Egypt City Culture

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Egypt City Culture
Cairo, Alexandria, and Luxor are an exhilarating mash-up of color, noise, and frenetic energy—rich in history and thrumming with life. Full of the bizarre and beautiful, the full-tilt chaos of these cities is where you experience Egypt's soul.
By Jessica Lee , AFAR Local Expert
Photo by age fotostock
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    Meetings with Mummies
    In a country which has unearthed some of the world's most fascinating relics of antiquity, it's no surprise that the museums are stacked high with towering statues, glittering gold artifacts, and mummies of long-dead kings and queens. To get up close and personal with the ancient rulers of Egypt, head to Cairo's Egyptian Museum. This granddaddy of collections is the dusty home to a magpie horde of pharaonic might. Down south, Luxor Museum's beautifully presented Royal Mummies exhibit is another top spot to learn more about the ancient world.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Strolling through Islamic Cairo
    A bustle of cars, carts, and the odd donkey-rider, navigate Cairo's narrow streets under the gaze of majestic mosques, madrassas (Islamic schools), and mausoleums. Islamic Cairo is the capital's most atmospheric neighborhood, imbued with a melancholy air of long-gone triumph. Wander the length of Sharia al-Muizz li-Din Allah, where many of the monuments have been beautifully restored. Spend time in quiet contemplation at the heart of the old city, within the graceful confines of al-Azhar Mosque. Then stroll to the medieval gate of Bab Zuweila and climb up to the roof. The vista of minarets and domes, surrounded by a satellite dish forest sprouting from dilapidated rooftops, sums up Cairo's clash of ancient and new.
    Photo by Wael Hamdan/age fotostock
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    The Ancient and Modern Art Scenes
    Painting and sculpture in Egypt have a history that flows as far back as the first settlers along the Nile. Millennia later, the ancient Egyptians' masterpieces continue to dazzle. The survival of their vibrant wall-paintings and megalithic statues is certainly to be celebrated, and Cairo's Egyptian Museum is a treasure-trove of wonder. At the other end of the spectrum, the graffiti art of modern Cairo is a showcase for sharp wit and social observation. Make a beeline for Cairo's Museum of Modern Egyptian Art for a good overview of the work of the country's 20th-century artists, and check out the latest exhibitions at downtown's Townhouse Gallery or at Darb 1718 in Fustat, which are at the forefront of the contemporary art scene.
    Photo by Jochen Schlenker/age fotostock
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    Alexandria: The City by the Sea
    Alexander the Great knew a good thing when he saw it. Alexandria, his grand city by the sea, oozes a hazy days-gone-by ambience. From Cleopatra seducing an emperor and starting an all-out war, to the decades leading up to independence when the city kicked its heels up and reveled in a louche cosmopolitanism, Alexandria has always played by its own rules. You can still catch a whiff of the city's golden age among its faded cafés and crumbling belle epoque architecture. To experience the best of the city, stroll the long seashore Corniche, a promenade that runs between the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (built in honor of the ancient Greek city's library) and the Mamluk-era Fort Qaitbey—where the Pharos Lighthouse of seven wonders fame once sat.
    Photo by Ashley Lohmann
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    The Pyramids
    The suburbs aren't where you usually head for knock-your-socks-off sightseeing. Cairo, though, has the mighty Pyramids of Giza sitting on the sideline of the city's creeping sprawl. These megalithic tombs of Egypt's 4th Dynasty Pharaohs Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure are the sole survivors of the ancient world's seven wonders. They are also Egypt's most iconic monuments. Clamber down into the musty bowels of the Great Pyramid to exercise your inner Indiana Jones. Pay your respects to the Sphinx, which has stood guard over the temples for 4,000+ years. Then, take a horse or camel ride across the desert edge of the city to Saqqara's step pyramid. It's the perfect way to contemplate the masterly architecture of the ancients without the crowds.
    Photo by Retta Jitner
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    Comforting Street Eats
    The cities are where you dig into Egyptian street food at its best. Deep fried balls of fava bean goodness are dished up at taameya (Egyptian falafel) stalls. Sizzling shawerma meat is deftly sliced from rotating skewers while fiteer (Egyptian pizza) is a flaky pastry surprise of tangy olives and salty cheese, rolled up to be eaten on the run. Egypt's king of street snacking though is koshary. This carbohydrate overload of macaroni, rice, chickpeas, and lentils, smothered in tomato sauce and topped with crispy onions, keeps the country on the go. In Cairo, check out clever modern twists on these street food staples at Zööba, a restaurant in Zamalek, or munch on classic koshary from downtown's Abou Tarek.
    Photo courtesy of Backpacker Concierge
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    Ancient Thebes—Modern Luxor
    Stamped with the names of schoolbook history—Ramses II, Tutankhamen, Queen Hatshepsut—Luxor is a glorious mix of open-air museum and modern whirl. The New Kingdom's mighty seat of power is a tale of two halves split by the sinuous Nile. The East Bank clamors with dusty souk action, spilling out around the colossal bulk of Karnak and Luxor Temples. Meanwhile, the magnificent tombs and megalithic ruins of long dead kings and queens command a silent aura of respect across the rocky escarpment of the West Bank. Crane your neck within the triumphant column-forest of Karnak's Hypostyle Hall before scooting over to the West Bank on the local ferry to ponder the rise and fall of the god-like pharaohs within the Valley of the Kings.
    Photo courtesy of Backpacker Concierge
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    Traditional Nightlife
    From ancient belly dancing to the haunting songs of Umm Kulthum, music and dance are tightly woven in to Egyptian culture. Dose up on the country's traditional music heritage by seeing the Sufis (the mystical branch of Islam) of the al-Tannoura Heritage Dance Troupe whirl at the Wekalet al-Ghouri, or experience the female healing ritual dance zar at the Makan cultural center. To experience the shimmying hypnotic shake of belly dancing, try the (often seedy) clubs of downtown or board a dinner cruise along the Nile. For the price of your ticket, you'll get a performance and a feast. The waterway views of Cairo's city lights are thrown in for free.
    Photo by Doug Scott/age fotostock
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    Remnants of the Belle Epoque
    As dashing and glamorous as Paris, yet filled with the exotic intrigue of the East, Cairo in Egypt's belle epoque era (1870s–1940s) was one of the world's most dazzling and beautiful cities. The grand boulevards of the downtown area rose out of desolate marshland. Opulent palaces and rococo-style villas were built beside the Nile. Khedive Ismail turned the medieval city on its head and created a cosmopolitan capital to which grand tour travelers flocked. Look up as you walk down Sharia Talaat Harb, and take a wander through Garden City and Zamalek to see surviving remnants of this ambitious era. Most of this architectural legacy has been left to wither and decay, but above congested pavements you'll still catch a glimmer of yesteryear.
    Photo by Dorling Kindersley/age fotostock
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    City Oases
    Sometimes the dense squeeze of Egypt's cities—overloaded with life in all its glory—can be exhausting. When that happens, it's time to catch your breath in the surprising city green spaces. Cairo's lungs are the gloriously lush al-Azhar Park, built over a centuries-old garbage dump. Bring a picnic, or eat on the terrace of Citadel View restaurant, to make the most of this unexpected oasis. In Alexandria, treat yourself to some royal downtime from the crowds by heading to Montazah Palace Gardens. Once reserved for the Khedive and his court, this haven of shady palm and pine trees rolls down to the seashore in a sprawling forest of greenery.
    Photo courtesy of Backpacker Concierge