10 must-see Egyptian monuments — aside from, you know, the obvious ones

February 5, 2020

Everyone knows the Great Pyramid of Cheops. As the last remaining representative of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the 139-metre-tall landmark outside Cairo gets plenty of publicity.

Ditto for the Sphinx. As a kid, I didn’t need to be a world-class Egyptologist to know about this huge 4,500-year-old sculpture. I’d seen it in Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix and Cleopatra comic book.

However, not all of the large, impressive stone structures in Egypt are equally famous. Not all of them even date from antiquity. Here are 10 must-see Egyptian monuments that you may not know.

1. Step Pyramid

Standing 60 metres high, the tomb of the pharaoh Djoser is shorter than the Great Pyramid and not quite as sexy. It is, however, the world’s oldest known pyramid, built in 2650 BC. The Step Pyramid is less than an hour’s drive south of Cairo in the Saqqara necropolis. As the New Kids on the Limestone Block sang: “Step by Step Pyramid/Gonna get to you, afterlife.” (Big hit back in the day.)

2. Colossal Statue of Ramses II

Ramses II was one of Egypt’s most famous and longest-reigning rulers (67 years!). However, this colossal statue of the pharaoh in the Old Kingdom capital of Memphis obviously didn’t take Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis” to heart. It’s lying down. You can check out its enormous fists up close or climb up stairs to view the statue, carved from a single piece of limestone, from above.

3. Mosque of Muhammad Ali

I first read about Saladin, Egypt’s first sultan (1174-93 AD), in Ronald Welch’s Knight Crusader, which won the 1954 Carnegie Medal for British children’s literature. Although religious warfare is nothing to romanticize, the novel did prompt me to seek out Cairo’s Citadel of Saladin when I visited Egypt. The 1848-built Mosque of Muhammad Ali is the spectacular centerpiece of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. It features a huge Ottoman-style dome and clock tower.

4. Egyptian Museum of Cairo

Many artifacts from this world-famous museum are being relocated to the new Grand Egyptian Museum, slated to open soon near the Pyramids of Giza. For now, this sprawling 1902-constructed building is still the place to see King Tutankhamun’s legendary gold mask, which coincidentally inspired Steve Martin’s 1978 novelty hit “King Tut.”

5. Fort Qaitbey

More than 500 years old, this defensive castle in the Alexandria harbour offers incredible views of the Mediterreanean Sea. Pair a visit to Fort Qaitbey with a waterfront stroll to the enormous Bibliotheca Alexandrina on the other side of the harbour.

6. Abu Simbel

I first saw a miniature replica of Abu Simbel in Legoland Denmark. Yet nothing compares to seeing the actual 66-foot-tall statues of Ramses II that grace the exterior of these massive temples honouring Amon-Ra, the sun god. In a superb feat of engineering, the complex was relocated by UNESCO in 1968 so it wouldn’t be submerged after the Aswan High Dam was built.

7. Temple of Isis

Isis was the Egyptian goddess of love. So when I toured her island temple at Philae, I was humming Bananarama’s “Venus,” which praises her Roman counterpart. There’s plenty of Greco-Roman influence on these gracious buildings, not to mention Coptic crosses added later on. Don’t miss the wall carving of a baboon rocking out on a lute.

8. Tomb of Ramses VI

This tomb in the Valley of the Kings isn’t as heralded as King Tut’s, and it was actually originally for Ramses V. Ramses VI just finished it off. That said, its 117-metre span is packed with amazingly intact hieroglyphics and paintings, with heavy emphasis on astronomy and the sky goddess Nut.

9. Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut

Hatshepsut, Egypt’s first female pharaoh, secured her legacy with this spectacular temple that includes shrines to Hathor, the goddess of motherhood, and Anubis, the god of death. Showing how she had to combat sexist ideas about male rulership, Hatshepsut is consistently depicted with a false beard.

10. Karnak Temple Complex

Located at Luxor, this is the world’s largest temple complex. The 134 massive columns shaped like papyrus stalks in the Great Hypostyle Hall are the principal highlight. Also, check out the red granite obelisk of Hatshepsut and the shimmering Sacred Lake. If you grew up on such heavy metal classics as Iron Maiden’s “Powerslave” everything you believed about the pharaohs’ massive egos is confirmed in the boastful inscriptions about their military victories.

Getting there

Check out our small group tours to Egypt here.

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