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Cairo - An Introduction

History of Cairo

On first impression, there is hardly a superlative too vast to capture the epic scale of this city of up to 16 million inhabitants that sprawls in all directions. The traffic, the people, the chaotic rhythm of Cairo will all reinforce this impression, threatening to overwhelm you. In many ways Cairo is the proverbial overgrown village, full of little districts and communities that feel much smaller and more intimate than the city of which they're part.

Like so much else in Egypt, Cairo's charm and beauty is a product of its history, its network of districts and communities the physical remains of a thousand years of being conquered and re-conquered by different groups.

Cairo's history begins with a Roman trading outpost called Babylon -- now referred to as Old or Coptic Cairo -- at the mouth of an ancient canal that once connected the Nile to the Red Sea. But it was the 7th-century AD Arab invaders who can be said to have founded the city we know today with their encampment at Fustat, just north of Old Cairo. Under their great leader 'Amr Ibn al-As, the Arabs took over a land that had already been occupied by the Greeks, the Persians, and the Romans. And in the millennium that followed 'Amr's conquest, the city was ruled by the Fatimids (969-1171), the Mamluks (1250-1517), and the Ottomans (1517-1798), and then experienced 150 years of French and British colonial administration until the revolution of 1952 finally returned power to Egyptian hands.

But what makes Cairo unique is that each new ruler, rather than destroying what he had conquered, chose to build a new city upwind from the old one. Thus, from a bird's-eye view above the Nile, you can follow the progression of the historic center of Cairo cutting a question-mark-shape path from Old Cairo in the south, curving north through Fustat, east to Islamic Cairo, and then west to the colonial Downtown district until you reach Maydan Tahrir (Liberation Square)

 

Sightseeing Overview

Most first-time visitors to Cairo understandably make a bee-line for the pyramids. Located in Giza, 18km (11 miles) from the city centre, they dominate the skyline of the city's suburbs as they dominate the imagination of travellers. But Cairo is about much more than these remarkable constructions. Indeed, you could spend months in what could arguably be called the capital of the Arab world and still only scratch the surface.

Some sections of the city are attractions in themselves. The narrow streets of Old Cairo, the Coptic quarter and Islamic Cairo are like museums of historical buildings, punctuated by mosques, edged by the city gates and presided over by the citadel. Meanwhile, the Khan al-Khalili, the city's main market (see Shopping), is the place to go to watch the people of Cairo go about their daily lives - especially from the vantage point of one of the many coffee shops or restaurants hidden in the warren of streets.

The Egyptian Museum of Antiquities is at the heart of the city, near Midan Tahrir, or Central Square. Dusty, and dated, this characterful old charmer, houses some of the most exquisite artefacts of antiquity. To the north is Bulaq, a district of medieval back streets along the Nile. To the south is Garden City, a tree-lined former British enclave of the wartime years. Another area worth exploring is the Nile island of Gezira, famed for its opera house and art museums, and for a fashionable area of bars and restaurants known as Zamalek.

 

Tips

When traveling around Cairo it is recommend to use taxis and the underground. With the taxis, always ask the taxi driver the fare price for all passengers before sitting in and mention that you will pay in Egyptian Pounds. When you arrive the taxi driver may ask for a bakhshish (tip), but just pay the amount agreed and walk away. This is the way of Cairo, and as such it is not considered rude to walk away.  
Underground is usually overcrowded, but it is easy to use, cheap and safe. The name of the stations is written in English. The only inconveniences are the heat and the crowds.


Tourist Information
Egyptian Tourist Authority
5 Sharia Adly, Midan Opera
Tel: (02) 391 3454.
Website: www.egypt.travel
Opening hours: Daily 0830-2000 (0900-1700 during Ramadan).

There are also offices at Cairo Airport (all terminals), the Pyramids, Pyramids Street (tel: (02) 383 8823) and Giza and Rameses Railway Stations.

There is no tourist office for Cairo itself but there is a dedicated Tourist Police hotline (126) and an official website for Cairo's Islamic monuments (website: www.cim.gov.eg).
Passes
There are no dedicated tourist discount passes in Cairo.

 

What to see and do in Cairo

Egyptian Museum of Antiquities

With more than 120,000 artefacts spanning Egyptian history from the earliest dynasties to the Roman era, the Egyptian Museum represents the largest collection of its kind in the world. It would take several months to see every exhibit. A minimum of three to four hours is necessary to take in the highlights and, if time allows, the museum is best appreciated on successive half-day visits. The collection was first assembled by the French archaeologist Auguste Mariette in 1858. The top attractions are the Tutankhamun Galleries, which display the gold and gem-inlaid funerary mask and 1,700 other treasures found in the tomb of the Boy King (restricted access), and the Royal Mummy Room, which contains the corpses of 11 of Egypt's most powerful pharaohs including Seti I and his son Ramses II. Room 27 displays intricate models of ancient life on the Nile during the Middle Kingdom, while the Old Kingdom Rooms contain beautiful statues and death masks from Giza and Saqqara. The Akhenaten Room, Jewellery Rooms and animal mummies are also fascinating. 

Midan Tahrir
Tel: (02) 578 2248 or 2452.
Website: www.egyptianmuseum.gov.eg
Admission charge (additional charge for Mummies' Hall); photographic charge. 

 

Pyramids of Giza

One of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the pyramids of Giza are Egypt's prime tourist attraction. First impressions can disappoint, partly because many visitors find them smaller than anticipated now that the city has begun to engulf the surrounding area, and partly because it's hard to enjoy them without being molested by persistent salesmen. That said, the longer the visit, the more powerful the pyramids become.

The Great Pyramid of Cheops was completed in about 2600BC and is the oldest on the site, and the largest in Egypt. It stands 136.4m (447.5ft) high and is made from an estimated 2.5 million limestone blocks. It was built to house the sarcophagus of King Cheops (or Khufu to give him his proper Egyptian name), although it is not known whether he was ever actually buried here. Nearby are three smaller pyramids built for the king's queens, and beyond are the two other large pyramids, those of Chephren and Mycerinus. Chephren was the son of Cheops and popular belief has it that he had the idea of building the Sphinx, to stand guard by his own tomb and that of his father. Some archaeologists say that this is not the case, and the Sphinx may even be some 2,600 years older than the pyramids themselves. Surrounding the pyramids are many smaller tombs and while there, one should also visit the Solar Boat Museum, which houses a superbly preserved wooden boat found near the Great Pyramid. There are daily sound and light shows (tel: (02) 385 2880), check times for different languages.

Pyramid Road, 18km (11 miles) southwest of central Cairo
Admission charge.
 

Coptic Museum

Situated in a lovely garden within the former Roman fortress of Babylon-in-Egypt, the Coptic Museum features Coptic art from the Christian era (AD300-1000). Among the highlights are the exquisite Coptic textiles, carved ivories, papyri (ancient paper) with text from the Gnostic gospels of Nag Hammadi, and Nubian paintings from the flooded villages of Lake Nassar. The ornate rooms are decorated with beautiful mashrabiyya (carved wood) screens, fountains and painted ceilings.

Sharia Mari Girgis, Old Cairo
Tel: (02) 363 9742 or 362 8766.
Website: www.copticmuseum.gov.eg
Admission charge. 

 

El-Muallaqa Church (the ‘Hanging Church')

Possibly dating back as far as the fourth century, el-Muallaqa is the oldest Christian place of worship in Cairo. It is called the ‘Hanging Church' because it is built on top of a Roman gate and reached by a stairway that leads to the courtyard. The beautiful interior features three barrel-vaulted aisles, altar screens of inlaid ivory and bone and an exquisite, carved marble pulpit supported by 13 pillars representing Christ and his disciples.

Sharia Mari Girgis, Old Cairo
Free admission, donations welcome. 

 

Bab Zuwayla

The southern gate of Bab Zuwayla is all that remains of the Fatimid city of el-Qahira. Executions took place here in Mamluk times but in the 19th century it acquired a happier reputation when a local saint, Mitwalli, performed miracles near the gate. To this day, people seeking healing nail a lock of hair or piece of clothing to the gate in hopes of receiving divine aid. Rising above the gate are the minarets of the Mosque of el-Muayyad, which offer some of the finest panoramic views in Cairo from the top. The mosque contains a shady courtyard and the mausoleum of the Sultan el-Muayyad and his son, who began building the mosque in 1415.

Sharia Darb el-Ahmar, Islamic Cairo
Admission charge for the mosque; baksheesh for the minarets. 

 

Bayn al-Qasryn
In medieval times, Bayn al-Qasryn was the leading public square in Cairo, bustling with market stalls and entertainers. Today, it is lined with three Mamluk palace complexes, which form a harmonious and impressive façade. The finest, the Madrassa and Mausoleum of Qalaun, is also the earliest, completed in 1279. The mausoleum is stunningly decorated with an elaborate stucco arch bearing stars and floral motifs, ornate coffered ceilings and stained glass. The Mausoleum of an-Nasir Mohammed (1304) and the Madrassa and Khanqah of Sultan Barquq (1386) also boast fine architecture and decoration. Incidentally, a madrassa is a theological school, while a khanqah is a monastery.

Sharia el-Muizz, Islamic Cairo
Admission charge.
  

Bayt el-Suhaymi
Behind an unassuming facade is one of Cairo's finest houses, Bayt el-Suhaymi. Dating from the Ottoman era, it offers a glimpse of the lifestyle of well-to-do merchants during the 16th and 17th centuries. The maze of rooms on different levels feature an ornate first-floor harem with mashrabiyya screens overlooking the garden and an impressive ground-floor reception room where men were entertained with music and dancers.

19 Haret Darb el-Asfar, Islamic Cairo 

 

Citadel (el-Qal'a)
Nothing remains of Salah ad-Din's original 12th-century palace but the mosques and palaces atop this limestone outcrop reflect 700 years of Cairo history. The fortifications were first built to repel the Crusaders and became the royal residence for sultans well into the 19th century. The Mohammed Ali Mosque, with its huge central dome and four semi-domes, towers over the city. The enclosure also contains the Mosque of al-Nasir, Yusuf's Well and several small museums. The views over Cairo from the Citadel are outstanding.

Islamic Cairo
Admission charge.

 

Gayer-Anderson House (Bayt el-Kritliya)
The Gayer-Anderson House was the home of an English doctor to the royal family, who lived here from 1935-42. He restored two 16th-century houses, joined them together and filled them with exquisite decoration, furniture and oriental objects. The mashrabiyya-screened women's gallery overlooks the magnificent reception room with its central fountain, arguably the finest in Cairo.

4 Midan Ahmed Ibn Tulun, Islamic Cairo
Admission charge.

 

Ibn Tulun Mosque
Of all the mosques in Cairo, this is the one that should not be missed. Completed in 879, it is the oldest intact mosque in the city. The huge structure, built of mud-brick and wood, covers 2.4 hectares (6 acres) but is simple in decor. It is a unique example in Cairo of classical Islamic architecture inspired by Iraqi models, having been built by Ibn Tulin, who was sent to rule Cairo by the caliph of Baghdad. The pointed arches are the first of their kind. The views from the top of the spiral minaret are magnificent.

Sharia el-Salibah, Islamic Cairo
Admission charge.

 

Islamic Art Museum
This museum houses one of the world's largest and finest collections of Islamic art, dating from the seventh to the 19th centuries. The rooms contain carved woodwork and columns, mosaic fountains, metalwork and other architectural exhibits salvaged from crumbling mosques and mausoleums throughout Egypt. Some of the finest pieces are located in the central hall.

Midan Ahmad Mahir (Bab el-Khalq), Port Said Street, Islamic Cairo
Tel: (02) 390 1520.
Admission charge.

 

Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan
Covering 7,900 sq m (85,000 sq ft), this is one of the largest mosques in the world and the finest early Mamluk structure in Cairo. It was built between 1356 and 1363 and encompasses a stunning courtyard, four madrassas (theology schools) and a mausoleum flanked by huge doors. Visitors should go in the morning when the sun lights up the dark mausoleum.

Sharia el-Qal'a, Islamic Cairo
Admission charge. 

 

Walking Tours
In fume-filled Cairo, there are few obvious walking tours on offer and none in the blistering summer months. However, personalised tours can be arranged through some of Cairo's cultural organisations, or the Community Services Association (tel: (02) 358 5284 or 358 0754; website: www.livinginegypt.org) and the American Research Center in Egypt (tel: (02) 794 8239; website: www.arce.org). MyWay Travel a.s. (tel: (012) 773 9149) offers a wide range of personalised and special interest tours, including walking tours. You can arrange official guides for individual tours through hotels and tourist offices, at a fixed hourly rate (plus a tip). Unofficial guides approach people in the street and range from the abysmal to the excellent. Personal judgement is all that can be used as the ID cards these ‘guides' wear are often fake. If unsure, decline politely but firmly. Be cautious, too, of people asking you where you are going and then telling you that it is closed. This is usually a preamble to being steered in the direction of a friend's shop instead.

 

Bus Tours
Any hotel will be able to offer the standard range of bus tours for guests, usually including the highlights of the Egyptian Museum, the Khan al-Khalili bazaar, the pyramids and the Sphinx. Alternatively, a local travel agent, such as American Express (tel: (02) 570 3411), Misr Travel (tel: (02) 393 0011; website: www.misrtravel.net) or Thomas Cook (tel: (02) 574 3955/776; www.thomascookegypt.com) can also arrange tours. Safari Egypt (tel: (02) 393 6727/8; website: www.safariegypt.com) offers full day sightseeing tours of the city with professional guides and many language options. 

 

Boat Tours
Several top-end hotels run nightly Nile dinner cruises on their own boats. These last around two hours and include buffet dinner and local-style entertainment including belly dancing. The most famous of these cruises is aboard the Pharos, operated by the Oberoi Hotel
 

Restaurants in Cairo

Many of the better restaurants in Cairo, frequented by locals as well as visitors, are found in the international hotels. Food in Egypt is cheap, so you will rarely have to pay more than US$35 for a three-course meal (without wine). Imported drinks are considerably more expensive than the local version. Tax and tips are added to the prices listed on the restaurant and can bump the bill up by 20-25%. 


Andrea Restaurant 
Andrea, tucked out of the way in Giza, near the pyramids, is a traditional Egyptian grill with a shady garden terrace, indoor dining room and cellar bar. A popular lunch spot for local families, tempting the tastebuds from the moment you step out of the taxi with the smell of chicken, quails and kofte sizzling over a charcoal grill and fresh baked bread from the clay oven. The meats are backed up by a wide selection of meze. Wine and beer are served but there are no desserts. Friday lunch in the gardens is an Egyptian family tradition. On late nights in winter, the restaurant transforms itself into a chic nightclub. Make sure you get the right place - many imitations have borrowed the name. Reservations essential.

59-60, Maryutiya Canal
Tel: (02) 383 1133.
 

Aqua Restaurant 
Two large aquaria welcome you into this sleekly modern restaurant where a sushi bar complements delicious seafood, the recipes ranging from the traditional (lobster thermidor) to Pacific fusion (pan-seared salmon pagoda with foie gras and teriyaki sauce). Non-seafood and vegetarian options are also available. Homesick Americans may prefer Steaks, with a traditional steakhouse menu from buffalo wings and Caesar salad to, of course, steak - in many guises.

Four Seasons, 1089 Corniche el Nil, Garden City, Roda Island
Tel: (02) 2791 7000.
Website: www.fourseasons.com/caironp
 

Khan El-Khalili Restaurant & Naguib Mahfouz Coffee Shop
Set in the heart of the Khan al-Khalili market, this is an atmospheric indoor restaurant that makes an ideal place for a midday break from shopping in the 1,000 or so shops of Cairo's great bazaar. The food is traditional Egyptian (take your time and work through a variety of meze), the service charming, the cleanliness excellent (the restaurant is run by Oberoi, who also run the Mena House Hotel) and the restaurant is blessedly air-conditioned. The coffee shop, which offers light meals and snacks, is named after Egypt's Nobel prize-winning novelist, who set many of his works in this area. The coffee shop continues to pride itself on its clientele of local artists and intellectuals. Booking advised for dinner.

5 El Baddistan Lane, Khan al-Khalili
Tel: (02) 590 3788 or 593 2262. 
 

La'Aubergine
Billing itself as Cairo's only vegetarian restaurant (although you can find vegetarian dishes anywhere serving Egyptian or Middle Eastern cuisine), this British-owned Mediterranean-style establishment has become a popular meeting place for travellers and trendy Cairenes alike. Soups, salads and pastas are the staples of a regularly changing menu and there are a few fish and meat dishes thrown in to keep carnivores happy. The atmosphere is dark and intimate at night, lit by candles, while the upstairs bar also proves popular. Reservations essential.

5 Shar'a Sayed al-Bakry, Zamalek
Tel: (02) 332 0080.
 

Revolving Restaurant
It is worth arriving early to admire the sunset from the cocktail lounge on the 40th floor of the Grand Hyatt Hotel, before heading up one more floor to the Revolving Restaurant, with Cairo spread out at your feet like a tapestry of light. More suited for intimate dinners for two than large parties, as the tables are fitted round the central platform, the setting is incomparable and an inspiring French haute cuisine menu more than measures up. If you prefer staying at ground level, head down to the casual indoor and outdoor El Sakya terraces, with Japanese, Italian, Indian and seafood restaurants and tables right on the Nile's edge.

Grand Hyatt, Corniche el Nil, Garden City, Roda Island
Tel: (02) 365 1234.
Website: www.cairo.grand.hyatt.com 
 

Shopping in Cairo

Shopping can be great fun in Cairo, whether for an everyday souvenir or for something a little more valuable. Painted papyrus scrolls, often embellished with hieroglyphics, are popular and perhaps a little more tasteful than stuffed camels or models of the pyramids. Egypt may be rich in antiquities, but it is not rich enough to supply the thousands of vendors who will sidle up to visitors offering a furtive glimpse of a ‘genuine antique'. In any case, it is illegal to export genuine antiquities without a licence.

Among the items that do make attractive legal souvenirs are jewellery, perfume, leather goods, brass and copper items, and herbs and spices. Almost anything can be found in the city's main market, the Khan al-Khalili in Islamic Cairo. While this is on every tour itinerary and there will be hundreds of shopkeepers and touts to deal with on arrival, it is a vast place and most visitors do not venture into its interior, where the local people do their own shopping. Silks, jewellery, spices and hand-made gellibayas (long robes) make good purchases, as do perfumes from the Perfume Bazaar area. Many French perfume houses source their supplies from Egypt, and in the bazaar pure essential oils are for sale.

The Street of the Coppersmiths (An-Nahassin) is naturally the place to go to find a good choice of brass and copperware. Large engraved brass trays are popular and can be bought complete with a wooden stand to turn them into a coffee table. More easily transported are cups, bowls, plates and ornamental trays.

Gold and silver are widely available and not expensive, provided you bargain the price down a little (see below). However, local taste tends towards the gaudy or the mock-ancient, incorporating hieroglyphs, pharoah's heads and scarab beetles, so it may be a hunt to find something more unusual. In addition to the Khan al-Khalili, the jewellery shops on Sharia Abdel Khalek Sarwat and on Sharia al-Muizz li-Din Allah are good bets. This latter is in the Souq as-Sagha, or Goldsmith's Bazaar.

Normal opening hours for shops are Monday to Saturday from about 0900 to 2000 but in summer they close between roughly 1230 and 1600. Tourist shops often stay open later.

Haggling is a way of life, especially in the bazaars, and visitors should not be afraid to try. Prices are inflated for visitors anyway but remember that it is meant to be fun - not a fight to the death. If the final price is between half and two-thirds of the original asking price, then both parties should be happy.