Let me preface this post with saying: while I often felt uncomfortable and anxious, I traveled solo for three days in Egpyt and I didn’t feel any more unsafe than I did traveling alone in Athens. While the very different culture from what I’m used to is intimidating and can feel alienating and challenging, in my experience most Egyptians were trying to make me feel welcome. Being a Western female traveling alone, I definitely stuck out and was stared at. I perceived women don’t have the same level of equality as they do in Western culture, so I did feel a difference in my place in society, but I still felt respected as an individual.
My posts about Egypt are broken into three parts:
After a day of taking a tour with a guide of the iconic Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx, and the Nile river cruise, it was time to venture out on my own. I brought a few scarves with me because women must cover their hair to enter mosques. I asked the guys who ran my hostel if it was necessary to wear a headscarf while exploring the city, and they looked at me with incredulity. 15-20% of the Egyptian population is Christian, and they don’t wear headscarves. As I am not Muslim, and I clearly look like a tourist, it seemed weird to them that I would wear a headscarf to “blend in” — so I didn’t! Plus, it was about 90 degrees outside, so I was relieved I was able to keep my head cooler.
I was very excited to visit the Egyptian Museum and see all of the ancient artifacts. So, I headed out in the morning to walk a few blocks to the museum. On the way, I got a real pedestrian’s view of the city. There were piles and piles of trash everywhere, and no garbage cans. Joining the trash were many broken cars that looked like they had been rotting on the street for years.
At first glance, the Egyptian Museum seemed magnificent. It was dusty pink and had a pretty garden out front. Cameras were not allowed inside, so I had to check my camera at a booth outside. It turns out, my excitement was in vain. Inside, security guards were asleep on benches as little kids ran their hands all over 3,000 year old statues. I blanched when I saw a column covered in hieroglyphics from almost 2000 BC covered two feet up in dirty shoe scuff marks. The museum appeared to not have been updated since the 60s or 70s. The descriptions of the items on display were very far and few between, and when they did exist, they were done with a typewriter on old faded paper and so dimly lit that I could barely read them. There were cabinets upon cabinets shoved full with sarcophagi that were not lit or labeled. It was extremely frustrating to be surrounded by ancient Egyptian artifacts and not have a clue what they are or the history behind them. The museum was basically a dirty, overstocked warehouse.
Thankfully, the Mummies Room was what I had expected and hoped for. Seemingly the only maintained part of the museum, the Mummies Room had a separate admission and was air conditioned to help preserve the bodies. It was absolutely morbidly mind-blowing to see the almost 3,500 year old mummified body of Pharoh Ramses II – and he even has hair!!
After a disappointing trip to the museum, I headed back out into the city to walk over to the Khan al-Khalili market bazaar.
The Khan al-Khalili bazaar is insanely huge and has been around since the middle ages. I had read it was one of the most popular tourist spots in Cairo, but I can tell you — I was one of the only tourists there among hundreds of Egpytians doing their daily business. A young Western looking woman carrying a camera around her neck definitely caught attention. It was shoulder to shoulder crowded and very intimidating. I drew a lot of stares (as I did in most of Cairo) and was called out at in both friendly and harassing tones.
There were a lot of touristy trinkets for sale at first, but then as the crowd thickened and street narrowed, I started seeing clothing, spices, and accessories. Haggling and loud bustling crowds can be fun for some people, but it stresses me out! I just bought a cheap ring as a souvenir (that I ended up paying way too much for), and tried to squeeze my way out. On my way, I did experience a moment of feeling unsafe. I was followed by a young man through the bazaar and down the street for about a half a mile, but there were a ton of people around and I lost him by pretending to go towards a metro station, then ducking back out and walking quickly in the other direction.
It was time to head to Coptic Cairo, which is known for its beautiful architecture. I decided to experience the Egyptian metro system. I read there are separate cars up front that are reserved specifically for women only. The subway was very clean, relatively easy to navigate, and very cheap at one Egpytian pound per way. The first time I took it, I stood in the mixed gender car which was mostly older men. They were very kind and kept offering me their seat.
One thing to note if you plan on visiting Egpyt: there is no toilet paper in public bathrooms, so you either pay an attendant (if there is one) a small baksheesh/tip or bring your own. Most people were carrying small kleenex packs for this purpose. I found out the hard way in the Hanging Church bathroom, but someone gave me a few tissues to use!
Coptic Cairo was beautiful. I visited the Hanging Church and ate a quick dinner of falafel and hummus. I did some people watching, and hoped on the metro back to my hostel before the sun set.