Cairo is a modern city built on the ruins of older settlements. It’s links with what’s termed ‘ancient Egypt’ are different than cities like Luxor and Aswan, which exist almost solely because of ancient ruins. Yet Cairo is indispensable on a journey to Egypt. It is not merely the capital, but dominates the country because of its huge population, cultural influence, and government jobs. For those interested in ancient Egypt, the museum and the pyramids of Giza are the main attractions, followed by its close proximity to Saqqara, Memphis and Dashur. My wife and I recently visited Cairo to see my parents, and, naturally, take some time to see many of its sites.
The core of Cairo has been continuously inhabited since at least Roman times. Memphis, the ancient capital, lies about 30km south, where the Nile used to branch off into the Delta (now located north of Cairo). Cairo has grown into a massive city and now covers the area including the ancient city of On (Heliopolis), Giza, the Roman fortress of Babylon (not to be confused with Mesopotamia’s Babylon), and the Arab army barracks that grew into the city of Fustat. It relatively recently gobbled up the islands of Zamalek and Rhoda, and sprawled outward into the desert. Medieval Islamic Cairo was located north of Fustat and 19th century central Cairo was built closer to the current course of the Nile, where Khedive Ismail made a city of wider promenades, European style buildings and large squares. This ‘downtown’ now forms the core of the city and is where tourists go to visit the Egyptian museum.
Rachel and I took several days to visit different parts of Islamic Cairo, which is the part of the city built up from around 900 to 1500 A.D. The first day we went out I think we were so excited to be out of the house and seeing something new that we forgot to take the camera… thus, we’ve only low-quality cell phone pictures of that first day. We walked through parts of the City of the Dead, which is essentially a living cemetery. People live among tombs built for families over hundreds of years. Some of them are paid to take care of the tombs, others just use it because it’s cheap to live there. There are some fantastic Mosques (one of which, the Mosque of Qaitbey, is on the one-pound note) and within a few paces you can see the difference between Mamluk (intricate) and Ottoman (simple and sleek) styles. Tourists can walk around freely as long as they don’t act too conspicuously like taking photos of everything and acting like jack-asses.
A note about women travelers. At some tourist spots they can walk around freely in short sleeves and modest skirts, but in more traditional areas like Islamic Cairo it’s best to wear long-sleeved shirts and full length pants or skirts. A shawl is useful for covering hair when entering mosques. Some have shawls or other coverings they’ll give to female tourists when they enter. As always, the idiot tourists that wear hot-pants and small tank tops that either reveal flab or cleavage only embarrass themselves. The local Egyptians take great offense and you won’t be treated kindly.
Another great day was spent doing the walk from the Complex of al-Ghouri up Sharia Al-Muizz Li-Din Allah. The al-Ghouri Complex is fantastic, and has stunning views from the minaret of his mosque, as well as a madrassa and wikala (medieval inn or hostel). Walking up al-Muizz Street brings you alongside Khan al-Khalili, which is a great place to seek tourist trinkets, but which we went through on another day. Immediately after passing the Khan are the fantastic madrassas and mausoleums of Sultans Qalawun, an-Nasr Mohammed and Barquq, all of which display gorgeous architecture. The walk ends at the marvelous Mosque of al-Hakim and one of the old northern city gates (Bab el-Futuh).
Other days in Islamic Cairo were spent at the Mosque of Ibn-Tulun (something I failed to see on my first two trips to Cairo, but certainly worth a visit), the Tentmakers’ Market and Bab Zuweila (the old southern city gate), and the Mosques of Sultan Hassan (said to be one of the best in the world) and ar-Rifai by the Citadel (which we didn’t go into this time). As you can see, we spent a ton of time in the area, but it was spread out over about five days over three weeks. Anyone trying to see it all in one or two days is just going to get mosque tired, just as we got temple tired the last time we were in southern Egypt.
Built on the old Roman Babylon , Coptic Cairo is fascinating for anyone interested in Christian history, or those of us who just like looking at church art and architecture. The Holy Family is said to have sojourned in Egypt, and there are tons of so-called relics and holy spots where they may or may not have stayed. The churches (Church of St. George, Church of St. Sergius, Church of St. Barbara, Hanging Church) plus the Convent of St. George, a Synagogue, the cemeteries, and the Coptic Museum are all worth visiting. I’d suggest doing the museum on a separate day if you’re really interested in the area and its history after seeing the main sites, which take about two hours. The museum is quite large and has a lot of explanation for each section and most articles, so it can take a while to get through. The cemetery is a must see, even if it seems a little creepy. The tombs are quite extraordinary compared with the simple graves we have in North America. It’s open to the public, and picture taking is allowed. All of Coptic Cairo is packed close together through winding lanes, and the people there are quite friendly and will direct you where you need to go.
Built on top of the ancient city of On, Heliopolis takes its name from the Greek words ‘Sun City,’ since it was a place of worship for the sun. It was turned into a suburb for the wealthy over a hundred years ago. There are two or three main streets where the 1001 Arabian Nights style architecture is located, and one of them – Sharia al-Ahram – leads to the Presidential Residence (the Uruba Palace, formerly the Heliopolis Palace Hotel) on one end, and the grand Basilica on the other. Be careful taking pictures of the Mubarek’s residence. The soldiers, police and guards in Egypt will not let anyone take pictures of anything related to government: airports, bridges, Aswan High Dam, the Suez Canal, etc. One came across the street to holler at me. Non-uniformed, he said I couldn’t take pictures of ‘Mubarek,’ so I deleted it off my camera. They he saw a picture of the Basilica and he made the same gesture and speech. I told him to fuck off. All they want is bribes. He was going to get more guys to cross the street and harass us, but they were too lazy.
The Basilica gives you the feeling that you’ve again entered a different realm since it’s so unique, but a right turn leads to the Baron’s Palace, one of the most beautiful, odd buildings in the world. Built for Baron Empain in 1910, it was designed to look like a Hindu temple. To get there you have to cross a ridiculously busy divided road, which my sister refused to do. They drive fast in Cairo, so you have to cross without fear. After having it out with her, we all crossed safely. However, there’s a big fence around the palace these days. We still managed to get good pictures, but apparently there are no visitors allowed. (Back in 2002 there was no such fence or guards, so I walked right up to it. Laundry, perhaps from someone ‘guarding’ the palace, was hung in one of the balconies.) There are supposedly bats living inside and unstable areas, though it looks pretty solid from the outside.
Besides the street architecture, Basilica, and Baron’s Palace, Heliopolis is a decent place to stroll through the smaller streets and gaze at the homes of the wealthy. Those that aren’t completely blocked by 5m high hedges are quite something to behold. There’s an old movie theater from back in the pre-WWII days, the Normandy cinema, but unless you lived in Heliopolis at the time or are a cinema buff, it’s not worth spending any time on.
Not built-up until around the same time Heliopolis was redeveloped, Zamalek boasts Cairo’s opera house, the 185 meter-tall Cairo Tower for great views, and the Marriott Hotel. I’ve never been in to the opera house, but the tower deserves a visit. On a clear day, Cairo still has smog, but you should be able to see the pyramids of Giza to the southwest, the Citadel to the southeast-east, and downtown buildings like the Rameses Hilton, the Nile Hilton, the Egyptian Museum, etc, the Muqqatam Hills to the far east, and naturally, the Nile shimmering in the light. The Marriott is worth going to just to stroll in and order a drink on the patio. The building is beautiful, and so are most of the people there. Like many things in Egypt, it was built for Princess Eugénie of France, when she came to attend the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. A few days after Rachel and I saw most of Zamalek my parents brought us back to a leather shop just a short walk from the Marriott. Real leather jackets, belts and bags, made to order. Mmm, smelled good.
The Rest of Cairo
Being one of the most magnificent cities in the world, Cairo has many many more things to offer. For Rachel and I, hanging out with my family in Maadi Digla was a great way to relax, feel the warmth of the air and the Egyptian people, and spend quality time in a far-away world. The city is far to large to cover in one post, so I’ve ignored the obvious – the pyramids, the Citadel – and instead focused on what we saw that not everyone sees. Surely there are blogs that focus purely on Cairo, since there are literally hundreds of topics on which to write.