Egypt is one of the most thoroughly mythologised countries in the world. In a way this is perhaps only natural given that its history extends back to one of the most impressive and awe-inspiring early civilisations of the human age. Nevertheless, particularly in some western cultures, the idea of what Egypt is, or even what it looks like, has been twisted somewhat by everything from conspiratorial TV shows to animated online video games.
As a result, not everyone who might consider traveling to Egypt really has a good idea of what to expect. So below we’re highlighting a few of the things that might come as a surprise to the first-time visitor.
1 – Cairo is a huge city
Many people hear Cairo and think of it as the city you go to in order to visit the Pyramids. They might envision low stone buildings against a desert backdrop. These thoughts aren’t entirely inaccurate, but it would be wise for anyone visiting to read up on what to expect in Cairo a little bit also. First and foremost it is a huge city, with nearly 10 million residents (as of 2018) and somewhat legendary congestion. Some parts look and feel ancient, some are vaguely reminiscent of other African capitals, and some look to be every bit the big, modern, industrialised city. There are bustling open-air markets and serene mosques; there are cultural movements and infamous traffic jams; there are youth hostels and luxury hotels with views of the Nile.
In short, it really is a sprawling city with a little bit of everything.
2 – The monuments and tombs look and feel ancient
This point probably sounds the most obvious, but it’s also where the mythologised nature of Egypt most comes into play. In various films and storybooks many (particularly in the West) grow up with – from illustrated Bibles to the film, The Prince Of Egypt, one sees idyllic versions of the pyramids, the Nile, and the tombs and statues – drawn as they may have looked the moment they were built. Today, in video games ranging from major console-based series like Ubisoft to the bonus-based gaming platforms of New Zealand, one sees similarly glorified depictions: a massive, uniform pyramid to climb in a video game, or a cluster of pristine golden monuments as the background to a casino arcade.
These are all pleasant visuals to imagine, but they can actually numb you to the true age and wonder of the monuments, tombs, and other historical sites. In person, these places look very much like part of the ancient world they come from – and they’re all the better for it.
3 – Some of the beaches are idyllic
Plenty of travellers consider Egypt and expect sandy expanses – but only in the form of the desert! It would do you well to recognise, though, that as a coastal nation with shoreline along both the Mediterranean and Red Seas, Egypt actually has a number of gorgeous, popular beach areas as well. There are quaint little bays, places to lay in the sun alongside other tourists, snorkelling and scuba diving spots, and a few places that are just gorgeous to explore on foot. Broadly speaking, beach tourism should absolutely be part of your itinerary if you’re looking into a trip to Egypt.
4 – The food is unique
Lots of Middle Eastern and North African food can be fairly uniform from one place to another, and you’ll likely find some of the popular dishes and preparations you’d expect in Egypt. For example, there will be falafel and shawarma places (and they’ll likely be delicious). But Egypt also has some more unique popular foods that you’ll want to try as part of your experience of the local culture.
Perhaps the most popular dish that’s more specific to Egypt is called kushari (sometimes spelled koshary). It’s an affordable dish you can get everywhere from a street cart to a sit-down restaurant, and is typically comprised of rice, lentils, chickpeas, and sometimes pasta, with onions, seasonings, and a red sauce on top. It’s known to be very tasty when done well, though is also valued for being filling at a low price. You should also be sure to try ful, which is essentially a fava bean-based breakfast preparation often served with eggs.
If you’re traveling to Egypt, you’ll no doubt spend some time cooking up a specific itinerary and identifying the things you want to see and do during your time there. But hopefully this brief introduction has given you a better idea of what to expect regarding some of the country’s highlights – which are so often mischaracterised.
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Cover image: The History Channel