It is time we went beyond the pyramids, the Sphinx and the vast deserts of Egypt. I don’t mean to set aside the fabled wonder of the pyramids but once you have experienced their majestic grandeur, treat yourself to the architectural and historical haven that is old Cairo. Famous for its historic churches and its Coptic heritage, the old city brings out the art aficionado in you.
While on my trip there, I saw Abu Serga church, one of the oldest churches in Egypt dating back roughly to the 5th century A.D. According to the Coptic tradition, the church was built on the site where the Holy Family once rested during its journey to Egypt. Another monument that caught my eye was the Hanging Church, named so because it is suspended over the ruins of a Roman fortress.
(Photo: Aditi Pancholi Shroff )
Located next to the hanging church is the Ben Ezra Synagogue that was originally a church and locals believe the shores delivered Moses to the exact place where the synagogue stands today. Miles away from Coptic Cairo is the Citadel of Saladin with Turkish style domes and minarets. In the middle of the Citadel, we saw an imposing mosque with minarets as high as 84 metres, called Alabaster Mosque of Egyptian King Mohammad Ali Pasha. It boasts of an enormous chandelier illuminating the marvellous interiors with 365 oil lamps and is a must-visit place for those looking for some peaceful time in the bustling streets of Cairo.
A trip to Cairo is incomplete without a visit to Khan el Khalili market. It is what Chandni Chowk is to Delhi and is as much about sensory overload as it is about finding a bargain. It is easy to get lost in the maze of narrow alleys filled with aromatic spices, unique souvenirs, while you exchange smiles with the locals and bargain with shopkeepers. Bollywood is well known here and every time I said the word ‘India’ during my stay, it would be followed by mentions of ‘Amitabh Bachchan’, ‘Shah Rukh Khan’, ‘Sholay’ and ‘Basanti’.
(Photo: Aditi Pancholi Shroff )
Alexandria, the second largest city in Egypt, is home to the enormous library Bibliotheca Alexandria — a beautiful granite building that draws students and scholars from all over the world. It boasts of a ‘Rare Books’ section that has a rich collection of over 15,000 books, 700 periodicals and 66,000 books from special collections. Another breathtaking spot is the Citadel of Qaitbay fortress that overlooks the Mediterranean Sea and stands towering over the city.
A major tourist attraction in Egypt are the pristine beaches of Hurghada, a place to let your hair down and indulge in some deep sea diving and snorkelling. It’s crowded with tourists during peak season as many windsurfing enthusiasts throng its beaches. This is one of the few places in Egypt that boasts of an active nightlife. It’s also a haven for shopping enthusiasts as one can choose from the best international brands across categories.
Having given in to retail temptations, you can now move to Aswan and soak in the aura of the Egyptian gods and goddesses. Aswan is home to the temple of Isis, an Egyptian goddess revered as the giver of life and protector of kings. Walking into the temple is an experience you will cherish for life as the massive statues and engravings on the temple walls dwarf you with their beauty and magnificence.
Luxor is another city in Egypt awash with stoic archaeological beauty. Often referred to as to the “world’s greatest open air museum”, the two ruins of the temples of Karnak and Luxor stand tall by the Nile. Everywhere you look is a grand bust of a forgotten pharaoh gazing into the distance. Luxor should feature in your Egyptian itinerary simply because this place actually takes you back in time, to the era of the enigmatic royalty.
If you happen to visit the country in the latter half of October or February, do catch the Abu Simbel light festival. It celebrates Ramses II’s (often regarded as the greatest, and one of the most powerful pharaohs of the Egyptian Empire) preoccupation with creating a temple as homage to himself. The temple has been designed such that twice in a year the inner sanctum is illuminated with the first rays of the sun. And these two days mark Ramses’ birthday and his ascension to the throne.
Egypt is a great, value-for-money option that has something to offer for every member of the family without pulling your bank balance in the red. And at about Rs 8 to one Egyptian pound, the trip will weigh much lighter on your wallet than a trip to Europe.
The trip was organised by Ismail A. Hamid, Egypt Tourism Counsellor, Mumbai...