Most people prefer to get accustomed to Downtown Cairo before tackling the older Islamic quarters, for even in this westernized area, known in Arabic as wust al-balad (literally, “the town centre”), the culture shock can be profound. The area is essentially a lopsided triangle, bounded by Ramses Station, Midan Ataba and Garden City, and for the most part it’s compact enough to explore on foot. Only the Ramses quarter and the further reaches of Garden City are sufficiently distant to justify using transport. At the heart of the Downtown area is the broad, bustling expanse of Tahrir Square, its most famous landmark the domed Egyptian Museum, which houses the finest collection of its kind in the world.
The layout of the downtown area goes back to the 1860s, when Khedive Ismail had it rebuilt in the style of Haussmann’s new Paris boulevards to impress dignitaries attending the inauguration of the Suez Canal, and had it named the Ismailiya quarter. Cutting an X-shaped swathe through the area are the main thoroughfares of Talaat Harb and Qasr al-Nil (each about a kilometre long). Though the area was founded in the nineteenth century, most of the buildings you see today date from the early twentieth century and, behind the inevitable layers of dust and grime, reflect the elegance of that period’s architecture.
On the west side of Midan Opera, the Continental-Savoy Hotel was once the city’s top hotel, rivalling Shepheard’s just up the street and boasting the finest restaurant in colonial Cairo. It opened in 1869, and was soon a favourite among visiting VIPs. Guests included Lawrence of Arabia, who stayed here at the beginning of World War One, and at the end of the war, Australian soldiers celebrated with a massive pillow fight on the hotel’s grand staircase. Lord Carnarvon, who financed the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb, died in his room here in 1923, supposedly a victim of the pharaoh’s curse, and other guests included American journalist Henry Morton Stanley, of “Dr Livingstone, I presume” fame. In 1941, Orde Wingate, the eccentric military genius who later led the British commandos known as Chindits against the Japanese in Burma, attempted suicide in his room here by stabbing himself in the neck with a Bowie knife. Luckily for Britain’s southeast Asian war effort, he failed.
The hotel closed in the 1980s, and is now largely disused, its grand halls empty and neglected, inaccessible to the public and largely derelict. Much of the building is in danger of collapse. Its future remains uncertain, but it would need a huge amount of rebuilding to ever open again as a hotel.
Downtown Cairo’s star attraction is the Egyptian Museum, or to give it its full title, the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. Founded in 1858 by Auguste Mariette, who excavated the Serapeum at Saqqara and several major temples in Upper Egypt (and who was later buried in the museum grounds), it has long since outgrown its present building and can now scarcely warehouse all its pharaonic artefacts, with 136,000 exhibits, and forty thousand more items still crated in the basement. A new Grand Egyptian Museum, which will house some or all the exhibits in the present one, is already under construction by the pyramids of Giza, and is due to open in around 2013. Meanwhile, for all the chaos, poor lighting and captioning of the old museum, the richness of the collection makes this one of the world’s few truly great museums.
A single visit of three to four hours suffices to cover the Tutankhamun exhibition and a few other highlights. Everyone has their favourites, but a reasonable shortlist might include, on the ground floor, the Amarna galleries (rooms 3 and 8), and the cream of statuary from the Old, Middle and New kingdoms (rooms 42, 32, 22 and 12), and, on the upper floor, the Fayoum Portraits (Room 14), and of course the Royal Mummies (Rooms 52 and 56) – though these cost extra. Information on the exhibits themselves is extremely sparse. Due to different systems of numbering being added at different times, some exhibits in the museum now have three different numbers, but very often no other labelling at all. When identifying exhibits by number in the account which follows, we have given the number which is the most prominent.
The water lilies growing in the pond in front of the main entrance are the now-rare blue lotus, a mildly psychoactive plant used by the ancient Egyptians – frescoes and reliefs from ancient Egypt show these lotuses being dipped into wine to enhance their effects.
On 25 January 2011, inspired by the revolution in Tunisia which kicked off the Arab Spring, Cairenes held a “Day of Rage” protest, which steadily grew and eventually became irresistable as more and more people joined in. By 1 February, the crowd had swelled to well over a quarter of a million people (some reports even claimed a million), noisily demanding the resignation of dictator Hosni Mubarak, The next two days saw violent attacks on the protestors by regime supporters – including horse and camel hustlers from the Giza pyramids, mounted on their beasts, thus giving the events their popular name, Battle of the Camel. Among those defending the square were fighting football supporters (“ultras”) of the Cairo clubs Zamalek and, in particular, Ahly. During the battle, rooftop snipers fired on the protestors, and the death toll mounted to some three hundred, but the people stood firm. Eventually, on 11 February, finally bowing to the inevitable, Mubarak resigned. As celebrating Egyptians streamed into Tahrir across the 6th October Bridge, news reports worldwide made Tahrir (Liberation) Square an international symbol of people power, inspiring protestors in Syria, Libya, Yemen and even Spain, the United States and Britain.
Since then, the square has had a semi-permanent encampment of protestors demanding full democracy and the retirement of the army from political life. Violence has sometimes flared up anew, as on 20 November 2011, when police tried unsuccessfully to clear the square, and on the first anniversary of the Battle of the Camel, after the killing of 74 Ahly supporters at a football match in what was seen as revenge for the Ahly ultras’ defence of the revolutionaries the previous year. Foreign reporters have also on occasion been targeted. On the other hand, there sometimes seems to be an almost carnival atmosphere around the protestors’ encampment, with street food on offer and the inevitable revolution T-shirts on sale (on the corner of Sharia Talaat Harb in particular). Nonetheless, it’s wise to exercise caution when visiting the square, take advice from local people such as your hotelier, don’t wave your camera about too ostentatiously, and stay away when there is trouble in the air. Tensions rise on Fridays in particular, especially after midday prayers.