Cairo Travel Guide

Cairo is home to more than 16 million Egyptians, Arabs, Africans and sundry others, the 'Mother of the World' is an all-out assault on the senses. Cairo doesn't have the resources for graceful boulevards and cobbled squares and the kind of dolled-up, prettified buildings that cry out to be photographed and stuck in an album.

Historic buildings are buried in age-old quarters of the city that have yet to be tamed and made tourist-friendly.Chaotic, noisy, polluted, totally unpredictable and seething with people, the sheer intensity of the city will either seduce or appal. The high population density and lack of room to move throws up startling juxtapositions: mud-brick houses and towering modern office buildings, flashy cars and donkey-drawn carts. People see nothing strange in this. They aren't driven by the Western obsession to update and upgrade, possibly because they live in such close proximity to millennia of history, the Pyramids are visible from the upper storeys of buildings all over the city.

Facts in a glance

Area: 214 sq km
Population: 16.5 million
Country: Egypt
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +2
Telephone Area Code: 02


3100 BC: The current location of Cairo was too far from the ancient course of the Nile to support a city. Just to the south of the modern city's location are the ruins of Memphis, which was the capital of Ancient Egypt and was founded in around by Menes of Tanis after he had united the two kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt, although the capital later moved to Heliopolis, further south to Thebes, and, under the Ptolemaic dynasty, Alexandria.

150 AD: The first settlement on the location of modern Cairo was a Roman fort, known as Babylon Fort, built near the settlement known as Babylon-in-Egypt, which lay close to an ancient Egyptian canal from the Nile to the Red Sea. A small town mostly of Coptic Christians slowly grew around the fort.

642: Arab invaders, lead by Amr Ibn-el-As, took the fort town and also established their army in the location, rebuilding its defenses. The Arab tented camp outside the fortress, known as Al-Fustat, slowly became the permanent base of the Arab forces in Egypt under the Umayyads and Abbasids, and contains the first mosque in Africa.

972: Slowly, the settlement grew into a small city. The North African Shiite Fatimid Dynasty conquered Egyptand buildt a new capital, Al-Mansureya, north of the old settlement. Their leader, Al-Muez Ledin-Ellah, renamed the city Al-Qahirah after the planet Mars which was rising on the day the city was founded.

1100: The Al-Azhar mosque was founded the same year, and along with its accompanying university it made Cairo a centre of learning and philosophy. The school remains a major center for Islamic study today. The Seljuks caputured Cairo, and Saladin and his successors expanded the city further, including the construction of its massive citadel.

1258: The sack of Baghdad heightened the importance of the city and it became the leading intellectual and artistic centre in the Middle East, and perhaps the world, for the next 250 years. But power was shifting from the Arab world north to the Turks and Europeans.

1517: The city was taken by the Ottoman Empire under Selim, but the ruling Mameluks quickly returned to power as nominal vassals to the Ottoman Sultan.

1797: Napoleon conquered Egypt, and Cairo was quickly surrendered to him by its Mameluk rulers. Napoleon left Egypt after his fleet was destroyed at the Battle of Aboukir Bay in 1798, leaving General Kléber in charge.

1800: Kléber was assassinated and the three-year French occupation had little lasting effect.

1851: The first hints of westernization began under the successors to Mehemet Ali with the introduction of a railway connection to Alexandria.

1863: Significant change, however, did not occur until the reign of Isma'il Pasha when, construction of the Suez Canal brought significant numbers of westerners to Egypt. A network of gas lighting was installed by a French company and the railway lines were greatly expanded.

1867: Isma'il visited Paris to attend the Universal Exposition. There he saw the newly redesigned city of Haussmann and, funded by a booming cotton trade, decided to rebuild Cairo on the model of a European capital. He hoped to have this done by 1869 when representatives from around the world came to Egypt for the opening of the Suez Canal. Rather than rebuild the old city, Isma'il elected to add a new quarter to the western section along the bank of the Nile. The project was carried out by Ali Pasha Mubarak and designed by the French urban planner Pierre Grand. A new area of luxurious villas and apartments was constructed and new government ministries were erected. Grand boulevards were opened through the old town and tram lines soon followed.

1882: The era of colonization saw the rebuilding of Cairo continuing. A modern sewer system was installed and new suburbs such as Heliopolis were constructed in the desert. Cairo's population exploded, increasing from 374,000 in 1882 to 1,312,000 by 1937.

The city was dominated by westerners, however, and city planners tended to emphasise Christian cathedrals over mosques.

20th century: Cairo remained the central city of Egypt throughout the period of British rule and afterwards. The massive growth in the size of the city as peasants left the farmlands in pursuit of work in the factories and commerce of the metropolis.

The city was especially burdened by refugees from the various wars with Israel: much of the population of the Sinai peninsula and the cities along the Suez Canal left for Cairo between 1967 and 1978. Today Cairo is Africa's most populous city and the Arab world's cultural centre. Since the 19th century Cairo has also become a center for tourism as people from around the world have come to see the monuments and artifacts of Ancient Egypt, especially the Pyramids.

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