This trip was an alumni tour sponsored by Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. I was only on the trip because one of the leaders was Larry Alderink, a favorite professor of mine in college. I’ve wanted to go to Egypt for a long time, but the only reason I went now, on this trip, was because Larry was involved in it. . . it just happened to turn out to be a great trip!Arrangements in Egypt were handled by Romani Gaballa of Egyptian Educational Travel. Romani is everything you could want in a guide – intelligent, knowledgeable, resourceful, witty, patient, and kind. In addition, Romani’s expertise was occasionally supplemented by that of his brother Eshak and fellow tour-guide Osama, both of whom have a deep understanding of Coptic Christian belief, practices, and history.I plan to return to Egypt with my spouse and a few friends in a couple of years and will definitely work with Romani again. However, at that time I hope to also visit the deserts, sail on the Nile, see Abu Simbel, and add an extension to Petra in Jordan.
Safety and security
Most of my friends expressed concern when I announced I was going to Egypt – is it safe?
While we were in Egypt the political situation seemed stable, with no signs of the unrest of a few years ago. Whatever one thinks of the government’s policies, they have kept the county stable and safe for tourism.
None-the-less, there apparently are relatively few American tourists in Egypt these days and we were often met with surprise when people discovered we were American. At the same time, we were met with genuine warmth and friendliness.
Apparently a police escort is required for American tour groups, although it seems superfluous. I thought it would be off-putting, but our security folks were usually pretty invisible. They could be handy though, as at one point they directed traffic to get the bus backed up and out of a traffic jam!
As we approached the Sinai our police escort was supplemented by an armed guard. The police presence in general was more obvious on the Sinai. Still, it seemed a little silly to see our guard, gun tucked in his belt, barefoot, with his pant legs rolled-up, keeping an eye on us at the almost deserted beach on Giftun Island.
Within Egypt we traveled by motor coach, mini-bus, train, and ferry. While Egypt doesn’t have an extensive network of maintained roadways, those they have seem generally well designed and maintained. On the other hand, there was a great variation in the traffic that could be encountered, everything from semi-trailers to donkey carts.
On a day-to-day basis, the biggest hassle you are likely to encounter will be the seemingly constant demand for baksheesh – which the Egyptians prefer to call “tipping.” Some days it will seem that every person you meet has their hand out looking for a tip and it will make you crazy. The rest of the time it’s manageable. Egyptians are generally warm and friendly and often they will help without expecting anything in return, but rich tourists (and by virtue of being a tourist, you are rich) can be seen as fair game. So don’t be surprised if you are shown a slight kindness that turns out to be a service for which a tip is demanded. If you didn’t ask for the service, just say no, otherwise keep in mind the fact that it isn’t a lot of money.
Like many other places in the world, toilets either require a set fee or payment of a tip. In Egypt the payment is tiny and in most places they actually make some effort to have toilet paper and soap. Just pay up and don’t whine about it.
Photographing people will also often lead to a demand for a tip – even from security officers and park staff.
Using Egyptian pounds is pretty straightforward and the currency is decorative, which makes smaller notes great souvenirs. However, keep in mind that there are 50 pound notes and 50 piaster notes, with the physically larger 50 pound note worth $9-$10 US dollars and the piaster worth 9-10 cents. As a friend discovered, tipping the bathroom attendant with a 50 pound note will get you all the toilet paper and soap you could want, but probably isn’t something you want to do on a regular basis.
Guidebooks, websites, and other information
There are a plethora of guidebooks and websites focused on Egypt or some aspect of Egyptian culture.
The websites I found the most useful, enlightening, and entertaining include:
- World Heritage Tour has panoramic 360 photos of St. Catherine’s, the pyramids, and Luxor.
The website of the Association of Egyptian Travel Businesses on the Internet is a great resource for all things Egypt. Far more than an advertising website, it includes an extensive section on Egyptian history and culture, with a vast number of in-depth articles. It’s a fabulous resource. This site also seems to be part of or linked to another that bills itself as “Egypt’s Virtual Khan el- Khalili,”but has a good index of Egyptian information.
- Ask Aladin looks cutesy, but has a lot of good information.
- The Guardian’s Egypt is a personal web site with a wealth of information.
- An excellent resource on Egyptology can be found at Egyptology Online.
- Discovering Egypt is a personal site designed to interest everyone – and especially young people – in ancient Egypt.
- Egyptian Monuments is another personal site with a wealth of information related to ancient Egyptian sites.
- The Africa Study Center’s Egypt page has a lot of good links.
- The US State Department’s Egypt page provides extensive background information on Egypt as well as security information.
- The Egypt State Information Service provides news and some travel information.
- For a far more detailed travelogue than mine that includes EVERYTHING you could ever want to know about planning your own trip to Egypt, see the Phouka Egypt page.
- Postcards from Cairo portrays daily life in Egypt from the perspective of an Australian ex-pat.
Since I was on a group tour where all lodging, meals, and tours were provided, I skipped Lonely Planet and instead bought guides that were heavy on illustrations, historical information, and cultural material.
- As a general guide, I bought the Knopf Guide: Egypt (Amazon affiliate link).This is a gorgeous book filled with historical drawings, commentary, and information. It’s more a guide to tourism in Egypt more than a guide to Egypt, which is actually cool. As you page through it you see not only how Egypt has changed over time, but also how views of Egypt and Egyptian history have changed, giving you a sense of your place on the long continuum of Egyptian tourism. On the other hand, it is pretty useless for practical trip planning.
- For information and insight on the age of the pharaohs, I used Robert Morkot’s meticulously researched Egypt: Land of the Pharaohs (Amazon affiliate link).
- The book Coptic Egypt: The Christians of the Nile (Amazon affiliate link) by Christian Cannuyer provides a lovely, easy to follow overview of Coptic Christianity in Egypt.
- Although it was temporarily out of print at the time, I also tracked down a copy of Culture Shock! Egypt (Amazon affiliate link), which is a particularly useful little book if you plan to travel on your own or occasionally give your guide the slip.
Cairo is a teaming urban area of perhaps16 million that has both gracious residential areas and squalid squatter settlements. I found it enticing place and wish I had gotten up early enough in the morning to do some exploring on my own. I’m looking forward to returning.
- LEARN has social science curriculum that includes a section on housing and other issues confronting modern Cairo.
- While I don’t necessarily agree with the political philosophy that Urban Tours by Rental Car espouses, I do agree that tourists often miss the everyday reality of life in the places they visit. The Rental Car Tour packets help bring that part of the city light. The information is valuable, regardless of whether you agree with their position on why the world is the way it is and what, if anything, should be done about it.
A few random things about Cairo:
It is a LOUD city, although the government is trying to change that. Along with the sounds of the street and the continual honking of horns, music from the entertainment boats fill the air. This ongoing cacophony is regularly supplemented by the call to prayer, with each mosque trying to make sure their call is heard above all others. While the city government is trying to eliminate this call-to-prayer competition (indeed, has tried for years now to eliminate it), it is one of the things that makes Cairo the city it is. I loved the weirdness of it – it’s like a wall of sound crashing down on you.
I’ve never traveled in an Islamic country before and was absolutely captivated by the number of minarets that pierce the skyline.
If you travel around the city at all, you’ll probably notice that every roof seems piled with trash. Romani explained that no one really owns the roof of a multifamily complex, so that is where all the stuff people don’t need – but aren’t quite ready to get rid of – is stashed. It’s not so different from the piles of junk stashed in unused corners of farmsteads throughout Minnesota.
Traffic in Cairo is frightening, the most chaotic-looking of any place I’ve been. (Worse than Bangkok, where there was lots of congestion, but seemingly comprehensible rules of conduct.) There appear to be only a handful of stop lights in the entire city and NO one drives in the marked lanes. It’s chaos: Picture a mob pushing its way forward – only it is a mob comprised of cars, trucks, buses, scooters, donkey carts, and pedestrians. Even after hearing explanations of how it all works, I can’t imagine driving there.
Initially, however, it was the pedestrians that most shocked me: Men, women, and even children simply wade into this sea of erratically moving vehicles. I continually expected to see them mowed over. I later learned that there is actually a system to crossing the street and that people who live here don’t fear it nearly as much as they fear actually trying to drive.
Cairo does have a metro system, but I didn’t get a chance to check it out.
Things to do in Cairo
The Egyptian Museum has an amazing collection and provides a good introduction to the sites you will visit. You will NOT be able to see everything in a day. (The Virtual Egyptian Museum provides a wealth of information you can peruse at any time.) The museum is in the process of building new facilities around Egypt to allow a better display of more materials. They should be fabulous.
Cairo is filled with wonderful mosques, most of which can be visited by non-Muslim tourists. (Avoid visiting on Fridays.) While western women are not generally required to cover their hair, I did and felt the gesture was appreciated. Shoes are not allowed in any of the mosques. Above all, be RESPECTFUL!
Within the Citadel, the Mohammad Ali “Alabaster” Mosque is just one of many. I didn’t get to see the Suleyman Pasha Mosque, but my guidebook makes me wish I had. Most of the Qaser El-Gawhara or “Jewel” Palace was closed for restoration, but the bit I saw consisted of uninspiring French-colonial rooms – I should have stayed outside and taken in the spectacular view. Speaking of which, I’m guessing that morning is the time to get the best views of the city (and distant pyramids) from the plaza behind Mohammad Ali Mosque.
Information on Islamic architecture can be found at Islamic Architecture
Most of the older Christian churches are clustered in the Coptic area of Cairo. Most seem to be open to visitors even when worship is underway. Women are not required to cover their heads and shoes are generally allowed, although some places (particularly small chapels) prohibit shoes. Buying a candle to light is always appreciated and the donation helps support the church and its work in the community. As in a mosque, be respectful!
Even if you have no interest in Christianity, the Coptic Museum is worth a stop just to see the stunning facility in which the artifacts are housed. The collection on display is also pretty stunning and provides a peek into Egypt at a time when Christianity was young and growing in influence.
English language information on the Coptic Church can be found at the Coptic Church website as well as at the Coptic Centre, Coptic Architecture (including lots of photos), Tour Egypt, and Ancient Egyptology Online.
The St. Shenouda the Archimandrite Coptic Society has a lot of resources for Coptic studies, including links to other Coptic and general Christian sites.
While we thought we had stumbled across an unknown part of Cairo with the Mokattam Zabaleen, this is actually a thoroughly researched and oft-visited community. Indeed, when I came home I discovered that Ragui had done research on this topic. (I wish I had known enough to ask him about it when we met in Cairo.) While the area is poor, the garbage sorting provides a livelihood for many people and gives Cairo one of the highest recycling rates in the world.
Besides the Sisters of Charity and the Coptic Church, there are a number of non-profit organizations that work in the community, including the Association for Protection of the Environment, which operates programs that provide employment and services to women and children here.
The main religious site in the community is the Monastery of St. Simon the Tanner. It is a large complex with a number of churches, chapels, and other structures, including a restaurant.
We were not allowed to take pictures inside the Tomb of Mereruka and, unfortunately, there seem to be very few good pictures available and none that capture the intimate details that bring out the humanity of this ancient family. You simply have to see them for yourself.
Giza today is a sprawling suburb of Cairo. Although camels aren’t particularly comfortable to ride, it does seem to be the appropriate way to see the pyramids.
Don’t skip the boat museum located near the Great Pyramid.
Wadi Natron, to the north of Cairo, is best-known today for its monasteries. Al Ahram (now the Daily News Egypt) has a lovely report on the monasteries of Wadi Natron.
The Monastery of St. Marcarius (or Abu Makar, Abu Magar, or St. Makorios) is not generally open to the public.
To fully appreciate the sites around Luxor, it is helpful to have some sense of who ruled ancient Egypt and how those rulers relate to each other. However, the history of ancient Egypt is overwhelming. For me it only began to come together AFTER I started to visit the monuments and tombs. My recommendation would be to spend a couple days in Luxor, with some time each evening spent reading about what you have seen. Suddenly all ancient rulers will start to fall into place and you’ll have a sense of the person behind each tomb or temple.
Today the entrance to Karnak is crowded by a clutter of tourist shops, but you quickly forget them when you enter this grand temple.
The temple itself has been expanded and altered for generations. Today excavation and renovation continue.
The site is huge. Give yourself plenty of time and hire a good guide – there are stories recorded everywhere here if you have someone who can read and understand them.
Visitors to the Valley of the Kings are given tickets that allow one to visit any three of the tombs currently open to the public. (Only a few tombs are open at a time to give these delicate archaeological marvels a respite from the tourist hordes.) Once inside, you can stay as long as you like and your guide allows.
Begin your visit in the visitors’ center, which has a display showing the tombs in a glass model of the valley. It is fabulous! It shows how each tomb is laid out and how it relates to the others – a tool the ancient Egyptians could have used, as they occasionally broke through the wall of an existing tomb while creating a new one.
The Red Sea Resorts
An escorted convoy runs between Luxor and the Red Sea Coast. The convoy seems intended as a practical safety measure (a breakdown in this desolate stretch could be deadly) more than a security measure. It makes a single stop at a designated rest area.
The area between Luxor and the coast is harsh and sparsely inhabited until you reach the coast. The coast itself (both on the Egyptian mainland and especially the Sinai) is a rapidly developing resort area. That is not such a pretty sight.
Described negatively in the guidebooks, we never actually saw the town itself. Instead, we spent our limited time ensconced in the lovely Iberotel Makadi Saraya Resort.
I believe our snorkeling and diving day was conducted through Undersea Adventures, which appears to be a British company with operations at the Dana Beach Resort. Their specialty is diving, not snorkeling, but the first spot they took us to was wonderful. (Evidently many of the “snorkeling” trips out of Hurghada are drinking parties where most of the time is spent at Giftun Island. If you want to snorkel, look for a dive boat and see if they have trips suitable for snorkelers.) Our outing was an enjoyable, well-run excursion focused on seeing fish and eating good food!
Equipment varies with the quality of the operator – a well-fitted mask is essential. Undersea Adventures really made an effort to ensure everyone had properly fitting gear. However, I didn’t have a wet suit, was assured I wouldn’t need one (although friends told me I would), and nearly developed hypothermia from the cold.
We snorkeled at a wonderful spot called “the aquarium.” It was a fabulous, even better than Fiji, with great clarity and a large number and variety of fish and coral. There were a number of other boats here, but the reef is large and it did not feel crowded. The divers in our group seemed satisfied with the location as well. The second spot was better for diving, but it was late enough in the day that few of us were interested in going back in anyway. The operator gave us the option of doing both dive spots first and then going to Giftun Island, but the group opted to do the beach first. (There is nothing on the island except the beach, a few cheap souvenirs, and a rather poorly-stocked bar/snack shop.)
From Hurghada we took the “fast ferry”across the Red Sea to Sharm Al Sheikh. The trip is smooth and quick, but you are trapped inside because passengers generally are not allowed on deck.
Sharm el Sheikh
This over-developed, but still lovely resort town sits on the Sinai Peninsula. It overflows with interesting shops and enticing restaurants, but also faces incredible development pressure.
The Sinai is a mountainous desert that rises weirdly above the clear water of the Red Sea. It’s both stark and breathtaking.
The monastery itself is amazing. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, portions are open to the public, but others, such as the library, are not. We saw only a fraction of the compound, perhaps because we were late to begin our tour or maybe because we were too noisy. (We had a terrible time remembering to keep our voices down when we were outside, marking us as loud and disruptive when we didn’t mean to be. If you visit a monastery, remember that the ENTIRE compound is a place of quiet contemplation, even outdoor spaces.)
Most people staying at the monastery are there either as students or to climb Mount Sinai. I chose to skip the Mount Sinai excursion simply because it didn’t particularly interest me (sunrise with a view to knock your socks off is apparently visible from Mt. Catherine, not from Sinai) and because I didn’t bring appropriate clothing.
It was a good decision for me, not only because I felt blessed to have attended the prayer service, but also because I likely would have hated the cold and the chaos associated with the climb/ride up Sinai. With literally a thousand or more people and hundreds of camels converging in the dark hours of early morning, the scene is apparently one of utter chaos. Few members of our group were able to remain together and some ended up riding up without a guide (and on a RUNNING camel in one instance). I would have been cold, miserable, and freaked out. And I wouldn’t have had the stamina to make it to the top of the mountain anyway. I would have hated every minute of it. On the other hand, those who did it, loved it.
Tour Egypt has a number of different pages on the monastery. In addition, other good sources of information include the World Heritage Tour’s panoramic images, Egptology Online‘s beautiful site, and Sacred Destination‘s photo-filled site. The monastery’s own web site will be a good source of information. . . if they ever get the English language section completed.
The Monastery of St. Catherine sits in a protected area. The park’s visitor center is, apparently, not complete – or at least not generally open to the public. However, if you can find someone to let you in, these small buildings house extremely well-designed and informative exhibits about the area and its traditional residents, the Bedouin.
Further information on the monastery, Mount Sinai, and the surrounding area can be found at Sacred Sites, Tour Egypt, Sacred Land, El Ahram, Womens Aid, Discover Sinai, Travel Watch, and St. Katherine Net.
For another, more religious, version of a similar trip (probably led by the same Osama who spent some time with us), scroll down on the December 2006 Gen X Rising page to Egypt Journal #10.
Wadi Firan and the Convent of the Seven Nuns (or Seven Sisters or Seven Girls) is a lovely place. The convent is operated by the Greek Orthodox church and appears to be open only on a limited basis. There is a well-stocked gift shop with religious-themed items, some of which are produced locally.
Most of the time we were in Cairo we stayed at the Nile Hilton (a much older hotel than I would have guessed), which is located near the Egyptian museum. My room was large and pleasant with a good internet connection (but for a fee) and a deck with a splendid view over the Nile. It was great and I would definitely would stay there again.
Hurghada has lots of places to stay, most of which totally isolate the visitor from anything related to the local culture. Our hotel was the Makadi Saraya Resort Painted in cheery Mediterranean colors and swathed in bougainvillea, it was such a lovely, dreamy spot that I really didn’t want to leave it for any reason. (Although the complex is so large and so similar to the adjoining resorts that a friend a got lost and almost missed our snorkel expedition.)
My room was a suite, with a giant bedroom, living and dining rooms, laundry area, and a mini-kitchen. Two large decks overlook the beautifully maintained grounds. I could have lived here indefinitely. Someday, when I return here with Lane, this is where we are staying – for a week, or maybe a month. . .
St. Catherine’s Guesthouse is located at the entrance to the monastery. The rooms were simple to the point of being spartan and you have to remember to turn the hot water on before you intend to shower, but they were clean, warm (thanks to space heaters), and comfortable. They also had the advantage of being located in one of the most starkly beautiful places imaginable.
Food and Beverages
Our tour included all meals, which is something I do NOT like because I don’t need that much food, but will eat it anyway. Lunch was usually very late in the afternoon (anywhere between 2-4 p.m.) and dinner was always after 8:00 p.m. and sometimes as late as 10:00. Had dinner not been included, I usually would have skipped it or opted for something light elsewhere.
Having said that, the food itself was excellent.
Breakfast and dinner were usually taken at our hotel. The Nile Hilton and the Makadi Sayara both had exceptional buffets, with delicious Egyptian foods along with well-prepared international cuisine.
Lunches and dinners were generally accompanied by a whole array of starters, with lovely pita breads to scoop up any one of a number of flavorful sauces. I could have easily have had enough to eat just with the starters!
Every restaurant Romani took us to was absolutely wonderful and I wish I had a complete list, but I wasn’t that organized. Here is what I do have:
- Al Azhar Park has a couple of lovely restaurants with very good food.
- Restaurant Andrea has an outdoor eating area that is very pleasant at night. The restaurant specializes in the most amazing grilled chicken over a huge grill. The chicken was beautifully seasoned and perfectly cooked.
- The Sea Horse Club is an Egyptian version of a supper club with huge windows overlooking the Nile and lovely seafood.
- Felfela is an in expensive local chain serving a variety of traditional foods. We ate at the downtown location not far from out hotel. It was an eclectic and sort exotic feeling place with fabulous falafel!
- Sakkara (near the site of the same name) was a touristy place, but pleasant with nice food.
We were also had a couple of meals at monasteries, which varied from basic international fare to a simple lunch of bread and olives.
Alcohol is not available in retail shops (outside the airport), but is available by the bottle in most restaurants likely to be frequented by tourists – even in those that also have a local cliental. At least in hotel restaurants, it was possible to buy bottles to take back to our rooms, thus fueling our after dinner soirées. (We usually spent $12-18 for a bottle from a restaurant and took turns buying.) We mostly drank Egyptian wines because they were both widely available and affordable. The whites were pretty bad, so we generally drank reds – most frequently the Obelisk Cabernet Sauvignon or the Gianaclis “Omar el Khayam” Cabernet Sauvignon – neither of which are likely to win any prizes, but which were quite drinkable.
I’m not a beer drinker, but beer was also generally available in most restaurants.
I found shopping to be a frustrating experience.
Like sightseeing, shops that sell anything beyond cheap tourist souvenirs either cater to wealthy connoisseurs or large tourist groups that are given an introduction to a product and then an opportunity to purchase ok quality, but generic items from that company’s stock of rugs, alabaster, papyrus, or even jewelry. The merchandise isn’t bad, it just isn’t generally very interesting or unique. Serious shopping for unique local items just isn’t on the mass tourism radar.
Furthermore, bartering is expected everywhere and, unlike Thailand, where Chris told us at every market how hard to bargain, here I had no idea whether the final price should be 20% less or 80% less. That made bargaining hard – I don’t want to get ripped off, but I don’t want to be insulting either. In the big tourist shops where Romani helped, I usually got the merchant to go at a little lower than the price Romani recommended. Next time I’m going to try to do a lot more advance research on prices because there would be lots of cool things to shop for here!
There are vendors at historic sites and they can be persistent and annoying. However, they seem pretty benign compared to the nasty and aggressive children working the historic sites in Cambodia. Just say no firmly and keep moving. (Or have some fun listening to their tall tales about the great bargains you are getting and buy a few cheap souvenirs.)
Similarly, in the markets you can expect to be besieged with people trying to sell you everything under the sun if you show even the slightest interest in an object. If you really are just looking, wear dark glasses, keep moving, and don’t touch anything. If you are actually interested in looking at merchandise, be prepared for lots of attention and don’t be afraid to walk away if you really can’t agree on a fair price. However, don’t be a jerk and waste a merchant’s time bargaining over something you have no intention of buying.
If you are on a group tour, you likely will be taken to shops specializing in each of these:
An alabaster shop where carving is demonstrated.
There are a number of brightly colored homes and cheery shops selling alabaster along the main road near the Valley of the Kings.
While picturesque, do not shop there! The government is trying to relocate these settlements because many are damaging nearby tombs. Shopping there just encourages the residents to continue to resist relocation. There are plenty of other places to buy alabaster.
Most tours will also visit a carpet school, where rug-making will be demonstrated. (Seeing how they wash the rugs in a big concrete tub made me feel much less worried about getting mine dirty from use.) As we left, Romani jokingly thanked us for spending so much, telling us that he will get a much better discount now on carpets for his own new apartment. Of course, that actually is the way it works pretty much everywhere in the world. While I hadn’t planned to buy a rug, I am very pleased with my purchase.
A papyrus institute (like the carpet “schools”, there seem to be a lot of papyrus “institutes” around) will also be on most itineraries. I learned a lot from the quick, but interesting, lecture and demonstration on papyrus. The shop was well-stocked with interesting, affordable work – so affordable that I assumed the images were silk screened onto the papyrus, but no, they are hand painted. (Most images are copies from ancient tomb paintings or scrolls.)
Like many other places outside the United States, as you enter any store you will be given a shopping assistant. While their job is to get you to spend more, they can be helpful in answering questions and in most places they are unavoidable.
I really wanted to shop for older jewelry, but had few opportunities to do so. When I did find a selection of older pieces, the prices were MUCH higher than my research had led me to expect and I wasn’t able to bargain them down nearly as far as I would have liked. It appeared that there was much less flexibility in the pricing of previously owned pieces (I suppose since they can’t just make a bunch more of whatever sells best). I did find a few Bedouin pieces and paid a premium for my purchase. (Bedouin jewelry is traditionally melted down when the owner dies and new patterns are valued over old ones, so few older pieces are available and little traditional-style work is being done today.) I also found a few pieces of Persian filigree, which were pretty reasonably priced.
I wasn’t prepared to buy gold while in Egypt and really wish I had been. The selection was vast, the workmanship exquisite, and the pricing based largely on the value of the gold, rather than on the workmanship. Not buying anything was a mistake.