Remembering Egypt: 10 years after the revolution

Remember the Arab Spring? I certainly do. We had booked a trip to Egypt mere weeks before massive pro-democracy demonstrations erupted on January 25, 2011 in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicentre of Egypt’s 2011 revolution. After 18 days of intense unrest, former president Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office. Most visitors cancelled travel plans to Egypt. We decided to go ahead with our March 2011 visit. This post features my photo memories from an extraordinary trip during an extraordinary time.

Whether it was luck, risk-taking or questionable judgement, our timing—immediately after the revolution— was perfect. We arrived to a jubilant Egypt, its people brimming with optimism about the future, eager to share their excitement with the few foreign tourists in their country. We departed Egypt before the honeymoon ended and a period of political chaos and instability set in.

After ten years, Egypt still ranks right up there in my top travel favourites. Welcome to my enduring memories.

Giza Pyramids:

There were parking spots galore when our taxi dropped us off at the Pyramids. It was a joy strolling through this awe-inspiring complex without crowds (we found the same in the famous Egyptian Museum). For local folks selling pyramid trinkets and camel rides, hopefulness still prevailed; yet, they and all those dependent on tourism were at the cusp of a long nightmare.

Cairo’s vibrance and chaos:

I have foul memories of Cairo’s pollution and traffic. I remember the stress of trying to cross the busy streets and attempting to take the metro. Check out my Cairo Survival Guide, a lighthearted post I wrote shortly after our trip. Despite the chaos, I loved the city’s vibrance, especially in its back streets and markets.

Khan el-Khalili Bazaar

My fondest memories of Cairo are exploring Khan el-Khalili Bazaar, a labyrinth of narrow passageways in the city’s historic center. We got lost a million times, but it was great fun. Little shops sell everything from jewelry to home hardware. I ended up leaving with a leather footstool after endless bargaining and copious cups of peppermint tea.

El Fishawy Cafe

Nestled in the middle of Khan el Khalili, Cairo’s oldest cafe dates back to 1773. El Fishawy’s decor and beautiful old mirrors are a delight. It’s popular among Cairenes and tourists, but when we were there in 2011 we were the only obvious non-locals. The second photo below of Mike and Alex is a goofy reminder of how we stuck out like sore thumbs. The staff and patrons were super friendly and helpful, and I’m sure they had a good chuckle about us. I wrote a detailed post about our visit to fascinating el Fishawy.

Siwa Oasis

750 dusty kilometres from Cairo, the oasis town of Siwa is one of the most isolated settlements in Egypt and feels like a step back in time. We were the only guests in our hotel and saw just a handful of foreigners wandering through town and eating at Abdu’s Restaurant, a favourite of local guides and travellers. We loved Siwa’s unhurried vibe, crumbling historic sites, and incredible location at the edge of the Great Sand Sea. We had our choice of great local guides, and we befriended Achmed from Abdu’s who ended up hanging out with us on his afternoon off. Learn more about Siwa in one of my early posts.

The White Desert

We had an amazing time on our entire Egypt trip, but our camping safari in the White Desert tops the list. For three days, we explored the dazzling white landscapes of eroded rock with local guide Magdy Badrmany. We ate traditional Bedouin fare and slept under the stars, shielded from the wind by a colourful Egyptian design screen. We encountered no other visitors, only a few camel caravans. It was magical. You can see more of our White Desert trip in my original post.

The Valley of the Kings

On our first day in Luxor, our camera battery died and we were unable to find a replacement. Unbelievably, just ten years ago, we didn’t bring cell phones on our trip! I only have two reasonable quality photos, both from our visit to the Valley of the Kings. I take some solace in the fact that no photos were allowed inside the beautiful tombs (I believe that has changed now if you buy a special photo pass). The upside, like in other places, was that we had the complex virtually to ourselves and could explore in complete peace. I’m glad we got a photo of the under-utilized guides vying for the few tourists. They had plenty of time for laughs with us, and we hired one of them for a tour. I realize how important photos are to me and for my memory of places. I remember so much less about Luxor than other places we visited. I would like to return.

We ended our time in Egypt with a few days in the laid-back Red Sea resort of Dahab. Again, I have no photos, but I do have wonderful memories of snorkelling and diving in crystal clear water and enjoying the town’s eclectic, bohemian charms. You can read more about Dahab here.

So, where are all these places I’ve featured?

Have you been to Egypt? Do you have a favourite memory? If you haven’t visited, I highly recommend it for a post-pandemic trip.

Categories: Egypt | Tags: , , , , , , | 49 Comments

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49 thoughts on “Remembering Egypt: 10 years after the revolution

  1. Dr Adel Zakhary

    As an Egyptian, I am very delighted with both your visits and the wonderful places you mentioned. You should also try the night life, plenty of new eateries around, including the tourist-coveted Koshary. Looking forward to your next visit!

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  2. Caroline, I have to say it takes guts not to cancel in the wake of a revolution – as you said the reward was an unforgettable experience at a specific time in Egypt’s history. The utter lack of crowds at all the major sights must have been such a bonus (though as you said, not so good for those dependent on tourism for their livelihoods). A couple months before I moved here to Jakarta there was a terrorist attack at a downtown intersection (on a police post and a Starbucks + Burger King next door), and some of my relatives hurriedly cancelled an upcoming trip to Bali. They ended up going on a beach holiday in the Maldives instead, which they enjoyed although they did complain a little about how expensive it was. Unlike you and Mike, they went the predictable resort-island route!

    I especially love your photos from Cairo. Its back streets and markets look so ancient – as though the walls are dripping with history – and yet they are so full of life. And the night skies out in the White Desert must have been something else! Funnily enough, Bama and I recently spent one weekend watching a movie or documentary related to Egypt (without meaning to) each night from Friday to Sunday. For both of us the country is right there at the top of our wish lists!

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    • Guts or stupidity? It was a really difficult decision and we went back and forth multiple times. I was the instigator and fed Mike with daily positive “news from the ground” info that I gleaned from several sources, including the helpful online Lonely Planet Thorntree forum. Once there, we were super careful about heeding local advice about avoiding large gatherings and where not to go. We never witnessed any upheaval or demonstrations. As I’ve mentioned to a number of other people, I think we were really lucky.
      I hope your relatives ended up visiting beautiful Bali another time. The Maldives is a pretty nice consolation prize 😉. We all have different levels of risk tolerance and no use going somewhere if you’re living in fear the whole time.
      I’m glad the documentary series has further whet your appetite for Egypt. At least we can still do armchair travel these days.

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  3. Such a wonderful review of your visit Caroline. Love your Old Cairo photos in particular. We so regret having skipped the Siwa oasis and the White desert. Hope to remedy that someday.

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    • Thank you Madhu. Old Cairo is such an atmospheric place. I can still feel the allure of walking through those convoluted and crowded passages. I hope you get back to Egypt. A trip into the desert is totally worth it.

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  4. What beautiful travel memories of a very specific time in Egypt’s history, Caroline. I’m so glad you decided to go when so many tourists stayed away. Although heart wrenching for the people who depend on tourism, there is something really special about not having to contend with masses of people. Some of my best travel memories are of visiting places while travel bans kept most people away. I love your photos of Siwa and the white sand desert – it is gorgeous. I have such a weak spot for the desert!

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    • Timing, whether it’s travel, career or other aspects of life, is key isn’t it? Sometimes we have control over it, other times it’s just luck. The Egypt trip was a little of both. It really was remarkable to visit this country without the masses and before citizens became disillusioned with the new regime (and the devastation of the tourism industry).
      I know you are another desert lover Jolandi. I find it a very soothing landscape to visit (perhaps not to live in). And maybe it’s just because I crave the warmth and dryness being from a place that’s often cold and wet.

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      • Yip, timing is definitely key, and like you point out there is often a fair amount of luck involved in it.
        Your explanation of why you think you love the desert got me thinking, Caroline. I’m not sure why I love the desert the way I do beyond the fact that I also find it to be very soothing, but I do recall how, with my first encounter with one in Namibia, I fell head over heels in love with it. It was before digital cameras, and I can remember how I struggled to stop myself from taking pictures, as I was overly aware of not just the fact that I had a limited amount of film, but also the cost of developing those photos. And every time I thought I had the perfect shot, something else got my attention. Remember those days?

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        • I adore Namibia!!! The desert there is so incredible. I was thinking just the other day I should do a post about my travels there (from before my blogging days).

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          • I completely agree with you, it is one of my favourite places on earth. And yes, you should definitely do a post, Caroline. I would love to see it through your eyes.

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  5. So jealous that u got to siwa. Amazing photos and just incredible that the Arab Spring is already ten years ago !

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know! I’m still processing how ten years went by so quickly. The long drive to Siwa was totally worth it! I think the nine hours of bleak, flat, featureless desert makes the excitement of arriving at an oasis even more special. It’s a really unique place. Hope you make it there, Andy. I’m still in touch with a great desert guide if you ever need a contact.

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  6. Wow, looks like you had an amazing trip exploring Egypt and seeing so many different attractions, the last surviving of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – the Pyramids of Giza – including. I’ve never been to Egypt but would love to visit one day to explore its temples and tombs. I would most likely go crazy and stock up on as many ceramics, textiles, spices, and perfume as possible. Thanks for sharing such beautiful travel photos and have a good day. Our lockdown has been extended for another six weeks, so that’s another month of no schools, travel or seeing family and friends! How are things in Vancouver? I hope all is well. Aiva 🙂

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    • My guys have very little patience for shopping. I would have done a lot more damage in the Cairo markets had I been with my sister or a friend. As you mention, there are so many lovely things to buy. Perhaps just as well; my house is jammed with travel trinkets!
      Our schools and shops are open here in Vancouver, but we are told by our health officials to keep to our household bubble and avoid travel beyond our local area. Sadly, not everyone heeds this advice, particularly in the dead of winter when many Canadians like to escape to warmer places. I have just heard on the news that Canadian airlines are suspending all flights to “sunny destinations” until the end of April. I am quite happy to play in the snow close to home. Take care Aiva!

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  7. Wow! How is this place real? I actually exclaimed aloud when I saw the mushroom and bird formation. So incredible, what an experience! I’ve never felt a huge desire to go to a Egypt, but camping in the desert amongst scenery like that looks like an experience that would make it worth the trip!

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    • I still feel that way when I look at those incredible white rock formations. I’ve now visited many different deserts around the world, and I can honestly say that the White Desert is totally unique. Before our trip, I was a little apprehensive about the camping excursion as I’d only had a few brief email conversation with our guide who understandably had difficulties with written English. All worked out amazing though.

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  8. It must have been a tough decision on whether to go or not but as you say it turned out to be a perfect time. The white desert looks astounding. although we have visited our share of big cities, even your photos of Cairo make me a bit anxious. We have not been to Egypt but certainly have heard many wonderful things about it.

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    • It was a tough decision Sue, and I’m still a bit surprised we went; we are usually fairly risk averse. Even though we live in a large city by Canadian standards, visiting big cities like Cairo, as you know, is a shock to the system. It always takes me a few days to get accustomed (sort of) to the masses of humanity, traffic, noise, pollution…I quite enjoy visiting these cities that are so different from what we’re used to here. Don’t let Cairo scare you; Egypt is an amazing country to visit.

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  9. Fantastic country! I was scheduled to visit again last year but COVID put the trip on hold. Hopefully, I get there again soon!

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    • I hope so too. Our son was still very young when we went so we mostly did easy shore dives/snorkelling in Dahab (which was great). I know you’ve had some incredible Red Sea diving adventures. Egypt really is an amazing travel destination with so much so see and do. Thanks for your comments.

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  10. Wow.. What a great post, Caroline! Lovely captures!

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  11. This brought back so many memories! We got to most of these places, but not to the White Desert, which looks amazing! I can see why you’d have it at the top of the list. Like you Egypt remains one of the highlights of all our travels.
    Alison

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    • I’m glad the post brought back memories of your own trip, Alison. I remember some of your fabulous posts and how much you also enjoyed Egypt. I feel like there is so much of the world left to see, but Egypt is a place I’d gladly return to—we just scratched the surface.

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  12. Ahhh Egypt! One of the countries I’ve been dreaming of visiting for the longest time. I remember Alison’s post about going there after the revolution and her experience sounds quite similar with yours. When you said about the importance of photos to you, that made me think of my trip to Europe back in 2007. I only had a small pocket camera which could only store less than 100 photos, and I didn’t bring a laptop or anything to copy the photos from the memory card. So in the end, I spent most of my one-month stay there without any camera in hand. Now I kind of regret it because it turns out I really enjoy looking at the photos I took from my past travels which often bring back a lot of fond memories.

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    • Bama, I’m sure you’d love Egypt. I hope you get there when this crazy pandemic is finally over. As you know, the Great Pyramids and The Valley of the Kings are just the top attractions among the incredible array of historical sites. We also visited several fascinating lesser known pyramids near Cairo and some interesting sites near Siwa, reportedly built by Alexander the Great. I can just imagine you delving into all that history.
      It really is amazing how far we’ve come with photo technology in recent years. As much as photos are important to me, and I still regret missing out on photos during parts of our Egypt trip, I need to remind myself sometimes to just look and enjoy my surroundings without constantly taking photos. A fine balance, right!?

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  13. I’ve been wanting to visit Egypt for some time now. There is so much history and neat things to see and experience. The landscape and formations in the White Desert are simply stunning. That’s too bad that your camera battery died. I’ve had this happen a few times when I first started travelling and now always carry a small battery pack in case I need to recharge my phone (which is usually my primary source for taking pictures nowadays).

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    • I really hope you get to visit Egypt. It is known for its incredible history, but as you can see there are also plenty of natural attractions, interesting cities/villages, diving/snorkeling, Nile River excursions…I’m sure you’d love a White Desert trip. We also found the people very warm and friendly. I too now carry a battery pack for my phone (I’ve come a long way in ten years!).

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  14. I’m not sure I would have still gone, but it looks like it was the ideal time to go! I’ve never seen pictures like your’s of the White Desert. Those sand/rock formations are incredible. And I love the idea of camping, especially when I see how the set up your lunch spot with the colourful rugs as shelter. Funny that it was just 10 years ago and no cell phones, now you wonder how we got anywhere in these places without GPS, but getting lost and asking locals for directions was half the fun! But that’s really too bad about your camera battery, I guess you’ll have to go again! Maggie

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    • We did agonize about our decision to go, and thankfully good luck was on our side. The camping experience was incredible. We slept on those rugs too. It hasn’t been often that I’ve slept outside without any kind of enclosure (tent) around me. It was pretty awesome looking up into the starry night sky. I think people were travelling with cell phone 10 years ago, but we were laggards. Except for the unfortunate lack of photos incident, I don’t recall it being a hardship.You’re right about it being fun to strike up conversations with locals when needing directions. I still find myself doing it, even with GPS.

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  15. You really did hit a sweet spot in time! What great memories and experiences you had. I am so eager to get to Egypt, but who knows now when that might be? I feel lucky to have at least seen parts of the Middle East (the streets, bazaars, and cafes could have been in Israel or Jordan!), but the pyramids and certainly the White Desert are so unique. Thanks for sharing (and being bold enough to go at the time)!

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    • You call it bold; some of my family/friends called it irresponsible. Thankfully, it all worked out. I would love to explore more of that part of the world. I visited Israel in my 20s and we went to Turkey for our honeymoon (both fascinating trips). Jordan is high on the list, as is Lebanon. For now, we’ll dream about those trips.

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  16. A very great trip. The White Desert is as surreal as anywhere on the planet, I’d guess.

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  17. The Valley of the Kings photo is amazing!!! Literally you had the place to yourself!!

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  18. Thanks for sharing your memorable trip, Caroline! The White Desert looks like a different planet. I’ve not even heard of it before. And I’ve always thought that Hanoi’s streets are chaotic. But it looks calmer in comparision to Cairo’s 🙂

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    • I’m really glad I learned about the White Desert in a documentary I stumbled upon about a year before the trip. I knew I had to see it. I’ve had scary street crossing experiences in other big cities, but Cairo has been the worst so far! Thanks for the warning about Hanoi; I’ll have to brace myself before visiting!

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  19. Fabulous photos! Looks like a wonderful trip.

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    • Thanks Carol! I think about that trip a lot and I’m really happy we got to see some of spectacular Egypt.

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      • I’ve never been but a few years ago I saw a film called In the Last Days of the City. The director, Tamer el Said, was present and took questions from the audience afterward. The movie part fictional and part autobiographical and all of the footage was taken in Cairo in the days leading up to the overthrowing of Mubarek. It’s an ncredible film if you can find it.

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  20. jawatson852

    Valerie and I worked in the UAE 1995-2000, based in Abu Dhabi, but my job took me throughout the country. Your photos bring back memories many parts of the Emirates as well as Oman and Jordan.

    Your tales of trouble crossing the street aligns with the advice we got early in our stay: cross only in the middle of the block, never at intersections, because in the middle of the block they can only come at you from two directions!

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    • Your time in the UAE must have been fascinating John. I must admit, I’m a tad jealous. I’d love to live/work somewhere different for a period of time (perhaps it’s not too late).
      Haha…I’m glad you also experienced street crossing difficulties, and learned the tricks. It was quite hair raising.

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