The twin streams of Egypt's history converge just below the Delta at Cairo, where the greatest city in the Islamic world sprawls across the Nile towards the Pyramids, those supreme monuments of antiquity. Every visitor to Egypt comes here, to reel at the Pyramids' baleful mass and the seething immensity of Cairo, with its bazaars, mosques and Citadel and extraordinary Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. It's impossible, too, not to find yourself carried away by the street life, where medieval trades and customs coexist with a modern, cosmopolitan mix of Arab, African and European influences.
Egyptians have two names for the city, one ancient and popular, the other Islamic and official. The foremost is Masr, meaning both the capital and the land of Egypt – "Egypt City" – an Ur-city that endlessly renews itself and dominates the nation, an idea rooted in pharaonic civilization. (For Egyptians abroad, "Masr" refers to their homeland; within its borders it means the capital.) Whereas Masr is timeless, the city's other name, Al-Qahira (The Conqueror), is linked to an event: the Fatimid conquest that made this the capital of an Islamic empire that embraced modern-day Libya, Tunisia, Palestine and Syria. The name is rarely used in everyday speech.
Both archetypes still resonate and in monumental terms are symbolized by two dramatic landmarks: the Pyramids of Giza at the edge of the Western Desert and the great Mosque of Mohammed Ali – the modernizer of Islamic Egypt – which broods atop the Citadel. Between these two monuments sprawls a vast city, the colour of sand and ashes, of diverse worlds and epochs, and gross inequities. All is subsumed into an organism that somehow thrives in the terminal ward: medieval slums and Art Deco suburbs, garbage-pickers and marbled malls, donkey carts and limos, piousness and "the oaths of men exaggerating in the name of God". Cairo lives by its own contradictions.
Cairo contains worlds within worlds, full of charm and contradictions. It is a maddening city with its incessant crowds, noise and pollution. Yet, it beckons you to linger and explore the various districts - each a different piece of the puzzle, evoking a fragment of Cairo's rich 7000 year history. A walk down any street in Cairo is a feast for the senses, and exploring beyond the popular districts below will not fail to fascinate.
The current heart of Cairo, the downtown region roughly centered on Midan Tahrir, stretches east to Ramses Station and south to Garden City. It is relatively young, as only in the mid 1800s was this area west of Ezbekiya to the Nile drained and developed. The architecture of the downtown cacophony of shops, restaurants, theaters, offices, apartment buildings, and hotels possesses an old-world elegance. Stand at Midan Talat Harb and you could almost imagine you were in Paris…well, until you are approached by an old man in a galabeya peddling papyrus.
The area also boasts numerous museums and contemporary art galleries. The Egyptian Museum , with its monumental collection of antiquities, is located on Midan Tahrir and requires several hours to peruse the collection. The recently opened Abdeen Palace Museum displays a collection from pre-independence times. Bookworms will want to browse among the dozens of small second-hand stalls at Ezbekiya, near Midan Opera, where there is a good selection of both Arabic and foreign language books and magazines.
Old Cairo (Masr el Qadima)
Sometimes known as "Coptic Cairo," this area provides a historical link between Cairo's Pharaonic and Islamic periods. It is likely that the area was settled during the 6th Century BCE. It was here in 130 CE that the Roman emperor Trajan erected Babylon Fort , the core of the old city. The area features several old Coptic churches as well as Ben Ezra Synagogue - the oldest in Egypt. The ruins of the old city of Fustat are also nearby. Many potters and ceramicists used to work in the area, but have recently been relocated.
The name of this district is misleading, as this fascinating part of the city is no more "Islamic" than any other. It seems to be the conventional way to describe the area that became the city center during medieval times. This area is very rich in history and culture, and takes days to explore thoroughly.
Highlights of this district include the Citadel; the vibrant Khan el Khalili bazaar, which is full of small shops, craftsmen's workshops, restaurants and coffee houses; Al Azhar Mosque, a thousand year old center of Islamic study; the Gayer-Anderson Museum; and the Cities of the Dead, cemeteries that are also home to hundreds of living residents. Throughout the district, there are dozens of beautiful mosques with many different architectural styles and that are open to non-Muslim visitors. There are also several old houses and secular buildings, which have been converted into museums or public spaces.
The area to the west of the Nile is technically a separate municipality from Cairo, but inextricably linked to the city. It is difficult to imagine that only a hundred years ago, the road leading west to the pyramids of Giza was a simple dirt track through an agricultural area. Now it is a clamorous wall of concrete and confusion, with numerous hotels, restaurants, nightclubs and residences. The Pyramids of Giza have drawn visitors throughout the centuries to gaze in awe at the "glory of the ancients". Surrounding the Pyramids area are the obligatory papyrus and perfume shops catering to the needs of the tourist.
Dokki & Agouza
Primarily a residential district comprising the villas and private sporting clubs of Cairo's movers and shakers and more cramped "baladi" quarters and market areas, there are a few interesting sites to visit in the area. These include the Agricultural Museum and Mamhoud Khalil Museum , a refurbished mansion displaying mostly European art and sculpture collected by Khalil, a pre-war politician. Moving north along the Corniche, the main landmarks are the Balloon Theatre and the National Circus, both of which occasionally give performances, and the British Council, which offers language training in both English and Arabic.
One of Cairo's newer districts, this is a sprawl of residential and office towers, dominated by Arab League Street. The strip is replete with upscale boutiques and just about every American fast food chain imaginable. It is a veritable parking lot on summer nights as cars cruise up and down the wide avenue. Several cozy restaurants and pubs can be found tucked away in the maze of backstreets.
Gezira & Roda Islands
The two main islands in the Nile are both developed to the point where you might forget you are technically on an island. Gezira, the northern island, can be divided into two separate districts. The southern half, Gezira proper, contains the new Opera House , where cultural performances are presented throughout the year, and the Museum of Modern Art, displaying work of Egyptian artists from the last 100 years. The Cairo Tower sits to the north and provides a spectacular panoramic view of the city from the top; on a clear day you can count pyramids in the distance.
The northern tip of the island is the district of Zamalek, once a British neighborhood that miraculously retains a residential feel despite the dense population. Zamalek's multitude of popular Western-style bars and nightclubs are a big attraction. Most of the island is dominated by the Gezirah Sporting Club , a private sporting club restricted to those who can afford the pricey membership fees.
Roda Island is more densely populated, but is worth visiting for the Manial Palace built in 1903 by King Farouk's uncle Prince Mohamed Ali Tewfik. Look out for the five buildings in the palace grounds that have an eclectic architectural style. The museum has a lovely collection of old manuscripts. There are no crowds of tourists here, which can provide a peaceful afternoon.
Heliopolis, Nasr City & Beyond
The area east of the city center started being developed at the end of the 19th Century by a Belgian entrepreneur, Baron Empain, whose residence, now unfortunately closed, can be seen on the way to the airport. This upscale district has numerous Western-style shops and restaurants. The elegant buildings in the area around Midan Roxy are architecturally appealing. Interesting sites in this area include the October War Panorama and Sadat's Tomb, erected on the site where the late President was assassinated in 1981.
Northwest of Heliopolis, and easily reached by Cairo's Metro line, is Matariyya. This contains the site of ancient Heliopolis, the City of the Sun - the earliest settlement in the Cairo area. The granite Obelisk of Senusert I (dating from around 1900 BCE) stands at Midan al-Misallah, and 500 meters (about a third of a mile) south stands the Virgin's Tree, which supposedly shaded the Holy Family during their time in Egypt.
To the south of Cairo, the suburb of Maadi is a popular residential area for foreigners, and though it has been subject to rampant development, the tree-lined streets camouflaging private villas in the older sections of the district are a peaceful change to the hustle and bustle of the rest of the city. Felucca rides on the Nile departing from the docks along the Corniche in Maadi are a relaxing way to spend an afternoon.
The drinking and dining venues in Cairo are as diverse as its population. You can eat fuul and taameya sandwiches for EGP.5 (50 piastres) each, a bowl of koshary (all good vegan food) for about EGP1.50 or have an international three-course meal in a five-star hotel for EGP350 and up; the choice is yours.
Fuul (mashed beans) and taameya (fried bean patties) are traditional working-class Egyptian fare, and are common breakfast dishes. They are usually served in aish shami, the local equivalent of pita bread. Some of the dirtiest, most unhealthy-looking eateries in Cairo serve the best fuul and taameya, although you just might feel as though you're taking your life in your hands by eating in them! Koshary is usually eaten as a lunch dish, and is the original Egyptian fast food. Its main ingredients are macaroni and rice covered with salsa (tomato sauce) with a sprinkling of fried onion, hummus and lentils. If you're in a koshary restaurant and applying your own sauce, be sure to shake the bottle VERY well. The other optional extra is chili sauce (the dark red stuff) and, yes, it is as hot as it looks.
A tub of take-away koshary costs anywhere from EGP1 to EGP2.50, depending on the establishment and the portion. Some of the best kofta and grilled chicken can be found at the quaint Alfi Bey . One of the best (and certainly one of the cleanest) fuul and taameya establishments is Felfela , which has a sit-down restaurant, a take-away service, and a koshary restaurant. Felfela serves the cleanest and cheapest Egyptian food in town but be warned - during the peak season literally bus loads of tourists turn up so it can get pretty crowded. There is, however, another branch in the Pyramids. Of particular note is Le Grillon and for old world charm, try the Odeon Palace Bar .
A very famous coffee shop that has been open for 200 years is El Fishawi in Khan El-Khalili. You get all the usual ahwa drinks here with the added "advantage" that the world will come to you. This is only an advantage if you enjoy dead foxes, wallets, "cigarette shishas" and trinkets waved under your nose continuously. In addition, it's more expensive than most other ahwas.
Other popular Egyptian dishes are kofta and grilled chicken, usually found in restaurants that serve just that, with a selection of salads, usually green salad, hummus, baba ghanoush (eggplant mashed up with tahini), torshi (pickles) and bread. A good place to try these dishes is the family-friendly Andrea . There's also what Egyptians translate as "Egyptian pizzas," which should perhaps just be referred to as fiteer as they appear to bear no resemblance to pizza. Fiteer can be eaten sweet or savory, and they're made while you wait. You order your fiteer and chose what you want in/on it from the ingredients in the bowls in the work area. br>
Of course, Cairo offers cuisine from all over the world, not just Egypt. For Indian food, try the excellent Kandahar , which also features live music. Prestige is an Italian restaurant and pizzeria that plays pop music over their speakers. For Mediterranean and Turkish dishes served in a rustic interior try Ataturk Restaurant and Grill . Tornado is a cafe that is popular among the young and fashionable for its hip atmosphere.
Rossini is an all exclusive and rather expensive place to enjoy a meal. The Grand Cafe is set in a beautiful garden, and is a great place to spend the afternoon. Lebanese cuisine can be found at Al-Dalouna , a restaurant popular among families, while Chicken Tikka serves up local dishes in an American-themed dining room. La Casetta is an Italian restaurant that specializes in making your meal and evening as enjoyable and romantic as possible.
With so much culture and history at your fingertips, you may have a hard time deciding which site to see first, second, and so on. Rest assured, tours abound in Cairo for every type of traveler and for any wallet size.
The Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx are a powerful testament to the ingenuity of the ancient Egyptians. The best time to visit the area is early in the morning. As the day wears on, the crowds increase, especially during Egyptian holidays, as does the chance of being assaulted by dozens of postcard vendors and men offering rides on camels. The Giza pyramids are easily reached by city taxis or public transport.
The Pyramids are a marvel of engineering, and archaeologists have puzzled over exactly how they were built - and more esoteric types have wondered why. It is, however, generally accepted that the Pyramids were built as tombs for the ancient kings, an evolution from the single-stepped mastabas that designated burial sites in earlier times. Pyramid building was popular from about the 3rd to the 13th Dynasty with the biggest and best examples to be found in Giza.
The Sphinx , an ancient monument, has sparked many controversial theories. Egyptologists, however, agree that the Sphinx was built by Khafre's workers. The enormous lion statue has recently had a face lift, as experts endeavored to save the structure from further environmental damage and undo some earlier shoddy restoration work. Visitors can view the Sphinx only from a distance now, but it is still possible to see the Dream Stela between the forepaws, erected by King Thutmose IV, who fell asleep one afternoon in the shade of the then-buried colossus and in a dream was told to clear the sand which had engulfed it. The Sphinx has sat as a silent sentinel for nearly 4500 years, gazing to the east, witnessing the growth of the ever-changing Cairo.
Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops)
Soaring at nearly 147 meters (482 feet), the massive granite Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) , is the largest and the most enigmatic in Egypt. The smooth Tura limestone that once encased the granite structure is no longer intact, and the pyramidion (capstone) is long gone. A separate ticket is required to enter the Pyramid, and since the authorities have limited visitors to 300 a day, it is advisable to arrive at the nearby ticket-kiosk early in the morning.
From the entrance, the descending passage takes you down to the Subterranean Chamber, currently closed, while the ascending passage takes you up to the so-called Queen's Chamber, which is not, by the way, a burial chamber. Continuing the ascent, the spacious Grand Gallery, with its high corbelled ceiling, brings you to the King's Chamber, where the granite sarcophagus of King Khufu lies empty. Unlike other Pyramids, the King's burial chamber is above ground. Two small openings can be seen in both the King's and Queen's chambers - these are the controversial "air shafts," which have spawned all sorts of interesting theories. That eerie hum you might hear inside is not spiritual energy channeling through the structure, but a ventilation system that was installed several years ago.
The interior of the Pyramid of Khafre (Chephren) is currently closed for restoration, but the complex is visible. Some of the limestone casing near the top still remains, giving the pyramid an interesting profile. The ruins of the eastern mortuary temple are still standing, and the causeway (in ancient times a covered passageway) takes you to the remains of the valley temple, where the mummification ritual would have taken place.
Outside the Pyramid, to the east, you will find the black basalt pavement where the mortuary temple once stood, and a causeway which in ancient times would have led to the valley temple. Three small Queen's Pyramids also stand on this side, near the Solar Boat Museum (admission EGP10). This museum has an exhibit of a wooden boat that was excavated and subsequently reconstructed by Ahmed Youssef. The boat, from one of five boat pits surrounding the Pyramid, symbolically offered passage for the king into the afterlife.
Surrounding the Pyramids' area are numerous souvenir shops, and towards Saqqara and Dahshur you can find a lot of carpet stores where weaving techniques are demonstrated. Popular restaurants nearby include Andrea , serving delicious grilled chicken in a garden-like atmosphere, Christo, offering fish meals and a good view of the Pyramids, and the lower-priced Felfela , serving a range of traditional Egyptian fare. The nearby Mena House Oberoi Hotel is a relaxing place to stop for a drink after touring the site, and offers an exquisite Indian restaurant called The Moghul Room , as well as Al Rubayyat , which serves continental cuisine. Many of the area's bigger hotels also offer dining options. For those who have more than a casual interest in Pyramids, Mark Lehner's book, "The Complete Pyramids" is quite comprehensive and available at most bookstores and hotels in Cairo.
Pyramid of Menkaure
The "little" Pyramid of Menkaure (Mycerinus) , standing a respectable 62 meters (203 feet) high, was unfinished at the time of the King's death, and completed by his son. The nasty gash on the north face was caused by earlier explorers trying to dynamite through in order to find the entrance passage. The pyramid is open to visitors, and lately seems to take the bulk of the tourists denied admission to the Great Pyramid, so is therefore not for the claustrophobic. The burial chamber is empty; the sarcophagus was removed and subsequently lost at sea in transport when the ship sank on its way to Great Britain.
Outside, you can see several courses of granite casing, and the desert in front of the entrance is littered with stones removed from the Pyramid itself. Like all of the Pyramids of Giza, Menkaure's was once seen as a convenient stone quarry for medieval builders. To the east stands the remains of the mortuary temple and the causeway, while to the south are three Queen's Pyramids.
An alternative way to enjoy the pyramids is to attend one of the nightly Sound and Light shows, presented in several different languages. Though it may seem a bit too "touristy" to some, the narration has some historical interest, and the light show is truly beautiful. Others prefer to rent horses from one of the many nearby stables and have a gallop in the desert surrounding the Pyramids. Take care as many of the Pyramid horses are poorly trained, and riders have reported more than a few nasty spills.
If you still have energy and time after wandering around Giza, head south to the Saqqara complex, dominated by the Step Pyramid of the 3rd Dynasty King Zoser. Built before the Pyramids of Giza, this Pyramid shows the evolution of design from the single stepped mastabas to the final smooth-sided Pyramid structures that would follow in the next dynasty. Other beautifully-inscribed tombs of noblemen and officials, as well as later dynasty Pyramids, are also open to visitors. The eerie Serapeum, a funerary catacomb built for the sacred Apis bulls, is currently closed for restoration.
South of Saqqara is the rarely visited site of Dahshur, where Khufu's father Sneferu built the Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid. The latter's unusual profile was caused by a change of building angle halfway through construction. The Red Pyramid gets pretty close to the architectural perfection of the Giza Pyramids, and you can explore the interior without the claustrophobic crush of the Giza crowds. In the distance is the unusually shaped mud and brick pyramid of Amenemhet III.
A word of advice: It is best to rent a car to visit Saqqara and Dahshur, as the sites are far from the main road, and transportation back into Cairo is not easy to find.
Old Cairo, or Masr el-Qadima, provides a historical link between Pharaonic times and the Islamic period. This district was the center of Cairo during Roman times, until after the Arab invasion. The historical sites in this area, which has been continuously inhabited for around 2000 years, are surrounded by modern residences. Old Cairo is easily reached by the Metro. The Mar Girgis stop is directly in front of the cluster of Medieval Churches and the Coptic Museum . While here, check out Al Khatoun for traditional Egyptian art.
As you leave the Metro station, you arrive at the twin towers of the western gate of the fortress of Babylon Fortress, Coptic Museum & Hanging Church , built by the Roman emperor Trajan (98-117 CE). These towers were built on what were the banks of the Nile at that time. The Orthodox Church of St. George stands on top of the left-hand tower. Along from the towers, the Coptic Museum houses an extensive collection of Coptic art and artifacts, as well as secular items, collected from old churches and houses. There is much to admire here—old icons, textiles and manuscripts; so it will take a few hours to fully peruse the collection. If you enter the grounds of the Coptic Museum , you can walk through the gates and see the old gatehouse under the Hanging Church .
The Al-Muallaka (Hanging) Church , dedicated to the Virgin Mary, is so named as it is suspended above the gatehouse. It was founded in the late 7th Century. Destroyed 200 years later, it was rebuilt and eventually became the center of the Coptic Patriarchate. Over the years the structure has seen several renovations, and though the Patriarchate has moved, Coptic Masses are still held in the sanctuary. Often, members of the Coptic community are present and offer free in-depth tours of the church.
Greek Orthodox Church of St. George
The nearby Greek Orthodox Church of St. George has the same circular design of the Roman tower upon which it was built. Founded in the 10th Century, and alternating between Greek and Coptic ownership, the original building was damaged by fire in 1904, though fortunately most of the relics and icons survived. The present church was rebuilt on the site, and is the center of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria. The adjacent monastery does not usually admit visitors.
A subterranean gateway, accessible from Mar Girgis Street, leads you through the narrow alleys of the oldest part of the district. The main building of the Convent of St. George is a nunnery, and not open to the public. You can, however, visit the remains of a Fatimid house on the site, and a small chapel containing the relics of St. George. To the left side of the Convent, you can also visit a small room used for the chain-wrapping ritual, symbolic of the persecution of St. George by the Romans. The attending nuns still perform the ritual, wrapping visitors in chains and reciting the appropriate prayers.
Continue down the narrow alley to the Church of St. Sergius , the oldest in Egypt, built originally in the 5th or 6th Century. It is located at the site of a crypt where it is believed the Holy Family stayed when they were in Egypt. Like the other churches in the area, it has been rebuilt several times since its founding, but still retains its original design. Further along on the left is the Church of St. Barbara . As the legend goes, St. Barbara was murdered by the Roman Governor for preaching the gospel in the 3rd Century.
To the south of St. Barbara is the Ben Ezra Synagogue , the oldest in Egypt, built on the site where it is believed that the Pharaoh's daughter found Moses. The synagogue does not hold services anymore, but has been completely restored. During rebuilding in the 19th Century, the Geniza (a cache of medieval manuscripts, including secular and religious documents) was discovered.
The cemeteries surrounding the churches are ideal for a peaceful stroll. At the northern part of the compound is the Church of St. George, originally founded in 681 CE and rebuilt in the 19th Century, and the Church of the Virgin, rebuilt in the 18th Century.
A short distance from the fortress proper are a few other sites of interest, including the Mosque of Amr Ibn al-As . Originally founded in 641 CE, and rebuilt several times since, the mosque is regarded as the oldest in Africa. The remains of the city that would become modern Cairo-Fustat - are to the east and parts have been excavated. The area around Fustat was once full of potters and craftsmen, but they have been recently relocated.
In addition to all the gems found around Cairo, various tour companies offer balloon, helicopter, safari, mosque, church and boat tours to help complete your stay in Cairo.
Safari Egypt Tours ( http://www.safariegypt.com/ )
Planet Tours ( +20 12 398 9689/ http://www.planetours-eg.com/ )
Culture & History Tours
Summit Tours ( +20 24 478 8921/ http://www.cairotours.net/ )
Travel EG ( +20 22 392 9569/ http://www.traveleg.com/ )
Egypt Unexpected ( +20 12 141 8581/ http:/egyptunexpected.com/ )
Cairo Tours ( +44 20 7706 0900/ http://www.egyptreservation.com/)
Float along the Nile
Pack2Egypt ( +1 416 799 7333; +20 10 542 0600 / http://www.pack2egypt.com/ )
Egypt Unexpected ( +20 12 141 8581/ http:/egyptunexpected.com/ )
City Discovery Tours ( +1 419 244 6440 / http://www.city-discovery.com/ )