Overview and History
Egypt has over one hundred pyramids, and the most famous are the ones just outside Cairo at Giza. Here's a look at the pyramids of Kheops and Khafren and... don't tell anybody... The Sphinx. Cairo is the largest city in Africa and the capital of Egypt. It is also known as "Paris on the Nile", "the City of a Thousand Minarets" and "the Triumphant City".
Cairo was originally settled in Paleolithic times. Around 3100 B.C. the legendary God-King Menes of the Dynastic Period united Upper and Lower Egypt and made his capital at Memphis, which is located only fifteen miles south of modern Cairo. Memphis was the religious center of On, or Heliopolis by the Greeks, the city of the Sun.
Persia invaded Egypt in 525 B.C. and built a strategic fort north of Memphis, calling it Babylon-on-the-Nile. The Persians used Babylon as their base until Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 B.C. During the Greek period Babylon was not very important, but when Rome took over it regained strategic use.
The Roman general Trajan repaired the canal which allowed ships passage between the Red Sea and the Nile, passing through Babylon. The city grew in size and became a prominent center of the Christian religion, taking on a Coptic influence. The Coptic church, however, diverged from the main Christian church and left Babylon an easy target for invading Muslim Arabs. They arrived en masse and drove out the Roman army.
In 640 A.D. the Arab commander 'Amr ibn al-As moved the capital of Egypt away from Alexandria and re-established it at Fustat, the "city of Tents." Fustat was the original Muslim capital of Egypt and the location of its first Mosque. Since ancient times the location of Egypt has made it a major trade route between Europe, Africa and Asia. The city of Fustat thus grew from a military encampment into a thriving port city known around the world for its markets offering spices, fabric and perfume.
The Fatimid leader Jawhar built a new city near Fustat in 969 A.D. It was called al-Mansuriyah, but the name was later changed to al-Qahirah, or, Cairo. When the Fatimids became the rulers of Egypt, they began a dynasty which would last two centuries, with Cairo as its capital. The Fatamid Dynasty ended in 1169 A.D. and was followed by the Ayyubid period.
After evicting eighteen thousand of the Fatimid family, a strong new leader named Saladin re-created Cairo with a new vision. In contrast to the private palaces and gardens of the Fatimids, Saladin favored one strong city wall around Cairo, with no closed doors inside it. He refused personal wealth and instead designed a city for the people without royal enclaves, where a common religion bonded all together under the rule of a single monarch.
Cairo continued to grow under the Ayyubid rule until its sultans became too weak to stay in power. From the middle of the thirteenth century until the beginning of the Ottoman Turk period in 1517, Cairo was controlled by Mameluke soldiers with a military succession no longer tied to a bloodline. This lasted until the middle of the sixteenth century. Next came the Ottoman Turks.
During the Ottoman Empire's control of Egypt, Cairo was sending its fruits and grain to Istanbul rather than Europe. Rivalries between Mameluke governors were stoked up by the Ottoman Sultan, in order to keep Egypt divided and weakened.
The people of Cairo, however, kept their own language and identity during Turkish rule. After enough heavy taxation and corruption from the Turkish government the Egyptians revolted. They succeeded in ridding themselves of the Turks in 1796, but unfortunately Napoleon was already on his way with an army of 40,000 veteran soldiers.
The French won Cairo in a very bloody battle and occupied the city for three years. Although this is a relatively short period of time, their influence was tremendous. After 1801 Cairo returned to Turkish rule, then occupation by the British. Modernization of Cairo is credited to Mehemet Ali, "the father of modern Egypt", who ruled for almost fifty years. Egypt finally won independence in 1922.
Cairo International Airport is now one of the fastest growing airports in the Middle East. It has a new 9km road that links it to the ring road around the city. The airport is reachable by taxi, limousine and bus, and a new airport metro line is in the works.
Getting around Cairo requires that you be comfortable in heavy traffic and among lots of crowds of people. The metro is the most efficient way to cross the city quickly. Taxis are abundant, as well as minibus and regular buses, but the bus system demands a working level of Arabic language. The tram system in Cairo dates back to 1896, making it one of the oldest in the world.
People and Culture
There's a joke that says the main occupation for people in Cairo is giving incorrect directions. People are very friendly and accommodating in general, but a person who TRIES to give you directions may feel they are doing the right thing, even if they don't technically know where you are going. Many streets in Cairo are unlabeled or even unnamed, and one can easily get lost in a very short distance. Drivers honk and swerve but will still smile and wave to a person they have nearly collided into.
Coffee shops are like the social centers in this swirling city of traffic and lights. They're called "ahwas" and by day or night they are the gathering places for locals to mingle and relax. A reminder for westerners: muslim countries do not serve alcohol and women should dress more conservatively when visiting.
Things to do, Recommendations
As the world's leading tourist site since longer than anyone can remember, it's pretty obvious that sight-seeing is on the agenda in Cairo. Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx, the cemeteries of ancient Pharaohs and the statue of Ramses II are a few spots you may have heard of.
Cairo is also filled with museums, cinemas, clubs, restaurants and everything else an international trading city boasts. As always, it's nice to go up to the top of something tall like the Cairo Tower (185 meters) and take a few pictures. Enjoy!
Text by Steve Smith.