A place of physical contrasts, magnificent chaos and ancient lands, Cairo is an intricately woven landscape of history, religion and nostalgia.
Known in the Middle East as Umm Al-Dunya or ‘The Mother of the World’, Cairo developed in a fan-shape with the city sprawling across both banks of Egypt’s impressive River Nile. Settled for over 6,000 years, it has served as the capital of numerous Egyptian Kingdoms over the eras.
The 4,500-year-old Pyramids of Giza that stand at the southwestern edge of the megacity are an awe-inspiring sight, especially at sunrise. It took 100,000 builders 20 years to erect each one of them, with two million blocks being placed to perfect scale and precision. How, remains a mystery still, and has fascinated archaeologists and palaeontologists for centuries, with teams of historians searching for clues in the secret tombs and passageways they have uncovered over time.
Nearby is the world’s largest single slab sculpture, the much-fabled Sphinx. Its weathered face and upright pose locked as if in anticipation of something. Egypt’s impressive legacy is written by the Pharaohs in preserved stone inscriptions and artistic accounts of religious belief and rituals that all allow Egyptologists to reconstruct and better understand their achievements – and way of life.
Cairo sets ancient against new, East against West. An obelisk marks the site of Heliopolis, where Plato once studied, while Western-style high-rise hotels and modern apartment blocks create new landmarks overlooking the Nile River. In between department stores, cinemas and the occasional Tanoura dancing show. At the heart of Old Cairo a large functioning souk breaths noisy life into the air, while an extensive, semi-walled medieval city with massive stone gates dating back to 130 AD holds 400 registered historic monuments, Medieval mosques and mausoleums.
Home to 20 million inhabitants who crush down on the city’s infrastructure while simultaneously lifting its spirit with their unwavering sense of humour – something you’ll encounter shortly after arrival. From the busy streets, you’ll hear the echo of the muezzins’ call to prayer as he rivals for attention above persistent car horns and hawker calls. All the while, donkey carts obliviously rattle down dusty lanes, passing faded 19th-century homes, the colossal Fatimid and Mamluk monuments looking on.
Sail away on a traditional Felouka
Simple, traditional Egyptian sailboats crewed by local sailors, there’s something timeless about the sight of the felouka on the River Nile. The primary mode of transport since the days of the Pharaohs, its ancient form still graces the river today. The flapping of the faded lateen sails for company as you drift with the wind, trusting its choice of direction, will grant a new perspective of the city’s cupolas, minarets and the modern buildings that proudly line the river bank.
* This post forms part of my 100x Magical Places series that over an introduction to my favourite cities.
Egypt is not a country we live in, but a country that lives within us ― Pope Shenouda III