Things to Do in Cairo
Jaundiced travelers often dismiss the Khan al-Khalili as a tourist trap; there's no ignoring the fact that it's a favored stop of tour buses and has all the associated annoyances (touts and tat) that come with them. But it's worth remembering that Cairenes have plied their trades here since the founding of the Khan in the 14th century - the buying and selling didn't begin with the arrival of the first tour group.
Today the market still plays an important role in the day-to-day commercial life of thousands of locals. In its narrow streets you can buy anything from shoes to souvenirs to clothes, chess sets, cushions, ceramics, brass, gold, silver, rugs, fabrics and on it goes.
Measuring 4,150 miles (6,680 kilometers) from end to end, the Nile River is the world’s longest and arguably the most important in the region. Egypt’s some 83 million residents, living along the edge of the pitiless Sahara Desert, have always relied on the waters of the Nile for basic sustenance.
More than 240 riverboats sail up and down the waters of the Nile River between Luxor and Aswan, and cruising on one of them tops many an Egyptian travel itinerary. Along the way, you’ll make stops at a few of the countless temples dotting the shore, including the Temple of Edfu, built in honor of the god Horus and better maintained than any other Pharaonic structure along the river, and the Temple of Kom Ombo, dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek.
At Aswan, marvel at the controversial Aswan High Dam, a feat of engineering responsible for harnessing the Nile and creating the world’s largest artificial lake.
Saqqara (or Sakkara) lies about 18 miles (30 km) south of Cairo and was the burial site for the ancient Egyptian capital Memphis, now in ruins. In the site of 4.4 by 0.9 miles (7 by 1.5 km) there is a sphinx, smaller than that at Giza at only 26ft by 13ft (8m by 4m), and several pyramids, the most famous of which is the stepped pyramid of Djoser dating from around 2,650 BC. This pyramid represented a major advance in building techniques being the first complete stone-hewn building in history. Previous to this, mudbrick and wood were used for tombs.
Another 16 Kings also built their tombs at Saqqara and the area was used as a burial site until well into Roman times. In 1979, UNESCO named the area as a World Heritage Site.
The city of Memphis was the capital of ancient Egypt. It was the King's residence and the political and administrative centre until around 2,200 BC. It had impressive fortifications and temples, largely to Ptah, the god of creation and artworks. Estimates of population vary from 6,000 to 30,000 but either way, it was one of the larger, if not the largest, cities of its era.
Archaeological digging in the area has uncovered a Temple of Ptah and sculptures, including a sphinx (smaller than the one at Giza but still impressive), and the Colossus of Ramses II. These are now housed in the outdoor Memphis Museum in Mit Rihina, the modern town in this area. In 1979, UNESCO designated the area a World Heritage Site.
Old Cairo is a relatively small area but it is rich with history. Also known as Coptic Cairo, Fustat (in reference to the first Muslim city established there), and Masr al-Qadima to the locals, it has been inhabited since the 6th century BC. It has been a Roman fort protecting trade routes, a Christian city from around the 5th century AD, a Muslim army camp from 641 AD, then Egypt's capital city until yet another conquest in the 10th century.
The main interest these days is in its role as Coptic Cairo. The narrow cobbled streets contain the Religious Compound, full of churches including the Hanging Church (dedicated to the Virgin Mary and still in use), the oldest synagogue in Egypt, the remains of the Roman fortress, and the Coptic Museum. Just northeast is the site of ancient Fustat which contains the oldest mosque, Amr Ibn al-Aas.
Sprawling over a limestone spur on the eastern edge of the city, the Citadel of Saladin (or Al-Qalaa) was home to Egypt's rulers for some 700 years. Their legacy is a collection of three very different mosques, including the Mosque of Mohamed Ali, several palaces (housing some underwhelming museums such as the police and military museums) and a couple of terraces with city views.
The area was fortified around 1180 to protect it from the Crusaders. In the 1860s, ruler Khedive Ismail moved to newly built Abdin Palace, ending the citadel's role as the seat of government.
Think of Dahshur as pyramid-proving grounds: Although not nearly as famous at the pyramids of Giza, the structures here pre-date the Great Pyramids and highlight the engineering progress and understanding that took place on the way from a stepped structure to a true pyramid. The royal necropolis at Dahshur comprises a two-mile (3.5-kilometer) field of pyramids that date back between the fourth and 12th dynasties, and although 11 structures once dotted the landscape, only two remain: the Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid. Nearly identical in size, these two pyramids are the third-largest in the country after the two biggest at Giza. The Red Pyramid is the older of the two and the only one that visitors can actually enter.
The citadel of Saladin - and indeed, the Cairo skyline - is dominated by the Alabaster Mosque, or Mosque of Mohammed Ali. Modelled along classic Turkish lines, it took 18 years to build (1830 - 1848) although later the domes had to be rebuilt. It was commissioned by Mohammad Ali, ruler of Egypt from 1805 - 1849, who lies in the marble tomb on the right as you enter.
Perhaps the most evocative description of it is in Olivia Manning's The Levant Trilogy: "Above them Mohammed Ali's alabaster mosque, uniquely white in this sand-coloured city, sat with minarets pricked, like a fat, white, watchful cat." It has never found much favor with writers, who have criticized it for being unimaginative, lacking in grace and resembling a great toad. Note the chintzy clock in the central courtyard, a gift from King Louis-Philippe of France in thanks for the Pharaonic obelisk that adorns the Place de la Concorde in Paris. It was damaged on delivery and has yet to be repaired.
Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the Hanging Church, which is still in use, is called the Hanging or Suspended Church as it is built on top of the Water Gate of Roman Babylon. Steep stairs lead from the forecourt to a 19th -century façade topped by twin bell towers. Beyond is a small inner courtyard, usually filled with sellers of taped liturgies and videos of the Coptic pope, Shenouda III.
The interior of this 9th-century (some say 7th-century) church, renovated many times throughout the centuries, has three barrel-vaulted, wooden-roofed aisles. Ivory-inlaid screens hide the three haikal s (altar areas), but in front of them, raised on 13 slender pillars that represent Christ and his disciples, is a fine pulpit used only on Palm Sunday. One of the pillars, darker than the rest, is said to symbolize Judas. In the baptistry, off to the right, a panel has been cut out of the floor revealing the Water Gate below. From here there is a good view of one of the gate's twin towers.
More Things to Do in Cairo
Djoser was a king in the 3rd Dynasty of Ancient Egypt, ruling from 2667 BC - 2648 BC. He was the first to build a pyramid for his tomb. It was a development from the low, flat-roofed mastabas and was a series of steps - hence the name 'Step Pyramid' now known as Djoser's Pyramid. It formed part of a tomb complex Djoser built for himself at Saqqara, just outside Memphis, then the capital of Egypt.
The 205 ft (62 m) tall pyramid was designed by Imhotep and was intended to facilitate the pharaoh's journey to the afterlife. The complex of pyramid, tombs and courts which make up Djoser's burial site covers 37 acres (15 hectares).
Islamic architecture abounds in Cairo—after all, it is one of the world’s oldest Muslim cities and also known as the City of a Thousand Minarets. The densest and oldest concentration of historic hammams, mosques, education centers or madrasas, mausoleums and fountains—some dating to the 10th century—comprise Islamic Cairo, a loosely defined bastion of old Cairo. Here, visitors can spend days winding through narrow streets, exploring mosques and markets, and feeling transported to a Cairo sans‐McDonalds and shopping malls. Popular points of reference include the old citadel built in the 12th century atop the tallest point in the city to defend from marauding crusaders and the Al‐Azhar Mosque with its marble‐paved interior courtyard, affiliated University—perhaps the oldest such institution in the world—and stalactite cornicing representing dripping water.
Ben Ezra Synagogue used to be a Christian place of worship by the name of El-Shamieen Church and according to a legend, the building was built on the exact spot where Moses was found as a baby in his basket. However, when the Coptic Christians owning it weren’t able to pay the annual taxes imposed by the Muslim rulers any longer, they had to sell the church. It was sold to Abraham Ben Ezra, who purchased the building in 882 AD for 20,000 dinars and turned it into a Jewish synagogue.
The synagogue became a place where North African Jews congregated for major festivals and famous rabbis came to worship on their visits to Cairo. Then, during a restoration in 1890, the most famous and diverse Geniza in the world was found. In an empty space below the roof, roughly 300,000 priceless manuscripts were hidden away, a collection that is now known as the Cairo Geniza. The manuscripts have long since been transferred to different libraries.
Whether it’s the oldest mosque in Cairo or not (there is some debate about this), the Mosque of Ibn Tulun is certainly the largest, and most definitely worthy of a visit while in Cairo. This huge, sprawling complex was built by Ahmad Ibn Tulun to accommodate all of his troops during Friday prayers. There’s an inscription slab on-site that identifies the date of the mosque’s completion as 879 AD.
The mosque covers an area of more than six acres and features small outer courtyards, their galleries decorated with intricately carved stucco. These courtyards served to ensure privacy, separating the sacred space of the interior from the outside world. The mosque’s minaret is the only one of its kind in Egypt and is a famous Cairo landmark. It features an external staircase on its second story, which spirals up to its pinnacle.
Ramses II was a the longest serving pharaoh in Ancient Egypt, reigning from 1279 BC to 1213 BC, a total of 66 years and 2 months. This made him a very powerful and significant man in history and it's not surprising he left behind so many huge statues of himself. One of these is the freestanding red granite statue reaching 36 ft (11 m) in height discovered by Giovanni Battista Caviglia in 1820 in Memphis, the ruined ancient capital city. It was broken into 6 pieces but in 1955 Egyptian President Nasser had it restored and installed in Cairo at Ramses Square. Pollution took its toll on the 3,200 year old sculpture however and in 2006 it was moved to Giza where it will be installed in the new Grand Egyptian Museum when that opens in 2013.
Other statues of Ramses II are found at Abu Simbel and Luxor. The British Museum also has one which was found at Thebes.
Egypt is home to some of the world’s grandest mosques, with some of the most detailed and dazzling located in Cairo. The Sultan Hassan Mosque, situated near the city's famous and majestic Citadel, is one of Cairo's most impressive Islamic structures.
Sultan Hassan bin Mohammed bin Qala'oun was only 13 years old when he first ascended to the throne. After being deposed and imprisoned for three years, he reclaimed power and built his eponymous mosque in 1256 A.D. The massive Sultan Hassan Mosque complex measures 26,000 square feet and is also home to a madrasa, or religious school, containing educational facilities for each of the four main Sunni sects of Islam. An estimated 30,000 Dirhams was spent each day to build the Sultan Hassan, a substantial amount of money that provided the structure’s impressive stony exterior and bold, extravagant interior.
Among the countless minarets punctuating the Cairo skyline, four of the most impressive belong to one of the city’s standout mosques, Al-Azhar. This mosque, situated in the Islamic district, is not only one of Cairo's largest sanctuaries but it is also home to the world's oldest university, where class was first held in 975 A.D.
Fatima al-Zahra, the revered daughter of Muslim prophet Mohammed, was the inspiration for the mosque's name, as her moniker of "the Resplendent One” was perfectly suited for this holy place. Originally a prayer hall with only five aisles and a small courtyard, the Al-Azhar Mosque has grown throughout the centuries under the Fatimids, Mamluks and Ottomans into one of the most impressive Islamic structures in Egypt and all of the Middle East.
Constructed in 642 AD under orders of the commander of the Muslim army that conquered Egypt, the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As was the first mosque to ever be built on Egyptian soil. Situated north of the Roman Fortress of Babylon, it sits on the edge of Fustat, the country’s first capital, which was founded by Amr ibn al-As.
The mosque is said to have been built on the site where the general pitched his tent, and the original structure was thought to consist of only palm trunks covered with leaves. It expanded to its current size in 827 AD, while the Fatimid period saw the mosque ornately decorated with marble, mosaics, silver coatings, and a moving pulpit. The building has been restored and expanded upon many times since, with parts of the entrance reconstructed as recently as the 1980s. The mosque incorporates both Greek and Roman architectural styles. It features 200 marble columns, many taken from ancient sites, and three minarets.
Though not as old as many other Cairo mosques, Al-Rifa’i Mosque stands out among others for its elaborate cavernous ceilings and the fact that it serves as a mausoleum for the last Shah of Iran (who died in exile in Egypt), as well as the last reigning king of Egypt and several members of the Egyptian royal family. Shortly after entering, visitors will find the tomb of Shaykh 'Ali al-Refa'i, a saint and the leader in an order of dervishes, and to the left beyond that are the tombs of the ‘last-in-line.’ The area is significant for burial because the building was built atop an ancient pilgrimage site said to have healing properties. Forty-four enormous columns support Mamluk-style inlaid marble walls decorated with gold-leaf Quran verses—they form a meditative cocoon from the honks and street noise outside while sung prayers echo off the tall ceilings. Al-Rifa’i Mosque was constructed between 1869 and 1912, and its exterior was designed to mimic the adjacent 14th-century Mosque.
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