History and Mystery Make Cairo Worth the Trip - TheStreet

Jet-lagged and bouncing through the city streets in a jitney just before midnight, I pass densely packed rows of two-story shops, mile after mile of them.

Then, as if in a dream, an immense peak suddenly looms in semidarkness above the rooftops: The Great Pyramid.

Cairo, Egypt's capital and largest city (population 20 million), provides a bounty of unforgettable sights. Antiquity jostles with improvised, often-ramshackle modernity in this metropolis, which straddles the Nile River, sprawls across the desert and pushes up to the edges of the delta, where palms sway in hot Sahara winds and branches of the river cut a watery web in the landscape.

My recent visit was my first, and to be candid, I hesitated to go. Tourists have been attacked in other parts of Egypt, and with America's standing abysmally low in much of the Middle East, I wondered how I would be received.

Pyramids

Very well, as it turned out. Ordinary Egyptians are hospitable and down to earth. Tight security measures are in evidence. Specially uniformed Tourism Antiquities Police patrol popular attractions such as the Giza pyramids, and visitors are triple-screened at the Egyptian Museum in downtown Cairo. Even major hotels have lobby X-ray machines and guards.

For all that, curiosity compelled a visit. Age-old myths, Biblical stories, movies and books ensure Egypt is an exotic, world-famous destination. It does not disappoint.

Cairo has two must-sees in the greater metropolitan area -- the pyramids with their enigmatic companion, the Sphinx, and the Egyptian Museum.

I stayed at the aptly named Hilton Pyramids Golf Resort, four miles from the 4,500-year-old monuments.

The Hilton offers a mix of business and recreation, with a modern business center and a courtyard where guests smoke traditional shishas (water pipes that burn aromatic tobacco) deep into the night; a fine-dining restaurant (but no bar, in deference to alcohol-free Islamic custom); a casual cafethat skirts such customs for foreigners (Egypt's Stella lager refreshes in the baking heat); and an outdoor pool where swimmers in bikinis shared poolside duty one afternoon with a veiled woman dressed from head to toe in shapeless black.

The pyramids once stood in splendid isolation in the desert. No more. The town of Giza has expanded to the very lip of the Giza plateau. Up close, the three main pyramids are impossibly massive -- soaring, solid, made of big, weathered blocks of stone, and so old they resemble natural formations.

They also have a spooky quality, especially after dark, which even a nightly sound and light show -- a bit of 21st century kitsch at these last remnants of the Seven Wonders of the World -- cannot dispel. The pyramids were, after all, built as tombs.

The Sphinx is compact in comparison. But it, too, is imposing and mesmerizing. Nearby is the worthy Solar Boat Museum, which holds the reconstructed remains of an ancient Nile river boat, and carries a separate admission charge.

Hucksters and touts proliferate near the pyramids, and a favorite gambit is to get visitors astride a camel for a photograph and a short ride, and then demand a stiff payment. Traditionally open and accessible, the pyramid area is being enclosed behind a chain link fence to improve security and crowd control.

Egypt has a largely premodern barter economy. Credit cards, except in big, Western-owned hotels, are not accepted. Cash is king, and prices are negotiable. This extends to taxis, and fares must be agreed on, and written down, before getting into a cab.

Getting from Giza, on the western side of Cairo, to Heliopolis and the modernizing international airport, on the eastern side, takes one to two hours depending on traffic. Renting a car in Cairo, where people walk on and stroll across shoulder-less highways at all hours and drivers do not recognize lanes, is highly inadvisable. Although taking a taxi -- tiny, black and white, often barely functioning -- can be challenging, it is the best way to get around.

The Egyptian Museum

I took a taxi to the Egyptian Museum on a crosstown ride that was a thrill in itself. The microcab made breathtaking stops and turns, passed by a sprawling necropolis where people can be seen living among the tombs, and zipped past the Citadel, a formidable hilltop fortress. We crossed the Nile, chocolate-colored, studded with lush green islands, and skirted the edge of the Khan al-Khalili bazaar, with its acres of shops and merchants hawking spices, fabrics and keepsakes, in an area honeycombed with cafes.

Finally, I arrived at the Egyptian Museum, pink-walled on the outside, somewhat dark and worn on the inside, but magnificent all the same. Passing through layers of security, visitors emerge in a wonderland of Egyptian antiquity.

Everywhere, in every direction, are splendid artifacts from ancient Egypt -- stone tablets covered with hieroglyphics, amulets and assorted jewelry, fine pottery, spears, swords -- and hordes of museum-goers, many following tour guides. Inhabiting their own room are the mummies of famous pharaohs.

Up a flight of stairs, in a clear case, is the most famous item of all: The beautiful, gleaming, curved death mask of Tutankhamun, the boy-king. Time stops, King Tut's gold gleams and you feel as close to eternity as it's possible to feel and still be in this world.

David Armstrong is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer. He covers airlines and airports, hotels and resorts, food and wine, and writes travel destination features.