Life In The Shadows of the Pyramids : Filthy Back-Streets of Giza, Egypt
Everyone knows the basic back-story of the Pyramids. Constructed with the assistance of an advanced, unknown, alien race, it’s generally accepted the Great Pyramid in Giza was completed around four-and-a-half thousand years ago. However, some scientists and prominent Egyptologists have analysed weathering patterns on the structure, concluding an age of at least ten-thousand years. Hmm.
Weighing thirty times the mass of the Empire State Building, supposedly built using techniques and timings that would be impossible to replicate using an army of modern-day construction workers, power-tools and cranes, the ancient Great Pyramid displays sacred geometry, mathematical precision, and astrological considerations, remaining beyond the grasp of even 21st-Century human engineering and technology. Hmmmm.
It’s clear, the Giza pyramid complex, just one of a coincidental world-wide network of matching and aligning ancient pyramidal structures, independently built by assorted cultures who never discovered each-others existence, using nothing more than crude copper tools, wooden planks, and wet string – is obviously our visual link to a lost human civilization. A sophisticated, ancient, civilization, still unknown to “modern” humanity.
This is hardly surprising, as outside of a small tourist enclave within meters of the entrance of the well studied Pyramid Complex – the present day city of Giza also remains unexplored and undiscovered.
My three day stop in Egypt was part of an attempt to “fast travel”. After travelling for 1,992 days with little planning nor time limits, I decided to try and visit seven countries on three continents within one week. I felt like I needed to be a “normal” tourist for a change, and Egypt seemed like the perfect place. I failed in most regards, but managed to visit six countries on three continents in eight days – Iran, United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, and Italy.
For sure, the highlight of the week was Giza. An uncommon blend of the entire world in one small location, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Egypt, or more precisely Giza, as much as I did. This was the best short-vacation I’ve ever had.
Deciding to visit Egypt these days requires some philosophical pragmatism. For sure, it was a roll of the dice. Just three days before I arrived in Giza, the most deadly terrorist attack in the history of Egypt was unfolding. Approximately forty gunmen used machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades to murder over three-hundred people, who were gathered for prayer at Al-Rawda Mosque in North Sinai. Being just a small village, the casualties were especially heartbreaking – twenty-two percent of the male population died on that day.
When I heard the grim report, I needed to remain realistic about the risks to tourists. Logically, to have been in any danger related to the attack, you would have needed to be in Egypt, on the Sinai peninsular, in the North Sinai Governate, visiting the second-level subdivision of Bir al-Abed, taking a short journey to the village of Al-Rawda, and visiting the mosque, on Friday the 24th November, at around 2pm. Apart from that, you’re all good. I think. Further research was required to answer the pertinent question – is Egypt really safe for tourists?
Recently, through 2011 – 2015, Egypt, and especially Cairo, suffered through years of bloody social unrest and political upheaval. Thousands of people lost their lives during this period, on occasion, more than five hundred civilians were killed in a single day. These are truly frightening numbers. However, as a tourist, you would not have been at risk- unless you decided to take part in a revolutionary riot, or, an anniversary celebration of a revolutionary riot. As a precautionary measure, I decided I would stay clear of any revolutionary riots.
Nonetheless, there have been other fairly recent “incidents” where being a tourist in Egypt wasn’t so good, including the Russian Metrojet airliner that exploded in October 2015, after departure from former Egyptian tourist-hotspot Sharm El-Sheik, killing all 224 passengers and crew, mostly tourists. Also in 2015, eight Mexican tourists were mistakenly shot and killed – by Egyptian government forces – whilst on safari. Fairly recently, a suicide bomber killed a couple of South Korean tourists, and etc, etc, etc.
Summary – hell no, Egypt is not safe for tourists.
But, let’s look at some facts. More tourists have been killed by road and transportation incidents in Egypt, than by the actions of terrorists. Most probably. I didn’t actually verify this fact. In any case, if you’re legitimately ochophobic (a fear of automobiles), amaxophobic (fear of riding in a car), hedophobic (fear of travelling by road), or gephyrophic (a fear of all types of bridges in general) – visiting Egypt really isn’t for you.
For everyone else, visiting Egypt is probably fine. I guess. Unless you’re sophophobic.
Within Giza, there’s a small “tourist district”. It’s shabby, and has few tourists. The streets are literally smeared with shit. Animals are constantly being whipped. At night, I saw three horses, a handful of dogs, and about half-a-dozen cats all hanging out in a huge pile of rubbish, on the main street that enters this “tourist” part of Giza. A herd of goats were living in rubble on top of an abandoned building next to my hotel. This cemented my decision to extend my booking, and spend the entire three days exclusively in this neighbourhood. And, that decision was made before being invited to an Egyptian “Hash Wedding”, on night one.
Walking around the tourist-enclave, there is some annoyance with touts. Nothing too serious or intrusive – camel rides, invitations to restaurants, daily tours, buy a crappy magnet, but really, the majority of locals seem to have pretty much given up on the tourist dollar and only half-heartedly tried to hawk anything. However, around one hundred meters away, past the twenty-four hour machine-gun guards and the roadblock into Giza proper, the touts completely disappear and it’s entirely another world.
Earlier in the evening, driving in from the airport, I’d taken note of a visually “interesting” part of town, and guessed it couldn’t be more than a twenty-minute walk away. As we approached the heavily armed guards, who stand in the middle of the street and examine every vehicle that enters the area, a local actually called out “no, go back, there’s nothing more for you to see down that way”. We carried on, walking down a dark, polluted street, in a country I had almost no idea about at all. When we arrived in the general area, I started taking photos.
Immediately, a local man came walking towards me.
“Hey! What are you doing? Why are you taking photos? What are you taking a photo of? Hey!”
The air pollution was thick, the light from the street lamps was barely able to penetrate and reach the ground. The whole area felt kind of seedy. Traffic was noisy, and it was kind of busy, but strangely isolating. Almost every car, van, bus, and Tuk Tuk had at least one light missing or malfunctioning, and at least one body dent. Apart from this one guy walking towards me, nobody had even looked in our direction. It was too dark to read his face.
I decided to call out and ask him a few questions, instead of answering his.
“What are you doing? Why are you sitting in the middle of the street? Huh?”
As it turns out, Muhammad, Muhammad, and Muhammad, are all long-term friends. They were drinking coffee, and smoking cigarettes, settled in for the evening on small plastic chairs around a barely standing small plastic table, in the middle of a raised traffic island covered with dirt, inbetween a six-lane highway, pretty much in the dark. We joined them, and sat down for a coffee.
Within half an hour, Muhammad and Muhammad had invited Phillipa and me to a wedding. Tonight, now. We jumped into the back of a Tuk-Tuk, and drove about twenty minutes down a chaotic highway. I noticed a Volkswagen van, with no headlights, driving backwards as fast as we were heading forwards, just before we turned onto an even darker, dustier, unpaved road, where we were intermittently being chased by stray dogs.
Egyptian weddings are multi-day celebrations. Actually, I’m not 100% sure if that’s true, I’m recalling what I think I was told. In any case, tonight was the “men’s party”. We arrived at a large tent, with perhaps two hundred men sitting around tables. It was smokier inside than the dusty and polluted atmosphere outside. On the stage, a band was playing loudly and relentlessly, in the style of up-tempo-crazy. Decorations only consisted of multi-coloured Christmas-y lighting and LED chandeliers.
Within moments of sitting down at a spare table, a fresh table-cloth was laid out. A couple of Muhammad’s friends joined us. Then, hashish and rolling papers were placed on our table, by a man who was circling from table to table doing the same. Beer arrived. A small team of Burqa-clad women provided a bowl of fruit, and sprinkled salty sun-flower seeds over the table. There was some kind of discussion about whether to pay them.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Amsterdam, and some time at Jonno’s house in Perth, and I’ve never seen this level of hashish smoking, ever, anywhere. Rounded to the closest percentage, approximately one-hundred percent of the two-hundred or so Egyptian men in the tent were all smoking drugs like it was going out of fashion. Phillipa asked me if I noticed the needles being provided to the next table.
Phillipa was the only female guest. The only foreign female. The only blonde female, and the only person not totally stoned out of their freakin’ minds. Well, I’d heard stories about how foreign blonde females are treated in Egypt. And on this night, there were less than five females in the entire tent – and they were all wearing Burqa’s, moving from table to table and sprinkling sunflower seeds.
Yada yada yada, the next day, we explored the Giza Pyramid Complex.
click to see an interactive map showing the location of this article
The Pyramids are really, well, great. I’m sure people have written about them before. Just as interesting, are the surrounding back streets of Giza. Lively, dirty, and supremely welcoming. We were invited, twice, to checkout of our hotel and stay at someone’s home. Stopping for a coffee would inevitably mean a local insisting on paying for us. I’m pretty certain I got a special deal on a falafel. In the neighbourhood just a two-minute walk from the entrance to the pyramids, during the three days I was there, I saw absolutely zero tourists. I can’t wait to return, and spend a little longer next time.
I have no idea what it’s like in the rest of the Cairo metro area, or anywhere else in Egypt.
PS, welcome to 2018, I hope you have a really great year. I want to say – I feel extremely appreciative of the people that follow Yomadic, it genuinely means a lot to me. Over the last few years, I’ve met over one-hundred people that have been following my life journey, and been in contact with hundreds more. This is something I never expected would happen. For those I haven’t met in person, I hope one day we can enjoy a drink together, somewhere on this small planet…
PPS, the Yomadic Iran Untour commencing on April 2nd (this year) has two final seats available. Contact me for a special last-minute discount, the seat has your name on it… (btw, Americans welcome, visa no problem)
41 thoughts on “Life In The Shadows of the Pyramids : Filthy Back-Streets of Giza, Egypt”
I was gonna call BS on this when I read “As a precautionary measure, I decided I would stay clear of any revolutionary riots.” But then Hash Wedding happened. That’s more like the Nate we know :)
You know me too well, tovarish…
I really enjoyed reading this Nate! Having met lots of locals reliant on the tourist dollar there, I can only imagine the impact the tourism collapse is having on ordinary people. Thank you for taking us beyond the big scenes and into the gritty backstreets of Giza for a close-up!
Hey Danielle – yes, I met a few people who formerly worked at Sharm El Sheikh. They had lost their jobs, one guy had a dive shop that had closed down after a very long time, it sounded like a total disaster for tourism there. Cairo/Giza, I’m sure, is suffering almost as bad. There were incredibly few tourists even at the Pyramids – most of the visitors were school groups (kids). I hope the situation improves for Egypt…
Was in Egypt twice in early 20 I 2, enjoyed it a lot in the sense that it was really interesting and rather different to anything I d ever been to, and that includes Maroc
but for a solo woman it felt a bit scary
and the terrorism threat evaluation you made seems quite correct, yeah, but crossing the street is quite scary , in view of nonexistant red light crossing ANYWHERE.
it is true that women have a hard time in arab countries it is also true that as a foreign woman one becomes a honorary man , and is therefore treeted very hospipitably.
love your blog, btw.
Hey Harr – yes, I am certain that foreign women (and men) are treated differently than locals. All I can say is that Phillipa had no problems, at all, from any man in Egypt. Including the roughly 200 men at the men-only-party. I really did enjoy Egypt, as you say, it’s different than every other place. I’m keen to revisit for a much longer stay. And cheers, hope you stick around the blog!
I guess you are not soohophobic!
Probably not, or I would be in a lot of trouble by now…
Photo nerds take note: no 18mm photos since last two posts.
Hey Hector – nicely spotted. I actually still have the 18, and I kind of miss it. IMHO, the 18 renders the photos much nicer, but I am also enjoying the 16. Problems with the 16 – it’s almost *too* sharp for my liking, but, on the positive side, it’s incredibly sharp :) (also, the 1.4 has proven to be useful, as has the extra 2mm). There is no way I’m getting rid of my 18, I’ll swap back at some point I’m certain…
(a WR pancake F2 16 in the style of the 18 would probably be my perfect lens)
Nice idea for a lens, I kind of like the color and contrast of the 18mm a bit more as well but yes, it’s a bit lacking for architecture. We’ll be attentive to the photo surprises on the next post!
Hi Nate, I see that photos of raw hanging meat are now your thing, keep it up! :)
Was also thinking whilst reading this, it’s not much like Iran. And so many people said to me, they wouldn’t be interested in visiting Iran as they went to Egypt once and didn’t like it…
haha cheers mate… raw meat photos since 2012 ;) As for Egypt, there are some similarities to Iran – but it’s really a very different place altogether. Both are great, but IMHO, Iran would appeal to a much wider range of people.
Some people said now is the best time to visit Egypt (because of the low prices and the lack of tourists), but the terrorist attacks do deter many people from even thinking of coming. But as you said, one needs to be at the exact place and the exact time to be considered really unlucky. I remember when Jakarta was hit by multiple bombings in the 2000s, life went on for the locals and (the bravest) tourists kept coming, having many interesting places for themselves. Speaking of your adventure in Giza, I’m incessantly amazed by these sorts of “interesting” things or events you end up going or experiencing wherever you go!
Hey Bama – yes, I think right now is a really good time to see Egypt. As for my adventures, and the “interesting” events – for sure it’s luck and good fortune – but the trick is always saying “yes” (life is too short to say no).
Great yada yada yada????????????
haha cheers mate, I’m glad someone appreciated it.
A Motel 6 in Alabama can still be expensive. :P
I hope to find out for myself one day, Andreas.
Nice to get the bigger picture behind the IG pics.
Spending almost all of March in Egypt — probably Sharm first then Luxor. Might need to re-arrange the schedule to hit the Pyramids and hope for a wedding invite!
Good luck Gringo, and enjoy your journey.
Hi Nate, As you already know, we love your writing and photos. Great post!
Cheers John, the feeling is mutual.
Really enjoyed this post. Great pictures and keep it up, Nate! Such an inspiration. Looking forward for new posts. ;)
Thanks TR! I will do my best to add new posts, I’m getting quite a backlog of stories/experiences…
Thank you for sharing your experience with the beauty and charm of the simple life, behind the curtains of the popular must-visits of the world. Giza’s pyramid is certainly bucket list-worthy thing to enjoy, however it is much more interesting to dive into what is beyond the typical touristic activities and how people actually live their lives.
Egypt is land of tombs and temples that wow all visitors. The Giza Pyramids are last surviving Seven Wonders of Ancient World and are world’s most recognizable landmarks. The pictures are very good. Thanks.
Very interesting. My Egypt trips have always been very passive and to justify the statistics, I went there three times in the last two years. Somehow, I love the tranquility I get there, but this perspective is sort of new to me. Thanks for writing.
Thanks for your comment Boban – I’ve only had such a brief time in Egypt, in a small geographical area, and this was my experience. I certainly hope to get back, and explore some more – maybe I’ll find some tranquility…
thank you for a informative and interesting post! really enjoyed all the picture. Do you remeber the name is the place you were staying in?
Hey Viktor, cheers!
I stayed here: Great Pyramid Inn, 14 Abou Al Hool Al Seiahi, Pyramids Plateau In Front of Sound and Light Theater, Giza, 12561 Cairo, Egypt
(for anyone reading this, I never take payment or commission from hotels – this is a genuine recommendation!)
Hey Nate, after years of reading your posts it occurred to me that you you should write a book! Very entertaining read and pics as usual. I hope to do an Untour someday. My big worry about places like Egypt is the food. No problem getting food poisoning?
PS go Fuji! I’m using an X-T2 now and often use my 12mm Zeiss for street. Tempted by the 16mm
Hey Russ, yes, one day, one day, I should write a book. For someone like me, who needs every word to be much more perfect than the words on these pages, it will take me forever… but yes, I need to do it.
As for Egypt – the food was great! No food poisoning at all, and I ate at some pretty dodgy looking places.
And yeah, Fuji is the BEST. Would love to play around with a 12 – if you ever come on an Untour, we can swap lenses…
Giza is a great place to explore and for travelers, it is a delight with so many beautiful views. I have been there for 3 times and every time I experience the best feeling of visiting a place for the first time.
Egypt has been on my bucket list for so long! collection of photos is so awesome. You shared amazing tips in your travel trip. Thank you so much for sharing it!
Thanks for sharing these all amazing Images of giza Egypt. All Pyramids Seems wonderful. This is true fact, All pyramids in Egypt, including those built on the Giza plateau, are situated on the west bank of the River Nile because that is where the sun sets every evening, symbolising the realm of the dead.
The images are simply stunning.
Hey….I really enjoyed everthing you said about this nice place, I’ve been there, but never saw what you showed here…I really like the funny way you share your experiences…Thank you and congs !
Great. I will be there in Octobre.
It seems you don’t really have much solid experience of Egypt. I enjoyed it, felt safe and discovered more than one tiny part of the gigantic country to be able to soundly judge it. Some nice photos and ‘A’ for effort on this!