Welcome to Cairo — Capital of the Arab World

Vast as Cairo is, it’s a small world for the traveler when it comes to sights and tourist-friendly stops. Local guides, local friends, and both guidebooks I’m using all dip into the same tiny pool of a handful of sights, restaurants, cafés, parks, concert venues, and hotels in this teeming city of 17 million. Every time my guide takes me somewhere, I check my guidebook…and it’s there. Every time I see something in my guidebook I want to visit, my guide is taking me there anyway.

Cairo teems with 17 million people, most of them scrambling to make ends meet.
Cairo teems with 17 million people, most of them scrambling to make ends meet.

Cairo’s grand sights — the pyramids and the Egyptian Museum — are magnificent…absolutely world-class. Those are enough in themselves to make the long trip to Egypt worthwhile. But the other sights in Cairo are humble. Mosques, while historic, feel forlorn except when filled with worshippers on Friday. Oddly, in the National Museum — with the most beautiful things I saw, the treasures of ancient Egypt — photos are strictly forbidden.

Egypt is 10 percent Coptic Christian, and the history of Christianity in Egypt goes back to the first-century visit of St. Mark (whose bones rested in Alexandria until stolen by Venetian merchants in the ninth century to put their city on the pilgrim map). But the Christian presence is small and low-key.

With the rise of Muslim power (a persistent dimension of the nascent democracies of the Arab world), Christian communities throughout Islam lay low, build taller fences, and come with lots of police security. Just this week, several Christians were killed in a small riot here in Cairo. (I know that might sound shocking. But during the same week, several Christians were also killed in Chicago — a city with half of Cairo’s population.)

Cairo’s Coptic Museum, set in the restored walls of the ancient Roman fort, is charming, if humble. It seems the scant surviving artifacts of a rich heritage speak to centuries of edgy coexistence (alternating with periods of plunder) with the dominant Muslim society. The narthex of the Coptic church was lined with photos of Coptic patriarchs through the ages powwowing warily with Egypt’s various Muslim political bosses.

There’s been a Christian community in Egypt since the time of St. Mark. In Coptic Christian churches, mosaics remind all that Mary and Joseph fled with their baby to Egypt to escape King Herod’s decree to kill all newborn boys.
There’s been a Christian community in Egypt since the time of St. Mark. In Coptic Christian churches, mosaics remind all that Mary and Joseph fled with their baby to Egypt to escape King Herod’s decree to kill all newborn boys.

Any person in Cairo with 5 Egyptian pounds (about a dollar) can buy entrance into Al-Azhar Park, the only park in the center — an oasis of green where young couples enjoy a respite from the intensity of the city and a stroll through a rare garden with ponds and fountains and shade. Sitting in circles, friends giggle and flirt. Joining them for the standard tourist-meets-locals conversation, I pondered the downside of population density and the upside of population sparsity.

Cairo’s lone park, Al-Azhar, offers an escape from the intensity of the seething streets.
Cairo’s lone park, Al-Azhar, offers an escape from the intensity of the seething streets.

7 Replies to “Welcome to Cairo — Capital of the Arab World”

  1. Rick–
    Thank you for your time and attention to Egypt. I was in Cairo for a couple of weeks in 2010, right before the Arab Spring began to bloom there. I have fond memories and feel loosely connected to the stories of the uprising that followed. Will your travels take you to Garbage City on the outskirts of Cairo? I was so impressed with the work being done there and the Coptic worship spaces carved from the sandstone. The gift shop of the community working to better the lives of women was my favorite stop in all of Egypt, hands down. But I got the impression that guide books avoid the area? I stayed with local hosts, so didn’t get deeply invested in a guide book. Blessings on your work!

  2. My family and I lived in Alexandria, Egypt in the early 1980s, as I was working as an electrical engineer for an American consulting firm, that was in partnership with an Egyptian company, doing upgrades to the local electrical distribution system. We have so many fond memories of our living and my working experience in Egypt. We visited many of the tourist sites in Cairo and other parts of Egypt during our year and a half stay in Egypt. We found the Egyptian people to be gracious and friendly, very eager to learn, and always ready to laugh and tell stories, and to invite us into their homes. I enjoy your daily blogs, and I look forward to my wife and I returning to Egypt some day; hopefully, we may meet up with some of my former Egyptian co-workers and friends. Thank you for your daily reports, as they give us a view of what Cairo is like today.

  3. Welcome to Egypt! My husband and I have lived here since last May and have really enjoyed the opportunities to see the sights. While it is unfortunate that the tourist industry is down, for those who do come it is wonderful to see the sights without crowds.

    Security is a concern especially for women. Traveling by plane and pre-packages tours are the safest options; there have been issues with the trains. As in most Middle Eastern countries, dress is much more conservative. Shoulders and knees should be covered, probably elbows too, but that is tough in the heat of the summer. As a woman, you are likely to be approached, ogled, or heckled, especially blonds. Overtures that we would consider friendly in the US can be misinterpreted as something more sexual/romantic. You should always be aware of your surroundings, but the environment here is considerably different than Europe.

    After using your books extensively in Europe, I can say that your style of tour book will make a great reference for Egypt. Hopefully, it will be out before we leave.

  4. I went to Egypt (in a package tour with a small group) in 2004 and I adored it, though I found Cairo to be incredibly chaotic and almost overwhelming. I was very pleased that my hotel wasn’t in Cairo proper but rather in Giza, at the Mena House. Not only did I have a fantastic view of the pyramids from my hotel balcony but I was able to escape the pollution of Cairo proper.

    One travel tip I would definitely suggest is, if you are planning on visiting a lot of sites, definitely bring toilet paper with you. A lot of the public washrooms had no toilet paper in the stalls and the attendants would give you a little bit of it in exchange for a tip. (I don’t know if this has changed or not.) Also, the Khan-el-Khalili bazaar is a must see and I hope you’ll be visiting it soon. :)

    Keep the blogs coming, I’m loving them!

  5. Dear Rick, Were the Christians killed in the Cairo’s small riot killed because they were Christian? (as far as you can tell). Or for some other reason(s) ? Presumably those killed in Chicago at the same time did not perish because they were Christian. What I would really like to know is if those Christian numbers killed in Cairo represent a rising trend, a falling trend, or about the same.

    A exceedingly minor point: perhaps you meant to type Christian communities throughout the Islam world “lie low” rather than “lay low”.

    Wonderful blog!

  6. As with Rick’s daring trip into Iran it’s great to read about his visit to what most Americans now shy away from.

    I appreciate Rick and his intrepid crew (Simon and Karel this time?) giving us an insight into the current character of the country and its people.

    Rick’s Doppelganger

  7. Thank you for your honest reporting of your trip here in Egpyt. It is refreshing to read an unbiased blog about this country that I have adopted as my home. I am still discovering the wonders of Egpyt, all those off the beaten track wonders –which outside of Cairo, Luxor & Aswan —-everything else is off the beaten track.
    I live in the Sinai tourist Mecca of Sharm el Sheikh, however, the best places here are the ones that no one knows about and rarely get visited. We also feel far removed from whatever is going on in the rest of the country. We are the City of Peace, our Mosque and our Church stand next to each other.
    I look forward to your posts along the journey.

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