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4 Reasons Why You Must Visit Egypt

Egypt is famous for its rich history and staggering natural and man-made wonders—yes, including the pyramids. But the country has suffered a decline in visitors in recent years, starting from the protests that formed part of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011 all the way to the pandemic that affected worldwide tourism in general over the last two and a half years.

 

Iconic symbols of Egypt

Photo by PJ Cana.

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But the country that straddles the mighty Nile isn’t anything but resilient and a master of time. With a history stretching back nearly 7,000 years, its place not just as a top travel bucket list destination but as an integral part of our collective humanity is secure. To step on its streets and gaze at its landscapes is to witness human civilization descended through millennia—charismatic, a little bit dangerous, but always fascinating.

A group of friends and I decided on a Holy Land Tour for our annual big travel project this year. Unfortunately, a work commitment kept me from joining the group on the planned departure date. That meant missing the first part of the trip, which included sites like Wadi Rum and Petra in Jordan, and most of the essential or must-see travel sites in Israel, including Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

That left Egypt, which, fortunately for me, was last on the itinerary.

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Entering Egypt

 

After landing in Tel Aviv, Israel, I made it just in time for a quick trip to the Jordan River (where Jesus Christ was supposedly baptized by John the Baptist) before we headed southwest to the town of Eliat where we would cross the border into Egypt. You need to lug your bags through a heavily guarded series of gates and then wait a while as Egyptian officials process your documents (your travel agency takes care of visa fees and requirements), but time your arrival just right and you’ll be watching the sun disappear across the horizon across barren but strangely transfixing desert lands.

 

Sunrise at the summit of Mt. Sinai

Photo by PJ Cana.

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Our first step into Egypt is in the town of Taba, on the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba. The area is a popular holiday destination not just for Egyptians but for Israelis and other nationalities for its coastal views. But I barely had time to get a decent night’s rest because the first big excursion in Egypt would commence very early the next day: at midnight, to be exact.

 

1| Climbing up Mt. Sinai

 

In the Bible, Mt. Sinai is supposedly the place where Moses received the 10 Commandments from God himself. It was an optional item on the tour; guides said the trek up to the summit was physically taxing, but having just joined the tour group, I raised my hand when asked who was willing to make the climb.

 

The first rays of of the day hit the craggy hills around Mt Sinai

Photo by PJ Cana.

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Just past midnight a small group of us took a nearly two-hour van ride to the base of the mountain. We paid $10 to ride a camel the first part of the way up. It was pitch black, but the hardy desert beasts seemed to know exactly where to go. A few times the Bedouin guides even disappeared and I found myself alone on the back of my camel, trusting it to follow the path and not to throw me off the edge of the cliff.

About two hours later we reached the camel station, where we rested for about 30 minutes before heading back out into the freezing cold to go the rest of the way by foot. The last part of the hike is up 750 makeshift steps up to the very top. The air was thin at this height, and the temperature was just slightly above zero degrees Celsius, according to our guide Moses (which he insisted was his real name), so there is a point where you’re fighting for every breath. But we trudged on until we finally reached the summit.

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Besides camels, donkeys are also a common sight in Mt. Sinai

Photo by PJ Cana.

 

The views of the craggy, rust-colored peaks and valleys catching the first rays of sunlight were awe-inspiring, as expected, but the satisfaction comes in knowing you fought exhaustion and doubt to keep putting one foot in front of the other to reach the top. Even if you’re a non-believer in all of the Biblical stories, it’s hard to beat the feeling of triumph and achievement knowing you climbed a mountain nearly 7,500 feet (2,285 meters) high.

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Of course, you make the same journey back down, but gravity is on your side this time, so the nearly three-hour hike to get back where you started goes by fairly quickly.

 

The facade of St. Catherine's Monastery

Photo by PJ Cana.

There’s time to visit the Saint Catherine monastery, one of, if not the oldest Christian monastery in the world. Inside are sites that include the well where Moses supposedly met his wife, and the actual “burning bush,” again from the Biblical stories.

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2| Experiencing the Pyramids and the Sphinx

 

The journey from Saint Catherine across the Sinai Peninsula in the Asia side of Egypt to get to Cairo, the country’s capital on the Africa side, takes about eight to nine hours. On the way, we crossed the Suez Canal, one of the world’s busiest trade routes.

 

A glimpse of the pyramids from Cairo

Photo by PJ Cana.

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Cairo is, of course, the gateway to the country’s number one tourist destination. There is little else about the pyramids that hasn’t been already said or written about, but if you’re traveling there to see it for yourselves, the thing to remember is how close it is to the city. In fact, it’s located just in the outskirts of Cairo, only about an hour from the suburb of Heliopolis, where our hotel was located.

The first glimpse of the pyramids rising up out of the desert like a mirage is unforgettable. If you’re a fan of history or geography, you probably learned about these ancient marvels since you were a kid, and so seeing them with your own eyes is a special kind of thrill.

 

Larger-than-life

Photo by PJ Cana.

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Expect to see busloads of tourists when you arrive at one of the two gates in the pyramid complex. After clearing security, the Great Pyramid, the largest of the several in this area of Giza, looms right there in front of you. Even when you’re surrounded by hundreds of tourists and you’re trying hard to avoid capturing them in your photos, you can’t help but feel a sense of wonder and amazement. These are structures that have remained virtually the same for over 4,000 years, that have inspired countless stories and works of art, and have become symbols not just of a country but of human achievement. I had to take a moment to take it all in.

 

A brief camel ride is one of the most tourist-y things you can do around the pyramids

Photo by PJ Cana.

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There is a section of the pyramid where you can go up and actually go inside, but much of whatever’s there has been carted off and are displayed in the many museums around Cairo. Instead, you can choose to go on a brief camel ride offered for tourists for the ultimate photo evidence of your trip. It’s an unabashed tourist trap, but if you‘re someone who must have the full experience at the world’s most visited sites and attractions, the extra $8 (plus tip) for a 30-minute camel ride in the desert with the pyramids in the background is worth it.

 

Still breathtaking

Photo by PJ Cana.

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The Sphinx is located on another section of the entire complex and it requires a separate ticket, so if you’re keen on visiting it, ask your guide about it.

 

3| A museum visit and a cruise down the Nile

 

The big topic among travelers and tour operators in Cairo these days is the opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum, an ambitious new project that, when completed, is expected to be the largest archaeological museum in the world. Because it won’t open until 2023, our guide took us to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization instead.

 

TheÂNational Museum of Egyptian Civilization

Photo by PJ Cana.

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Visitors surround one of the thousands of artifacts inside the NMEC

Photo by PJ Cana.

 

In addition to its collection of artifacts from nearly every significant period of Egypt’s history, the highlight of the NMEC is its room of mummies of Egyptian royalty, including kings like Hatshepsut, Seti I, Ramses III, and Ramses IX, as well as queens like Ahmose Nefertari, Maatkare, and Sitkamose. If you’ve never seen an actual mummy up close before, the experience can be a little unnerving but ultimately enlightening.

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A snapshot of Cairo from a cruise on the Nile

Photo by PJ Cana.

In the evening, there’s time for a leisurely cruise down the Nile River. There’s not much to see on the banks save for the blinking neon lights of the city’s commercial establishments. But there’s food and drinks on the boat, not to mention entertainment in the form of a belly dancer and Egypt’s version of a whirling dervish.

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Belly dancer entertains guests on the Nile River cruise

Photo by PJ Cana.

4| A stroll through Old Cairo

 

Cairo’s history stretches back nearly a thousand years and today, it is a city of over 10 million inhabitants (20 million if you include the Greater Cairo metropolitan area). A must-visit to try and understand the beating heart of the city is an area known as Old Cairo. Our guide insisted on taking our group on a stroll through the historic center.

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Cafe in Old Cairo

Photo by PJ Cana.

After a brief stop at the ruins of an old Roman fort, we spent time at the Hanging Church, said to be built in the seventh century BC, and is so named because its center actually hangs over a passageway, although the effect is no longer as visible or as striking today. It’s one of the oldest and most famous churches from the Coptic (or Christian) period of Egypt.

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Afterwards there was enough time to visit the Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church, which the guide said was one of the oldest Coptic churches in Egypt and, more importantly, stands on the site where the Holy Family (Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus Christ) is believed to have stayed while they were in Egypt. There is even a marker on top of an old well where the Holy Family supposedly drank.

 

The Babylon Fortress is an ancient Roman fort in Old Cairo

Photo by PJ Cana.

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Inside the Hanging Church

Photo by PJ Cana.

Exterior view of the Hanging Church

Photo by PJ Cana.

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You can probably spend an entire year or more in Cairo and still not be able to experience everything the lively city has to offer, but for those whose idea of a worthwhile trip is one that nourishes the spirit as much as it engages all the other senses, the ancient city and country does not disappoint.

 

There is a limitless number of things to see and discover in Egypt

Photo by PJ Cana.

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Disclaimer: The author paid for his trip but recommends the services of Step Up Travels, which creates personalized holiday experiences. The agency also handled all visa requirements for entry into Egypt. Contact them here.

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This story originally appeared on Esquiremag.ph.

* Minor edits have been made by the Realliving.com.ph editors.

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