My fascination with Egypt and its artistic achievements started at the age of 7 when my parents took me to the Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art. It was 1977 and the visiting exhibit sparked a Bayou State obsession with all things Egyptian. Nile Style consumed the deep south like the cultural force of a hurricane. I was mesmerized by King Tut’s golden gleaming, bejeweled Pharaoh death mask and the treasures buried with the young king.
2022 marked the 100th anniversary of the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 by archeologist Howard Carter, in the Valley of Kings, an ancient Egyptian royalty grave site west of the city of Luxor. That year, I decided to fulfill my lifelong dream of exploring Egypt, the country that captivated my childhood imagination and served as a creative muse into adulthood.
I flew into Cairo and met up with Cairo Transport & Touring which put together my 10-day tour of the country. As a woman traveling alone in the Middle East, I wanted peace of mind, knowing that I was safe and free to absorb, learn, and explore Egypt. Cairo Transport & Touring, founded in 1952 and based in Cairo, has a team of experienced, local, English-speaking guides. My guides, Amir and Mohamed, and a dedicated security guard accompanied my group throughout our trip.
I start with Egypt’s emblematic experience, a visit to the Giza Pyramids, west of Cairo, at the edge of the Sahara Desert. The archeological site is known as the oldest and only surviving of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. The Giza Pyramid complex holds 9 pyramids built during the 4th Dynasty around 2620 BC. To put the pyramids in historical context, consider that Egypt’s story begins in 3001 BC with the union of upper and lower Egypt by the first pharaoh Menes. He founded the ancient Egyptian capital called Memphis in the north. Thirty Egyptian dynasties followed and ruled until 332 BC when the Greeks arrived.
The Great Pyramid, King Khufu’s tomb, is the largest on-site, towering 481 feet and made of 2.3 million stone blocks. The Cheops Pyramid has interior burial chambers open to the public. You can go inside the pyramid for an extra ticket, but there isn’t much to see inside the small space with low ceilings. It’s hard to stand up because the interior chambers were not built for visitors. You won’t see any hieroglyphics inside the pyramids because Egyptian pictorial writing started in the 5th dynasty.
Like many people, I’ve seen a lot of photos of the Giza Pyramids but to experience them up close— I’m speechless. Each pyramid is a fascinating feat of human engineering. The lower part of each pyramid is made of granite from quarries in Aswan that traveled by the Nile more than 550 miles to the site of the Giza pyramids. The top levels of the pyramid are made of limestone. Three large pyramids honor the kings and six honor the queens.
A camel ride was on my travel bucket list and the rides at Giza Pyramids are the real deal, an authentic experience. You climb on the camel from the ground not an elevated platform. A word of advice—if you don’t lean back as the camel stands up, you will topple forward. This camel ride demands a little physical agility but once I’m up, it’s so surreal. A camel handler holds the reigns and walks the camel with you.
Now, a word to the wise, watch out for scammers. My tour guide Mohammed helped me negotiate a fair price for my camel ride. There are incidences where camel handlers will take you behind the pyramids and ask for more cash to take your picture. It’s a popular shakedown you can avoid by getting your traveling companions to take photos of your camel ride. Overall, the experience is well worth it.
Next to the Giza Pyramid complex lies the Great Sphinx of Giza, the most famous and oldest of Egypt’s Sphinxes. The Sphinx, carved out of limestone during the 4th Dynasty about 2620 BC, depicts the head of King Chephren and the body of a lion.
The Temple of the Valley next to the Great Sphinx is where Egyptians mummified the bodies of their dead royalty.
Bodies spent 40 days being mummified here before they were transferred to a neighboring temple to continue the mummification process for another 30 days. The mummification practice began during the Fourth and Fifth Dynasties about 2600 BC and continued for more than 2,000 years, into the Roman Period from 30 BC to 364 AD. Egyptians removed all organs except for the heart and preserved the main organs separately in alabaster jars, buried with the mummy.
For an up-close look at the largest collection of Egyptian royal mummies, I head over to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, battling Cairo’s chaotic traffic to get there.
The museum opened in 2021, and one of its biggest draws is The Royal Mummies Hall.
Here you can see 20 Royal Mummies, 18 Kings, and 2 Queens, most notably Queen Hatshepsut. So much of ancient Egyptian art, architecture, and customs express this reverence for the afterlife, and the museum holds many ancient artifacts in addition to objects up to modern-day Egypt, some 1500 total.
Unlike the voluptuous bodies depicted in many European masterpieces, I’m struck by how ancient Egyptians painted the human form as svelte and sexy, wearing revealing fashions, elaborate jewelry, and dramatic makeup.
My guide Amir explains why: “In Egyptian art, you never see somebody ugly or overweight, everybody looks perfect. You see the kings wearing garments that show their legs and muscles. The ladies are wearing tight dresses to show off their beautiful bodies. Egyptians depict the human body from the profile. They show the face in the profile but the full eye and never show the belly button. This is not a mistake in art. Egyptians want to show every organ in the body in the most flattering way,” Amir says.
While visiting the National Civilization museum, I met an artisan outside the gift shop crafting statutes with inlaid copper and silver wires that he hammers by hand into each piece.
He says some pieces can take a month to finish. He also crafts intricately engraved copper plates.
He is one of many modern-day masters of ancient Egyptian craft techniques. “If you look at the culture and heritage you will see that Egyptians were always into art since they were one of the very first populations to have an interest in painting, having an interest in showing their lives and putting them in pictures in temples and tombs. Egyptians were always keen to make things look different and nice and to use materials from nature to create new things and to express how they lived even their thoughts of life after death,” explains Mustafa Seif, Assistant GM, Cairo Transport & Touring.
The Egyptian Museum, located in Tahrir Square, the center of downtown Cairo, holds most of ancient Egypt’s artifacts. The neoclassical structure opened in 1902 to protect, preserve and prevent the export of Egyptian antiquities.
One of my personal highlights was the King Tut collection of jewelry and precious objects including the young king’s iconic Golden Pharaoh mask, unearthed in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings.
In 2022, when I traveled, Egypt was celebrating the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the King Tut tomb in 1922 by archeologist Howard Carter.
The museum resides about a 45-minute drive from the Giza Pyramids.
In 2023, the Egyptian government is planning to open the new Grand Egyptian Museum near the Giza Pyramids making it easier for tourists to travel between the two sites.
The Grand Egyptian Museum will display, for the first time ever, King Tut’s entire treasure collection alongside artifacts throughout Egypt’s history from prehistoric times to modern day culture.
I traveled to Egypt in April 2022, during Ramadan, a month-long religious observance for Islam, the official religion of Egypt, requiring the faithful to fast from sun up to sundown and pray five times a day.
In the markets and shops and Egyptian homes, colorful lighted lanterns known as Fanoos decorate many Egyptian homes and public spaces during Ramadan. According to Islamic history, Egyptians carried these Ramadan lanterns to light the way to the mosque for prayer.
Egyptian craftspeople carry on this centuries-old technique of hand-making copper or tin lanterns inlaid with colored glass, anchored on a wooden base that holds a candle. These ornate Ramadan lanterns merge Egyptian folklore and Islamic designs.
My English-speaking guides, Mohamed and Amir with Cairo Transport and Tours were fasting on our long, action-packed days, often in extremely hot temperatures of 100 degrees or more. During the fast, Muslims are not allowed to eat or drink anything, not even water. If they were hungry or thirsty, they never showed their discomfort, and their stamina garnered equal parts guilt and respect on my part.
Muslims first arrived in Egypt in 640 BC. Today, Egypt’s population is 85 percent Muslim, a demographic that defines the country’s cultural identity and way of life.
Cairo is known as the city of one thousand mosque towers, known as minarets. Before loud speakers and technology, mosque minarets were used to announce call to prayer. The majority of Egypt’s Muslim population practices the religion of Islam. Many Muslims worldwide come to Cairo to attend al-Azhar University, considered the world’s preeminent institution of Islamic learning.
In my next blog post, I explore Old Cairo— the churches, mosques, and markets that comprise the cultural landscape of the colorful, chaotic, charismatic city.