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Egypt Travelogue: pyramids, pharaohs and pastries

In Cairo, everyone drives without heeding the white lines on the road. They’re more like guidelines than actual rules. Looking out the window, past cars converging like an army of ants at the street corner, I can see apartment buildings looking worse for wear. Colorful laundry hangs outside most of the balconies and windows and scores of satellite dishes cover the roofs. People purposefully walk the metropolitan streets, cell phones at their ears. Egypt still contains the relics of ancient times, but now it has a culture all its own.

GroppiOne of the oldest and most famous pastry shops in Egypt is Groppi. This tearoom and patisserie has been a fixture in Cairo since 1891. Formerly Egypt’s principal purveyor to monarchs of the Middle East, Groppi is an artifact of the past, just as the pyramids are relics of ancient times.

The building Groppi has operated out of since the early 1900s, located downtown in Soliman Pasha square, features mosaic tiles on the outside and white marble on the inside, accented by a raspberry-colored ceiling and black cast-iron chandeliers. The shop includes glass display cases filled with an assortment of chocolate cakes, fruit drenched in syrup, finger-sized pastries and individual chocolates ornately wrapped in colorful paper, topped with tiny cloth flowers.

The bakers at Groppi stick to their roots by making traditional Egyptian pastries like basboussa, a sponge cake soaked in sugary syrup, and konafah, another sweet creation stuffed with nuts and honey.

The Valley of the Kings and the PyramidsA vast valley of sprawling hills and rock cliffs, the Valley of the Kings in Luxor contains the tombs of such rulers as Tutankhamun (King Tut), Ramses the Great, Seti I and Siptah. The Valley of the Kings and the site of the famous pyramids are some of the most tourist-packed spots in Egypt. Visitors can view the large glass model of the entire valley, including the locations of all the tombs, in the reception area.

Each tomb is different, but one thing is common to all three: hieroglyphics. They are carved and painted into the sandstone, covering every wall.

The Step Pyramid in Sakkara and the Great Pyramids of Giza tower above the crowds of tourists snapping pictures, Egyptian men in traditional galabias – full-length nightshirt-like garments – and those atop camels peddling postcards and souvenirs.

The Great Pyramids have eight sides instead of four. These four extra sides, extending outward at the middle, cannot be seen by the naked eye. If the sides were flat, as they seem to be, the pyramids would collapse.

Mahmoud MukhtarThe Cairo Museum is a tourist hotspot that celebrates the ancient Egyptian art found in temples and also houses the treasures of King Tut’s tomb. However, there are many museums – such as the Mukhtar Museum in Cairo – that are home to contemporary Egyptian art.

Mahmoud Mukhtar is considered the pioneer of modern sculpture in Egypt. Dr. Tharwat Okasha, the former minister of culture and national guidance, inaugurated Mukhtar Museum in 1962.

“The significance of Mukhtar basically lies in his being the first sculptor in the modern time to express, once more, in his works the personality of the country,” Okasha said.

Mukhtar’s statuettes, such as “Ponder” and “Reflection,” illustrate emotion in human form. Many of his sculptures also reveal the artist’s interest in the everyday tasks of Egyptian women of ancient times, including drawing water from the Nile River and balancing heavy loads on their heads.

One of his most striking works in the museum is “Tribute to Saad Zaghlul.” It’s a relief – a sculpture panel with a modeled form projecting outward – showing a crowd of Egyptians carrying former Prime Minister Saad Zaghlul, who holds his hand solemnly over his heart.

The most unusual aspect of the Mukhtar Museum is the fact that there’s a tomb inside – the one in which Mukhtar is buried.