Finding Sanctuary in Coptic Cairo

Article and Photos by PJ Wheeler

Going against my government and well-wishers suggestions, I stepped out of the airport’s arrival door and scanned the name cards, like in the movies, and spotted Mahmoud; his smiling face was one I only knew by a photograph. Relief filled within me as I eased myself into his car. Moments later we were driving through one of the most chaotic cities in the world, Cairo.

A few times within that hour’s drive to my home for the next eight nights, I thanked my lucky stars that I went with my instincts; my apartment rental host seemed like a true upstanding guy and I was thrilled to not be in the driver’s seat. I’ve been to other developing countries, but none had people darting across three lanes of rushing traffic. Later in the week my concern was confirmed, when I heard a thump and then pains of agony; a man crossing the freeway didn’t see a motorcycle concealed by a passing truck.

The Mysteries of Ancient Egypt

Suspicion tried to entertain itself in my mind when we pulled up in front of the apartment building. From a distance the structure portrayed upscale living, yet in the USA, this building would not be inhabited, well, not by upstanding citizens. Mahmoud was quick to explain that in Egypt a building need not be finished for tenants to reside. I followed him past vacant rooms displaying their skeletal frames, along with mounds of sand covering the floor. Again, I tried to keep the eerie feeling away and held onto hope. The two-person elevator door closed and once the correct button was pushed, a man’s voice filled the space with Muslim prayer; I thought “that has to be a good sign.”

The moment of truth came as the apartment door swung open. This place is a diamond in the rough, a sigh of relief escaped me. The kitchen, directly across from the front door has everything you need and is stocked with bottled water, juice and breakfast foods. The exception is running water available a hundred percent of the time. This is a country issue and not a property concern.

The rectangular open floor plan is decorated with Egyptian furnishings; crystal chandeliers and, gold painted crown molding.

The sliding glass door, draped with elegant fabrics, is the only natural light source and opens to a balcony. I walked onto the veranda and jumped up and down and squealed with delight like a schoolgirl , the Giza Pyramid Complex was right there for viewing pleasure.

Down the hallway is the bathroom and three bedrooms equipped with dual twin beds. The windowless rooms stay cool day and night. Each room has an air conditioner, yet other than for circulation, were not turned on for long.

Mahmoud and his family live in the same complex; in the evening his mother made sure I was well fed and sent me a room service tray full of goodies. I gorged myself on authentic Egyptian food: stuffed zucchini, stuffed eggplant, stuffed cabbage, chicken and rice. Relaxed, I signed into the apartment’s Wi-Fi to notify my family I was alive and well, then gave into sleep. The next morning began my three-day tour around Cairo. Sunrise couldn’t come early enough.

The Egyptian Museum & Great Pyramid

Haze shrouded the Giza Necropolis Complex. Mo, my guide from Egypt Trip Tours, informed me that it usually burns off by the afternoon. To allow a better photo opportunity of the pyramids later in the day, my guide asked my permission to head to the museum first.

Upon arrival, I purchased a “photography ticket,” which is separate from the entry fee. This special ticket allows tourist legal rights to click away. The museum has 120,000 Egyptian artifacts, yet not all are on display. Our tour began with the Rosetta Stone and ended with the young pharaoh we are all familiar with, King Tutankhamun.

The museum is somewhere I would have stayed all-day if I was by myself. Too soon we were leaving and on our way to the pyramids. Along our route we stopped for falafels; I threw out caution and ate with the locals. Every traveler is told not to eat street food in developing countries, because the food will play havoc with your digestive system. Egypt is notorious for foreigners getting “tourist tummy.” Thankfully, while I had some discomfort, it didn’t keep me from participating in activities.

The sun beat down upon me, but it wasn’t unbearable. In fact, the temperature felt like back home in Boise, Idaho. As predicted, the smog cleared and the Great Pyramid loomed before us. I stood in mind-blowing awe; inspecting the huge, precise stone blocks that form the ancient structure. My eyes teared up, my dream had come true. I was standing before one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Mo explained the creating process and how they now believe that slaves did not build the pyramids, but skilled laborers that were compensated for their work. I noticed an entrance into the Great Pyramid and asked if tourist are allowed inside; Mo joyously announced that the Red Pyramid allows free entry and we will be there tomorrow.

Channeling My Inner Indiana Jones

Channeling My Inner Indiana Jones Ninety-seven pyramids have been discovered in Egypt; the Step Pyramid is thought to be the first built during 2700 B.C. by King Nejerykhet. The mega-metropolis of Cairo disappeared behind us, as we drove to Dahshur to examine the Funerary Complex of Djoser, best known as the Step Pyramid. Scaffolding made it impossible to view from the front, but I didn’t mind. The complex comprised the pyramid, courtyard and a funeral preparation building; the treasure to discover is in the preparation building. Forty columns compose two rows that line the aisle where the deceased body was carried into the courtyard. What makes the “Court of Columns” spectacular; they are believed to be the first pillars ever formed.

Peddling wares is the livelihood for many Egyptian citizens, so expect to be surrounded by hawkers wanting your business when you enter any tourist area. Goods range from books, to headdresses, to camel rides. Venders can become adamant in obtaining your business even with a stern “no.” I ended up on top of a camel to appease one merchant. Expected to haggle the price you would like to pay; I talked my ride down from five dollars to two dollars.

Not too far away from Djoser, I climbed the Red Pyramid. It is a task for those in physical shape, something I found out not to be. At the access point my guide enlightened me I was going solo and gave instructions; I turned on my flashlight, crouched down and entered. There are no stairs to descend into the belly of a pyramid, but a plank; this one is 80 meters long that has metal bars going across to stop you from sliding down.

When I reached the bottom, my back was reprieved from its stooped position for a brief moment, before entering a short tunnel. I emerged into a chamber and scrutinized the nondescriptive interior walls, then climbed a rickety wooden ladder and gazed down at a big pile of boulders. For a moment I felt hoodwinked, but regained my senses when I reminded myself of my fortunate opportunity. Pharaoh Snefru had this pyramid built during his reign, 2551-2571 B.C, yet he didn’t choose this place to house his remains and afterlife treasures. That location still remains a mystery.

The King Resides In Memphis

Ten miles from the outskirts of Cairo, the City of Memphis appeared as an oasis. Date palm trees stand like sentinels over the Old Kingdom era (c.3100 BC) capitol city, shrubbery added to the appeal. I dropped my bag onto the security’s conveyor belt and watched it disappear into the x-ray machine as I stepped through the metal detector; this performance has become the norm everywhere in Egypt, even to enter a shopping mall.

For a relaxing and comfortable stay in Cairo with views of the Pyramids, stay with Mahmoud Click here to check on availability and details

Tourism has dropped significantly in Egypt and I acknowledged that, once again, as I viewed my surroundings and noted only one tourist group of five walking the grounds. I entered the museum and couldn’t believe my eyes; I was unaware of the importance of this inconspicuous building. The colossus limestone statue of Ramesses II, known as Ramesses the Great, laid on its back, filling the space. When the statue was erected, it stood 32 feet 9 inches; nowadays the lower legs are gone due to erosion, yet it’s still very impressionable. This pharaoh had a remarkable reign that lasted 66 years.

A Church That Seats 20,000 People

On my last day with Egypt Trip Tours I visited Coptic Cairo; Old Cairo incorporates the Hanging Church, the Great Mosque of Muhammad Ali, The Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (Abu Serga) and, The  onastery of Saint Simon. The four churches are remarkable in different respects; but the two that filled me with wonder were Cairo’s oldest Christian Church, Abu Serga, and the church in a mountain, The Monastery of Saint Simon.

When you walk into Abu Serga, you would never guess the significant secret held within the grotto below. The decor is an appealing dark brown: pews, beams and bricks that support a wood dome and, the Sanctuary’s wooden screen dates back to the 13th century.

Descending the stairs at the back of the church you enter the crypt where the Holy Family found refuge when they fled from King Herold into Egypt. Tourist walk on a boardwalk over the site; sections of the flooring are removed allowing you to view the original stones the family walked upon. At the end of the room, in a brick alcove is a plaque stating that baby Jesus slept there. When you go back up the stairs, you can gaze down into the well that the Holy Family drank from.

Traveling into the slum community of Manshiyat Nasir, you will find a haven within the Mokattam Mountain. Often referred to as Zabaleen, meaning “Garbage City,” the name reflects the citizens occupations; garbage collectors. There is no unemployment, everyone’s livelihood is the garbage industry; started in 1940 when Christians were sent here to establish their own city and work in this trade.

The Monastery of Saint Simon is the largest church in the Middle East, where Christians gather to worship within caves. Carvings of trumpet-blowing angels surround Jesus as he sits upon his throne, the Ten Commandments and the Nativity beautify the rock face. The church’s facade displays a mural of “The Day the Mountain Moved,” when believers and non-believers gathered to witness thereligious miracle. The outdoor summer cave has the largest seating capacity at 20,000 while the winter cave seats less than half that. Every cavern wall is decorated with carvings from biblical stories.

What struck me the most was learning it took 10,000 “garbage people” twelve years to clear out the rubbish to reveal these caves. The Zabaleen believe that nothing should be wasted; the church within Mokattam Mountain is the perfect display of that belief.

Final Thoughts Traveling To Egypt

Concern for my safety never resurfaced after that first day. Overall, I found the Egyptian people happy to have me in their country and wishing more tourist would come. My experience surpassed all my expectations, so much so, I will return to adventure Egypt again, so stay tuned. And check out my trip video – click this link



PJ Wheeler a part-time freelance travel writer from Boise, Idaho who writes about getting out of one’s comfort zone and discovering off the beaten-path locations. Her articles have been published in online magazines and she publishes a blog at A Traveler’s Postcard.




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