There are cities, there are capitals and then there is Cairo.
Chaotic, enchanting and magnificent, the Egyptian capital is awe inspiring and home to a raw energy that’s all its own. A city of a thousand minarets, it has more history, more myths and more oomph than just about anywhere else on the planet.
The challenge is working out the best place to start to try and get under its skin and gain a proper sense of why it’s so very special in the first place.
‘A beautiful mess’
The delights of the sprawling Khan el-Khalili market, which sits at the very heart of Cairo, make it the ideal place to begin any journey through the Egyptian capital.
Here, wide-eyed visitors can haggle for trinkets and get themselves fortified for the day ahead with delicious rice pudding, topped with nuts, fruit and cream. While taking a flaneur’s approach is tempting, it’s even better to allow a local to show you around and give you the inside line.
Photographer Karim El Hayawan is the ideal companion, providing a different perspective and, crucially, helping make the most of ubiquitous camera phones, turning average shots into Instagram-worthy winners.
“It’s beautifully intense. It’s vivid. It’s ever-changing,” says El Hayawan of Cairo. “It’s a beautiful mess. It’s a fabric that keeps weaving itself into this organic… endless tapestry of everyone and everything. It’s inclusive and exclusive at the same time.”
El Hayawan works at the same pace as Cairo itself – rapidly and without pause, reeling off shots while always finding the right picture. It’s a valuable lesson for anyone who comes here – you need to move like lightning in order to get a proper glimpse of how life works on Cairo’s streets.
A world-class museum
Away from the bustle of central Cairo is something equally, quintessentially Egyptian. Shimmering on the Giza Plateau, against the backdrop of the Pyramids, the Great Egyptian Museum (GEM) is readying itself to open – finally – at the end of 2023, some 21 years after its foundation stone was laid.
The largest museum in the world, it will house the entire Tutankhamun collection, as well as thousands of artefacts and items that have never been on public display. Some may joke that it’s taken longer to build than the Pyramids themselves, but the wait will undoubtedly be worth it.
Dr. Al-Tayeb Abbas, the GEM’s archaeological affairs manager, explains that it has been a long and arduous process. But it’s worth it. A towering statue of King Ramses II stands in the main atrium, with a nearby window designed to shine light on his face on the day of his birth and coronation. It is nothing short of spectacular.
“We have more than 66,000 artefacts which will be on display for the first time in a single space,” says Abbas. These include the complete collection of items from Tutankhamun’s tomb, including jewelry.
Of course, this magical museum owes its existence to Egypt’s incredible ancient past. And while exploring its seemingly endless rooms is a pleasure, nothing beats getting up close to the real thing. The Pyramids.
It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen them. Whether up close or from afar, their size, their history, their mere presence on this earth is a marvel. Perhaps what makes it all the more special is the fact that despite years of archaeological work, we still don’t know how many chambers and tunnels are hidden beneath them.
This is what makes them so fascinating. That, and the unanswerable question: just how did they do it?
Hidden for eternity
The same is true of the epic Valley of the Kings and the city of Luxor, around 400 miles south of Giza.
The magnificence of this place puts it on a par with the Pyramids, especially when considering the treasures that have been discovered here in recent centuries. Many of them, including those of Tutankhamun, will now be housed in the GEM. What’s more, there remain many more to be discovered.
For journalist and author Dr. Betsy Hiel, the Valley of the Kings retains a sense of excitement. Walking around the site, she’s a great source of knowledge, keen to share details that untrained eyes might not pick up on.
“They went from pyramid building to [burial chambers being] hidden away,” she says. “They wanted to be hidden away so that they could live in eternity and not be found.”