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Monday, January 11, 2010

Cairo "The Capital Of Egypt"

Cairo (القاهرة al-Qāhirah) is the capital of Egypt and, with a total population in excess of 16 million people, one of the largest cities in both Africa and the Middle East (the regions which it conveniently straddles). It is also the 19th largest city in the world, and among the world's most densely populated cities.

Situated on the River Nile, Cairo is famous for its own history, preserved in the fabulous medieval Islamic city and Coptic sites in Old Cairo. The Egyptian Museum in the center of town is a must see, with its countless Ancient Egyptian artifacts, as is shopping at the Khan al-Khalili bazaar. No trip to Cairo would be complete, for example, without a visit to the Giza Pyramids, and to the nearby Saqqara Pyramid Complex, where visitors will see Egypt's first step pyramid built by the architect Imhotep for the third dynasty pharaoh Djoser.

Though firmly attached to the past, Cairo is also home to a vibrant modern society. The Midan Tahrir area situated in downtown Cairo area , built in the 19th century under the rule of Khedive Ismail, has strived to be a "Paris on the Nile". There also are a number of more modern suburbs including Ma'adi and Heliopolis, while Zamalek is a quiet area on Gezira Island, with upscale shopping. Cairo is best in the fall or spring, when the weather isn't so hot. A felucca ride on the Nile is a good way to escape from the busy city, as is a visit to Al-Azhar Park.

Mohammed Ali Mosque

The Citadel is entered by the Bab el-Gedid, which leads into a courtyard and then through the Bab el-Wastani into the main courtyard. On the south side of this is the Mohammed Ali Mosque, often called the Alabaster Mosque, one of the city's great landmarks with its tall and disproportionately slender minarets. It was begun in 1824 by Mohammed (Mehemet) Ali but completed only in 1857, under his successor Said. The architect was a Greek named Yusuf Boshna from Istanbul, who took as his model the Nuruosmaniye Mosque in that city, itself modeled on the Hagia Sophia.

View From Mohammed Ali Mosque

From the west corner of the mosque there is a magnificent view of the gray city with its innumerable minarets and domes and, now, its high rise blocks; in the distance can be seen the Pyramids of Giza.

Corniche el-Nil

Just beyond the Egyptian Museum the Corniche el-Nil along the bank of the Nile is lined by large modern hotels and prestige buildings.

Egyptian Museum

To the northwest of the Liberation Square is the large range of buildings (1897-1902) occupied by the Egyptian Museum, which has the world's largest and finest collection of Egyptian and Graeco-Roman antiquities, founded in 1857 by the French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette (1821-81 ). To do full justice to the Museum, which can display only a fraction of its total holdings, several days would be required. Visitors who are pressed for time will do well to confine themselves to the celebrated treasures of Tutankhamun and a selection of the Old Kingdom material.

Linen production was massive and highly skilled from the Old Kingdom to the Graeco-Roman Period. Fabrics more than 2m wide were not unusual. Some were so fine they were woven
from only two linen fibers which made them transparent. Horizontal looms can be seen in models of workshops which were found in tombs. Wool was considered unclean an was rarely used until the end of the New Kingdom and the Graeco-Roman period.

Ezbekiya Gardens
Another focal point of the city's life, now superseded by the Midan el-Tahrir, was the beautiful Ezbekiya Gardens (formerly a lake) on the edge of the old Arab town, which are now traversed by Sharia 26 July. The gardens, laid out in 1870 under the direction of M. Barillet, a landscape gardener from Paris, contain a profusion of exotic bushes and plants, including an Indian banyan (Ficus bengalensis) whose aerial roots constantly form new trunks.

Ramesses Square

(Local Name: Midan Ramses) Shari el-Gumhuriya, on the west side of the Ezbekiya Gardens, runs north and comes in about 1,100 yds/1,000 m to Midan Ramses, with a 33ft/ 10m high statue of Ramesses II from Memphis, set up here in 1955.

The Barquqiya Mosque

The Barquqiya Mosque, a medrese built in 1386 by the Mameluke Sultan Barquq, is now a branch of the El-Azhar University.

The Bazaar Quarter

The Bazaar Quarter, with its large bazaars (Arabic suq) and teeming mass of humanity, has an abundance of novelty and interest to offer the visitor.

Before you go shopping in the bazaar it is well to have some idea in advance of the level of prices for the goods you are interested in. It is normal to haggle, for the seller will always set his first price high enough to leave room for a substantial reduction. But though you may enjoy bargaining it should be remembered that with the low wage levels current in Egypt prices are likely in any event to be cheaper than at home, and that it becomes a visitor from a wealthier country not to press the bargaining too far.

El-Azhar Mosque

Turning right at the Sharia Gohan el-Qaid intersection, we soon come into Shari el-Azhar, which runs east from the Midan el-Ataba to the square in front of the El-Azhar Mosque. Turning left, we soon reach that square, in which there are many Arabic bookshops.

The El-Azhar Mosque (the "most blooming"), the finest building of the Fatimid period, was completed in 972 by Gohar, and in 988 was given the status of a university by Caliph El-Aziz. It was rebuilt after destruction by an earthquake in 1303, and thereafter the rulers and great ones of Egypt including the wealthy Abd el-Rahman Kihya in the 18th C. and Said Pasha, Taufiq and Abbas II in more recent times emulated one another in maintaining and enlarging this venerable building
The rectangular ground plan of the original building is easily recognizable, however, in spite of later additions and alterations. The El-Azhar University is still the leading educational center of the Islamic World.

El-Azhar Mosque El-Taibarsiya Medrese

The main entrance is the Babel-Muzayyini or "Gate of the Barbers", on the northwest side of the building, adjoining the neo Arab facade built by Abbas II. This leads into a small forecourt, on the right of which is the El-Taibarsiya Medrese, with a fine mihrab (prayer niche) of 1309, and on the left the 14th century.
Khan el-Khalili Bazaar

To the east of the gold and silver bazaar in Cairo is the large Khan el-Khalili Bazaar, established about 1400 on the site of a Fatimid castle, which has preserved its old world character, although the shops now cater for the tourist trade (carpets, jewelry, antiques, perfume, etc.).

El-Hakim Mosque

Almost at the end of the street which runs north through the old town to Bab el-Futah, on the right, is the entrance to the El-Hakim Mosque, begun in 990 by El-Aziz on a site outside the oldest town walls, on the model of the Ibn Tulun Mosque, and completed in 1012 by his son El-Hakim. The two minarets, standing on the second town wall, which at this point is well preserved, were originally round; their present square casing and the domed top section resembling an Arab incense burner date from the rebuilding of the mosque after the 1303 earthquake.

El-Mardani Mosque

Farther down the Shari el-Ahmar, on the right, is the El-Mardani Mosque, one of the largest in Cairo, was built in 1340 by the Cup-bearer of Sultan Mohammed el-Nasir. The prayer niche beyond the modern concrete dome, borne on ancient Egyptian granite columns, is covered with costly mosaics.

Gate of Conquests

(Local Name: Bab el-Futuh) The Bab el-Futuh ("Gate of Conquests") at the end of the street and the Bab el-Nasr ("Gate of Victory"), with which it is connected by the old town walls, are similar in form to ancient Roman town gates. It is well worth while to climb up at the gates and walk along the walls, from which there are fine views of the city and surrounding area.

Ibn Tulun Mosque

From the Midan Salah el-Din Shari el-Saliba leads southwest to the Ibn Tulun Mosque, the second oldest in Cairo. Built in 876-879 by Ahmed ibn Tulun on the 65ft/20m high rocky plateau of Gebel Yashkur and modeled on the Kaaba in Mecca, it was then the largest mosque in existence. The outer walls, almost without decoration, are topped by crenelations.

Ibn Tulun Mosque Minaret

The 130ft/40m high minaret in the north forecourt, with a fine horseshoe arch over the entrance and a spiral staircase in the interior, is modeled on the minarets of the Great Mosque of Samarra on the Tigris. From its platform (173 easy steps) there are superb views, particularly in the evening, extending in the north over the sea of houses and the Nile Valley to the Delta, in the west and south to the Pyramids and in the east to the Moqattam Hills.

Mosque of Mohammed el-Nasir

On the north side of the Qalaun Mosque we come to the Mosque of Mohammed el-Nasir (1304), one of the great masterpieces of Islamic architecture in Egypt. It is entered by a Gothic doorway from a church at Akka (Acre) in Syria. The beautiful minaret, the sanctuary (to the left) and the founder's tomb (right) preserve some of their original delicate plaster ornament.

Mausoleum of Qalaun

On the right of the long corridor is the Mausoleum of Qalaun, one of the finest Arab buildings in Cairo, completed in 1293 by Qalaun's son Mohammed el-Nasir; it has a richly ornamented prayer niche and fine marble and mother-of-pearl mosaics.

Muayyad Mosque

On its two massive towers are the minarets of the dilapidated Muayyad Mosque, also known as El-Ahmar, the "Red Mosque", which was begun in 1405 by Sheikh El-Mahmudi Muayyad and completed a year after his death (1410). The bronze gate at the entrance, the finest in Cairo, came from the Sultan Hasan Mosque. The magnificent three aisled sanctuary has a beautiful painted wooden ceiling.

Museum of Islamic Art

From the Midan el-Ataba, immediately southeast of the Ezbekiya Gardens, the wide Shari el-Qala runs southeast in a dead straight line to the foot of the Citadel. About a quarter of the way there it comes to the Midan Ahmed Maher, on the north side of which is the Museum of Islamic Art, founded by the German architectand scholar Franz Pasha (d. 1915), the finest collection of its kind in the world, with masterpieces from every Islamic country.

Sultan Hasan Mosque

On the west side of the Midan Mohammed Ali is the Sultan Hasan Mosque, built in 1356-63, perhaps by a Syrian architect, for the Mameluke Sultan Hasan el-Nasir. Situated on a shelving rock below the Citadel, it is perhaps the finest example of Arab-Egyptian architecture. The exterior, with its large areas of stone, is reminiscent of an ancient Egyptian temple. The facades are crowned by a boldly projecting stalactitic cornice, the pinnacles of which have been restored. The wide wall surfaces are relieved by blind niches and twin round arched windows. The mausoleum which projects from the southeast front is roofed with 180ft/ 55m high dome of Arab-Turkish type (rebuilt in 18th C.). The massive main doorway at the north corner is almost 85ft
/26m high; and the minaret at the south corner is the tallest in Cairo (267ft/81.5m). The ground plan is in the form of an irregular Pentagon covering an area of 9,450 sq yd/7,900 sq. m, into which the crucifer shape of the original medrese has bee very skillfully incorporated.

Cairo Tower

(Local Name: El-Borg) In the southern half of Gezira is the great landmark and emblem of the modern city of Cairo, the 614ft/187m high Cairo Tower, with observation platforms and a restaurant from which there are panoramic views of the city.

Old Cairo

(Local Name: Misr el-Oadima) There is much of interest to see in the southern district of Old Cairo, on the right bank of the Nile opposite the south end of the island of Roda. In the southern part of this district is the Qasr el-Shama quarter, mainly inhabited by Christians, which lies within the walls (still partly preserved) of the Roman fortress of Babylon.

Church of St Sergius

(Local Name: Abu Sarga) The area of the Roman fortress of Babylon is entered between two massive Roman towers. In a closely packed huddle of houses is the Church of Abu Sarga, founded in the fourth-fifth century and rebuilt in the 10th-11th centuries. According to tradition the Virgin and Child found refuge here for a month during their flight into Egypt.

The church represents the basic type of the Egyptian-Byzantine basilica of the early period, still favored by the Copts. It has a nave and aisles, with exposed roof beams over the nave, a raised transept (choir) and galleries in the flat roofed aisles. The side walls of the nave consist of two rows of columns, one above the other, with keeled arches
between the columns; the galleries are supported on alternate groups of two columns and a masonry pier. The marble columns, taken from ancient buildings, are used without regard to their diameter or architectural form.

The church is entered by a doorway at the southwest corner. The three original doorways in the west front, now walled up, led into the narthex, which was occupied during services by catechumens (converts under instruction) awaiting baptism. The narthex is divided into three parts by wooden screens. In the middle section is an old piscina, used by the priest for washing the feet of male worshipers on the Feast of the Epiphany; the north section, with a recess, is the Baptistery. The narthex is separated from the nave by another wooden screen. The nave, with an acute angled timber roof, is traditionally reserved for men, while the women sit in the aisles. Steps lead up to the sanctuary and two side chapels, which are shut off by wooden screens, paneled and richly adorned with carvings in wood and ivory. In the sanctuary (heikal) are the canopied high altar and an apse with steps on which the priests used to sit.

Coptic Museum

Attached to El-Moallaqa is the Coptic Museum, founded in 1910 by Morkos Pasha Simaika, the largest and finest collection of Coptic material. The museum was erected at the beginning of the 20th century, using architectural elements from old Coptic buildings, and later extended. In addition to works of religious art, it contains Coptic arts and crafts and everyday objects from the third to the 18th century, particularly items of the early medieval period.

This museum contains the largest collection of Coptic textiles "wool, linen and silk." It was the most important industry during the early Christian period in Egypt.

Shari el-Muski

The main thoroughfare of the old Arab town of Cairo is formed by Shari el-Muski, a street laid out in the first half of the 19th century, and its continuation Shari Gohar el-Qaid, which leads southeast from the Ezbekiya Gardens. Externally these streets, with their European-style shops, have lost their Oriental character, but they still present all the noise and bustle, the constant lively activity of the East.

Burial Mosque of Qait Bey

Some 660yd/ 600m southwest of the Barquq Mosque, in the southern group of mausoleum is the Burial Mosque of Qait Bey (1474), perhaps the finest of them all. Notable features are the decoration of the walls in bands of different colors, the delicate reticulation of the dome and the elegant form of the 130ft/40m high minaret. The prayer hall is floored with marble mosaic. Adjoining the splendidly colorful mausoleum, with a richly ornamented reading desk, is a hall containing the tombs of the Sultan's four wives.

Convent-Mosque of Sultan Barquq

Of the various tombs in the northern group is the Convent-Mosque of Sultan Barquq, a square structure measuring 240ft/73m each way with two minarets and two splendid domes (1400-05 and 1410). In the sanctuary is a fine stone pulpit of 1483.

Moqattam Hills

(Local Name: Gebel Giyushi) An attractive trip (half day) may be made from Cairo to the Moqattam Hills, or Gebel Giyushi, to the east of the city. From this 650ft/200m high range of hills of nummulitic limestone (fossils, including fossil trees) there are superb views; a particularly good viewpoint is the rocky spur to the south of the conspicuous Giyushi Mosque (1085). The area is sometimes closed to the public as a military zone; care should be taken not to photograph military features. A short distance northwest of the mosque, picturesquely situated on the slopes of the hills, is the Bektashi Convent, belonging to a Turkish Order of Dervishes.

Tombs of the Caliphs

Of particular interest are the so-called Tombs of the Caliphs (reached from Bab el-Nasr or from the Citadel), most of which date from the time of the second, or Circassian, Mameluke dynasty (1382-1517).

Wadi Hof

An attractive excursion from Helwan is to the Wadi Hof, 2mi/3km north, which is noted for its scenic beauty, its curious fossils (examples of which can be seen in the Cairo museums) and the desert vegetation which springs to life after rain.

Get around

The American University in Cairo has made a good map of Cairo. It is a must-have when you want to get around on your own. CAIRO A-Z from The Palm Press offers a more detailed city map in 300 pages.

By metro

Cairo metro system
Cairo metro system

Cairo and Algiers are the only two cities on the African continent with metro systems. The Algerian metro system although complete is due to be opened early 2010. While Cairo's metro system fully functioning is modern and sleek, the two lines are all too limited in scope. But they are a major boon in the areas they cover, and the flat rate fare of 1.00 LE per trip is a bargain. Visitors attempting to use the metro in Cairo should try not to be put off when they go to a ticket window to purchase a ticket. Egyptians do not understand the concept of queuing, so be prepared to politely but assertively, navigate your way through the crowed to the ticket window . The key interchanges are Mubarak, at Midan Ramses, and Sadat, below Midan Tahrir.

The Cairo Metro has stations in Dokki and Maadi, among other places. The Metro is also a hassle-free way to get to Giza to see the Pyramids, although you'll need to complete the trip taking a bus all the way (change to bus for "Al-Haram" at the Giza train station). Plans have been made to add new lines to include Mohandiseen and Zamalek, as well as the airport; however, little progress seems to be made on this.

Note that there are two cars of each train reserved for women, which are located in the middle section of the train. The metro stops running at approximately midnight and starts up again around 6am. There are no timetables, but departures are very frequent. The metro is better to use if you wish to avoid traffic jam. It is secure, costs one pound one trip and has a clear European navigation system.

By taxi

The fleet of black-and-white taxis that ply Cairo's streets are convenient but a hassle — communication can be an issue and the meters, which are heirs from antique eras of gas prices, are not normally used. Prices are, however, not erratic, and any Cairene knows how much the driver expects depending on time and distance spent in the car, and perhaps the traffic (relative to normal Cairo levels, of course). Because of a recent 20% raise in gasoline prices, prices could be slightly higher, but still very cheap for most tourists. Additionally, it is highly recommended that you have exact change before you enter a cab; drivers are reluctant if not resistant to giving change, but if you can present them with the exact amount for the journey they will more likely accede without haggling or complaint.

Ordinary Egyptians will never state prices beforehand. Instead the correct sum is paid through the window after leaving the car. Some drivers might protest as they expect tourists to pay more than the standard rates. As a tourist it's probably best to meet these expectations as it only represents a very small increase in hard currency terms. Avoid negotiations - it takes lots of time and you end up at a price you won't like. Instead, use the "walk-away"-technique if they don't agree to your (reasonable) price. As long the driver does not leave the car, you're all right. If this happens, consult someone nearby.

As a tourist you might prefer to state a price beforehand, which may prevent ripoffs but will require you to quote slightly above the local price to get a quick nod.

Try to get a taxi on the fly instead of those loitering outside 5-star hotels and restaurants to minimize price inflation. Using a big hotel as your destination may also inflate the price. Always choose the taxi, don't let the taxi choose you.

Sample taxi prices

  • Short trips within one area LE5
  • Downtown to Midan Hussein LE7
  • Downtown to Mohandesin LE10
  • Downtown to Pyramids LE25
  • Downtown or Zamalek to Airport LE40
  • Zamalek to Downtown LE7
  • Zamalek to Midan Hussein LE15

Cabbies usually expect more money (2 or 3 LE) for ferrying more people. If you decide not to negotiate the price beforehand (this is the better method) be ready to jump ship and/or bargain hard if the cabbie brings up the fare after you are in the car. They rarely accept more than 4 people to a taxi. Also add 5-7 LE driving late at night.

In March 2006 a new fleet of 500 bright yellow taxis hit the road. They run on natural gas, and will soon add up to a total of 1500 cars, all equipped with air-conditioning, meters that actually work, and credit card readers. The meter starts at 3.50 LE, and then 1 LE for every additional kilometer. The drivers are not allowed to smoke in the cars. They are referred to as 'City Cabs' or Cairo Cabs', and can be a bit more expensive (and less of an adventure) than the black-and-white cabs for short hops. However, for longer distances they are the way to go for price and comfort. From within Cairo call 0104343438 - 19155.

Never continue traveling in any vehicle which you deem to be unsafe or the driver to be driving recklessly, specially in the dark on unlit roads, or in single track highways where overtaking is dangerous. If you fell unsafe simply tell the driver to slow down, if he does not do this immediately ask him to stop and simply get out and walk away.

In recent months the Egyptian government has started a scheme to replace the old black and white taxis with new white taxis with a black and white checkered strip along the side with meters to work along side the yellow and black private taxis.

By bus

The large red, white and blue public buses cover the entire city and are much cheaper, but are usually crowded. However, there are the similar air-conditioned buses that charge 2 L.E. for the trip and prohibit standing on the bus. They can be found in the main squares in Cairo. Also found in main squares are the smaller mini-buses that are usually orange and white or red, white and blue. Because of problems with sexual harassment women travelers are advised only to take the small micro-buses and buses which prohibit standing.

Apart from the main bus stations, buses can be hailed from street-level. Buses are seldom marked with destination, instead passengers shout out (or use a number of sign-language like hand codes) their destinations and if the bus goes this place it will stop. On micro-buses, the fare starts at 50 piastres and goes up to 1 LE. Travelers unfamiliar with Cairo can ask bus drivers or passengers to let them know where there stop is. Don't be shy - even if you don't speak Arabic, simply politely blurt out the name of your destination to the bus driver or a friendly looking passenger and they will take care of you.

Late night bus riders Take note, bus frequency, length of route, and in some cases, fees can vary during the late evening hours onward. In some cases, a route may terminate, without notice, short of your destination. When this takes place, locals reply upon private citizens hoping to make some additional money, to get them to their final destination. As always, use caution, if you should choose to accept private transportation. One final note on late night bus transportation, since many mini- buses will not depart until the bus is nearly full, you should be prepared for a lengthy period of time, while the driver waits for enough people to board.

There are a number of major bus stations (mawqaf مواقف) throughout the city. One of the largest is conveniently located behind the Egyptian Museum in Midan Tahrir. Note that there are actually two stations - the main bus station for the city buses, and the micro-bus station behind it. Travelers who want to visit the Pyramids, for example, can catch a seat in a micro-bus for approximately 2 pounds. Visitors wishing to go to the pyramids and see a bus or micro-bus driver shouting Haram, shoud always before boarding make a pyramid triangle with your hands to ensure that the driver is driving to the actual pyramids themselves, and not just to the district of Haram, which although is fairly close to the pyramids, can terminate a fair distance from the pyramid entrance.

There are also bus stations in Midan Ramses, under the overpass. Buses run from Ramses to Heliopolis, City Stars Mall and other destinations not covered by the Tahrir bus station.

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