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Things to Do in Egypt

An ancient land of towering pyramids and endless stretches of desert, Egypt is often referred to as the cradle of civilization. On the lush banks of the Nile River, papyrus reeds sway alongside pharaonic temples, and sandblasted tombs reside beneath the mysterious gaze of the Sphinx. With so much to see, a popular way to explore the Gift of the Nile is by cruise ship, with options ranging from week-long luxury jaunts to shorter, budget-friendly trips. Popular stopovers include Aswan, home to the Aswan High Dam and Philae Temple; Luxor, where temple complexes in the Valley of the Kings pay testament to pharaohs including King Tutankhamun; and, of course, Cairo, capital city and gateway to the Great Pyramid of Giza, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (and a perfect opportunity for a desert camel ride). Alternatively, make Cairo your base, exploring the enormous Egyptian Museum and doing some shopping in the vast Khan el Khalili Bazaar. From the city, you can take day trips to many of the essential sites, including the ancient capital of Memphis—home to Egypt’s oldest pyramid. Following a healthy dose of history, head to the Red Sea coast to relax on the golden sands of Hurghada and experience the country’s best scuba diving in Marsa Alam, where unspoiled coral reefs teem with marine life.
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Giza Pyramids
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The sole survivor of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Pyramids of Giza still live up to more than 4,000 years of hype. Their extraordinary shape, geometry and age render them somehow alien constructions; they seem to rise out of the desert and pose the ever-fascinating question, 'How were we built, and why?' The oldest and biggest pyramid is that of Cheops, and you can go inside this one if you don't suffer from claustrophobia. Once they were covered in smooth white marble but that was taken for temples over the centuries, but you can imagine how even more impressive they would have been then. Climbing on the pyramids is strictly banned.The sole survivor of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Pyramids of Giza still live up to more than 4,000 years of hype. Their extraordinary shape, geometry and age render them somehow alien constructions; they seem to rise out of the desert and pose the ever-fascinating question, 'How were we built, and why?'

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Valley of the Kings
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The harsh, lunar landscape of the Valley of the Kings is the resting place of numerous New Kingdom pharaohs, whose remains were interred in tombs burrowed into rock. The 60-odd tombs which have been discovered (which may represent only half of the total tombs in the area) are identified by number rather than the name of their original inhabitant, and a handful of tombs are closed at any one time for restoration. Nonetheless there is more than enough to see, and it is better to pick out a representative sample rather than try to see every tomb.

Grave-robbers and museums have nabbed the items which were supposed to accompany rulers into the afterlife, but you can still see the work of some of the finest artisans of the ancient world, who glorified pharaohs in frescoes and wall reliefs. Graffiti shows that this extraordinary ensemble of antiquities was already a tourist attraction for the ancient Greeks and Romans.

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Philae Temple (Temple of Isis)
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Philae was a holy island in the Nile River where the ancient Egyptians built a temple to the goddess Isis. With the projects to dam the Nile - first with the Aswan Dam, then later in the 1960s with the High Aswan Dam - the island became increasingly submerged and the temple threatened. As part of UNESCO's project to rescue the ancient monuments threatened by the river damming, the island was itself dammed, surrounded by a high wall, until all the water was gone and the building could be cut into sections and moved. The project took 10 years.

Now the temple is on the higher, nearby Agilka Island and worthy of a visit. Isis was a very important goddess in ancient times. She was known as the Mother of God, giver of life, protector and healer of kings and her temple was once the site of many pilgrimages.

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Egyptian Museum (Museum of Egyptian Antiquities)
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Without doubt, the exhibit that outshines everything else is the treasure of the young New Kingdom Pharaoh Tutankhamun - don't miss the astonishing solid-gold death mask. Other highlights include the Royal Mummy Room; the Amarna Room, devoted to Akhenaten, the Greco-Roman Mummies; the glittering galleries that display an astounding array of finery extracted from New Kingdom tomb; and the larger-than-life-size statue of Khafre (Chephren)
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Sphinx (Great Sphinx of Giza)
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The Great Sphinx of Giza is the greatest monumental sculpture of the ancient world and measures a massive 240 ft (73 m) long by 66 ft (20 m) high. It is generally believed to have been built around 2,550 BC but may well be even older. Legends and superstitions abound about the Sphinx, and the mystery surrounding its long-forgotten purpose is almost as intriguing as its appearance.

These days the Sphinx has been given a new role as part of a nightly Sound and Light show telling the history of Egypt with the Sphinx as narrator. Several times each evening, colored lights bounce off the pyramids as the story of an ancient world is told.

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Luxor Temple
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The enormous Luxor Temple was one of the great constructions of the New Kingdom (dating from the 14th century BC) dedicated to the god Amun. It was known as the “Southern Sanctuary” and was the site of ceremonies aimed at encouraging the life-giving Nile floods.

Once through the processional Avenue of Sphinxes you come to the First Pylon, which announces the phenomenal scale of the stonework here: statues, columns and obelisks all compete with each other in a race to the sky.

Ensuing civilizations have also left their marks: there’s a shrine erected by Alexander the Great, Roman wall frescoes as well as a 14th century AD mosque, ensuring this remains a place of worship in the present day.

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Karnak Temple
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The largest of Luxor’s temples, Karnak was one of the most sacred sites in ancient Egypt. Constructed in the 16th Dynasty, it marked the ascendancy of Thebes as the capital of the New Kingdom. The major site here is the Temple of Amon, the largest place of worship ever constructed. There the Great Hypostyle Hall, dwarfs visitors with its dozens of colossal columns reaching 25 yards (23 meters) into the sky.
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Temple of Hatshepsut (at Deir el-Bahari)
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The vast Temple of Hatshepsut in Deir el-Bahari rivals the Pyramids as one of the great funerary monuments of the ancient world. Built into the towering cliff face which shelter the Valley of the Kings on the other side, it rises on three enormous terraces connected by ramps, each level marked with a colonnade of stark, largely unadorned square pillars.

Its namesake was one of the few female pharaohs of ancient Egypt, who not unfairly called her monument “Splendor of Splendors”. However, much of the construction dated from earlier rulers, starting with Mentuhotep II in 2050 BC. Numerous sphinxes and other statues have since disappeared, making the whole structure appear even more monolithic.

The cool stone interior provides welcome relief from the pitiless heat of this region, and features well-preserved wall reliefs and hieroglyphics, some in brilliant colors.

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Colossi of Memnon
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Little remains of the once impressive Amenhotep’s memorial temple. But the two imposing statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, erected to guard the ancient entrance, still stand watch some 3,400 years later. Today, travelers can venture to the shores of the Nile, just across from the city of Luxor, and revel at the giant manmade sculptures.

In addition to these impressive twin statues, travelers can check out two smaller figures of the Pharaoh’s wife, Tiy, and mother, Mutemwia. Visitors can also get an up close look at the sandstone panel carvings that showcase images of the Nile god Hapy. Even if most of the Colossi has been lost to weather an the ages, travelers can still get a sense of the wonder this site once held.

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Aswan High Dam
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Built in the 1960s, the Aswan High Dam was an engineering marvel at the time and changed the face of Egypt. It increased the cultivable land by 30% and doubled Egypt's available electricity supply. It also created Lake Nasser, at the time the world's largest artificial lake, which would have covered the important Abu Simbel Temple monuments if not for the support of UNESCO and a worldwide appeal for funds to move them to higher ground, a massive feat which was successfully achieved.

The dam itself is massive, containing 18 times the material used to build the famous Pyramid of Cheops at Giza. It is 11,811 feet (3,600 meters) long, 3,215 ft (980 m) thick at the base, and 364 ft (111 m) tall. Today, it provides visitors with wonderful views up and down the Nile River.

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More Things to Do in Egypt

Nile River

Nile River

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Measuring 4,150 miles (6,680 kilometers) from end to end, the Nile River is the world’s longest and arguably the most important in the region. Egypt’s some 83 million residents, living along the edge of the pitiless Sahara Desert, have always relied on the waters of the Nile for basic sustenance.

More than 240 riverboats sail up and down the waters of the Nile River between Luxor and Aswan, and cruising on one of them tops many an Egyptian travel itinerary. Along the way, you’ll make stops at a few of the countless temples dotting the shore, including the Temple of Edfu, built in honor of the god Horus and better maintained than any other Pharaonic structure along the river, and the Temple of Kom Ombo, dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek.

At Aswan, marvel at the controversial Aswan High Dam, a feat of engineering responsible for harnessing the Nile and creating the world’s largest artificial lake.

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Old Cairo (Misr Al-Qadima)

Old Cairo (Misr Al-Qadima)

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Old Cairo is a relatively small area but it is rich with history. Also known as Coptic Cairo, Fustat (in reference to the first Muslim city established there), and Masr al-Qadima to the locals, it has been inhabited since the 6th century BC. It has been a Roman fort protecting trade routes, a Christian city from around the 5th century AD, a Muslim army camp from 641 AD, then Egypt's capital city until yet another conquest in the 10th century.

The main interest these days is in its role as Coptic Cairo. The narrow cobbled streets contain the Religious Compound, full of churches including the Hanging Church (dedicated to the Virgin Mary and still in use), the oldest synagogue in Egypt, the remains of the Roman fortress, and the Coptic Museum. Just northeast is the site of ancient Fustat which contains the oldest mosque, Amr Ibn al-Aas.

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Islamic Cairo

Islamic Cairo

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Islamic architecture abounds in Cairo—after all, it is one of the world’s oldest Muslim cities and also known as the City of a Thousand Minarets. The densest and oldest concentration of historic hammams, mosques, education centers or madrasas, mausoleums and fountains—some dating to the 10th century—comprise Islamic Cairo, a loosely defined bastion of old Cairo. Here, visitors can spend days winding through narrow streets, exploring mosques and markets, and feeling transported to a Cairo sans‐McDonalds and shopping malls. Popular points of reference include the old citadel built in the 12th century atop the tallest point in the city to defend from marauding crusaders and the Al‐Azhar Mosque with its marble‐paved interior courtyard, affiliated University—perhaps the oldest such institution in the world—and stalactite cornicing representing dripping water.

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Great Pyramid of Giza (Khufu Pyramid)

Great Pyramid of Giza (Khufu Pyramid)

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Khan Al-Khalili

Khan Al-Khalili

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Jaundiced travelers often dismiss the Khan al-Khalili as a tourist trap; there's no ignoring the fact that it's a favored stop of tour buses and has all the associated annoyances (touts and tat) that come with them. But it's worth remembering that Cairenes have plied their trades here since the founding of the Khan in the 14th century - the buying and selling didn't begin with the arrival of the first tour group.

Today the market still plays an important role in the day-to-day commercial life of thousands of locals. In its narrow streets you can buy anything from shoes to souvenirs to clothes, chess sets, cushions, ceramics, brass, gold, silver, rugs, fabrics and on it goes.

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Memphis

Memphis

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The city of Memphis was the capital of ancient Egypt. It was the King's residence and the political and administrative centre until around 2,200 BC. It had impressive fortifications and temples, largely to Ptah, the god of creation and artworks. Estimates of population vary from 6,000 to 30,000 but either way, it was one of the larger, if not the largest, cities of its era.

Archaeological digging in the area has uncovered a Temple of Ptah and sculptures, including a sphinx (smaller than the one at Giza but still impressive), and the Colossus of Ramses II. These are now housed in the outdoor Memphis Museum in Mit Rihina, the modern town in this area. In 1979, UNESCO designated the area a World Heritage Site.

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Cairo Citadel (Citadel of Saladin)

Cairo Citadel (Citadel of Saladin)

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Sprawling over a limestone spur on the eastern edge of the city, the Citadel of Saladin (or Al-Qalaa) was home to Egypt's rulers for some 700 years. Their legacy is a collection of three very different mosques, including the Mosque of Mohamed Ali, several palaces (housing some underwhelming museums such as the police and military museums) and a couple of terraces with city views.

The area was fortified around 1180 to protect it from the Crusaders. In the 1860s, ruler Khedive Ismail moved to newly built Abdin Palace, ending the citadel's role as the seat of government.

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Hurghada Marina

Hurghada Marina

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A forest of white masts poke up from the aquamarine waters along the redeveloped waterfront in Hurghada. While Hurghada has always been a bustling marine port, it wasn’t until 2008 that the city redesigned the Hurghada Marina as a place for locals and visitors to stroll in the sun, get some fresh air or grab a bite to eat with views of the sea.

The marina itself has 200 berths for sail boats and mega yachts, while the waterfront Hurghada Marine Boulevard is home to cafes, restaurants, shop and stylish bars, many hosting live music most nights of the week. Visitors can shop in a recreated Souk, dance the night away at a beach bar or board a glass-bottom boat to explore the colorful corals just offshore. Insider’s Tip: The Hurghada Marina hosts special events and festivals throughout the year. Check their Facebook page for the latest.

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Dahshur

Dahshur

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Think of Dahshur as pyramid-proving grounds: Although not nearly as famous at the pyramids of Giza, the structures here pre-date the Great Pyramids and highlight the engineering progress and understanding that took place on the way from a stepped structure to a true pyramid. The royal necropolis at Dahshur comprises a two-mile (3.5-kilometer) field of pyramids that date back between the fourth and 12th dynasties, and although 11 structures once dotted the landscape, only two remain: the Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid. Nearly identical in size, these two pyramids are the third-largest in the country after the two biggest at Giza. The Red Pyramid is the older of the two and the only one that visitors can actually enter.

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Unfinished Obelisk

Unfinished Obelisk

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The Unfinished Obelisk is a huge discarded granite obelisk. Three sides of the shaft, which is nearly 138 feet (42m) long, were completed except for the inscriptions. At 1,168 tonnes, the completed obelisk would have been the single heaviest piece of stone the Egyptians ever fashioned. However, a crack appeared in the rock at a late stage in the process. So it lies where the disappointed stonemasons abandoned it, still partly attached to the parent rock, with no indication of what it was intended for. It does give us an excellent insight into how these massive stone sculptures were made however.

Upon entering the quarry, steps lead down from the surrounding ramp into the pit of the obelisk where there are ancient pictographs of dolphins and ostriches or flamingos, thought to have been painted by workers at the quarry.

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Hanging Church (Al-Muallaqa)

Hanging Church (Al-Muallaqa)

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Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the Hanging Church, which is still in use, is called the Hanging or Suspended Church as it is built on top of the Water Gate of Roman Babylon. Steep stairs lead from the forecourt to a 19th -century façade topped by twin bell towers. Beyond is a small inner courtyard, usually filled with sellers of taped liturgies and videos of the Coptic pope, Shenouda III.

The interior of this 9th-century (some say 7th-century) church, renovated many times throughout the centuries, has three barrel-vaulted, wooden-roofed aisles. Ivory-inlaid screens hide the three haikal s (altar areas), but in front of them, raised on 13 slender pillars that represent Christ and his disciples, is a fine pulpit used only on Palm Sunday. One of the pillars, darker than the rest, is said to symbolize Judas. In the baptistry, off to the right, a panel has been cut out of the floor revealing the Water Gate below. From here there is a good view of one of the gate's twin towers.

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Alabaster Mosque (Mosque of Muhammad Ali)

Alabaster Mosque (Mosque of Muhammad Ali)

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The citadel of Saladin - and indeed, the Cairo skyline - is dominated by the Alabaster Mosque, or Mosque of Mohammed Ali. Modelled along classic Turkish lines, it took 18 years to build (1830 - 1848) although later the domes had to be rebuilt. It was commissioned by Mohammad Ali, ruler of Egypt from 1805 - 1849, who lies in the marble tomb on the right as you enter.

Perhaps the most evocative description of it is in Olivia Manning's The Levant Trilogy: "Above them Mohammed Ali's alabaster mosque, uniquely white in this sand-coloured city, sat with minarets pricked, like a fat, white, watchful cat." It has never found much favor with writers, who have criticized it for being unimaginative, lacking in grace and resembling a great toad. Note the chintzy clock in the central courtyard, a gift from King Louis-Philippe of France in thanks for the Pharaonic obelisk that adorns the Place de la Concorde in Paris. It was damaged on delivery and has yet to be repaired.

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Citadel of Qaitbay (Fort Qaitbey)

Citadel of Qaitbay (Fort Qaitbey)

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Famously one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was the world’s first ever lighthouse, constructed in the 3rd century BC by Ptolemy I. An incredible architectural achievement of its time, the lighthouse took over two decades to complete and, at 450 feet (137 meters) tall, ranked among the world’s tallest structures for centuries after. It stood as a commanding force in Alexandria’s harbor for hundreds of years before being destroyed by a series of earthquakes that sent huge stones into the bay.

Today, almost nothing remains of the former world wonder, although the seaside Citadel of Qaitbay was built in its place using lighthouse ruins in 1480. The well-preserved medieval fortress offers visitors great views of Alexandria’s skyline and out to sea, plus the knowledge of its location’s historical significance.

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Tomb of Tutankhamun

Tomb of Tutankhamun

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The boy pharaoh Tutankhamun, who ruled the New Kingdom in the 14th century, enjoys fame disproportionate to his short reign and modest achievements. This is mostly due to the discovery of his largely intact tomb in the Valley of the Kings in 1922, his mummy adorned by a dazzling gold mask (now in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, along with most of the tomb’s other bling).

Having risked the curse said to await anyone who disturbs the tomb’s rest, visitors may be slightly disappointed by its modest scale and relative lack of adornment. “King Tut” is, however, still in residence, his linen-wrapped mummy visible in a glass box watched over by richly colored wall paintings.

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