Nile River Cruise

Unearthing the History of Old Cairo

This is Part 3 in my series on Cairo. For the rest, continue reading via the links below!

I: Introduction: Cairo for Chinese New Year
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I: Exploring the Egypt’s Ancient Pyramids
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II: Unearthing the History of Old Cairo
IV: A Guide to Egyptian Cuisine
V: Hotel Review: Mena House, Cairo

After a fascinating day exploring the Great Pyramids, it was time to dive into the heart of metropolitan Cairo. Specifically, I’d be headed to Cairo’s old town, which was roughly split up into Islamic Cairo (home to some of the country’s most historic mosques), and Coptic Cairo (home to the city’s Christian community). I met up with my guides from Memphis Tours again at Mena House, and we had some strong Egyptian coffee and snacks for breakfast on the grueling drive into town.

As an aside, having a guide in Egypt is often worth it just to have someone who knows the roads inside and out. Rather than taking your chances on a taxi or Uber driver who’s motivated to keep you in the car, it’s generally better to have a guide who drives safely and knows the best routes to take during rush hour. Cairo traffic can be maddening, so this alone can sometimes save you hours.

Cairo Mosque

Our first stop of the day was the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, one of the largest mosques in all of Egypt located on a large hill overlooking the rest of Cairo. This mosque was erected in the mid-1800s, so it’s quite new by Egyptian standards, but it’s also no less beautiful. Tall minarets dominate the outside of the structure, which is covered in alabaster and marble. And the inside is just beautiful, as the ceilings are intricately painted with traditional Egyptian designs. A massive chandelier also hangs in the middle of the mosque, and it lent the entire building a mystical aura. During my visit, I was the only tourist there aside from a local Egyptian family that was visiting the mosque to worship and pay their respects. I struck up a conversation with, and learned that their two children were students in primary school. They were a standard working-class family, and they were likely stressed out by the unrest going on in their country, but they were as friendly and hospitable as anyone I’ve ever met on my travels. This stood in stark contrast to what the news media would have one believe about the Egyptian people, and again I was reminded that no matter where one goes in the world, most people are generally pretty awesome. Who knew?!

Blue Mosque Cairo

After exploring Islamic Cairo, I ventured to a vantage point on a hill looking out over the city, and took in the view of greater Cairo. There’s a constant cloud of dust and pollution hanging over the city, a product of lax environmental policies and consistent winds from the Sahara Desert to the west. The sounds of cars, motorbikes, raucous salesmen, melodic music, screaming children, and the Muslim call to prayer all coalesce into a consistent drone that overpowers the senses and reminds one that yes, you’re still in one of the most densely populated cities in the world.

Coptic Cairo

Next, it was time to visit the Hanging Church, a building that’s both historic and architecturally impressive. This church sits in Coptic Cairo, home to Cairo’s Christian community, and it’s unique on account of being built on top of an ancient Roman gate buried just underneath. When touring the church, I was amazed to see some sections of the floor missing – and that there was seemingly nothing underneath the church’s foundation but thin air! This optical illusion of sorts was fascinating to see, as I’d never seen a building constructed in this way before.

I had a delicious lunch of fresh naan (flatbread) and hummus, and then hit the streets again in search of Cairo’s famous souk (market), a crowded set of streets packed with an array of fascinating shops selling everything from miniature pyramids to hanging lanterns. Amusingly enough, there were seemingly just as many items made in China as those made in Egypt, but it was still fun to browse around. My favorite part was stopping at a shop selling different kinds of essential oils, all of which were hand-pressed and bottled in-house. I loved learning more about the process of bottling oils, and after some bargaining, walked away with several bottles for my infuser back home in Singapore.

Oils Cairo Egypt

I ended the day with a nightcap at an outdoor bar in Mena House. Egypt happened to be playing in the African Cup of Nations that night, so as a chilly breeze blew through from the Sahara, I grabbed a cup of hot chocolate and sat by a portable heater as the game played. It was fun talking to the locals and getting their take on the game, and the current state of affairs in Egypt as well. Mercifully, the game ended in victory for Egypt that night, and the mood was jovial as we all parted ways and headed into the night. After such a long day, I was looking forward to some quality rest, as the next day would be spent at the National Museum, browsing Egypt’s vast collection of ancient treasures.

Mena House Cairo