plan your trip, we’ve outlined a few of them below!

Islamic City

Islamic Cairo is not more or less Islamic than the rest of the city, but it’s the area of the city which holds the most, the greatest and the most famous Islamic monuments.  A huge, bustling center of worship, trade, shopping and commuting – it’s a must-see for any visitors and deserves at least a couple of days exploring.  Attractions include: The Citadel, Khan El Khalili, Sayyidna al-Hussein Mosque, Al Azhar, Sultan Hassan Mosque, and the Gayer-Anderson Museum.

Downtown Cairo

Downtown Cairo is the commercial heart of the modern city of Cairo.  Although lacking in obvious tourist “attractions”, Downtown is nonetheless the convenient location of many smaller hotels, retail outlets, travel agencies and restaurants that would be of interest to the traveler.  The district’s central location makes it, together with Midan Tahrir, a natural “jumping off point” for exploration of the city. While you’re there, be sure to visit the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities for a look at hundreds of thousands of  priceless Egyptian artifacts – including the Royal Mummies.

The Old City (Coptic Cairo)

Old Cairo is the home of Cairo’s Coptic Christian community. The Coptic Orthodox Church traces its founding to Saint Mark the Apostle in 42 AD, and is thus arguably the world’s oldest Christian denomination. While the majority of Egyptians converted to Islam in the 12th century, the Church has survived through centuries of persecution, not only from hostile Muslim rulers such as the Fatimids, but also at the hands of the Crusaders, who viewed the Coptics as heretics. Today, Egypt has some 12 million Copts, but the narrow alleyways of Old Cairo still have the feel of an island set apart from the rest of the city.  Visit The Roman Fortress of Babylon, Ben Ezra Synagogue, Saints Serguis and Bacchus Church and the Coptic Museum for a look into Cairo’s intriguing past.

The Pyramids

Of course, no trip to Cairo is complete without a visit to the Pyramids.  The Pyramids of Giza are a short drive west of the heart of Cairo, with the Step Pyramid of Djoser on the Saqqara Necropolis, or the Bent Pyramid at Dhashur just 30 km outside of the bustling city.

Getting Around

Cairo is home to a modern metro system, which is fairly good at getting you where you need to go – especially when you consider that departures are frequent and a ticket costs just 1 LE.  Trains run from 0600 until just after midnight.  Don’t be put off when trying to get to the ticket window to purchase a ticket.  Egyptians do not understand the concept of queuing, so be prepared to assertively navigate your way through the crowed to the ticket booth.

The city also has two different buses with extensive routes that also provide an affordable means of transport around Cairo.  The large red, white and blue public buses cover the entire city and are much cheaper, but are usually crowded. However, there are the similar air-conditioned buses that charge 2 LE for the trip and prohibit standing on the bus. They can be found in the main squares in Cairo. Also found in main squares are the smaller mini-buses that are usually orange and white or red, white and blue. Because of problems with sexual harassment women travelers are advised only to take the small micro-buses and buses which prohibit standing.

Taxis are a convenient means of transportation and are readily available in Cairo.  However, the meter is not normally used (any Cairene knows how much the driver expects depending on time and distance spent in the car) and communication can be an issue.  As a tourist, you may prefer to state a price before getting into the cab.  This may prevent rip-offs but know that by doing so you may need to quite a price slightly higher than the local rate to get a quick nod.  In addition, it’s best to ensure you have the exact amount for the fare when using a taxi, as taxi drivers tend to dislike giving change.

Sample taxi prices

- Short trips within one area – LE5

- Downtown to Midan Hussein – LE7

- Downtown to Pyramids – LE25

- Downtown or Zamalek to Airport – LE40

Never continue traveling in any vehicle which you deem to be unsafe or the driver to be driving recklessly, specially in the dark on unlit roads, or in single track highways where overtaking is dangerous. If you fell unsafe simply tell the driver to slow down, if he does not do this immediately ask him to stop and simply get out and walk away.

Be Safe

You can walk around the main streets anytime you feel like roaming. It’s fairly safe and you will always find lots of people around smiling and offering to help. The biggest danger you’ll likely face in Cairo is trying to cross the street – traffic lights are generally disregarded, so pay extra attention and cross when there is a small break in traffic.

Women alone can expect to be the target of an excessive amount of catcalling, but it rarely, if ever, goes beyond that. You should bear in mind that around the more touristy locations there is an abundance of ‘helpful’ people, but be careful who you go with and under no circumstance let anyone push or guide you anywhere you don’t want to go! If you get lost look for the security and police officers. Many speak a little English, and most know their local area very well, as well as the tourist spots.

Additional Tips for Travelers

When traveling to Egypt, it’s best for both men and women to wear modest clothing.  With the exception of beaches or hotels, it is considered disrespectful to walk around with bare knees, shoulders, backs or cleavage showing and will likely make you a victim of unwanted attention and stares.

Don’t walk into a mosque with shoes on, and avoid walking in front of persons in prayer.  It is however quite acceptable for visitors or Christian Egyptians , to carry on as normal in the streets or shops during the prayer time.

Student Travelers – bring your student card! Cairo generally cuts admission costs to historical sites (including the Pyramids and the Egyptian Museum) by 50% for students with valid student ID.

As with elsewhere in Egypt, be careful with what you eat and drink in Cairo to avoid an upset stomach.  Drink only bottled water (say ‘no thanks’ to ice in drinks) and avoid eating raw leafy vegetables, egg-based dressings or minced meat.