As beacons of tourism since the dawn of history, both Egypt and its capital possess an enduring appeal that hardly needs explaining. An extant patch of desert in Giza to the southwest of Cairo offers up nothing less than the Seventh Wonder of the Ancient World in Khufu’s Great Pyramid, not to mention the iconic Sphinx.
Meanwhile, amongst the clutter of the Egyptian Museum’s jaw-dropping bygones lies the breathtaking tomb of Tutankhamun, the original boy-king of bling. For an attraction of biblical proportions,there’s Coptic Cairo, home to some of the earliest Christians and many historic churches.
Yet while ancient splendour is the main draw for tourists, it’s a shame that many miss what modern Cairo has to offer. With some 10 million inhabitants, this is the Arab world’s largest city and the biggest in Africa. Baladi drinking dens, bustling markets and countless museums – all served by an impressive metro system – make engaging with the heaving metropolis a highly rewarding experience.
Of course, few can have failed to notice the Egyptian protests that started in 2011 and brought about two revolutions in as many years. But rather than avoid the country’s defiant capital, there’s much to be gained from meeting the city as it stands at a historic crossroads. Demonstrations are still a regular feature of Tahrir Square, the focal point of the revolutions, but the moving graffiti and carnival atmosphere there make it a fascinating daytime experience; it’s best avoided on Fridays as the evening after prayers tends to be particularly lively.
In spite of recent events, Cairo is generally calm and safe. But ‘calm’ is a relative word in this city. Cairenes’ lives are soundtracked by noisy traffic on the notoriously congested roads, while central streets are often crowded with shoppers, diners and business types. As a tourist, you’ll need to brace yourself for insistent offers of mint tea from sellers trying to entice you into their stores to view their wares.
For an overview of the city, climb the eastern heights to the 12th-century citadel looming above the urban sprawl. Sal Al-Din, the fortress’ mastermind, was the greatest nemesis of the Crusaders, though he was regarded with enormous respect by his western enemies whom it is said learnt much of their chivalric code from him. Cairo was effectively governed from his citadel atop Mokattam Hill for the next 700 years.
Even before the days of Salah Al-Din, Cairo was a cornerstone of Islamic civilisation. As such, the old Islamic quarter has been proclaimed a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Around 800 mosques and monuments populate the district, including the imposing Mosque of Al-Hakim built under the Fatamid dynasty. There’s also the more serene Mosque of Al-Azhar erected in the late 10th century, which doubles as one of the world’s oldest universities; it offers welcome sanctuary from the busy district.
Whenever you need a break from the cacophony of the city, it’s possible to sail away on a traditional felucca boat down the Nile. The river has been the lifeblood of Egyptian civilisation for aeons. This and the breathtaking views as you glide past the city will remind you that Cairo is known as the ‘Mother of the World’ with good reason.