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Things to Do in Egypt

An ancient land of towering pyramids and endless stretches of desert, Egypt is often referred to as the cradle of civilization. On the lush banks of the Nile River, papyrus reeds sway alongside pharaonic temples, and sandblasted tombs reside beneath the mysterious gaze of the Sphinx. With so much to see, a popular way to explore the Gift of the Nile is by cruise ship, with options ranging from week-long luxury jaunts to shorter, budget-friendly trips. Popular stopovers include Aswan, home to the Aswan High Dam and Philae Temple; Luxor, where temple complexes in the Valley of the Kings pay testament to pharaohs including King Tutankhamun; and, of course, Cairo, capital city and gateway to the Great Pyramid of Giza, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (and a perfect opportunity for a desert camel ride). Alternatively, make Cairo your base, exploring the enormous Egyptian Museum and doing some shopping in the vast Khan el Khalili Bazaar. From the city, you can take day trips to many of the essential sites, including the ancient capital of Memphis—home to Egypt’s oldest pyramid. Following a healthy dose of history, head to the Red Sea coast to relax on the golden sands of Hurghada and experience the country’s best scuba diving in Marsa Alam, where unspoiled coral reefs teem with marine life.
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Giza Pyramids
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The sole survivor of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Pyramids of Giza still live up to more than 4,000 years of hype. Their extraordinary shape, geometry and age render them somehow alien constructions; they seem to rise out of the desert and pose the ever-fascinating question, 'How were we built, and why?' The oldest and biggest pyramid is that of Cheops, and you can go inside this one if you don't suffer from claustrophobia. Once they were covered in smooth white marble but that was taken for temples over the centuries, but you can imagine how even more impressive they would have been then. Climbing on the pyramids is strictly banned.The sole survivor of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Pyramids of Giza still live up to more than 4,000 years of hype. Their extraordinary shape, geometry and age render them somehow alien constructions; they seem to rise out of the desert and pose the ever-fascinating question, 'How were we built, and why?'

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Valley of the Kings
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The harsh, lunar landscape of the Valley of the Kings is the resting place of numerous New Kingdom pharaohs, whose remains were interred in tombs burrowed into rock. The 60-odd tombs which have been discovered (which may represent only half of the total tombs in the area) are identified by number rather than the name of their original inhabitant, and a handful of tombs are closed at any one time for restoration. Nonetheless there is more than enough to see, and it is better to pick out a representative sample rather than try to see every tomb.

Grave-robbers and museums have nabbed the items which were supposed to accompany rulers into the afterlife, but you can still see the work of some of the finest artisans of the ancient world, who glorified pharaohs in frescoes and wall reliefs. Graffiti shows that this extraordinary ensemble of antiquities was already a tourist attraction for the ancient Greeks and Romans.

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Karnak Temple
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The largest of Luxor’s temples, Karnak was one of the most sacred sites in ancient Egypt. Constructed in the 16th Dynasty, it marked the ascendancy of Thebes as the capital of the New Kingdom. The major site here is the Temple of Amon, the largest place of worship ever constructed. There the Great Hypostyle Hall, dwarfs visitors with its dozens of colossal columns reaching 25 yards (23 meters) into the sky.
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Egyptian Museum (Museum of Egyptian Antiquities)
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Without doubt, the exhibit that outshines everything else is the treasure of the young New Kingdom Pharaoh Tutankhamun - don't miss the astonishing solid-gold death mask. Other highlights include the Royal Mummy Room; the Amarna Room, devoted to Akhenaten, the Greco-Roman Mummies; the glittering galleries that display an astounding array of finery extracted from New Kingdom tomb; and the larger-than-life-size statue of Khafre (Chephren)
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Temple of Hatshepsut (at Deir el-Bahari)
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The vast Temple of Hatshepsut in Deir el-Bahari rivals the Pyramids as one of the great funerary monuments of the ancient world. Built into the towering cliff face which shelter the Valley of the Kings on the other side, it rises on three enormous terraces connected by ramps, each level marked with a colonnade of stark, largely unadorned square pillars.

Its namesake was one of the few female pharaohs of ancient Egypt, who not unfairly called her monument “Splendor of Splendors”. However, much of the construction dated from earlier rulers, starting with Mentuhotep II in 2050 BC. Numerous sphinxes and other statues have since disappeared, making the whole structure appear even more monolithic.

The cool stone interior provides welcome relief from the pitiless heat of this region, and features well-preserved wall reliefs and hieroglyphics, some in brilliant colors.

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Colossi of Memnon
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Little remains of the once impressive Amenhotep’s memorial temple. But the two imposing statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, erected to guard the ancient entrance, still stand watch some 3,400 years later. Today, travelers can venture to the shores of the Nile, just across from the city of Luxor, and revel at the giant manmade sculptures.

In addition to these impressive twin statues, travelers can check out two smaller figures of the Pharaoh’s wife, Tiy, and mother, Mutemwia. Visitors can also get an up close look at the sandstone panel carvings that showcase images of the Nile god Hapy. Even if most of the Colossi has been lost to weather an the ages, travelers can still get a sense of the wonder this site once held.

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Memphis
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The city of Memphis was the capital of ancient Egypt. It was the King's residence and the political and administrative centre until around 2,200 BC. It had impressive fortifications and temples, largely to Ptah, the god of creation and artworks. Estimates of population vary from 6,000 to 30,000 but either way, it was one of the larger, if not the largest, cities of its era.

Archaeological digging in the area has uncovered a Temple of Ptah and sculptures, including a sphinx (smaller than the one at Giza but still impressive), and the Colossus of Ramses II. These are now housed in the outdoor Memphis Museum in Mit Rihina, the modern town in this area. In 1979, UNESCO designated the area a World Heritage Site.

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Luxor Temple
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The enormous Luxor Temple was one of the great constructions of the New Kingdom (dating from the 14th century BC) dedicated to the god Amun. It was known as the “Southern Sanctuary” and was the site of ceremonies aimed at encouraging the life-giving Nile floods.

Once through the processional Avenue of Sphinxes you come to the First Pylon, which announces the phenomenal scale of the stonework here: statues, columns and obelisks all compete with each other in a race to the sky.

Ensuing civilizations have also left their marks: there’s a shrine erected by Alexander the Great, Roman wall frescoes as well as a 14th century AD mosque, ensuring this remains a place of worship in the present day.

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Philae Temple (Temple of Isis)
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Philae was a holy island in the Nile River where the ancient Egyptians built a temple to the goddess Isis. With the projects to dam the Nile - first with the Aswan Dam, then later in the 1960s with the High Aswan Dam - the island became increasingly submerged and the temple threatened. As part of UNESCO's project to rescue the ancient monuments threatened by the river damming, the island was itself dammed, surrounded by a high wall, until all the water was gone and the building could be cut into sections and moved. The project took 10 years.

Now the temple is on the higher, nearby Agilka Island and worthy of a visit. Isis was a very important goddess in ancient times. She was known as the Mother of God, giver of life, protector and healer of kings and her temple was once the site of many pilgrimages.

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Sphinx (Great Sphinx of Giza)
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The Great Sphinx of Giza is the greatest monumental sculpture of the ancient world and measures a massive 240 ft (73 m) long by 66 ft (20 m) high. It is generally believed to have been built around 2,550 BC but may well be even older. Legends and superstitions abound about the Sphinx, and the mystery surrounding its long-forgotten purpose is almost as intriguing as its appearance.

These days the Sphinx has been given a new role as part of a nightly Sound and Light show telling the history of Egypt with the Sphinx as narrator. Several times each evening, colored lights bounce off the pyramids as the story of an ancient world is told.

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More Things to Do in Egypt

Khan Al-Khalili

Khan Al-Khalili

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Jaundiced travelers often dismiss the Khan al-Khalili as a tourist trap; there's no ignoring the fact that it's a favored stop of tour buses and has all the associated annoyances (touts and tat) that come with them. But it's worth remembering that Cairenes have plied their trades here since the founding of the Khan in the 14th century - the buying and selling didn't begin with the arrival of the first tour group.

Today the market still plays an important role in the day-to-day commercial life of thousands of locals. In its narrow streets you can buy anything from shoes to souvenirs to clothes, chess sets, cushions, ceramics, brass, gold, silver, rugs, fabrics and on it goes.

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Tomb of Tutankhamun

Tomb of Tutankhamun

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The boy pharaoh Tutankhamun, who ruled the New Kingdom in the 14th century, enjoys fame disproportionate to his short reign and modest achievements. This is mostly due to the discovery of his largely intact tomb in the Valley of the Kings in 1922, his mummy adorned by a dazzling gold mask (now in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, along with most of the tomb’s other bling).

Having risked the curse said to await anyone who disturbs the tomb’s rest, visitors may be slightly disappointed by its modest scale and relative lack of adornment. “King Tut” is, however, still in residence, his linen-wrapped mummy visible in a glass box watched over by richly colored wall paintings.

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Citadel of Qaitbay (Fort Qaitbey)

Citadel of Qaitbay (Fort Qaitbey)

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Famously one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was the world’s first ever lighthouse, constructed in the 3rd century BC by Ptolemy I. An incredible architectural achievement of its time, the lighthouse took over two decades to complete and, at 450 feet (137 meters) tall, ranked among the world’s tallest structures for centuries after. It stood as a commanding force in Alexandria’s harbor for hundreds of years before being destroyed by a series of earthquakes that sent huge stones into the bay.

Today, almost nothing remains of the former world wonder, although the seaside Citadel of Qaitbay was built in its place using lighthouse ruins in 1480. The well-preserved medieval fortress offers visitors great views of Alexandria’s skyline and out to sea, plus the knowledge of its location’s historical significance.

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City of the Dead (Al-Arafa)

City of the Dead (Al-Arafa)

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Qarafa, or The City of the Dead, is two 4 mile (6 km) long cemeteries - a north and south cemetery - dating from Mamluk times (1200s - 1500s) and is still in use today. Traditionally all families kept a mausoleum and these days some families use them for living in as well as for burials. Some families have been inhabiting the tombs for generations, some arrived more recently after the 1967 war displaced them from the canal zone. The north cemetery has more people residing in it and estimates are up to half a million people live there. These days there are shops, cafes and even a post-office within the cemeteries.

Many of the tombs themselves are quite grand and beautiful dating back centuries and in the Mamluk style. The northern cemetery is home to some of Cairo's most beautiful Mamluk monuments, such as the Mausoleums of Sultan Qaitbay and Sultan Barquq.

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Montazah Palace Gardens

Montazah Palace Gardens

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Built by Khedive Abbas II in 1900, the grand Moorish-style palace of Montazah is one of Alexandria’s most striking landmarks and the vast estate stretches along the seafront north of the city. The palace remains a summer residence of the Egyptian royal family and is off-limits to the public, but visitors can still walk the grounds and experience the adjoining Salamlek annex, which has now been transformed into a luxury hotel.

For most visitors, the highlight is the lavish Montazah Palace Gardens, a pocket of greenery fringed by sandy beaches and romantic promenades. As well as strolling the palm-lined walkways and picnicking on the lawns, visitors can explore several greenhouses, home to an impressive variety of tropical plants.

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Great Pyramid of Giza (Khufu Pyramid)

Great Pyramid of Giza (Khufu Pyramid)

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Pyramid of Khafre

Pyramid of Khafre

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One of the oldest of the world's famous skylines, the Pyramids of Giza have had no trouble commanding attention throughout the centuries. Their mysterious history permeates the plateau from which they rise, and one of the three in particular, the Pyramid of Khafre, has its own tale to tell.

Also known as Pyramid Chephren, this tomb was built under the direction of the fourth-dynasty Pharaoh Khafre. Its condition and elevation give it the appearance of the largest of the pyramids, although it is actually several feet shorter than the tallest pyramid of Giza, the towering Great Pyramid. The Valley Temple and Mortuary Temple help make up the Khafre pyramid complex, and the Great Sphinx stands nearby.

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Giftun Islands

Giftun Islands

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The Giftun Islands are a popular excursion from Hurghada, offering snorkeling, diving, sunbathing and a welcome retreat from the mainland bustle.

Offshore reefs provide spectacular drop-offs for experienced divers, hiding moray eels and fish in amongst the corals. Closer to shore, the coral reef snorkeling is superb.

The islands are famous for their pristine protected beaches, and a resort on the larger island provides all the facilities you need for a day by the sea, along with tours and windsurfing.

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Roman Amphitheatre

Roman Amphitheatre

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Nile River

Nile River

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Measuring 4,150 miles (6,680 kilometers) from end to end, the Nile River is the world’s longest and arguably the most important in the region. Egypt’s some 83 million residents, living along the edge of the pitiless Sahara Desert, have always relied on the waters of the Nile for basic sustenance.

More than 240 riverboats sail up and down the waters of the Nile River between Luxor and Aswan, and cruising on one of them tops many an Egyptian travel itinerary. Along the way, you’ll make stops at a few of the countless temples dotting the shore, including the Temple of Edfu, built in honor of the god Horus and better maintained than any other Pharaonic structure along the river, and the Temple of Kom Ombo, dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek.

At Aswan, marvel at the controversial Aswan High Dam, a feat of engineering responsible for harnessing the Nile and creating the world’s largest artificial lake.

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Aswan High Dam

Aswan High Dam

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Built in the 1960s, the Aswan High Dam was an engineering marvel at the time and changed the face of Egypt. It increased the cultivable land by 30% and doubled Egypt's available electricity supply. It also created Lake Nasser, at the time the world's largest artificial lake, which would have covered the important Abu Simbel Temple monuments if not for the support of UNESCO and a worldwide appeal for funds to move them to higher ground, a massive feat which was successfully achieved.

The dam itself is massive, containing 18 times the material used to build the famous Pyramid of Cheops at Giza. It is 11,811 feet (3,600 meters) long, 3,215 ft (980 m) thick at the base, and 364 ft (111 m) tall. Today, it provides visitors with wonderful views up and down the Nile River.

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Alexandria National Museum

Alexandria National Museum

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With three floors of exhibitions and around 1,800 artifacts on display, the Alexandria National Museum offers a fascinating introduction to the city’s rich history. Housed in the impressively restored Al-Saad Bassili Pasha Palace, the museum’s exhibitions offer a chronological journey through history, with artifacts from Egypt’s four ages: Ancient, Greco-Roman, Coptic and Islamic.

Highlights include a sphinx found at Aboukir, a large collection of antique coins, a dazzling array of royal jewels and portraits of Menkaure, Ikhnaton and Hatshepsut. There’s also a section devoted to artifacts found underwater along Alexandria’s coast, including statues of Venus and the head of Alexander the Great.

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Tomb of Ramses III

Tomb of Ramses III

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Tomb of Merneptah (Merenptah)

Tomb of Merneptah (Merenptah)

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