Today’s Cairo, specifically its central Tahrir Square, would give Queen Scheherazade yet another tale to tell. The square itself is unimposing as major city centres go, but it’s the birthplace of the new Egypt, a place watched by the world in January this year when the 18-day dynasty-changing revolution happened (Arab Spring, as some have called it), and watched again in July when tens of thousands gathered to call for faster reforms.
Egypt’s capital still buzzes from Mubarak’s downfall, but visitors report that, for tourists, things are fast getting back to normal. Street vendors have been quick to open up trade in revolution memorabilia, from T-shirts to Egyptian flags.
The new Egypt stands side by side with the old, for it’s on Tahrir Square that the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities is located.
The museum is a must-see with remarkable treasures spanning a 5,000-year-old history.
While some visitors report frustration with a lack of efficient labelling, the sights are nonetheless breathtaking. (Reported looting in the January revolution was halted by a furious Egyptian public.) More than 120,000 artefacts date from the earliest dynasties to the Roman era. Tutankhamen Galleries display the iconic gold and gem-inlaid funeral mask plus 1,700 additional treasures found in the boy king’s tomb. The Royal Mummy Room is home to the remains of 11 pharaohs, including Ramses II. The Giza and Saqqara rooms are filled with impressive statues and death masks. Allow a half-day at least, and then return for more.
The city of 18 million teems with life. Cairo is home to many cultures, evidenced in the array of stores, restaurants, and cafes. (Try the stuffed pigeon, a favourite Egyptian dish.) Aromas scent the air from spices in the souks (markets) to delicious emanations from street stalls.
Cairo is the largest city in Africa and claims the title “urban centre of the Arab world.” Here, east unites with west as does the past and present. You’ll find stunning glass towers and ancient medieval tunnels and see luxury limos share the road with donkey carts and the odd camel. Women in the latest western fashions walk with robed and veiled companions.
The Islamic old town is a maze of lanes leading to mighty mosques and caravanseries (resting places for camel train traders of old). Here you can walk in the footsteps of legendary sultans like Salah el-Din (Saladin to our western memories).
At the gate of Bab Zuwayla – all that’s left of the old city of el-Qahira – those looking to be healed nail a lock of their hair or a piece of clothing to the gate in the hope of a miracle from the local saint Mitwalli, who lived here in the 19th century. Above the gates, the minarets of el-Muahhad mosque offer some of the best views across Cairo. Here, too, you’ll find a shady courtyard and the mausoleum of Sultan el-Muahhad, who began the building in 1415.
In Cairo’s ancient Christian quarter the Copts keep their precious early Christian inheritance and boast the world’s oldest monastic communities. Visitors can even trace part of the path travelled by the holy family during their travels through Egypt.
Towards the River Nile, the city hums to a modern beat. Here is the business hub, contemporary museums, superb shopping, a vibrant arts scene and sizzling restaurants and night life. Cairo’s world-renowned opera house draws aficionados from across Europe.
Cairo and its surrounding area in the Lower Nile Valley are considered to be the heart of Egypt, and you’ll find almost everything about the country represented in the region, including some of the most famous Pharaonic, ancient Christian, and Islamic monuments.
Of course every visitor must make a pilgrimage to the Great Pyramids of Giza on the western edge of the city and one of the original Seven Wonders of the World. (And the last remaining one.)
The oldest, the Great Pyramid of Cheops, was completed about 2,600 BC and is Egypt’s largest at 136 metres high. Nearby, three smaller pyramids were built for the queens, and beyond these are pyramids dedicated to Chephren, son of Cheops, and Mycerinus. The Sphinx guards the site, and it’s thought to predate the pyramids by about 2,500 years. An enormously popular sound and light show in front of the Sphinx takes place each evening after sunset.
At the royal Necropolis of Safagwa, works of art tell of the wealth and creative spirit that once existed in neighbouring Memphis, the first capital of the ancient kingdom. Here, too, is the Step Pyramid of Djoser, the mastabas (flat-roofed, rectangular tombs with sloping walls) with impressive relief decorations, and the Serapeum, the resting place of the holy Apis bulls. (Apis was Egypt’s bull deity.)
Another short excursion from Cairo is Dahshur, a less visited site but one where a grave in perfect pyramid form was first erected.
So much history, so much life. Be careful: if you open your heart to multi-faceted Cairo, it might be captured and one visit simply won’t be enough.
More information from www.egypt.travel.