UPDATED: SEPTEMBER 2020
Cairo is everything we were told it would be. Messy, ugly and polluted. The streets are crowded and traffic chaotic. But the capital of Egypt isn’t a UNESCO World Heritage city for nothing. With over 3000 years of accumulated history, it hides a beguiling grace beneath all the grime and chaos.
Predictably, we begin our exploration with the earliest contributors to Cairo’s diverse cultural mosaic by spending a day and a half visiting pyramids, mastabas and the Sphinx in Giza, Saqqara & Dashur.
Still with the Pharaonic layer on our second afternoon, we visit the Egyptian Antiquities Museum, home to some extraordinary exhibits from ancient Egypt. There are, incredibly, only a dozen or so people in King Tutankhamen’s room, whose dazzling treasures are the principal attraction of the museum.
We circle the solid gold coffins reverently, mesmerised as much by the perfection of the Boy King’s funerary mask as by the fact that we are gazing upon artefacts over 3300 years old. Photography is prohibited unfortunately*. Click here & here for a glimpse of King Tut’s treasures.
Some of the other highlights are the 4th dynasty figures with inlaid eyes and the Amarna exhibits. Plans are afoot to transfer these treasures to a new, state of the art structure in Giza, scheduled to open in 2020**
The museum is just off Tahrir Square which was to become the focal point of the revolution.
After over two hours in its stuffy confines, we stroll over to Abu Tarek to sample Koshary, a mixture of rice, lentils chickpeas, macaroni and fried onions doused with chilly sauce that is nearly as emblematic of Egypt as the pyramids.
Many believe koshary might well have spun off from the colonial Indian Kedgree or Kichdi.
IN THE SHADOW OF MINARETS
We time travel backwards through Islamic Cairo the next day, beginning at the massive Cairo Citadel built by Saladin – the romanticised 12th century Sultan who ruled over much of the Levant and North Africa – to defend the city from Crusaders. The Citadel (1176-1183) continued to be the royal residence for over 700 years.
Several mosques, palaces and museums are located within. The most notable being the suitably proportioned 19th century Alabaster Mosque commissioned by Muhammad Ali Pasha: founder of Cairo’s last dynasty of Khedives. Its Ottoman inspired spires dominate the skyline of Cairo.
After much research on the mosques to visit from among the hundreds in the city, we had narrowed down on three (apart from the newer Muhammad Ali Mosque) belonging to diverse periods and styles.
Al-Rifa’i, an eclectic 19th century mosque adjacent to the citadel, was commissioned by the daughter in law of Muhammad Ali Pasha. The detailing is less opulent with quirky coloured marble stripes all across the interior and Egyptian styled columns with tracery patterns.
Surprisingly, Egypt’s last King, Fuad II, and many other members of the royal family are buried in this relatively simpler complex. As is the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Stepping back a few centuries to the Mamluk era, we enter the majestic Mosque and Madarasa of Sultan Hassan (1361AD). The notable feature of the elegant interior is the beautifully decorated Mihrab (concave niche indicating direction of Mecca).
The Sultan was assassinated by his army commander just a few months after its completion. This extravagant edifice meant to be his final resting place never served its purpose because his body remained untraceable.
It’s off to the 9th century, next, to visit the Tulunid dynasty mosque of Ibn Tulun. The spare, brick and mortar open-plan mosque, the oldest in the city still in its original form and said to be inspired by the great mosque of Samarra in Iraq, is my favourite of the three.
The boundary wall is topped by crenellations that resemble paper cutout forms. It’s most striking feature is the minaret with an external spiral staircase typical of Mesopotamian architecture.
Adjacent to the Ibn Tulun mosque is the Gayer Anderson Museum.
The two 16th-century Ottoman residences beautifully restored by British Major John Gayer Anderson sport several courtyards, terraces and wooden mashrabiyyas (latticed wooden windows) and an eclectic collection of Islamic art. It’s well worth a visit…entrance is included in the ticket to the mosque.
A stroll around the Zamalek area yanks us back to the present. We are happy to linger over a table with a view of that gently flowing river, the lone witness to Cairo’s ever changing cultural milieu.
MULTI FAITH LEGACIES
We shift our attention to Cairo’s Roman/Byzantine footprints in ‘Old’ Cairo (400AD) or ‘Misr Al Qadhima’ the following morning. This is the Christian centre of the city with some really old Coptic churches, a Coptic Museum and a synagogue.
Chief among them is the Hanging Church, so-called because it is suspended over the south gate of the Roman fort of Babylon (different from Biblical Babylon.) It is still a functioning church.
The crypt of St Sergius’s church nearby is reputedly where the Holy Family sheltered after their flight to Egypt. The beautiful Coptic museum showcases Egypt’s early Christian heritage in a beautiful building. Their prized possession is an ancient book discovered beneath the head of a 12 year old mummy and believed to be the oldest copy of the Psalms of David,
Housed in the shell of a Christian church on a parallel street and said to mark the spot where baby Moses was found is the Synagogue Ben Ezra. It is named after the 12th century rabbi of Jerusalem.
A wealth of Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts – collectively termed the Cairo Geniza – was discovered in its storehouse in the early 19th century. The bulk of the manuscripts is now in the University of Cambridge.
However awe-inspiring its monuments, the essence of Cairo is to be found in the labyrinth of alleys of the Fatimid city that seem to have changed little since the middle ages.
‘Al-Qahira’ or ‘The Victorious’ – from which modern Cairo gets its name – was founded during the Fatimid period (969-1171AD). This is the heart of Islamic Cairo. Bab Zuweila is one of three remaining gates of that Fatimid city.
In the Mamluk period this was also a site of public executions where poor victims’ heads were impaled on the door spikes. The view from the minarets, belonging to the mosque of al-Muayyad next door, is one of the best in Cairo.
Beyond Bab Zuweila, the Wekalat el Ghoury complex straddles the Tent Makers Bazaar. It’s the only remaining covered market with rows of shops selling colourful appliquéd fabric.
Right opposite, is the beautiful Al Azhar Mosque and Madarasa, considered one of the world’s most important centres of Islamic theology and learning. It dates back to the founding of the city and remains Egypt’s oldest working university.
Around this square are more atmospheric streets where people and donkeys have equal right of way and locals haggle for merchandise just as they have been doing for centuries.
We wander this warren of narrow streets and crowded souks that forms the core of Islamic Cairo on our final afternoon, stopping for delicious fiteers (Egyptian pancakes) on the way and sipping coffee at atmospheric old ahwas (coffee houses.)
The Khan el Khalili is the largest of the souks, originally built around a Caravanserai by Emir Garkas al-Khalili. Historically, Cairo was an important stop on the Silk Route and the Khan was the trading hub of the region.
The main market is full of the usual souvenir tat, but there are a few stores worth seeking out. Like Gouzlan, for beautiful gold and silver jewellery with a contemporary twist. I am not big on shopping when I travel, but the Eye-of-Horus pendant I picked up there is still a conversation starter.
Past the gold and copper stalls of the Khan is the square known as Bayn al-Qasrayn – ‘Between the Palaces” – named after two great palaces that once stood here apparently mimicking the Fatimid royal city at al-Mahdia, Tunisia.
The square diminished to a stretch of the main road: Al-Muizz li-Din Allah street under later Sunni rulers. This was the main street of medieval Cairo, named after the Ismaili Fatimid Caliph (Fatimids = descendants of the Prophet’s daughter Fatima.) who conquered the city in 969 AD.
It is said true that the history of Cairo can be read from the names of its streets.
The monuments on Al-Muizz li-Din Allah street have been restored and the streets cleared of motor repair shops and pedestrianised. They are also illuminated after dark.
The beautiful Madrasa, Mausoleum and Maristan of Qalawun is the earliest (post Fatimid) building in the area. A Maristan is a hospital, and there is still a clinic here.
A combination ticket sold at the Qalawun complex gets one admission into seven interesting monuments on this street.
North of the Qalawun complex is a little gem of a textile museum with fabric collections dating from ancient Egypt to the present. And just beyond, the Madrasa and Mausoleum of Barquq and the Sabil-Kuttab (water fountain & school) of Abdel Katkhuda.
The many Sabils on the street have been providing drinking water to passersby, sourced from fresh water springs beneath that is cooled by passing over marble slopes.
The street ends at the crenellated northern gate, Bab El Fotouh. You could do this walk in reverse and end at the Khan el Khalili.
We spend our last evening at Al Azhar Park – a garbage dump transformed by the Aga Khan foundation into an urban oasis – to watch the sun sink slowly behind the city over dinner at Studio Misr.
Then, on impulse, we decide to return to Al-Muizz li-Din Allah street to see it all lit up. R is wary about walking around that late at night so he stops to check with a friendly cop on duty near the park. “All of Egypt is safe.” he beams expansively!
We take him at his word and grab a taxi to return to where Cairo began. We aren’t disappointed. Or the slightest bit fearful.
The ministry of culture’s Historic Cairo Restoration Project (HCRP) plans “to transform the whole area into an open-air museum” As we hail another taxi back to our hotel we begin to wonder how much of all this is going to change as Cairo grapples with its myriad problems to build a free and prosperous future while still preserving what once was.
GETTING AROUND: Uber or private vehicles hired for the day especially if you are trying to cram a lot into one single day. A guide isn’t necessary but might speed things up as well if you are on a roller coaster schedule.
OPENING HOURS: Expect most sites to be open from 8.00 or 9.00 until 17.00. Mosques will be closed during Friday prayers. Al Muizz street is accessible all day. The monuments and shops along it will be closed after hours. Khan el Kalili is also open all day but will start coming alive closer to noon.
Textile Museum: Hours: 9.00 – 16.30; Bab Zuwayla: Hours: 9.00 – 16.0
EGYPTIAN MUSEUM (in current location. New timings will be updated when available.) Mon – Wed: 09.00 to 17.00. Fri & Sat: 09.00-16.00. Late opening on Thu & Sun: 09-17.00 & 17.30 -21.00.
Shoe cover charges of 4-5 EGP might apply in some mosques if you do not want to carry your shoes.
No extra camera charges in any of the city monuments as of this writing.
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HOW MANY DAYS IN CAIRO?
3.5 to 4 days is ideal. You’ll need a full day and a half, at least, to visit all the historic sites mentioned above. Two is more comfortable. Cursory highlights can just about be fitted into a day. Similarly, 1.5 days is decent allowance for a visit to the entire Giza & Saqqara necropolis. Have linked to the post above.
The Egyptian Antiquities Museum can be fitted into the balance afternoon or late evening on Thu/Sun. No, you cannot possibly leave Egypt without visiting the main treasures in there! And certainly not once it is reinvented as the Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza.
With just two days in Cairo you’ll only have time for the Pyramids of Giza with the museum in the afternoon on day one. Reserve the entire second day to pick and choose from the sections above. Remember to make allowances for the insane traffic.
Start with the Ibn Tulun Mosque. Then head north towards the Citadel. Visit the Mohammed Ali & Sultan Hassan Mosques and grab another taxi to Khan el Khalili Market. Have lunch and start exploring the souk. You might now have to choose between a walk through the medieval Al Muizz street and surrounds or taking a taxi to Coptic Cairo before closing time.
MORE THINGS TO DO IN CAIRO (WITH MORE TIME!)
- A stroll through Zamalek, on Gezira island, as mentioned above. The area’s hip vibe is a complete contrast to everything you’ve experienced in Egypt so far. Ascend Cairo’s famous landmark – the Cairo Tower – for panoramic views. It’s Sky Window Cafe and Revolving Restaurant are pricey options but the views are hard to beat.
- While in Zamalek, Aisha’s Palace might be of interest if lavish mansions are your thing. Also worth walking through (even if you aren’t staying there) is the Cairo Mariott, once Khedive Ismail’s Palace.
- The Museum of Islamic Art is said to have one of the largest collection of Islamic art and artefacts in the world. .
- Rawda Islnd boasts two palaces, the opulent Manial Palace and Museum and the Manasterly Palace, an Ottoman Roccoco style building more my liking. It houses the International Music Centre. Another point of interest close by is the Rawda Island Nilometer.
- The intriguing Hindu Temple inspired Baron Empain Palace has recently been opened to the public.
- If you are in for a touch of the macabre, Al-Qarafa, known as the ‘City of the Dead‘, is an Arabic cemetery where nearly a million homeless people have taken up residence amid the graves and mausoleums of their ancestors. The Mosque of Qaitbay in the vicinity is said to be the finest example of Mamluk architecture.
- The Wekalat el Ghoury, an arts centre operating under the Ministry of Culture, holds traditional Al Tannoura Heritage Dance performances every Saturday, Monday & Wednesday at 19.30. The show lasts 90 min. and tickets cost EGP30. Part spiritual, part folk, it’s a colourful take on the austere Whirling Dervish dance form, performed by the only Sufi dance troupe in Egypt and in a most atmospheric setting. Tickets can be bought at the venue about an hour or so beforehand or through travel companies. The FB page isn’t updated, but Trip Advisor reviews are current.
- The Museo Mevlevi, close to the Sultan Hasan Mosque, boasts a meticulously restored wooden Sama’khana or Sufi Ritual Hall in the Ottoman Baroque style. Set in yet another atmospheric structure with the ruins of a mosque-madarasa complex beneath, the building was used as a lodge by the Mevlevi order through the early 19th century. I hugely regret missing this.
- And finally, two great ways to experience the Nile in Cairo:
- On a Kayak: Nile Kayak Club runs tours for various levels, staring with one hour tours and going up to multi-hour tours.
- My favourite is to pack some shawarma/ felafel/ fiteer (do not attempt carrying alcohol onto the boat) and make a picnic of a felucca ride at sunset. You don’t have to plan this in advance, just walk up to the boats along the Corniche en Nil – they are usually docked in front of the larger hotels like the Four Seasons Nile Plaza – and negotiate a ‘reasonable’ price.
BEST TIME TO VISIT CAIRO
Summers between May – September are blazing hot especially in the south. Even early October was still hot in Cairo. December and January are the busiest months.
Mid October – November, February and March are ideal months to visit. Temperatures is significantly lower and you avoid the (western) holiday season influx.
WHERE TO STAY IN CAIRO
Four Seasons On The Nile is fabulous, also the priciest. Sofitel Cairo Nile El Gezirah is relatively better value for the same location. We stayed in the Fairmont Nile City and loved it, even though location isn’t as central as the others. With price being equal I’d pick the Sofitel.
We opted not to stay in Giza on our last trip so recommendations are based on feedback from like minded friends who have stayed there. The Marriott Mena House isn’t quite what it used to be when it was an Oberoi property, but it is still the best option in Giza. There are a couple more relatively basic options in the vicinity with equivalent or much better views from their rooftops.
Hotel: Le Meridien Cairo Airport is the best option if staying your first or final night near the airport.
CHECK FOR MORE OPTIONS TO FIT YOUR BUDGET HERE
WHERE TO EAT IN CAIRO
Lunch – Koshary AbouTarek | Egyptian Pancake House (for fiteer – sweet & savoury pancakes) | Naguib Mahfouz Restaurant | Fishawy Cafe | Felfela or Zooba (Shawarma/Felafel chains)
Dinner – Le Tarbouche (Egyptian) and other restaurants in the Le Pacha 1901 venue | Studio Misr in Al Azhar Park (For great citadel views.) | A host of great restaurants across the larger hotels in Zamalek.
CAIRO TRAVEL TIPS
- *Photography is still not permitted in the Gold Room, but is now allowed in the rest of the museum for a fee.
- **The opening of the new $1 billion state-of-the-art, glass and concrete Grand Egyptian Museum has been pushed to 2021.
- Cairo has a decent metro system with fixed rates per zone. Uber, introduced four years ago, is the most convenient way to get around. If you have to take regular taxis find out the approximate fare range from your hotel and agree upon a price beforehand.
- Also, get hotel staff to write down the name of your destination in Arabic or have images of nearby landmarks on your phone that you can show the driver. Having smaller bills in cash is preferable, you do not want to waste time haggling over change.
For all general travel tips including safety, visas, Cairo Pass, Luxor Pass and more head over to my Mega Egypt Travel Guide.
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