A GUIDE TO EGYPT
As one of the world’s greatest storehouses of human achievement, Cairo, the capital city of Egypt, is the electric and bustling metropolis that sits either side of the fertile and prosperous River Nile.
While scattered remnants of the majestic Pharaonic civilisations tend to be the greatest attraction of the city, Cairo is also home to past relics of the Christian, Islamic and Belle Epoque ages that once swept through the capital.
Modernity has all but left Cairo’s antiquity intact, only bringing with it a rapid expansion of population numbers, helping it to be the multitudinous and vivacious city it is today.
WHERE: At the point where the fruitful, desert-weaving Nile divides and separates to become the Nile Delta, there stands the city of Cairo, or in Arabic, ‘al-Qahira’, literally meaning ‘The Victorious’.
Despite becoming Egypt’s permanent capital in 1168, when the Fatamids set fire to nearby and then-capital Fustat, Cairo fought off competition from the neighbouring rivals that past conquerors, including the Greeks, Romans and Byzantines had once favoured.
Its weapon? Simply flourishing as a cultural centre for learning after establishing the still-existing Al Azhar university in the centre of its town. Situated in Northern Africa, bordering the Mediterranean Sea, Cairo is blessed with a desert climate: a mild winter and a long, sometimes suffocatingly, hot summer.
WHY GO: If ever there were a city where there was something for everyone, Cairo is destined to fit the bill. Watching modern-day Cairenes go about their day surrounded by centuries of man-made triumphs, entering and exiting buildings which celebrate either a swish Art Deco or 14th Century Islamic architectural sweep proves Egypt’s capital city is truly unique.
Divided into many parts, the city is known for its ‘New’, ‘Old’ and ‘Medieval’ sections, each housing their own individual cultural flavours. In Old Cairo, a tourist will find ancient Roman fortifications, the geographically-challenged Hanging Church and The Coptic Museum, one which exhibits Egypt’s long-lasting Christian and Graeco-Roman eras.
A short drive into Medieval Cairo puts you at the irresistibly attractive Islamic Citadel and the dusty and dilapidated City of the Dead, the burial ground of the Mameluke sultans. And there is of course no chance of forgetting the Great Pyramids of Giza, one of the Seven Wonders of the World and still aesthetically captivating.
Climbing the limestone blocks that make up the Pyramids is now forbidden but entrance to the very centre - claustrophobics beware - of these fascinating structures is still accessible and tours will take you around the great chambers and tombs of King and Queen Cheops.
RANDOM FACT: Due to Cairo’s peerless trade and transport links, the city was a major player in advocating the 16th Century’s international trade of coffee.
Because of the mass importing of the coffee bean, the capital’s citizens fell in love with the product and began to open several coffee houses in their busy residential districts, long before the Starbucks craze was rustled up on American shores centuries later.
Fishawi, the café open all hours of the day at the Khan el Khalili bazaar, has been standing for 200 years, packed full of history and memoirs of the days it would compete with other coffee bars by asking storytellers and poets off the streets to come and entertain its customers.
BEST BIT: Cairo houses an inordinately fascinating amount of history within its walls, but the great Khan el Khalili bazaar, still very much in operation today, offers a spectacular eccentricity of its own.
Built in the form of a city itself, el Khalili is the bustling 1382 souk, once known as the ‘Turkish Bazaar’ throughout the Ottoman period, that lies at the heart of the Islamic quarter of Cairo.
Selling leather, fresh juice, antiques, pancakes, prayer beads, silver and pumice amongst many other items, a deafening cacophony rings out from the importuning and competitive souk sellers. Veer down small alleyways to find the cheapest prices and an escape from the large crowds.
DOWNSIDE: With a rapidly increasing population of 20million, the Egyptian government is struggling to deal with the aftermath of an unchecked birthrate and is now under pressure from a desperate Cairean society that is overdependent on the overtaxed Nile and limited available arable land.
At rush hour, the often litter-strewn streets of Cairo teem with a chaotic numbers of pedestrians, policemen, cars, taxis, trucks and motorbikes.
Women must also take care while travelling around the city – especially if they are alone – for verbal intimidation from men can be a problem.
WHEN TO GO: Cairo has a desert climate and therefore succumbs to stifling summer temperatures of over 40C in the months between May and October. Its one other season is simply a mild winter, where temperatures by day reach a high of 20C and at night, a chilly 10C.
Sightseeing is easier during the winter months and it is also best not to visit during April, when the warm ‘Khamsin’ or ‘Sirocco’ winds stirs up a thick, brown dust over the city.
HOW TO GET THERE: Flights from all major airports and airlines have daily services to Cairo. Alternatives lie in flying into holiday-favourite Sharm el Sheikh or the northern city of Alexandria, and taking a cheap domestic flight, or car journey on to the capital.
Stay: If the daily hectic Cairean life is all too much, it’s best to stay in some of the city’s bigger and grander hotels to guarantee a comfortable rest.
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