Cairo through the ages

written by
Keith Drew

updated 06.11.2020

As visitors slowly return to Egypt after years of political instability and unrest, Keith Drew traces the history of Cairo, the largest city in the Arab world.

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.

Around 2650 BC: The Pyramids

Not the famous pyramids that don one thousand and one postcards. At least, not yet. Whilst the city of Cairo as we know it today was still centuries away from its first foundations, the first pharaohs of Egypt constructed their capital at Memphis, some 24km further south along the Nile, and buried their royalty at nearby Saqqara. It’s here, on the blanched plateau of North Saqqara, that you’ll find the first ever pyramid (indeed, the first ever building made of stone), the Step Pyramid, created for the Pharaoh Zoser over 4650 years ago. It’s an amazing sight, one side covered in fragile wooden scaffolding, it’s roughly hewn bleached blocks ascending into a rich blue sky.


© Shutterstock

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.

From 2650 BC to 250 AD: The Egyptian Museum

Inside the pyramids, there’s little to see in the dark, airless tunnels that lead to nowhere. For an idea of the treasures that once lay within, you’ll need to head to Downtown Cairo and the Egyptian Museum. Vast, dusty and with paint peeling off the walls, this is the kind of place where you’d expect to stumble across the Ark of the Covenant lurking in an unopened crate in the corner. It is also the finest museum of its kind in the world – the odds and ends randomly scattered around the entrance garden would grace most collections anywhere else – but with over 130,000 exhibits, you’ll need to focus your visit.

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.

500 to 600 AD: The Coptic churches

As pharonic rule faded, Persian invaders founded a new city on the banks of the northern Nile: Babylon-in-Egypt, today’s Old Cairo. It was here that Christianity first began to take root in the first century AD and where Egyptian Christians (known as Copts) built several magnificent churches, which remain the focal point of Cairo’s Coptic community. This is an area of narrow, twisting lanes, enclosed by high walls – a world hidden away from the bustle up on the main streets nearby. The Church of St Sergius and St Bacchus, founded here in 500 AD, is the oldest in Egypt, and reputedly the hiding place of the Holy Family when they fled from Palestine. But it is bettered by the incredible Hanging Church, seemingly levered in between neighbouring buildings, two graceful white towers gleaming out from its dusty-brown surroundings. Built around 600 AD over the ruins of a Roman fort, it appears to suspend in mid air, an architectural trick you can appreciate through glass panels in the floor inside. Its darkly atmospheric interior is a rich riot of faded frescos and gilded icons, including a venerable portrait of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, drawn on deerskin and known as the "Coptic Mona Lisa".

Cairo old town with mosque and minarets

Cairo old town with mosque and minarets © Shutterstock

1171 to 1848: The Citadel

When Muslim armies invaded in 641, they created a new settlement slightly north of Babylon-in-Egypt. Successive caliphs followed suit, and it wasn’t really until Saladin assumed control in 1171 that a single, unified Cairo began to take shape. Saladin’s greatest legacy to the landscape is the brooding hulk of the Citadel, a hillside bastion that looms above the cluttered, cacophonous district known as Islamic Cairo. This is the Cairo of your imagination, a medieval warren of mosques, bazaars and street vendors hawking hibiscus water and aromatic kebabs. From the Citadel, you can gaze down upon it all, the barbed tips of the city’s thousand slender minarets puncturing the hot hanging smog.

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.

1919 to today: Tahrir Square

Northeast of the Citadel, following the traffic that snarls its way up Sharia Qalaa and Sharia al-Bustan will bring you back to Downtown Cairo, rebuilt in the 1860s to mimic the wide boulevards of Paris. At its heart lies Midan Ismailiya, nicknamed Midan Tahrir (or Liberation Square) after an uprising against the British in 1919 and renamed officially following the revolution of 1952. Nearly sixty years later, it truly lived up to its name, and only really in Tahrir are the legacies of the 2011 revolution still visible today. A couple of armoured vehicles squat outside the entrance to the Egyptian Museum, and behind it the scorched headquarters of the former NDP Party stand as a permanent testimony to how the previous regime vanquished years of incriminating evidence with the stroke of a single match.

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.

Keith Drew

written by
Keith Drew

updated 06.11.2020

A former Rough Guides Managing Editor, Keith Drew has written or updated over a dozen Rough Guides, including Costa Rica, Japan and Morocco. As well as writing for The Telegraph, The Guardian and BRITAIN Magazine, among others, he also runs family-travel website Follow him @keithdrewtravel on Twitter and @BigTrips4LittleTravellers on Instagram.

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