Midan Tahrir was strangely peaceful. A handful of tourists milled around waiting for the Egyptian Museum to open its doors for the day. Taxis, trucks and donkey carts jostled on the far-off fringes, inching towards the Corniche road that would carry them south alongside the Nile. But the square itself was empty.
It’s been nearly four years since crowds of emboldened Cairenes gathered here in the heart of Downtown Cairo, at the height of the Arab Spring, and we watched on the nightly news as the thirty-year reign of Hosni Mubarak crumbled before their will. And yet this is the picture of Egypt that still burns brightly in most people’s minds. There have been many false dawns in the years since and the road ahead is far from smooth, but Tahrir is the Cairo of 2011. Beyond the square lie thousands of years of urban history and a gloriously confusing city of fables and pharaohs, Coptics and caliphs.
The techniques developed at Saqqara were perfected at the Pyramids of Giza. No matter how many times you’ve seen them in photographs, no matter that the encroaching outskirts of Giza City threaten to swallow them up at any minute, this last remaining wonder of the ancient world has that rare ability to exceed expectations. The scale is intimidating, the numbers mindboggling. It took a hundred thousand workers nearly thirty years to build the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the largest of the trio, which was erected for the eponymous pharaoh’s death around 2566 BC. The blocks, some weighing as much as fifteen tons, were transported here, all 2.3 million of them, and the whole thing was once cased in white limestone so that it glinted in the sun.
Among the Old Kingdom relics recovered from the Pyramids are the (tiny) life-size statue of Zoser and the Treasure of Queen Hetepheres, exquisite jewellery belonging to the mother of Cheops and buried with her at Giza. The highlights, though, belong to the New Kingdom and an Egypt beyond Cairo: the legendary Tutankhamun galleries (gold shrines, gold thrones and the boy-king’s famous funerary mask) and the gruesome mummified bodies of some of Egypt’s most famous pharaohs, embalmed in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor some 3500 years ago and several still sporting quiffs of matted hair.
For nearly seven hundred years, the Citadel remained the seat of power in Egypt, undergoing a late renaissance in the mid-nineteenth century, when Mohammed Ali built the enormous mosque that rises from within its walls to dominate the modern city skyline. Outside of prayer times, you can venture inside to admire the intricately decorated interior and to sit beneath a star-studded ceiling loaded with chandeliers whilst around you groups of kneeling worshippers gently touch their foreheads on the soft red carpet.
The years since have been hard for Egyptians, but the election of President el-Sisi in May 2014 has renewed hope that, for the first time in a long time, they can be optimistic about their future. Tahrir may be quiet, but it’s a Friday, and other squares nearby are busy with families gathering and gossiping and getting on with life. Patisserie stores throughout Cairo are doing a roaring trade as people stock up on mounds of sticky treats, and the call to prayer peels like a wave across Islamic Cairo and beyond, all the way out to the shadowy forms of the pyramids.
EgyptAir flies direct from London Heathrow to Cairo twice daily. Your Egypt Tours and Talisman Travel run recommended tours of Cairo.