It’s so easy to fall in love with a city when the history is as unique as Cairo’s. The crowds here may make Manhattan look like a ghost town, but it’s a small price to pay to experience the energy of the city Egyptians know as Umm ad Dunya – ‘the Mother of the World’. Use our guide to discover modern-day Cairo as you’ve never seen it before.
There is probably no other city in the world where modern architecture is topped by such a magnificent 4,000-year-old complex of royal pyramids, temples and causeways. Any trip to the Egyptian capital must start with these majestic creations. They go from Menakaure, the smallest pyramid, to Khafre, the second largest, to Khufu, better known as the Great Pyramid of Giza. To avoid the smog, head down in the afternoon.
A short drive to the city side of the Giza plateau takes you to the feet of the Sphinx, another enigmatic symbol of ancient Egypt. An aged marvel, the reclining lion with a human head sits proudly on the Nile‘s west bank. For thousands of years, the mysterious Sphinx has been looming over Giza, guarding the only remaining of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World. It has greatly inspired the imaginations of emperors, poets, artists, scholars and travelers for centuries, and remains a truly enigmatic feature of Cairo.
Back in the centre of Cairo, just outside Tahrir Square, visitors will find the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities (Midan El-Tahrir); one of the many museums in the city that invite people to explore Egypt’s glorious past. Definitely a must-see while in town, the museum houses a unique collection of more than 160,000 pieces of ancient Egyptian history. Take the time to browse through the museum’s chambers, dedicated to some of Egypt’s most prosperous dynasties, and discover what life was like during the reign of the Pharaohs.
Stretched for one mile, this side of Cairo is the oldest place of settlement and religious worship in the region, combining Islamic, Christian and Jewish histories. Taking in the warren of narrow streets, you will find yourself at a cultural and religious crossroads. Discover the Amr Mosque, the first one to be built in Cairo, the Ben Ezra Synagogue, dating back to the 9th century, as well as some of the world’s oldest churches, such as the Church of St. Gergius, or the Hanging Church of the Virgin Mary, erected in the 4th century.
Next we stop by this famed 4th-century church. It takes its name from the fact that it appears suspended, as it was built on the ruins of two old towers remaining from an old fortress, the Fortress of Babylon. The church is quite rustic, which is understandable considering its age, and has heavy doors, inlaid with ebony and ivory, and marble pillars. Its historical importance is due to the fact that it became the residence of the Coptic patriarchs of Alexandria, as well as having been the place to host many synods that determined when Easter should be celebrated.
Step into Medieval Islamic Cairo for an oriental fantasy trip into the land of spices, luxury fabrics and perfume. The area displays several monuments and mosques from the Islamic period, but its gem is undoubtedly the Khan el Khalili Bazaar. Established in the 14th century, it is one the world’s first markets, as well as a maze of winding and narrow alleys. Almost anything can be bought here and if one merchant doesn’t have what you’re looking for, he’ll happily find somebody who does. Don’t forget to haggle though!
Built in 970 AD, Al-Azhar is one of Cairo’s newer mosques, its sheikh being considered as the highest theological authority among Egyptian Muslims. The building has seen extensive enlargements over its thousand-year period, thus becoming a harmonious blend of architectural styles. The mosque exhibits three minarets dating from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, while the central courtyard is the earliest part built. The building also hosts the world’s second-oldest university, dating back to 988 AD, with its large modern campus as the most prestigious place to study Sunni theology.
Cairo’s charm derives greatly from its mishmash of different religions and cultures. This museum stands testimony to Cairo’s multiculturalism. Founded in 1908, the museum houses Coptic art, going from the earliest days of Christianity in Egypt up through early Islam. Displaying an elaborate woodcarving section, its galleries contain sculptures that show traces of the Ptolemaic period, rich textiles and entire walls of monastery frescoes. The first floor hosts the world’s oldest book of psalms, the Psalms of David, with two original wooden covers.
This 187 meter-high tower is Cairo’s second most famous landmark after the Pyramids. Commissioned in 1961 as a stylized lotus plant, the tower’s 360-degree views are best enjoyed late in the morning, after the smog of the city below burns off. Visitors can also book a table at the Sky Garden cafe, which sits one floor down from the observation deck and offers some great dinner-time panoramas.
No trip to Cairo is complete without a trip on the mighty Nile. You can choose between floating restaurants and nightclubs and cruise boats, but nothing really compares with a relaxing and rewarding river experience on board a felucca. Come dusk, when the call to prayer echoes around Cairo, board one of these traditional sailing boats and experience the marvelous serenity only the Nile can offer. Sailing down the same river Cleopatra did so many centuries ago is a real treat.