Cairo rocks. It is huge, the 11th biggest city in the world, with 20 million people living in or around it, a quarter of the Egyptian population. But it is not the city you might think it is. Cairo is a relative new comer on the Egyptian scene, dating back a mere millennium. The Pyramids at Giza predate the city by over 3,000 years. They may mark its southwest border, but they originally belonged to Memphis, the first capital of Egypt, 20 kilometres south. The moral of this story is simple: there is a lot of history over here.
The current city was founded by the Fatimid dynasty in 969AD and was named to reflect the caliph’s recent achievements: al-Qahira, ‘the victorious’. The Al-Azhar mosque was built immediately, the first in the capital, but not the last; Cairo is known as the city of a thousand minarets. The mosque itself marks the epicentre of the old town, or the Islamic quarter as it is known. It is the most atmospheric district in the city, one that draws you back repeatedly.
As for modern Cairo, it is a frenzy of activity all day long: bumper to bumper on the roads, shoulder to shoulder on the metro. Not that you should let this put you off. The energy of the city is infectious, its residents remarkably generous, its myriad sights worthy of your attention. One moment you’ll be walking down a big, blustery downtown street, the next you’ll be dodging sheep and goats on mud-impacted alleyways south of Mar Girgis. The biggest problem with Cairo is that tourists don’t stay long enough to get to know it. You need at least four days to see the city, preferably a week. Otherwise you will come and go, not knowing where you have been.