The perfect trip: Egypt
At the start of a trip filled with ancient wonders lie the Pyramids of Giza. (Pete seaward/LPI)
Explore the souks of Cairo and visit the ancient pyramids before sailing the Nile to the monuments of Luxor, diving in Dahab and winding up in the Sinai desert.
Cairo souks: Best for shopping
Modern Cairo is a sprawling place, hemmed in by desert and spliced by the Nile. Old Cairo sits on a rise to the east of the river. This kernel, from which the rest of the city has grown, was laid out in 969 AD as a palace enclave. When the royals moved to safer, higher ground two centuries later, the area was given to the people. They built houses, mosques, baths and, perhaps most importantly, souks - whatever else, Cairo has always been a city of commerce.
These souks were marketplaces, labyrinthine arrangements often divided according to trade and produce. The original architecture remains to this day. Slip down an alley off the old city's main street, Sharia al-Muizz li-Din Allah, and you may find a 19th-century palace, a 14th-century hammam or a spice souk, traders leaning against sacks of peppers, the air thick with the dust of cumin.
Khan al-Khalili, a narrow alley marked by a graceful stone archway, remains a popular souk. Here, surrounded by gold merchants and antiques sellers, Atlas Silks is a small shop where Cairene notables used to buy long robes to signify their status. Visitors now come for embroidered jackets and kaftans. 'Trade is the only proper conversation here,' says Saladin Abdelaziz, the shop's owner. 'People talk of politics, sport, love - but commerce rules their lives and their city.' Over tea, we watch people pass by. The scene is little-changed over 700 years - before us scurry Persians, Europeans and Africans, loaded down with purchases, eyes peeled for a bargain.
- Atlas Silks, Khan al-Khalili; 00 20 22 59 06 139
Giza: Best for monuments
To the east of Old Cairo, a limestone ridge marks the edge of the Nile valley and the beginning of the desert. Early on a clear morning, I look out and see three triangles on the horizon - the three main Pyramids of Giza. It is an image endlessly reproduced, but one that never loses its power to excite. Built 4,500 years ago, they have stood as symbols of power, objects of mystery and subjects of debate. For centuries, it was thought they were the pharaohs' granaries, but it is now believed they were burial sites.
The Great Pyramid, a 146-metre-high mountain of stone, was created by arranging 2.3 million limestone blocks, each about 2.5 tonnes, with astonishing accuracy. Those numbers are big (so are the crowds; arrive at midday to avoid the rush), but it's only possible to understand the scale of this achievement when you step inside and come to a soaring gallery. Each enormous block is perfectly cut, polished smooth and fitted so tight not a sheet of paper would slip between them.
In front of the pyramid, the enormous lion-bodied Sphinx adds mystery to this mastery of stone. Why was it carved? By whom? My guess is as good as anyone's (well, perhaps not those who think it was the work of extra-terrestrials). As I walk down the slope towards the monument, I have the sort of sensation one might have at finding the Queen of England in the seat next to you on the flight home, a mix of familiarity and surprise.
From Giza, head 15 miles south to see the Step Pyramid near the village of Saqqara. Completed around 2650 BC, a century before the Great Pyramid, this is the oldest pyramid of all and one of the most beautiful. The pyramid's interior is closed to the public, but a few steps away there is something even more memorable. While the pharaohs were building pyramids, their courtiers were creating elaborate tombs for themselves. One of the best, built by a man called Mereruka, contains 32 chambers. On their walls, the courtier celebrated his life, from hunting in the marshes to listening to his daughter play the harp. Seeing these scenes, the millennia separating us from these individuals melt away.