Enchanting Egypt

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Enchanting Egypt
Egypt has been enchanting travelers since the days of Herodotus. Here, Africa and the Middle East meet and merge, and modernity coexists alongside steadfast cultural traditions. Egypt is a fascinating slice of the Arab world at its most diverse.
By Jessica Lee , AFAR Local Expert
Photo courtesy of Backpacker Concierge
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    The Souk Experience
    The whirl of the souk, scented with spice and smoke, ringing with the clang of metalwork shops and stallholders' shouts, is a journey into an age before sterilized malls and the Internet's click-to-buy ease. Browsing the maze of skinny alleyways is an adventure. Purchasing is a battle of good-humored wit and carefully-honed negotiating skills. The souk is where Egypt's street life is captured in all its dusty and thrilling diversity. Cairo and Alexandria have the best local souk scenes, while Luxor's and Aswan's have been modernized and are arguably a more easygoing experience.
    Photo courtesy of Backpacker Concierge
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    The Ahwa Scene
    Before fancy cappuccinos and razzmatazz café-chains, there was the ahwa (traditional coffeehouse), and these homegrown socializing hubs are still going strong. Join the locals for idle evening sessions of sheesha (hookah pipe) smoking, gossiping, and backgammon to immerse yourself in the true Egyptian experience. In Alexandria, Farouk Cafe has more than a hint of dust-covered history and is a great spot for a mint-tea break after strolling on the Corniche. Follow the wafts of apple-scented smoke amid the souks of Khan al-Khalili to find El Fishawy—Cairo's most famous ahwa. Open since 1773, this relic of cracked-marble tables and ornate tarnished mirrors has an old world atmosphere that can't be beaten.
    Photo by Tobias Postmaa
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    Ancient Nubia
    The land of ancient Nubia has its northernmost point at the Nile's First Cataract near Aswan. Despite the merging of outside influences and the destruction of much of Egypt's Nubian territory due to the building of the Aswan High Dam, the distinct and proud Nubian culture remains strong. In laid-back Aswan, wander through the Nubian villages of Siou and Koti on Elephantine Island. Shaded by palm trees, the exuberantly painted mud-brick houses here are one of Egypt's most tranquil spots. Afterwards, feast on Nubian flavors at ad-Dukka restaurant on Essa Island, where lunch is served with a glorious view of the Nile. Then, head to the fantastic Nubian Museum on Aswan's East Bank to delve into Nubia's illustrious back-story.
    Photo courtesy of Backpacker Concierge
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    Cairo's Majestic Mosques
    The dazzling and triumphant mosques of the Fatimid and Mamluk eras are some of Cairo's greatest sights. Silent and soothing respites from the car-horn chaos of the modern city, the stately mosques are a showcase of the lavish wealth and power of the Arab empires who stamped their mark upon the capital. Al-Azhar Mosque is the most famous of Cairo's mosques, but the Mosque of Sultan Hassan has to be the city's most glorious example of Islamic art. From here, wind your way through the narrow lanes to Abbasid-era Ibn Tulun Mosque with its graceful geometric symmetry. Then, let the outside world intrude again, by climbing up the minaret for bird's-eye views across the helter-skelter cityscape.
    Photo courtesy of Backpacker Concierge
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    Coptic Culture
    Egypt's Coptic community keeps alive a rich heritage of monasteries, miracles, holy men, and hermits. Within the incense-fragranced churches, looked down upon by frescoes of golden-haloed saints, the ancient rituals of one of the world's oldest Christian denominations are still very much a part of contemporary life. Spend an afternoon weaving through the narrow lanes of Coptic Cairo, where the Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus sits on top of the site where the Holy Family is said to have stayed. Then, journey to Asyut, in Middle Egypt, to visit the monastery of Deir al-Muharraq, which claims title to the world's earliest church.
    Photo courtesy of Backpacker Concierge
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    Eat Like an Egyptian
    Egyptian food is free of haute cuisine trends; cooking here comes straight from the heart and dishes are bursting with homegrown flavor. The best Egyptian cooking takes place behind closed doors at home. If you can't wrangle an invitation to dinner, restaurants with menus offering mahshi (stuffed vegetables) and tagen (stews) are the next best option, as they serve up a taste of true home-style cooking. Head to Sofra Restaurant in Luxor for a menu packed with Egyptian classics, and Samakmak Restaurant in Alexandria, where you're guaranteed the most delicious local seafood dishes in the land.
    Photo courtesy of Backpacker Concierge
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    Middle Egypt's Unsung Treasures
    Middle Egypt is the country's heartland. Follow the curvaceous bends of the Nile, south from Beni Suef to Qena, where agricultural life ticks along to a seasonal rhythm that has gone unchanged for centuries. The countryside here is scattered with incredible monuments from a lost age of glory and grandeur. Visit the pharaonic necropolis of Beni Hasan, near Minya, to be awed by vibrantly colored tomb paintings. Travel on to the Red Monastery, by Sohag, for a dazzling array of Byzantine frescoes. Then, go south to the extraordinary Temple of Seti I at Abydos to crane your neck up at the tree-trunk columns and enjoy the unusual reliefs of this old cult center, which is dedicated to Osiris.
    Photo by Jessica Lee
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    Bedouin Culture
    The Bedouin have roamed Egypt's desert lands for centuries. Even though their lifestyle as nomadic herders has vanished, their tribal links and traditional culture remain strong. Travel to St. Katherine Protectorate Area to visit their tranquil gardens, secreted in lush, narrow wadis</em (valleys) between the jagged cliffs. Or head out into the wilderness of foreboding sand on a camel trek with specialist travel companies Wilderness Ventures Egypt or Backpacker Concierge to experience a slice of nomadic life. The Bedouin may have swapped their goat-hair tents for shacks, but out here, at the mercy of nature, their reputation as masters of the desert lives on.
    Photo by George Muresan/age fotostock
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    Temples to the Gods
    Magnificent and fantastical, the colossal building works of the pharaohs have survived the imperial shake-ups across the centuries to stand as mighty totems to a lost world. Make the long trip south to stand in awe at Ramses II's triumphant temple at Abu Simbel. Contemplate the artistry of the ancients at Philae Temple, set on an island near Aswan. Walk through the Temple of Horus at Edfu and the old crocodile-cult Temple of Kom Ombo to feel the power and glory of the ancient gods. Amid the towering silent stones, try to get a sense of a world where kings were seen as divine and the mysterious world of the gods was bridged by building monuments in their honor.
    Photo courtesy of Backpacker Concierge