The 3 areas you must visit in Cairo

Cairo is a city with more than 20 million inhabitants. It appears that many of them are driving during the day. The smog of traffic pollution constantly hangs in the air. Despite the traffic and the pollution in Cairo, there are places worth visiting besides the Egyptian Museum.

To an outsider there seemed to be only one rule of the road.  If you can edge the bonnet of your car forwards enough to cause an obstruction, you confirm priority with your horn. With many lanes of traffic you are surrounded by the sound the horns. Combined with the fumes it is not a nice experience.

Before heading into Cairo you want to have an aim. It is not a place to go out and drive for fun. You don’t want to expose yourself to the pollution for more time than necessary. I had read that the centre of Islamic Cairo was listed by UNESCO. I’ve never been disappointed visiting a UNESCO site, but I struggled to find information about where exactly to go in Cairo. I will tell you about where I went in the city so that it might help you.

The first place I visited was the citadel. This is the original fortified area on a hill high above the city. You can see the minarets of the Mosque up there from much of the city. The defensive walls were built by Saladin as protection against the Crusaders. Saladin was the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria. The crusaders never attacked the citadel so the walls are not damaged. Within the walls you can find the Mohammed Ali Mosque. The mosque is a very new addition to the citadel and was completed in about 1850. This impressive structure would not be out of place in Istanbul. This is no surprise as the architect was Turkish.

Muhammad ali mosque

The Muhammad Ali Mosque is also known as the alabaster mosque. Inside the perimeter is a large square constructed of white alabaster. Central to the square is an Alabaster Fountain shown below. Underneath the square is a cistern used to supply water to the citadel. A guide pointed out a man hole cover and said that he had been inside.

Alabaster fountain inside the Muhammad Ali mosque

The domes of the mosque cover a huge carpeted space illuminated by an array of hanging lights. The resemblance to the inside of the blue Mosque in Istanbul is remarkable. We were told that the carpets of a mosque should be green. In common with every other mosque we saw the carpets were red.

Lights inside the Muhammad Ali Mosque

Decoration inside the dome.

You looking up inside dome

If you like impressive buildings you will be impressed at the scale of this mosque. Outside the mosque are a set of terraces where you can get a great view over the whole of Cairo. I think it must be one of the best views across the city of Cairo, Giza and to the pyramids beyond. Given the number of minarets you can understand why Cairo was known as the City of 1000 minarets.

Next to the Muhammad Ali mosque you can find the 14th century Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qala’un Mosque. The design of the mosque is more traditional with an open square surrounded by a flat roofed area supported by columns.

Years ago I was impressed to see the remains of the Mesquita at Cordoba in Spain. It has a similar forest of  columns. Even the decoration of the lintels was the same. I thought it was a unique. Maybe it is unique given that a cathedral has been built where the open square once was. I was surprised to learn that this design is very traditional. The guide told us that the first mosques were designed like this.  There are mosques of this design all over the world. I realised I was very ignorant about the worlds second religion.

And when we say the second religion by number, I wonder if the number of Christians is really correct. Many of us live in nominally Christian countries, but don’t ever go to church. Are they still counted? There really is no escaping Islam in an Islamic country. Five times a day from dawn until dusk the call to prayer echoes around the city. No chance of an unbroken nights sleep in our hotel. When Ramadan comes there is no escaping the fast. You will not be stuffing yourself with chocolate cake when no one else is eating. Islam is so much more ingrained in the culture.

Pillars within mosque

The middle east is the birthplace of Christianity. There are still many Christians in Egypt. More than 10% of the population is Christian. They are known as Coptic Christians. In church the Coptic Christians speak a language derived from ancient Egyptian. There is a large Coptic area in Cairo to the south of the city centre. It is a taxi ride away from the citadel. The Coptic area has several important churches. One of the oldest churches is known as the hanging church. The hanging church is built on the remains of a Roman tower on the site of the Babylon Fortress.

foundations of circular tower

The Hanging Church or St Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church.

the hanging church in Cairo

Inside the Hanging Church.

inside the hanging church

Close by is another important Coptic Christian Church of Saint Sergius and Bacchus Church. This church is said to mark the place where Mary, Joseph and Jesus rested on their journey through Egypt escaping Herod.  When we visited there was someone playing an instrument known as a Qanun.

There is also a synagogue in this area, despite the fact that there are almost no Jews living in Egypt anymore. There is also a Coptic museum which we didn’t have time to visit.

The place I most enjoyed visiting in Cairo was in the old Islamic quarter known as Bein al-Qasreen (Palace walk). It is just  a short distance away from the famous bazaar called the Kahn el-Khalili. Take a taxi to the Al-Hussein Mosque at the end of the Kahn el-Khalili. Next walk along the market street until you reach a road on the right which is full of gold and silversmiths. This road is called Sharia al-Muizz li-Din Allah, but it is also known as Muizz Street.

Walk along Muizz Street for about 5 minutes and it is like arriving in a different world. You are surrounded by the most amazing medieval Islamic buildings. A single ticket allows you to enter many of the historic buildings in the street. There are several Schools (Madrassa) and Mausoleums with elaborately  decorated domes. The remains of a hospital are here and some of the most intricately decorated minarets. There is also a Hamaam or bath house. There is obviously a huge amount of history surrounding each building. The Lonely Planet guide gives some information and more can be found searching with Google. We didn’t have a guide although we were followed by a man who let us into several locked parts of the complex to take pictures in exchange for a tip.

Look at this decoration inside one of the mosques.

carved decoration inside mosque in Al Muizz street

And the decoration on this minaret.

Minaret in Al Muizz Street

Inside the Sultans tomb the decoration is just as impressive.

Stained-glass window

Look at this ceiling

decorated ceiling in mosque in Al Muizz street

Outside you can imagine being transported back into the times when this was one of the main roads of the city.

Street scene in Al Muizz Street

One of the iconic photos in the Islamic quarter is the building known as the Sabil-Khuttab of Katkhuda. This was a fountain and school providing important elements in Islam, water for the thirsty and enlightenment for the ignorant.

Despite the traffic and the pollution you can see that there are a few things worth seeing in the centre of the city besides the Egyptian Museum.