Cairo (aka Al-Qahirah)


Cairo (Arabic: القاهرة transliteration: Al-Qāhirah), which means “the Victorious” or “the Triumphant”, is the capital and largest city of Egypt. It is the Arab World’s and Africa’s most populous city.  While Al-Qahirah is the official name of the city, in Egyptian Arabic it is called by the dialect’s name for the country, transliteration: Masr. Within Egypt, residents of Cairo are called Masraweya rather than Masri.

Cairo was founded by the Fatimid caliphs as a royal enclosure. It later came under the Mamluks, was ruled by the Ottomans 1517 to 1798, and briefly occupied by Napoleon. Muhammad Ali of Egypt made Cairo the capital of his independent empire from 1805 to 1882, after which the British took control of it until Egypt attained independence in 1922.

Cairo’s metropolitan area has a population of about 7.8 million people. and is also the most populous metropolitan area in Africa. Today, Greater Cairo encompasses various historic towns and modern districts. A journey through Cairo is virtual time travel: from the Pyramids, the Hanging Church, Saladin’s Citadel, the Virgin Mary’s Tree, the Sphinx, and Heliopolis, to Al-Azhar, the Mosque of Amr ibn al-A’as, Saqqara, the Cairo Tower, and the Old City. It is the Capital of Egypt, and its history is intertwined with that of the country.

The name Al-Qahirah has been said to mean “the Subduer”, and it’s often translated as “the Victorious”. The origin of Al-Qahirah is said to come from the appearance of the planet Mars during the foundation of the City of Cairo. The planet Mars, which in Greek was called Ares, was associated with ruin or destruction and was called Al Najm Al Qahir in Arabic. Al Najm Al Qahir is transliterated as “the destroyer star [planet]”. The legacy of the name evolved into “Qahirat Al Adaa” meaning “subduer of the enemies”. This title was given to the city as many armies were destroyed in attempts to invade Cairo or defeated elsewhere by troops sent from the settlement.

To be completely honest, Cairo was not at all what I expected.  I had expected some sand duned city in the middle of nowhere filled with tents and bedouin.  In fact it was a very modern and advanced city and reminded me of Shanghai circa 2007.  There are plenty of cosmopolitan buildings and the Nile coursing through the city reminded me of the Bund in Shanghai.  Its a great place to visit but be warned regarding safety.  Bomb sniffing guard dogs are at major international hotels and buildings and almost all of the major sites we visited had metal detectors.  In addition, due to the terrorist attacks of the past, tourist groups are required to have a security guard escort provided courtesy of the Egyptian government.  We had several pleasant fellows who wore suits in the 100+ degree Fahrenheit weather to hide the fully automatic guns they were carrying around their waist!

The Egyptian Museum

The Egyptian Museum was first built in Boulak.  In 1891 is was moved to Giza Palace of Ismail Pasha which housed the antiquities that were later moved to the present building.  The Museum is located in the Tahir square in Cairo and was built during the reign of Khedive Abbass Helmi II in 1897 and opened on November 15, 1902.  It has 107 halls with the ground floor containing huge statues and the upper floor housing small statues, jewels , Tukankhamon treasures and mummies.

The Museum is split into seven main sections arranged in chronological order and includes a hall for the royal mummies which houses 11 kings and queens:

1. Tutankhamon’s treasures

2. Pre-dynasty and the Old Kingdom monuments

3. First intermediate period and the Middle Kingdom monuments

4. Monuments of the Modern Kingdom

5. Monuments of the late period and the Greek and Roman periods

6. Coins and papyrus

7. Sarcophagi and scarabs

Coptic Churches

We visited the walls of a fortress that enclosed the Church of St. Sergius which is built on a crypt considered to be one of the resting places of the Holy Family (Jesus) during their flight to Egypt 200 years ago.

There is also the Hanging Church which is supported by only one column and has amazing paintings on the wall.

Synagogue of Ben Ezra

The Synagogue of Ben Ezra was once the center of a thriving Jewish community in Egypt under the leadership of Rabbi Ben Ezra.  Inside were discovered the Geniza Documents which showed amazing information about Jewish life in Egypt’s past. One of the most interesting aspects of the synagogue is the unity expressed at the time between the major religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Too bad that doesn’t resonate today!

The Saladin Citadel

The Saladin Citadel of Cairo (Arabic: قلعة صلاح الدين Qalaʿat Salāḥ ad-Dīn) is one of the most popular tourist attractions of Cairo, Egypt.  It is located on Muqattam hill near the center of Cairo and was built by the Ayyubid ruler Salah al-Din (Saladin) between 1176 and 1183 AD, as protection from the Crusaders.

It is sometimes referred to as Mohamed Ali Citadel (Arabic: قلعة محمد علي Qalaʿat Muḥammad ʿAlī), because it contains the Mosque of Mohamed Ali (or Muhammad Ali Pasha), which was built between 1828 and 1848, perched on the summit of the citadel. This Ottoman mosque was built in memory of Tusun Pasha, Muhammad Ali’s oldest son, who died in 1816.

There are two other mosques at the Citadel, the 13th/14th century hypostyle Mosque of al-Nasir Muhammad from the early Bahri Mamluk period, and the 16th century Mosque of Suleyman Pasha, first of the Citadel’s Ottoman-style mosques. The citadel also contains Al-Gawhara Palace, the National Military Museum and the Police Museum.

Note that this site of a terrorist attack in April 2005. Two veiled females armed with guns opened fire on a tourist bus in the neighbourhood known as Islamic Cairo, not far from the Citadel. After firing on the coach, one of the women shot the other dead before turning her gun on herself. Three bystanders were reportedly injured. This was the first attack in modern Egyptian history to be carried out by women; police believe it arose from a spur of the moment decision taken by the women upon learning of the Sixth of October Bridge incident.

Khan El Khalili Bazaar

Khan el-Khalili (Arabic: خان الخليلي) is a major souk in the Old City of Cairo and a major tourist attraction. The souk dates back to 1382, when Emir Djaharks el-Khalili built a large caravanserai (خان khan in Arabic) in Cairo, and is noted for selling good-quality clothing, cloth, spices, souvenirs, and traditional jewelry and perfumes at reasonable prices. In addition to shops, there are several coffeehouses (مقهى maqha or قهوة qahwah, depending on dialect), restaurants, and street food vendors distributed throughout the market. The coffeeshops are generally small and quite traditional, serving Arabic coffee and usually offering shisha.

One of particular interest is El Fishawy which is in the middle of the bustling streets of Khan el-Khalili. The owners are proud to mention that they have been in continuous business for over 200 years and have not been closed for a single day. They serve chai and sheesha (waterpipe) and its a good place to snap some photos and enjoy a break from the heat.

We also had a nice taste of Egyptian pancakes. The place was a little filthy but they tasted really good! Here is a quick video of their preparation:

Note that this was the site of a terrorist attack in April 2005. On April 7th, a suicide bomber set off his explosive device on Sharia al-Moski, near the Khan al Khalili bazaar – a street market popular with tourists and locals alike – and the al Hussein Mosque. Three foreign tourists (two from France and one from the United States) were killed, and 11 Egyptians and seven other overseas visitors were injured. Another reminder to exercise caution when you are wandering the streets.

The Nile

The Nile is the lifeblood of Egypt as it is the main supply of water in essentially a desert land.  Interestingly the Ankh symbol (the symbol of life and avatars) is derived from the Nile.  We took a touristy cruise on the Nile which was surprisingly enjoyable and included a Whirling Dervish and Belly Dancing demonstration.

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