When you think about Egypt, sites like the Pyramids, mummified Pharoahs’ and endless desert probably comes to mind. But this majestic North African nation also boasts impressive cities, desert oases that have remained unspoiled for centuries, and ancient Christian sites that have stood since the 4th century. Here are the top 7 must see towns in Egypt.
Siwa is a desert oasis close to the Libyan border, a mirage-like place of palm trees and olive groves that suddenly emerge out of the sands. The mud-brick houses are home to around 20,000 Berber inhabitants, with their own distinctive culture as a result of the isolated location of the town. Historically, homosexuality has been especially common here with same-sex marriage permitted, and the people have their own language, Siwi. The recorded history of Siwa dates to the 10th century BC when the Temple of Amun (which was later visited by Alexander the Great) was established here. Today you can see the picturesque remains of the Temple, and the 13th century Fortress of Shali with its labyrinthine alleys, old mosque and minarets at the center of Siwa.
Built by the Ottomans in the 12th century in the Dakhla Oasis , the first European to set foot in this beautiful town was in 1819. Its history is believed by archaeologists to stretch back to hunter-gathering societies hundreds of thousands of years ago. The Dakhla Oasis is made up of a series of small towns and over 500 hot springs, but Al-Qasr is the most impressive of the towns. In Arabic it simply means ‘the castle’, and it was the medieval capital of the oasis. Its handsome mud-brick houses, some of them over a thousand years old, have inscriptions on their doors taken from the Qur’an. Among the maze of alleys you can find many traditional craft shops including a blacksmith shop, an olive press, and working mills.
Old Town, Cairo
Old quarters of Cairo are too stunning not to include, with mosques and soaring minarets, ancient souks, Coptic churches and synagogues, and the huge fortified citadel. The extraordinary Islamic buildings of Cairo begin with the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As built in the year 641 CE. Historic Cairo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and includes the amazing Mosques of Ibn Tulun and al-Hakim, the ancient madrassahs and mausoleums, and the bustling alleys and markets. Make sure you also head to the Citadel of Saladin, built in the 12th century with the Mosque of Mohammed Ali on the summit, from where you will find the best views over the Old Town of Cairo.
Once the ancient town of Swenett, Aswan was historically the southern outpost of the Egyptian lands. It sits on the Nile, the river that has been the lifeblood of Egypt for thousands of years. At Aswan you will still find traditional dhows and feluccas sailing along the river to the north. Along the riverbanks are the stone cliffs and quarries that provided the Pharaohs with the material for their great monuments. Sites to see in Aswan include the old souk and Kitchener’s Garden, an island in the Nile gifted to Lord Kitchener after the Sudan campaign of 1898 that is now home to the Aswan Botanical Gardens. By felucca and camel, you can reach the beautiful abandoned monastery of St. Simeon and the brightly colored villages of the Nubians that surround Aswan.
Faiyum is one of the oldest towns in Egypt, inhabited since Pharaonic times, and known to the Greeks as Crocodilopolis, as the locals would worship a sacred crocodile. The town itself is full of traditional souks and sites including the Hanging Mosque and the Qaitbay Mosque – curious rarities in Egypt and the Islamic world, as they were built without minarets. One of the main treats of Faiyum is the area that surrounds the town itself, the so-called Valley of Whales at Wadi al-Hitan. This World Heritage Site boasts spectacular scenery along with being the site of the discovery of hundreds of fossils belonging to early forms of whale, sharks and crocodiles. Whole whale skeletons can be seen in the sands around Faiyum.
Wadi El-Natrun is far from a typical town; it has a collection of beautiful ancient Coptic Christian monastic sites gathered together in the desert between Cairo and Alexandria. In Christian history, Wadi El-Natrun is known as ‘Scetes’. In the 4th century, many Christians came to this desolate desert region to escape the corruption they saw in the cities of Egypt. They became hermits or grouped together in monasteries to dedicate themselves to the worship of God. St. Macarius was the leader of thousands of Christians who came here. Over time they had to build towers, walls and defenses to protect the churches and monasteries from Berber raiders. Once there were over fifty monasteries here, but now there are just four, hugely impressive sites that form part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Luxor, the city dominated by the incredible ruins of the Pharaonic Age, can’t be neglected from this list. On the banks of the Nile in southern Egypt, Luxor was once the ancient city of Thebes, the capital of Upper Egypt during the Age of the Pharaohs. Today it’s known as the ‘finest open-air museum in the world’, home to many of the most breathtaking scenery and sites anywhere to be found. You can explore locations like the Karnak and Luxor Temple complexes, the temples of the great Pharaohs Ramesses II and III, and, on the other side of the Nile from Luxor is the Valley of the Kings. There are also many Islamic sites to see in Luxor, like the Abu Haggag Mosque built on top of the Luxor Temple, the picturesque corniche, and the souk and street markets.