DOS & DON’TS
What to Wear
Mail & Package Services
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For More Information
Although modern life coexists with the legacies of the past, it has also opened up possibilities for exploring a wider area of Egypt. In addition to the great monuments of the Nile Valley, an Egyptian itinerary could also include diving along the Red Sea coast, a desert trek to remote oases or a visit to the Sinai Peninsula. The hub of transportation—and most likely your first and last stop in the country—remains Cairo, a city that never fails to make a strong impression.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, be aware that Upper Egypt actually refers to the southern part of the country, and Lower Egypt is in the north. This is in relation to the Nile River, which flows through the country from south to north, where it empties into the Mediterranean Sea.
Egypt is the largest country in the Arab world, and among African nations, is second in population only to Nigeria. (Cairo, the continent’s most populous city, has 20 million people.)
Eventually, however, it fell to outside influences. Conquest of the country by Alexander the Great in 332 BC led to three centuries of Greek rule, followed by a brief but significant period of Roman rule. Arab invaders, who conquered Egypt and introduced Islam around AD 640, have had the most lasting influence. Others who left their mark include the Ottoman Turks, the French and the British.
Egypt won nominal independence from Britain in 1922. The subsequent monarchy came to an end in 1953 with the overthrow of King Farouk. The following year, Gamel Abdel Nasser came to power and ruled with tremendous popular support for 14 years. He was succeeded by Anwar Sadat, who, through both war and diplomacy, established peace with neighboring Israel. His efforts came with a high price: Sadat was assassinated in 1981.
Hosni Mubarak assumed the presidency following Sadat’s death and maintained power for five more six-year terms.
The Egyptian revolution that began in January 2011, sparked by the Tunisian uprising, ultimately led to Mubarak stepping down in February 2011. Millions of Egyptians demonstrated over issues including corruption and high unemployment rates.
After a period of military rule and continued protests, Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was elected president in 2012, making him the first democratically elected president in the country’s history.
Now, after three years that saw Egypt at times violently cycle through Morsi and interim president Adly Mansour, it appears that the crippling tourism drought could finally be over. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was elected into office in May 2014, and the country finally appears to be backing its president.
Legal and economic reforms during the 1990s led to increased foreign investment and economic expansion. A rapidly growing population (the largest in the Arab world) continues to be a major factor in the Egyptian economy.
Nearly everyone will enjoy seeing the sights of Egypt. Travelers should be aware that there are areas of the country that are quite poor and some places where standards of sanitation aren’t the highest in the world. Some visitors may be bothered by the heat (even during winter), and others may find the amount of walking necessary to see the various temples to be a physical strain. However, if a visit is properly paced for the age of the traveler, there shouldn’t be problems. All things considered, Egypt’s rewards far outweigh its disadvantages.
The scars on the face of the Sphinx are not solely because of erosion: The monument was used for target practice by conquering Ottoman soldiers, French troops or both, depending on whose story you believe.
Egypt’s best-kept secret is janzabil, the hot, spicy ginger drink that the Quran calls “the promise of paradise.” It’s the perfect respiratory and digestive tract cleanser for murky urban air and unfamiliar food. All the sidewalk coffee andshisha (tobacco) shops have it and will be surprised and delighted when you order it.
Expect to see security checks at government buildings and museums. You will often be asked to leave your camera at the security desk.
Bluish crosses tattooed on the hands or wrists of Egyptians indicate that they are Christians.
Friday is the day of worship, when most things are closed at least in the morning (shops in tourist areas may be open). Many stores are closed during prayer hours or all day on Friday, and most Coptic stores are closed on Sunday.
Egypt does not mind the presence of an Israeli visa in your passport (most other Arab countries do). Although Israel cooperates with tourists planning to visit other Arab countries by stamping visas outside the passport, be aware that when traveling overland between Egypt and Israel, your Egyptian exit visa will indicate you crossed at Taba. Immigration officers in other Arab countries may know that the only place to go from Taba is Israel and may refuse to issue visas in passports with a Taba stamp.
There are a number of holidays, streets, neighborhoods and even a museum in Cairo commemorating Egypt’s victory over Israel in various wars. Although interesting to observe, it is not recommended that you bring up historical inaccuracies about these to the locals.
It is not considered to be proper for men and women to exhibit signs of affection or closeness in public. However, it is common to see men walking arm in arm with each other; women likewise.
Unfortunately for Egypt, as elsewhere, the increasing flow of tourists has negatively impacted the beach and the reef, and the government has stopped development in some areas and declared nature protectorates.
Visit the less frequented but still spectacular small, unspoiled fishing village of Marsa Alam, 186 mi/300 km down the coast, where the coral and sealife are as superb as anywhere in Egypt. Even with its recenly opened airport, the village is not yet booming. You might also consider heading for the west coast of Sinai to Na’ama Bay to dive. Or go to the Tiran Straits (up from Na’ama) and on to the Nabq Nature Reserve, if you’d like to pair watersports with some great wildlife-watching.
Birding is another popular activity. Besides the Nabq Nature Reserve, the most popular place to see Egypt’s huge variety of shore birds is Lake Borolos, about 90 minutes east of Alexandria or west of Port Said on the Mediterranean coast. There are no accommodations or eateries at Lake Borolos, so stay nearby in Rosetta and rent a boat for a day trip.
Golfers should check out the world-class courses developed in Cairo, Alexandria and Sharm el Sheikh. Many first-rate hotels have a course attached to their facility, and all should be able to arrange tee times and transporation to nearby greens for their guests. King Farouk’s nine-hole course still stands for play and offers a memorable experience at the base of the Great Pyramid, located across the street from the Mena House Hotel.
Among the interesting souvenirs that Egypt offers are mother-of-pearl inlaid wood, jewelry, brassware and leather goods. Other items include carpets, shisha water pipes, alabaster and soapstone carvings, paintings on papyrus, rag rugs, Egyptian clothing, gold, silver and copper ware, perfumes and reproductions of antiquities.
If an item is presented to you as an antique, it’s probably a fake (and if it is genuine, it can’t be legally exported). In fact, be very careful when buying something that may appear to authorities to be of historical importance—the police have detained tourists for days while determining that well-made reproductions were not authentic. Look for campy postcards and stationery that looks as if it were first printed 40 years ago. And do go into one of the herb shops. They carry everything from dried lizards to licorice powder.
The Khan el-Khalili Bazaar in Cairo is a good spot to shop for many of these items, and it’s fun just to walk through even if you’re not very interested in shopping. The market first began in the 14th century and the streets winding through it are just as wild and woolly today as they were then. Bargaining is acceptable almost everywhere: Even fine shops will consider bids on big-ticket items.
The bargaining process may seem to be a waste of time to people used to just taking items to a cash register, but try to enjoy the process—the key is to keep the price low without being arrogant or insulting. Learn to fake astonishment at a suggested price or walk slowly out of a shop if necessary. But don’t bargain if you’re not truly interested in buying. (The proffered tea or soft drinks do not obligate you to buy anything.) Above all, keep smiling.
If you have time for some bargaining, here are some basic words and phrases: Ais (Ahh-ees) means “I want;” Mish ais means “I don’t want” (mish negates everything), and to ask “how much?” say “bekam?” If you have a local friend, it may be beneficial to have them do the bargaining on your behalf, in order to secure a lower price. If you are being harassed by vendors to buy something you don’t want or need, the word andee (Aun-dee) means “I have.” This usually works well when they think you have already been sold the item by some fortunate vendor that found you first. Another nice way to get out of buying something is with mara gaya (marra gaa-ya), meaning “next time.”
Do make a practice of counting and inspecting your change after making a purchase. Merchants often give visitors bills that are torn, badly faded or wrinkled, and other shopkeepers won’t accept them. Most hotel banks will permit you to exchange such damaged bills for better ones.
Shopping Hours: Generally Monday-Saturday 11 am-7 pm. Hours vary in summer and during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Closed Sunday.
Shwarma, a sandwich similar to a gyro, is good fast food, but make sure the meat hasn’t been sitting out for too long. Also try fateer, an oven-baked pancake with either sweet or savory combinations; mulokhaya, a soup with chard and lots of garlic; and koshari, a blend of rice, lentils, pasta and chickpeas, accompanied by a spicy tomato sauce and fried onions.
Egyptian wines have improved dramatically since the privatization of the state vineyards in 1998. Local beers have been available for 100 years, and they, too, have improved in both quality and variety. Brands to try include Stella and Sakara.
Alcohol is forbidden to strict Muslims, but some restaurants serve wine and beer. Some Muslim owners, however, have forbidden alcohol on their properties, so don’t be surprised if a restaurant is alcohol-free. If it matters to you, ask before being seated.
However, bombings at the Sinai resorts of Taba and Ras Shaitan in October 2004, in Sharm el-Sheikh in July 2005 and in Dahab in April 2006 killed and injured hundreds. Other outbursts of violence include smaller but still deadly attacks in Cairo’s Khan al-Khalili bazaar and near the Egyptian Museum, Muslim violence against Coptic Christians in Alexandria and a police attack that killed Sudanese refugees in Cairo. The Arab Spring and subsequent rise of the new civilian government in Egypt has caused much unrest over the past two years, including violent demonstrations. Visitors should exercise caution, avoid large public gatherings and monitor news reports and advisories from local embassies and wardens in Egypt.
Violent crime is very rare in Egypt, but purse snatching and pickpocketing incidents are common. Unescorted women are vulnerable to sexual harassment and verbal abuse. Visitors are encouraged to use common sense with regard to their personal safety and belongings. Be aware of your surroundings at all times. Also, keep an eye on current events both inside and outside Egypt: Changes in Arab-Israeli relations, in particular, can spark demonstrations. In general, exercise caution and register with your country’s embassy to get the latest information, including news of scheduled rallies and demonstrations.
For the latest information, contact your country’s travel-advisory agency.
Skin infections are common; even the smallest wound should be disinfected and covered with a bandage. Other than fresh spring water at the source, don’t evenstep into fresh water (including the Nile and irrigation ditches). A dangerous parasite, bilharzia, may be present (it can enter through the skin and cause liver damage). Since rabies is a problem, keep away from stray animals, especially outside Cairo.
Dust, pollution and smoke from cigarettes or shisha pipes may bother those with bronchial problems. The sun can be very strong, so use sunscreen liberally and wear a hat. Make sure you’re drinking enough fluids—dehydration (often signaled by a headache) can be serious and is often mistaken for food poisoning. Safe bottled water is available everywhere at an affordable price.
Although most freshly cooked foods should be safe, peel fresh fruit and raw vegetables before eating and stick to bottled water. Rift Valley Fever (RVF), a rare disease transmitted by undercooked meat, has occasionally flared up, so when eating meat, make sure it is cooked thoroughly.
Good health care is available in Cairo, but in rural areas it can be inadequate. Most Nile cruise boats don’t have a doctor onboard, but some employ a medical practitioner of uncertain training. Hospital facilities in Luxor and Aswan are inadequate, and they are nonexistent at most other ports of call. Take along all prescription medicine needed for the trip, though most antibiotics are available in any pharmacy with no prescription needed. Proof of an HIV test is required for foreign nationals seeking permanent resident status.
For emergencies, have someone that speaks Arabic telephone 123 for a well-equipped ambulance. Don’t forget to take a comfortable pair of walking shoes, preferably with closed toes.
For the latest information, contact your country’s health-advisory agency.
DOS & DON’TS
Appointments—You will be required to have an Egyptian intermediary to conduct business in the country, and the intermediary can usually assist in scheduling meetings. As a visitor, you should always try to be on time, but you can anticipate that your Egyptian counterparts will not be punctual. Generally, the higher your rank as a visitor, the greater effort your acquaintance will make to meet the appointed time.
Note also that the Islamic calendar is often used and that parties should carefully agree upon the calendar being used to fix a date. Remember that Friday is the Islamic holy day, and business is not conducted then. The business week is typically Sunday-Thursday, with some offices open on Saturday.
Personal Introductions—Handshakes are common, always with the right hand, though there are some Muslim men who may decline to shake hands with women. Introductions can often be elaborate. If an acquaintance is introduced with a professional title, use it; if not, standard English titles (Mr., Ms.) are acceptable, along with the person’s last name. Use the title and last name until instructed to do otherwise. You might be introduced by your title and first name instead.
Negotiating—Egyptians usually have a great curiosity about their visitors and will want to get to know you before discussing any details of a business transaction. The pace of negotiations is slow, but don’t try to hurry things along.
Business Entertaining—Expect to be entertained with much expressiveness and generosity. An engagement will typically begin late in the evening. Socializing is the intent, so don’t bring up business unless your host initiates the conversation. Remember that many followers of Islam do not consume alcohol, and it’s wise to follow your host’s lead in this regard.
Body Language—Egyptians typically stand close to one another while speaking. Men will often touch their male acquaintances on the arm or back while involved in conversation, but a man will not touch a woman in the same manner. Pay close attention to which hand you use: The left hand should never be used to shake hands or to accept and offer items, including business cards, pens and the like. Avoid pointing at people and sitting in any manner that would permit the sole of your shoe or foot to be seen, which would be taken as an insult. Remember that shoes are often removed in homes and always in mosques.
Gift Giving—It’s acceptable, and often expected, to give a business acquaintance a gift, but it should be of good quality. Flowers are not typically given. Chocolates are a good gift when visiting a home. A desk ornament made of crystal or silver would be appreciated by professional contacts.
Conversation—Avoid politics, especially any criticism of Egypt or other Islamic countries. Follow your host’s lead when choosing topics. Israel is best left out of the conversation altogether. Remember that women (even wives and daughters) are typically not discussed and, if present, are usually not addressed by men. Sports, especially soccer, are a popular topic, as are antiquities and Egyptian culture.
Do be prepared for unwanted attention if you’re a woman traveling alone—it’s best to travel with a companion outside the main tourist areas. You’ll undoubtedly be whistled at or talked to in the street. The best response is no response—any other response may be misinterpreted as encouragement. If approached, always say that you are married. If you need help, ask a woman. If you find yourself being unduly hassled, simply raise your voice and yell; you’ll instantly be surrounded by a curious crowd, all trying to help. You may then have the opportunity to slip away.
Do avoid public displays of affection between the sexes (although it’s perfectly acceptable for two men or two women to hold hands).
Passport/Visa Requirements: Passports and visas needed by Australian, Canadian, U.K. and U.S. citizens. Air passengers may obtain a renewable 30-day visa upon arrival. Others must obtain a visa in advance. Reconfirm travel document requirements with carrier before departure.
Languages: Arabic, English, French.
Predominant Religions: Islamic (Sunni), Christian (Coptic).
Time Zone: 2 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (+2 GMT). Daylight Saving Time is not observed.
Voltage Requirements: 220 volts. Plugs have two round prongs.
Telephone Codes: 2, country code; 02,Cairo city code; 03,Alexandria city code; 059,Luxor city code; 097,Aswan city code;
Money changers are easy to find at larger hotels, and the main cities have Thomas Cook offices in convenient locations. Foreign-exchange bureaus offer better rates but are slower and harder to find.
ATMs are everywhere and accept MasterCard, Visa and cards that work with Cirrus or Plus networks. But be careful which ATM you use: Those found in hotels, HSBC banks and Banque Masr are safe and reliable. However, ATMs located on the street may eat your card. If this happens, visit the bank’s nearest office—it may take several days for the ATM service crew to retrieve your card. Also, be prepared to spend an hour or more in a bank manager’s office, convincing him or her that the bank is responsible for the return of the credit card. It is best to have an alternate card to use in case of such an emergency, and always let your bank know you will be traveling abroad beforehand to avoid unnecessary alerts being tagged on your card.
Many shops now accept American Express, MasterCard and Visa credit cards. Before you go, it’s best to check with your credit card company and get the Cairo number to call for a lost or stolen card.
At most shops, the sticker price includes taxes.
Baksheesh is a word every visitor hears within an hour of arrival. It means “share the wealth” and is usually a justified request for a tip for services rendered (waiters, taxi drivers, porters, doorkeepers, and so on). Keep a supply of small change or small notes ready. But there is a gray area where a request for baksheesh is a request for a bribe to get something done that you might feel shouldn’t require additional remuneration. Bear in mind that such bribes aren’t considered to be seriously wrong in Egyptian culture. Decide for yourself whether you feel the request is justifiable. There are also those who simply ask for baksheesh without rendering a service. It’s not considered rude to turn down such requests.
What to Wear
Short sleeves are appropriate for men in summer. Women can wear short sleeves, even short pants, without getting hassled in the high-traffic tourist areas such as the Giza pyramids, especially if they’re traveling on tour buses and are escorted by a guide. But women who walk around nontourist areas scantily dressed and unaccompanied are frequently considered a sharmoota (loose woman), so expect rude comments and sexual overtures from men and stares from both sexes.
For both sexes: Do not wear shorts in a mosque. Dress conservatively. Women should dress very modestly. Although Egypt is not as strict as some Islamic countries with regard to covering the head and legs, outfits should be loose and should conceal as much of the body as possible. Most Egyptian women wear head scarves, but tourists aren’t expected to.
Cell phones are widely used in Egypt—everyone from businessmen to cab drivers and the proprietor of the local corner store seems to have them. Mobinil, Vodaphone and Etisalat are the main companies, and the network for all three is very good. Starter packs are available at the Vodaphone, Mobinil and Etisalat shops that are found almost everywhere—when you buy one, be sure to ask staff to change the settings to English. Top-up cards are also widely available, sold at almost every shop. The companies are competitive, and rates for local calls run around .14piasters per minute; international calls cost £E 2 per minute.
Mail & Package Services
Newspapers & Magazines
Although Egypt Today and other monthly magazines have excellent restaurant listings, they’re less useful for steering you to other attractions and activities. The best guide to happenings and hot spots is the Web site http://www.yallabina.com. It provides up-to-date information on all current events, classes, dining and movies showing in Cairo.
The main airport for international arrivals and departures is Cairo International Airport (CAI), which is located 15 mi/24 km northeast of the city. Terminal 1 services all international and domestic Egypt Air flights. All other international arrivals and departures will go through recently remodeled Terminal 3. Terminal 2 is closed for renovation through September 2014. During this time, the airlines normally operating from T2 will be operating from T1.
Always reconfirm which terminal your flight will be using for departure. There is shuttle service between the terminals, but it can be slow and unreliable. For all flight inquiries, phone 0900-77777 from a landline or 2777 from a mobile. http://www.cairo-airport.com.
Taxis are relatively inexpensive and a reliable way to travel between the airport and the city. The best service available is the Airport Shuttle van service (phone 19970), available with a reservation and quoted rate. A road connecting the airport with Cairo’s ring road has opened, paving the way for smoother and less-congested travel to and from the airport. Still, do not be surprised if it takes an hour or more to negotiate traffic from the airport to your downtown hotel.
From Cairo, there are domestic flights to Alexandria, Luxor, Aswan, Abu Simbel, Hurghada and Sharm el-Sheikh. Make all your domestic air reservations as soon as possible. With less tourist traffic since the revolution, Egypt Air economizes when feasible and will combine flights whenever possible, so be sure to double-check your flight information the day before. Airfares for foreigners for domestic travel are reasonable, so it is well worth it to inquire about this option.
White taxis have meters and are the best choice when available. Be sure the meter is running as soon as you move. If you have exact change, it is acceptable to pay the exact fee and nothing more. If you do not have exact change, do not expect the driver to have any for you. It is wise to carry small bills for this reason. If you meet a driver you particularly like, take his phone number for future work. Most drivers consider this “private work,” so the fees expected will be higher.
You can also use taxis for half- or full-day excursions from most cities to nearby sights. Again, set the price beforehand.
It’s a good idea to make all your train reservations as soon as you arrive, because space is often tight. The earlier a train you can catch, the better. Egyptian State Railway advertises multiple trains per day, but it will only run the later trains if the earlier ones fill up first.
For More Information
Canada: Egyptian Tourist Authority, 1253 McGill College Ave., Suite 250, Montreal H3B 2Y5.
U.K.: Egyptian Tourist Authority, 170 Piccadilly, Egyptian House, Third Floor W., London W1V 9DD.
U.S.: Egyptian Tourist Authority, 630 Fifth Ave., Suite 2305, New York, NY 10111. Phone 212-332-2570.
Egypt does not have a tourist office in Australia.
Australia: Egyptian Embassy, 1 Darvin Ave., Yarralumla, Canberra, ACT 2600.
Canada: Egyptian Embassy, 454 Laurier Ave. E., Ottawa, ON K1N 6R3.
There is also a consulate in Montreal.
U.K.: Egyptian Embassy, 26 South St., London W1Y 6DD.
Phone 020-7499-3304 or 020-7499-2401.
U.S.: Egyptian Embassy, 3521 International Court N.W., Washington, DC 20008.
There are also consulates in Chicago, Houston, New York and San Francisco.
Foreign Embassies in Egypt
Australian Embassy, World Trade Center, 1191 Corniche el-Nil, 11th Floor, Bulag, Cairo. Phone 2578-0650.
Canadian Embassy, 26 Kamel el Shennawi St., Garden City, Cairo.
British Embassy, 7 Ahmed Ragheb St., Garden City, Cairo.
U.S. Embassy, 8 Kamal El Din Salah St., Garden City, Cairo (mailing address from the U.S.: U.S. Embassy Cairo, APO AE 09839-4900).
The Traveler’s Key to Ancient Egypt by John Anthony West (Knopf).
The Western Desert of Egypt by Cassandra Vivian (American University in Cairo Press).
Cairo: The Family Guide by Leslie Lababidi (American University in Cairo Press).
Islamic Monuments in Cairo: The Practical Guide by Caroline Williams (American University in Cairo Press).
Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell (Faber and Faber).
Flaubert in Egypt by Gustave Flaubert (The Bodley Head).
I am Happier to Know You by Jeanne M. Eck (Angel Wings Publishing).
Cairo: The City Victorious by Max Rodenbeck (Alfred A. Knopf).
The Cairo Trilogy: Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street by Naguib Mahfouz (Everyman’s Library).
Adrift on the Nile by Naguib Mahfouz (Anchor Books). Arabian Nights and Days by Naguib Mahfouz (Anchor Books).