Cairo is a vibrant, exhilarating, exotic, fascinating and welcoming city. Home to the best Pharaonic, Coptic and Islamic sights in Egypt, this city is where you never know what incredible, half-forgotten monument you might stumble across while wandering around. Enjoy the Nile view from your hotel room balcony, visit the capital’s medieval markets by Khan El-Khalili, or walk down the Nile promenade. There are also plenty of cinemas, theatres and modern malls. Go for an opera or enjoy oriental music dance shows. Good for short breaks and long stays; you’ll get to see the Giza Pyramids, thousands of ancient artifacts in the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities and much more.
The sole survivor of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Pyramids of Giza still live up to more than 4000 years of hype. Their extraordinary shape, geometry and age render them somehow alien constructions; they seem to rise out of the desert and pose the ever-fascinating question, ‘How were we built, and why?
Centuries of research have given us parts of the answer to this double-barreled question. We know they were massive tombs constructed on the orders of the pharaohs by teams of workers tens-of-thousands strong. This is supported by the discovery of a pyramid-builders’ settlement, complete with areas for large-scale food production and medical facilities. Ongoing excavations on the Giza Plateau are providing more and more evidence that the workers were not the slaves of Hollywood tradition, but a highly organized workforce of Egyptian farmers. During the season of the inundation, when the annual Nile flood covered their fields and made farm work impossible, the same farmers could have been redeployed by the highly structured bureaucracy to work on the pharaoh’s tomb. The Pyramids can almost be seen as an ancient job-creation scheme, with the flood waters also making it easier to transport building stone to the site.
The Citadel and Sayyida Zaynab
The view of the huge silver domes and needle-thin minarets of the Muhammad ‘Ali Mosque against the stark backdrop of the desert cliffs of the Muquattam is one of Cairo’s most striking visual icons. The mosque is just one feature of the Citadel, an immense fortified enclosure that housed the local power brokers from Salah al-Din, its 12th-century founder, to Napoléon in the 18th century and the British colonial governors and troops until their withdrawal in 1946. It served as the base of operations for Mamluk slave kings as well as for a series of sultans and pashas with their colorful retinues, including al-Nasir Muhammad’s 1,200-concubine-strong harem.
The Citadel commands wonderful views of the city—smog permitting. From there, you can visit some impressive monuments, including the amazing Mosque and Madrasa of Sultan Hasan, one of the largest such structures in the world, and the remarkably calm, austere Mosque of Ibn Tulun, one of Cairo’s oldest buildings.
The areas between these three mosques have been cut through with a series of main roads—including modern attempts to clear paths across the dense medieval urban fabric—and as a result, this part of the city lacks the coherence and charm of, say, Coptic Cairo or the area around Bab Zuwayla. Nevertheless, the scale and quality of these monuments is so impressive that if you have time to see only a few of Cairo’s Islamic treasures, the Citadel and the Sultan Hasan and Ibn Tulun mosques should be among them.
Islamic Cairo North
If the Mamluks hadn’t stopped the Mongols’ furious advance at Ain Djalout (Palestine) in AD 1260, Cairo, like Baghdad and scores of other towns, might have been left in rubble. As it is, Misr al Mahrousa—a popular appellation that translates as “Egypt the Protected”—offers one of the richest troves of Islamic architecture in the world. This is also because Cairo has been the capital of Islamic Egypt since its founding. Today the areas between Bab al-Futuh (Invasions Gate) and Bab al-Nasr (Victory Gate) in the north and the Mosque of Amr in the south are still home to a rare concentration of buildings that represents a continuous, evolving architectural tradition.
Unfortunately, Islamic monuments don’t attract as many visitors as pharaonic ones, and government funds for restoration haven’t been so generous. A great many buildings were seriously damaged in the 1992 earthquake (some areas still lie in ruins), but much of the al-Azhar area has undergone a facelift since the start of the new millennium. A walk along these time-warped streets studded with monuments from different eras offers a rare taste of the extravagant beauty that once characterized the heart of the city. It is a visit to the past, light years away from the behemoth that modern Cairo has become.
Islamic Cairo South
Here is a teeming, commercial area, more typically Egyptian and less geared toward tourism than the Khan area. But if you feel like shopping, you can find all sorts of postmodern “1,001 Nights” gear here, from pierced brass lanterns to Asian spices and teapots to pigeon-feather fans.
Anecdotes abound with regard to Bab Zuwayla, the southern gate of Fatimid Cairo: the severed heads of criminals were displayed there, warning of the perils of breaking the sultan’s law; a troll was said to live behind the massive door; and the surrounding area was the center of activity for crafty ladies of the night who sometimes held their customers for ransom. On the way to Bab Zuwayla and beyond is a wealth of monuments. As in Islamic Cairo North, many buildings here are being restored, but there are a few gems that you shouldn’t miss, culminating at the Museum of Islamic Arts, at the end of the walk.
Coptic Cairo (Mari Girgis)
The area known as Mari Girgis (St. George) is centuries older than the Islamic city of Cairo. But even calling it Coptic Cairo isn’t entirely accurate, because it includes an important synagogue and, nearby, some significant mosques. Known from the ancient historians as the town of Babylon, it was here that the Roman emperor Trajan (AD 88-117) decided to build a fortress around the settlement. At a time when the Nile flowed 1,300 feet east of its current course and was connected by way of canal to the Red Sea, the fortress occupied a strategic location.
Tradition holds that St. Mark brought Christianity to Egypt in the first century. The Christians of Egypt became the first in Africa to embrace the new faith, and they were persecuted harshly for it. Many fled to the desert or south to the Upper Nile Valley. Later, under the Byzantine emperors, the local Christian population—known as Copts (an Arabic derivative of the Greek word for Egypt)—came out of hiding and began building several churches within and around the town walls.
But harmony within the church was not to last; serious theological disputes about the unity of God (the Coptic view) versus the trinity of God (the Byzantine) arose between the Egyptians and Constantinople, and once again the Copts were threatened with persecution. So when the Arabs arrived across the desert, local Copts initially welcomed them as liberators from the tyranny of Byzantium, despite their religious differences. Fustat, the encampment that the Arabs established just outside the walls of Babylon, quickly grew into a major city, leaving the older town as an enclave for Christians and Jews.
Thus Coptic Cairo encompasses elements from all these eras: portions of the Roman fortress survive; within the walled city stand four churches, a convent, a monastery, and a synagogue that was originally a church; and the oldest mosque in Africa is nearby. The Coptic Museum has a collection of local Christian art that displays pharaonic, Hellenistic, and even Islamic influences. And there is a soothing quality to the neighborhood. In contrast to the big-city feel of downtown Cairo, or the hustle of the al-Husayn area, Coptic Cairo is relatively quiet and calm.
Downtown and Bulaq
In the middle of the 19th century, the slavishly Francophile Khedive Isma’il laid out this district on a Parisian plan across the old canal from Islamic Cairo, which until then had been the heart of the city. It quickly became the most fashionable commercial and residential district, lined with cafés and jewelers and settled by all the major department stores. In time, as new residential districts such as Garden City and Zamalek opened up, Downtown lost favor as a place to live. But it was, above all else, a colonial city—standing in proximity to traditional Cairo but self-consciously apart from it.
With the rise of Egyptian nationalism in the early 20th century, that could not last. Much of Downtown was systematically torched in antiforeign riots on Black Saturday in January 1952, in a spasm of violence that demonstrated how closely architecture was associated with colonial rule. The riots marked the beginning of the end for the foreign presence in Egypt: the revolution that overthrew the British-backed monarchy followed Black Saturday within months, and with it all the street names changed to reflect the new heroes. But it was the wave of nationalizations in the early 1960s that finally closed the colonial chapter Downtown, as those foreigners who had stayed on past the revolution lost their businesses, their way of life, and their place in a city that had never really belonged to them.
Downtown—called Wist al-Balad in Arabic—is still loved today, but more for its shoe stores and cinemas than for its architecture and the unique melding of cultures and influences that it once represented. Walking through the district gives you a sense of infinite discovery, of little fragments of a time and place now lost that haven’t quite been swept away by the changing politics. Although all the shops at street level have redecorated their own pieces of facade, look higher and the fin-de-siècle city comes alive. Sadly, most of the buildings are in an advanced state of decay, so you have to use a little imagination to re-create the neighborhood’s former glory.
Quite apart from the experience of downtown Cairo, the Egyptian Antiquities Museum is a lens through which to see the ancient world. And it is essential to any trip to Egypt. Its vast stores of treasures from ancient Egypt are as astonishing as they are daunting to take in.
In 1905, the Belgian industrialist Édouard Louis Joseph bought a swath of land northwest of Cairo. His plan was to build a new self-sustaining community in the desert with housing, shops, and recreation facilities, which came complete with luxuries like street lighting, water, and drainage plus a tram link to the capital. The town he called Heliopolis became a hit with upper-class Egyptians and expat movers and shakers. It remained an oasis of well-manicured mansions, of weekends at the country clubs, and of cocktail parties with the social elite until the coup d’état of 1952.
There are no particular attractions here. The early 20th-century palace modeled on Angkor Wat Temple that Empain built for himself now stands empty and isn’t open to the public. The grand Heliopolis Palace Hotel is now the presidential palace, set behind well-guarded walls. However, the downtown core—the Korba—a diminutive quarter of ornate colonnaded streets in neo-Renaissance style, is now gentrified with a smart coat of paint and is a lovely place to relax. The colonnades now house cafés, boutiques, and jewelry shops where the well-to-do families of the area stroll in the evenings.