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Egypt is famed for sites like the Pyramids and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo that houses the death mask of Tutankhamun. Its historic towns and cityscapes are often overlooked, with their mosques, madrassahs and souks. Here’s our guide to ten of the most impressive towns, including desert oases that have remained unspoiled for centuries, Red Sea resorts, and ancient Christian sites that have stood since the 4th century.
Although technically a city, but the 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.
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.
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.
Al-Qasr is a medieval town built by the Ottomans deep in the Western Desert that forms part of the Dakhla Oasis. Its history is believed by archaeologists to stretch back to hunter-gathering societies hundreds of thousands of years ago, though the first European to set foot here was Sir Archibald Edmondstone in 1819. 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, largely built in the 12th century by the Ottomans on the ruins of a Roman town. 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.
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.
Dahab sits on the coast of the Sinai Peninsula looking onto the clear waters of the Red Sea. Originally Dahab was a Bedouin fishing village, and there’s little that’s architecturally or archaeologically important here. It’s the setting that makes the place special. On one side of the town are the mighty Sinai mountains and on the other the azure waters of the Gulf of Aqaba. Dahab in Arabic means ‘hold’, a reference perhaps to the color of the sands or to the golden red skies at sunset. Unlike resorts like Sharm el-Sheikh further down the coast, Dahab has remained fairly unspoiled. It has been a hippy hangout and was occupied by Israel after the Six Day War, and today it sees lots of visitors looking to enjoy deep-sea diving.
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.
Another traditional mud-brick town, Qasr al-Farafra is surrounded by picturesque palm groves and dominated by its ancient hilltop fortress built by the Romans two thousand years ago to protect the caravan trade route that stopped off here. The town, home to around 5,000 people, still relies on traditional industries like wool spinning and teahouses, and it has seen little modern development. In the Farafra depression in the Western Desert, the town is also next to one of Egypt’s most impressive natural parks, the so-called White Desert with its magnificent chalk formations and strange white rocks mixing with the sands. Many head to the oasis town of Bahariya in order to explore the White Desert, but Qasr al-Farafra is much more unspoiled.
The second city of Egypt, Alexandria, sits on the Mediterranean coast and is the most European in atmosphere with wide boulevards and pretty, open gardens. Founded by Alexandria the Great in 331 BC, the city was a center of Greek civilization and home to the Pharos Lighthouse, one of the wonders of the ancient world. For centuries there has been a strong Greek community in the city. Modern developments sit side by side with traditional Islamic buildings. On the shores of the Mediterranean you’ll find the spectacular Qaitbay Citadel and the pristine Maamoura Beach frequented by the rich and powerful. Then there are the beautiful Shallalat Gardens, the Montaza and Ras el-Tin palaces, the Palais d’Antoniadis, and the modern Bibliotheca Alexandriana – all must visit attractions.