On Saturday 3 April 2021, the city of Cairo put on a spectacular two-hour show dubbed ‘The Royal Event’, which was broadcast live around the world. The historical event marked the transfer of 18 Kings and 4 Queens from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square to the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation in Fustat.
The Pharaohs’ Golden Parade saw the ancient royals transported in climate-controlled cases on trucks shaped like ancient boats. The pharaohs were received at their new home 7km away by Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in a sign of respect and gratitude to Egypt’s former rulers.
The importance of the tourism sector
The Pharaohs’ Golden Parade is the latest campaign by Egypt to restart the tourism sector which was expected to attract 15m international tourists in 2020 before the pandemic hit. The tourism sector contributed 12% to the country’s GDP in 2019.
Egypt’s tourism sector suffered many setbacks in the last decade: the Arab Spring (2011), the downing of the Metrojet Flight 9268 (2015), church bombings (2011, 2016-17), the Hurghada attacks (2017) roadside bombings targeting tourists near Giza (2018-19).
The well-choreographed show was a reminder to the world that despite these setbacks, Egypt is resilient and has a rich culture and heritage plus warm hospitality that guarantee its place as Africa’s top tourist destination. Egypt has so much to offer: museums, historical sites, diving, snorkelling, beaches, river cruises on the Nile and the now more-famous, Suez Canal.
Any visit to Egypt should start with Cairo, the charming and historical capital that is also home to some of the world’s greatest treasures. Ongolo.com’s recommendations for the top five things to do in Cairo are:
The Egyptian Museum, which is officially known as Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, has been the leading museum in Egypt since it was established in 1902. In addition to the pharaohs, the museum houses the famous gold mask of Tutankhamun, the giant statutes of Amenhotep III and his wife, Tiye, and other historical artefacts.
The Egyptian Museum will be replaced by the Grand Egyptian Museum which will be opened in June 2021 and will be the largest museum for ancient Egyptian culture. It is hoped that the more spacious location will increase the number of visitors from 2.5m visitors annually seen at the old museum. The Louvre, which is the most visited museum in the world, receives 9.3m visitors. Egypt has the ambition and will to double that number to break into the Top 10.
The National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, the new home of the pharaohs, will focus on showcasing the different historical periods that defined Egypt’s history and educate visitors on the country’s significant contribution to civilisation.
#2 Mosques and churches
Cairo is known as ‘the city of a thousand minarets‘ because it is home to over 1,000 mosques. The most beautiful of them all is the Mosque of Muhammad Ali or the the Alabaster Mosque, which is located in the Citadel, the city’s highest point. The mosque is modelled on the Sultan Ahmed Mosque or Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey. The stunning architecture includes beautiful hanging lights and alabaster features in the courtyard and interior. Other mosques worth visiting include: Mosque of Amir Inn Al-As (the oldest mosque), Mosque of Ibn Tulun, and Mosque of al-Hakim bi Amrillah.
It is estimated that between 5-15% of Egypt’s population are Christians and Cairo has some stunning churches that cater to this minority religious group. The most popular tourist attraction is The Hanging Church or Al Moallaqa, which was so named because it was built on top of a Roman fortress. Other churches worth visiting include: St Sergius and St Bacchus Church (the oldest Coptic church), St George Church and St Barbara Church. I visited St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church,(El-Botroseya Church) nine days before a bomb attack on 11 December 2016.
#3 The Giza Pyramid complex
When I first landed at Cairo International Airport in December 2016, I asked my driver to take me straight to Giza instead of The Nile Ritz-Carlton hotel because I had waited a lifetime to see the globally renowned symbol of ancient civilization: the Pyramids. There are three pyramids at the site including the Great Pyramid of Giza (the oldest one, which was built for Pharaoh Khufu), the Pyramid of Khafre and the Pyramid of Menkaure. The Great Sphinx of Gaza, a human-like lion, guards this sacred site.
The pyramids were burial sites for the pharaohs and their royal court. Pharaohs started building their own tombs at the start of the reign which explains why there are so many unfinished pyramids as the average construction time was 20 years. The pyramids have survived for more than four thousand years despite being made from simple stone and sand.
I was not as blown away with the pyramids as I was with the museums, mosques and churches which is why I ranked them third. The pyramids are smaller than they appear in film and print with the Great Pyramid less than half the height of the Eiffel Tower at 139m. The sphinx on the other hand is much bigger than you’d expect and is impressive when you consider it was carved out of a single piece of limestone. The other disadvantage is that the area is always busy, making it nearly impossible to take the perfect shot. Visitors should manage expectations.
What I did enjoy were the insights from my knowledgeable guide who explained how the pyramids were constructed and gave an informative historical account of the lives of the pharaohs. I was too claustrophobic to do a tour inside one of the pyramids – a good option for the brave. I also got to ride around Giza in a horse drawn-carriage and interact with locals children visiting the site as part of a school excursion. The funniest thing was spotting a Burger King located right opposite the entrance to the pyramids – talk about a clash of civilisations. What the pyramids lacked in size was more than made up for in the overall experience. Definitely a must see.
#4 River Nile
The River Nile is the longest river in the world measuring 6,695km and originates in Lake Victoria (I have visited this site near Jinja, Uganda) and flows through 11 countries as it makes its way to the Mediterranean Sea in the north. The Nile is essential for economic activity and supports agriculture, fishing, transportation and water supply.
A trip to Cairo is not complete without a sunset cruise on this majestic river. Visitors have many choices ranging from a one hour private boat ride to a four-hour food and entertainment (e.g. belly dancing) affair.
#5 Egyptian cultural experience
To appreciate Cairo, one must take it as it is and just go along for a ride. When I first arrived, I was baffled by the drivers who blatantly disregard those little white lines on the road that demarcate lanes and hoot incessantly at the slightly hint of delay. Cairo is noisy and chaotic but has some of the warmest people you’ll meet in Africa.
Take a walk through the markets and support local people by buying locally made products that you would typically buy at the airport. Last but not least, enjoy the food which is available from food stands and restaurants that suit every budget. One of my best nights was dining on local cuisine at now-closed Sequoia restaurant, located on the banks of the Nile in up-market suburb, Zamalek.
I can’t wait to visit Cairo again. Insha’Allah!
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