The lure of ancient history and culture beckons thousands of visitors to Egypt every year, and they rarely leave disappointed. The country houses some of the world's most amazing engineering and architectural marvels. You'll wonder how these supersized monuments could have been built more than 5,000 years ago.
Just to name one example, the Pyramids of Giza are a must-see. Located just outside of Cairo, the Giza Plateau features the father-son-grandson trio of the pyramids of Khafu, Khafre and Menkaure, while smaller pyramids belonging to their female relatives surround them, along with the mastabas (trapezoidal tombs) of their relatives. The Great Sphinx -- the massive lion/human hybrid that guards Khafre's Pyramid -- is also a legendary landmark.
Beyond the Great Pyramids, what else should a visitor see on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to this diverse country that's rich with culture and character? Make sure these 10 Egyptian non-pyramid landmarks find a spot on your itinerary.
10. Temple of Luxor
This beautiful ancient temple stands near the edge of the Nile River, surrounded by modern buildings in the city of Luxor. The temple was constructed about 1400 B.C. under the supervision of Amenhotep III and Rameses II, and dedicated to the gods Amun-Ra, Mut (goddess of queenship), and Khonsu (god), and to the cult of Ka (the royal spirit).
In ancient times, the temple was central to the late-summer Opet festival. An annual feast featured a great procession of priests bringing the ceremonial barge of Amun-Ra from Karnak to Luxor, where the god was united with the Mut, Mother of the King, to give birth to the royal Ka [source: Fodors].
The Luxor is enormous in scale, featuring several pylons (monumental gateways) that are 70 yards (64 meters) long, fronted by large statues and obelisks.
Karnak, once the temple district of ancient Thebes, was located on the banks of the Nile, near the city of Luxor. Today, it's the most complex and impressive grouping of ancient Egyptian religious monuments.
Karnak includes three main areas, dedicated to Amun-Ra, Mut and Montu. It also includes several smaller sanctuaries. The temples were built, enlarged and restored from the time of the middle kingdom through the Roman period. Over that time, about 30 pharaohs contributed to the structure, each adding to its size and diversity. The Hypostyle Hall is the centerpiece, where over 100 columns mark the boundaries of a 50,000 square-foot (4,645 square-meter) room.
It's an amazing group of structures, where wandering among the statues, trying to decipher hieroglyphs, and gazing into the sacred pool are fascinating ways to spend several hours.
8. The Mosque of Ahmad Ibn Tulun
Enormous and majestic, the Ibn Tulun Mosque was completed in A.D. 879 on Mount Yashkur by the founder of Egypt's Tulunid Dynasty (888-905 A.D.), Ahmad Ibn Tulun. The mosque was built from mud bricks, and at approximately 304,812 square feet (28,318 square meters), it's the third largest mosque in the world. It is also the oldest mosque in Egypt that has retained its original form.
The mosque is surrounded by an enclosure; on three sides you'll find small courtyards called ziyadas that were designed to provide privacy and separate the sacred space from the outside world. The courtyards are lined with arcades of broad arches and heavy pillars, and decorated with elaborate carved designs.
The mosque's famous minaret stands on the north side. It features a spiraling outdoor staircase, and each of its three floors is built in a different shape (square, spiral and octagonal).
7. Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut (The Temple of Deir El Bahari)
A temple to sun god Amon-Ra, this graceful landmark nestles the underside of a cliff wall near the Valley of the Kings. It's dramatically situated at the head of a valley overshadowed by the Peak of the Thebes, where the goddess who presided over the necropolis lived.
Senenmut, the royal architect of the 18th Dynasty, designed the Mortuary Temple for his queen, Hatshepsut. She was a powerful Pharaoh of Egypt who dressed in men's clothing as she attended to the nation's affairs. The queen had reliefs made of her divine birth as the daughter of Amun, King of the Gods. When her grandson led a revolt to claim the throne, he had many of the shrines and reliefs destroyed.
The temple makes an architectural statement as well, marking a turning point in the Egyptian architectural style toward more Classical Greek and Roman sources.
6. Library of Alexandria
The physical building where you'll find the library of Alexandria is a new structure, unlike most of the other landmarks featured in this list. However, the ancient Library of Alexandra is the most famous library of classical antiquity. The Ptolemies of Egypt founded and have maintained it, along with the Alexandrian Museum, since the beginning of the third century.
As the largest and most comprehensive library of its time, its collections included more than 700,000 scrolls and served as a resource for literary and scientific thinkers that helped shape the world. Here, Euclid established the elements of geometry, Eratosthenes measured the circumference of the Earth, and Julius Caesar helped design a new calendar -- the Julian calendar -- that became the standard measurement of time in the Western world [source: Fodors].
The ancient museum and library were destroyed during a civil war that occurred in the late third century. In 2002, the Egyptian government founded a new library near the site of the ancient institution. The new Bibliotheca Alexandria features 11 cascading levels, and its basement features the Egyptian Antiquities museum.
5. Philae Island
Philae, an island in the Nile River, is known for abundant vegetation, lovely flowers and magnificent temples. It was once called the "pearl of Egypt," and considered one of the most romantic places in the country. However, constant flooding of the Nile River since the construction of the Aswan High Dam has cost the island some of its popularity. Visitors can only access the temples during late summer and fall.
Philae Island is home to the magnificent Temple of Isis, who was a central figure in ancient Egyptian lore, a goddess referred to as the "life giver" with power over magic, miracles and healing. Her temple is considered a gem of Egyptian architecture. It's one of the most famous of Egypt's post-Pharonic institutions, reflecting a mix of Hellenistic and Egyptian influences.
4. Cairo's Khan al-Kahlili Bazaar
True, it's not a landmark in the monumental sense of the Great Pyramids -- but you're certain to find a memento that will always serve as a vivid reminder of your trip to Egypt at this sprawling street bazaar.
The market was built in 1382 by the Emir Djaharks el-Khalili as a center for the spice trade. Some say the demand for spices may have encouraged the Europeans to search for new routes to the East -- eventually leading Christopher Columbus to discover the Americas.
Today, the bazaar represents the market tradition that made Cairo a major center of trade. You'll find gold, brass, copper, gems, fabrics, silver, herbs, tea: a panoply of products that will thrill your senses. Making deals with the vendors is a part of the experience, so bring plenty of cash and be prepared to make your best offer.
3. St. Catherine's Monastery
One of the oldest surviving monasteries in the world, St. Catherine's Monastery is located at the foot of the mountain on the Sinai Peninsula where Moses supposedly received the Ten Commandments. It was built on the site of Moses' burning bush by the order of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian between 527 and 565 B.C. Granite walls that measure 26 to 115 feet (8 to 35 meters) tall are surrounded by gardens and cypresses, just as they were thousands of years ago.
Before the 20th century, the only entrance was a small door 30 feet (9 meters) high, where people and supplies were lifted using an elaborate system of pulleys. Throughout its history, the monastery has withstood numerous attacks, protecting a priceless collection of art, including Arab mosaics, Western oil paintings, enamels, chalices, relics and more.
It also houses one of the most important collections of illuminated manuscripts in the world, consisting of more than 4,500 volumes in Greek, Coptic, Arabic, Armenian, Hebrew, Slavic and other languages [source: Tour Egypt].
2. Valley of the Kings
The Valley of the Kings, situated on the west bank on the Nile at Luxor, is home to more than 60 tombs and more than 120 chambers where pharoahs of the 18th, 19th and 20th Dynasties (1359-1075 B.C.) were buried. The tombs vary in plan and decoration and provide a fascinating glimpse at the ancient world.
The tomb of Tutankhamen (who reigned from 1333-1323) was discovered here in 1922. Practically untouched, many wonderful treasures were discovered in his tomb, offering a hint at how lavish the life and burial of the pharaoh must've been during the empire's peak. The stone sarcophagus that surrounded three outer coffins and Tut's actual mummy still rest in his tomb, but visitors can view many artifacts at the Egyptian Museum.
Architectural digs are still underway at many sites in the valley, and they're not open to the public, but you'll still find plenty to explore in the Valley of the Kings.
1. The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities
Explore every facet of ancient Egyptian life at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo, home of the world's largest collection of Egyptian artifacts. With more than 100,000 items, it's said that if you spent just one minute on each item it would take over nine months to complete the tour [source: El Hebeishy]. That's why it's best to invest in a guidebook or schedule a guided tour.
Inside the neoclassical building built in 1902, you'll see artifacts from daily life in ancient Egypt, such as combs, dishes -- even a prosthetic toe -- as well as dramatic statues of pharaohs and kings, elaborate coffins and jeweled scarab pendants.
Be sure to allow plenty of time for the King Tutankhamen exhibit, featuring artifacts from the boy king's tomb, found mostly intact in 1922. The collection includes a captivating assortment of jewelry, furniture, weapons and board games, as well as the famous burial mask.
Lots More Information
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- El Hebeishy, Mohamed. Frommer's Egypt. 2010. Hoboken: Wiley Publishing, Inc.
- Encyclopædia Britannica. "Valley of the Kings." 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. (Oct. 17, 2010)http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/318635/Valley-of-the-Kings
- Famouswonders.com. "Philae Island." (Oct. 14, 2010)http://famouswonders.com/philae-island/
- Stallings, Doug. Fodor's Egypt. 2009. New York: Fodor's Travel Publications.
- Wagner, Rob. "Egyptian Landmarks." USA Today Travel. (Oct. 14, 2010)http://traveltips.usatoday.com/Egyptian-landmarks-1213.html