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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
More Things to Do in Cairo
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.
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.
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.
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.
One of Cairo’s most impressive and historic Coptic churches wows with ornate interior detail and relics including the remains of the church’s namesake Saint. It’s said that St. Barbara’s Pagan father murdered her after she attempted to convert him to Christianity—her remains, and the remains of several other Saints, can be found in a small alcove left of the main altar. Records of the ancient church have been scattered by time, but many believe the building could date back to the 4th century; an old iron gate connects the church to the Coptic cemetery along its side. Gold‐leafed icons adorn the walls and geometric ebony and ivory paneling serves as a backdrop to the main altar. A number of the church’s more interesting historical artifacts are housed at the off‐site Coptic Museum, including more icons, old manuscripts, textiles and more are just a short walk away—it’s worthwhile to visit both.
The ancient Babylon Fortress was originally built by the Romans in the area now known as Coptic (or Old) Cairo. The fortress was built in a strong and strategic position – a canal ran through this area connecting the Nile with the Red Sea.
The persecution of Coptic Egyptians led them to take refuge within Babylon Fortress, and a stroll along the length of the walls will reveal a fascinating combination of Roman and Coptic architecture. The Coptic Egyptians built a monastery as well as several churches in the fortress grounds and embedded within its walls, including the El-Muallaqa (Hanging Church) and the Church of St George. The towers of the fortress stand at almost 10 meters tall and are more than 30 meters in diameter. The fortifications have been altered and expanded upon by a number of emperors throughout the centuries.
Founded in 1908, this museum houses Coptic art from Greco-Roman times to the Islamic era drawn from Cairo, the desert monasteries and Nubia. If you are interested in Egyptian history and art post-pharoahs, this is the place for you.
In recent years it has undergone a major restoration, and has recently reopened. Exhibits include textiles, frescoes, stonework, woodwork, manuscripts, glass and ceramics. There's a pleasant enclosed garden and a small café.
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.
Dedicated to one of the region’s most popular Christian saints, the current Church of St George (or Mari Girgis) was constructed at the beginning of the 20th century, although the original was established as far back as the 10th century.
This Coptic Christian church has a distinctive style, having been built on top of a round Roman tower; it is the only circular church in Egypt. Its dark interior is an atmospheric place, thick with incense and with sunbeams filtering in through stained glass windows. There’s a flight of steps leading down into the old Roman tower, although this is closed off to the public. The Monastery of St. George next door is also closed to visitors. The Coptic Moulid (saints’ festival) of Mar Girgis is held here each year in April.
El Mokattam Mountain Cave Church, also known as the Monastery of St Simon, is located in the Mokattam mountain in southeast Cairo. The area is known as ‘garbage city’ due to the large number of garbage collectors or ‘Zabbaleen’ that live there and sort through the city’s waste, recycling up to 80% of it.
To reach El Mokattam Mountain Cave Church, visitors must weave through winding alleys before arriving at the entrance to what is believed to be one of the largest engraved monasteries in the world. The Zabbaleen are a minority Coptic Christian group and this gigantic church, which has been carved out of the mountainside and has a seating capacity of up to 20,000, is their place of worship. The cave church is dedicated to Simon the Tanner, a craftsman saint who lived during the 10th century. The church as it exists today features various motives and sculptures depicting the life of Christ, and an amphitheater surrounding a central pulpit.
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