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1. Face the Ancient Wonder: The Great Pyramid of Giza

I don’t think any introduction is required for this signature wonder of Egypt! The Great Pyramid of Pharaoh Khufu, along with the pyramids of Pharaoh Khafre & Pharaoh Menkaure is located in Giza, near about 20 kms away from the capital city Cairo.

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To know in detail, please click on the following links:

Pyramids of Giza: Here We Come!!!
Pyramid Complex of Giza : Tips for Your Best Experience

Pyramids of Giza : How We Came?


2. Have a Day Trip to Saqqara and Dahsur

The Step Pyramid of Saqqara is considered as the first pyramid of the world. There are two pyramids in Dahsur – the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid; both of them were built in the time period between the Step Pyramid of Saqqara and the Pyramids of Giza. These pyramids of Saqqara and Dahsur are worth-visiting to perceive how those ancient pyramid-makers were progressing with times before creating their masterpieces in Giza. Saqqara is 35 kms away from Cairo; Dahsur is another 10 kms away. Both of the places can be covered in a day-trip from Cairo.

To get the necessary information required for this trip, please click on the following links:

Saqqara : From Where the Journey Begins… …

Dahsur : A Journey towards Perfection


3. Get Awestruck by the Collection of Egyptian Museum

This huge museum is a home to the royal mummies and extensive collection of antiquities related to ancient Egypt. The museum is located near Tahrir Square, at the heart of the city.

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If you are planning to visit the museum by your own, our blogs may be of your help:

Egyptian Museum, Cairo : A Self-Guided Visit (Part-1)

Egyptian Museum, Cairo : A Self-Guided Visit (Part-2)


4. Explore the Coptic Cairo Area

Coptic means Egyptian. One-tenth of the Egyptian population is Christian by belief and they are called Coptic Christians. Coptic Cairo is a particular area of Old Cairo, where numbers of old churches and other monastic settlements are scattered everywhere; along with a Coptic Museum and an old synagogue. This place is nice to explore for being introduced to the distinct architecture, culture and lifestyle of Coptic Christianity. This place is adjacent to the Mar Girgis metro station of Cairo. 25-DSC_2805

For details, please have a look here:

A Visit to Coptic Cairo


5. Stroll through the Allies of Islamic Cairo

The part of the city regarded as Islamic Cairo is an area, located on the east bank of Nile, where Islamic architecture of bygone era are mostly preserved in their unaltered forms, with picturesque street-life and intriguing neighborhood around. This area is best explored on foot. I am attaching the map of the trail with mentioning the highlights.

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  • Salah El din Citadel : A medieval Islamic fortification. Mosques and museums are there in the complex. Muhammad Ali Mosque is the most popular site among them.
  • Muhammad Ali Mosque : An impressive manifestation in city’s skyline. This is an example of Ottoman style architecture, built in 19th century.
  • Bab Zuwaylah : One of the remaining city-gates of Old Cairo. There are two minarets and from top of them, one can get the beautiful cityscape of Cairo.
  • Museum of Islamic Art : Good to visit for being introduced to the Islamic history of Cairo through the displayed artifacts and other objects.
  • Tentmakers’ Market : Excellent place for street photography and textile collection.
  • Al Azhar Mosque : A huge mosque and more to this, a centre for studying Islamic religion. Students come here from all over the world.
  • Numbers of not so well-known, but fascinating mosques and palaces are located on the both sides of the way; keep eye on them.

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Tips

  • All the highlights mentioned above are the popular sites of the city; any taxi-driver is supposed to know these places. Therefore, hire a taxi and ask to be dropped off wherever you want.
  • Sites like Citadel area, Islamic Museum etc are usually kept open from 9am-4pm for visitors.
  • The Tent-makers’ Market remains closed on Sunday.

6. Experience Khan-el-Khalili Market

Khan-el-Khalili, located in Islamic Cairo area is the biggest and one of the oldest markets of the city; a paradise for photography enthusiasts, souvenir-hunters and antique collectors. The traditional coffee-houses situated inside Khan-el-Khalili are good for observing the city-life.

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To know more, click here:

7 Interesting Markets of Egypt


7. Don’t Miss the Sufi Dance Show in Wikalat Al Ghouri

Wikalat Al Ghouri, located just opposite to Khan-el-Khalili was a caravanserai, built in early 16th Century. Today the large courtyard of the building is used for a Sufi Dance Show being held twice/thrice a week. First of all, be there to look around the impressive medieval architecture. Then comes the Sufi Show; a vibrant and extremely skillful performance of Derveshi dancers, along with Sufi vocals & masterful percussion. The show is touristy, but still amazingly captivating and full of emotion.

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 Tips

  • The show usually starts from 7.30 pm. Tickets are being sold from 6.30 pm.
  • The show is held twice a week, Saturday and Monday.
  • The show time and days may change with times. Do check the latest info before being there.
  • The show is very popular among tourists. So get there as early as possible to acquire the best seat for you.
  • Still photography is allowed there; no video recording.

8. Feel the Ecstasy: Have a Sheesha Time

Everywhere there in Cairo, you will smell the fragrance of sweet fruity aroma and where there is a smell there is a smoke, smoke of water pipe what they call Sheesha. Innumerable coffee-houses are found in every corner of Cairo, on footpaths, inside narrow allies, on bus stands, inside big markets like Khan-el-Khalili, even in front of the mosques; whatever be their size, but two things are most certainly available there, Egyptian tea and Sheesha. Coffee-houses are kept open from morning, but popular hours are after sundown. After a tiring day, people gather here to smoke Sheesha, relax, get socialized and be engaged in their favorite activities like watching football-match in television or playing Backgammon with friends. To get soaked in the true essence of Cairo, one should not miss experiencing Sheesha in a coffee-house and if you are not a smoker, even after that, be there, have a cup of tea and observe the locals around you.

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9. Have a Trip to an Off the Beaten Track of Middle Egypt

The area I am going to introduce is politically sensitive and the best way to explore that part of Egypt is arranging a day trip from Cairo; in spite of staying there. The highlights of the trip are:

  • Zawiyet el Maiyitin – One of the largest burial sites of the world; better to be described as a a sea of tombs spread over miles and miles.
  • Beni Hasan –  A group of ancient tombs (built during Middle Kingdom), carved into the high limestone cliffs, having colorful frescos painted on the inner walls.
  • Tuna el Gebel –  A complex containing tombs of Ptolemic period, an Animal Catacomb and a stone slab depicting the scene of Pharaoh Akhenaten and his family worshipping Aten, the sun-disc.

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For details, click here:

Off the Beaten Track:  Zawiyet al Maiyitin, Beni Hasan & Tuna el Gebel


10. Visit Birqash Camel Market

Egypt’s largest camel market is held on Birqash, a small village 40 kms away from Cairo. Friday & Sunday are the most popular days. Other attractions of or near Cairo took so much time, that we could not manage time for being there. Looking forward for our next trip to Egypt! In the mean time if you go there, please share your experience and valuable tips in comment section.

 

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Locality where minorities reside seems compelling; a chance to explore their distinctive tradition, rather their attempt to keep hold of that, in spite of intentional or unintentional blending with majorities’ culture & lifestyle. That was our key motivation of visiting Coptic Cairo area of Old Cairo, home to Egyptian Christians (Coptic = Egyptian).  Legend says that the Baby Jesus was taken here by Joseph & Mary to seek refuge from Herod. Later, in 1st Century, St Mark arrived in Alexandria and Christianity was introduced to Egypt. For centuries Coptic Christians had been undergoing several conflicts, but still their identity did not fade away and today, they hold about 10% of Egyptian population.

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The Holy Family in Egypt
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The Coptic Cross

Today, what we called Coptic Cairo was once named as ‘Babylon’ by Greeks, because of an Egyptian word for ‘The Nile House of On’ sounding close to ‘Babylon’; otherwise no connection with Mesopotamian Babylon! Initially, Babylon was important not as a Christian center but for a fortress built here, until 11th century, when the Patriarchate of St Mark was transferred here from declining Alexandria. Today, only an old Roman tower and remnants of the walls of the fortress had been survived; but number of churches and monastic settlements one can find scattered everywhere.

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The Wall of Babylon Fortress

Out of all religious sites of Coptic Cairo we opted for few significant ones.

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A Screenshot of Google-Map Highlighting the Important Sites of Coptic Cairo

Hanging Church

This ‘Babylon’ has a Hanging Church. Yes! Church! This one is officially known as St Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church. It was built in 7th century on the top of a gatehouse of Babylon fortress with the central part suspending over a passage. Due to the rising of land surface by some six meters, you may not find it prominently ‘hanging’!

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The Hanging Church
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Young Folks Enjoying Sunday Outing in the Courtyard of the Hanging Church ; The Greek Inspired Mosaics behind

It was Sunday morning and the mass prayer was going on inside. For a while, I thought that I was re-visiting Turkey! The geometric patterns of the stone-carvings set at the entrance of the prayer-hall reminded me the Selcuk art-form, followed by the interior decors resembled to what we found inside Hagia Sophia of Istanbul.

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The Entrance of Prayer Hall
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The Prayer Hall of the Hanging Church; Basilica Style
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The Mass Prayer

Coptic Christianity falls under the Orthodox Christianity and it was our first exposure to any Orthodox Church. The small anti-room used as the central sanctuary, the intricately carved black wooden wall separating the sanctuary from the prayer hall, the Holy icons painted everywhere, those unknown rituals being performed by a priest standing behind the sanctuary curtain, the ankle-length white robe with impressive headgear he wore; everything was alien, everything was intriguing for us!

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The Priest Performing Holy Rituals on the Other Side of the Iconostatis
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Holy Icons ; Ranging from 8th to 18th Century

Coptic Museum

The Christian antiquities, once exhibited in Egyptian Museum of Cairo was later transferred to Coptic Museum, located within the walls of the fortress of Babylon. Since then, all the materials found or excavated, related to the Christian history of Egypt have been archived here. I was impressed by the intricate weaving of Coptic textiles which were in display. Here one of the most prized collections was Nag Hammadi texts, a collection of 13 leather-bound volumes with nearly 1200 papyrus pages. These are probably the earliest books with leather covers; more to this, the written evidence of Gnostic Christianity, a long-forgotten and much-vilified branch of early Christianity. We were strolling through the different sections of the museum showcasing icons, frescoes, manuscripts, artifacts made out of stone, metal, bones, ivory etc; we saw them, but could not perceive them. We were lacking in the rudimentary knowledge on Coptic Christianity required for a deep understanding. Alas! Our pre-trip study on Egypt was focused only on Pharaonic era.

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The Church of St George, Phographed from the Entrance of the Coptic Museum

 

Book-Market

While looking for the next attraction, the Google navigator took us in a fascinating alley with unending book-racks loaded with thousands of books. Some black & white photographs were also exhibited for sale. I wish I could spend a whole day here! (To know more, click here: 7 Interesting Markets of Egypt)

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The Unending Book-Racks

St George Convent

Pictures of a horse-rider fighting with a dragon are seen everywhere, especially in front of the churches, chapels and nunnery named after St George. According to legend, this man of Greek origin was a Roman soldier under Roman emperor Diocletian. St George was sentenced to death for refusing to leave his Christian faith. In Orthodox Christianity he is respected and worshipped as a martyr.

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Devotee Paying Tribute to St George
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St George Convent

Inside St George Convent, 7 meters high magnificent wooden doors from Fatimid-era were kept intact. Behind the doors there supposed to be an intact reception hall of that period, but the doors were kept closed.

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The Wooden Door from Fatimid-Period

Cavern Church

Like St George, another two soldier-saints St Sergius and St Bacchus were also martyred for their Christian faith. Cavern Church aka Abu Serga, one of the oldest Coptic churches (dated back to the 4th century) had been dedicated to their memory. It was built upon the underground stone-chamber where the Holy Family took shelter according to the traditional belief.

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The interior of the church looked like that of the Hanging Church, though smaller in size. The stone brick walls and ceiling enhance the old good charm. It is believed that the roof is constructed in the shape of Noah’s Ark.  In the transept area we found old books on Christianity in display.

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The Tri-Parted Prayer Hall with Stone Columns and a Marble Pulpit
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The Holy Well
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The Roof of the Cavern Church
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Books on Christianity Showcased in Cavern Church

Ben Ezra Synagogue

Like Jesus, according to the local folklore, Moses also had a childhood connection with this place. This synagogue had been built on the location where the baby Moses was found in a basket. The golden rimmed marble shrine, the intricately carved woodworks, the multiple pendant lights all together were much photogenic, though photography was prohibited inside. After the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1950, the number of Jews in Egypt had been declining rapidly. Therefore, today this synagogue is not functional as a place for religious worship; rather it is just a tourist attraction. And like most of the other tourist attractions of Egypt, here also a self-declared guide appeared and started running after us. We would like to spend more times especially on those sites where photography is prohibited to create a long-lasting visual impact on our mind; but here somebody’s unwanted guidance made us leave the place within short time.

 

Church of St Barbara

This is another very old Coptic Church, built in 5th century, where the relics of St Barbara are kept. This church was famous for its precious possession, though most of them have been shifted to the nearby Coptic Museum. Just like the Cavern Church, here also we saw a marble pulpit and tri-parted sanctuary.

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A Little Devotee Paying Tribute to Virgin Mary at the Church of St Barbara

 

Since the interiors mostly look alike, therefore, the church-hopping started  appearing monotonous at a time; though walking along those narrow stone-paved allies, in between the sepia yellow architectures with Orthodox carvings was fascinating; I would feel like time-traveling through Medieval Europe!  

Though Coptic Christianity is a part of Orthodox Christianity, but this area is also popular among Catholics. Even we saw a large number of Muslim people gathering here, bowing before the Holy icons of Christianity. Regardless of the religious faith of the visitors, this is a nice place for family-outing and I love this liberal vibe of Coptic Cairo. In the Hanging Church we found Holy messages written in Arabic; along with the mass prayer which was also performing in Arabic. Those made me rethink over the stereo-type idea of relating a particular religion with a language; and also a particular dress-code. We noticed the lady devotees wearing head-scarves just like their Islamic co-citizens and this example of cultural fusion in today’s world should be, needless to say, much appreciated.

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A Family Outing in Coptic Cairo

At the end of the prayer, devotees greeted each other by touching their both hands with others’ hands followed by kissing own hands. I did the same with the ladies standing around me, received pleasant smile and felt honored to be a part of their custom. Even after visiting Coptic Cairo, my knowledge on Coptic Christianity remained limited. I hardly perceived the antiquities, but I could feel the warmth of their greeting; and that was the most prized memory what I got from Coptic Cairo.

Useful Tips
  • Coptic Cairo is adjacent to Mar Girgis metro station. Once you get out of the metro station you will find yourself in the Coptic Cairo area. Needless to say, the easiest and cheapest mode of transport to be there is the metro. Mar Girgis is on metro line-1. Download a map of Cairo metro from internet, locate the metro station nearest to your accommodation and figure out which metro line(s) you should take to connect line-1.
  • You have to buy tickets for Coptic Museum. Other sites are free.
  • Most of the sites are open from 9 am to 4 pm.
  • To attend the mass prayer of the Hanging Church one should be there between 8-11 am on Wednesday & Friday and 9-11 am on Sunday.
  • There are canteens adjacent to some churches and chapels. You can get light snacks and drinking water in cheap price.
  • Coptic Cairo is a place where people mostly gather for their religious interest. Whatever be your belief, try to respect others’ culture. Dress and behave accordingly.
  • Photography is allowed in most of the sites. Apart from the Coptic Museum, there is no fixed rule written anywhere. Sometimes they will allow you to take pictures, sometimes not! Usually people are more sensitive to big DSLR cameras than the mobile-phones. Anyway, never take selfie inside a place of worship.
  • If you are in search of books on Egyptology or any other topic written in English, the book-market of the Coptic Cairo may meet your requirement. 

Related Posts

10 Experiences You Must Have while Visiting Cairo

How to Handle the Tourist Scams while Visiting Egypt

Off the Beaten Track:  Zawiyet al Maiyitin, Beni Hasan & Tuna el Gebel

 

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