Cairo is the capital city of Egypt. In Egyptian Arabic the city is called Al-Qahirah. It lies in the north of Egypt, on the banks and islands of the Nile River. Home to over 16 million people, Cairo is the most densely populated area on the African continent.
It was established in 969 AD as the royal enclosure for the Fatmid caliphs. The sprawling city has many faces and is best known for its rich history: the old Islamic Cairo, Coptic Cairo, and world-famous Pharaonic history.
The superbly preserved medieval Islamic part of the city lies to the east of the River. It is characterized by narrow alleys, crowded apartment buildings, mosques and markets. The Coptic City is famous for its Coptic churches and narrow alleyways. The western part of the city resembles the Paris of the 19th century with its wide boulevards, public gardens and open spaces. It is also home to modern architecture and government buildings.
Across the Nile, 18 km to the south of Cairo are the pyramids of Giza, a truly spectacular sight. No trip to Cairo is complete without a visit to the Giza Pyramids, the nearby Saqquara, or the Egyptian Museum. In addition, Cairo is also a hectic and polluted city, but it is a charming place as well, where African, European and Arab influences blend.
Cairo has two seasons: hot summer and mild winter. Summer lasts from May to October, and winter from November to April. January and February experience occasional showers and clouds. The hot Sirocco winds bring dust storms in March and April. Summers are oven-hot and smoggy. The relative humidity level is low so the heat is bearable. Cairo has a very dry climate. The annual average is around 1 centimeter of rain.
January average temperature 14 deg Celsius, 5 mm rainfall February average temperature 15 deg Celsius, 4 mm rainfall March average temperature 18 deg Celsius, 4 mm rainfall April average temperature 21.7 deg Celsius, 1 mm rainfall May average temperature 25 deg Celsius, 1 mm rainfall June average temperature 28 deg Celsius, 0.2 mm rainfall July average temperature 28 deg Celsius, 0 mm rainfall August average temperature 28 deg Celsius, 0 mm rainfall September average temperature 26.7 deg Celsius, 0 mm rainfall October average temperature 24 deg Celsius, 1 mm rainfall November average temperature 19 deg Celsius, 2 mm rainfall December average temperature 15.5 deg Celsius, 6 mm rainfall
Cairo International Airport lies 30 km from downtown Cairo. Terminal 2 handles all American and European air traffic. www.cairo-airport.com/
Taxi is the best option to reach the city. Taxis are lined immediately outside the arrival hall. Most taxis do not use meters so bargain on the price before entering the cab.
Buses are cheap and tickets can be bought at the kiosks at major bus stations.
Ramses Station is Cairo’s main train station. Trains run to most other regions and cities in the country.
Cairo has the only metro on the African continent. It is fast, reliable and cheap. The Metro has two lines and runs from 5:30 am till midnight in winter and till 1:00 am in summer. Trains leave every 5 to 10 minutes. The first car of each train is reserved for women. During the rush hours the metro tends to get very crowded. To avoid harassment it is advisable women use the first car, especially during the rush hours.
Taxis are cheap but most do not use the meter. For a tourist it is advisable to state the price beforehand to avoid being ripped-off. It is best to have change on you as drivers are reluctant to return change.
The bus network covers the entire city. Buses are cheap but usually very crowded. The airconditioned buses are slightly more expensive but still dirt cheap according to Western standards and stop on major squares. Standing is prohibited on these buses.
Microbuses are becoming increasingly popular. They are very cheap and faster than the ordinary buses and are ideal for shorter trips. Destinations are not posted so using the services can be a bit problematic.
Traffic is congested and overwhelming for the common driver. Traffic rules and signs are not adhered to, so drive only if you absolutely have to.
Go for a ride with a felucca along the Nile River. It is a great way to cool down in the summer heat, or enjoy the evening out in Cairo. Felucca drivers are lined along the banks of Nile across the street at the Four Seasons Hotel in Garden City. A guide to the felucca-renting prices: 20 to 30 LE for about a half hour for the boat, or 50 LE for an hour. It is advisable to pay after the ride is over, or your trip may ane much faster than you have bargained for. Wildly lit public boats with loud popular Arabic music are also cruising the Nile and cost LE 2 for 1/2 hour.
THE GREAT PYRAMIDS OF GIZA AND THE SPHINX
Address: Pyramid Road Access: bus 8 from Midan Tahrir or Taxi Open: daily: 7:00 am – 7:30 pm
The Pyramids of Giza are the oldest tourist attraction in the world and the Great Pyramid (the Pyramid of Cheops) is the only one preserved of the Seven Wonders of the World, located conveniently just 18 km out of Cairo. They remain a mystery, sparking off human imagination as to their origin, creation and purpose. The most widely accepted explanation is that they served as monuments in which kings and nobles were buried. It is believed that the Great Pyramid took 20 years to build, but how the 20-ton stoneblocks were lifted in their place, remains unknown. Also visit the Great Sphinx, which lies to the east of the Great Pyramid. The monumental limestone figure crouching at the ruined Sphinx temple is 20 meters high and 57 meters long. This half human-half lion is the guardian of the sun temple. It is one of the largest and oldest statues in the world.
EXCURSION TO THE WESTERN OASES
The Great desert circuit runs through 1,000 km of spectacular desert landscape. The circuit passes four desert oases: Baharya and Farafra with hot springs and palm groves, and Dakhla and Kharga, surrounded by ancient villages dating from the days of caravans. Tour of the oases can be booked through any agency with 4WD vehicles, but oases can also be visited using public transport or your own vehicle.
Saqqara is the site of the earliest stone pyramid constructed in Egypt. Located 25 km from Cairo, the site comprises the Step Pyramid of Djoser, the oldest Egyptian stone pyramid, as well as four additional pyramid complexes dating from various era, numerous tombs and animal necropolises.
The museum houses the world’s premier collection of Egyptian artifacts. It boasts over 100,000 artifacts in 107 halls. The definitive highlight is the Tutankhamun Gallery, where the treasures from his tomb are displayed. The solid gold death mask is a must-see. Another sight not to be missed is the Royal Mummy Room, where mummies of Egypt’s most powerful Pharaohs are on display.
The massive Citadel, dominating the city skyline, is one of Cairo’s top tourist attractions. It is an old fortress, built by Salah al-Dinin the 12th century, home to the rulers of Egypt for over 700 years. The complex features the mosque of Mohamed Ali, perched on the summit of the citadel, the Al-Gawhara palace, the National Military Museum and the Police Museum. The citadel offers wonderful panoramic views.
KHAN AL-KHALILI BAZAAR
The marketplace, situated in Islamic part of Cairo, is one of the largest markets in the world. It has been the hub of commercial activity since the 14th century. The marketplace is a maze of narrow streets, alleys and passages filled with vendors selling clothes, perfumes, incense, gold and silver jewelry, leatherwork, glassware, fabrics, spices and much more. Bargaining is a must; never buy an item for its demanded price. It is a lively place ideal for people watching and buying authentic souvenirs.
THE OLD CAIRO / COPTIC CAIRO
This enclosed area is the oldest part of Cairo. It was once known as the Roman stronghold of Babylon and some of the old walls still exist. It is also home of the ancient Coptic Christian community. Five of the originally 20 churches are preserved and can be visited. Among the most interesting are the Hanging Church (Al-Muallaqa), the oldest one in Egypt, and St Sergius. The area also features the first mosque built in Egypt, as well as the oldest synagogue. The culturally rich and interesting area is also a great place to calm down and take some time off from the busy and bustling Cairo center.
Address: Sharia Mu'ezz li-din Allah Open: 8:00 am-6:00 pm
The magnificent gate once served as the southern entrance to the royal city of the Fatimids. The gate has two towers. It erected in 1902 and is one of the few examples of the pre-crusader military architecture. The gate has been a landmark for along time. Inside the plaques explain the history of the gate. The minaret offers splendid views and is worth the climb.
THE CAIRO TOWER
Cairo Tower stands on Gezira Island in the River Nile. It is 187 meters high and has an observation deck at 180 meters which also features a restaurant. On clear days it yields fantastic views of the city and the surrounding countryside, including the Nile Delta and the Pyramids.
Cairo boasts an incredibly colorful array of dining venues. Apart from local restaurants, snack bars and eateries, Cairo also offers a wide variety of eateries serving food from around the globe. You can eat at excellent Indian, Thai, Chinese, French, and Italian food.
The best restaurants in Cairo are located in the international hotels, and on the boats cruising or lining the River Nile. The cheapest food can be obtained at the street restaurants and snack stalls. Most budget eateries are located downtown. Traditional Egyptian working-class food includes fuul (mashed beans) and taameya (falafel). These dishes are usually served in aish shami (local vcariety of pita bread) and are eaten for breakfast. Koshary, an originally Egyptian fast food, is usually eaten for lunch. It is composed of macaroni, rice, tomato sauce and sprinkled with fried onion, hoummos and lentils. Another popular Egyptian dish is grilled chicken, served with salad. Egyptian pizza (or fiteer) actually does not resemble pizza that much. It usually contains the material available in the bowls at the working counter and you choose what you want.
Alcohol is mainly served in the bars of five-star hotels. For non-alcoholic drinks you can venture to one of the many ahwa’s (coffe shops), which serve tea, coffee, hot chocolate, various juices, and sodas.
Date: various, beginning July – end August Location: various, throughout the city
Muleds are a combination of religious festival and a funfair. The celebrations last around one week. Lively processions take over the streets of Cairo and other towns and villages. The celebrations include trance-like dancing to the music, snake charmers, food, healing, circumcisions, and much more.
This is the most important Muslim holiday, during which the practitioners are not allowed to drink, eat or smoke during the hours of daylight. Fasting is the Forth Pillar of Islam. Its spiritual significance is self-control, contemplation and sympathy towards fellow-men. During this time the most businesses are closed during the daytime. The end of Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, is celebrated by three-day feasting.
AIDA AT GIZA
Date: 10-12 October Location: Pyramids at Giza
The dramatic pyramids become the setting of Verdi’s opera Aida once every year. The open-air performance of Verdi’s best loved opera set in the spectacular backdrop of pyramids features amazing lightshow, a huge cast and an even bigger crowd of audience. Reservations can be made at the Central Reservation Office on (0)2 736 7314.
MOULID OF SIDI ALI AL-BAYOUMI
Date: October Location: Islamic Cairo
The festival is the best occasion to catch a performance by the Whirling Dervishes, or Mowlawiyya. Their dance has a deep significance, each movement, whirl and twirl has a symbolic meaning.
Date: January 19 Location: El-Hussein Mosque and El-Hussein Square
Islamic Cairo becomes a stage for the celebration of the martyr Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, killed in the battle of Karbala in 680. Throughout the day visitors can see crowd gathering in front of the mosque. Traditional religious dances ‘zikris’ are danced, traditional music played and even the ritual self-flagellation of Shia men can be observed.
Cairo comes truly alive at night. Night time is the best time to shop, eat, or sit at a café, watch people go by and smoke a shisha (hubbly-bubbly pipe).
Belly dancing and cabaret shows can be seen at the luxurious hotels. A show can also be enjoyed on a Nile River cruise. Cairo offers several different dinner cruises, mostly lasting two hours and include a dinner, sailing along the river and entertainment program, usually featuring belly dancers or Tannoura dancers (whirling dervishes). The Opera House complex houses many galleries and concert halls. Listening to Arabic music in and open-air theatre is a truly atmospheric way of spending an evening.
Egypt is a Muslim country and many Cairenes do not drink alcohol, but it is easy to acquire it. Western style bars are mostly located in major hotels. In addition, alcohol can be bought at the loquor stores scattered around the city. Most large international hotels have casinos with roulette, blackjack, slot machines and other popular games and usually stay open until early morning. All offer alcohol as well as soft drinks.
Clubs in Egypt offer belly dancing and other shows. The most reliable can be found in larger hotels. There are many seedy joints where the main objective is to part you with as much money as possible. Western-style nightclubs can also be found at major hotels, for example the Jackie’s Joint at the Nile Hilton, The Place, at the Sheraton el Gezirah, Rithmo at the Semiramis Intercontinental, and Windows on the World, on the 30th floor of the Ramses Hilton. Live music ranging from jazz, blues to DJs can be found at the Cairo Jazz Club (197 26th of July Street; phone: (02) 345 9939).
Contrary to the popular belief, Cairo is not a Pharaonic city; at the time the pyramids were built, Egypt’s capital city was Memphis, some 40 km from the present-day Cairo.
The Cairo area was already settled in Paleolithic times and was later developed under the Neolithic trading communities. Under the Romans the Babylon Fort was established. In 642 the Arab Muslim warriors under Amr Ibn al-As besieged the Babylon Fort and won the support of peasants and townspeople. The rule of the city passed from the Abbasids to the Tulunids and later passed into the hands of the Fatimids. The latter established what is now known as the Islamic Cairo in 969 AD, leaving many landmarks such as the Al Azhar Mosque and the Bab al Futuh gates.
The Fatmids were expelled from the city by the Seljuk Turks under the command of Saladin. He left an important mark on the city, by constructing the Citadel. The Ayyoubid dynasty was succeeded by the Mamelukes who converted Cairo into an intellectual and cultural hub of Muslim world. The Mamelukes prospered and their control reached as far as Syria and Palestine. When Vasco da Gamma discovered the sea route of the Cape of the Good Hope European merchants no longer had to cross Egypt, reducing taxes income. The final blow to the Mameluke dynasty was the arrival of the Turkish Sultan Selim in 1516. Istanbul reduced Cairo to a mere province. The taxes collected from Egyptians were sent to Istanbul, and all the trade was moved there as well. The Mameluke dynasty retained some power but they were finally overcome with the arrival of Napoleon in late 18th century.
The French were defeated by the British in a dramatic battle at Abu Quir. In 1807 the British invaded Egypt, but were in turn defeated in 1811 by Mohammed Ali Pasha. Under Mohammed Ali Pasha Cairo was thoroughly expanded and modernized. Many European-style buildings were erected, railway connections established and schools opened but Cairo changed significantly only in mid-19th century under Ali Pasha’s grandson. Cairo expanded further during Ismael’s reign. The Suez Canal was built, which attracted much foreign interest, boosting tourism and business. Foreign loans poured in to enable the ambitious plans of Ismael, but this ended in 1882 when UK took over control of the country until Egypt would repay its debts. What followed was a British occupation which only ended with a revolution by the Free Officers on July 23, 1952. King Farouk was forced into exile and the British Occupational Forces were dismissed.
MODERN (20TH CENTURY)
After the Revolution, Cairo grew and developed at a great pace. Many new suburbs sprung up, and population boosted. The city started facing new problems of overcrowding, poor state of infrastructure and pollution.
The city still faces its problems, but the never-ending masses of tourists drawn to its ancient sights bring in the much anticipated cash.
Visitors to Cairo should bear in mind they are in a Muslim country. Devout Muslims do not drink alcohol, use drugs, eat pork, or cook with animal fat. Tourists are not expected to refrain from doing so, but are advised to be discreet.
Mosques are a popular tourist attractions but show respect. Always remove your shoes when you enter a mosque. Western men should be careful when initiating conversation with Muslim women. You should be aware that in traditional circles, this is considered very impolite.
In Egypt it is polite to refuse the first invitation. If the invitation is sincere it is repeated, and then it is polite to accept it.
In general Cairo is a safe city by Western standards. It is safe to walk almost anywhere, regardless of the time of day but be properly dressed. This applies especially to women. It is not advisable for women to walk alone at night. Even though rape on the street is very rare, harassment can be very aggressive.
Pickpockets are rare but do sometimes operate at major tourist sites and other crowded areas such as metro or bus. Although theft is not a big problem, there has been an increase in theft from hotel rooms and hotel safes. Egypt suffered a series of terrorist attacks in 2004, 2005, and 2006, which occurred in or near tourist resorts. Visitors are advised to stay alert of their surroundings, avoid crowded tourist areas and be especially vigilant on Sinai Peninsula. Avoid public gatherings and political demonstrations.
Terrorist attacks also occurred in central Cairo in 2005 resulting in 4 deaths and 19 injuries and in 2006, resulting in 7 injuries. There is increased security at all tourist sites, especially at tourist resorts on Sinai Peninsula. A heavy security presence is apparent throughout the country.
For most up-to date security information visit the website of U.S. Embassy in Cairo at egypt.usembassy.gov/. Landmines still present a big problem in Egypt. Check with local authorities before embarking on any off-road travel.