Cairo encompasses glittering high rise towers, and streets of poverty, fine international dining venues, and traditional souks and cafes. It is chaotic, overcrowded, and hard to navigate, yet within this labyrinth of a city lie historic treasures spanning five thousand years, and a key to understanding much of today’s Arab world. All this makes having an excellent guide essential to your Cairo experience, and we have set out below some of the main sites we will help you visit. Before we get there, and given the size and sprawl of the city, a simple word about geography: your hotel is likely to be uptown, not too far from the Khan El-Khalili bazaar and the Egyptian museum at Tahrir Square. Old Cairo and the new Museum of Civilization are much further South. The Mohammed Ali mosque and the Citadel of Saladin lie more centrally. The pyramids and sphinx are in Giza, about an hour away across the rive Nile.
The Egyptian Museum (also known as the Cairo Museum) has long been the jewel in Cairo’s crown, and one of the most famous museums in the world. Inaugurated at the turn of the twentieth century, it houses the largest collection of Pharaonic antiquities in the world including the iconic pure gold death mask of Tutankhamun, However, the museum is due to be superseded by a new museum, the Grand Egyptian Museum, located in Giza and set to be the largest archeological museum in the world. Among other riches, the Grand Egyptian museum will display, for the first time ever, the entire tomb collection of Tutankhamun. The long awaited opening is due in 2022, and ahead of then we are able to arrange private tours of the pre-opened collection on an occasional basis. We are also able to arrange escape the crowd out of hours private visits to the Egyptian Museum.
The National Museum of Egyptian Civilization (NMEC) is a new (opened 2021) and extremely large museum located in the Fustat area of Cairo. The museum boasts a collection of 50,000 artefacts, covering Egyptian civilization from prehistoric times to the present day. The museum encourages visitors to engage on both a chronological (Archaic, Pharaonic, Greco-Roman, Coptic, Medieval, Islamic, modern and contemporary) and thematic (Dawn of Civilization, The Nile, Writing, State and Society, Material Culture, Beliefs and Thinking and the Gallery of Royal Mummies) basis. The collections borrow from other Egyptian museums such as the Egyptian Museum, the Coptic Museum, the Museum of Islamic Art, the Manial Palace and Museum in Cairo, and the Royal Jewelry Museum in Alexandria, bringing an astonishing collection of artefacts under one roof, including 22 mummies, 18 kings and four queens, which come from the Egyptian Museum.
Smaller cultural museums of note include Bayt Al-Suhaymi and Gayer Anderson Museum, both private homes turned museums, showcasing sumptuous Islamic design and artifacts.
Old Cairo: Islamic, Coptic & Jewish Cairo
Old Cairo (Fustat) was founded in 641 as the city of the first Muslim rulers of Egypt. It dominated and thrived until 1168 when it was burnt to the ground by its ruler the young King Athid in order to not allow it to fall into the hands of the Crusaders. Islamic Cairo is not neatly contained in one area, but contains a remarkable density of Islamic architecture and mosques, and has been awarded UNESCO world heritage status in its own right for being, “one of the world’s oldest Islamic cities, with its famous mosques, madrasas, hammams and fountains” and “the new centre of the Islamic world, reaching its golden age in the 14th century.” Some of the most important mosques to visit, which also reveal the evolution of Islamic architecture are the simply designed Mosque of Amr ibn al-As and the grand and dominating Mohammed Ali mosque. The Citadel of Saladin is also not to be missed.
From the conversion of Constantine to the arrival of the Islamic order, Egypt’s official religion was Christianity, and Coptic Cairo is home to the famous Hanging Church which was the seat of the Coptic Pope, and marks the refuge site of the Holy family fleeing from the Roman ruler Herod in modern day Israel. Cairo remains home to tens of thousands of Copts, and services at the Hanging Church are still held in Coptic, a fascinating language which takes many elements from the tongue of the Pharaohs. Judaism also has a long history in Cairo and the Ibn Ezra synagogue is found in the Coptic quarter, also known as the Genizah synagogue after the famous Genizah found there in the nineteenth century containing thousands of important documents including works by Maimonides who spend his final years in this area of Cairo and indeed died there.
For a sense of today’s living, chaotic Cairo, visit the Khan El-Khalili souk which is said to be the Middle East’s largest bizarre. Don’t think of this place as a simple market, it is more an entire souk civilization of streets and back streets and parallel streets and multiple layers. Originally created as a watering stopover for caravanserai in the 14th century, today the bazaar has spread to vast proportions. A true labyrinth of narrow streets to lose and find yourself in, you will discover workshops and stalls selling anything and everything a traveller’s heart could desire, from woodwork, glassware and leather goods to perfumes, fabrics and Pharaonic curiosities. With a little assistance from your guide, you are sure to find authentic curiosities to take home as gifts.
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