On the Road…

After meeting our group of fellow travelers, we’re finally on our way—leaving Cairo and heading to the coastal town of Dahab on the Red Sea.

More photos of the truck—our home for the next 4 months—to come. But for now, snorkels up!

Blue skies, yellow truck

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Giza

The Pyramids of Giza are certainly larger than the pyramids at Saqqara and Dahshur, but due to their fame, the number of tourists and, consequently, frustratingly aggressive   vendors is also much greater.  An easy google search will give you more information than you could possibly want on the Pyramids of Giza, so instead we’ll leave you with some photos that we think are a bit different from your typical Pyramid Happy-Snaps!

The Great Pyramid of Giza (left) and the smaller Pyramid of Khafre (right).

A local man rides his camel towards the Pyramids of Giza.

The Great Sphinx in the shadow of the Pyramid of Khafre.

The Great Sphinx.

The Great Sphinx of Giza with the Great Pyramid in the background.

Islamic Cairo

In stark contrast to Coptic Cairo, we took a day to explore the larger traditional neighborhood of Islamic Cairo.  Narrow Souks filled with spices, gold, fabrics and even a row of tentmakers gave way to open markets and street vendors.  But the most impressive of all were the enormous mosques of Sultan Hassan and Al-Rifa’i.  I had never been in a mosque before, but I certainly hope that I have the opportunity to visit one of these peaceful, meditative spaces again.  The atmosphere inside couldn’t be more different from the noisy, crowded bustling city of Cairo.  An overwhelming quiet paired with towering, open architecture invited calm and serenity and made these mosques one of our favorite stops so far in Egypt.

The large, carpet-lined stone hallways of Sultan Hassan Mosque open onto a massive courtyard and prayer hall.

The huge prayer hall is a place of peace and quiet. Lamps hang from the arched ceilings a hundred feet overhead.

Textures of the prayer hall at Sultan Hassan

Lamps hang from the ceiling overhead, with their supporting chains disappearing high above.

Alright, maybe we got a bit obsessed with the lamps—but you have to admit they're beautiful!

All women are asked to cover their heads as a sign of respect while in the Mosque. Luckily, Mads brought a couple of nice scarves which did the trick.

Mosques are places for quiet meditation as well as prayer and public meetings. This Egyptian man is one of about a dozen Muslims who arrived for afternoon prayer. Shoes are not allowed inside mosques, and walking around on the carpets in socks is extremely comfortable. Look below to see a video of a prayer sequence in Sultan Hassan Mosque.

During the day it's typical to see people relaxing in the Mosques, which are public spaces and accessible to all.

Even cats wander in to enjoy the peace and quiet of the mosques, as this one did at Al-Rifa'i mosque.

http://vimeo.com/30721390

Coptic Cairo in the Old City…

Church of Saint George

Steeples with desert backdrop

Restoring the Church of St. George

Despite what you see in the news, Coptic Cairo seems calm, evidenced by these playful children on their way to school nearby.

Courtyard of the Hanging Church

Cats, revered by ancient Egyptian culture, now make their living as strays on the streets of Cairo.

The Pyramids of Saqqara and Dahshur

When I hear ‘Egypt,’ I think ‘Pyramids,’ and I’d be willing to bet you do, too.  The Pyramids of Giza are the icon of the country, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, but what a lot of people don’t know is that there are more—and older—pyramids scattered around Cairo.  On Wednesday we’ll be visiting the Great Pyramids of Giza on our way to the Red Sea coast, so naturally we took the opportunity on our first day in Cairo to visit the lesser-known monuments of Saqqara and Dashur.

The Red Pyramid at Dahshur, constructed around 2600 B.C., is the world's first true smooth-sided pyramid, an engineering accomplishment of Egypt's Old Kingdom.

A cramped, narrow tunnel descends a few hundred feet into the heart of the Red Pyramid. The crouched climb down into the burial chamber revealed some impressive geometric perfection on the part of the Egyptian engineers, and resulted in some sore thighs for two sweaty American tourists.

Tourism is a huge industry for Egypt, and the current unrest has resulted in a huge reduction in foreign visitors. Combined with the tourism low-season, this has left companies hungry for clients and willing to offer huge discounts. Here, three drivers take a break while their clients visit the Pyramids of Saqqara.

Djoser's Step Pyramid at Saqqara is the oldest known complete stone building complex in history, clocking in at over 5000 years old. This step-pyramid and the surrounding structures served as the necropolis for ancient Egypt's capital of Memphis. Scaffolds and structural supports have been erected to prevent the pyramid from crumbling.

The Egyptian revolution has resulted in a massive recession throughout the country due to reduced tourism. While this beggar made an interesting photo with the Pyramid at Saqqara, it also serves as an unfortunate reminder of what some people are doing to get by in the country today.

'Guides' wait for tourists outside Djoser's funerary complex, hoping to make a few Egyptian pounds as a tip for their services. The complex was built by the Egyptian royal architect Imhotep—no relation to the character in 'The Mummy.'

French Egyptologist Jean-Philippe Lauer spent most of his life excavating and restoring the funerary complex at Saqqara.

First Impressions of Cairo

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect of Cairo. Between being the first Arab city I’ve ever stayed in, the general backdrop of political uncertainty, and making the New York Times’ front page the morning we left the US due to last week’s violent protests, I was slightly apprehensive.

At first, everything about the city seemed so exotic—the dry, spiced air, the hijabs, the Arabic pop music and the seemingly non-existent traffic lanes (How DO these people cross the street?!).

But in the past two days of exploring, I’ve been won over by the warmth of the people (“Hello! America! We love America!”), the cheap falafel sandwiches (20 US cents) and the complexity of the political and cultural systems.

In the morning the whole city is bathed in a fog, expanding as far as the eye can see. By mid-day the fog is burned off by a hot desert sun.

Literally right next door to our hostel is this beautiful mosque. Luckily for us, it makes for a lovely view. Not so luckily for us, Call-to-Prayer is chanted over a loudspeaker every 3 hours, starting at 4:30 AM ... as if the jet lag weren't bad enough.

Donkeys and camels are a common sight just outside of the city. In the country, the dress is notably more conservative than in the city, as are political views.

Cairo is an interesting contrast of modernity and old-worldliness. These basic apartment buildings are equipped with satellite dishes.

The hot, yet humidity-free climate is the perfect environment to act as a dryer. Although you are constantly sweating, the perspiration just evaporates right off of you!

Street-lined fruit and food stands are everywhere. If my Arabic weren't limited to five words, I might be able to tell you what he is selling here. Regardless, it looks tasty and refreshing.

Three falafel meals in the past 24 hours?... Don't let anyone fool you, there's no such thing as too much falafel.

More to come from Cairo, so stay tuned!