Created | Updated Feb 23, 2009
Cairo is the capital of Egypt. A vast city, by far the biggest in Africa and one of the biggest in the world, Cairo comes as a shock to all the senses. With about 15 million people, there isn't enough housing for everyone, so people live where they can: on the dumps, in the graveyards and on the streets. On top of this, add about a million cars, temperatures in the high 30s or even 40s and a sandstorm and you will have some impression of what Cairo is like.
The population of Cairo, and of Egypt as a whole, is about 90% Muslim, while the remaining 10% is Christian, their faith of the variety known as Coptic Christianity. Egyptians are very friendly, likeable people. They love to talk to visitors and are scrupulously honest in most of their affairs - theft and mugging are virtually unheard-of in Cairo. On the other hand, swindling tourists out of their money is considered not just ethical, but essential business practice. If you drop your wallet in the street, an Egyptian is likely to chase after you to return it to you, then try and get you to part voluntarily with the contents.
Egyptians are proud of their country and really do enjoy the attention that it gets from foreigners. However, they have the Third World attitude to bureaucracy, and foreigners trying to live in the country, as opposed to just visiting, will find themselves beset by red tape, with forms to be filled, signed, brought to an office in Alexandria, returned to Cairo for more processing and finally forgotten about. Much of the government seems to thrive on under-the-counter payments.
Egypt has been civilised since about 3200 BC. With the invention of both stone buildings and writing at about that time, modern archaeologists get the impression that Egyptian civilisation suddenly sprang into existence. There are almost no remains or records from before that time. Nevertheless, it seems likely that the Egyptians gradually learned the skills that let them live in the Nile valley in such magnificent splendour, with temples, statues and tombs that have never been matched since.
Cairo itself did not exist in ancient times, but three nearby ancient sites are now in or just outside Cairo. The pyramids, the ancient burial place of kings and nobles, stand just to the west of the present city. The ancient city of Heliopolis lay to the northeast of modern-day Cairo. It was sacred to the sun god Re1. There is no trace left of the ancient city, but a rather well-off suburb of Cairo still bears the name. In the south of Cairo, the Romans built a fortress with the unlikely name of Babylon.
Cairo itself is much more recent, being founded by the invading Arabs in 641 AD. They brought their religion of Islam with them and the country has remained mainly Muslim ever since2. The original city was called al-Fustat and was located in the south of the present city. In 969, Egypt was invaded by a group from Tunisia called the Fatimids. They made a new fortified centre to the city slightly north of al-Fustat. This soon became the capital of the Fatimid empire and was named al-Qahirah, 'the Victorious', the name which the city still bears today in Arabic. In English, this is transliterated as Cairo.
In 1168, Christian crusaders besieged the city but it was rescued by the armies of the Syrian general Saladin, who went on to rule a huge empire with Cairo as its capital. Saladin was the first of the Ayyubid dynasty. Under Saladin's rule, a mighty citadel was built to protect the city. In the 13th to 15th centuries, Cairo was ruled by emperors known as the Mamluks. The city was at its greatest during this period. With a population of half a million people, it was the biggest city in Africa and bigger than any in Europe or the Middle East.
Mamluk Cairo was hit badly by the Black Death plague in 1348 and started to go into decline. By 1517, the locals were unable to resist an invasion by the Turks and Cairo became just another provincial city in the Ottoman Empire.
In 1805, a young Turkish general named Muhammad Ali was appointed as 'pasha' in control of the province of Egypt. By 1811, he was sufficiently confident to seize total control of the country. He invited all his rivals to a dinner in the Citadel. As the guests arrived one by one, he had each one quietly beheaded. He then proceeded to make Egypt an independent country again in all but name. His descendants continued to rule the country until the last of them, Farouk, abdicated in 1952.
Cairo is well-served with an international airport to the north-east of the city. Many tourists arrive in the city via river, in cruises up and down the Nile. The city has many quality places to stay, including Sheraton, Marriott and Hilton hotels.
The number one rule for travel in Egypt is: don't drink the tap water. Don't take ice cubes in your drink, because they may have been made with tap water. Don't rinse your mouth out with tap water when you scrub your teeth - use bottled water. Don't accept a bottle of water in a restaurant unless you've seen it being opened. It may have been an empty bottle which they have filled with tap water. Don't eat salads that have been washed in tap water. Stick to vegetables that have been cooked, such as the ubiquitous ratatouille.
Eating and Drinking in Cairo
Eat in restaurants which cater for foreign tourists. If you eat in the eating houses of the locals, you will almost inevitably become very ill. There's still a chance that you will become ill in a 'western-style' restaurant as well.
Although Muslims do not drink alcohol, there's plenty of beer and wine available in Cairo. The local beer is called Stella and comes in two varieties: 'Stella Local' is cheap and comes in large bottles, but is very variable in quality. 'Stella Export' is more expensive and comes in small bottles, but is consistently better quality. It tastes like a European lager. There are only a few brands of Egyptian wine, such as Omar Khayyam, but they are good quality.
Soft drinks are plentifully available, but be very careful to wipe around the top of the bottle before drinking from it.
Driving in Cairo
Don't even think of it. Traffic in Cairo quite literally has to be seen to be believed. It is more like an elemental force than a movement of cars. It is constant and overwhelming. The basic rules of driving are four:
- If there is a gap in the traffic large enough to take a car, fill it.
- If the front of your car is even an inch ahead of the car beside you, you can pull across in front of it without indicating. Conversely, you must give way to anything even an inch ahead of you.
- Stop at traffic lights, as long as they don't stay red for too long.
- Accompany all movement with furious horn blowing and manual gesticulations.
The result of this is that traffic does not move in lanes but in a gigantic tapestry of cars weaving around each other in a sort of cacophonous amorphous mass, which rarely stops for long. At major junctions, in addition to traffic lights there will be gangs of traffic policemen who try and keep the cars under control. One researcher comments:
As the lights had been red for nearly a minute and there was nothing coming in the other direction, the cars became impatient and began to inch forward, until the bumper of the front car was pressing against the leg of the traffic policeman. Eventually he smiled, shrugged and waved them on.
Travelling by Taxi in Cairo
Since driving yourself is out of the question, you will spend a lot of time taking taxis around Cairo. They're dirt cheap if you don't get ripped off, which you almost inevitably will be. Follow the detailed instructions in Hailing a Taxi in Cairo.
Don't hesitate to give tips to everybody you meet. No matter how small an amount, it will mean a lot to the Egyptians who are extremely badly-paid. Also be prepared for the fact that when you give a tip, many Egyptians will immediately demand a bigger one. This is not badness on their part, it's just their way.
The Egyptian Museum
The most essential thing to see in Cairo is the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, right in the centre of the city. Officially known as the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, this contains the biggest collection of Ancient Egyptian artefacts in the world. With more than 120,000 separate items on display, you'll never see it all, but even a single day's visit will give you a very good idea of the glory and splendour of Ancient Egypt. Most of the artefacts are stone; that's how they have survived for four or five thousand years.
The most important section of the museum houses the treasure of Tutankhamen. King Tut died suddenly in a period of political upheaval. Instead of the normal grand funeral a Pharaoh deserved, he was buried quickly in a small tomb consisting of only two rooms cut into the rock, in the Valley of the Kings, Luxor. This was filled with thousands of precious items which it was believed the king would need when he woke up in the afterlife. The location of the tomb was forgotten and as a result it was never plundered in ancient times and became the only Pharaoh's tomb to remain intact until modern times. What the ancient grave-robbers failed to do, the modern archaeologists have done thoroughly. Everything was removed from the grave except the body of the pharaoh himself. It's all on display now in the Egyptian Museum.
When you see the treasure of Tutankhamen, you'll be amazed that all this could fit into two tiny rooms. The undisputed prize of the collection is the death mask of Tutankhamen, which is solid gold. It is one of the most beautiful things ever made.
The Khan-al-Khalili Bazaar
Cairo has been a centre of trade in the Arabic world since it was founded. The Khan-al-Khalili Bazaar has been operating since 1390. The term Khan-al-Khalili refers to one specific street in the centre of the city, but the bazaar has spread to neighbouring streets and now there is a huge market where you can find everything you might want to buy, from precious golden jewellery, to spices, to pots and pans.
The gold in the Khan-al-Khalili is second to none, both in quality and price. There is also an extensive market for silver. You can buy second-hand silver bangles which formerly belonged to Bedouin women for next to nothing.
Due to the standards of hygiene, you should not buy and eat any food in the bazaar, although the locals can do so with impunity. You will see cages of live chickens and rabbits waiting to be bought. The seller will wring their necks for you when you make a purchase.
There are any number of shops selling cheap Egyptian tourist knick-knacks from brass pyramids to gilt papyrus. Among all the tack, there are some real bargains, so be prepared to haggle and remember, the seller will never sell so cheap that he doesn't earn a huge profit, so beat him down to something far less than you can afford.
Cairo's Citadel is an impressive fortress on a hill in the east of the city. It was built by order of the general and ruler Saladin, in 1207. As well as housing lots of fortifications and a military museum, it has two mosques: the Mosque of Muhammad Ibn Qalaun, dating from 1335, and the outstanding Mosque of Muhammad Ali, a masterpiece in alabaster, dating from 1830. Visitors are welcome to the mosques. It is normal practice to remove your shoes as you enter the mosque, but here you will be given giant slippers which you put on over your shoes, making them acceptable.
The Pyramids at Giza
The Pyramids are just west of the Cairo suburb of Giza, about ten kilometres from the centre of the city. The city stops right at the edge of the desert, due to the lack of water and the presence of sand. The plateau of Giza is a rock shelf which is covered in sand. On this plateau are nine pyramids, as well as a few other ancient buildings and monuments.
The main features of the Giza plateau are:
- The Great Pyramid of Khufu, the tallest pyramid in the world.
- The Pyramid of Khafre, almost as big and equally impressive.
- The Pyramid of Menkure, about half the height of the other two.
- Six small nondescript pyramids.
- The Sphinx, a giant statue of a lion with a man's head, supposedly the image of the pharaoh Khafre.
- The Mortuary Temple of Khafre.
- The Royal Boat of Khufu - a giant boat which was buried beside the Great Pyramid and only discovered in the 1950s.
It is possible to go into the Great Pyramid and the Pyramid of Khafre and see the internal chambers. The other pyramids are not open to the public.
Camel rides are available around the pyramids. There may be such a thing as an honest camel-owner, but many of them extort money from the tourists by taking them too far into the desert where there is an excellent view of the pyramids, and demanding extra money for the ride back. Are you brave enough to climb down off a camel and walk a couple of miles in the blazing sun?
This quiet suburb in the south of the city is away from the lunacy that is the Cairo traffic. Here you will find remains of the old Roman fortress of Babylon, a synagogue, various churches belonging to the Coptic religion (the Egyptian brand of Christianity) and the Coptic Museum. The Church of the Virgin Mary is claimed to be the oldest Christian church in Africa, dating from some time in the 5th century. Because it was built on top of the old Roman fortress, which has now been dug out by archaeologists, the church is suspended above the ground - hence its nickname, the Hanging Church.
The Museum of Islamic Art
Situated in Ahmed Maher Square, the Museum of Islamic Art is an interesting place to spend an afternoon. Islamic tradition forbade the representation of any living thing in art, because it might be considered an attempt to rival God who made all life. As a result, Islamic artists specialised in geometrical patterns, and developed this aspect of Art to heights never equalled before or since.
The Cairo Tower
The Cairo Tower, on Gezira Island in the Nile, is a huge modern skyscraper built in the form of a tall narrow spike. At more than 600 feet high, it is by far the tallest structure in the city. It is possible to go to the top of the tower in a high-speed lift, from where there is a panoramic view of Cairo.
Unfortunately, because of Cairo's position right at the edge of the Sahara Desert, the city experiences sandstorms, where wind picks up sand from the desert and blasts it against the buildings. The effect of this on the Cairo Tower is that the glass in the viewing gallery is scratched and the panoramic view is ruined. Admire the tower from ground level and don't bother going up it.
The Manial Palace
The Manial Palace, on Roda Island in the Nile, was the residence of Muhammad Ali, the aforementioned pasha who ruled Egypt from 1805 to 1849. It is a masterpiece of the Islamic non-representational style of art, with inlaid patterns of immense complexity on every surface. Sadly, the furnishings have all been removed and the gardens have been sold off to a hotel resort.
The City of the Dead
Between the old city of Cairo and the eastern desert stands the City of the Dead. This is a vast cemetery which has been the burial place of Cairo for more than a millennium. Elaborate tombs ranging from bed-sized slabs with huge headstones up as far as buildings akin to small palaces were built to house the dead. Kings and rulers were buried here as well as the ordinary people.
Due to the severe shortage of housing in Cairo, homeless people moved into the graveyard and took over the tombs. The City of the Dead is now home to a huge population of people who are very much alive. They have even jerry-rigged electrical supplies to many of the tombs for lighting.
Although when people think of Egypt, they generally think of hieroglyphs and pharaohs, Cairo contains more than a millennium of history of a different sort; that of the Islamic world. With its bazaar, its mosques, its citadel and its cemetery, Cairo is an essential place to visit to full appreciate the Muslim people. The noise and dirt may repel, but it will also fascinate. You certainly won't forget this amazing city.