World Facts Index > Egypt > Cairo

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 old 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.

Central Cairo
The current heart of Cairo, the downtown region roughly centered around Midan Tahrir, stretching east to Ramses Station and south to Garden City, is relatively young - 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, theatres, 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 it's 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 publications and magazines.

Old Cairo (Masr el Qadima)
Sometimes known as "Coptic Cairo", this area provides an historical link between Cairo's Pharaonic and Islamic periods. It is likely that the area was settled from the 6th century BC. It was here that in 130 AD, 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.

Islamic Cairo
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 centre 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 for hundreds of living residents. Throughout the district, there are dozens of beautiful mosques with many different architectural styles, which 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 Governate 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 and 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 upmarket 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 cosy restaurants and pubs can be found tucked away in the maze of backstreets.

Gezira and 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 which 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 which have an eclectic architectural style. The museum has a lovely collection of old manuscripts. There are no crowds of tourists here, making it a peaceful afternoon.

Heliopolis, Nasr City and 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 upmarket district has numerous Western-style shops and restaurants. The elegant arcaded 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 BC) stands at Midan al-Misallah, and 500 metres 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.

History of Cairo

With its plethora of monuments, palaces, mosques and churches, Cairo is truly a city where the past is always present. Despite the proximity of the Pyramids, Cairo is, in fact, not a Pharaonic city. The earliest known settlement is Babylon Fort, established by the Romans. Babylon, the symbol of Roman power for many years, was later used as a safe place for Egyptian Copts fleeing from the atrocities of the Roman Emperor. It is even said that the Holy Family settled in the area. Many of the churches that were built in and around the Fortress, such as Al Muallaqua (Hanging) Church and Abu Serga can still be seen today.

The area's history turned a new chapter when Muslim warriors from the Arab peninsula (now known as Saudi Arabia) swept across Egypt conquering the Romans and Persians. The Muslims, commanded by Amr Ibn al-As, laid siege to Babylon Fort in 642 AD. Realising the power and influence of the Arab Muslims, who had also earned the support of the Egyptian peasants and townspeople, the viceroy of Egypt, Cyrus, decided to relinquish the Fortress to the Muslim army.

The city subsequently underwent many changes of rule passing from the Abbasids to the Tulunids (responsible for the Mosque of Ibn Tulun) and then to the Fatimids. It was the latter who established what is now known as Islamic Cairo in 969. There are many fine remains of the Fatimid's reign including Al Azhar Mosque and the gates of Bab al Futuh. A serious threat was posed to the Fatimids in 1168 AD by the arrival of the Crusaders who advanced into Egypt from Palestine. Eventually, the Fatimids were forced into exile by the Selujk Turks, commanded by Salah ad-Din (known also as Saladin). He made a lasting impression on the city by constructing the Citadel, close to the Moukkattam Hill. Upon his death, Saladin was succeeded by his brother Al-Adel, who in turn was succeeded by his son Al-Kamel. The Ayyoubid dynasty finally came to an end when Al-Kamel's nephew, Al-Saleh, died in 1250.

Power was seized by the Mamelukes, a Turkish slave-soldier class. During their 267 year reign, the Mamelukes turned Cairo into the intellectual and cultural centre of the Muslim world. Their achievements include the Madrassa and Mausoleum of Quala?un, the al-Nasir Muhammed Madrasa/Mausoleum and the Wikala of al-Ghouri. They were also successful soldiers, gaining control of Syria and Palestine. The prosperity brought by the Mamelukes came to an end when Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route of the Cape of Good Hope. The new route helped the European merchants, who used to cross Egypt, to dodge the heavy taxes demanded by Cairo. The Mameluke dynasty finally crumbled when the Turkish Sultan Selim entered Cairo in 1516.

Istanbul, the seat of the rulers of the Ottoman empire, swept the carpet from under the feet of Cairo, reducing it to the status of a province. Trading revenues were sent to Istanbul, together with taxes collected from the Egyptian population. The Mamelukes were allowed to live on and maintained some power but they were deposed by Napoleon in the late eighteenth century.

After the departure of the French troops, following their dramatic defeat at the hands of the British navy in Abu Qir Battle, the British, commanded by General Frazer, invaded Egypt in 1807. They were resisted by the Egyptian nationalist movement and locals. In the meantime, an Albanian officer named Mohammed Ali Pasha was appointed ruler of Egypt by the Ottoman Sultan. Supported by the Egyptians and the Mamelukes, Mohammed Ali Pasha succeeded in defeating the British in 1811. He then firmly established his control on the country and disposed of his Mameluke opponents in a sinister massacre.

Mohammed Ali Pasha further expanded Egypt and constructed many buildings - all heavily influenced by European architectural design. Most notable amongst these is the Mohammed Ali Mosque - a very imposing structure. He was also responsible for developing Egypt's infrastructure with the Barrages on the Nile, locally known as Qanater Khayyeria; railway networks extending between Cairo, Alexandria and Upper Egypt; and military and engineering schools.

The Mohammed Ali Pasha dynasty was thrown into turmoil when Khedive Said, who ascended to the country's throne in 1854, borrowed a huge sum of money from European countries to dig the Suez Canal, a waterway connecting the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. Khedive Said, notorious for his lavish lifestyle, also borrowed money to build grand palaces (including the Abdeen Palace, now a museum) and villas.

Unable to honour its financial commitments to European countries, Egypt came under the supervision of the UK and France, which finally led to its occupation by Great Britain. The country was liberated after a group known as the Free Officers staged a revolution on 23rd July, 1952. They forced King Farouk to relinquish his throne and go into exile and also dismissed the British Occupational Forces. Over the last few decades, Cairo has enjoyed mixed fortunes. The assassination of Sadat and terrorist attacks have undoubtedly left their mark on the country as a whole. Still, the city is gradually picking itself up - the government is stable, the economy is steady and tourism is on the rise again. This renewed confidence has had a very positive effect on the city's cultural and entertainment scene with new venues, like the Cairo Opera House, being opened all the time. Make sure you bookmark to keep track of what's happening in the land of the Pharaohs.


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