My Travel Guide to the Arab World
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Egypt: Cairo

Map of Central Cairo
Click for Cairo, Egypt Forecast

With a history dating back more than 5000 years, Egypt is home to one of the richest and most ancient civilizations in the world. The country has so much to offer, that one holiday is barely enough to scratch more than the surface.

Cairo is the heart and pulse of Egypt. Apart from its wealth of attractions, Cairo is a unique city experience in its own right.

Cairo is one of the world's great cities. It is like an open-air museum exhibiting several thousand years of history. Adding to Cairo’s appeal is the blending of ancient monuments and historical landmarks with the landscape of a modern, cosmopolitan city. Being at the crossroads of three continents, Cairo displays a mixture of Arab, African and European influences.

Cairo is a megalopolis; the home to more than 16 million souls and innumerable vehicles of all kinds. An environmentalist’s nightmare, the city has a chaotic charm that leaves no visitor untouched. The hurly-burly of Cairo’s overcrowded streets and alleyways has an intensity rarely seen elsewhere.

There is so much to see in Cairo, that hardly any description can catch it all. This short summary begins with the part of Cairo that lies to the east of the Nile.

Getting to and from Cairo:

Algiers airport

Cairo International Airport (CAI) is located in Heliopolis, 22 km northeast of central Cairo. The airport is the hub for the national carrier and Star Alliance member Egypt Air. More than 50 international airlines operate scheduled flights from Cairo to destinations in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, the Far East and Europe.

Terminals: Terminal 1 (also known as "Old Airport"). Terminal 2 (also known as "New Airport", currently closed for renovations). Terminal 3 (the newest and largest terminal).
A free shuttle bus links the two terminals.

Getting to & from Cairo: Several bus services run between downtown Cairo and the airport. For example, Bus no. 400 runs to/from Tahrir Square.

From the airport there is a shuttle bus service that can be booked online, or after arrival at the airport.

Taxis are available in both directions, and are recommended for good hagglers.

Public bus services in Algeria Buses to destinations all across Egypt leave from basically two places - the central bus station, called "Cairo Gateway", or in Arabic "Turgomaan Garage", and Midan Ramsis. The buses from Midan Ramsis are not recommended, as they are uncomfortable and accident-prone. The buses leaving from Cairo Gateway are air-conditioned and travel to destinations like Port Said, Ismailiya, Suez (about 2 hours), and a number of destinations in Sinai, like Sharm El-Sheikh and Nuweiba.
Algiers train station Egypt's national railway system extends from Alexandria and Damietta in the north, to Aswan in the south. Trains to the north depart from Ramses Station at Midan Ramsis. Trains to the south depart from Giza Railway Station.

Where to Stay:

hotels There are hotels in Cairo for every type of budget, from five-star luxury hotels to budget accommodation.

Some of the top-of-the-line 5-star hotels include:
Grand Hyatt, Four Seasons Cairo Nile Plaza, Conrad, Sheraton Cairo Hotel, Mena House Oberoi, Semiramis Intercontinental.

Among the many excellent 4-star hotels are:
Golden Tulip Flamenco Hotel, Shepherd Hotel, JW Marriott, Safir Hotel.

The Citadel

The area generally referred to as “Islamic Cairo”, contains some of the most interesting monuments of Cairo’s vibrant history. We begin at one of the main landmarks of Cairo; the Citadel. This imposing fortress was the seat of power in Cairo, for caliphs, sultans, wazirs and pashas, for some 700 years. The construction of the Citadel was begun by Salaheddin in 1176, to defend the city against the threat of the Crusaders. Built on a spur of the Muqattam Hills, the Citadel offers extensive views of Cairo. The Citadel was extended during different subsequent reigns, like the Mamluks and the Ottomans.

Mohammad Ali mosque on the Citadel
The Mohammad Ali Mosque is a dominant feature at the Citadel in Cairo.

The Citadel is divided into sections, where the Southern and Northern Enclosures are open to tourists. Dominant among the buildings of the Southern Enclosure is the Mohammad Ali Mosque. This 19th century Ottoman style mosque took 18 years to build. Other attractions within the Southern Enclosure include the 14th century Mosque of An-Nasir Mohammad, the only Mamluk structure left in the Citadel. Al-Gawhara Palace and Museum, is where Mohammad Ali used to reside. There is also a Police Museum. The Citadel offers views of the Midan Salah al-Din with the massive mosques of Sultan Hassan and Arl-Rifaa'i.

The Northern Enclosure houses the National Military Museum, which has an interesting scale model of the Citadel. Another part of the enclosure, for which there is a separate charge, houses two more museums and the Mosque of Suleyman Pasha, an Ottoman structure built in 1528.

Midan Salaheddin

Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo
Sultan Hassan Mosque at Midan Salaheddin. (© Garry)

Below the Citadel, at the square called Midan Salaheddin, are the two imposing mosques of Sultan Hassan and Ar-Rifaa'i. The Mosque of Sultan Hassan is a masterpiece of Mamluk architecture, which took seven years to build. The building was completed in 1363, one year after the sultan Hassan was murdered. The building was meant to serve both as a mosque and a madrassah (religious school), and rooms around the central court were used for religious education.

The Mosque of Ar-Rifaa'i is a 19th century structure built in a style that imitates Mamluk architecture. The mosque is noted for housing the tombs of king Farouk and the Shah of Iran. The mosque, which was originally a shrine of the medieval saint Ahmad al-Rifai, was built in two phases beginning in 1869. The work was not completed until Khedive Abbas Hilmi II ordered its completion in 1905. He entrusted the Austrian-Hungarian architect Max Herz with the task. Herz was at that time in charge of the "Committee for the Conservation of Arab Monuments in Cairo".

Some 200 m northwest of the Mosque of Sultan Hassan, on Sharia Suyufiya, is the Madrassah of Sunqur Sadi. This building, completed in 1321, used to house an order of the Mevlevi whirling dervishes, during the 19th century. They added a theatre, for the performance of their "zikr" (the dancing and chanting), which has been restored. The building is locally known as Hassan Sadaqa.

Mosque of Ibn Tulun

Ibn Tulun mosque in Cairo
The courtyard of the Mosque of Ibn Tulun.

Southwest of Midan Salaheddin is another extraordinary landmark, the Mosque of Ibn Tulun. Completed in 879, this mosque is the oldest, still used, Islamic monument in Cairo. Ibn Tulun was sent to rule Egypt by the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad. This explains why the mosque was built in Iraqi style. It is distinguished by its massive courtyard, in the centre of which is an ablution fountain, and its spiral minaret. The minaret can be climbed, and the top offers excellent views of the mosque and the city.

Al-Azhar and Khan El-Khalili

Al-Azhar is both a mosque and an Islamic university. Built in 970, during the Fatimid dynasty, Al-Azhar is the oldest university in the world. Muslim students from across the world used to come and study here. The Sheikh of Al-Azhar is the highest Islamic authority of Egypt, and the office has traditionally enjoyed great respect and influence across the Muslim world.

The mosque has been extended several times during its 1000-year history. The courtyard is the oldest part of the structure.

View of Islamic Cairo
View of Islamic Cairo.

Just to the north of Al-Azhar is Midan Hussain, a large square considered to be the centre of Islamic Cairo. The square is dominated by the mosque of Sayyidna al-Hussain. In this mosque is said to be buried the head of Al-Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Access to the mosque is limited to Muslims only.

Midan Hussain is also an entrance point to the legendary Khan-el Khalili, one of the largest bazaars in the world. Pulsing with commerce and crammed with items, this bazaar dates back to 1382. This overwhelming conglomeration of shops and markets offers practically anything that a visitor to Cairo would ever like to bring home. Bargaining skills are a must, with these, the most skillful salespeople one could ever imagine. The touts of Khan El-Khalili even use their own, secret language between themselves, so even if you are an expert in Cairene Arabic, you'll be left in the dark. Annoying touts aside, Khan El-Khalili makes for a unique shopping experience, one that shouldn't be missed.

Enjoy these panoramic views of Al-Azhar.

Mosque of Al-Hakim

North of Khan El-Khalili is the Mosque of Al-Hakim, dating back to 1010. The caliph Al-Hakim was feared during his 24-year rule for his cruel antics. Many people became the victims of his whims. Contrary to many other despots, he had no interest in public pomp, and used to patrol the streets riding on his donkey. Towards the end of his rule, Al-Hakim is said to have proclaimed himself divine.

A religious movement who believed in the divinity of Al-Hakim, came to develop during his reign. Later these become known as the Druze. Today, the Druze live mainly in Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. There are also expatriate Druze communities spread across the world.

The mosque has rarely been used for worship, and has, among other things, served as a prison, stables, warehouse and a boys' school. The Mosque of Al-Hakim is frequently visited by Bohras, an Indian sect of Ismaili Shiites. banner

The Museum of Islamic Art

At Midan Bab El-Khalq, at the intersection of Sharia Port Said and Sharia Mohammad Ali, is the Museum of Islamic Art. This museum exhibits Islamic Cairo with arts, ceramics, mosaics and calligraphy. It has one of the world's finest collections of Islamic art.

Old Cairo

The Hanging Church in Old Cairo
The Hanging Church in Old Cairo. (© Guertin)

Old Cairo” covers a large area south of Garden City and Sayyida Zeinab districts. This traditional part of Cairo is home to the Coptic Orthodox Christians. Here, in the quarter known as "Coptic Cairo", is the Coptic Museum, housing the world's greatest collection of Coptic art, with exhibits from 300 AD to 1000 AD.

In the same quarter is the famous and beautiful Hanging Church. Other Christian landmarks include the Church of St George and its neighbour, the Monastery of St George and the Churches of St Sergius and St Barbara.

The Ben Ezra Synagogue is one of the oldest in the country. It was restored in the 12th century by Avraham Ben Ezra, the Rabbi of Jerusalem.

Just norteast of Coptic Cairo is an area called “Al-Fustat”, which represents the very earliest days of Islam in Cairo. Al-Fustat was the first Islamic capital of Egypt. There are some ruins left, but most has been reduced to rubble. The Mosque of Amr Ibn El-Aas, originally built in 641, was the first mosque in Egypt. Amr Ibn El-Aas was the commander of the Muslim army that conquered Egypt. Very little remains of the original structure of the mosque.

Central Cairo & Gezira

Moving northwards from Old Cairo, past Garden City, we come to Midan Al-Tahrir (Liberation Square) and Midan Talat Harb (Talat Harb Square). This area represents the modern commercial centre of Cairo. This is an area with innumerable cars, hotels, restaurants, office blocks and museums.

Tutankhamun's mask
Tutankhamun's mask at the Egyptian Museum. (© Chernikova)

Near Midan Al-Tahrir is The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, housing over 130,000 exhibits including Pharaonic and Byzantine art and sculpture, the Mummy Room and the celebrated Tutankhamun Exhibition. Be aware that the entry fee to the museum does not include the Mummy Room. There is a separate fee for the Mummy Room, which is several times higher than the museum fee.

This museum is often referred to as simply “The Egyptian Museum”, and it is huge; seeing all of it would require a couple of days. The items exhibited at the museum date back to the very origins of a united Egypt in 3,100 BC. The museum is renowned for holding the finest collection of Egyptian antiquities in the world.

In the vicinity of the Egyptian Museum are two bridges crossing the Nile; the 6th of October Bridge and the Qasr El-Nil Bridge. Crossing one of the bridges takes us to the island of Gezira, famous for its landmark “Cairo Tower” ("El-Burg", in Arabic), from where there are excellent views of the entire city.

Gezira is a modern, upmarket area which, apart from the Cairo Tower, also features the Opera House and the Museum of Modern Art. To the north, the elegant neighbourhood of Zamalek contains town houses and embassies.

Giza & The Pyramids

The Giza plateau with the Pyramids.
The Giza plateau with the Pyramids.

Giza is on the western bank of the Nile. This municipality is mainly known to the world because it is home to the world's oldest tourist attraction; the Great Pyramids. These are, however, situated on the outskirts of Giza, some 10 km southwest of Midan Giza.

There are three main pyramids; those of Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus. Exploring the interiors is possible via labyrinthine tunnels and staircases. Adjacent is the Sphinx, as named by the ancient Greeks, with the head of a human and body of a lion.

Early morning and late afternoon are usually better for visits to the pyramids, because of less crowding (and less heat). Every evening there are sound-and-light shows. Camels, horses and donkeys can be hired to explore the site (be very aware of local business tactics). The area is infested with hustlers and hawkers, who try to attract your attention by uttering phrases in your language. They can become very annoying, and stick to you like flies to flypaper. You just have to keep ignoring them until they realize their effort is lost.

Enjoy these panoramic views of the Pyramids.

The central part of Giza is home to the Cairo Zoo and Cairo University.

Around Cairo

The Step Pyramid in Saqqara
The Step Pyramid at Saqqara. (© De Mattos)

The remains of the Old Kingdom's capital Memphis are located principally around the small village of Mit Rahina, some 23km south of central Cairo, on the western side of the Nile. Memphis was founded around 3,100 BC, and is the legendary city of Menes, the king who united Upper and Lower Egypt.

Saqqara is a section of the necropolis of Memphis. Saqqara is famous for the “Step Pyramid”, which is the oldest of Egypt’s pyramids.

In south Saqqara is Dahshur, where there are interesting pyramids dating back to the middle of the 3rd century BC.
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