When You Don’t Learn Your Lesson: Day Tour To Islamic And Christian Cairo

The same day we booked our tour guide for the pyramids, we also booked a “day tour to Islamic and Christian Cairo” through Emo Tours.

After our experience at the pyramids, I briefly entertained the idea of cancelling this second tour. But I didn’t know if we’d get our money back and Ali really was a nice person. Plus…I had visions of how convenient it was to have a car and driver when traveling to different sites in Luxor.

When we chose Egypt as a destination for our holiday break, we knew we’d go on a Nile cruise and we knew we’d see the pyramids. Nothing else was certain. We decided to spend our final week in Cairo because we figured by week three we’d be tired of unpacking and repacking our suitcases (plus, we thought maybe we’d hop up to Alexandria and spend a few days at the beach – forgetting it would be January).

So now we had five days in Cairo and the pyramids only take half a day. We browsed around for some other activities and became intrigued by a tour through the religious sites in Cairo.

Coptic churches, a synagogue, and mosques, followed by a trip to the Khan Khalili Bazaar. It seemed like an interesting way to spend a day.

Our tour began in Old Cairo and our first stop was St. Barbara, the hanging church.

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It was built above a Persian fortress and inside it has the same dimensions as Noah’s Ark. It was hard to picture two of every kind of animal inside. The structure was beautifully made of cedar wood. Abraham is rumored to have been buried under the marble pulpit.

Inside the front doors, but before the church itself, is a quaint garden filled with mosaics. Brightly colored and in all shapes and sizes, it was a pleasant place to pass the time.

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Our next church was St. Mary’s Church. Considered “modern” for having been built in 1,600 (St. Barbara dates back to the 5th or 6th century AD), it was impressive from the outside and dazzling from the inside: complete with an imposing chandelier.

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We had a quick stroll through a cemetery to a 2,000 year-old well that Jesus reportedly drank from with his family. Another “modern” church had been built around it.

We followed the path to Abu Serga, the Crypt of Jesus: A cavern where he lived with his family for three months of his childhood. Throughout the walk I kept thinking back to our time in Ethiopia and their claim that the Ark of the Covenant resides in Axum (though no one is allowed to see it).

Our last stop in the neighborhood was the Ben Ezra Synagogue, formerly a church and no longer used for a functioning congregation. Its tourist attraction is the claim that it is located on the site where baby Moses was found.

Throughout the morning, we were pleasantly surprised by our guide, Ali. A practicing Muslim, he seemed to know much more about Coptic Cairo than he did about the pyramids of Giza. He was a wealth of fun facts.

After that, we were off to the Saladin Citadel. Built on a “mountain,” really more of a hill, it offers impressive views of the city below. With 17 towers and 6 gates, it is a fortress to be reckoned with.

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Disappointments at the Pyramids of Giza

It wasn’t so much the other people, because honestly, I thought the pyramids would be more crowded. It was the overall ambience. It lacked.

Most people arrive by tour bus or minibus. They were deposited at the first pyramid, took their jumping shot or “I’m on top of a camel” shot, and then hopped back on their bus. They were then driven to the second pyramid. The scene repeated itself, before they were driven to the third pyramid, and then the lookout point.

It was actually pretty bizarre.

The Great Pyramid of Giza is the only remaining monument from the original Seven Wonders of the World. Built 4,500 years ago, it was the tallest man-made structure in the world until the Lincoln Cathedral Spire was built 3,800 years later.

It was commissioned by Pharaoh Khufu. The Sphinx belongs to his son, Pharaoh Khafre’s second pyramid. And the third pyramid followed shortly after for Pharaoh Menkaure.

Scholars still disagree on how the pyramids were built, even though I definitely teach my students about incline planes by using the pyramids as an example.

What I’m trying to say, is that these are incredibly complex and interesting structures. And they’ve been turned into some lame theme park without the rides. A giant boat museum has been built to the side of the first pyramid and they paved a road running between, instead of around, them. There are dig sites all around, merely roped off. No thought appears to have been given for atmosphere or conditions surrounding the pyramids themselves.

And so, while I tried to revel in the impressive size and mystery of these structures, I found myself increasingly distracted by everything that was happening around me.

We had hired a guide for the morning, using Emo Tours because we’d had such success with them in Luxor. And while our guide, Ali, was very nice, it soon became clear that he had a tried and true plan that he used to make each of his customers happy.

We normally prefer to explore on our own, but we had been warned by friends (and fellow bloggers) that going to the pyramids solo was simply inviting harassment. And honestly, I can’t attest to the trueness of that statement, because while we were left alone by others, we still had our own guide to deal with.

We were dropped off a short walk from the first pyramid, and instead of getting to stand back and enjoy the splendor, Ali hurried us to the base of the pyramid so that we could walk along and get our photos taken before the crowds arrived. When I decided to keep hold of my camera, instead of giving it to one of the camel owners, our guide left us alone to explore and join him when we were ready.

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But because being right up next to the pyramids wasn’t quite the view we were looking for, we soon continued our walk. Our guide’s next plan was to sit me on a camel and have me pinch my fingers in the air to get some kind of oddly staged photograph. I declined and Ali offered to take us to the car so we could drive to the next pyramid.

But I had other plans.

Instead, he and Chandler struck up a conversation (more about modern Cairo than about the pyramids he was showing us), while I started walking.

I hadn’t come to see a tour guide’s interpretation of the pyramids – I had come with a guide in the hopes that he would help me see what I was interested in. A complete view of all four sides of each pyramid.

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I made my way around the first and began my walk to the second. It was at this point that Ali, very concerned, tried to stop me and take us back to the car. The reason? In his 19 years as a tour guide in Egypt, no one had ever tried to walk with him from the first pyramid to the second.

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A Final Look at Petra + A Quick Trip to the Dead Sea

It turns out the cloudy night in Wadi Rum did us a favor – we got to know our neighbors. They, too, were headed back to Petra that next morning, but unlike us, simple busers, they had rented a car. And, luckily for us, we had left our suitcases behind at our hotel in Petra, so we were able to hop in their backseat and catch a free ride.

Both born and raised Aussies, they now live in Hong Kong. They had just arrived in Jordan from Israel and would be moving on to Lebanon next. Needless to say, we had plenty to talk about.

Also, she writes for and edits a webzine, Iris Lillian, and it was fun talking to a fellow blogger – one who does this on a much bigger scale than myself. A majority of the articles are for women, about women, and by women – who work and reside in professional spheres.

Yet another bonus, this was the least carsick I got in Jordan!

Before we knew it, we were back in Wadi Musa and ready for our final day at Petra.

Our previous Petra hikes had started shortly after dawn or hours after sunset. Making me glad I had brought a hat to keep my ears warm : )

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But today we arrived at the entrance shortly before noon, happily enjoying the warmth of the winter sun.

We had debated, briefly, about what exactly we wanted from this hike. Did we want another adventure – we hadn’t made it to the High Place of Sacrifice (a supposed “hard” level of intensity – though they had said the same of the Al-Khubtha Trail, as well as the Ad-Deir (Monastery) Trail), 5.5 kilometers, round-trip.

But after wandering through Wadi Rum the day before, a 14-kilometer walk the day before that, preceded by a late Christmas night…we were ready to take it easy.

Plus, we had never planned on taking the High Place of Sacrifice hike. We’d had no idea that we could get so much walking in on our main Petra day. We’d assumed we’d have to break up our views of the Treasury, the Royal tombs, our hike to the Treasury look-out spot, the Colonnaded Street, and getting to the Monastery. Only, we didn’t. We had done it all in one day.

And if we were being honest with ourselves. We didn’t really want another long hike. But, I had fallen in love with the Siq, the main entrance path to Petra. I loved the natural rock, as well as what was sculpted by the Nabataeans. It reaches up to 80 meters in height and is only 1.2 kilometers long.

So, instead of a hike, we decided on one final stroll through the Siq.

We had never been there at noon and the colors hitting the sandstone were startling. It turned out we hadn’t seen all that needed to be seen there.

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Hiking to the Monastery + The Views Along the Way That Make It So Worthwhile

Coming down from the Al-Khubtha Trail, you have to walk along the Colonnaded Street to get to the trail that will eventually take you to Ad-Deir, also known as the Monastery. Originally Nabataean, the road was refurbished during the Roman occupation:

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It was a wonderful place to find some shade and devour our lunches (packed from our continental breakfast! – There are limited options within Petra proper).

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Sated and ready to begin our short but steep hike, we said goodbye to the Colonnaded Street, Great Temple, and all of its Roman influences.

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Soon we were back in the natural landscape of Petra. The lower levels were bathed in light, enhancing the golden shades of the sandstone. The higher we traveled, the more muted the colors as the Ad-Deir (Monastery) Trail was luckily covered in shadows for the afternoon.

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Just like the Al-Khubtha Trail, while easy to follow, the steps did have a tendency to fall into disarray. We started to see more visitors on donkeys (while plenty of people take the Al-Khubtha Trail, the trail to the Monastery is much more frequented), but they always looked more nervous and less secure than those of us who decided to take on the 800 steps by foot.

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The Best View of the Treasury + Why You Don’t Need a Guide to Get There

By mid-morning the crowds were starting to arrive on Petra’s Main Trail. So we decided it was time to hike up the Al-Khubtha Trail for what many have described as “the best view of the Treasury.”

Over and over I read blogs talking about how difficult this trail was, how infrequently traveled it is, how hard it is to find/follow…

Nonsense.

Not only is the Al-Khubtha Trail marked on the visitor’s maps, there are signs like this one posted along the way:

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Just follow the arrow, that’s all it takes. We found this sign over near the tombs, because the trail curves around them to the right and then goes up a series of staircases.

Now the stairs are what some might find tricky. Fellow travelers have counted and estimated the stairs to number 600. I’m amazed they knew what to count as a “stair”!

They begin obviously enough:

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But about a quarter of the way up, it’s easy to see why those with less sure steps prefer donkeys. The stairs start to slide together and while the climb wasn’t particularly strenuous (with some well-placed stops), you do have to watch your steps.

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A few tips: Don’t take a donkey ride by someone who quotes you in dollars. It’s always a rip-off if they don’t say the number in their own currency. That said – the Jordanian dinar is worth more than the US dollar, so keep that in mind.

Personally, I wouldn’t recommend a donkey ride. I thought the hike up was beautiful and I only saw Bedouins using donkeys on this trail. The foreigners I saw on donkeys later on almost always looked like they regretted their choice as they hung on for dear life.

We made it to the top of the stairs about 45 minutes later, with all those bloggers ringing in my ear: it’s so difficult, no one travels it, it’s hard to follow. Well, the worst part was over. We had encountered two other groups of two-to-three. And, waiting at the top was this sign:

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Pretty specific instructions if you ask me.

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Petra By Day – Exploring Without a Guide

Petra by night may be serene, but Petra by day is downright stunning. Also called the Rose City, the sandstone walls shimmered as their colors swirled in the rising sun.

Now, we had less time in Jordan than I would have hoped for, so in advance, I decided to read a lot of travel blogs. And I got a lot of advice on Petra: Or so I thought.

Many of the most prominent blogs about Petra give advice about how to be the “first” person to see the Treasury. They talk about waking up before dawn, wandering through the Siq, and enjoying the animals along the way.

To clear a few things up: You don’t want to be first at the Treasury. Doing so means walking through the Siq in the early dawn light and for those of you who’ve seen a sunrise, you know the sun isn’t high enough to reach inside a canyon.

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Chandler and I were feeling pretty lazy from our Petra By Night Christmas and instead of getting to the front gate by 7:00 am, we made our way there closer to 7:30. And I’m so glad we did! The sun had only risen at 6:33 and had we arrived any earlier, the whole Siq would have been covered in shadows. And as someone who has walked through it a total of six times now, it’s one of the best features of Petra and well worth good lighting.

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We took our time wandering through the 1.2 km rock canal that used to carry water from Wadi Musa to the inner city. We encountered people along the way, but never more than a handful at a time – the large tour buses from Amman don’t arrive until late morning.

Before we knew it, we got our first glimpse of the Treasury by daylight. And despite what those pesky bloggers claimed, it wasn’t a surprise – the ground goes from stone to sand right before the temple peaks through:

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Despite the fact that we weren’t the “first arrivals,” there were probably only 20 people around. And other than the one girl who had her boyfriend take 50 shots of her jumping next to a camel (I wish this was a joke), everyone else respected each other and the angles necessary to get good photos.

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Because this is the first big site inside of Petra, wares were already on display and more were being set up during the 20 minutes or so that we spent at the Treasury.

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And here’s that damn camel:

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Petra By Night – Merry Christmas!

Can you believe how behind in these posts I’m getting? Ok, I probably didn’t need to write five posts about Egypt (and I haven’t even gotten to the part about the pyramids yet!). And yes, life has certainly gotten in the way of my writing lately (not that I’m complaining about our weekend in Joburg!). But really, I need to to get all of these holiday posts up before we head to Ireland next month!

We arrived in Amman on Christmas Eve and ate a fabulous dinner at Sufra – I cannot begin to describe how much our situation had improved from last year’s Christmas Eve debacle. We tried to walk through the city that evening, knowing we had limited time there, but the rain drove us off the sidewalks and into a taxi.

After a gloriously relaxing night at the Amman Rotana (did I mention their spa-worthy bathtub?), we were up for breakfast at Shams El Balad, with plans to go visit the Citadel right after.

Only…it just wouldn’t stop raining! So, we took our time at Shams – the best breakfast I can remember having in recent memory – and then made our way back to the hotel.

We had contacted our hotel in Petra – the Movënpick Resort across the street – and hired an independent taxi to drive us. We took the significantly less lauded Desert Highway because it saved us an hour and a half, as well as 80 Jordanian Dinars ($112 USD!). Plus, we knew we’d be taking the King’s Highway up to the Dead Sea a few days later.

I’ve taken trains in Europe, buses in Africa, and a little bit of everything in Asia. But taxis in Jordan are like nothing I’ve ever encountered. In Amman, they were easy – metered and cheap, just the way taxis should be. But out on the open road…my God. Our driver provided a wifi connection in the taxi, but I was so carsick I couldn’t even look at my phone. From the speeds to the weaving, it is not something I’m interested in ever experiencing again!

Luckily, we arrived in Petra in one piece and our driver helped us pick up our Petra By Night tickets. We were meeting friends from Amsterdam for Christmas that night and we’d be spending our time looking up at the Treasury by the light of hundreds of candles.

Our friends had just gotten back from a couple of nights camping in the desert and were looking forward to a much needed shower and nap, so Chandler and I wandered across the street to the visitor’s center at Petra.

There, they explained that in addition to our 17 JD Petra By Night tickets ($24 USD each), we would also need to show our day passes – which we hadn’t yet purchased. The ticket seller was away at dinner, but we were assured we could come back at 7:00 pm to buy the additional tickets we needed.

Single day passes (without proof of a hotel stay) cost 90 JD ($127 USD), however, if you’re spending a night in town, the price drops to 50 JD ($70 USD) instead. And marginal fees are added for additional days: two days are 55 JD ($78 USD) and three days are 60 JD ($85 USD).

But cost isn’t an issue on Christmas. Right?

We had already decided to eat at the hotel – the city of Wadi Musa, which surrounds Petra, is not exactly known for its culinary skills. The four of us started with a drink at the bar (Jordan is not an easy place to find alcohol!) and then made our way to the buffet.

Normally not ones for buffets (seriously, I can never eat enough to justify their cost!), it was that or a veggie lasagne at the restaurant – and that just didn’t feel festive enough. So we stuffed our faces with cheeses and lentil soup and Chinese food and salads and an assortment of sweet treats/fruits! At 25 JD each ($35 USD) we had begun racking up a hefty bill.

We walked back over to Petra, bought our three-day pass (the reasoning on that later) and marvelled over how much our day had cost us: 100 JD (taxi to Petra) + 34 JD (two Petra By Night tickets) + 16 JD (two glasses of wine) + 50 JD (Christmas buffet for two) + 120 JD (two sets of three-day Petra passes) = 320 JD (or $451 USD!!!). And that wasn’t including our hotel for the night (or the breakfast at Shams El Balad that felt like days ago)!

But soon, all the money we spent would be forgotten. Not immediately, mind you, but soon. (And, perhaps it’s worth mentioning that, after all that, no one asked to see our Petra day passes, only our Petra By Night tickets).

Soon we were walking down a candlelight path, with thousands of stars in the sky. We came to the Siq, 1.2 km of narrow gorge that winds its way to Petra’s most famous ruin, Al Khazneh, or the Treasury. Even with the candles, it was nearly impossible to see, but there was a hush as hundreds of us walked together on what felt like a Christmas pilgrimage.

On a whole, we weren’t a hurried group, with only a few handfuls of people rushing past, always interested in being “the first,” even though, clearly, others had come before to set up the spectacle. The rest of us enjoyed the walk and the anticipation of what was to come.

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We arrived to a sea of candles and carefully found our way to a stone shelf that ran along the left side. We tried to photograph the Treasury in the impossible darkness as more and more people filed in.

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