Landing in Cairo Part I: Alabaster and Antiquity

This two part mini-series documents my first couple days in Cairo, Egypt, the first part of my epic trip to Egypt in October 2017. 

This may be the most exciting moment on this blog since I launched a real website. It is exciting because I am finally sharing my experience of Egypt with all of you–starting with Cairo! Sometimes it is incredibly daunting to burden yourself with writing about a place that is so complex and larger than life. It is hard to encapsulate in writing how Egypt makes you feel. It truly opens the adventurer inside of you, and I hope I can convey that to you over the next several weeks. 

Cairo Alabaster Mosque 15I guess at this point I should say that I am so incredibly grateful for the wonderful opportunity to go to Egypt. Victor’s parents so graciously invited Victor and I to come along, and wow it was the adventure of our lives. Victor and I flew from London to Barcelona on a Friday, and the next day flew with his parents onwards to Cairo. Once our plane touched down, things started looking a little different. Granted, it was a bit chaotic in the customs hall–trying to find our guide and making sure we had our visas. Because of the haphazard way of doing things, the customs hall left me dazed and confused to say the least. It was amazing how we all got through customs just fine.

At this point I should also note that as Victor’s parents, particularly his mother, speak Spanish our entire tour was in Spanish. I am not 100% fluent in Spanish and so this made the entire experience unique for sure! Our guide was extremely friendly, speaking perfect Spanish and telling us everything we could possibly want to know. We were joined by another couple and we were whisked away through the streets of Cairo. And just.. WOW. You really feel like you are truly in another world. The mass chaos unfolding before me left me both anxious and intrigued. Things just worked differently here. Cars somehow intertwined with each other going unscathed. Hundreds of people flooded the streets without looking in both directions.

The Hotel

Our first few nights in Egypt were spent at Fairmont Nile City in downtown Cairo. I had heard that Middle Eastern luxury is unlike anything in the world, and when we walked through the doors I was floored by the sheer amount of glamour. Our bedrooms were decked out in puffed leather walls and glorious velvet curtains. The game changer though was the bathroom. Am I the only one obsessed with luxurious hotel bathrooms?!

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Cairo Hotel 1
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Unfortunately, we did not have time to enjoy the hotel that much. I honestly came back to the hotel exhausted from all our activities during the day. What we did experience though was the sensational food at the hotel. On our first night, we opted for the Japanese restaurant Saigon, which was of course delicious. Everything at the hotel is top-notch, so why would the restaurants be any different? We ate at Saigon 2 out of 3 nights.

Cairo Hotel 7 Cairo Hotel 9On our last evening we tried the other restaurant which is kind of a New American/Italian sort of place. The food, unsurprisingly, is delicious. Though my personal favourite of the two restaurants is Saigon, Victor’s parents liked this one more. Again, I was amazed at just how good the food was.  

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The Alabaster Mosque

The next day it was finally time for our first adventure. We were shuttled to the Great Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha, also known as the Alabaster Mosque. At first I was not too excited to visit a mosque. It was not because of the religious aspect, but because in the back of my head I was imagining the bombings of churches, mosques, and whatever else in Cairo. It was foolish of me to worry because it truly was a misguided thought. Yes, there are terrorist activities occurring in Egypt. However, like many countries in the world, not all areas are equal in a country. My advice is to strictly follow government travel advisories regarding a country. For example, the US State Department has declared that the Sinai peninsula (with the exception of travel to Sharm El-Sheikh by air) and the western desert are not safe for travellers due to terrorism. Luckily, this does not hamper your typical trip to Egypt as a foreigner. The key to not being afraid to be informed. The more you know, the less fearful you need to be. I did not feel unsafe once on my trip to Egypt, and there is no reason why anyone else cannot feel the same. Now, onto the mosque!

Cairo Alabaster Mosque 18The Alabaster mosque is enormous. It is only about as tall as the leaning tower of Pisa or the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but it looks larger because it is placed on a pedestal. It is also extremely wide, at 82 meters it is quite the site to behold. Though it was so extremely amazing to me to see this in person, several people explained that this mosque is not particularly beautiful or historical. However, it is grand and therefore leaves an impression on visitors to Cairo. An interesting move for tour operators. 

The mosque is situated within the larger complex of the Saladin Citadel, a medieval Islamic fortification. The Citadel was fortified by the Ayyubid ruler Salah al-Din (Saladin) between 1176 and 1183 CE, to protect it from the Crusaders. There are actually three mosques within the citadel, one of course being the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, built between 1830 and 1848. Like I mentioned, it looks enormous, and this is because it is on the summit of the citadel. The mosque was commissioned by Muhammad Ali Pasha in memory of his oldest son, Tusun Pasha (who probably died of disease). Many regard Muhammad Ali Pasha as the founder of modern Egypt because of the dramatic reforms in the military, economic and cultural spheres that he instituted.

Cairo Alabaster Mosque 14 Cairo Alabaster Mosque 11Cairo Alabaster Mosque 10Our shuttle van dropped us off at the edge of the parking lot and we entered the citadel. There are many structures all around, but we whisked past all of them. In the distance, up high, we could always see the mosque.

Cairo Alabaster Mosque 12Before entering the mosque we walked around the alabaster courtyard (sahn). In the middle of the courtyard is a marble ablution fountain with a carved wooden roof on columns. I had never seen anything like this in my life and the courtyard is stunning. 

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Cairo Alabaster Mosque 1
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We then slipped off our shoes (remember to wear socks!), and entered the mosque. As we could tell from the outside, the first thing we noticed was the enormous dome. The dome towers over a large chamber. The floor is covered in bright red carpet. The large space is decorated by a circle of small lamps hanging in the middle of the praying area and right below the dome.

Cairo Alabaster Mosque 9 Cairo Alabaster Mosque 3 Cairo Alabaster Mosque 2 Cairo Alabaster Mosque 16I was humbled by my experience at the mosque and I promised myself then that I would never judge a place before entering again.

The Pyramids

And then all of a sudden, we were on our way to the Pyramids. The Pyramids?!? I could barely believe it. My childhood dream was about to come true. 

Cairo Pyramids 7Cairo Pyramids 2It is already amazing that you can see the Pyramids in the distance from downtown Cairo. Within minutes we were dropped off in the parking lot and behold, the Pyramids were upon us. They are called the Pyramids of Giza for a reason because they are located in the city of Giza, which is on the west bank of the Nile. I did not quite realise Giza was a city in itself, but the transition from Cairo to Giza is seamless. The sun was high in the sky when we started approach the Pyramids. Yes, there are so many street sellers trying to offer you this and that, but we briskly walked past all of them, determined in our mission.

Cairo Pyramids 6It was time for us to climb into the Great Pyramid of Khufu (or, Cheops). This pyramid is the oldest and largest of the three pyramids in the Giza pyramid complex. We left our cameras with some others in our tour group who opted not to enter the pyramid because cameras are absolutely not allowed. We climbed up some of the pyramid steps and then entered into a dark passageway. As we made our way we started to hear lots of yelling and strange sounds. This passage led to a very narrow and shallow tunnel, running steeply up to a chamber in the middle of the pyramid. The mysterious sounds all of a sudden made sense when we looked through the tunnel and there were several Japanese tourists making their way downhill. They were squealing from fear and pain and just sheer thrill. We let them all pass and each of them as they passed gratefully said thank you. And so, our ascent began.

Cairo Pyramids 3 Cairo Pyramids 1The tunnel must only take about 30 seconds, but let me tell you, if you suffer from claustrophobia at all, do not make an attempt. I finally understood why some other people on our tour did not come with us. Finally we reached the chamber where a very sweaty man was sitting on the ground next to an enormous fan. He pointed to the only thing in the room, which was where the tomb would have been (a replica in its place). This man coaxed us into taking a hilarious photo. After laughing at the whole situation, and contemplating this poor man and the fact that he has to sit in here all day in the middle of a giant rock absorbing heat, we turned around and descended. This is what got me. The tunnel was incredibly steep and the downhill pressure resulted in my legs shaking like crazy by the end. I could barely walk. It was a weird physical sensation that went away eventually but it was just one more weird thing to happen in a string of kind of weird events—walking past camels, saying no to street sellers, questioning whether the ticket guy is legit, running into about 30 Japanese tourists screaming in a tunnel, climbing to the middle of a rock, and suffering from shaky legs at the end.

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When we got out of the pyramid, the sun felt more intense and my skin was starting to shine. But I cannot emphasis how relieved I was to fill my lungs with fresh air. We were then taken to the famous viewpoint of the Pyramids and yes, despite all the weirdness, you can’t help but feel how totally worth it all of it is. We also were able to get up close to the Sphinx. I just stared in awe of the magnificence of these wonders.

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Up next: The ancient site of Saqqara and the famous Cairo Museum! Check out Part II here.

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