In the middle of the vast and eerily desolate landscape on the outskirts of Cairo stand the iconic pyramids of Giza and the great Sphinx, a riveting sight that took my breath away. For a moment, it felt like time stood still as I gazed at the surreal beauty and grandeur of the man-made marvels that have defined Egypt from time immemorial.
The three pyramids of Cheops (Khufu), Chephren (Khafre) and Mycernius (Menkaure) in front of me made up for the long walk under the scorching sun on the hot desert sand while the gentle breeze in the shade provided by the massive pyramid walls cleaned the sweat beads on my forehead.
A specimen of fine human engineering and robust construction techniques present in ancient Egyptian civilisation, the pyramids have stood the test of time and left many archaeologists around the world baffled.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the time you guys have all been waiting for,” said our local guide Sheriff Hassan in heavily accented English as he excitedly pointed with both his hands towards the pyramids in the background.
According to Hassan, who works with Lady Egypt Tours based in Giza, back in ancient Egypt it was common for kings and queens to construct pyramids for themselves when they were alive as a final place to rest in their afterlife. The materials used were two different types of limestone weighing between two and 15 tonnes.
The first pyramid – Djoser – was built in Saqqara on the west bank of the river Nile, the site of royal burials since around 2100 BC, but following many instances of robbers breaking into pyramids to steal jewellery and other valuables buried alongside kings, the practice was stopped about 1,000 years ago, said Hassan.
Besides the famous pyramids, cultural highlights in Cairo include the Egyptian museum, which has a separate section for human and animal mummies.
Housing the world’s most extensive collection of pharaonic antiquities, the museum exhibits the treasures of Tutankhamun, wooden models of daily life, statuettes of divinities, and a rare group of Faiyum Portraits.
In the wake of the 2011 political turmoil that saw violent street protests in Cairo, the country’s tourism industry, which is its mainstay, was hit hard.
However, the country’s tourism board claimed that the situation was improving and will normalize soon thanks to global events like the International Development Economic Conference held in March in Sharm-El-Shaikh as well as the India By the Nile Festival organized in Cairo.
“Yes, sure, things are improving. I believe that positive news about Egypt will promote Egypt as a safe destination and attract tourists,” Ismail Hamid, Egyptian Tourism Counsellor to India, said.
A must see after Cairo is Alexandria, the second largest city in Egypt – famous for its catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa and the modern library.
It is just a three-hour drive from Cairo and the visit to the catacombs is enthralling as you walk down a spiral staircase many feet under the ground. The bodies of the dead would have been lowered on ropes down the centre of this circular shaft.
As you enter, the spooky site of hundreds of graves, tombs and even bones at the largest known Roman burial site in Egypt welcomes you.
Legend has it that the site was discovered accidentally in 1900 when a donkey disappeared into the ground and the locals found the catacombs while digging up the ground.
Moving down south is the tourist hotspot of Luxor which provides an opportunity to explore historical sites like the Valley of Kings and Queens on the Nile’s west bank while riding on a hot air balloon – which can easily be the highlight of your trip.
Other major attractions include the Luxor temple, the temple of Queen Hatshepsut – a female pharaoh, which was very unusual at that time.
And if the whole experience of learning about an ancient civilization and the deluge of historical information leaves you overwhelmed, Egypt has a solution for that too.
Just indulge yourself in a felucca cruise on the Nile. Sit back and reflect on life as gentle gusts of wind form ripple patterns on the surface of the Nile – among the world’s longest rivers and on the banks of which lives 96 percent of the Egyptian population.
An hour-long drive from downtown Cairo will take you to the Giza pyramids located on the outer periphery of the Egyptian capital.
Entry fee is 40 Egyptian pounds ($5) while a tour inside the pyramid of Chephren and Mycernius will set you back another 40 EGP while entry to the bigger pyramid of Cheops is priced at 200 EGP.
The Egyptian museum is open daily between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. (9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during Ramadan) and the ticket is priced at 60 EGP.
A hot air balloon ride in Luxor costs 120 EGP.