Ancient Egypt continues to weave its magic for us in the 21st century, even through turbulent political times.
Its monuments, tombs, hieroglyphics, and the waters of the Nile fuel its enduring appeal, and movies like The Mummy keep it in popular culture. And of course, what book lover hasn’t pined for the loss of Alexandria’s great library?
Everything about Egypt is huge, from its past to its sheer size. At just over 1 million km2, how do you know what to visit? This guide highlights the 9 most incredible things to see for history buffs and Egypt fans alike.
It makes sense to start with the capital. The Fatimids established the city in the 10th century (then called Fustat). Cairo became an important trading center on the spice route. It was also a seat of learning during the 13th century.
Head to the Islamic district to find evidence of its medieval history among the monuments and mosques. Artisan families run workshops and sell wares in the Khan el-Khalili shopping souk. This vast market is worth a visit. Who knows what bargains you’ll find?
Make sure to leave plenty of time to get to and from places as the traffic in Cairo is crazy!
Make a trip to the Citadel of Salah el-Din. This UNESCO World Heritage Site dates to the 12th century. Saladin built the citadel for protection against Crusaders. Three mosques and four museums now lie within its walls. The 19th-century Mosque of Muhammad Ali is perhaps the most impressive. Intended to compete with Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia, it’s also called the Alabaster Mosque. The large terrace outside gives stunning views over the city.
Finally, pay a visit to the Egyptian Museum. This charming building opened in 1902 and has an air of being an antique itself. Some of its exhibits have moved to the state-of-the-art Grand Egyptian Museum, scheduled to open in 2020. The Egyptian Museum will get a makeover to encourage tourists to keep visiting the antiquities on display.
2. The Great Pyramids of Giza, Cairo
On a clear day, you can see the Great Pyramid of Giza from the Mosque of Muhammad Ali and you can visit the pyramids from Cairo city as they are surprisingly close.
The pyramids are one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. At around 4600 years old, the Arabic proverb rings true, “Man fears time; time fears the pyramids.”
They might seem familiar, even if you’ve never been to Egypt, but no trip would be complete without them. You can’t explore inside (without special permissions) but you can admire their majesty from afar.
There is a fantastic sound and light show that even restores the Sphinx to its former glory. Yes, it’s touristy, but still worth going!
3. Saqqara, near Cairo
Keen to see pyramids but interested in something different? Try the huge necropolis at Saqqara, 27 km south of Cairo. Seventeen pharaohs rest here, dating back to the First Dynasty.
The structures demonstrate how ancient Egyptians mastered the art of pyramid-building. The most famous is the Pyramid of Djoser, with its angular stepped sides.
The pyramid dates to the 27th century BC, built as a burial complex for Djoser, a Third Dynasty pharaoh. Many experts credit his architect, Imhotep, with the earliest pyramid blueprint.
Ten other pyramids remain at the site in varying states of decay. The Pyramid of Teti still features its burial chamber sarcophagus.
4. St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai Peninsula
This gorgeous Greek Orthodox monastery lies at the base of Mount Sinai. It’s considered the world’s oldest working monastery and houses art, documents, and other important religious icons.
The monastery keeps around 4500 ancient manuscripts. Only Rome’s Vatican Library holds a bigger collection, and perhaps there are mysteries still hidden out there in the desert? (as Morgan Sierra discovers in Ark of Blood.)
The monastery is named after St Catherine of Alexandria. The skull and left hand of this 3rd-century martyr sit in a marble sarcophagus in the basilica. That’s the same Catherine who died on a spiked wheel and gave us the Catherine Wheel firework.
Built by Emperor Justinian, the monastery dates to the early 6th century. A chapel dedicated to the burning bush lies within its walls but unfortunately, it is off limited to the public.
You’ll also find a charnel house there since the monks couldn’t dig permanent graves in the hard ground. Unlike more ornate ossuaries, these bones aren’t used for decoration.
5. Abu Simbel
Abu Simbel’s rock temples are one of the most iconic places to visit in Egypt. You have to take a short flight to get there but it’s well worth it. The Great Temple of Ramesses II is dedicated to Egypt’s state deities: Amun, Ptah, and Ra-Harakhty. The four colossal statues at the front represent Ramesses II, who enjoyed a 66-year reign, increasing Egypt’s power and prosperity.
He dedicated the smaller temple to the goddess Hathor and his queen Nefertari. After the fall of Egypt, the temples fell into disuse and the desert almost reclaimed them. Fortunately, a Swiss explorer uncovered a frieze in 1813 and excavations began.
UNESCO moved the temples in the 1960s to ensure the site didn’t disappear underwater during building work for the Aswan Dam. The original location marked the southern border of Ramses II’s realm. Building such an imposing structure helped send a message about his power and Egypt’s supremacy.
Experts suggest that Egyptian architects positioned the original temples to face the rising sun on two specific dates: October 22 and February 22, so the sunlight would touch the sculptures at the back of the sanctuary. This current alignment is no longer exact, partly due to the relocation but it’s still pretty cool!
I visited Abu Simbel back in 2004 and it features in a pivotal scene in my ARKANE thriller, Ark of Blood.
The ancient city of Abydos lies some 135km from Luxor. Early Egyptians buried the first pharaohs in the necropolis.
The Temple of Seti features seven sanctuaries, each for a different deity, and also holds the Abydos King List. This Nineteenth Dynasty inscription lists the pharaohs in chronological order. Certain names are missing, left off due to feuds or politics.
Abydos is important to the history of religious worship. By the end of the Old Kingdom, the main cult was that of Osiris and Isis. Some even believed the cemetery held the god’s grave. Successive pharaohs extended and rebuilt this temple over the years. What remains is gorgeous and offers plenty of paintings on its walls and columns.
Many visitors flock to the temples of Luxor, but Abydos can be a much quieter option for a visit.
7. Valley of the Kings, Luxor
Luxor was the ancient city of Thebes, the capital of Egypt during the Middle and New Kingdoms. As a result, the most famous royal cemetery in the world lies nearby.
Archaeologists know of 63 tombs in this valley, although only 20 contain kings. The other graves held officials, nobles, and royal wives or children. The area became the site of frenzied exploration at the end of the eighteenth century when looters opened and robbed many of its tombs.
One tomb that escaped plunder was KV62. Buried after a flash flood, the resting place of King Tutankhamun lay undiscovered until 1922. The death of Lord Carnavon soon after its excavation helped boost the myth of the cursed tomb.
Only a few tombs are open to visitors. Note that visiting KV62 carries a separate entry charge.
8. Karnak Temple, Luxor
Karnak is a huge temple complex near Luxor. If you’ve seen anything of ancient Egypt in popular culture, it was probably Karnak. Despite the pillaging and destruction over the centuries, it is still majestic. I visited on an incredibly hot day and it felt like being in another time.
The immense complex forms a record of building work ordered by 18th Dynasty pharaohs. Queen Hatshepsut, one of the few female rulers, even restored an original temple.
Karnak also documents the changing nature of the gods. Some absorbed other deities to create new figures. Others rose and fell in prominence, leading to new or restored temples. Karnak can be a confusing jumble of statues and sanctuaries, but it’s still a beautiful and mysterious place.
9. Thonis-Heracleion, Alexandria
It’s a bit of a cheat including this because you can’t actually visit. The remains of Thonis-Heracleion lie 6.5 km off Alexandria’s coast, but it’s a spell-binding site all the same – especially if you enjoy diving.
The city dates to the crossover period between Egypt and Greece. Its growth shows the flourishing partnership between the civilizations. Greek chapels stood alongside Egyptian temples. Priests even fused deities from each pantheon to create Serapis. Divers discovered a Serapis statue in the sunken ruins.
Statues and other treasures appeared at the British Museum in the 2016 Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds exhibition which inspired my short story, The Dark Queen. What – or who – might still lurk among the underwater ruins?
This kind of mystery explains the draw of ancient Egypt in a modern era. From Lara Croft to Indiana Jones, popular culture is full of Egyptian references. Who knows how it may inspire you?