They're still digging up treasures in Egypt, says Dr. Zahi Hawass, chief of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities and a modern-day Indiana Jones of sorts, describing his current searches in Alexandria for the burial sites of Cleopatra and Marc Anthony and the unearthing of a small statue of Aphrodite there. A few days later, he announced to the world the discovery of yet another pyramid of an ancient queen at Saqqara (one of Frommer's Top Destinations for 2009), near the ancient capital of Memphis, just south of the Great Pyramid of Khufu. And, while visiting the Valley of the Kings in Upper Egypt, I saw dozens of men digging at yet another site believed to be an undiscovered tomb there.
All this excavation brings in over 11 million tourists a year, making hospitality one of Egypt's largest industries. And results of this digging are what you come to see, despite the trappings of Cairo as a modern metropolis (20 million by day, including 3 million commuters), headlines about wife swapping, air pollution (worst in October and November), and press freedom (or lack thereof).
Head first for the Giza Plateau, where your targets are the Great Pyramid of Cheops (Khufu), the enigmatic Sphinx and the lesser pyramids adjacent. The Great Pyramid, built around 2560 BCE, is the only one of the classic Seven Wonders of the Ancient World to still exist. The Sphinx dates from around the same time. If you can manage it, attend the sound and light show here. Dr. Hawass, by the way, says he believes there is "something interesting" under the Sphinx's right paw in a tunnel yet to be excavated. Be sure to see, also, the Solar Boat Museum here, with its carefully reconstructed river barge, said to be the world's oldest boat, about 4,500 years old.
The Egyptian Museum is considerably improved over the near-wreck I encountered 25 years ago on my first visit, and for the most part is adequately lit, clean and well organized. The highlights here are the treasures uncovered from the tomb of King Tut, a few of which seem to be constantly on loan to exhibits around the world. Everyone admires the golden funerary mask of Tut, but I also marveled at his thrones, full-sized copies of which you can buy in some Cairo markets. If you want to see a dozen mummies laid out in the dimly lit Royal Mummies Hall, you have to pay an extra 100 Egyptian pounds (about $17). Within a few years, Dr. Hawass says, there will be a new, bigger, Egyptian Museum with many more of its now-sequestered treasures on display. Knowing Egyptian bureaucracy, my local contacts advise, don't hold your breath waiting, however. Midan El Tahrir, tel. 011/20 202 579-6948, www.egyptianmuseum.gov (last updated May 2003 at time of writing).
The Citadel of Salah El-Din and the Mohammed Ali Mosque inside its walls are an imposing sight, the fortress itself dating back to 1176 ,the mosque being a fairly recent addition, however, dating from 1830. The Mosque is an intentional, smaller, version of the famed Blue Mosque in Istanbul. An amusing oddity is the clock in the courtyard, a gift from Louis-Philippe of France in 1846 in a tardy exchange for the obelisk of Ramses II from Luxor, which has stood in the Place de la Concorde in Paris since about 1831.
Check out Old Coptic Cairo, in which you must see the so-called Hanging Church or Suspended Church, as its nave is suspended over an old Roman gate. It probably dates back to 690, though an earlier church building may have existed here dating back as early as the third or fourth centuries. Also here is the 4th-century Abou Serga (Saint Sergius) Church, the latter on the spot in the old Roman Fortress of Babylon (c. 545 BCE), where legend says the Holy Family rested on their flight into Egypt. Finally, check out the Ben Ezra synagogue, now a monument and not used as a house of worship any longer. Erected either in the 6th or 9th century, the beautifully preserved site includes a library of Jewish heritage, opened in 1997. If you have time, visit also the nearby Coptic Museum, which, like the old churches and synagogue here, is controlled by the Antiquities Department.
The Khan El Khalily Bazaar was originally a place to buy Turkish goods, but is now mostly for tourists, even if locals come here to buy antiques, jewelry and brass items, I was told, though the Kasbah (or Qasabah) itself may be best for the latter.
Located on the west bank of the Nile is the sumptuous Sofitel Cairo El Gezirah Hotel, a 26-story tower with 433 rooms, each with private balcony and the amenities you would expect in a 5-star establishment. It's less than a mile to the Egyptian Museum, ten miles to the pyramids and about 12 miles to the airport. There are 8 restaurants and bars, business center, bank, spa and more. This year it was named "the finest new hotel in Egypt" by the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences, though it isn't really new, being a beautifully done reworking of the former Sheraton Hotel. Rates on its website run from about 264 Egyptian Pounds (about $47). 3 El Tharwa Council St. Omalek, tel. 011/20 202-2737-3737, www.sofitel.com.
The gorgeous Fairmont Heliopolis Hotel has the advantage of being only ten minutes from the Cairo Airport, but the disadvantage is that it is nearly an hour from the center of Cairo in heavy traffic. Luxury and good service, as you expect from this prestigious Canadian chain. Website room rates from $165. Oruba Street, Heliopolis, tel. 011/20 202-290-2027, www.fairmont.com.
If you want to escape the frenzy of modern Cairo, consider staying at the marvelous Oberoi Mena House Hotel, as close as you can get to the Pyramids themselves. With a fantastic history of its own (from 1869), this is a destination unto itself, complete with restaurants, shops, balconies with views of the Pyramids, and more. Rooms for two persons from 150 Euros, about $188, according to its website. Pyramids Road, Giza, tel. 011/202-3377-3222, www.oberoimenahouse.com.
Note: An exchange rate of 5.6 Egyptian Pounds to the US dollar was used in this article, and about $1.25 to the Euro.
An excellent travel organizer in Egypt is Wings Tours, one of the most efficient such organizations there, with excellent guides and meticulous service. Their American office is in Maryland. Contact them at tel. 410/771-0925, www.wingsegypt.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can get more information on Egypt from the official site of the Egyptian Tourist Authority at www.egypt.travel.