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Citadels To Pyramids: Touring Cairo

Posted on November 3, 2009 | Fascinating CitiesNo Comment



The iconic attractions for tourists in Cairo are of course the Pyramids of Giza and the statue of Sphinx. But of course, there is much more to Cairo than this.

If you keep aside the heavy traffic and the hustle-bustle of an urban city life that Cairo has, the city is a tourist’s delight. There are Museums reflecting the rich cultural heritage of the past and there are pyramids talking of a different life of the dead. There are cultural centers where the life of city thrives and flourishes and there is the city of dead.

Here are some must visit places of Cairo

1.The Egyptian Museum of Antiquities

Located near Midan Tahir, or Central Square almost in the center of the city is The Egyptian Museum of Antiquities.  The collection was first assembled by Auguste Mariette, the French archaeologists.
The main attractions of this Museum are the Tutankhamen Galleries. On display here, are the gold and gem-inlaid funerary mask and 1700 other treasures found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen. Other areas popular among tourists are the Royal Mummy Room. It contains corpses of 11 of Egypt’s most powerful pharaohs –including Seti I and his son Ramses II. With more than 120 000 artefacts spanning from the earliest dynasties of Egyptian history to the Roman era, the Museum deserves a 3-4 hours time to just give you a glimpse of the highlights.

2.The Pyramids of Giza

Situated at Pyramids road, 18 kilometers southwest of Central Cairo, are the Pyramids of Giza, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Now enjoying these pyramids might require some patience, as the growing city of Cairo has begun to engulf the surrounding area.  Also, to understand these structures, you have to allow yourself time and make your trip here at a slow, relaxed pace. The oldest of these and the largest in Egypt, the Great Pyramid of Cheops stood erected in about 2600 BC. About 2.5 million limestones are estimated to have made this 447 ft high structure. While it was built for the sarcophagus of King Khufu/Cheops, it is not known if he was actually buried here.

Surrounding the pyramids are many smaller tombs you could visit if you have time. But what’s worth a visit is the Solar Boat Museum, with a preserved wooden boat found near the Great Pyramid.

You could check out the sound and light shows that are conducted daily here and also the timings for the shows in different languages.

Pyramids of Giza

3.Coptic Museum

Situated in Old Cairo, in the Garden of the fortress of Babylon, this museum is dedicated to the art from the Christian era (AD300-1000). You should make a note of looking at the Coptic textiles, carved ivories, Papyri (ancient paper) with text form Gnostic gospels of Nag Hammadi to name a few. To feast your eyes are the ornate rooms with beautiful Mashrabiyya (carved wood) screens, fountains and painted ceilings.

coptic musem

4.El-Muallaqa Church (the Hanging Church)

The el-Muallaqa church is again in Old Cairo. This is the oldest Christian place of worship in Cairo, possibly belonging to the fourth century. Built on top of a Roman gate, there is a stairway to it that leads to the courtyard, hence the name ‘hanging church’. The interior has three barrel-vaulted aisles, altar screens of inlaid ivory and bone and an exquisite, carved marble pulpit supported by 13 pillars representing Christ and his disciples.

5.Bab Zuwayla

For those of you who are religious, Islamic Cairo has Bab Zuwayla. The only remain of the Fatimid city of el-Qahira is the southern gate of Bab Zuwayla. In Mamluk times in the 19th century, this was the place for executions. Later, since a local saint – Mitwali, performed miracles near the gate, it has gained religious recognition.  People either nail a lock of hair or a piece of clothing to the gate, hoping for a divine healing act. The minarets of the Mosque of el-Muayyad rise above the gate. The mosque contains a shady courtyard and the mausoleum of the Sultan el-Muayyad and his son, who began building the mosque in 1415.

bab zuwayla

6.Bayn al-Qasryn

The leading public square of medieval times Bayn al-Qasryn was the place for market and entertainers. It has three Mamluk palace complexes. The finest, the Madrassa and Mausoleum of Qalaun, is also the earliest, completed in 1279. The mausoleum has an elaborate stucco arch bearing stars and floral motifs, ornate coffered ceilings and stained glass. The Mausoleum of an-Nasir Mohammed (1304) and the Madrassa and Khanqah of Sultan Barquq (1386) also boast fine architecture and decoration. Interesting here to note is that while a madrassa is a theological school, a khanqah is a monastery.

7.Bayt el-Suhaymi

Another attraction in Islamic Cairo is the Bayt el-Suhaymi. Dating back to the Ottoman era, Bayt el-Suhaymi reflects the lifestyle of well-to-do merchants of the 16th and 17th centuries. The maze of rooms on different levels, feature an ornate first-floor harem with wooden craved screens overlooking the garden and an impressive ground-floor reception room where men were entertained with music and dancers.

8.Citadel (el-Qal’a)

The mosques and palaces that remain of Salah ad-Din’s 12th-century palace on top of this limestone outcrop reflect 700 years of Cairo history. The fortifications, built to repel the Crusaders, became the royal residence for sultans in the 19th century. The Mohammed Ali Mosque, with its huge central dome and four semi-domes, towers over the city. The enclosure also contains the Mosque of al-Nasir, Yusuf’s Well and several small museums.

9.Gayer-Anderson House (Bayt el-Kritliya)

The Gayer-Anderson House was the home of an English doctor to the royal family, who lived here from 1935-42. He restored two 16th-century houses, joined them together and filled them with exquisite decoration, furniture and oriental objects. The mashrabiyya-screened women’s gallery overlooks the magnificent reception room with its central fountain, perhaps the finest in Cairo.

10.Ibn Tulun Mosque

This is one mosque of Islamic Cairo that should be a must-see in your Cairo itinerary. Covering 2.4 hectares and built of mud-brick and wood, it is the oldest intact mosque in the city. Its simple décor exemplifies the classical Islamic architecture inspired by Iraqi models. It was in fact, been built by Ibn Tulin, who was sent to rule Cairo by the caliph of Baghdad. The pointed arches are the first of their kind.

11.Islamic Art Museum

This museum is home to world’s largest and finest collections of Islamic art, dating from the seventh to the 19th centuries. The rooms contain carved woodwork and columns, mosaic fountains, metalwork and other architectural exhibits salvaged from crumbling mosques and mausoleums throughout Egypt.

islamic art museum

12.Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan

One of the largest mosques on the world with an area of about 7,900 square meters, this is the finest early Mamluk structure in Cairo. Built between 1356 and 1363, it encompasses a stunning courtyard, four madrassas and a mausoleum flanked by huge doors.  You are in for a delightful experience if you visit the place at sunrise, when the sun lights up the mausoleum.

13.Wikala of al-Ghouri

A wikala, or a caravanserai, is what a medieval hostel that catered for travelling traders was called. They stabled their animals on the ground floor, slept in the rooms above and haggled with their clients in the courtyard. This is the best preserved of the handful of Cairo’s remaining wikalas. The stables now house artists’ studios, while the courtyard is used for theatre and concerts. Around the corner is the striking striped al-Ghouri complex, with its mosque-madrassa and mausoleum. Part of the mausoleum now serves as a cultural centre, offering twice-weekly Sufi dancing performances.

Wikala of al-Ghouri

14.City of the Dead

This cemetery is home to but dozens of ‘tomb squatters’, other Cairenes who come to visit and picnic at the graves of their relatives, an ancient tradition and also to some outstanding Islamic architecture. The finest monuments are in the northern cemetery. The Mosque of Qaitbey, a Mamluk ruler, has an intricately carved dome, the finest in the Muslim world, while the splendidly decorated interior surrounds a peaceful courtyard.

15.The Mediterranean port of Alexandria

This port, 225 kilometers northwest, is a day trip from Cairo worth making to, especially for localites who go there to enjoy the beaches and slightly cooler temperatures. Named after Alexander the Great, other attractions on this port is, the Library (Bibliotheque) of Alexandria inaugurated in October 2002 at a cost of US$200 million and ambitiously planned to become a world-class centre of knowledge. There are several museums worth visiting too: the Graeco-Roman Museum, Royal Jewellery Museum, Fine Art Museum, Naval Museum, Marine Life Museum and Cavafy Museum among them.  Trains from Cairo (three per day) take two hours, buses take about three hours and it is also possible to take a taxi from outside the Ramses train station. There are also several flights a day.

Alexandria

16.Memphis and Saqqara

About 24 kilometers south of central Cairo are the two historic sites of Memphis and Saqqara, about 3 kilometers apart.
Saqqara was the necropolis for the pharaohs and the first pharaohs were buried here. There are several pyramids here and with a lot archaeological work still to be done here, it has a potential to become Egypt’s important historical site.

Memphis, the ancient capital, is the oldest known royal city in the world, founded in 3100BC during the 1st dynasty. It was the royal capital for 500 years and remained occupied in all for a total of 4,000 years. While not much remains today of the once one of the grandest cities in the world, the small museum and scattering of statues make a good appetizer for the more stunning remains at Saqqara.

There are a number of convenient ways to tour the city. You could get in to walking tours or get a personalized tour through some cultural organization there. There are bus tours offering full day sight-seeing of the city with professional guides and many language options.

You could arrange for a boat tour run by top hotels, with dinner cruises, belly dancing and other local elements. The most famous of these cruises is aboard the Pharos, operated by the Oberoi Hotel.

With ancient remains, Museums, citadels, mummies on one side and the much famed Nile island of Gezira with its opera house, art museums and a fashionable area of bars and restaurants known as Zamalek on the other, Cairo offers a variety on a tourist’s platter. It has a dedicated Tourist Police hotline -126 as well.

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