Exploring Egypt: Cairo, Giza and Alexandria

The trip to Egypt was planned almost a year ago by my friends at Jadavpur University Alumni Association Hyderabad. Initially planned for February 2023, the planning and execution were entrusted to my friend Indranil Chowdhuri of Travel with Neel fame. The unavailability of some of us led to the dates being rescheduled to November, and the team size bulged up to more than 40, including members from not just Hyderabad, but Delhi, Kolkata, and Pune.

It was a complex assignment for Travel with Neel, with three countries (Egypt, Jordan, and Israel) planned over 20 days, with people joining and leaving the tour at various points. However, on 7th October, Hamas, the Palestinian fringe group attached Israel leading to a full-fledged war between Israel and Palestine, and as a result the Israel part of the tour had to be cut out of the itinerary. After lots of permutations finally on November 17th night, 30 of us assembled at RGI Airport Hyderabad, boarding a Saudia flight to Jeddah en route to Cairo.

We reached Cairo around 11am on the 18th, and the journey was a breeze in the company of good friends. A special mention needs to be made to how Travel with Neel smoothly handled our needs at the airports. At Hyderabad, at the behest of Travel with Neel, the Saudia staff were waiting for us outside the airport making the check-in process a breeze while in Cairo airport, a person from Neel’s team joined us inside the airport, helping with immigration, baggage collection as well as procurement of local SIM. In fact, throughout the trip, all small requirements of the tour members were catered to by Travel with Neel. 

From the airport, we headed towards Giza on our tour bus, our first stop was at an eatery “Tasty House Egypt”. The buffet there had about a hundred items and introduced us to the local Egyptian food. There were many creamy dip-type dishes, so typical of Mediterranean mezze platters. Eggplants are very popular in Egypt and apart from the dip Babaganoush, there were at least three other preparations. There was Koshari, the Egyptian national dish of rice, macaroni, and lentils served topped with tomato sauce. There was Falafel too. But the dish which impressed me the most was the Beef Stew, it went well with the not-so-soft Egyptian bread.

After a sumptuous lunch, we headed towards the hotel in Giza. The first glimpse of the three huge pyramids was seen on our right. Pyramid was something I was very familiar with from my childhood, the most popular wonder of the world to the people in India after the Taj Mahal. We were at the site in the evening for the Sound and Light Show. While the show was very informative, I felt that for such a popular tourist spot, the audio quality did not do full justice in terms of quality and clarity. Perhaps time to upgrade.

While coming back from the sound and light show, we purchased some papyrus paintings being peddled by street vendors. The next day, while visiting the Papyrus Museum, we were exposed to more such paintings. The intricacies of the painting as well as the quality of the papyrus differentiate these paintings with costs ranging from a paltry thirty to a few thousand Egyptian Pounds.

Day two was the most anticipated day of the tour, it was time to visit the Great Pyramids of Giza. The three towering pyramids stood next to each other as we jostled for pics and selfies nearby. The pyramid of Khufu was the biggest while his son Khafre and grandson Menkaure had smaller ones. The area had a festive look with tourists, camels, peddlers, and carriages. We hung around to get a feel of the place, visited the Great Sphynx, and bought some memorabilia from the small vendors. A travel tip, many locals will volunteer to take your pics, if you hand your camera to them, they will not let you go without parting with a hefty bakhshish. The memorabilia that we bought from there even after bargaining was much overpriced. You could get a better variety and cheaper ones at Khan Khalili market in Cairo. 

We proceeded by bus to the step pyramids at Saqqara, the structure of which was different from the smoothness of the Great Pyramids. As the name suggests the pyramid here had a step structure making it unique. These were possibly the first pyramids in ancient Egypt.

On the following day, we traveled to the seaside city of Alexandria, about three hours away from Cairo. The city located on the blue Mediterranean was named after Alexander the Great and was the capital of Egypt during ancient times. 

Our first stop was the Kom El Sharafa, an ancient archaeological site having three levels and housing some of the tombs from the Greek times. We went down three stories to look at some of the finest carvings and paintings and the stone sarcophagi in the central chamber. Next, we stopped at s and the stone sarcophagi in the central chamber. Next, we stopped at Kom El Dikka, the ruins of the Roman bath complex and Roman theatre. 

Our lunch was arranged at Branzino, a restaurant right on the Mediterranean seafront. A sumptuous lunch of fresh fish, squids, and prawns made our day followed by spending some time at the seafront. A big advantage of traveling with Travel with Neel is that you get to try out a lot of local food at the choicest restaurants in the city. It is a delight for a gourmand like me. We also visited the Alexandria library and then returned to Cairo by dusk.

A late evening visit to Khan El-Khalili, an Egyptian market from the 15th century regaled us. The whole place had a festive cheer, with the youth thronging the cafes and some even bringing their guitars along for the loud chorus. Small street vendor were peddling their wares on the street, while gift shops and restaurants abounded in the lanes behind. We had a nice time going around the bylanes, bargaining at shops for some of the huge collections of memorabilia that they were selling.

The mosques and museums of Cairo were kept for the last day. The Muhammad Ali Mosque is grand, the interior resembles the Hagiya Sofia mosque in Istanbul that we visited last year. Till now in Egypt we had only viewed empty sarcophaguses, now it was time to see the actual mummies at the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. The mummies were shifted here from the Cairo Museum a few months back. The museum is swanky and extremely well-run. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed in the Mummies Hall, section hosting the mummies. 

Finally the Cairo Museum. We really had to rush through it due to the paucity of time, but we decided to concentrate on the first floor – especially the rooms of Thutmosis and Tutankhamun. The amount of gold on display was dazzling and the intricate work impressed. The thrones and mummy masks were really exquisite. A thumbs down for the rough behavior of the museum staff, I saw them heckling and pushing tourists after the time was over.

Our North Egypt tour ended with a journey to the Giza railway station for a train ride to Aswan, about which I will talk in a separate post. Cairo is an ancient city, dusty with sandstone being the color used everywhere. The people were nice and friendly and some were very poor. I hated seeing small kids begging in the streets all through our trip to Egypt. It is sad to see the plight of the poor, not just in our country but all over the world. 

Continued: The Temples of South Egypt

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