The pharaohs were determined to achieve immortality, and, given that they still attract so much attention and can fascinate us so many centuries later, in at least one way, they have managed to do just that. While many of their secrets are still held close in the yards and yards of cloth bindings wrapped around their parchment-like skin, others can be discovered on a visit to Cairo.
It was Napoleon who was to a great extent responsible for the European fascination with the mysterious land around the River Nile: in 1798 while waging war against the English, the emperor began to unearth the treasures of Egypt, thereby unwittingly sowing the seed for what, years later, was to become the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo.
Opened in 1902 in the central Tahir square, this spacious, pink-hued building is now an icon of the city, and a place of pilgrimage for lovers of Egyptology. Within its walls over fifty centuries of Pharaonic history are stored and documented: a legacy that needs to be taken at a leisurely pace.
Undoubtedly the most spectacular treasure housed by the museum is that once owned by Tutankhamen, the boy ruler, who, by the tender age of 18, had already amassed more wealth than Aristotle Onassis managed in the whole of his long life. The discovery of this treasure was the work of British archaeologist Howard Carter, who in 1922 opened one of the most enigmatic doors of ancient history, leading off a century full of fantastic discoveries. This was when the legend truly began, with the newspapers publishing wild – and wildly inaccurate – tales of the curse on anyone who dares to disturb the repose of a mummy.
The vast treasure-house of the museum is worthy of a visit lasting several days, with its displays of tens of thousands of pieces from the entire history of ancient Egypt – with yet more in storage – which cover a period spanning around 5,000 years. A tour of the two-storey building should, of course, include the Tutankhamen rooms, but there are others that are equally impressive. The section dedicated to the Old Kingdom, for example, the majestic Amarna gallery, dedicated to Akhenaten, the heretic pharaoh, the section on Ramses II, and, of course, the room where the royal mummies lie, where it is forbidden to raise your voice above a whisper, and the dark, sepulchral atmosphere can only enhance the mystery of the pharaohs.
Where to stay:
The Four Seasons Hotel at The First Residence in Giza, is an exquisite Baroque building made legendary by a long list of distinguished guests; it offers magnificent views of the pyramids. Similar views are also boasted by the Mena House Oberoi, a classic of Eastern luxury since its opening in 1869. In downtown Cairo, the Talisman with just 24 rooms is a haven of calm and luxury. At 12 kilometres from Cairo, in the quiet area of Maadi, the Villa Belle Epoque has recently been restored to its former colonial elegance.
Where to eat:
The modern Abou El Sid offers fine Egyptian cuisine in an elegant setting. On floor 41 of the Nile Tower, La Tour D'Or boasts magnificent views and serves Mediterranean cuisine. Sequoia, on the northern tip of the elegant Zamalek district is a spacious and pleasant place to unwind and relax while smoking a water pipe or contemplating the panoramic view of the Nile
The Giza plateau, 20 kilometres from Cairo, where the splendour of the Sphinx and the pyramids dominate the skyline above a bustle of camels, horses and street vendors. Cairo, is one of the world's most populous cities, and despite the apparent chaos of the streets, the best way to get to know the city is on foot, following your nose through the labyrinthine centre. The city's Coptic district boasts the beautiful Hanging Church, while in the Islamic district, fabulous mosques, mausoleums and minarets evoke the stories of the Arabian Nights - the Al-Azhar mosque is a particular gem - and the bustling Khan el-Khalili bazaar is the largest in Africa. In this same area is the City of the Dead, a vast cemetery inhabited, too, by the living who continue the pharaonic tradition of mixing life and death.