Things to Do in Cairo
One of the most mysterious Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (and the only one still standing), the Pyramids of Giza—the Great Pyramid of Khufu, Pyramid of Khafre, and Pyramid of Menkaure—still live up to more than 4,000 years of hype. Seeing these 4th-dynasty pyramids and their guardian Great Sphinx rising from the Giza Plateau is a must on any trip to Cairo (and the reason many travelers find themselves in Egypt).
A centerpiece of Tahrir Square, the Egyptian Museum (Museum of Egyptian Antiquities) has been a mecca for Egyptologists since it opened and houses some of the world’s greatest ancient relics. While some collections are moving to the new Grand Egyptian Museum, it remains a must-see for anyone interested in ancient Egypt.
With a history dating back to the 14th century, the Khan Al-Khalili bazaar is Cairo’s signature shopping destination. It’s an intoxicating warren of streets, houses, and merchants selling everything from gold and spices to shisha pipes and toy camels, not to mention the inevitable scarabs, pyramids, and belly-dancer costumes.
Measuring a mighty 4,150 miles (6,680 kilometers) from end to end, the Nile is the world’s longest river. It’s also the lifeblood of Egypt, flowing through the heart of the Sahara desert, and passing through cities, including Khartoum, Aswan, Luxor, and Cairo, before emptying into the Mediterranean Sea at Alexandria.
Set about 18 miles (30 kilometers) south of Cairo, Saqqara (Sakkara) was the burial place for the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis, now in ruins. The site features a small sphinx and several pyramids—the most famous of which is the Step Pyramid of Djoser, which represented a major advance in building techniques.
During Egypt’s Old Kingdom period, Memphis, located near Cairo, was home to the pharaohs who built the pyramids. But domestic architecture didn’t last like the pyramids did, so most all that remains of Memphis today is the Mit Rahina open-air sculpture museum.
Located in south Cairo on the Nile’s east bank, Old Cairo, also known as Misr Al-Qadima, dates to the sixth century BC and occupies the sites of several early Egyptian capitals, including Fustat. Merging into Islamic Cairo to the east, its heart is Coptic Cairo—home to a crumbled Roman fortress and numerous early medieval Coptic churches.
The 66-foot-tall (20-meter-tall) Sphinx of Giza is an icon of ancient Egypt, and the subject of continued debate regarding its meaning, age, and original builder. With the head of a human and the body of a lion, the Sphinx—one of the world’s largest and oldest statues—is said to symbolize strength, power, and wisdom.
The last surviving wonder of the ancient world, the Great Pyramid of Giza is also known as the Khufu Pyramid or Pyramid of Cheops, in honor of the pharaoh who built it around 2570 BC. The oldest, largest, and tallest of the three Giza pyramids, it is full of narrow tunnels and eerie chambers that are open to visitors.
Standing proud above the hubbub of the modern city, the Cairo Citadel (Citadel of Saladin)) is one of Old Cairo’s most striking sights. First built by Saladin in the 12th century, during the Crusader conflicts, the fortress complex houses palaces, museums, and mosques, including Muhammad Ali’s 19th-century Alabaster Mosque.
More Things to Do in Cairo
Think of Dahshur as pyramid-proving grounds: Although not nearly as famous at the pyramids of Giza, the structures here pre-date the Great Pyramids and highlight the engineering progress and understanding that took place on the way from a stepped structure to a true pyramid. The royal necropolis at Dahshur comprises a two-mile (3.5-kilometer) field of pyramids that date back between the fourth and 12th dynasties, and although 11 structures once dotted the landscape, only two remain: the Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid. Nearly identical in size, these two pyramids are the third-largest in the country after the two biggest at Giza. The Red Pyramid is the older of the two and the only one that visitors can actually enter.
Archaeologists believe that Snofru, the first Pharoah of the fourth dynasty,commissioned Dahshur's most notable pyramids, and, as the Bent Pyramid with its crooked peak illustrates, not all takes were entirely successful. It towers above the sand not far from the Nile's fertile green band and is believed to have been the first try at a smooth-sided true pyramid.
It’s said thousands of people spent decades building the ultimately-flawed Bent Pyramid before trying again just over a mile to the north with the Red Pyramid, incorporating some lessons learned and a different type of stone, which shines red after the rains. Some Egyptologists think the Red Pyramid is where Sneferu was buried.
Cairo is known as the "city of a thousand minarets," and that's reflected in its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A journey into Islamic Cairo is a journey into the city’s past, from Fustat, Egypt’s first Muslim capital, to the 1,000-year-old walled city, the Cairo Citadel, founded by 12th-century leader Saladin, and beyond.
The citadel of Saladin - and indeed, the Cairo skyline - is dominated by the Alabaster Mosque (Mosque of Muhammad 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 Muhammad Ali, ruler of Egypt from 1805 - 1849, wholies in the marble tomb on the right as you enter.
Perhaps the most evocative description of it is in Olivia Manning'sThe 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.
Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the Hanging Church (Al-Muallaqa), 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.
Sometimes known as the second pyramid, the Pyramid of Khafre (Pyramid of Chephren) towers 446 feet (136 meters) above the desert, its tip still encased in the white limestone that once decorated all three Giza Pyramids. It looks taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza, built by Khafre’s father Khufu, because it stands on higher ground.
Standing 614 feet (187 meters) tall on Gezira Island, the Cairo Tower (Burj al-Qahira) is one of Cairo’s most recognizable landmarks. Completed in 1961, with a striking lattice exterior designed to resemble a lotus flower, the tower is topped with a café, an observation deck, and a revolving restaurant.
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, but visitors to the synagogue will still be able to visit this place of historical importance and learn about Coptic and Jewish Cairo. In fact, the Ben Ezra Synagogue is the most visited Jewish site in the city and surprises visitors with the beautiful geometric and floral patterns in the Turkish style.
The Colossus of Ramses II is the showpiece sight at the Memphis Museum, located in Mit Rahinah, just south of Cairo. The open-air museum stands on the site of Memphis, a onetime capital of ancient Egypt, and displays the enormous reclining statue of Ramses inside a 2-story hall, together with a large number of other sculptures throughout its grounds.
The smallest of Cairo’s three main Giza Pyramids, the Pyramid of Menkaure stands with its two counterparts on the Giza Plateau on the southwestern edges of Egypt’s capital. As part of Cairo’s most-visited attraction, this 4,500-year-old tomb is seen by millions of tourists each year.
Tahrir Square, a modest and central circular plaza in downtown Cairo, wasn’t on most tourists’ radar at all until January 2011. Though it has long been an epicenter of political change in the city, the 2011 demonstrations and protests brought the square global fame as hundreds of thousands of people covered the area over the course of several weeks, coalescing the Arab Spring movement in Egypt and ultimately leading to the ousting of former President Hosni Mubarak. Some 6,000 people were injured in clashes with police and security forces in the vicinity of the square and 846 were killed.
Though major tourist sites—including the popular Egyptian Museum of Antiquities—are located just off the square, Tahrir Square has since become a must-see Cairo site in its own right. Though there are no noteworthy monuments or structures, several small tourist booths have set up shop on the periphery, and people from around the world come to pay homage to this site of modern change; the square also continues to be a site for political activity and public gatherings. If you wander the streets spinning off the square, it’s also possible to see murals and street art from 2011 to the present day depicting different facets of revolutionary sentiment.
Considered the original pyramid and the world’s earliest stone monument, the Pyramid of Djoser (Step Pyramid) is a highlight of any trip to Saqqara. Built in 2650 BC, it still stands proud over Saqqara, surrounded by the remains of ritual buildings.
Built between 1356 and 1363 by Cairo’s Mamluk ruler Sultan Hassan, the Sultan Hassan Mosque and Madrassa was designed as a place of worship and madrassa (Islamic school). Visitors can admire its scale and beauty, see its teaching areas (liwans), and view its other highlight: the mausoleum of Sultan Hassan himself.
Al-Fayoum (Faiyum) is a city in Middle Egypt situated 100 kilometers southwest of Cairo. Al-Fayoum (Faiyum) is Egypt's largest oasis, measuring in at around 60 kilometers long and 70 kilometers wide. Founded in around 4000 BC, Faiyum is the oldest city in the country and is home to a number of important archaeological sites; the pharaohs built palaces here and the Greeks built temples.
Rich in nature as well as history, al-Fayoum’s landscape extends to sand dunes, palm trees, lakes, and valleys. Home to an abundance of wildlife, Lake Qaroun is an important natural lake here, where locals and visitors gather for such activities as fishing, watersports, and birdwatching.
The Valley of Whales is another main attraction in the area. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this valley was once a vast ocean that was home to a variety of marine life. Today, it is the site of many fossils and skeletons of extinct whales, along with some fascinating rock formations.
Whether it’s the oldest mosque in Cairo or not (there is some debate about this), the Ibn Tulun Mosque 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.
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