Cairo, the capital of Egypt, is one of those buzzing and chaotic cities that you love and hate at the same time. The noise, pollution, and traffic are a drag but then the history, and beautifully dilapidated structures continuously draw you in. It is the largest city in the Middle East and the Arab world and has been coined Umm al-Dunya meaning “The Mother of the World” by the Arabs. Cairo has always been closely associated with ancient Egypt due to its proximity to the ancient capital Memphis and the Great Pyramids of Giza. We chose to stay at the Four Seasons Nile Plaza on the Nile which is close enough to most of the sightseeing the city has to offer. The initial feeling upon arrival in Cairo was that it didn’t feel dangerous as many have come to believe. However, there is a strong police presence in all the touristy areas and major sights. A week after we left there was a bombing near the pyramids resulting in deaths and injuries to a Vietnamese tour group. So even though the city “feels” safe, there is still unrest and potential terrorist attacks which is unfortunate given that Egypt’s tourism sector is finally reviving after years of security issues and political turmoil.
Our first place of visit is Islamic Cairo, also known as Medieval Cairo and Fatimid Cairo, founded in 969 as the royal enclosure for the Fatimid caliphs. The Fatimids claimed that they were descendents of Islamic prophet Muhammad’s daughter, Fatimah. They became a powerful caliphate ruling across North Africa and making Egypt the center of their caliphate. Islamic Cairo was made a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1979 as one of the oldest Islamic cities in the world. The area is filled with mosques, tombs, caravanserais, hammams from the Fatimids’ days. We had a leisurely lunch at Al-Azhar Park with beautiful views of the sprawling city of Cairo.
At the foot of the Mokattam Hills sits the citadel of Salah-el-Din or simply Cairo Citadel, built in 1176 by Saladin who was the first sultan of Egypt and Syria. In 1171, Saladin overthrew the Fatimid Dynasty and established the new Ayyubid Caliphate. He led the Muslim military campaign against the Crusaders and decided to build a wall that would encircle both Islamic Cairo (used to be Al-Qahira) and Old Cairo (used to be Fustat). Saladin’s Citadel took 7 years to build and became the seat of the Egyptian government for the next 700 years until the 1870s when Khedive Ismail moved into the new palace Abdin Palace in downtown Cairo. Within the citadel is one of Cairo’s most famous landmarks, the Mosque of Muhammad Ali which was built by Muhammad Ali Pasha between 1828 and 1848. The mosque was built in memory of Muhammad Ali’s second son, Tusun Pasha, who died in 1816 and replaced the al-Nasir mosque as the official state mosque. Muhammad Ali destroyed Mamluk palaces within the citadel to make way for his large Ottoman style mosque. This was believed to be his attempt at erasing the memory of the Mamluk Dynasty that he replaced and to establish his importance as the new ruler. The Gawhara Terrace here in the citadel offers panoramic views of the city.
Directly below the Citadel is the Sultan Hassan Mosque, built from 1356 to 1363 by Sultan Hassan el-Nasir. It is one of the finest examples of Mamluk architecture and is reminiscent of an Egyptian temple with a 26-meter high massive entrance in the north. There is an open courtyard from which an iron door leads to the sultan’s mausoleum with a sarcophagus in the center. The mosque was used as a school for four different Sunni schools of thought: Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanafi, and Hanbali.
Another place of interest in Islamic Cairo is the Ibn Tulun Mosque which was built between 876 and 879 and fashioned after Kaaba in Mecca and is the largest mosque in Cairo. Ahmad Ibn Tulum was the founder of the Tulunid Dynasty that ruled Egypt and Syria from 868 to 905. Ibn Tulun was originally a Turkic slave soldier who was sent to Egypt as governor by the Abbasid caliph. Soon after he established himself as an independent ruler of Egypt with his own military. This grand mosque was built next to Ibn Tulun’s palace in Al-Qatai with a private entrance allowing him direct access to the mosque. However Al-Qatai, Ibn Tulun’s capital, was destroyed in the early 10th century with only this mosque surviving. Ibn Tulum Mosque was constructed in Samarran style with a main courtyard surrounded by covered halls on all four sides. On the northern side is a 40-meter high minaret with a spiral staircase wide enough for a person riding a horse to ascend.
From Islamic Cairo, we head to Coptic Cairo which is now a pedestrian area with heavy security and screening procedures before entering. During the 6th century, the Persians built a fortress called Babylon and they also built a canal linking the Nile to the Red Sea. The first settlements appeared in this area now called Old Cairo. Within Old Cairo is an area called Coptic Cairo which was the bastion for Christianity before the Muslims arrived. There are several Christian churches here dating back to the early Christian era with the most famous being the Hanging Church also known as St Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church. Built in the 9th century on top of a gatehouse of the Babylon Fortress and hence the name “Hanging Church”. It is one of the oldest churches in Egypt and in 1047 became the official dwelling of the Coptic Pope.
Another most visited church in the Coptic Cairo area is the St. Sergius and St. Bacchus Church or Abu Serga dating back to the 4th century and believed to be built upon the resting place of the Holy Family: Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus, when they fled from King Herod. The holy family was said to have resided in the cave, now the crypt of this church.
Here in Old Cairo also stands the Ben Ezra Synagogue founded in the 9th century and was believed to be where Baby Moses was found among the reeds by the Nile. It is also the place where a collection of important Jewish manuscripts called the Cairo Geniza were found. The Cairo Geniza is a collection of some 300,000 manuscripts that outlines a 1,000-year of Jewish history in the area. Other than Jewish religious texts, it also consists of contracts, deed, and letters etc., giving us an in-depth look at the economic and cultural life during that time.
Any visit to Cairo is incomplete without a visit to the Egyptian Museum on Tahrir Square. The museum is housed in a pink building and would take a lifetime to see every single thing it holds. Most objects still seem crammed into this space while some have already been moved to the soon-to-be-opened much larger Grand Egyptian Museum. Walking around the museum is like entering a time machine and being transported back to the days of the pharaohs with the treasures of Tutankhamun, mummies, jewellery, and other burial objects. The most impressive displays here are no doubt those found in the tomb of Tutankhamun who died at 18 years old. Highlights of the museum include Tutankhamun’s death mask and sarcophagi and the lion throne as well as the Royal Mummies Collection.
One of the best activities after all the sights are closed is to visit the Khan-el-Khalili Bazaar. The bazaar is a labyrinth of alleyways of small shops and workshops selling touristy souvenirs as well as traditional Egyptian antiques, textiles, and other handicrafts. It was originally the burial site of the Fatimid caliphs known as the Saffron Tomb. During the 14th century rule of Sultan Barquq, the Fatimid tombs were demolished to make way for a large caravanserai where merchants would come with their goods and trade. Subsequently, Egypt’s last Mamluk Sultan al-Ghuri demolished the original structures and built a more organized commercial complex. Below we visited one of the many shops selling papyrus paintings and was shown how this thick paper used during the ancient times was made from the pith of the papyrus plant.
Cairo has so much to offer and we barely scraped the surface. I will definitely be back for more. 😀 Next post will be on the ancient necropolis of Sakkara and the Pyramids of Giza outside Cairo. Stayed tuned!
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