Cairo is truly a unique
destination, a city that never sleeps with a population of over 17 million
covering as approximate 214 Sq. Km. The largest city in Africa and Egypt’s
capital, it is the 16th most populous city in the world and overlooks
the river Nile to the north. First settled over 6 thousand years ago, it served
as the capital and ruled by the Pharaohs, Caliphs, Romans, Turks, and colonized
by both the French and British. Certainly influenced by both the east and west,
Cairo never fails to surprise its many visitors. Cairo meaning victorious in
Arabic, is truly a vivacious city that offers a variety of things to do and
places to see. The Egyptian people are friendly and hospitable and never fail to
As the sun sets, the Nile River
lights up with cruises boats and feluccas (sail boats) and the city comes to
life with its nightlife. Always something to see and do, catering to everyone’s
taste and budget.
Main sights in Cairo:
The Egyptian Museum:
In 1835 the Egyptian government
established the ‘services des Antiques de L’Egypte’ to put an end to the
plundering of archeological findings and to exhibit the artifacts discovered and
owned by the government. A museum was built in the Azbakian Gardens to
accommodate for these artifacts, but because the building was too small to hold
all the objects, they were moved to a museum in Boulaq in 1858 and in 1880 they
were moved again to an annex at the palace of Ismail Pasha, the ruler of Egypt.
Under the reign of Khedive Abbass Helmi II in 1900, French architect Marcel
Dourgnon designed and constructed the Egyptian Museum in the neo – classical
In 1902, all the artifacts were
successfully moved to this museum and its doors were opened to visitors on the
15th of November. Housing 120,000 artifacts in 107 halls, the
Egyptian Museum is home to the most extensive collection of ancient Egyptian
Located in Cairo’s eastern
skyline, the Citadel stands as one of the world’s greatest medieval remains and
houses a number of mosques and several museums. The Citadel was built in 1183
A.D. by the Abbasid Dynasty establisher and ruler, Salah El Din, with the aim of
dominating Cairo from this strategic area and defending it from the Crusaders.
The Citadel consists of three main
sections, each with its own towers and gates: the lower, northern, and southern
enclosure, the latter is the main Citadel. The Citadel was incomplete at the
time of Salah El Din’s death, and his nephew, Al Kamel, enlarged and fortified
the towers of this castle.
When the Mamluks seized power in
1250, their ruler, Baybars, moved into Al Kamel’s palace and built a wall to
separate the fortress into the Southern and Northern Enclosures. Al Nassir
Mohammed, a Mamluk Sultan who followed Baybars, demolished the palace, replacing
it with larger edifices, of which only Al Nassir Mohammed Mosque remains today.
He also built a Hall of Justice and the Striped Palace, which was used for
official ceremonies. This palace included a staircase that led down to the Lower
Enclosure and Al Nassir’s royal stables that housed 4800 horses.
In the 16th century,
the Ottomans came to power in Egypt and controlled the Citadel, bringing a lot
of changes to its structure. In the Northern Enclosure, the Suleiman Pasha
Mosque was constructed to serve the Ottoman troops. By the 17th
century, the Citadel has developed into a residential district, with its own
Mohammed Ali Pasha, the Ottoman
ruler who is accountable for most of the construction of modern Egypt, came into
power in 1805 and brought about many changes to both the interior and exterior
of the Citadel. He modified the Northern Enclosure to become his private
dominion and opened the Southern Enclosure for the public. He built the Mohammed
Ali Mosque to resemble Istanbul’s astounding mosques, in addition to Al Gawhara
(The Jewel) Palace which housed the Egyptian government for a short period. Al
Harem Palace was constructed to serve as the royal family residence. During the
British occupation, this palace was used as a military hospital until the end of
World War II. In 1949, King Farouk ordered that the palace be converted into the
Military Museum, exhibiting warfare artifacts and housing the Carriage Museum,
which contains eight horse carriages used by Mohammed Ali’s royal family.
Today the National Police Museum,
built where the Striped Palace once stood, displays a number of constabulary
relics from the Pharaonic Era till this day. A large terrace just outside the
museum provides a spectacular view of Cairo, and recently a hall from the
Stripped Palace was discovered south of this terrace.
The area of Old Cairo is probably
the oldest and most venerable part of Cairo, where the first settlement was
believed to have been built as early as the 16th century B.C. The
Romans constructed the Babylon fortress in this area, the remains of which can
still be seen today.
The area is now most commonly
referred to in Arabic as Mogama’ Al Adyan (Complex of Religions) because it
embraces institutions of the three faiths of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
The most notorious institutions to visit in this area are the Hanging Church,
Mar Girgis Church, Synagogue of Ben Ezra, and Amr Ibn Al ‘As Mosque.
The Hanging Church:
With the spread of Christianity in
Egypt, as many as twenty churches were built in the environs of Old Cairo.
Unfortunately, only five remain to this day, including the prominent Hanging
Church. It was built during the 7th century on the remains of an
older church built sometime between the 3rd and 4th
century A.D. The church is known in Arabic as Al Muallaqah (The Suspended) and
is dedicated to the Virgin Mary; it is sometimes referred to as St. Mary’s
Church. The Church was named for its location, suspending over a passage above
the gatehouse of the Roman fortress of Babylon.
In the 11th century,
the Hanging Church became the official residence of Alexandria’s Coptic
patriarchs. It is the most remarkable of Egypt’s churches, with its impressive
marble podium, icons, and friezes. During recent restorations, numerous relics
were moved out of the church and placed in the nearby Coptic Museum.
Mar Girgis Church:
This Greek Orthodox church, widely
known as St. George Church, was first built in 684 A.D. by Anthanasius, a
wealthy scribe who is also credited for the construction of other churches. It
was burnt down in 1904 and rebuilt five years later. This is the only round –
shaped church in Egypt, and is named after a much – loved soldier who later
turned into a saint. Mar Girgis, son of the governor of Palestine and a leading
officer in the Roman army, was imprisoned and tortured to death when he chose to
disobey the Roman Emperor’s orders to harass followers of the Christian faith.
His story inspired many to convert to this new emerging faith, and this church
was named as a tribute to his chivalry. It is also believed that the Holy Family
rested where the church now stands, during their journey to Egypt.
Synagogue of Ben Ezra:
The Synagogue of Ben Ezra was
originally a church built sometimes between the 6th and 9th
A.D. in Old Cairo. In 882 A.D., the Coptic Christians were forced to sell it to
be able to pay the annual taxes imposed by the Muslim rulers. Abraham Ben Ezra,
a Jew who had come from Jerusalem, purchased the church for 20, 000 Dinars. It
is widely believed that the Synagogue of Ben Ezra stands near a deep well when
the cradle of Prophet Moses was placed by his mother. The interior decoration of
the synagogue is inspired by Roman and Turkish architecture.
In 1896, a collection of
manuscripts known as the Geniza was found in a hideout in the synagogue during
one of the restorations. The Hebrew – Arabic documents, dating back to the
Fatimid Era, portrayed the conditions of Jews living under the Arab rule and
described the different Jewish sects and the relations between them. A rare
interpretation of the Old Testament was also found, in addition to documents
describing the relationship between the Jews and the Muslim authorities.
Mosque of Amr Ibn El ‘Aas:
This mosque, the first in Egypt
and Africa, was built in 642 A.D. by Amr Ibn El ‘Aas, the commander of the
Muslim army that conquered Egypt and introduced the new faith of Islam. It is
located north of the Roman fortress of Babylon and is believed to have been
built on the site of the tent of Amr Ibn El ‘Aas on the edge of the city of Al
Fustat – the impermanent city he built – overlooking the Nile. The mosque served
as an educational institution and a court for settling religious and civil
disputes, besides being a house of worship. Teaching circles were arranged to
preach Quranic sciences, jurisprudence, and the traditions of Prophet Mohammed.
In 672, Musallama Al Ansari,
Egypt’s ruler, ordered that the mosque be renovated, expanded, and decorated.
The mosque was demolished and rebuilt twice, in 698 and 711, and during the
Fatimid Era marble works and gilded mosaics were added. The last modification
made to Amr Ibn El ‘Aas Mosque was in 1797 during the Ottoman Era, when the
interior of the mosque was eradicated and rebuilt.
The Coptic museum:
In 1908, after receiving approval and a number of silver
antiquities from Patriarch Cyril V and raising funds by public subscription,
Marcus Simaika Pasha built the Coptic Museum and inaugurated it on March 14,
1910. The Coptic community was generous in their support of the museum, donating
many vestments, frescoes, and icons. In 1931 the Coptic Museum became a state
museum, under the jurisdiction of the
Department of Antiquities,
and in 1939 the collection of Christian antiquities in the
was moved there. These were housed in the New Wing, completed in 1944. Because
of damage, the Old Wing was closed in 1966, and the entire museum was renovated
between 1983 and 1984. The foundations of the museum were strengthened and
reinforced between 1986 and 1988 and further renovations took place 2005-06.
The Coptic Museum contains the world's largest collection
of Coptic artifacts and
Coptic monuments display a rich mixture of Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine and
Ottoman traditions, linking ancient and Islamic Egypt. The objects are grouped
into different mediums, such as stonework, woodwork, metalwork, textiles and
manuscripts. The total number of objects on display is about 15,000 objects. The
Coptic Museum also houses a corpus of 1,200
Nag Hammadi manuscripts
in a library open to specialist researchers only.
Al Azhar Mosque:
With the start of the Fatimid Era
in Egypt and the founding of Cairo, construction of Al Azhar Mosque began in 970
A.D. and was completed two years later; it is considered to be the first-ever
mosque in the city of Cairo, and is built in an area surrounded with remarkable
Islamic monuments from the 10th century. The origin of the name of
the mosque is unknown, but it is said that the Fatimids named it to commemorate
the daughter of Prophet Mohammed, Fatima Al Zahra’a.
The mosque became a teaching
institute, and with the first – ever lecture conducted in 975, it is the oldest
university in the world. Schools were added to the complex of the mosque, and
today lectures are conducted in the adjacent buildings while the mosque serves
only as a prayer area.
Al Hussein Mosque:
Al Hussein Mosque was built in
1154 A.D. to place the head and mausoleum of Al Hussein, the grandson of the
Prophet Mohammed. It was built on a site that was previously used as a cemetery
during the Fatimid Era. Early in the 20th century, the mosque’s vicar
discovered an underground room where a commemorative plaque was found and later
moved to the Museum of Arab Art. Al Hussein Mosque has three entrances in the
west, one in the north, and another in the south, all of which lead to a large
atrium with an area for ablution.
Al Hussein Mosque houses the
oldest manuscript of the Holy Quran, attributed to the Caliph Othman Ibn Affan.
The manuscript, written by Othman himself, is displayed in a glass case and is
open at a bloodstained page; legend has it that Othman was reading this page
when he was murdered.
The mosque includes 44 white
marble columns, and the mausoleum is surmounted with a cupola that is decorated
with gold. The mosque was entirely reconstructed over a period of nine years, in
the reign of Khedive Ismail, and was completed in 1873.
Khan El Khalili:
Khan El Khalili is a market that
was built in 1382 in the heart of the Fatimid city by Emir Djaharks El Khalili.
It is named for its caravanserai (Khan in Arabic), a caravan rest house that
includes storage rooms for trade goods, bedrooms for merchants to rest, and a
courtyard to keep their horses and camels.
The Khan El Khalili market helped
establish the city as a major trade centre and led to its early wealth. The
market was famous for selling spices, porcelain, precious stones, and elegant
fabrics from the east. Today, visitors will find clothes, spices, souvenirs,
traditional jewellery, and perfumes at reasonable prices. Khan El Khalili
includes several oriental restaurants and cafes, including the legendary El
Fishawy Café, which serves traditional tea, coffee, and shisha, and was once a
meeting place for local artists.