Teeming Cairo, straddling the Nile, is the capital of Egypt and one of the leading cities of the Muslim world. With 20 million people, greater Cairo pulses with energy. We explore the back streets on a tuk-tuk, drop in on a mosque, haggle with a gauntlet of eager merchants, bake some pita bread, marvel at King Tut’s gold, greet the ancient Sphinx, and climb into the center of the greatest pyramid.
-Hey. I'm Rick Steves, venturing beyond Europe,
to a land where there's no shortage of serendipity.
We're in Egypt.
It's Cairo. Thanks for joining us.
Cairo, straddling the Nile,
is the biggest city in North Africa
and the biggest in the Middle East.
It's the capital of Egypt
and one of the leading cities in Islam.
With about 20 million people in greater Cairo,
it's bursting at the seams and pulsing with energy.
And this energy will carry us
to some of Cairo's greatest sights
and most vibrant neighborhoods.
We'll explore the back streets local style,
help chisel a tombstone,
greet the ancient Sphinx,
marvel at King Tut's gold,
drop in on a mosque...
-Buy one, two free today. Cheapy-cheap.
-...haggle with a gauntlet of eager merchants,
have dinner at home with a family,
and marvel at the pyramids.
In the southeast of the Mediterranean,
Egypt, 50% bigger than Texas,
gathers its 100 million people mostly
along the Nile River.
We'll explore its leading city, Cairo,
and finish at the Pyramids of Giza.
Cairo is a fascinating clash between traditional and modern,
religious and secular, East and West.
While its chaos can be exasperating,
it can also be a rewarding challenge
for the adventurous traveler.
Cairo's downtown is modern
[ Horns blaring ] and can feel European.
Streets, squares, and grand buildings
are reminders of the country's colonial past
from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The riverfront throbs with energy --
stately bridges busy with traffic,
fancy riverside restaurants,
and towering apartment complexes.
The Nile is still the lifeblood of the city,
sprawling endlessly on both sides.
The heart of Cairo is Tahrir Square.
It's long been ground zero for the people's spirit.
If there's a demonstration going on --
and there have been massive ones in recent years --
it's likely here.
In addition to its political energy,
the city's long been a religious capital.
Ever since the forces of Islam swept across North Africa
from Arabia, in the 7th century,
spreading the teachings of their Prophet Muhammad,
Cairo has been a leading city of the Muslim world.
And, today, Cairo's known
as the City of a Thousand Minarets.
Stepping into Al-Hussein Mosque, like any neighborhood mosque,
you'll find a worshipful tranquility.
It's believed that resting here invigorates the soul.
There's more intensity around the adjacent shrine,
believed to contain a sacred relic --
the head of Al-Husayn ibn Ali,
a grandson of the prophet Muhammad.
In a mosque, men and women worship separately.
As praying can be physical, with lots of bending over,
it's considered more respectful to allow women their own space.
I find that a respectful tourist
is welcome to be a part of the scene.
Along with minarets, you'll see church spires,
especially in Cairo's Coptic Quarter.
While Egypt is predominantly Muslim,
today, about 10% of the country is Christian.
The Egyptian, or Coptic, Church
actually predates Islam by six centuries.
Because they worship in an orthodox style,
stepping into a Coptic mass is like going back in time.
The faithful believe that,
when Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus
escaped Herod by fleeing to Egypt,
this very spot is where they took refuge.
Later, in 43 AD,
it's believed the evangelist Mark
came to Egypt and established the Coptic Church.
Mark was their first pope, and the first
in an unbroken line of Coptic popes,
stretching back nearly 2,000 years.
-[ Chanting in foreign language ]
-The Coptic Quarter comes with high security.
Throughout Egypt, travelers will notice
and a high-profile police presence.
These are reminders of a pent-up tension in Egyptian society.
They reveal the challenges Egyptian democracy faces today.
While many modern Muslims
would prefer a separation of mosque and state,
others believe Egypt should be ruled in accordance
with a strict interpretation of the Qur'an.
Religious fundamentalism is a challenge here,
as it is in America.
Cairo is intense.
I love traveling here,
but I do it with safety and sanity in mind.
While prices on the street may be cheap,
if you want rich world comfort, you'll pay rich world prices.
I sleep in an international- class hotel.
It comes with first-class security.
I hope the future will be more relaxed,
but, for now, I splurge, for the peace of mind.
Cairo's mighty citadel,
capped by a dramatic 19th-century mosque,
is a reminder that the need for security
is nothing new here.
For nearly 700 years, this was the fortified home
of Egypt's rulers and government.
Back in the 13th century, it was one
of the most impressive such fortifications of the age.
But buildings only partially represent the story here.
The people you see on the streets
are the living descendants of one of the oldest,
and greatest, civilizations in history.
The people of today's Egypt represent the latest chapter
in a story that goes back 5,000 years.
Even if you don't understand
its long and complicated history,
just observing how old and new come together
is rewarding to the traveler.
Egypt's heritage goes back twice as far as ancient Rome.
And ancient Egypt, that's what draws the tourists.
The iconic sights of Egypt, 4,000 or 5,000 years old,
are basically buildings and art for dead people.
Back then, they believed you could take it with you
and your big challenge --
to be sure your body and your valuables
survived the journey into the afterlife.
That's why, if you had the power and the money,
you'd lock everything up in a big tomb --
These are the most famous,
the Pyramids of Giza.
But the oldest pyramid is actually nearby, at Saqqara,
the tomb of the king, or pharaoh, named Zoser.
This structure, which marked his tomb,
is a step pyramid.
Dating from around 2,600 BC,
it's a century older than its more famous sisters at Giza.
This first-ever towering stone structure
is more than just a grave marker.
With an innovative stacking of layers,
it provided a new way to glorify a king,
creating a stairway to eternity.
A visit to Cairo's Egyptian Museum
helps bring the country's many ancient sights to life.
Along with the Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza,
this museum shows off the best collection
of ancient Egyptian art anywhere.
The core of the collection,
art from the age of the pharaohs,
dates from about 3,000 to 1,000 BC.
Nearly everything filling these old halls is funerary art,
art designed to help save the souls of the pharaohs --
statues filled with symbolism,
and offerings to deal with the gods
and help assure a happy transition into the afterlife.
This ancient art is so well-preserved
because most of it was hidden away for 4,000 years,
dark and dry, in tombs.
This portrayal of geese, from 2,500 BC,
is perhaps the oldest surviving painting.
This seated scribe
recalls the importance of the educated elite
in the court of an often illiterate king.
And this couple, a husband and wife,
was also found in a tomb.
It's all art for the dead,
locked up until rediscovered in modern times.
Many mummies patiently await your visit.
Ancient Egyptians preserved bodies
through a complex process of mummification,
in hopes that the soul could reinhabit it in the next world.
And the coffins were elaborately painted
with an inventory of things that, hopefully,
would accompany the body;
and with prayers, to be sure all went as planned.
The art looks essentially the same from century to century.
A remarkable thing about ancient Egyptian art,
and society, as a whole, was its stability.
For 2,000 years, from 3,000 to 1,000 BC,
relative to other times and other cultures,
very little changed.
Religion permeated Egyptian society.
As long as things were going reasonably well,
the gods were happy and it was status quo.
Every year, the Nile would flood,
bringing water and fertile silt to the land.
When the gods are happy, the people have food,
and you don't change things.
And the pharaoh was considered a god.
If your leader is a god, you question nothing.
You obey the rules.
Things stay the same.
Akhenaten was the one exception
in a 2,000-year line of conformist pharaohs.
Rather than the same predictable, idealized features,
Akhenaten had his own voluptuous looks,
from a strangely curvaceous body
to big, sensuous lips.
Ruling around 1,400 BC,
he was considered history's first monotheist.
Akhenaten replaced all the gods of the Egyptian pantheon
with one all-powerful being,
the Sun god,
whom he called Aten.
In reliefs from the reign of Akhenaten,
we see Aten, the Sun, shining down on everything.
During the time of Akhenaten,
people were portrayed looser, more intimately.
Casual family scenes?
Must be from the time of Akhenaten.
As always, I appreciate the services of a guide,
so I'll understand the symbolism and know what to look for.
So, we're joined by my friend and fellow guide, Marwa Abbas.
She explained how lots
of ancient hieroglyphic writing on papyrus survives,
and how it helps us better understand
the mysteries of the pharaohs.
-Papyrus is made out of the stem of the plant papyrus,
which is hammered and then, it is woven
and then, we press it in a pressing machine or stones
to get those beautiful papers.
These are the hieroglyphs,
one of the most ancient written languages
because of which we understood a lot
about the civilization of ancient Egypt.
So, these are beautiful paintings of the afterlife.
Even in the afterlife,
they were trying to bribe the gods and deities
in order to help them in the afterlife path.
Even here, in front of the judge Osiris
is a big offering pile of lotus, onions, oxen leg,
as well as breads and vegetables.
-Anything to make the god happy.
-Anything to make him happy.
-The son of Akhenaten was Tutankhamun,
perhaps the most famous pharaoh.
A highlight of the museum's collection
is a section filled with King Tut's treasures,
from his splendid coffin
to his jewelry.
This is exquisite.
-It is a beautiful piece of the jewelry of Tutankhamun,
around the year 1300 BC,
made out of gold, turquoise, lapis lazuli,
and you can see the beautiful symbolism over here,
where you can see the scarab, the sign of existence,
as well as the sun disc.
The cobra is wearing the crowns of upper and lower Egypt
as well as the ankh, symbol of life.
The ancient Egyptians used to mummify their bodies
and also mummify their organs.
King Tutankhamun, around the year 1,300 BC,
had his organs inside this beautiful alabaster box,
and that was also inside a wooden gilded beautiful box
that had the surroundings of the four goddesses for protection.
So it was always about the protection.
-The mask of Tut looks like his face
so his soul could recognize him on his journey to the afterlife.
Placed over the head of his mummy,
it was 24 pounds of gold,
with a cobra and a vulture to symbolize
the united kingdom of Upper and Lower Egypt,
which Tut proudly ruled.
After the museum,
Cairo's characteristic old quarter
is a colorful celebration of today's Egypt.
Khan Al-Khalili is the mega mall of medieval bazaars.
Six hundred years ago, it was a caravanserai,
a stop on a caravan trade route.
Then. when the Ottoman Turks took Egypt,
it became a bustling Turkish bazaar.
Today it's a stop for every tour group
and the merchants are standing by...
-How are you? Ah!
How can I take your money?
-...eager to charm you into a little shopping.
-Welcome, just have a look here,
everything is free.
Welcome to Egypt.
-Today, 100% discount
because today my birthday.
-Buy one, two free today. Cheapy-cheap.
-No money, no honey. No cry!
-The hustlers can be intense and annoying --
or fun, depending on your approach.
-Hello, my friend! -My friend!
-Hello! Good morning.
-Dive in, with a sense of humor.
Bargaining is expected in Egyptian markets;
treat it as a game.
Never feel sorry for -- or obligated to -- the merchant.
If you see something you like, show some interest
and see how low you can get the price.
-Here, your size.
-Big size, for you. -[ Laughing ]
-Give me $5.
-I find that simply venturing a few blocks away
from the tourist- friendly bazaar --
suddenly, the tourists are gone
and I'm swallowed up in a completely local scene.
Wandering through the colorful market streets here
in Cairo's Islamic quarter,
you feel that it goes on forever.
[ Horn bleating ] weave through the action.
I love to hop in one for a quick joyride.
There's something strangely graceful
about this chaotic dance
of careening vehicles, merchants, and pedestrians.
Exploring the Islamic quarter creates a montage of memories.
It's a commotion of activity.
Everywhere you look,
something you've never seen before
Somehow, bikers balance rustic racks of bread.
Craftsmen inscribe marble tombstones
with verses from the Holy Quran:
"The peaceful soul, after a blessed life,
will finally rest in heaven."
With a little effort, you'll find it can be easy
to become part of the scene.
In this shop, a man spins delicate strands of flour
that will become a favorite local pastry,
The classic street food here is koshary --
lentil, rice, pasta, garlic, and tomato sauce,
all mixed together into a quick and cheap treat.
The distinctive clanging stokes local appetites.
[ Clang, clang ]
[ Clang-clang ]
And small bakeries
are steadily producing hot balloons of pita bread,
destined to be filled with falafel.
Bread is subsidized by the government,
to make life easier for people struggling
to feed their families.
Walking through neighborhoods like this,
you gain an appreciation for how just making ends meet
is a daily struggle for millions in a teeming city like Cairo.
I make a point to explore a variety of neighborhoods.
[ Horns blaring ] Here in Egypt,
like almost anywhere,
there's a big gap between rich and poor.
In the relative cool of the evening,
the prosperous streets of downtown are filled
with window shoppers and thriving eateries --
clearly a world for Egypt's more privileged class.
And gated social clubs in a place like Egypt
provide a refuge
where the wealthy can live in a parallel world,
protected from the gritty reality of the streets.
My friend Tarek, who runs a successful tour company,
has invited me out for the evening.
Tarek grew up as a member here.
He met his wife here
and today their children enjoy
this privileged environment almost daily.
These clubs have something for all generations --
Adults can retreat to the no-kids zone
to play a quiet game of croquet with friends they've been
socializing here with since childhood --
or just to watch from the peaceful terrace.
We finish our evening just down the street,
at Tarek's home, joining his family for dinner.
How do you say -- in France, you would say, "bon appétit" --
-Bon appétit, yeah. -...in Arabic?
- Bailhana' walshifa'
- Bailhana' ...? - Bailhana' walshifa'
- Bailhana' ... - Bailhana' walshifa'
-That's very difficult. Bon appétit.
-[ Laughs ] -It's easier.
-I think so.
Heba, this is so beautiful.
Can you give me, please,
a tour of this beautiful Egyptian meal?
-Sure. This is moussaka;
this is stuffed vine leaves...
-Stuffed vine leaves.
-Okay, and this is okra with tomato sauce.
And this is Egyptian beef with onion sauce.
And this is, of course, rice. -Yep.
-This is rokak. -Rokak?
-Yes. -What is rokak?
-It's some kind of pastry
stuffed with mincemeat. -And...
-This is tzatziki. -Tzatziki!
So, we have moussaka... -Yes, in common with us
and the Greeks. -I was gonna say.
Moussaka, the stuffed grape leaves, and tzatziki.
-Yeah. -A Greek would say,
"that's my food" -- but it's Egyptian also?
-We cook it differently.
There we go. Thank you.
So is it normal for children to speak English and Egyptian?
-Actually, they're in an international school.
-Yeah, and your kids go to international school?
-Yes, American ones.
-Sometimes on Friday or Thursday,
we watch, on the TV Netflix -- we choose an English movie.
-You can choose,
Egyptian or English? -Yeah.
-Family movie! -Yes, we call it family movie.
-Every Thursday night, it's family movie.
-And Heba, what do you wish for your daughters,
to be successful and to be happy?
To have good faith,
good education as well, to be open-minded...
I think you're on the right road. I think you're
on the right road. -I hope so.
I hope so.
-That's lovely. [ Laughs ]
-[ Chuckles ]
It's a jam-packed city of over 20 million.
Massive blocks of apartment flats spring up,
many violating building codes
to congest the ever-growing suburbs.
Driving through half an hour of this,
we finally reach the desert
and the sight that draws most tourists to Egypt:
the Pyramids at Giza,
one of the most recognizable scenes in all of tourism.
Towering before us are the tombs
of three great kings, or pharaohs.
These monuments were built to mark, and to protect,
the bodies of fabulously wealthy and powerful pharaohs.
They spent a good part of their lives,
and their kingdom's wealth,
building huge pyramids, which served as lockers
for whatever they wanted to take into the afterlife:
their bodies, their treasures --
even their favorite pets.
The pyramid of the pharaoh Cheops
is the only survivor
of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
This grandest of all pyramids -- 700 feet long on each side --
was built 2,500 years before Christ.
The neighboring pyramids are likely those
of Cheops' son and grandson.
The smaller ones?
They're for the wives and daughters.
Experts guess that,
with 10,000 laborers hard at work,
it took 20 years to build the pyramid of Cheops.
According to my abacus,
that's 200,000 man-years of hard labor.
Workers dragged over two million huge stones up ramps,
eventually constructing this 450-foot-high monument.
In their day, the pyramids were encased
in a shiny limestone veneer.
I sure hope Cheops was satisfied.
Long, secret corridors,
originally blocked by sliding stones,
lead to the tomb chamber,
deep in the center of each pyramid.
Climbing this passage, you marvel at the design
and the audacity of the project.
Finally, reaching the burial room,
you're hit by the thought that this was the most sacred
and precious chamber in the ancient world --
silent for 4,000 years,
until the arrival of tourism.
This is it: the center of this massive pyramid.
The pharaoh's mummy was put in this stone sarcophagus.
The sarcophagus is bigger than the passageway --
so this must've been here first,
and then the pyramid built around it.
This huge chamber was filled with treasures.
A little shaft was designed into the pyramid
to provide an escape passage for the soul of the pharaoh.
For the pharaoh, the most important treasure
was his soul, which needed to be free
for the ascent to the afterlife.
Back outside, complementing the scene,
is the mysterious Sphinx.
As old as the pyramids,
it was carved out of a piece of hard rock
that stuck above the limestone plateau.
With the body of a lion and the head of a king, or god,
it came to symbolize both strength and wisdom
as it faces east and the rising Sun.
The sphinx faces the promise of the rising Sun,
and so does Cairo --
as Egypt's ancient story continues to unfold.
Thanks for joining us.
I'm Rick Steves.
Until next time, keep on travelin'.
-It's bursting with energy
and pulsing with vigor.
-[ Chuckle ] That was good.
-So this must've been here, first,
and then the pill--
pyramid -- [ Slap ]
built around it!
-You know it's better if you don't look at him.
It's a little weird. -[ Laughs ]
-It's like adoring gaze kinda thing.