Egypt - Attractions
Cairo isn't a gentle city. Home to more than 16 million Egyptians, Arabs, Africans and sundry others, the 'Mother of the World' is an all-out assault on the senses. Chaotic, noisy, polluted, totally unpredictable and seething with people, the sheer intensity of the city will either seduce or appal.
Cairo has plenty of fine 19th-century buildings, modern art and sculpture, precious green spaces and ancient districts (Islamic Cairo is a Unesco World Heritage Site). Then there's the Pharaonic sites that stretch south of the city, not to mention Those Pyramids and That River.
The mighty Macedonian Alexander the Great came to Egypt in 331 BC, after conquering Greece and selected a small fishing village on the Mediterranean coast to establish his new capital, Alexandria. The city is oriented around Midan Ramla and Midan Saad Zaghoul, the large square that runs down to the waterfront. Alexandria once had a great library that contained more than 500,000 volumes, and at its peak the city was a great repository of science, philosophy and intellectual thought and learning.
The Graeco-Roman Museum contains relics that date back to the 3rd century BC. There's a magnificent black granite sculpture of Apis, the sacred bull worshipped by Egyptians, as well as an assortment of mummies, sarcophagi, pottery, jewellery and ancient tapestries. Another highlight is one of the few historical depictions of the Pharos of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The only Roman Amphitheatre in Egypt was rediscovered in 1964. Its 13 white marble terraces are in excellent condition and excavation work is still under way, although the dig has shifted a little to the north of the theatre.
Pompey's Pillar is a massive 25m (82ft) pink granite monument measuring 9m (30ft) around its girth. The pillar should rightfully called Diocletian's Pillar, as it was built for the emperor in AD 297, and was the only monument left standing following the violent arrival of the Crusaders around 1000 years later. The Catacombs of Kom ash-Shuqqafa are the largest known Roman burial site in Egypt, and consist of three tiers of burial tombs, chambers and hallways. The catacombs were begun in the 2nd century AD and were later expanded to hold more than 300 corpses. There's a banquet hall where the grieving would pay their respects with a funeral feast. Experts are hoping to discover Cleopatra's Palace under the sea bed off Alexandria; platforms, pavements and columns have been found, and in 1998 a black granite statue of a priest of Isis and a diorite sphinx were raised from the sea. Cleopatra's Library was destroyed by the Crusaders.
Aswan, Egypt's southernmost city, has long been the country's gateway to Africa. The prosperous market city straddles the crossroads of the ancient caravan routes, at the 'other' end of the Nile, not far above the Tropic of Cancer. In ancient times it was a garrison town known as Swenet (meaning trade), and it was also important to the early Coptic Christians. The main town and temple area of Swenet were located on Elephantine Island in the middle of Nile (the island was known then as Abu, and later renamed by the Greeks). The temples and ruins here are not nearly as well preserved and impressive as those elsewhere in the country, but there are other good reasons to visit. If you're not 'tombed out', a visit to the Tombs of the Nobles is worthwhile, and a highlight is the Nubian Museum, showcasing history, art and Nubian culture from the prehistoric to the present. The Nile is glorious here as it makes its way down from the massive High Dam and Lake Nasser - watching the feluccas glide by as the sun sets over the Nile is an experience you're unlikely to forget.
Built on the site of the ancient city of Thebes, Luxor is one of Egypt's prime tourist destinations. People have been visiting the magnificent monuments of Luxor, Karnak, Hatshepsut and Ramses III for thousands of years. Feluccas and old barges shuffle along the Nile between the luxury hotel ships of the Hilton and Sheraton cruising to and from Cairo and Aswan.
Luxor Temple was built by Pharaoh Amenhotep III (1390-1352 BC) on the site of an older temple built by Hatshepsut and added to by Tutankhamun, Ramses II, Alexander the Great and various Romans. Excavation work has been under way since 1885. The Temples of Karnak are a spectacular series of monuments that were the main place of worship in Theban times. They can be divided into the Amun Temple Enclosure, which is the largest; the Mut Temple Enclosure on the south side; and the Montu Temple Enclosure. The lonely statues of the Colossi of Memnon are the first things most people see when they arrive on the West bank, though the Valley of the Kings, including the spectactular tombs of Nefertari (currently closed) and Tutankhamun, are the big attraction. Luxor is accessible from Cairo by buses or trains which run every day.
Situated on the northern entrance to the Suez Canal on the Mediterranean coast, Port Said is a very young city by Egyptian standards. It was founded in 1859 by ruler Said Pasha when excavations began for the Suez Canal. Port Said was bombed in 1956 during the Suez Crisis, and again in the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel; the damage can still be seen here and there, although the city was extensively rebuilt. The original settlement was established on land reclaimed from Lake Manzala, and the city sits on an isthmus connected by causeways to the mainland. Ferries cross Lake Manzala to Al-Matariyya and across the canal to Port Fuad. Unlike many of Egypt's other Mediterranean towns, Port Said does not get overrun with local tourists seeking sun and sea. It's an unusual destination by Egyptian standards, with 1900s colonial architecture and several good museums and gardens.
The spectacle of the huge ships and tankers lining up to pass through the northern entrance of the canal is something to be seen. The central district around the canal is full of five-storey buildings with timber balconies and high verandahs in grand belle epoque style. South are the striking green domes of Suez Canal House, built in time for the inauguration of the canal in 1869, but, unfortunately, off limits to visitors. Trains, buses and service taxis run between Cairo and Port Said.