Updated: Dec 28, 2022
In today's installment of Cities in the Spotlight we are travelling to Cairo, Egypt.
Cairo City Information
Cairo is the capital of Egypt and the largest city in the Arab world. The Greater Cairo metropolitan area, with a population of 21.3 million, is the largest urban agglomeration in Africa, the largest in the Arab world and the Middle East, and the sixth-largest in the world by population. Cairo is associated with ancient Egypt, as the Giza pyramid complex and the ancient cities of Memphis and Heliopolis are located in its geographical area. Located near the Nile Delta, the city first developed as Fustat, a settlement founded by Arab conquerors in 640 next to an existing ancient fortress. Under the Fatimid dynasty a new city, al-Qāhirah, was founded nearby in 969. It later superseded Fustat as the main urban centre during the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods (12th–16th centuries). Cairo has long been a centre of the region's political and cultural life, and is titled "the city of a thousand minarets" for its preponderance of Islamic architecture. Cairo's historic center was awarded World Heritage Site-status in 1979. Cairo is considered a World City with a "Beta +" classification according to GaWC. Today, Cairo has the oldest and largest Arab film and music industry, as well as the world's second-oldest institution of higher learning, Al-Azhar University. Many international media, businesses, and organizations have regional headquarters in the city; the Arab League has had its headquarters in Cairo for most of its existence. With a population of over 10 million spread over 453 km2 (175 sq mi), Cairo is by far the largest city in Egypt. An additional 9.5 million inhabitants live in close proximity to the city.
Cairo Historical Significance
The area around present-day Cairo had long been a focal point of Ancient Egypt due to its strategic location at the junction of the Nile Valley and the Nile Delta regions (roughly Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt), which also placed it at the crossing of major routes between North Africa and the Levant. Memphis, the capital of Egypt during the Old Kingdom and a major city up until Ptolemaic period, was located a short distance south of present-day Cairo. Heliopolis, another important city and major religious center, was located in what are now the northeastern suburbs of Cairo. It was largely destroyed by the Persian invasions in 525 BC and 343 BC and partly abandoned by the late first century BC. However, the origins of modern Cairo are generally traced back to a series of settlements in the first millennium AD. Around the turn of the fourth century, as Memphis was continuing to decline in importance, the Romans established a large fortress along the east bank of the Nile. The fortress, called Babylon, was built by the Roman emperor Diocletian (r. 285–305) at the entrance of a canal connecting the Nile to the Red Sea that was created earlier by emperor Trajan (r. 98–115). Further north of the fortress, near the present-day district of al-Azbakiya, was a port and fortified outpost known as Tendunyas or Umm Dunayn. While no structures older than the 7th century have been preserved in the area aside from the Roman fortifications, historical evidence suggests that a sizeable city existed. The city was important enough that its bishop, Cyrus, participated in the Second Council of Ephesus in 449. However, the Byzantine-Sassanian War between 602 and 628 caused great hardship and likely caused much of the urban population to leave for the countryside, leaving the settlement partly deserted. The site today remains at the nucleus of the Coptic Orthodox community, which separated from the Roman and Byzantine churches in the late 4th century. Cairo's oldest extant churches, such as the Church of Saint Barbara and the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (from the late 7th or early 8th century), are located inside the fortress walls in what is now known as Old Cairo or Coptic Cairo. Fustat and other early Islamic settlements
The Muslim conquest of Byzantine Egypt was led by Amr ibn al-As from 639 to 642. Babylon Fortress was besieged in September 640 and fell in April 641. In 641 or early 642, after the surrender of Alexandria (the Egyptian capital at the time), he founded a new settlement next to the Babylon Fortress. The city, known as Fustat, served as a garrison town and as the new administrative capital of Egypt. Historians such as Janet Abu-Lughod and André Raymond trace the genesis of present-day Cairo to the foundation of Fustat. The choice of founding a new settlement at this inland location, instead of using the existing capital of Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast, may have been due to the new conquerors' strategic priorities. One of the first projects of the new Muslim administration was to clear and re-open Trajan's ancient canal in order to ship grain more directly from Egypt to Medina, the capital of the caliphate in Arabia. Ibn al-As also founded a mosque for the city at the same time, now known as the Mosque of Amr Ibn al-As, the oldest mosque in Egypt and Africa (although the current structure dates from later expansions). In 750, following the overthrow of the Umayyad caliphate by the Abbasids, the new rulers created their own settlement to the northeast of Fustat which became the new provincial capital. This was known as al-Askar as it was laid out like a military camp. A governor's residence and a new mosque were also added, with the latter completed in 786. In 861, on the orders of the Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil, a Nilometer was built on Roda Island near Fustat. Although it was repaired and given a new roof in later centuries, its basic structure is still preserved today, making it the oldest preserved Islamic-era structure in Cairo today.
In 868 a commander of Turkic origin named Bakbak was sent to Egypt by the Abbasid caliph al-Mu'taz to restore order after a rebellion in the country. He was accompanied by his stepson, Ahmad ibn Tulun, who became effective governor of Egypt. Over time, Ibn Tulun gained an army and accumulated influence and wealth, allowing him to become the de facto independent ruler of both Egypt and Syria by 878. In 870, he used his growing wealth to found a new administrative capital, al-Qata'i, to the northeast of Fustat and of al-Askar. The new city included a palace known as the Dar al-Imara, a parade ground known as al-Maydan, a bimaristan (hospital), and an aqueduct to supply water. Between 876 and 879 Ibn Tulun built a great mosque, now known as the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, at the center of the city, next to the palace. After his death in 884, Ibn Tulun was succeeded by his son and his descendants who continued a short-lived dynasty, the Tulunids. In 905, the Abbasids sent general Muhammad Sulayman al-Katib to re-assert direct control over the country. Tulunid rule was ended and al-Qatta'i was razed to the ground, except for the mosque which remains standing today.
Foundation and expansion of Cairo
In 969, the Shi'a Isma'ili Fatimid empire conquered Egypt after ruling from Ifriqiya. The Fatimid general Jawhar Al Saqili founded a new fortified city northeast of Fustat and of former al-Qata'i. It took four years to build the city, initially known as al-Manṣūriyyah, which was to serve as the new capital of the caliphate. During that time, the construction of the al-Azhar Mosque was commissioned by order of the caliph, which developed into the third-oldest university in the world. Cairo would eventually become a centre of learning, with the library of Cairo containing hundreds of thousands of books. When Caliph al-Mu'izz li Din Allah arrived from the old Fatimid capital of Mahdia in Tunisia in 973, he gave the city its present name, Qāhirat al-Mu'izz ("The Vanquisher of al-Mu'izz"), from which the name "Cairo" (al-Qāhira) originates. The caliphs lived in a vast and lavish palace complex that occupied the heart of the city. Cairo remained a relatively exclusive royal city for most of this era, but during the tenure of Badr al-Gamali as vizier (1073–1094) the restrictions were loosened for the first time and richer families from Fustat were allowed to move into the city. Between 1087 and 1092 Badr al-Gamali also rebuilt the city walls in stone and constructed the city gates of Bab al-Futuh, Bab al-Nasr, and Bab Zuweila that still stand today. During the Fatimid period Fustat reached its apogee in size and prosperity, acting as a center of craftsmanship and international trade and as the area's main port on the Nile. However, in 1168 the Fatimid vizier Shawar set fire to unfortified Fustat to prevent its potential capture by Amalric, the Crusader king of Jerusalem. While the fire did not destroy the city and it continued to exist afterward, it did mark the beginning of its decline. Over the following centuries it was Cairo, the former palace-city, that became the new economic center and attracted migration from Fustat. While the Crusaders did not capture the city in 1168, a continuing power struggle between Shawar, King Amalric, and the Zengid general Shirkuh led to the downfall of the Fatimid establishment. In 1169, Shirkuh's nephew Saladin was appointed as the new vizier of Egypt by the Fatimids and two years later he seized power from the family of the last Fatimid caliph, al-'Āḍid. As the first Sultan of Egypt, Saladin established the Ayyubid dynasty, based in Cairo, and aligned Egypt with the Sunni Abbasids, who were based in Baghdad. In 1176, Saladin began construction on the Cairo Citadel, which was to serve as the seat of the Egyptian government until the mid-19th century. The construction of the Citadel definitively ended Fatimid-built Cairo's status as an exclusive palace-city and opened it up to common Egyptians and to foreign merchants, spurring its commercial development. Along with the Citadel, Saladin also began the construction of a new 20-kilometre-long wall that would protect both Cairo and Fustat on their eastern side and connect them with the new Citadel. These construction projects continued beyond Saladin's lifetime and were completed under his Ayyubid successors. Apogee and decline under the Mamluks
In 1250, during the Seventh Crusade, the Ayyubid dynasty suffered a crisis with the death of al-Salih and power transitioned instead to the Mamluks, partly with the help of al-Salih's wife, Shajar ad-Durr, who ruled for a brief period around this time. Mamluks were soldiers who were purchased as young slaves and raised to serve in the sultan's army. Between 1250 and 1517 the throne of the Mamluk Sultanate passed from one mamluk to another in a system of succession that was generally non-hereditary, but also frequently violent and chaotic. The Mamluk Empire nonetheless became a major power in the region and was responsible for repelling the advance of the Mongols in 1260 (most famously at the Battle of Ain Jalut) and for eliminating the last Crusader states in the Levant.
Despite their military character, the Mamluks were also prolific builders and left a rich architectural legacy throughout Cairo. Continuing a practice started by the Ayyubids, much of the land occupied by former Fatimid palaces was sold and replaced by newer buildings, becoming a prestigious site for the construction of Mamluk religious and funerary complexes. Construction projects initiated by the Mamluks pushed the city outward while also bringing new infrastructure to the centre of the city. Meanwhile, Cairo flourished as a centre of Islamic scholarship and a crossroads on the spice trade route among the civilisations in Afro-Eurasia. Under the reign of the Mamluk sultan al-Nasir Muhammad (1293–1341, with interregnums), Cairo reached its apogee in terms of population and wealth. By 1340, Cairo had a population of close to half a million, making it the largest city west of China.
When the traveller Ibn Battuta first came to Cairo in 1326, he described it as the principal district of Egypt. When he passed through the area again on his return journey in 1348 the Black Death was ravaging most major cities. He cited reports of thousands of deaths per day in Cairo. Although Cairo avoided Europe's stagnation during the Late Middle Ages, it could not escape the Black Death, which struck the city more than fifty times between 1348 and 1517. During its initial, and most deadly waves, approximately 200,000 people were killed by the plague, and, by the 15th century, Cairo's population had been reduced to between 150,000 and 300,000. The population decline was accompanied by a period of political stability between 1348 and 1412. It was nonetheless in this period that the largest Mamluk-era religious monument, the Madrasa-Mosque of Sultan Hasan, was built. In the late 14th century the Burji Mamluks replaced the Bahri Mamluks as rulers of the Mamluk state, but the Mamluk system continued to decline. Though the plagues returned frequently throughout the 15th century, Cairo remained a major metropolis and its population recovered in part through rural migration. More conscious efforts were conducted by rulers and city officials to redress the city's infrastructure and cleanliness. Its economy and politics also became more deeply connected with the wider Mediterranean. Some Mamluk sultans in this period, such as Barbsay (r. 1422–1438) and Qaytbay (r. 1468–1496), had relatively long and successful reigns. After al-Nasir Muhammad, Qaytbay was one of the most prolific patrons of art and architecture of the Mamluk era. He built or restored numerous monuments in Cairo, in addition to commissioning projects beyond Egypt. The crisis of Mamluk power and of Cairo's economic role deepened after Qaytbay. The city's status was diminished after Vasco da Gama discovered a sea route around the Cape of Good Hope between 1497 and 1499, thereby allowing spice traders to avoid Cairo.
Cairo's political influence diminished significantly after the Ottomans defeated Sultan al-Ghuri in the Battle of Marj Dabiq in 1516 and conquered Egypt in 1517. Ruling from Constantinople, Sultan Selim I relegated Egypt to a province, with Cairo as its capital. For this reason, the history of Cairo during Ottoman times is often described as inconsequential, especially in comparison to other time periods. However, during the 16th and 17th centuries, Cairo remained an important economic and cultural centre. Although no longer on the spice route, the city facilitated the transportation of Yemeni coffee and Indian textiles, primarily to Anatolia, North Africa, and the Balkans. Cairene merchants were instrumental in bringing goods to the barren Hejaz, especially during the annual hajj to Mecca. It was during this same period that al-Azhar University reached the predominance among Islamic schools that it continues to hold today; pilgrims on their way to hajj often attested to the superiority of the institution, which had become associated with Egypt's body of Islamic scholars. By the 16th century, Cairo also had high-rise apartment buildings where the two lower floors were for commercial and storage purposes and the multiple stories above them were rented out to tenants.
Under the Ottomans, Cairo expanded south and west from its nucleus around the Citadel. The city was the second-largest in the empire, behind Constantinople, and, although migration was not the primary source of Cairo's growth, twenty percent of its population at the end of the 18th century consisted of religious minorities and foreigners from around the Mediterranean. Still, when Napoleon arrived in Cairo in 1798, the city's population was less than 300,000, forty percent lower than it was at the height of Mamluk—and Cairene—influence in the mid-14th century. The French occupation was short-lived as British and Ottoman forces, including a sizeable Albanian contingent, recaptured the country in 1801. Cairo itself was besieged by a British and Ottoman force culminating with the French surrender on 22 June 1801. The British vacated Egypt two years later, leaving the Ottomans, the Albanians, and the long-weakened Mamluks jostling for control of the country. Continued civil war allowed an Albanian named Muhammad Ali Pasha to ascend to the role of commander and eventually, with the approval of the religious establishment, viceroy of Egypt in 1805. Modern era Until his death in 1848, Muhammad Ali Pasha instituted a number of social and economic reforms that earned him the title of founder of modern Egypt. However, while Muhammad Ali initiated the construction of public buildings in the city, those reforms had minimal effect on Cairo's landscape. Bigger changes came to Cairo under Isma'il Pasha (r. 1863–1879), who continued the modernisation processes started by his grandfather. Drawing inspiration from Paris, Isma'il envisioned a city of maidans and wide avenues; due to financial constraints, only some of them, in the area now composing Downtown Cairo, came to fruition. Isma'il also sought to modernize the city, which was merging with neighbouring settlements, by establishing a public works ministry, bringing gas, and lighting to the city, and opening a theatre and opera house. The immense debt resulting from Isma'il's projects provided a pretext for increasing European control, which culminated with the British invasion in 1882. The city's economic centre quickly moved west toward the Nile, away from the historic Islamic Cairo section and toward the contemporary, European-style areas built by Isma'il. Europeans accounted for five percent of Cairo's population at the end of the 19th century, by which point they held most top governmental positions. In 1905 the Heliopolis Oasis Company headed by the Belgian industrialist Édouard Empain and by Boghos Nubar, son of the Egyptian Prime Minister Nubar Pasha built a suburb called Heliopolis (city of the sun in Greek) ten kilometers from the center of Cairo. It represented the first large-scale attempt to promote its own architecture, known now as the Heliopolis style. The British occupation was intended to be temporary, but it lasted well into the 20th century. Nationalists staged large-scale demonstrations in Cairo in 1919, five years after Egypt had been declared a British protectorate. Nevertheless, this led to Egypt's independence in 1922. 1924 Cairo Quran
The King Fuad I Edition of the Qur’an was first published on 10 July 1924 in Cairo under the patronage of King Fuad. The goal of the government of the newly formed Kingdom of Egypt was not to delegitimize the other variant Quranic texts ("qira'at"), but to eliminate errors found in Qur’anic texts used in state schools. A committee of teachers chose to preserve a single one of the canonical qira’at "readings", namely that of the "Ḥafṣ" version, an 8th-century Kufic recitation. This edition has become the standard for modern printings of the Quran for much of the Islamic world. The publication has been called a "terrific success", and the edition has been described as one "now widely seen as the official text of the Qur’an", so popular among both Sunni and Shi'a that the common belief among less well-informed Muslims is "that the Qur’an has a single, unambiguous reading". Minor amendments were made later in 1924 and in 1936 - the "Faruq edition" in honour of then ruler, King Faruq. British occupation until 1956
British troops remained in the country until 1956. During this time, urban Cairo, spurred by new bridges and transport links, continued to expand to include the upscale neighbourhoods of Garden City, Zamalek, and Heliopolis. Between 1882 and 1937, the population of Cairo more than tripled—from 347,000 to 1.3 million—and its area increased from 10 to 163 km2 (4 to 63 sq mi). The city was devastated during the 1952 riots known as the Cairo Fire or Black Saturday, which saw the destruction of nearly 700 shops, movie theatres, casinos and hotels in downtown Cairo. The British departed Cairo following the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, but the city's rapid growth showed no signs of abating. Seeking to accommodate the increasing population, President Gamal Abdel Nasser redeveloped Maidan Tahrir and the Nile Corniche, and improved the city's network of bridges and highways. Meanwhile, additional controls of the Nile fostered development within Gezira Island and along the city's waterfront. The metropolis began to encroach on the fertile Nile Delta, prompting the government to build desert satellite towns and devise incentives for city-dwellers to move to them. 1960s
Cairo's population has doubled since the 1960s, reaching close to seven million (with an additional ten million in its urban area). Concurrently, Cairo has established itself as a political and economic hub for North Africa and the Arab world, with many multinational businesses and organisations, including the Arab League, operating out of the city. In 1992, Cairo was hit by an earthquake causing 545 deaths, injuring 6,512 and leaving around 50,000 people homeless. 2011 Egyptian revolution
Cairo's Tahrir Square was the focal point of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution against former president Hosni Mubarak. Over 2 million protesters were at Cairo's Tahrir square. More than 50,000 protesters first occupied the square on 25 January, during which the area's wireless services were reported to be impaired. In the following days Tahrir Square continued to be the primary destination for protests in Cairo as it took place following a popular uprising that began on Tuesday, 25 January 2011 and continued until June 2013. The uprising was mainly a campaign of non-violent civil resistance, which featured a series of demonstrations, marches, acts of civil disobedience, and labour strikes. Millions of protesters from a variety of socio-economic and religious backgrounds demanded the overthrow of the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Despite being predominantly peaceful in nature, the revolution was not without violent clashes between security forces and protesters, with at least 846 people killed and 6,000 injured. The uprising took place in Cairo, Alexandria, and in other cities in Egypt, following the Tunisian revolution that resulted in the overthrow of the long-time Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. On 11 February, following weeks of determined popular protest and pressure, Hosni Mubarak resigned from office. Post-revolutionary Cairo
Under the rule of President el-Sisi, in March 2015 plans were announced for another yet-unnamed planned city to be built further east of the existing satellite city of New Cairo, intended to serve as the new capital of Egypt.
Travel to Cairo *taken from Lonely Planet*
Cairo is magnificent, beautiful and, at time, infuriating. From above, the distorted roar of the muezzins' call to prayer echoes out from duelling minarets. Below, car horns bellow tuneless symphonies amid avenues of faded 19th-century grandeur while donkey carts rattle down dusty lanes lined with colossal Fatimid and Mamluk monuments. This mega-city's constant buzz and noise is a product of its 22-or-so million inhabitants simultaneously crushing Cairo's infrastructure under their collective weight and lifting its spirits up with their exceptional humour. A visit can jangle your nerves, but it's a small price to pay to tap into the energy of the place Egyptians call Umm Ad Dunya – the Mother of the World.
Must See Sites
Pyramids of Giza; The last remaining wonder of the ancient world; for nearly 4000 years, the
extraordinary shape, impeccable geometry and sheer bulk of the Giza Pyramids have invited the obvious questions: ‘How were we built, and why?’. Centuries of research have given us parts of the answer. Built as massive tombs on the orders of the pharaohs, they were constructed by teams of workers tens-of-thousands strong. Today they stand as an awe-inspiring tribute to the might, organisation and achievements of ancient Egypt. Ongoing excavations on the Giza Plateau, along with the discovery of a pyramid-builders' settlement, complete with areas for large-scale food production and medical facilities, have provided more evidence that the workers were not the slaves of Hollywood tradition, but an organised workforce of Egyptian farmers. During the flood season, when the Nile covered their fields, the same farmers could have been redeployed by the highly structured bureaucracy to work on the pharaoh’s tomb. In this way, the Pyramids can almost be seen as an ancient job-creation scheme. And the flood waters made it easier to transport building stone to the site. But despite the evidence, some still won’t accept that the ancient Egyptians were capable of such achievements. So-called pyramidologists point to the carving and placement of the stones, precise to the millimetre, and argue the numerological significance of the structures’ dimensions as evidence that the Pyramids were constructed by angels or aliens. It’s easy to laugh at these out-there ideas, but when you see the monuments up close, especially inside, you’ll better understand why so many people believe such awesome structures must have unearthly origins. Most visitors will make a beeline straight to the four most famous sights; the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the Pyramid of Khafre, the Pyramid of Menkaure and the Sphinx. But for those who want to explore further, the desert plateau surrounding the pyramids is littered with tombs, temple ruins and smaller satellite pyramids. Egyptian Museum; One of the world’s most important collections of ancient artefacts, the Egyptian Museum takes pride of place in Downtown Cairo, on the north side of Midan Tahrir. Inside the great domed, oddly pinkish building, the glittering treasures of Tutankhamun and other great pharaohs lie alongside the grave goods, mummies, jewellery, eating bowls and toys of Egyptians whose names are lost to history. To walk around the museum is to embark on an adventure through time. Some display cards have become obsolete as new discoveries have busted old theories. And the collection rapidly outgrew its sensible layout, as, for instance, Tutankhamun’s enormous trove and the tomb contents of Tanis were both unearthed after the museum opened, and then had to be shoehorned into the space. Now more than 100,000 objects are wedged into about 15,000 sq metres. Like the country itself, the museum is in flux. Most objects are still on display, although some are being moved to the Grand Egyptian Museum. While some rooms are being refurbished, the objects are deposited elsewhere in the museum. This museum will remain a major sight, but it is not yet clear when the Grand will open and what will remain here. The current museum has its origins in several earlier efforts at managing Egypt’s ancient heritage, beginning in 1835 when Egyptian ruler Mohammed Ali banned the export of antiquities. French architect Mariette’s growing collection, from 35 dig sites, bounced around various homes in Cairo until 1902, when the current building was erected, in a suitably prominent position in the city. There it has stood, in its original layout, a gem of early museum design. Until 1996, museum security involved locking the door at night. When an enterprising thief stowed away overnight and helped himself to treasures, the museum authorities installed alarms and detectors, at the same time improving the lighting on many exhibits. During the 2011 revolution, the museum was broken into and a few artefacts went missing. To prevent further looting, activists formed a human chain around the building to guard its contents. By most reports, they were successful. Sphinx; Known in Arabic as Abu Al Hol (Father of Terror), this sculpture of a man with the haunches of a lion was dubbed the Sphinx by the ancient Greeks because it resembled their mythical winged monster who set riddles and killed anyone unable to answer them. A geological survey has shown that it was most likely carved from the bedrock at the bottom of the causeway during Khafre’s reign, so it probably portrays his features. As is clear from the accounts of early Arab travellers, the nose was hammered off sometime between the 11th and 15th centuries, although some still like to blame Napoleon for the deed. Part of the fallen beard was carted off by 19th-century adventurers and is now on display in the British Museum in London. These days the Sphinx has potentially greater problems: pollution and rising groundwater are causing internal fractures, and it is under a constant state of repair. Legends and superstitions about the Sphinx abound, and the mystery surrounding its long-forgotten purpose is almost as intriguing as its appearance. On seeing it for the first time, many visitors agree with English playwright Alan Bennett, who noted in his diary that seeing the Sphinx is like meeting a TV personality in the flesh: he’s smaller than one had imagined. Museum of Islamic Art; This museum, on the edge of Islamic Cairo, holds one of the world’s finest collections of Islamic art and is Egypt's (and one of the entire Middle East's) most beautifully curated museums. What’s on display is only a sliver of the 80,000 objects the museum owns, but the selected items are stunning. The museum was heavily damaged in January 2014 in a car-bomb attack on nearby police headquarters but after extensive renovations was finally reopened in early 2017. To the right as you enter are architectural details – frescoes, carved plaster so fine it looks like lace, an intricate inlaid-wood ceiling – and ceramics grouped by dynasty. A surprising amount of figurative work is on view, and not all of it strictly Islamic – a shard of an Ayyubid bowl shows Mary holding a crucified Christ. To the left, pieces are grouped by function and medium: medical tools, astrolabes, some breathtaking carpets, illuminated Qurans, and even headstones. Al Azhar Mosque; Founded in AD 970 as the centrepiece of the newly created Fatimid city, Al Azhar is one of Cairo’s earlier mosques, and its sheikh is considered the highest theological authority for Egyptian Muslims. The building is a harmonious blend of architectural styles, the result of numerous enlargements over more than 1000 years. The tomb chamber, located through a doorway on the left just inside the entrance, has a beautiful mihrab (a niche indicating the direction of Mecca) and should not be missed. The central courtyard is the earliest part, while from south to north the three minarets date from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries; the latter, with its double finial, was added by Sultan Al Ghouri, whose mosque and mausoleum stand nearby. A madrassa was established here in AD 988, growing into a university that is the world’s second-oldest educational institution (after the University of Al Kairaouine in Fez, Morocco). At one time the university was one of the world’s preeminent centres of learning, drawing students from Europe and all over the Islamic empire. The large modern campus (due east) is still the most prestigious place to study Sunni theology. Khan Al Khalili; The skinny lanes of Khan Al Khalili are basically a medieval-style mall. This agglomeration of shops – many arranged around small courtyards – stocks everything from soap powder to semiprecious stones, not to mention tacky toy camels and alabaster pyramids. Most shops and stalls open from around 9am to well after sundown (except Friday morning and Sunday), although plenty of the souvenir vendors are open as long as there are customers, even on Sunday. Cairenes have plied their trades here since the khan was built in the 14th century, and parts of the market, such as the gold district, are still the first choice for thousands of locals. The khan used to be divided into fairly rigid districts, but now the only distinct areas are the gold sellers, the coppersmiths and the spice dealers. Apart from the clumsy ‘Hey mister, look for free’ touts, the merchants of Khan Al Khalili are some of the greatest smooth-talkers you will ever meet. Almost anything can be bought here and if one merchant doesn’t have what you’re looking for, he’ll happily find somebody who does. Al Azhar Park; With funds from the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, what had been a mountain of garbage, amassed over centuries, was in 2005, almost miraculously, transformed into the city’s first (and only) park of significant size. Cairenes stroll through a profusion of gardens, emerald grass and fountains, or sit beside the lake or on the terraces of one of the restaurants, admiring the superb views over Cairo. It’s most fun on weekends, when families day-trip with picnics. Depending on your outlook, the park is a gorgeous respite or a middle-class playground. This was offset slightly when the Bab Al Mahruq entrance, through a medieval gate in the old Ayyubid walls, finally opened in 2009. This granted easier access for residents of the lower-income Darb Al Ahmar district. You can enter here before 6pm, but after dark you can only exit through the main park gates on Sharia Salah Salem (taxis wait but overcharge; microbuses go to Ataba for LE2). If you enter from Darb Al Ahmar, check out the ongoing excavations of the Ayyubid walls – one major achievement was the rediscovery of Bab Al Barqiya, which had long ago been lost under the trash heap. In addition to a couple of small cafes and the open-air theatre El Genaina, the restaurant Studio Masr in the northern section of the park capitalises on the views across the medieval city and beyond. The Lakeside Cafe, on the other side of the park, has a tranquil lake-edge setting.
Must Try food and Drink
Sobia; Hailing from Egypt, sobia is a refreshing rice-based drink that blends coconut milk, sugar, and ground rice. It is usually flavored with vanilla, and it can also be made with cooked rice. The ingredients are blended, and before serving, the drink is strained and should always be well chilled. Sobia is a sweet drink with a somewhat thick texture. The standard version has an off-white color, but some opt to add various food colorings to create brightly colored drinks. Sobia is enjoyed all year round, but it is traditionally prepared for Ramadan and served as a fast-breaking beverage. It is commonly made at home, sometimes with pre-mixed powders, but it is mostly sold by street vendors and comes packed in bottles or plastic bags. Saudi Arabian sobia does not have much in common with the Egyptian version—it is heavily spiced and based on cereals, but it is also commonly enjoyed for Ramadan.
Eggah; Eggah is the thick and heavy Egyptian version of an omelet. However, eggs might not be the main ingredient – they can merely be used as a binding for the filling, which can include chicken, lamb, or various vegetables such as aubergines, leeks, spinach, and courgettes. Eggah is commonly flavored with turmeric, cumin, nutmeg, cinnamon, or fresh herbs. The dish is typically pancake-shaped, and it is served sliced into wedges or rectangles which can be hot or cold.
Kushari; Kushari, also known as koshari, kosheri, koshary, and koushari, is a simple, yet flavorful Egyptian national dish consisting of rice, pasta, and lentils. The name stems from the Hindu word khichri, referring to a dish of rice and lentils. It is enough to look for warm, edible pyramids on big, shiny metal platters while in Egypt, as it is also a very popular street food. Small yellow lentils and rice are slowly simmered in a rich stock with the addition of crunchy, fried vermicelli and butter-browned onions. Before serving, kushari is topped with wine vinegar and a spicy sauce based on tomatoes or chilis, adding even more flavor to the hearty dish. For a heartier dish, ground lamb or beef is added to the mix, while macaroni are added to the Alexandrian version. Of course, there are numerous variations of the dish, but it is mandatory to season it with mastic, an exotic, earthy, crystallized resin of the Pistacia lentiscus tree, cultivated only in Greece, yet growing wild across the Mediterranean. The mastic imposes a typically piney, bitter edge to the dish. Kushari tastes even better when accompanied by a green salad or a cup of hot mint tea.
Shawarma; Marinated and spit-roasted, shawarma is a delicious Middle Eastern meat treat whose origins can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire era, while its name stems from the Arabic pronunciation of the Turkish word çevirme (lit. to turn; turning), and refers to the rotating skewer on which the meat is cooked. Shawarmas are made with either lamb, turkey, chicken, beef, or a mix of different meats which are slow-cooked for hours and basted in their own juices and fat, gaining an incomparable succulence, but the real secret to a perfect shawarma is in the marinade. Depending on the variety, the meat must be marinated for at least a day, preferably two, especially when using beef. These marinades are either yogurt or vinegar-based and typically include spices and flavorings such as cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, black pepper, allspice, dried lime, spicy paprika, garlic, ginger, lemon, bay leaf, and sometimes even orange slices. Shawarma is traditionally served either on its own or enjoyed tucked inside a warm flatbread such as pita or lavash. However, what really sets it apart from the Turkish döner kebab, Greek gyros, or other similar foods is the extent of garnishes and condiments offered with it. For example, Israeli shawarmas are typically topped with tahini and come with generous servings of hummus and pickled mango slices, while in other countries, shawarma is often complemented with garlic mayo or a zesty toumaia garlic sauce, both fresh and pickled vegetables, salads like tabbouleh or fattoush, and amba sauce–a tangy chili and mango pickle dip. Once a common staple of the Middle Eastern working man, shawarma has today become the ultimate Arabic street food, found not only in Arabia and Levant but in virtually any nook and corner of the globe.
Qatayef; Qatayef is an Arabian dessert and a staple of the Ramadan holiday feast. It is a sweet pancake that is usually filled with cheese or nuts such as walnuts, almonds, pistachios, or hazelnuts. Qatayef can also be consumed plain, topped with clotted cream, or drizzled with sugar syrup. It is believed that nothing is better after the Ramadan fasting than a few nights of socializing and feasting on qatayef, which is either prepared throughout the streets in food stalls or brought over to friends as a sweet gift. Although the dish has Fatimid origins, today it is very popular throughout Levant and Egypt as well, where it is baked in numerous households. The biggest qatayef was made in the city of Bethlehem, currently holding a record with a weight of 104 kilograms and 3 meters in diameter. Apart from the sweet version, qatayef can also come as a savory snack filled with cheese or served plain as a side dish.
Shakshouka; Shakshouka is a delicious combination of eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce. Although it has an unusual name, the dish is straightforward and easy to make. It is usually made in a skillet in which onions, tomatoes, and spices are cooked until they form a delicious tomato sauce. Eggs are then added directly to the tomato sauce and poached until done. Merguez sausage can also be added to the dish. It is believed that shakshouka originated in Tunisia, but the dish is well-known and commonly eaten throughout North Africa and the Middle East as well. Almost every region has formed their distinctive variety of shakshouka: in Egypt, eggs are usually scrambled and served in a sandwich, and in Israel it is often served with salty feta cheese on top. The consistency of the sauce and eggs is also variable – the sauce can be thinner or thicker, while the eggs can be completely firm or soft. For a more nutritious meal, meat, most commonly sausages, can be included in the dish. Shakshouka is suitable for any meal of the day and is usually served warm or sizzling hot, with bread on the side. Because it is budget-friendly, simple, and easy to prepare, the dish has recently gained popularity both in Europe and North America.
Siwa Oasis Dates; For 3,000 years, the farmers of Siwa Oasis in the Western Egyptian desert have been taking advantage of water in the desert in order to grow chewy Siwa Oasis dates. Three of the most important varieties are Siwi, Azzawi, and Frehi, but there are three more varieties which are produced in small quantities and are at risk of extinction – Ghazaal, Takdat, and Amnzou. The producers sell both fresh and dried dates. After the initial 10 years, each plant produces about 50 kilograms of these chewy treats per year. The maturation period of each type varies – Amnzou bears fruit in September, Azzawi and Siwi at the beginning of October, Ghazaal at the end of October, and Takdat between December and January. The producers harvest the dates manually by climbing the tree trunks with a belt. Dates are used in a variety of local dishes such as tarfant (bread, dates, and olive oil), tagilla (olive oil, flour, dates, and water), and elhuji (dates, olive oil, and eggs). During the month of Ramadan, dates are consumed in the evening to break the fast.
Mulukhiyah; Mulukhiyah is the national dish of Egypt, a soup made by cooking a large amount of finely chopped jute, which is a green leaf vegetable with a distinctively bitter flavor. Traditionally, the soup is cooked with garlic, coriander, chicken meat or chicken stock, and is usually served with white rice or pita bread, and a lemon or lime wedge on the side. It is believed that the dish dates back to the time of the Pharaohs, its name coming from the word mulokia, meaning Kingdom of Royals, referring to the fact that it was consumed only by the kings, queens, and nobles during the era. Its slimy texture and strong aromas have caught the hearts of many people, so the soup is also quite popular in Lebanon, Palestine, and throughout the Middle East.