Alexander’s Footsteps: Cairo B-Sides
For eight months writer Theodore May will be following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, tracing the 2,000-mile path Alexander forged through the modern Middle East. Theo will be writing about his experiences for The Global Post, and you can be follow him on Twitter at @Theodore_May. He’ll be contributing glimpses from his journeys here at Intelligent Travel.
So you finally made your dream trip to Cairo. You took in the Pyramids at Giza and the iconic Sphinx. You visited the mighty citadel, overlooking the dusty Cairo skyline. You visited the churches in Coptic Cairo, shopped in the famous Khan el Khalili market, and stopped by the King Tut exhibit at the Cairo museum. The trouble is, you’ve still got a few days left until you take off for home. Here are three superb options to round off your Cairo experience. I call them the Cairo B-Sides.
The Cave Church of St. Samaan: Saint Samaan lived in the 10th century and is remembered for the miracle of his moving the Mokkatam mountain. A church commemorating this event lies among the cliffs east of Cairo. To get to the church, you take a car to the city’s outskirts and then wind through the streets of the appropriately named “Garbage City,” an area know best for its stench, where generations of Cairenes collect garbage and sort it for recycling.
The church sits nestled deep under a dramatic rock overhang, with carvings in the rock paying homage to the saint. It represents a stark break from the monotony of the dusty Saharan plain. Whatever your religious background, it’s worth taking in a brief service there, if only to hear the music rumble through the cliff’s wonderful acoustic setting. If you pick the right weekend night, you may even catch the weekly ritual exorcisms, in which the local priest wages war with his flock’s inner demons in an effort to heal the sick.
The Pyramids at Dahshour: Yes, the Giza site may boast Cairo’s most spectacular pyramids, but if you’re looking to get away from the crowds, head 45 minutes south for an intimate morning with Dahshour’s two pyramids.
When you first arrive at the site, your eye will immediately be drawn to the hulking structure of Sneferu’s Bent Pyramid, so named because the angle of the pyramid changes halfway up the structure. Historians believe that pyramid architects erred by planning a pyramid so massive, its base wouldn’t be able to support the whole structure. Mid-way through construction, the story goes, architects realized their error and softened the angle to reduce the building’s final size.
Legend also has it that Sneferu grew impatient with the rate at which the builders were putting together his tomb and ordered a smaller pyramid built nearby, which, given the color of the rock, would come to be called the Red Pyramid. The beauty of the Red Pyramid is that you can climb all over it, and in it, with few other tourists in sight, as it’s often overlooked in favor of its more impressive neighbors to the north.
Climb halfway up the Red Pyramid until you see a tired-looking old guard perched in front of a small opening. Then climb in! The descent is steep, but the passage is lit and wood notches have been installed on the floor to help you keep your footing. As you descend, you’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel (literally) disappearing behind you.
The rooms inside the pyramid at the end of the climb aren’t particularly remarkable, but climbing into the belly of a pyramid–likely with no other tourists around–is an experience you won’t soon forget.
The Camel Market:
Wake up early on a Friday, put on your walking shoes, and hail a taxi to the camel market at Birqash, about 40 minutes north of Cairo. Camels brought up from Sudan are sold here every Friday morning, and if you visit, you’ll get to witness a scene unlike any other.
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Hundreds upon hundreds of camels line a dirt path, waiting to be sold. Each has one of its front legs tied up to prevent it from running, and the resulting visual spectacle of scores of hobbling camels is hard to believe.
If you’re lucky, you’ll witness an impromptu auction in which dozens of camel traders yell, shove, and prod their perspective sale. If you go off to the sides of the market, you’ll see the loading docks, where workers strong-arm wailing camels into the backs of pickup trucks.
The market isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s a harsh scene that would likely give any animal rights activist a coronary. But it’s a slice of Egyptian humanity you won’t regret seeing.