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Egypt is ancient beyond words. The Pyramids at Giza had stood for more than 2,000 years when the legions of Caesar were just slogging their way through Gaul. Though fragile, countless great monuments of antiquity still bracket the Nile River. You will be awed by them, but you will also be won over by the Egypt of this
millennium. In Cairo, just a cab ride from Giza, the stillness of the desert gives way to urban frenzy, Egyptian style. Love it or not, the city does stir the soul. Up north, Alexandria charms you with echoes of empires past. And in the Western Desert, the Sinai, and under the lapping wavelets of the Red Sea, some of the world’s great natural wonders await you. Come to Egypt to see the Pyramids, of course, but expect a whole lot more. Cairo
Cairo sprawls across space and time. Perhaps 15 million people live here, and nearby are pyramids that went up 4,000 years ago. The scale of it all can overwhelm you – but only at first. For all its epic size, Cairo is a city with a deeply human touch, unique among the megalopolises of the world. Easygoing, gregarious, fatalistic (and funny about it), Cairenes give this city its warmth. It doesn’t hurt that religion is woven tightly into daily life here; many Cairenes pray five times a day. When a muezzin atop the Mosque of Ibn Tulun
summons the faithful in this “city of a thousand minarets,” he draws them to a glorious house of worship with sublime stucco grillwork. Visitors ascend for the same commanding view. Within the Citadel, itself an obligatory stop, the Muhammad ‘Ali Mosque
is a signature landmark, though it’s not nearly the most beautiful mosque within the Citadel’s mighty walls. North of the fortress complex, the fine al-Azhar Mosque
is part of the world’s oldest university, an architectural delight. Scholars had been lecturing at al-Azhar University for centuries when poachers were skulking in forests that would become Oxford and Cambridge. Get your fill of ancient artifacts at the Egyptian Antiquities Museum,
where the mask of King Tutankhamun resides, and, of course, go to Giza
for the Pyramids and the Great Sphinx. You’ll be duly wowed. But to be truly touched, and to truly understand Cairo, go into its cafés and public places and meet the Cairenes. The great market of Khan al-Khalili
is a good place to start. It’s not long on warmth (folks have to make a living here), but even amid the haggling and the hawking, the good nature of Cairo’s people shines through.Alexandria
The British made modern Alexandria possible, or rather necessary, when they bombarded the city to put down a nationalist revolt in 1882. What emerged from the rubble was an international crossroads of the Mediterranean – worldly, rich, decadent, and ostentatious, yet somehow all the more charming for it. Nationalization by Gamal Abdel Nasser took the fun out of that carefree phase 50-odd years ago, and an influx of Egyptian job-seekers has been bloating the population since. But if you know where to look – mainly downtown – you can still catch a whiff of the old colonial city that charmed Lawrence Durrell into writing The Alexandria Quartet. First, though, pay proper homage to the more-ancient levels of the city’s layered history, at the Catacombs of Kom al-Shoqafa,
where those with means sent their loved ones off in style, or at Kom al-Dikka,
the Roman theater, hard by the classic Pastroudis café (not somewhere out in the desert). More-recent sights include the Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi Mosque,
which at first glance might fool you into thinking it’s very old. In fact, it was built in the 1940s. Quite lovely all the same, it’s well worth a respectful visit. Afterward, stroll the Corniche along the harbor front, café-sit, people-watch, dine on first-rate fresh seafood, and soak up the faintly eccentric vibes of Alex, as locals call their town. It grows on you fast.
The Nile Valley and Lake Nasser
The Nile Valley tops most Egyptian travel itineraries, and why not: Astonishing monuments of antiquity cluster here, near the towns of Luxor and Aswan, in what is one of the world’s greatest open-air museums. Gracing the Nile as gems do a chain, these monuments transport you to another time and place. A travel plan is essential: In Cairo you can improvise and still come away fulfilled, but not here – the distances are too great and the offerings too numerous for you to wing it well. With Luxor as a base, a comprehensive visit might take in a trip to Abydos and Seti I’s Temple to Osiris and then turn back, to the temples of Karnak and Luxor and to the Luxor Museum,
a trove of royal statuary treasures. Reconnect with things ancient aboard a felucca in either Luxor or the Nile Valley’s other major touring base, Aswan,
where convoys of the traditional sailing craft ply the river. Even when nothing pharaonic is in view, traditional village life along the Nile banks will captivate you. The magnificent tombs and temples of the Nile Valley will leave you awed, moved, entranced. That is a guarantee carved in stone.