Pyramids aside, Cairo is hardly known as the most appealing holiday destination. Overrun with people (endlessly trying to sell you things), choked with smog and traffic jams, and littered with rubbish, most tourists tend to swoop in for a quick gander around the Giza pyramids and then leave again.
But that’s where you’re making a mistake.
The ‘famous’ pyramids at Giza aren’t even the most remarkable ones – for that you should be heading to Saqqara or Dahshur.
*READ MORE: Why Abu Simbel is the true icon of Egypt
– It’s so much easier to get a guide to see all the sites. You’ll be driven around in a private car, with a knowledgeable Egyptologist, who will tell you things you would never know if you went alone. In short, the signs and tourist information around the place are not exactly plentiful. The going rate for a guide is won’t break the bank, either – about USD$30 ish for one day.
– Tipping is important – what is $2 for you means a lot more to someone else. We tipped our taxi driver 70 EGP for a full day of carting us around, and 100 EGP for our guide. As a general rule, you should tip 10 per cent of what your tour cost – but when it’s literally a few dollars to you, a little more is worth it.
– Jump on a camel at the pyramids at your own peril. The old adage went that it cost $10 to get on a camel, but $50 to get off. That doesn’t really seem to be in play any more – because the touts are really trying to keep the tourists happy to get them to come back. However, it is a slightly tacky experience and you’ll literally be walked in a small circle – primarily for photo opportunities, rather than an intrepid ride over the dunes. You’ll also be asked to tip.
– Be polite to the touts. They aren’t overly pushy, and as soon as you say no most of them will leave you alone. It’s not their fault their way of making money has now all but dried up.
– Remind yourself constantly, “nothing is free”. If you ask a local to take a photo for you, be prepared to tip them. If you want to take photos in a tomb, have your wallet ready. The same can apply for almost anything. But don’t worry, people won’t get aggressive (within reason). If you feel like you’re being extorted, say no and move on.
This is where two of Egypt’s oldest pyramids are, and several that win for their quirky value. Dahshur is only 40km to the south of Cairo, and perhaps the most remarkable details are its surroundings. Five minutes after you’ve been enveloped by lush greenery and palm trees, the sparse desert stretches out before you and lone pyramids appear through the haze.
The two pyramids worth visiting here are:
– Bent Pyramid:
This was the first of the Dahshur Pyramids (built in 2500 BC by King Sneferu) and it’s fairly evident why. It was the first attempt at building a smooth-sided pyramid, rather than the step ones at Saqqara, but was an unsuccessful attempt due to miscalculations by designers. Basically, no-one properly accounted for the weight being placed on the soft ground, which tended to subside, and the blocks used in the pyramid’s building were cut in a way which distributed their weight wrong – causing the angles of the pyramid to be completely out. What was left was a lopsided, misshapen pyramid-ish shape, which is nonetheless pretty great to look a, even in the midst of a restoration project. You will undoubtedly be the only people visiting this lone giant at any given time too, so that’s always a bonus.
Learning from his earlier mistakes, King Sneferu ordered the building of the Red Pyramid – made from red limestone. Second time lucky, this is renowned as one of the most perfectly-angled pyramids, and is believed to be the resting place of the king. You can go inside this one, deep into the tomb and chambers, just make sure you’re not claustrophobic – and you can stand the smell of ammonia. It’s also a whole lot cheaper than what you’ll pay in Giza (entry is free with your ticket).
Interesting fact: Shortly after his death, Sneferu’s son Khufu used his father’s research to build the Great Pyramids of Giza.
Saqqara basically served as the necropolis (large cemetery with elaborate tombs) for the Ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis. It’s also home to the world’s first pyramid – the famed Step Pyramid of Djoser, which is also the oldest complete stone building known to man.
So basically, this is where the world’s oldest pyramids are.
Seventeen Egyptian kings are said to have built pyramids here, but many are in various states of disrepair.
This was the first attempt at building a pyramid, and marked the start of the ‘step-style’, where mastabas (the earliest form of Egyptian tomb; a mud-brick, flat-roofed rectangular structure) in descending sizes were stacked on top of each other. Apparently a done thing is to climb this pyramid, but no-one else was doing it while we were there to lead by example – and we weren’t about to be the first to be ejected from a historical site.
This thing begun construction in 2630 BC – so just think about that one for a minute. It certainly makes coming from a country with a couple hundred year’s of history look a bit lame.
Near the pyramid, there’s a tomb you can enter, which is intricately decorated and excellently preserved – ignoring the collapsed state of the debris it’s located under.
Tip: Ignore anyone that tells you you need to pay extra for entrance to anything within the site. Once you have your ticket, you basically have free rein.
Not to be confused with the city in Tennessee which houses the famed former estate of Elvis Presley, the much more magnificent Memphis was the first capital of Egypt. Though no part of it remains, its ruins are located in the tiny village of Mit Rahina, about 20km south of Giza. While the city experienced rapid urbanisation and was a strategic point of influence due to its position at the mouth of the Nile, its downfall can be credited to Alexander the Great and his eponymous capital of Alexandria.
The ruins of the former capital have been a UNESCO site since 1979 and are preserved as an open-air museum. The museum is the only thing worth seeing here, and while it doesn’t sound like much, it’s worth the $5. Its crowning glory is the 10-metre long statue of Ramesses II that lies in the museum’s main atrium. The statue was discovered submerged in a lake in 1820, and because its base and feet were broken off – its displayed lying on its back. For something that was basically fish food for thousands of years, its incredible how well preserved the carving and colours are.
I’m not going to bore you with the details of what you already know here – the pyramids are the last remainders of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and yes they are pretty bloody amazing.
However, here’s a quick backgrounder – and some tips on how to get the most out of your visit.
A very large, very perfect pyramid, very close to Cairo. The largest of the three big ones in the complex is the actual Great Pyramid of Giza, and was the tallest man-made structure in the world for more than 3,800 years. It’s also said to be the ‘most perfect’ pyramid. Originally, the pyramids were encased in a smooth facade, but these have fallen away over time, so what is seen now is the underlying core structure.The largest Pyramid is the tomb of Pharaoh Khufu, and there are two smaller pyramids for Pharaoh Khufe and Menakaure. Alongside the latter, there are three tiny pyramids.
About 20km from Tahrir Square in Downtown Cairo.
Well, aside from being pretty freaking cool, they’re also the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the only one to remain largely intact. Also, no one quite knows how they were made. Theories abound – but no-one is 100% confident on the mind-blowing process.
Two smaller pyramids, three even smaller pyramids for the Queens (natch), a cemetery, the Solar Boat Museum (extra 80 EGP but SO worth it), a number of mastabas, the Sphinx, and probably a whole lot more we don’t even know about.
There’s a separate entrance to the Sphinx further along along the access road.
120 EGP ($11 NZD).
HOW TO DO IT:
DO visit in the afternoon. It’s probably the opposite of what everyone tells you about visiting famous monuments, due to crowds and pretty sunrises and whatnot, but this is pretty important if you’re planning on, you know, actually seeing the pyramids. It’s super hazy in Cairo in the mornings, so if you head there at 8am to avoid the throngs, you’ll be gazing out at a thick plume of fog – and not much else. Besides, you won’t really be jostling with throngs at any time of the day.
DO be polite but firm with the touts. Remember, it’s not their fault their livelihoods (tourism) has all but dried up, and they’re just desperate to make some money. If you don’t want the plastic figurine they’re shoving in your face, just politely say ‘No thank you’, and move on. Don’t get angry or rude. Better yet, flick them a pound – it’s about 5 cents to you, but a lot more to them.
DO a camel ride if you want, but make sure you negotiate the price BEFORE you jump on. That old adage ‘It costs $10 to ride a camel, but $100 to get off’ is almost certainly false, but these guys will give you a run for your money if you’re not smart.
DO go to the ‘panoramic view area’ to get an amazing, sweeping view of the pyramids. Up close, the view isn’t actually that great, and you’ll constantly be waiting for tour buses to get out of your shots. Plus, the viewpoint is good enough for Hilary Swank, which means it’s good enough for us mere mortals.
DO go to the solar boat museum. It’ll cost you an extra 80 EGP, but it’ll be the best 80 EGP you ever spent. This museum has just one exhibit: the famed solar boat of Cheops, built possibly about 5000 years ago. The boat was discovered in 1224 pieces near the Great Pyramid in 1954, and was painstakingly put back together, piece by piece. The boat is a whopping 44 metres long and 6 metres wide, and was used to carry King Cheop’s body after he had been mummified, to visit other cities along the Nile before he was entombed. Some scientists estimate the wood used to make the boat is 7000 years old, meaning the boat as a whole could be 12,000 years old. And if I ever get to that age, I hope I’m in just as fantastic condition.
DO IT ALL: You simply can’t go past Egypt Tailor Made Tours for a day exploring the wonders of Cairo and its surrounds. Tell them what you want, and they’ll put together a bespoke tour of exactly what you want to see, with a private taxi and knowledgeable Egyptologist. If you can, ask for Laila – her English is perfect and she’ll tell you things about this place you absolutely need to know if you’re visiting these sites. She also makes a pretty handy human shield when it comes to fending off touts.
ALSO IN CAIRO…
HOW TO GET AROUND:
Cheap: Hire a taxi from Cairo. It will barely cost you more than 200 EGP ($20NZD) to get to most of the sites and back. Expect to pay 400 EGP ish for a full day, but the bartering varies so wildly here (dependent on how good you are at it and how the cabbie is feeling) that it could be a little more or a little less. At the end of the day, you’re probably bartering over the equivalent of $4 so just bite the bullet and let the guy bump up the price a bit. It means a lot more to him than it does to you.
Cheaper: Apparently there’s a bus, and several minibuses, that go out in some of the directions of Dahshur, Memphis and Saqqara – but do so at your own peril. Not only is there likely to be a long slog from the bus stop to the site, but good luck getting the right stop when you’ve got no idea what it looks like and your driver doesn’t speak English. For the sake of a couple of extra dollars – take the car.
In theory, a dish involving a medley of carbs that are generally served singularly as an accompaniment to a main dish, rather than all mixed in together, sounds like a dry, bland disaster. And you probably will find koshari across the country that doesn’t exactly pass for a dish you should be paying to sit at a restaurant to eat. But that’s where Abou Tarek. The national dish – usually a mix of lentils, chickpeas, different types of pasta, rice, and some generic crunchy bits – is served up exactly as is, a weird mix of dry carbs. However, alongside it comes a delicious pot of garlicky, tomatoey sauce which is generously lathered on the top. For a weird mix of stuff more commonly seen on a single plate when you forget to go grocery shopping, this is actually pretty good.
Fun fact: you can also get this at Zaroob
Two bowls of Koshari and one can of Pepsi : 47 pounds (NZD$4)
To put it simply, there’s only one place to stay in Cairo and it’s Hotel Longchamps. The indomitable Hebba Bakri runs one of the loveliest boutique hotels we’ve come across in our travels, smack bang in the middle of trendy Zamalek.