Cairo See And Do
El Borg Gezira
Tel: 20 2 739 0114
Don't just collapse into bed after a hot day visiting the Pyramids. Evening performances at the Cairo Opera House on Zamalek island feature international guest conductors, Egypt's national opera and ballet companies, and classical Arab music stars. The season, which runs September through June, includes an annual production of Aida, the Verdi opera originally commissioned to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal.
Performances held daily at 9 pm.
Saladin, an invader from Syria, built the Citadel in 1183 to protect Egypt from the Crusaders. Sitting atop its massive original foundations, the complex was remodeled after 1804 by the Ottoman viceroy Mohammed Ali, a conquering soldier from Albania. The Citadel is made up of more than a dozen buildings, mosques, and museums, all centered on the Mohammed Ali Mosque, the iconic pile of domes and tall minarets that dominates the city skyline. Nicknamed "the Alabaster Mosque" for its exterior stone sheathing, its interiors are done in a grand, ornate style more reminiscent of Istanbul than Egypt, with lofty ceilings and huge, low-hanging globe-lamp chandeliers. The Carriage Museum is the best place to get a sense of the lifestyle of the Mohammed Ali dynasty, which ended with the 1952 overthrow of King Farouk. There is also a jail, a museum of stolen antiquities, and a vast national military museum devoted mainly to the tanks and airplanes of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
Off Mari Girgis Street
Tel: 20 2 363 9742
Situated in two early-20th-century buildings within the walled Roman fortress of Babylon, the Coptic Museum contains such artifacts as funeral stelae carved with Coptic inscriptions, manuscripts, icons, textiles, and examples of ivory, wood, pottery, and glass. A bridge between the art of ancient Egypt and the Islamic era, Coptic imagery often fuses deities and motifs from the Pharaonic and Roman eras. The museum's most moving objects are frescoes found in monastery prayer niches, for example, a sixth-century image of Jesus being suckled by Mary in an echo of the Egyptian goddess Isis suckling Osiris three millennia earlier.
Just down the street from the museum lies Old Cairo, the local name for the original Coptic quarter. A warren of Roman-era walls, narrow alleys, churches, and the restored Ben Ezra Synagogue, the neighborhood evokes the Cairo of a simpler, pre-skyscraper agenot to mention showcasing the quite striking environment (these days) of Jews, Arabs, and Christians living together in relative peace in a Middle Eastern city. Morning mass in the Coptic language is held in the churches of Old Cairo on Friday, Sunday, and religious holidays. The elaborate Hanging Church is a three-part basilica dating to the seventh century and has the most seating. Art and history lovers should head for the dark and gloomy fourth-century church of St. Sergius, which displays icons, silver chandeliers, and votives left by ancient pilgrims who visited the crypt where the holy family is said to have stayed during its flight into Egypt. To see the faith in action, go to St. George's Chapel. Set in a Mamluk-era palace, the chapel contains an ancient iron collar and chain associated with the saint (the story of Saint George and the dragon has origins in the pharaonic myth of Horus slaying Seth, a desert monster). Every day you'll see worshippers lining up to touch and kiss the relics, still believed to have healing properties.
Open daily from 9 am to 5 pm.
Tel: 20 2 579 6974
Built between 1897 and 1900, this museum is filled with the golden treasures of pharaohs, and archaeological finds tracing Egyptian civilization over more than 5,000 years. The crowds tend to beeline for the golden, lapis-encrusted mask of Tutankhamen and his other sumptuous funerary objects, which made such a splash when they were discovered by Howard Carter in 1922 in the Valley of the Kings. It would take weeks to see the museum's 120,000 objects, but don't miss the Palette of Narmer, a ceremonial tablet that symbolizes the original unification of Egypt more than five millennia ago; the royal mummies; and the Fayum portraits, hauntingly realistic depictions of the deceased discovered in Greco-Roman gravesites. The best time to visit is in the afternoon, after the crowds thin. Alternatively, go at opening time and head straight for the small room containing King Tut's mask, on the second floor. You'll have the space to yourself for a good 15 minutes because the tour groups will be stuck on the ground floor listening to their guides' orientation spiel.
Open daily 9 am to 7 pm.
26th of July Street
Tel: 20 2 736 6178
Located under the 15th of October Bridge in Zamalek, El Sawy has emerged as Cairo's most eclectic cultural space. Nightly 8 pm performances, accessible to non-Arabic speakers, include experimental theater, classical Arab stars such as Iraqi oud virtuoso Nassir Shamma and up-and-coming Sufi jazz groups Wust El-Balad and Ektiselaat. This was the venue the Arab-American comedy troupe Axis of Evil chose to launch their 2007 Middle East tour.
Check online for performance schedule.
Following the invasion of the first Arab army in 641 and the relocation of the capital from the Greco-Roman port of Alexandria to the site of present-day Cairo, Egypt was ruled by successive Islamic dynasties, each leaving an architectural legacy. Cairo has more than 600 registered Islamic monuments covering 14 centuries of history. In various states of repair, they are nonetheless an art lover's dream. You can visit the cenotaphs of such diverse figures as the charismatic 19th-century ruler Mohammed Ali, King Farouk, and a ninth-century boy sultan assassinated by his brother. There are also various architectural forms of charity, donated by the sultans, such as student hostels, caravanserai, and sabil kuttab (combined public fountains and Koranic schools). Egypt's mosques generally welcome non-Muslim visitors. Monuments with guardians are open 8 am to 5 pm; many do not require a ticket.
The Ahmad Ibn Tulun Mosque (dedicated to Egypt's ninth-century ruler, born to a Turkish slave of Mongol origins) is one of the largest mosques in the world and perhaps the most beautiful in Egypt. A combination of grandeur and spare elegance, evoking the mosque's origin as the courtyard of the Prophet Muhammed's own house in Mecca, it incorporates a massive square cloister, covered with a mile-long sycamore frieze inscribed with verses from the Koran. Climb the minaret, the only one in Cairo with an open-air staircase, and you'll enjoy one of the city's best views. The Pyramids are sometimes visible in the distance beyond the city's skyscrapers; just below the mosque, the maze of smaller minarets and dun-colored rooftops sprouting pigeon coops and satellite dishes leads the eye toward Saladin's imposing mountaintop Citadel. Mosque guardians rent shoe covers, so there's no need to go barefoot; they also keep the key to the minaret and will open it for a small tip even if it's officially closed.
The Gayer-Anderson Museum occupies two adjoining early Ottoman houses abutting Ibn Tulun's southeast corner. It contains the furniture and art collection of the houses' last occupant, British army major John Gayer-Anderson. A colonial doctor and a connoisseur not just of Islamic art but of the strange and wonderful, Gayer-Anderson roamed all over Egypt searching for Islamic birthing chairs, marble hand-washing fountains, ceremonial weapons, pharaonic fetish sculptures, and other curiosities. Look for the room devoted to the pasha Mohammed Ali, the 17th-century Damascus room, and the library containing a pastel portrait of Gayer-Anderson as the Sphinx.
1 Sa'd Zaghloul Street
Tel: 20 2 792 0878
Housed in a refurbished 19th-century printing plant, Makan is the home of the Egyptian Center for Culture & Art (ECCA), an organization founded in 2002 to preserve traditional forms of Egyptian music. Performances feature Nubian wedding singers; Coptic monks chanting liturgy; and Zar musicians, traditional healers who use drumming, chants, and body movement to cure ailments. Weekly Wednesday-night gigs at 8 pm attract a cross section of Cairo society.
Open daily 10 am to 2 am.
Bab El-Khalk Square
Tel: 20 2 390 1520
Reopened at the end of 2007 following a five-year, $15 million restoration, the museum houses one of the world's greatest collections of Islamic objects. The new state-of-the-art layout, conceived by French museologist Adrien Gardère with the participation of curators from the Louvre, reorganizes the material by Egyptian dynasties, concentrating on the Fatimid and Mamluk periods, when Cairo was the capital of the Islamic world and a magnet for its best artisans. Most of the 2,000 pieces come from Egypt, but there are rooms devoted to Pan-Arab themes of science, water, and astronomy, and to several Persian dynasties.
Open daily 9 am to 4 pm.
Al-Malek Al-Salah Street
This lovingly curated shrine to the Egyptian diva sits on the southern tip of Roda Island next to the famous Nilometer, where for centuries priests and taxmen measured the Nile's annual rise. Oum Kalthoum was the daughter of a village imam who taught her to sing the Koran. Dressed in boys' clothing to preserve her honor, she became a star of Koranic recitation, which remains a popular form of Friday entertainment in pious Egyptian households (as well as a mainstay of taxicab Muzak). At the age of 19, Oum Kalthoum moved to Cairo, where her powerful voice and knowledge of traditional cadences, broadcast in the new media of radio and cinema, helped her become Egypt's Edith Piaf and Maria Callas rolled into one. Opened in 2001, the small museum has an interactive exhibit that allows visitors to hear some of her most famous songs. Vitrines hold her gowns and signature diamond-studded sunglasses. Next door, the terrace of the Manasterli Palace is one of the most serene places in Cairo; stop here for the southward Nile view.
Sharia Muizz Li Din Allah
Sadly, the tenth-century palaces of the Fatimids (Shiites from Tunisia who gave Cairo its name, Al-Qahira, meaning "the victorious") no longer exist. However, three massive stone gates to their walled city, Bab Al-Futuh and Bab Nasr to the north, and Bab Zuwayla to the south, still stand. Linking them, Sharia Muizz Li Din Allah was the Fatimid main street known as Palace Walk. The newly declared daytime pedestrian zone is lined with working souks and 34 Islamic monuments, including the 13th-century hospital, mosque, and madrassa complex of the Mamluk sultan Qalawun; Beit Al-Sihaymi, a restored 18th-century Ottoman century house; and the 16th-century mosque, mausoleum, and caravanserai of the Mamluk sultan Al-Ghuri (a colorful figure who played polo into his 70s and died in a battle against the Syrians). The mile-long walk takes you past the Khan El-Khalili's copper souk and a women's clothing market selling Saudi-style black abayas as well as Frederick's of Hollywoodstyle teddies for brides' trousseaus. Continue south under the archway of Bab Zuwayla and you'll reach the tentmakers' souk, which originally outfitted pilgrims' caravan trips to Mecca and today sells canvas items appliquéd with Islamic and pharaonic motifs.
There are actually more than 100 pyramids scattered along the west bank of the Nile across from Cairo—ancient Egyptian burials were always made on the western, sunset side of the river—but they all pale in comparison to Giza's three massive wonders. The smaller two pyramids, dedicated to Menkaure and Khafre, are respectively 203 and 471 feet high; they flank the 4,500-year-old Great Pyramid of Khufu (better known by his Greek name, Cheops), sole surviving Wonder of the Ancient World. The Great Pyramid's sheer numbers boggle the mind: It covers 13 acres, is 483 feet high, measures 760 feet along the base, and is made up of 2.3 million stone blocks. Every visitor should do the bent-over shuffle into the burial chamber deep in the heart of the Great Pyramid—it's just a small, bare stone room, but irresistible all the same. Access is limited, with just two sets of admission issued: 150 in the morning, 150 more in the afternoon. The best bet is to be at the main gate when it opens, then charge up the hill straight to the separate ticket office next to the Great Pyramid and get in line to buy early-afternoon entry (if you get a taxi here from your hotel, have the driver take you right up to the ticket booth inside, otherwise tour buses will beat you to it). Then you can spend the whole morning wandering the Giza plateau, checking out the extraordinary Sphinx, examining the other pyramids and necropolises, and shelling out a few dollars to jump up on a camel and be led across the sand so you can pose for the requisite photo against a backdrop of pyramids. The park is open daily 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (to 5 p.m. in September).
Sakkara was the main necropolis for Memphis, the capital of a united Upper and Lower Egypt. A 15-minute drive south from the Giza Plateau, past villages and tranquil green farmland, the complex contains 16 primitive pyramids predating the Great Pyramid, and more than 200 tombs and temples associated with the pharaohs and their servants. It's estimated that as many as 10,000 tombs still lie unexcavated; the tombs of King Tut's wet nurse, a royal butcher, and a royal surgeon buried with his scalpels are among the latest discoveries. Architecture buffs come here to see the world's oldest stone monument and original stairway to heaven: the Step Pyramid, built in 2650 B.C. for King Djoser by the deified architect Imhotep, to whom a new on-site museum, inaugurated in 2006, is dedicated. The tomb of the vizier Mereruka is worth visiting for its carved scenes of daily life in ancient Egypt, such as fishing, duck hunting, and tending for pet hyenas. The real gem, however, is the small tomb shared by Niankh-Khnum and Khnum-Hotep, manicurists to King Unas. It's unclear whether they were brothers or lovers; their house of the afterlife contains exquisite carved and painted scenes of cattle, wild animals, breast-feeding mothers, women baking breadand the two bare-chested men embracing. The Sakkara complex is far less crowded than the Giza Plateau, and it's easy to find an isolated spot where you feel you are alone in the desert with just wind and sand for company.
Sufi dervishes whirl to live music Wednesday nights in an arched room at the mausoleum of Al-Ghuri in the historic Islamic district. The 7 pm show is free, but you must buy an entry ticket for the monument.