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Interesting Facts about Cairo

1. Interesting fact: Covering around 500 sq km, with an estimated population of 22 million, Greater Cairo is the largest city in Africa and the Middle East.

2. Fun fact: The Arabic name for Cairo is al-Qahirah, which means "the conqueror," "the vanquisher" or "the victorious." Most Egyptians call Cairo "Masr", the Arabic for Egypt. Cairo is also called the City of 1000 Minarets, and Umm al-Dounia, the "Mother of the World."

3. Useful fact: The currency is the Egyptian Pound (LE, or EGP), and electricity runs at 220 volts, 50 Hz, with standard two-pin plugs.

4. Weird fact: The Holy Family are said to have sheltered at the site of Abu Serga Church after they fled to Egypt.

5. Random fact: There are believed to be over 4.5 million cars in Cairo.

6. Fun fact: Cairo is home to the only remaining ancient wonder of the world. Yep, one of those big stone Toblerone-shaped things.

7. Useful fact: The time zone in Cairo is GMT+2; the country dialling code is +20, and the area code is 02 (drop the 0 if calling from abroad).

8. Interesting fact: Cairo was founded in 969 by the Fatimid Caliphate from Tunisia, though there were earlier Islamic, Byzantine, Roman, Persian and Pharaonic settlements, including the legendary Memphis.

9. Weird fact: If you live in Cairo you probably support either al-Ahly or Zamalek football club. Their rivalry is intense, yet they share the same stadium!

10. Interesting fact: Cairo hosts one of the oldest universities in the world, al-Azhar University, founded in 975 CE. And Naguib Mahfouz, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, was born in Cairo in 1882. 

11. Random fact: Sunday is the first day of week; the weekend is Friday and Saturday.

12. Fun fact: The Nile runs through Cairo, and there are two large islands in the middle of the city.

Things to See in Cairo

  1. Al Azhar Park
  2. Cairo International Airport
  3. Coptic Cairo
  4. Giza Pyramids
  5. Khan Al Khalili
  6. Ramses Train Station
  7. Tahrir Square
  8. The Citadel
  9. Zamalek

Cairo History

Cairo is a city in which the past and present are inextricably intertwined. Its history is long, colourful, and turbulent. Despite the presence of the Pyramids, Cairo is not technically a Pharaonic city. Rather, it is an amalgamation of separate cities that were established by successive conquerors since Persian times. But seeing as modern day Greater Cairo has expanded to include the remains of the ancient Egyptian past, this is the natural starting point for an exploration of Cairo's tangled history.


The savannahs of Egypt were inhabited by hunter-gatherers more than 250,000 years ago. During the Neolithic period (from around 9,500 BC) communities began to settle in both northern and southern Egypt. By around 4000 BC, it seems Egypt was divided into two vying federations: Lower Egypt (the delta region) and Upper Egypt (the Nile valley south of where the delta begins).

The Pharaonic period: 3,100 – 525 BC
(Dates given are the conventionally accepted approximate ones, but are still much disputed.)

Around 3,100 BC, a semi-mythical figure known as Menes is said to have unified Upper and Lower Egypt into a single entity. It was around this time that the city of Memphis was established, situated at the beginning of the delta – the symbolic meeting point of Upper and Lower Egypt.

Memphis was the capital city of Egypt during the Early Dynastic Period (3,100 to 2,686 BC) – when the Step Pyramid of Saqqara was built – and the Old Kingdom (2,686 to 2,181 BC) – when the pyramids at Dahshur and Giza were built.

Throughout the following 1,650-odd years of stability and chaos, Memphis remained a key ancient Egyptian city – swinging between capital city, and important administrative centre. Its power was not fully diminished until the Arab invasion of the 7th Century AD.

As well as the remains of Memphis, and the pyramids and tombs of the necropolis, the other main ancient Egyptian settlement within what is now Greater Cairo was the religious city of On, known to the Greeks as Heliopolis. Situated to the north-west of the modern suburb of Heliopolis, there's nothing left to see these days.

Of Persians and Greeks: 525 – 30 BC

When the Persians conquered Egypt in 525 BC, they established a new city on the east bank of the Nile, called Babylon-in-Egypt. This city grew up around a fortress built to protect a canal linking the Nile to the Red Sea, and was situated in the area now known as Old Cairo. This settlement marks the beginning of the history of Cairo proper, around 2,500 years after Memphis was first established by the ancient Egyptians.

When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC, he chose to build the capital city that bears his name up on the north coast. The Ptolemaic Dynasty, established by Alexander's General Ptolemy, ruled Egypt for around 300 years, but had little to do with Babylon-in-Egypt.

Roman and Byzantine rule: 30 BC – 642 BC

During the final years of Ptolemaic rule, Roman influence over Egypt grew. Cleopatra VII fought to keep Egypt independent, bearing Julius Caesar a son, and then allying herself with Mark Anthony. They were defeated by Octavian in 30 BC, and Egypt was finally swallowed up by the Roman Empire.

Rome's main interest in Egypt was as a source of food. They therefore guarded the important trade routes, and in 130 AD Emperor Trajan rebuilt the fortress of Babylon-on-the-Nile. Alexandria was effectively left alone, and remained the cultural and administrative capital of Egypt.

The Jewish and Egyptian pagan inhabitants of Babylon-on-the-Nile were resentful of Hellenistic and Roman dominance, and with the introduction of Christianity to Egypt in the 1st Century AD, many of them converted.

After Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official imperial religion in the early 4th Century, churches started being built in the area. Some of these can still be seen in Old Cairo today, such as the Hanging Church and the Church of St Sergius.

The Arab invasion and the establishment of Fustat: 642 – 969 AD

When the Muslim armies of General Amr Ibn al-Aas invaded Egypt in the 7th Century AD, the population of Babylon-in-Egypt barely resisted. (They were still being persecuted by their Byzantine overlords.) Al-Aas established a camp near the fort, and went off to conquer Alexandria.

When he returned victorious in 642 AD, it is said he found a dove nesting in his tent. Declaring this a sign from Allah, he established on this spot the first mosque ever built in Egypt – the Mosque of Amr Ibn al-Aas. This area of Old Cairo became the focal point for Egypt's new capital city, known as al-Fustat, "The Camp".

The next few hundred years saw a convoluted internal struggle within the Islamic world, in which the Damascus-based Umayyad dynasty gave way to the Baghdad-based Abbasids, who built their own capital city to the north-east of Fustat.

Successive, short-lived Egyptian dynasties, such as the Tulunids (who founded the Ibn Tulun Mosque) and the Ikhshidids, also built their own capitals, which all merged together to form the sprawling metropolis of Fustat-Masr.

These successive settlements, from Persian times through to the early Islamic cities, are the area known today as Old Cairo.

The Fatimids come to town: 969 – 1171 AD

The Fatimid khalifs were Shi'a Muslims from Tunisia who conquered Egypt in 969 AD and formed an empire that stretched across much of North Africa, Syria and western Arabia.

They established their own capital city further north of Fustat-Masr, and named it al-Qahirah, "The Victorious", which is the Arabic name for Cairo today. This Fatimid city is loosely synonymous with the area tourists know as Islamic Cairo. The walls built around it are still standing in places, as are the north and south gates.

Under the first two rulers, the city was prosperous and stable. Beautiful Islamic monuments, such as al-Azhar Mosque, were built. Later rulers, such as the insane al-Hakim, builder of al-Hakim Mosque, were less successful, and decay began slowly to set in.  

Saladin and the Ayyubid dynasty: 1171 – 1250 AD

Sent to Cairo to help fight against the Crusaders, Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi became ruler of Egypt on the death of the last Fatimid khalif in 1171 AD. Known in the west as Saladin, he spent much of his rule liberating territory in the Holy Land from the Crusaders.

Salah al-Din built the Citadel on a hill between al-Qahirah and Fustat-Masr, thus bringing both under his control. He also extended the city walls, built numerous hospitals, and established madrassas to promote Sunni rather than Shi'a Islam. He refused to take a religious title, referring to himself as al-Sultan ("The Power") instead.

His successors managed to repel the Fifth Crusade, but came to rely too heavily on warrior-slaves from Central Asia in their army. When Sultan Ayyub died with no heir, and his wife – a former slave girl – openly assumed power, the time was ripe for the warrior-slave caste of Mamluks to take over.

The Mamluk intrigues: 1250 – 1517 AD

The period of Mamluk rule was one of intense contradictions. On the one hand, they built extensively across the whole city, commissioning some of Cairo's finest mosques and Islamic monuments. Many of them can still be seen today in Islamic Cairo, such as the Sultan Hassan Mosque, al-Mu'ayyad Mosque, the Mosque-Madrassa of al-Ghouri, and the Mausoleum of Sultan Qaitbay.

They also built up public institutions, and fostered the development of learning, the arts and trade.

On the other hand, their rule was violent and bloody, with rival groups constantly scheming to take power.

Ottoman rule, British occupation and the rise of nationalism: 1517 – 1952 AD

In 1517 Egypt was absorbed into the Ottoman empire. Little more than a provincial backwater, it was largely left to its own devices, and Mamluk power remained strong.

Following the French invasion of 1798, ultimately repulsed by combined British and Ottoman forces, an Albanian officer in the Ottoman army stepped in to the power vacuum. Mohammed Ali was confirmed Pasha of Egypt in 1805, and immediately began to consolidate his rule.

After destroying the remnants of the Mamluk power structure, he enlisted European help to start modernising Egypt, building infrastructure such as railways, barrages on the Nile, and factories. More than anyone else, he is considered to be the founder of modern Egypt. The Mosque of Mohammed Ali at the Citadel still dominates the Cairo skyline to this day.

For the most part, his successors continued this period of modernisation. In 1869 the Suez Canal was opened, under Khedive Ismail. However, all this modernisation came at a price, and Egypt found itself ever deeper in debt.

In 1875, Ismail had to sell his shares in the Suez Canal to the British government, at which point most of the profits from the canal began to bleed out of the country. Despite technically still being part of the Ottoman empire, Britain exerted increasing control over Egypt, until it was effectively a colony in everything but name.

During the First World War, Egypt was officially made a British protectorate. Following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after the war, Britain was forced by a growing nationalist movement to grant Egypt a limited form of independence, and Fouad (one of Khedive Ismail's sons) was crowned king.

In the period leading up the Second World War, tensions ran high between the British, the King (perceived as a British stooge) and the Wafd nationalist party. After the war, anti-British riots and strikes supported by the Muslim Brotherhood led to the temporary evacuation of British troops, and democratic elections in which the Wafd party formed a government.

Nasser and the 1952 revolution: 1952 – 1970

In January 1952 the British garrison in Ismailia attacked the main police station, believing the police were aiding the Muslim Brotherhood in their campaign of resistance. A number of police officers were killed, and the following day huge riots broke out in protest in Cairo. King Farouk sent in the army to control them, and dissolved the government.

On July 23rd 1952 a group known as the Free Officers seized power, deposing King Farouk. The official leader of the group was General Naguib, though Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser was regarded as being the real power behind the movement. (Note that although commonly referred to as a revolution, this event was really a military coup d'état.)

On 26th July 1953 Egypt was declared a republic. In June 1956 Nasser was sworn in as president. During his presidency, Egypt finally wrested control of the Suez Canal from the British during the 1956 Suez crisis, and began construction of the Aswan High Dam. Feudal estates were broken up and redistributed, and advances were made in both education and health care.

On the other hand, his vision of Pan-Arabism led him to get involved in the Yemen civil war, and also helped precipitate the disastrous Six Day War. In true Soviet style, his regime was brutal in preventing and crushing any form of dissent or opposition.

Sadat switches it all around: 1970 – 1981

When Anwar Sadat took presidency on Nasser's death in 1970, he set about reversing Nasser's policies of centralized economic control. In 1973, Egypt, Jordan and Syria launched the 6th October War, in which they managed to break into Israeli-occupied Sinai, before eventually being pushed back.

This war, commemorated in the October War Panorama, changed everything. Sadat instituted his "open door" policy of private and foreign investment, and there was no shortage of Arab investors now willing to pump money into the country. The economy grew rapidly, although this new-found wealth was not distributed at all equitably. Sadat also allowed some rival political parties, and relaxed censorship of the press.

The war also paved the way for the Camp David Agreement of 1978 in which – in order to curry favour with the West – Sadat recognised Israel's right to exist, in return for getting back the Sinai. As punishment for this perceived betrayal, Egypt was ostracised from the Arab world.

Sadat also courted organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, believing their brand of political Islam would act as a counter-balance to the Left. This backfired on him, as politicised Islam became ever more powerful. When he finally cracked down on these groups, it was too late. He was assassinated in 1981.

The reign of Mubarak: 1981 – present day

Mohammed Hosni Mubarak is Egypt's longest serving ruler since Mohammed Ali. He has presided over Egypt during a tremendously difficult period in its history, including two Gulf Wars and September 11th, continuing problems in the occupied Palestinian territories, increasing internal Islamic militancy, and a handful of terrorist attacks against foreigners. He has had to tread a thin and treacherous line between cosying up to the West, maintaining Egypt's status in the eyes of the Arab world, and preventing domestic troubles.

While the economy appears stable, the gap between rich and poor is growing fast, and the majority of ordinary Egyptians are struggling to make ends meet. Foreign debt is huge, and prices for basic commodities rising. There is growing cynicism and anger with a government that uses the bogeyman of Islamic terrorism to justify repressive domestic policies – including the continuation of the Emergency Law that was put in place when Sadat was assassinated – and yet seems to pursue policies that could further radicalise the population.

There is also concern that Mubarak is grooming his son to assume power from him in 2011, in elections that will appear fair, but will be anything but.

While tourism remains strong (though subject to the vagaries of international politics and economics), and Egypt is as safe and vibrant a place to visit as it has ever been, it is clear that – as for much of the rest of the world – the coming years will be crucial in determining the course of Egypt's future.

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