Egypt’s Cairo

Teeming Cairo, straddling the Nile, is the capital of Egypt and one of the leading cities of the Muslim world. With 20 million people, greater Cairo pulses with energy. We explore the back streets on a tuk-tuk, drop in on a mosque, haggle with a gauntlet of eager merchants, bake some pita bread, help chisel a tombstone, marvel at King Tut's gold, greet the ancient Sphinx, and climb into the center of the greatest pyramid.


Hey, I'm Rick Steves, venturing beyond Europe to a land where there's no shortage of serendipity. We're in Egypt. It's Cairo. Thanks for joining us.

Cairo, straddling the Nile, is the biggest city in North Africa and the biggest in the Middle East. It's the capital of Egypt and one of the leading cities in Islam. With about 20 million people in greater Cairo, it's bursting at the seams and pulsing with energy.

And this energy will carry us to some of Cairo's greatest sights and most vibrant neighborhoods. We'll explore the back streets local style, help chisel a tombstone, greet the ancient [Great] Sphinx, marvel at King Tut's gold, drop in on a mosque…

Merchant: Buy one, two free today. Cheapy-cheap.

…haggle with a gauntlet of eager merchants, have dinner at home with a family, and marvel at the pyramids.

In the southeast of the Mediterranean, Egypt, 50 percent bigger than Texas, gathers its 100 million people mostly along the Nile River. We'll explore its leading city, Cairo, and finish at the pyramids of Giza.

Cairo's a fascinating clash between traditional and modern, religious and secular, East and West. While its chaos can be exasperating, it can also be a rewarding challenge for the adventurous traveler.

Cairo's downtown is modern and can feel European. Streets, squares, and grand buildings are reminders of the country's colonial past — from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The riverfront throbs with energy — stately bridges busy with traffic, fancy riverside restaurants, and towering apartment complexes. The Nile is still the lifeblood of the city, sprawling endlessly on both sides.

The heart of Cairo is Tahrir Square. It's long been ground zero for the people's spirit. If there's a demonstration going on — and there have been massive ones in recent years — it's likely here. In addition to its political energy, the city's long been a religious capital.

Ever since the forces of Islam swept across North Africa from Arabia in the seventh century, spreading the teaching of their prophet Mohammed, Cairo has been a leading city of the Muslim world.

And today Cairo's known as the city of a thousand minarets.

Stepping into Al Hussein mosque, like [with] any neighborhood mosque, you'll find a worshipful tranquility. It's believed that resting here invigorates the soul. There's more intensity around the adjacent shrine, believed to contain a sacred relic: the head of Al Hussein ibn Ali, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.

In a mosque, men and women worship separately. As praying can be physical, with lots of bending over, it's considered more respectful to allow woman their own space. I find that a respectful tourist is welcome to be a part of the scene.

Along with minarets, you'll see church spires — especially in Cairo's Coptic quarter. While Egypt is predominantly Muslim, today about 10 percent of the country is Christian. The Egyptian, or "Coptic," Church actually predates Islam by six centuries.

Because they [Coptic Christians] worship in an orthodox style, stepping into a Coptic Mass is like going back in time.

The faithful believe that when Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus escaped Herod by fleeing to Egypt, this very spot is where they took refuge. Later, in AD 43, it's believed the Evangelist Mark came to Egypt and established the Coptic Church. Mark was their first pope and the first in an unbroken line of Coptic popes stretching back nearly 2,000 years.

The Coptic quarter comes with high security. Throughout Egypt, travelers will notice armed guards, security barriers, and a high-profile police presence. These are reminders of a pent-up tension in Egyptian society. They reveal the challenges Egyptian democracy faces today.

While many modern Muslims would prefer a separation of mosque and state, others believe Egypt should be ruled in accordance with a strict interpretation of the Quran. Religious fundamentalism is a challenge here as it is in America.

Cairo is intense. I love traveling here, but I do it with safety and sanity in mind. While prices on the street may be cheap, if you want rich-world comfort, you'll pay rich-world prices. I sleep at in an international-class hotel. It comes with first-class security. I hope the future will be more relaxed, but for now, I splurge for the peace of mind.

Cairo's mighty Citadel — capped by a dramatic 19th-century mosque — is a reminder that the need for security is nothing new here. For nearly 700 years, this was the fortified home of Egypt's rulers and government. Back in the 13th century, it was one of the most impressive such fortifications of the age. But buildings only partially represent the story here. The people you see on the streets are the living descendants of one of the oldest and greatest civilizations in history.

The people of today's Egypt represent the latest chapter in a story that goes back 5,000 years. Even if you don't understand its long and complicated history, just observing how old and new come together is rewarding to the traveler. Egypt's heritage goes back twice as far as ancient Rome. And ancient Egypt — that's what draws the tourists.

The iconic sights of ancient Egypt — four or five thousand years old — are basically buildings and art for dead people. Back then, they believed you could take it with you. And your big challenge: to be sure your body and your valuables survived the journey into the afterlife. That's why, if you had the power and money, you'd lock everything up in a big tomb — a pyramid. These are the most famous: the Pyramids of Giza.

But the oldest pyramid is actually nearby at Saqqara, the tomb of the king or pharaoh named Zoser. This structure — which marked his tomb — is a "step pyramid." Dating from around 2600 BC, it's a century older than its more famous sisters at Giza. This first-ever towering stone structure is more than just a grave marker. With an innovative stacking of layers, it provided a new way to glorify a king: [by] creating a stairway to eternity.

A visit to Cairo's Egyptian Museum helps bring the country's many ancient sights to life. Along with the Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza, this museum shows off the best collection of ancient Egyptian art anywhere. The core of the collection, art from the age of the pharaohs, dates from about 3000 to 1000 BC.

Nearly everything filling these old halls is funerary art, art designed to help save the souls of the pharaohs: statues filled with symbolism, written prayers, and offerings to deal with the gods and help assure a happy transition into the afterlife.

This ancient art is so well-preserved because most of it was hidden away for 4,000 years, dark and dry, in tombs. This portrayal of geese from 2500 BC is perhaps the oldest surviving painting. This "seated scribe" recalls the importance of the educated elite in the court of an often-illiterate king. And this couple — a husband and wife — was also found in a tomb. It's all art for the dead, locked up until rediscovered in modern times.

Many mummies patiently await your visit. Ancient Egyptians preserved bodies through a complex process of mummification in hopes that the soul could re-inhabit it in the next world.

And the coffins were elaborately painted with an inventory of things that, hopefully, would accompany the body, and with prayers — to be sure all went as planned.

The art looks essentially the same from century to century. A remarkable thing about ancient Egyptian art — and society as a whole — was its stability. For 2,000 years — from 3000 to 1000 BC — relative to other times and other cultures, very little changed.

Religion permeated Egyptian society. As long as things were going reasonably well, the gods were happy — and it was status quo. Every year the Nile would flood, bringing water and fertile silt to the land. When the gods are happy, the people have food — and you don't change things.

And the pharaoh was considered a god. If your leader is a god, you question nothing. You obey the rules. Things stay the same.

Akhenaten was the one exception in a 2,000-year line of conformist pharaohs. Rather than the same, predictable idealized features, Akhenaten had his own voluptuous looks — from a strangely curvaceous body to big sensuous lips. Ruling around 1400 BC, he was considered history's first monotheist. Akhenaten replaced all the gods of the Egyptian pantheon with one all-powerful being, the sun god, whom he called "Aten."

In reliefs from the reign of Akhenaten we see Aten — the sun — shining down on everything. During the time of Akhenaten, people were portrayed looser, more intimately. Casual family scenes? Must be from the time of Akhenaten.

As always, I appreciate the services of a guide, so I'll understand the symbolism and know what to look for. So, we're joined by my friend and fellow guide, Marwa Abbas.

She explained how lots of ancient hieroglyphic writing on papyrus survives, and how it helps us better understand the mysteries of the pharaohs.

Marwa: Papyrus is made out of the stem of the plant papyrus. Which is hammered and then it is woven and then we press it in a pressing machine or stones to get those beautiful papers. These are the hieroglyphs, one of the most ancient written languages because of which we understood a lot about the civilization of ancient Egypt.

So, these are beautiful paintings of the afterlife. Even in the afterlife they were trying to bribe the gods and deities in order to help them in the afterlife path. Even here in front of the judge Osiris is a big offering pile of lotus, onions, oxen leg, as well as breads and vegetables.
Rick: Anything to make the god happy.
Marwa: Anything to make him happy.

The son of Akhenaten was Tutankhamun, perhaps the most famous pharaoh. A highlight of the museum's collection is a section filled with King Tut's treasures, from his splendid coffin to his jewelry.

Rick: This is exquisite.
Marwa: It is a beautiful piece of the jewelry of Tutankhamun, around the year 1300 BC, made out gold, turquoise, lapis lazuli, and you can see the beautiful symbolism over here, where you can see the scarab, the sign of existence, as well as the sun disc. The cobra is wearing the crowns of upper and lower Egypt as well as the ankh, symbol of life. The ancient Egyptians used to mummify their bodies and also mummified their organs. King Tutankhamun around the year 1300 BC had his organs inside this beautiful alabaster box and that was also inside a wooden gilded beautiful box that had the surroundings of the four goddesses for protection. So it was always about protection.

The mask of Tut looks like his face so his soul could recognize him on his journey to the afterlife. Placed over the head of his mummy, it was 24 pounds of gold, with a cobra and a vulture to symbolize the united kingdom of Upper and Lower Egypt, which Tut proudly ruled.

After the museum, Cairo's characteristic old quarter is a colorful celebration of today's Egypt. Khan Al-Khalili is the megamall of medieval bazaars. Six hundred years ago, it was a caravanserai — a stop on a caravan trade route. Then, when the Ottoman Turks took Egypt, it became a bustling Turkish bazaar. Today it's a stop for every tour group and the merchants are standing by…

Merchant: How are you? How can I take your money?

…eager to charm you into a little shopping.

Merchant: Welcome, just have a look here, everything is free. Welcome to Egypt.

Merchant: Today 100% discount because today my birthday.

Merchant: Buy one, two free today. Cheapy-cheap.

Merchant: No money, no honey. No cry!

The hustlers can be intense and annoying — or fun, depending on your approach.

Merchant: Hello my friend, Good morning!

Dive in, with a sense of humor.

Bargaining is expected in Egyptian markets; treat it as a game. Never feel sorry for — or obligated to — the merchant. If you see something you like, show some interest and see how low you can get the price.

Merchant: Here, your size.
Rick: Maybe $5.
Merchant: Big size, for you. Give me $5. OK, you can buy it.

I find that simply venturing a few blocks away from the tourist-friendly bazaar — suddenly, the tourists are gone, and I'm swallowed up in a completely local scene. Wandering through the colorful market streets here in Cairo's Islamic quarter, you feel that it goes on forever.

Three-wheeled tuk-tuks weave through the action. I love to hop in one for a quick joyride. There's something strangely graceful about this chaotic dance of careening vehicles, merchants, and pedestrians.

Exploring the Islamic quarter creates a montage of memories. It's a commotion of activity. Everywhere you look, something you've never seen before is happening. Somehow, bikers balance rustic racks of bread.

Craftsmen inscribe marble tombstones with verses from the Holy Quran: "The peaceful soul, after a blessed life, will finally rest in heaven." With a little effort, you'll find it can be easy to become part of the scene.

In this shop, a man spins delicate strands of flour that will become a favorite local pastry, kanafeh.

The classic street food here is koshary: lentil, rice, pasta, garlic, and tomato sauce, all mixed together into a quick and cheap treat. The distinctive clanging stokes local appetites.

And small bakeries are steadily producing hot balloons of pita bread — destined to be filled with falafel. Bread is subsidized by the government to make life easier for people struggling to feed their families.

Walking through neighborhoods like this, you gain an appreciation for how just making ends meet is a daily struggle for millions in a teeming city like Cairo.

I make a point to explore a variety of neighborhoods. Here in Egypt, like almost anywhere, there's a big gap between rich and poor. In the relative cool of the evening, the prosperous streets of downtown are filled with window shoppers and thriving eateries — clearly a world for Egypt's more privileged class.

And gated social clubs in a place like Egypt provide a refuge where the wealthy can live in a parallel world, protected from the gritty reality of the streets.

My friend Tarek, who runs a successful tour company, has invited me out for the evening. Tarek grew up as a member here, he met his wife here, and today their children enjoy this privileged environment almost daily.

These clubs have something for all generations — birthday parties, playgrounds, competitive sports. Adults can retreat to the no-kids zone to play a quiet game of croquet with friends they've been socializing with here with since childhood — or just to watch from the peaceful terrace.

We finish our evening just down the street at Tarek's home, joining his family for dinner.

Rick: So how do you say — in France, you would say, "bon appétit"
Heba: Bon appétit, yeah.
Rick: …in Arabic?
Heba: Bailhana' walshifa'.
Rick: Bailhana'…?
Heba: Bailhana' walshifa'.
Rick: Bailhana'…
Heba: Bailhana' walshifa'.
Rick: That's very difficult. Bon appétit.
Heba: It's easier.
Rick: I think so. Mmm!

Rick: Heba, this is so beautiful. Can you give me please a tour of this beautiful Egyptian meal?
Heba: Sure. This is moussaka; this the stuffed vine leaves…
Rick: Stuffed vine leaves…
Heba: OK, and this is okra with tomato sauce…
Rick: Okra! Nice.
Heba: …very delicious, and this is Egyptian beef with onion sauce, and this is of course, rice, and this is, then, rokak
Rick: Rokak.
Heba: Yes…
Rick: What is rokak?
Heba: It is some kind of pastry stuffed with mincemeat.
Rick: And…
Heba: This is tzatziki.
Rick: Tzatziki! So, we have moussaka…
Heba: Yes, in common with us and the Greeks.
Rick: I was going to say, moussaka, stuffed grape leaves, and tzatziki — a Greek would say, "that's my food" — but it's Egyptian also?
Heba: We cook it differently.
Rick: OK…there we go. Thank you. Shukran [thank you]. So is it normal for children to speak English and Egyptian [Arabic]?
Heba: Actually, if they're in an international school, yeah.
Rick: And your kids go to international school?
Heba: Yes — American ones.
Daughter: Sometimes on Friday or Thursday we watch, on the TV, Netflix — we choose an English movie.
Rick: You can choose, Egyptian or English?
Daughter: Yeah.
Younger daughter: Family movie!
Tarek: Family movie, yes! Every Thursday night it's family movie.
Rick: And Heba, what do you wish for your daughters, to be successful and to be happy?
Heba: To have good faith, good education as well, to be open minded, self-confident.
Rick: Beautiful. I think you're on the right road. I think you're on the right road.
Heba: I hope so.
Rick: Lovely.

Cairo sprawls. It's a jam-packed city of over 20 million. Massive blocks of apartment flats spring up, many violating building codes, to congest the ever-growing suburbs. Driving through half an hour of this, we finally reach the desert — and the sight that draws most tourists to Egypt: the Pyramids at Giza, one of the most recognizable scenes in all of tourism. Towering before us are the tombs of three great kings, or "pharaohs." These monuments were built to mark and to protect the bodies of fabulously wealthy and powerful pharaohs.

They spent a good part of their lives and their kingdom's wealth building huge pyramids, which served as lockers for whatever they wanted to take into the afterlife: their bodies, their treasures — even their favorite pets.

The pyramid of the pharaoh Cheops is the only survivor of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This grandest of all pyramids — 700 feet long on each side — was built 2,500 years before Christ. The neighboring pyramids are likely those of Cheops' son and grandson. The smaller ones? They're for the wives and daughters.

Experts guess that with 10,000 laborers hard at work, it took 20 years to build the pyramid of Cheops. According to my abacus, that's 200,000 man-years of hard labor. Workers dragged over 2 million huge stones up ramps, eventually constructing this 450-foot-high monument. In their day, the pyramids were encased in a shiny limestone veneer. I sure hope Cheops was satisfied.

Long, secret corridors, originally blocked by sliding stones, lead to the tomb chamber deep in the center of each pyramid. Climbing this passage, you marvel at the design and the audacity of the project.

Finally, reaching the burial room, you're hit by the thought that this was the most sacred and precious chamber in the ancient world — silent for 4,000 years, until the arrival of tourism.

This is it: the center of this massive pyramid. The pharaoh's mummy was put in this stone sarcophagus. The sarcophagus is bigger than the passageway — so this must have been here first, and then the pyramid built around it. This huge chamber was filled with treasures.

A little shaft was designed into the pyramid to provide an escape passage for the soul of the pharaoh.

For the pharaoh, the most important treasure was his soul, which needed to be free for the ascent to the afterlife.

Back outside, complementing the scene, is the mysterious [Great] Sphinx. As old as the pyramids, it was carved out of a piece of hard rock that stuck above the limestone plateau. With the body of a lion and the head of a king, or god, it came to symbolize both strength and wisdom as it faces east and the rising sun.

The sphinx faces the promise of the rising sun, and so does Cairo — as Egypt's ancient story continues to unfold. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'.