Few foreigners enter Islamic Cairo without equal measures of excitement and trepidation. Streets are narrow and congested, overhung with latticed balconies. Mosques, bazaars and medieval lanes abound; the smell of sheeshas and frying offal wafts through alleys where muezzins wail “Allahu akbar!” (God is most great) and beggars entreat “Ya mohannin, ya rabb” (O awakener of pity, O master) – as integral to street life as the artisans and hawkers. The sights, sounds, smells and surprises draw you back time after time, and getting lost or dispensing a little baksheesh is a small price to pay for the experience. You can have a fascinating time exploring this quarter of the city without knowing anything about its history or architecture, but a little knowledge of both will bring it more to life. In 1992 an earthquake caused a lot of damage in Islamic Cairo, which ironically led to many mosques and monuments being repaired and restored to their original glory after years of neglect (some of them already having been given a knocking by an earlier earthquake in 1884). Most are now open once again, but one or two are still undergoing restoration and thus closed to the public.

Brief history

New cities in Cairo have invariably been constructed to the north of the old, an east–west spread being prevented by the Muqattam Hills and the Nile, while the prevailing northerly wind blew the smoke and smell of earlier settlements away from newer areas. Thus when Amr’s Muslim troops took Egypt for Islam in 641 AD, they sited their city, Fustat, north of Coptic Babylon (see “Old Cairo”). Similarly, when the last Umayyad caliph, Marwan II, burned down Fustat while retreating from the Abbasids in 750, they ordered the city rebuilt further north. In 870, the Abbasids’ viceroy, Ahmed Ibn Tulun, asserting his independence, founded a new city further north again. Inspired by the imperial capital of Samarra, it consisted of a gigantic congregational mosque, palace and hippodrome, surrounded by military quarters. In 905, however, the Abbasids invaded Egypt and razed it, sparing only the great Mosque of Ibn Tulun. After this, people lived wherever they could amid the remains of these earlier cities, together known as Masr.

Foundation of Al-Qahira

The Fatimids, who took Egypt in 969, distanced themselves from Masr by building a new city further north again, which they called Al-Qahira (The Triumphant), and key features of their city still remain. It was at the Al-Azhar Mosque that Al-Muizz, Egypt’s first Fatimid ruler, delivered a sermon before vanishing into his palaces (which survive only in name); the Mosque of Al-Hakim commemorates the caliph who ordered Masr’s destruction after residents objected to proclamations of his divinity. The great Northern Walls and the Bab Zwayla gate date from 1092, when the Armenian-born army commander Al-Gyushi, having reconquered Al-Qahira for the Fatimids following its 1068 fall to the Seljuk Turks, expanded the city’s defences northwards and southwards.

The Ayyubids and Mamlukes

The disparate areas of Masr and Al-Qahira only assumed a kind of unity after Saladin (Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi), having booted out the Fatimids in 1171, built the Citadel on a rocky spur between Al-Qahira and Masr, and walls which linked up with the aqueduct between the Nile and the Citadel, so as to surround the whole. His successors, the Ayyubids, erected pepperpot-shaped minarets and the magnificent tombs of the Abbasid caliphs and Imam al-Shafi’i in the Southern Cemetery, but when the sultan died heirless and his widow needed help to stay in power, the Mamlukes who ran the army took control.

The Mamluke era is divided into periods named after the garrisons of troops from which the sultans intrigued their way to power: the Qipchak or Tartar Bahri Mamlukes (1250–1382), originally stationed by the river (bahr in Arabic); and their Circassian successors, the Burgi Mamlukes (1382–1517), quartered in a tower (burg) of the Citadel. Despite their brutal politics of assassinations and poisonings, the Mamlukes were also aesthetes, commissioning mosques, mansions and sabil-kuttabs (koranic schools with fountains) that are still the glory of today’s Islamic Cairo. Although urban life was interrupted by their bloody conflicts, the city nevertheless maintained public hospitals, libraries and schools. Caravanserais overflowed with the spices of the East, and with Baghdad laid waste by the Mongols, Cairo had no peer in the Islamic world, its wonders inspiring many of the tales in the Thousand and One Nights.

The Ottoman period

In 1517 the Ottoman Turks reduced Egypt from an independent state to a vassal province in their empire, and the Mamlukes from masters to mere overseers. When the French and British extended the Napoleonic War to Egypt they found a city living on bygone glories, introspective and archaic, its population dwindling as civil disorder increased.

The city’s renaissance – and the ultimate shift from Islamic to modern Cairo – is owed to Mohammed Ali (1805–48) and his descendants. An Ottoman servant who turned against his masters, Mohammed Ali effortlessly decapitated the vestiges of Mamluke power and raised a huge mosque and palaces upon the Citadel. Foreigners were hired to advise on urban development, and Khedive Ismail’s Minister of Public Works ordered Boulevard Mohammed Ali (now Sharia Qalaa) to be ploughed through the old city (asking rhetorically: “Do we need so many monuments? Isn’t it enough to preserve a sample?”). As Bulaq, Ezbekiya and other hitherto swampy tracts were developed into a modern, quasi-Western city, Islamic Cairo ceased to be the cockpit of power and the magnet for aspirations. But as visitors soon discover, its contrasts, monuments and vitality remain as compelling as ever.

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