Egypt is a land steeped in ancient history, and is home to a collection of UNESCO World Heritage sites of remnants of one of the world’s greatest civilisations. From the iconic Pyramids of Giza to the awe-inspiring temples of Luxor and the mystical Abu Simbel, each site holds a unique story and continues to draw tourists from around the world.
Egypt contains 7 UNESCO World Heritage sites in total, including the natural site of Wadi Al-Hitan (Whale Valley) which contains invaluable whale fossil remains, but here we explore Egypt’s 6 cultural UNESCO World Heritage sites. Each contain a plethora of fascinating and ancient buildings and monuments famous worldwide, and are synonymous with our view of Ancient Egypt, land of the pharaohs.
Hidden amidst the modern bustling city of Cairo is one of the world’s oldest Islamic cities. Originally founded in the 10th century as al-Mu’izziyya al-Qaahirah, it served as a seat of power and grew into the vibrant metropolis of al-Qahira, now known as Cairo. Cairo became a significant centre under the rule of Saladin and later the Mamluk Sultanate, reaching its zenith in 1340 as the largest city in the Islamic world, with a population of almost half a million. However, 14th century plagues and changing trade routes led to its gradual decline.
Historic Cairo was designated a UNSECO World Heritage Site in 1979. Situated on the eastern bank of the Nile, it encompasses over 600 classified monuments and buildings, ranging from the 7th to the 20th centuries. Notable landmarks include The Citadel of Cairo, constructed by Saladin in the 12th century, and the Mosque-Madrasa of Sultan Hasan, built between 1356-1363. Historic Cairo includes Coptic Cairo, which showcases the Ancient Roman Babylon Fortress, dating to around 30 BC.
The ancient city of Thebes was once the capital of Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom Egypt. Along with its famous Necropolis, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. Founded during the Early Dynastic period of Lower Egypt, some of its oldest surviving buildings are roughly 4,000 years old, dating from the 11th dynasty and the beginning of the Middle Kingdom. Ancient Egyptians referred to the city as Nowe or Nuwe (‘City of Amon’). Thebes played a crucial role in reunifying Egypt and initiating the New Kingdom in the 16th century BC.
During the last great Golden Age of Ancient Egypt, Pharaohs brought immense wealth from their conquests in Nubia and the Near East, leading to the construction of magnificent palaces and temples. The Valley of the Kings, located on the west bank of the Nile opposite Thebes was established during this period. However, Thebes declined, culminating in its sack by the Assyrians in the 7th century BC, dwindling to the size of a village by the Roman period.
Today, its ruins lie within the modern Egyptian city of Luxor. Many well-preserved structures continue to attract numerous tourists, including the Karnak Temple Complex (the main place of worship during the 18th dynasty), Hatshepsut‘s mortuary temple, Luxor Temple (connected to Karnak Temple by the Avenue of Sphinxes), Ramesseum (a memorial temple to Ramses II) and the Colossi of Memnon (two monumental statues of pharaoh Amenhotep III). Many of these sites have been renowned tourist attractions since ancient Roman times.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site consists of 11 monuments, found between the two temples of Abu Simbel and Philae. Remarkably only two monuments have remained in their original location, the rest were moved during the construction of the Aswan High Dam to protect them from flooding. The site gained its name partly from the Nubian people whose history was deeply intertwined with Ancient Egypt.
One of the most famous landmarks is the Abu Simbel – a remarkable collection of Ancient Egyptian monuments and rock temples constructed by Ramesses II around 1,279 BC to immortalise himself and honour the gods. The larger temple, known as the Great Temple, is dedicated to Re-Horakhti, Amon Ra and Ptah, as well as Ramesses and his wife, Nefertari. Carved into the sandstone, it features two rows of Osirid statues of Ramses, each one 30 feet high. The smaller temple, the Temple of Hathor, is devoted to the goddess Hathor.
The temple of Philae was a popular place of pilgrimage where people worshipped the goddess Isis, whilst the ruins of the Temples of Kalabsha are comparatively ‘new’, completed around 30 BC during Roman Egypt. Significant sites also include the Qasr Ibrim Fortress, the Temple of Dakka, the Temple of Beit al-Wali, the ancient Granite Quarries, the Temple of Maharraqua, the Temple of Amada, the Temple of Derr, the Roman Kiosk of Quertassi and the temple of Wadi as-Subua.
Located southwest of Alexandria in Egypt, Abu Mena is a historic Christian pilgrimage site and UNESCO World Heritage site. It was constructed in commemoration of early Christian martyr, Saint Menas of Alexandria, who died in 296 AD. His body is said to have been taken from Alexandria by camel and led into the desert beyond Lake Mareotis. At some point, the camel refused to walk any further – this was taken as a sign of divine will, and the body’s attendants buried it on that spot.
The tomb’s location was then thought to be forgotten until its miraculous rediscovery by a local shepherd, who is said to have seen a sheep healed by the site’s water, then used the water and dust from the tomb to heal sick people brought to him, including Constantine I‘s sick daughter. She is said to have found Menas’ body, after which Constantine ordered the construction of a church. The site was a significant destination for Christian pilgrims in the late 4th century, and Roman Emperor Arcadius ordered its expansion.
Today, there are very few standing remains, but the foundations of most major buildings such as the large basilica church and monastic structures can still be seen. The underground tomb of Saint Menas, adorned with stunning frescoes, is a notable highlight. Recent excavations have unveiled additional features such as a pilgrim dormitory and a complex of wine presses. However, the site is a risk due to land subsidence caused by excessive groundwater extraction, leading to efforts to preserve and protect Abu Mena’s valuable heritage.
The Ancient Egyptian city of Memphis was the first ever capital of a unified Egypt. Founded approximately 5,000 years ago by Pharaoh Menes, the settlement with its surrounding Necropolis have become one of Egypt’s most enduring icons, given UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1979.
Memphis served as the capital throughout the Old Kingdom (and in parts during the Middle and New Kingdom), and remained an important settlement up to the Islamic period. Memphis was surrounded by an ever increasing necropolis to the north and south, showcasing not only its administrative weight but also its role in the religious spheres of the Egyptian world as a city sacred to the Gods.
Whilst much of the city of Memphis has been lost to the sands of time, its surrounding Necropolis contains many of Egypt’s most famous graves, pyramids and temple ruins, including the famed stepped Pyramid of Djoser, the pyramids of Abusir, Saqqara and Dahshur, and the Giza Necropolis. Described as one of the seven wonders of the world, this site includes Khufu’s Great Pyramid at 145 metres high. Visitors can enter each of the pyramids or view them together from the dramatic panorama point, while the Great Sphinx is also located nearby.
This Eastern Orthodox Monastic complex, located on the Sinai Peninsula, is the oldest continuously inhabited Christian monastery in the world. The area as a whole became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002. The monastery stands at the foot of Mount Horeb where, the Old Testament records, Moses received the Tablets of the Law. The mountain is known and revered by Muslims as Jebel Musa, and the entire area is sacred to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.
Saint Catherine’s monastery itself was founded by Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I in 527 AD. The location was believed to have been the site of the burning bush observed by Moses on the lower slopes of Mount Sinai. The rugged mountainous landscape, containing numerous archaeological and religious sites and monuments, forms a perfect backdrop to the monastery.
Besides being the world’s oldest Christian monastery still in use for its initial function, Saint Catherine’s is also the home to the oldest still operating library in existence and renowned for having one of the largest collections of early Christian icons. The monastery library houses the second largest collection of early codices and manuscripts in the world, outnumbered only by the Vatican. Two of the most significant works found in the monastic complex are Codex Sinaiticus and the Syriac Sinaiticus, both dating between the 4th to 5th century.