How to Get Off the Beaten Path in Egypt
It’s no secret that Egypt is a major international tourist destination. Millions flock to the country every year to soak up thousands of years of human history, from the Great Pyramids and the tombs of the Valley of the Kings to the centuries old mosques of Islamic Cairo and Coptic monasteries of the eastern desert.
However, since the Arab Spring brought down Egypt’s government in 2011 and a second coup toppled the Muslim Brotherhood in 2014, tourism has taken a nose dive, dropping from its peak in 2010 with 14.7 million foreign tourists to a low of 5.4 million visitors in 2016.
Tourism is responsible for employing 12% of the Egyptian workforce, and given that there are nearly 100 million Egyptians, this is represents a significant number of people. The lack of tourism revenue has potentially destabilizing consequences for Egypt’s fragile economy, and with political turmoil only recently calmed, forces that be in Cairo are intent on preserving the nations recovering tourism industry and present a safe and secure image to visitors.
This has resulted in a significant tourism police presence on the ground throughout Egypt, as well as restrictions on movement of foreign tourists. Having so much security is a double edged sword in many ways. On one hand, visitors are able to feel more safe, knowing that armed police are around to protect them since there have been several major terrorist attacks on foreign tourists in Egypt since the late 1990s. However, on the other hand, the restrictions put in place significantly curtails foreigner tourists’ ability to explore Egypt beyond the major overcrowded tourist attractions in the country.
Officially, tourists travelling in groups, and this can mean any group with 9 or more people travelling together, require police approval for their entire itinerary. The Egyptian government is happy to supply an armed police escort for any of these tour groups, and this policy is even more strict when it comes to American citizens travelling in Egypt, as Cairo is intent on avoiding any potential issue with an American citizen in the country. Americans essentially require police approval to go anywhere and do anything in Egypt.
Now of course an independent traveller can simply call an Uber and head out, but to do so may result in issues with the authorities if caught, especially if travelling with other foreigners. Egyptian citizens accompanying these groups may face more severe consequences, as they should have an official tourism license and thus register and get approval for the entire itinerary from the tourism police. Yes, it’s a pain in the ass.
So what can we do? With the Western Desert still closed to tourism (and believe us, we tried for months, weeks and then hours in the police station to get a permit to travel there, it’s most definitely closed), police road blocks and checks everywhere, and a complex system of tourism police approvals necessary to travel outside of the most well trodden sites in the country, how can one jump in and really experience the true Egypt?
Well, without breaking the law, this is still very much possible. Here are a few ideas to ponder for getting off the beaten path and beyond the reach of the tourist police (legally!) in Egypt.
Explore South Sinai
The southern half of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula is ripe for exploration, and is far more relaxed than the rest of the country when it comes to tourism police and restrictions placed on movement. For ocean lovers, South Sinai is home to some of the most fantastic diving and Snorkeling in the world. You can check out Dahab, Sharm El Sheikh, Ras Mohamed Nature Reserve, and Nuweibaa for supreme underwater experiences as well as great beaches.
Additionally, you can head inland to hike the Sinai Trail, which provides 12 days of hiking from start to end if you so choose. Built by three different Bedouin tribes, this trail is only a few years old and provides loads of authentic experiences in Egypt. In the interior of South Sinai you can find Bedouin tribes living in the rocky desert and wadis, the ancient Coptic Monastery of Saint Katherine, and of course Mount Sinai, Egypt’s highest peak. Knowledgable Bedouin guides will add to your experience, as you become immersed in their culture and the vast landscapes of this remarkable region.
See More of Cairo
Cairo is more than Pyramids! This is the largest city in Africa and the Middle East, with some 19.5 million inhabitants and thousands of years of continuous human history, all build next to and on top of each other. Here, you can really get a sense of the scale of Egypt’s culture, influence, history and economy. You can easily spend an entire day exploring the narrow, winding streets of Islamic Cairo the the Khan El Khalili Souq, visiting mosques that are over a thousand years old in the process.
Not only that, you can also take in more unique neighbourhoods like Al Zabbaleen— the “Garbage City”, which is home to Coptic Christians. These people have been involved in Cairo’s garbage collection and recycling industry for generations and at the top of the neighbourhood’s hill there is the Monastery of Saint Simon. This area provides a fascinating place to meet locals and see a different side to Egypt.
Cairo is also home to an incredible culinary scene, with lots of restaurants, eateries, coffee shops, sheesha hang outs and bars. All of these places allow for opportunities to meet Egyptians and learn more about this populous country.
Coptic Monasteries and Retreats
One way to see an off the beaten path part of Egypt is to visit the Coptic Christian monasteries and retreat centres, which provide excellent opportunities for real discussions with locals and a chance for immersion within a unique minority element of Egypt’s cultural and historical fabric.
The Coptic people are direct descendants of Ancient Egyptians, and their liturgical language is a continuation of the language of the ancients, but hieroglyphics have been replaces by a modified Greek alphabet. Today, the Copts make up around 15% of Egypt’s population, and they are one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. Christianity entered Egypt shortly after the ascension of Christ during the reign of the Roman emperor Claudius around 42 CE, and by 300 CE Christians formed the majority of the Egyptian population, largely having replaced the ancient Egyptian belief system.
The oldest Christian monastery in the world is located in Egypt’s Eastern Desert— The Monastery of Saint Anthony— originally dating back to Saint Anthony in the year 299 CE, who meditated in a nearby cave. This monastery along with the nearby Monastery of Saint Paul are major pilgrimage spots of Egypt’s Coptic communities and make great places to visit and meet locals.
There’s also the spectacular Monastery of Saint Katherine (Saint Catherine's Monastery) in the Sinai Peninsula, established in 548 CE and operating as an active monastery ever since.
The Coptic Anafora Retreat Centre between Cairo and Alexandria also provides an excellent opportunity for visitors to experience this side of Egyptian minority culture, meet with locals, and get away from tourists.
Dahabeya Nile River Cruises
Whats a dahabeya? It’s a small river sail boat— bigger than a felucca and significantly smaller than the massive Nile River tourist boats, these boats are beautiful, traditional said boats that sleep between 8-12 people and are perfect for exploring the Nile regions between Luxor and Aswan.
They offer significantly more privacy than both the large cruise boats as well as land tours, a ton of flexibility, and are far removed from the tourist police, so visitors can charter a boat and create 3-7 day sailing itineraries to their liking.
Visit Lesser Known Ancient Sites
Ok, so just about everyone’s heard of the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx, and the Valley of the Kings, and then once you arrive in Egypt or do even a little research you’re sure to hear about the Temple of Karnak, the Egyptian Antiquities Museum, the Temple of Luxor, Queen Hatshepsut Temple, Abu Simbel, and the Valley of the Queens. These places are iconic, and because of that they attract significant crowds, so just be prepared.
However, Egypt has plenty of incredible lesser known ancient sites, which may be, depending on your personal interests, more enjoyable to visit, away from thousands of group tourists. How about the Valley of the Nobles, where many of the craftsmen and nobility were buried in upper Egypt, with incredible wall paintings? Then theres the Saqqara Archeological Site in Giza, home to the Step Pyramid of Djozer, but also numerous smaller pyramids and burial chambers out in the scrub desert that can be explored on horseback. Then there’s the Medinet Habu Temple outside of Luxor, with paintings, hieroglyphics, statues and more.
Timing is also everything— seeing sunrise from the Temple of Karnak will ensure the site is nearly visitor free for your first half hour there, and when it comes to the Great Pyramids at Giza, get in first, and move quickly while the weather is cooler and crowds smaller. A little bit of research and planning will go a long way in making the most of the ancient sites.