Port Said, Egypt
One of the world's great cosmopolitan cities for well over a thousand years, Cairo is infinite and inexhaustible. Different religions, different cultures-sometimes, it seems, even different eras-coexist amid the jostling crowds and aging monuments gathered here at the start of the Nile delta. But if you come expecting a city frozen in time, you're in for a shock: Cairo's current vitality is as seductive as its rich past. Like so much else in Egypt, Cairo's charm is a product of its history, the physical remains of a thousand years of being conquered and reconquered by different groups. Cairo gradually reveals its treasures, not with pizzazz and bells and whistles, but with a self-assured understatement. On a one-day visit you'll only be able to take in the tip of a vast iceberg of treasures here.
The Egyptian Antiquities Museum. On the north end of Maydan Tahrir, this huge neoclassical building is home to the world's largest collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts. With more than 100,000 items in total, it is said that if you were to spend just one minute on each item, it would take over nine months to complete the tour. Needless to say, you need to be selective here.
Some of the museum's finest pieces are in the center of the ground floor, below the atrium and rotunda. The area makes a good place to start, acting as a preview for the rest of the museum. Among the prized possessions here are three colossi of the legendary New Kingdom pharaoh Ramses II (1290-1224 BC); a limestone statue of Djoser (around 2600 BC), the 2nd Dynasty pharaoh who built the Step Pyramid in Saqqara; several sarcophagi; and a floor from the destroyed palace of Akhenaton (1353-1335 BC), the heretic monotheist king. The Narmer Palette, a piece from about 3000 BC, is thought to document the first unification of northern and southern Egypt.
On the museum's upper floor is the famous Tutankhamun collection. Look for its beautiful gold funerary mask and sarcophagus (Room 3), ancient trumpet (Room 30), thrones (rooms 20 and 25), the four huge gilded boxes that fit one inside the other (exhibits 7 and 8, located in the hallway just outside Room 30), and a royal toilet seat to boot (outside Room 30); it is one of the few air-conditioned rooms in the museum. (The collection is scheduled to be relocated to the new Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza as early as 2010.) Also upstairs is the royal Mummy Room, which houses 11 pharaonic dignitaries, including the body of Ramses II (Room 52). If you are discouraged by the Mummy Room's steep entrance fee, don't miss the assortment of mummified animals and birds in the adjacent room (Room 53), which has no additional charge. Also on the upper floor is a series of specialized exhibits, including a collection of papyri and Middle Kingdom wooden models of daily life (rooms 24 and 27).
In 2003, the museum unveiled Hidden Treasures of the Egyptian Museum, more than 150 of the best objects that form part of the museum's vast stock of artifacts kept in storage. Fittingly, the new galleries sit in the museum basement, where the catalogued items used to lie on dark dusty shelves. In 2009, a permanent Children's Museum was opened and aimed specifically at younger visitors. These galleries combine authentic artifacts with Lego models (donated by the Danish State) to explain aspects of life and customs in ancient Egypt. Children are free to use Lego bricks to construct their own models. al-Mathaf al-Masri, Maydan Tahrir, Downtown. Admission charged.
Giza. The three pyramids of Khufu (Greek name: Cheops), Khafre (Chephren), and Menkaure (Mycerinus) dominate the Giza Plateau. Surrounding the father-son-grandson trio are smaller pyramids belonging to their female dependents, and the mastabas (large, trapezoid-shape tombs) of their courtiers and relatives. The word mastaba comes from the Arabic word for bench, which these tombs resemble in shape, if not in scale, and the mastabas were often painted and/or decorated with reliefs inside, with the actual burial sites placed in shafts cut into the bedrock. The great Sphinx crouches at the eastern edge of the plateau, guarding the necropolis. A museum south of the Great Pyramid contains one of the most extraordinary artifacts from ancient Egypt, Khufu's own royal boat. The pyramids, Sphinx, and some of the mastabas date from the Fourth Dynasty, while other mastabas date to the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties. South of the Sphinx and its adjacent temples, archaeologists have recently found the living and eating areas of the workmen who built the pyramids, as well as the cemeteries where they were buried.
Great Sphinx. Carved from the living rock of the pyramids plateau during the 4th Dynasty, the enigmatic limestone Sphinx is attached Pharaoh Khafre's funerary complex. The figure of a recumbent lion with a man's face wearing a nemes (traditional headdress of the pharaoh) was thought to be Khafre in the guise of Ra-Harakhte, a manifestation of the Sun God. The role of the Sphinx was to guard the vast royal necropolis that incorporated the pyramids and mastabas (large trapezoidal tombs) on the Giza plateau, and it's visited as part of the longer visit incorporating these other monuments at the site. It's possible to get close to the Sphinx along a wide viewing platform that has been built around it, but climbing is forbidden and there's no entry into the small interior chambers (most of the Sphinx, however, is solid rock). Fayyum Rd.. Admission charged.
Pyramid Plateau. Three 4th-Dynasty pyramids dominate the skyline of the desert plateau to the southwest of Cairo. The largest is that of Pharaoh Khufu (Greek name: Cheops) also known as "The Great Pyramid." The second was built by his son Khafre (Greek name: Chephren). The smallest of pyramids was built by Menkaure (Greek name: Mycerinus), the grandson of Khufu who reigned from 2490 to 2472 BC. These are surrounded by smaller pyramids belonging to their respective female dependents, as well as numerous mastabas (large trapezoidal tombs) of their lesser relatives and courtiers. The site is "guarded" by the monumental carved-limestone Sphinx. A small museum in the shadow of Khufu's Pyramid contains the Pharaoh's Royal Solar Boat, by tradition the boat used to transport the Pharaoh on his final journey to the afterlife after his mummy was entombed. The pyramid interiors are open on a rotating basis, and ticket numbers are limited to 150 per morning and another 150 per afternoon. A range of mastabas will be open to view on any given day. The ticket office will give you current information when you buy your ticket. Buses and cars are no longer allowed on the plateau; electric trams link the ticket office with the plateau, from where you'll be able to explore the site on foot. Pyramids Rd.. Admission charged.
Cairo has always been a mercantile and trading town. The hundreds of magnificent mosques and palaces scattered around the city are a testament to Cairo's highly skilled craftspeople. The artisans of Egypt continue this tradition of detailed workmanship, offering a tremendous array of handmade items.
Egyptians specialize in worked brass and copper articles, wood inlay on jewelry boxes and chess sets, and leatherwear. The hookah is also an interesting regional specialty. Egyptian cotton is a byword for quality, and the shops of Cairo are a great place to buy items like bedding and towels. If you want to purchase genuine antiques and antiquities you'll need to have a certificate of approval from the Egyptian authorities to export your purchase, but reproductions are on sale everywhere. These items needn't be expensive: you can buy a lucky alabaster scarab beetle for a few Egyptian pounds-in fact, this small item is almost a compulsory souvenir of your trip to Egypt.
Khan al-Khalili. Cairo shopping starts at this great medieval souk. Although it has been on every tourist's itinerary for centuries, and some of its more visible wares can seem awfully tacky, the Khan is where everyone-newcomer and age-old Cairene alike-goes to find traditional items: jewelry, lamps, spices, clothes, textiles, handicrafts, water pipes, metalwork, you name it. Whatever it is, you can find it somewhere in this skein of alleys or the streets around them. Every Khan veteran has the shops he or she swears by-usually because of the fact (or illusion) she or he is known there personally and is thus less likely to be overcharged. Go, browse, and bargain hard. Once you buy something, don't ask how much it costs at the next shop; you'll be happier that way. Many shops close Sunday. Islamic Cairo North, Cairo.