The crammed sprawl of old and new in Old Cairo

The crammed sprawl of old and new in Old Cairo

Touchdown in Cairo and the immediate effect can be overwhelming at best. The city never seems to end, an ancient forest of concrete apartment blocks whose heat-weary occupants, watch the froth of humanity scuttling in the streets below. Every building capped with a dozen satellite dishes, streaming down the latest Arabic and Western content to a generation ever more savvy with the worlds demand for self-expressionism. Technology inside, history outside as those dishes, metal-ears pricked back seem to listen like the faithful below. In tune to the poetic summoning of a muezzins call as it drifts like perfume through the heavy air—a pre-recorded message, blown from a loud-speaker that echoes a tiny shift to modern times.

Chase your tail as you spin up a narrow spiral staircase to a minarets dizzying summit, and you’ll wonder, like the doves and pigeons who trapeze over the rooftops, where the end of the world must be. Only briefly fooled by the dark-blue glint of the Nile, as it pumps like a vein across Egypt’s skin. For Cairo, North Africa’s largest and most populated city is a keystone to the rest of Egypt, a keystone thousands of years old from its pyramid tombs to its bulky yet graceful mosques. Where sipping sugary tea through scented clouds of a sheesha pipe, or shunted along on the Metro can be more culturally telling than artefacts in the national museum.

You could spend weeks here, peering through glass cases at tiny figurines of Horus and Osiris, strolling through the cathartic-pulse of a tightly packed neighbourhood, losing yourself (literally) among the tombs in The City of the Dead and sifting through towers of second-hand literature. Cairo, like an old fortune-teller, beckons you in with an old finger. Look into the globe, and you’ll see it’s a portal for the curious.

The finger only scratches the surface here, peeling away an assortment of places and experiences that will encourage further exploration. Just like the Sphinx out at Giza, there is much more hidden beneath than just the major show-pieces.

Late afternoon near the Khan al Khahili

Late afternoon near the Khan al Khahili

Khan al Khalili 

Leave the museums and Tahrir square for later, plunging instead into the heady theatre of the Khan al-Khalili. The tour buses don’t stay long, galloping off in their half-day city race, opening up greater authenticity, especially the deeper you go into one of Cairo’s historic souks. The Khan’s foundations herald from the Mamluk period in the 14th century, allowing artisans and merchants to trade in a central commercial area. The original layout of businesses set around small courtyards known as a caravanserai is still evident, though aside from gold-sellers, spice-merchants, and coppersmiths, the segregation of each trade into its own district has faded away. If it all gets too much, take a seat in an ahwa (coffee-house) fronting the square (Midan al Hussein) and watch the middle-class Cairene women eagerly parade over to the gold district.

Reading in the quietness of the Al Azhar Mosque

Reading in the quietness of the Al Azhar Mosque

The Mosque of Al-Azhar

If the scream of traffic, oppressive heat, and one too many touts are getting under your shirt, then an excursion to a mosque (dress conservatively) is a step into a paradoxical world. Calm, peaceful, embodying contemplation, both spiritual and personal, the mosque is the religious core of the nation. The Al-Azhar exemplifies those characteristic’s as well as highlighting the profound architectural talent of the Fatimids. A dynasty (centred in Mahdia-Tunisia) who made Cairo their capital in the 10th century AD until defeat by Saladin in 1171. Eighteen years after the mosque’s completion, saw the addition of a madrassa (theological school),  revered as an elite centre for Islamic studies. Enlarged over a millennium, each of its three minarets hails from a different century.

Greek Orthodox cemetery in Coptic Cairo

Greek Orthodox cemetery in Coptic Cairo

Coptic Cairo

The word Copts, the Greek word for Egyptian Christians denotes Coptic Cairo. The area safe-guarded the holy family when they took flight from King Herod—spreading as a dominant faith under St. Mark who became Christianity’s first patriarch, converting, along with his successors, many (former pagans) to the new faith. Under Emperor Diocletian, Christian communities were persecuted despite the Milan Edict (AD 313) that sought religious toleration. Coptic Christians parted from the Roman and Byzantine Church from differences about the human side of Christ which Alexandria’s patriarch, Diocurus refused to accept.

The area supports an array of churches, one of the most profound is the twin tower Hanging Church, known for its location over the original Roman Babylon Water Gate. The Coptic museum presents religious iconography from Roman times to the Islamic conquest. Other places of interest are the Church of St. Sergius, the Ben Ezra Synagogue. Church of St. Mary, and the Greek Orthodox cemetery.

Local sitting next to a sheesha pipe Old Cairo

Local sitting next to a sheesha pipe Old Cairo


The bubbling noise of water percolating from a decorative glass chamber and the long exhale of fragrant smoke is synonymous with Sheesha. The long contraption resembling an apparatus from an antiquated science lab is one of Egypt’s social traditions. Taken within an Ahwa (coffee-house), it’s a popular excursion in wiling away a few hours, sipping sweet tea or the pungent kick of Egyptian coffee while older men throw the die in a game of backgammon.

Smoking sheesha tended to be a male-only activity, but modern times, aided by the young have re-sculptured the landscape, as mix-sexed groups regularly pass around a pipe or two.

Hot coals, placed over the foil-covered tobacco, draw out its aroma, with the smoke pulled down through the water before inhalation, results in a smoother, more aromatic flavour than a standard cigarette. It’s less addictive, but don’t be fooled as it’s no less healthy.

The Cairo Museum Photo by Ovedc

The Cairo Museum Photo by Ovedc

The Cairo Museum (Museum of Egyptian Antiquities)

The large hallway and its long side galleries are full of Egyptian wonders. Held in dusty glass cabinets or towering up the side of the walls, come an impressive array of exhibits that lay claim to Egypt’s formidable past. One hundred twenty thousand items in total, though only a tiny fraction is on display. Documenting the prolific achievements of the Pharaonic era across its three kingdoms. The Cairo museum is a first and last port of call to many visitors in laying down the historical and cultural foundations towards their exploration of the country.

Built from designs by French architect Marcel Dourgnon at the turn of the twentieth century, the Garozzo-Zaffarani red brick structure is almost as iconic as the exhibits inside. It was becoming the final resting point for countless treasures that had previously been shifted from one location to another, including a former palace and a warehouse. The Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza will eventually supersede the Cairo Museum, but the current climate has delayed its opening.

The Mummies room and treasures of the boy-king Tutankhamun, which includes his gold death mask are two popular exhibitions at the museum and incur separate entry fees.

Fruit seller at Tihrir square during the governmnt protests Cairo Egypt

Fruit seller at Tahrir square during the governmnt protests Cairo Egypt

Midan Tahrir (Liberation Square)

Like Leicester Square to London and Times Square to New York. Midan Tahrir stands at the heart of Cairo’s frenetic pulse. A heart with plenty of arteries trying desperately to pump over-capacity traffic through the city. But the square itself, open and wide and generally hassle-free allows appreciating the surrounding architecture. In 2011 as the Arab Spring unfolded, the square became a social platform for protest. Even when President Mubarak had gone, the cities population (often a million), came to Tahrir on Friday afternoons to pile on the pressure. A grand sense of unity unfolded with Egyptians from all walks of life, fighting for the same outcome. As the weeks went by, the square hosted speeches, musicians, and activists to a compacted and diverse throng of Cairo’s proud people. Vendors and merchants came to sell ice-cream, fruit juices, coffee, flags, t-shirts and caps. Pitched tents on the grassy verges beneath The Ministry of Foreign Affair’s, and placards hung from cables stretched between the lamp posts, were normal. Such an empty piece of space became filled with promise, hope and change.

The caretaker in the main prayer hall of Al MuAyyad Mosque

The caretaker in the main prayer hall of Al MuAyyad Mosque

Al Mu’ayyad Mosque

Located between the more imposing Al-Azhar mosque and the perched citadel further south, this red and white banded mosque receives a trickle of visitors in comparison, which is a blessing in disguise when appreciating the mosques subtle but effective architecture. Several rows of slim pillars supporting limestone brick arches that rise to the dim confines of a beamed ceiling. The age of the mosque resonates through its mihrab, chandeliers, beams, even the wrinkled green carpet that covers most of the floor.

Sadly for Sultan Al-Mu’ayyad, he never got to see the building’s completion, passing away in 1421 before its official opening. But its origins were not for religion but health care established as a maristan (hospital) on the site of an unfinished mausoleum. It appears the hospital never functioned as shortly after, it was designated a guest-house by the Mamluk court for a group of Persians. Al-Mu’ayyad’s successor, Sultan al-Ashraf Barsbay, had the entire place turned into a Friday mosque. Gradually the mosque was abandoned, succumbing to extensive neglect. Under the governments Historic Cairo Restoration Project, Al-Mu’ayyad finally got the fix it deserved.

The central dome framed by geometric carving The Beit El Suhaymi

The central dome framed by geometric carving The Beit El Suhaymi

The Bayt El-Suhaymi

North of the Khan al-Khalili and a stone’s throw south of the grand Al-Hakim mosque is the Bayt el-Suhaymi. Enjoying a privileged position close to Darb al-Asfar, a historically prestigious district in Islamic Cairo. The Bayt (house) Al-Suhaymi stems back to the mid 17th century, constructed by Abdel Wahab el Tablawy. Though it wasn’t for a further 138 years in 1796 that the property took its owners name when Ahmed al-Suhaymi moved in, having purchased the site along with its neighbours -affording him the size and space to execute several ambitious extensions.

From the street the property appears nondescript, eyes cast down until pleasantly surprised by courtyards and shielded exotic gardens. Much of the original work remains, brought back to glory through restoration. The intricate and complicated mashrabiya (window panel) and ceiling-art demonstrate the high level of skill and commitment. The mansion affords a peek into the living standards of the rich, through its network of reception rooms, bedrooms, lounges, bathrooms and halls, standing in quiet contrast to the afflictions and poverty of modern-day Cairo.

The city of the dead photo by Michal Huniewicz httpswww flickr comphotosmkey me

The city of the dead photo by Michal Huniewicz httpswww flickr comphotosmkey me

The City of the Dead

The living and the dead co-existing side by side in a vast necropolis, but far from the appearance of a moribund cemetery, the City of the Dead has a pulse, brought on by its 50,000 living residents. Some predictions multiply that figure tenfold.

Referred to as the Northern Cemetery, the Cairo Necropolis and Qarafa, this great place of the buried juxtaposes with the needs of the living, with its post office and commerce, power-lines and washing lines. Custodians, grave-diggers, caretakers of the tombs, and their associated families have resided here for many generations as well as Sufi’s and religious scholars who studied in the religious institutions financed by the Sultan. The idea of a colossal cemetery first saw the light with the Mamluk Sultans as a solution to space problems in an already crammed city. Dignified and expensive shrines relayed an identical ritual once performed during the Pharaonic period, where mourners ate and socialized around the tombs. The dead grateful for being celebrated and the living appreciative of their living quarters. Tomb-dwellers, those squatting inside the tombs reached 6000 by 1980, which accounted for 3% of the area’s population at the time.

Your Order Please

Cairenes dine late when eating out, past most Westerners limits. The best food served up in the family home, but Cairo has a decent selection of quick eats as well. Street food is an ideal staple when on the hoof exploring, frequently trying small dishes every time you have seen something different. It’s an enjoyable way to feed your curiosity (pardon the pun), and it hardly leaves an impression on your wallet. A dish or two of fuul is an excellent start, slow-cooked fava beans with garlic, lemon, and parsley, finished with a slug of olive oil. Mopped up or stuffed into shammy (pita) it soon plugs the stomach. Smashed up broad-beans, lightly spiced, balled and deep-fried is Cairo’s answer to falafel known as ta’amiyya. 

  You’ll find shwarma cafes quickly enough, and at lunchtime, they become swamped with hungry locals, hovering between the shwarma or a döner kebab where thin slices of hot slow-cooked meat are pushed into a shammy with tomato, parsley and spicy sauce. Fiteer, a thin crispy pizza rather like a Turkish pide is an ideal takeaway snack. It can be savoury or sweet when garnished with fresh fruit. Fresh fruit is a regular sight in Cairo, and small cafe counters lined with a couple of blenders can blitz up a long list of fruit-based drinks from orange to date. If you can find it in the Ahwa, the drink sahlab is a firm favourite, a hot thick semolina based drink topped with chopped pistachios, sultanas and sometimes coconut shavings -ideal on a cold Winter’s day. Zabaady is rather like Iran’s ayran, a thin, slightly salty yoghurt drink, while yansoon is an aniseed based tea.

Note: The FCO currently advice against travel to Egypt. Those arriving into the country will be subject to health measures including temperature check, filling in a monitoring card and proof of adequate travel insurance. From 15th August, foreign travellers will need to show a negative PCR test-certificate taken within 72 hours preceding their arrival, though exempt if flying into Hurghada, Marasa Allam, Sharm el-Sheihk, and Marsa Matrouh. Returning to the UK requires 14 days of self-isolation.

Facts: You can reach Al-Azhar mosque quickly enough from Khan al-Khalili by heading south from Midan al-Hussein onto Sharia al-Azhar, cross over and the mosque is straight ahead. Entry will be denied during prayer times and Friday (Juma). It is essential to dress appropriately for any mosque as well as the religious buildings in Coptic Cairo (No shorts or skimpy t-shirts). Women might only be allowed to view the prayer area for women as well as the courtyard. It’s worth asking the guardian about permission to climb the minaret for excellent views across the city. A small tip is expected.

The churches, synagogue, and convent tend to be free but making a small donation is courteous. The Coptic Museum requires an entry ticket. To reach the district take the Metro four stops south from Sadat (Midan Tahrir) to Mar Girgis from where it’s a short walk to the Greek Monastery and Church of St, George.

Tickets for the Egyptian Museum just northwest of Midan Tahrir cost EGP 60/30 (reg/student) and EGP 100/60 (reg/student) for the mummies room. Open 09:00-19:00. Friday 09:00-11:00, 13:30-19:00.

Bayt el-Suhaymi: 09:00-17:00 EGP50/25 (adult/student).

The City of The Dead or Northern Cemetery – Walk east from Hussein square (Midan al-Hussein) along Sharia al-Azhar. At the top of the hill bear right, continue under the overpass, heading directly along the road between the tombs. Following it left then right you’ll pass by Emir Tashtimur’s tomb. Monuments worth visiting include the Mosque of Qaitbey, the Sultan Barsbey complex, and the  Farag Ibn Barquq mausoleum.

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