Egypt’s capital is a feast of rumbling charisma held together by history
Supersized flyovers and alleyways too narrow for cars; Tahrir Square’s Stalinist-style Mogamma building – hub of Egyptian bureaucracy – and the glorious symmetry of the Ibn Tulun mosque; marble shopping malls and medieval markets; the feat of ancient architecture that is the pyramids, and the traffic-clogged, built-up road that takes you to them. All are part of this contradictory, exasperating, yet somehow still-functioning megacity, Africa’s largest urban area.
Sitting at the crossroads between Africa and the Middle East, and with historical influence from Europe, Cairo underwent radical social change in the wake of the 1952 revolution. The departure of Egypt’s minorities of Greeks, Italians and Jews brought about the slow demise of the capital’s old cosmopolitanism. In subsequent decades, increased economic inequality and religious conservatism, mass migration from the countryside and cars have also changed the face of the city – and few would say it has all been for the better. Once-fine 19th-century buildings in the city centre are dilapidated; fin de siècle villas have been pulled down to make way for blocks of flats; informal, illegal housing in its many ingenious forms (including the use of mausoleums as homes in the City of the Dead) proliferates around the city’s edges.
Yet, in the heart of the modern city, the core of medieval Islamic Cairo remains relatively intact – there has been a move to recognise and preserve the mosques, madrasas, mausoleums and other aspects of Islamic heritage found here (it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Founded in the 10th century, Cairo became the centre of the Islamic world; it is home to the mosque and university of Al-Azhar, founded in 975 and still the world’s foremost centre of Sunni Islamic learning. It is also the location of the Khan El-Khalili market – part emporium for tourist tat, part market for essentials, and certainly an economic and cultural hub.
Egypt’s Christian heritage has also been preserved. In the area of Old Cairo known as Coptic Cairo are the city’s oldest Coptic Orthodox churches, including St Mary the Virgin, or the Hanging Church. A church has stood on this site since the seventh century – parts of the current structure date to the 11th century. But Egyptian churches are not just historic monuments – around 10 per cent of Egyptians are Christians, many keen churchgoers, devoted to their church’s distinctive iconography and ancient liturgy.
This overcrowded metropolis may be hanging on to sanity by the skin of its teeth, but it hasn’t abandoned hope. Amid a built environment that is sometimes dehumanising, and levels of poverty that can be debilitating, social and family structures remain strong, crime is low, kindness is respected (rogues who bother tourists excepted) and resourcefulness is a byword among the poor. A strong sense of identity may be one explanation: Cairo and Egypt share the same name in Egyptian Arabic – Misr. And Cairenes, whatever their background, are aware that they are citizens of somewhere with a culture and history that’s worth talking about.
Getting there Emirates flies from Dubai to Cairo daily, from Dhs1,925 return (including tax) Where to stay Om Kolthoom Hotel and Tower (+20 2 2736 8444; www.omkolthoomhotel.com)
Population 12.2 million (core city 6.8 million)
Where is it?
At the head of the fork in the Nile, where the river begins to break up into the Nile Delta in the north of Egypt.
Climate A hot desert climate: mild winters of 18°C in January; scorching summers of 35°C-plus with very little rain and frequent windstorms bringing sand from the Sahara.
Ethnic mix Mainly Egyptian, with Nubian, Greek, Armenian, Italian and French minorities.
Major sights Pyramids, Old Cairo, National Museum, Al-Azhar Mosque, Khan El-Khalili, Citadel, Ibn Tulun Mosque, Amr Mosque, Fustat.
Where’s the buzz? Ramadan nights in Khan El-Khalili.
Insiders’ tips Turkish coffee at Feshawi’s café.
Known as The city of a thousand mosques. There is a mosque in every other street, particularly in the old district.
Number of blocks used to build the Great Pyramid at Giza 2.3 million, weighing an average of 2.5 tonnes each and taking 20 years to build.
Number of camels, donkeys and horses on the streets Conservative estimates put it at slightly more than 25,000.
Traditional dishes Shawarma, fuul and tamaya (falafel), bamya (spiced meat soaked in okra stew), rice with meat and crispy bread.
World’s second-oldest surviving university Al-Azhar University, founded in 975.
Largest settlement of zabaleen (Cairo’s recycling community) Moqattam, home to about 30,000 recyclers.
Colloquial name for Cairo Misr, meaning Egypt. Egypt is often referred to as Om El-donya, meaning ‘mother of the world’.
Famous Cairenes Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former UN Secretary-General; Naguib Mahfouz, novelist; Naguib Sawiris, billionaire owner of Orascom Telecom Holding; Sir Magdi Yacoub, professor of cardiothoracic surgery; Mohamed Al Fayed, billionaire owner of Fulham FC and former owner of Harrods; Omar Sharif, actor.