| Cairo, which Egyptians
proudly call the ‘Mother of All Cities’,
spreads along the banks of the Nile for 40 kilometes (25
miles) north to south, the largest metropolis in Africa. Travellers
through the ages have been both fascinated and repelled by the city.
Visitors are intrigued by its medieval buildings, streets, oriental
bazaars and Islamic architecture of carved domes and sculpted minarets,
while being appalled by its dirt, noise, pollution, crowds and constant
demands for baksheesh (gratuities). Paying baksheesh is the local
custom, however, so expect to give little and quite often. Culture
shock is part of the experience of Cairo and can be wearing. However,
as is written in the ancient tales of the 1001 Nights, ‘He
who hath not seen Cairo, hath not seen the world’.
Cairo is a
place but most of the city lies on the east
bank of the Nile. Tourists often feel most
feet in the Westernised downtown district of central Cairo around
Midan Tahrir (Liberation Square). This is a public
transport hub, separated from the Nile by the huge Nile
Hilton Hotel. Located here too is the city centre’s
main attraction, the Egyptian Museum.
Opposite downtown is the Nile island of Gezira,
with the island of Roda situated just to the south. The
Pyramids of Giza, however, are on the west bank
of the river, about 18 kilometres (11 miles) from the city centre. Old Cairo
is south of central Cairo, while Islamic Cairo
area to the east. The city is growing rapidly, both in terms of
geographical area and population, with new suburbs expanding on
its outskirts, especially to the Eastern Desert. Northwest of the
city centre, close to the airport, Heliopolis is
home to many of Cairo’s wealthy, while to the west, the middle-class
suburb of Giza has expanded to within sight of the Pyramids.
Cairo today is Egypt’s capital and largest city, teeming with
about 18 million people, its position of prominence in the long timeline
of Egyptian history is relatively recent and it did not even exist
when the pyramids at Giza were constructed. Then, the town of Memphis,
24 kilometres (15 miles) to the south, was the Pharaonic capital. Cairo was
not founded until the Romans rebuilt an old Persian fortress along
the River Nile in AD116, which was known as Babylon-in-Egypt,
in today’s Old Cairo district.
From the late ninth century, a succession of Arab rulers made
their mark on the city, Ibn Tulun built his royal city el-Qatai,
the Fatimids built the walled city of el-Qahira, and from which
Cairo takes it name. In the 13th century, the Mamluks, a group of
Turkish soldier-slaves, rose to power, then the Ottomans, the French
under Napoleon and finally the British. The birth of modern Cairo
came during 1863, when the ruler Ismail expanded the city along
the River Nile in the style of the great European cities. After
the country returned to Egyptian rule during 1952, Cairo rose to
the forefront as the capital of the Arab world.
Cairo is also called the ‘City of 1000 Minarets’
and it is the exotic skyline of graceful domes and towering minarets
that casts a spell of magic over the grinding reality of the metropolis.
Most tourists come to see the great Pyramids of Giza,
the treasures of Tutankhamun’s tomb and other
wonders in the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities,
as well as to shop in the sprawling Khan al-Khalili marketplace.
There are also dozens of Coptic churches, mosques, smaller museums
and streets to explore. This tourism is Egypt’s key source
of foreign income, while the public sector, including government
and social services and military, makes up the largest ‘industry’.
The city is also the centre of a growing trade, insurance and finance.
In the summer, temperatures in Cairo can climb to 38
though the low humidity is some consolation. One of the best times
to visit is between October and April. Occasional downpours occur
during January and February, while during March and April the khamseen,
a hot, strong, dry wind, blows periodically in from the desert.