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Cairo - Attractions


Billboards for Egyptian films make a bold backdrop for this busy Cairo thoroughfare

Central Cairo

As the city's main square and focal point, Midan Tahrir is badly lacking in splendour. Still, most visitors end up spending a lot of time here because it's home to the Egyptian Museum and central to many hotels. Chief of these is the first modern hotel to be built in Cairo, the Nile Hilton. Although aged and surpassed in luxury and amenities by the countless five-star hotels built since, the hotel remains a vibrant favourite with locals for lunch and as a wedding venue. Nearby, the upper floor of the Ali Baba Cafeteria, near the American University in Cairo is a good place to watch the goings-on outside.

Northeast of Midan Tahrir, within the triangle of Tahrir, Midan Ramses and Midan Ataba, is Downtown. Centred on Midan Talaat Harb, Downtown is the noisy, busy unmistakeable commercial heart of Cairo. Its streets are packed with glitzy shops and above is a beehive of countless thousands of small, dusty businesses. Much grand architecture remains but the character of the area has changed considerably from its cosmopolitan, cafe-society heyday. Look up at the surviving architectural gems as you walk around to catch a glimpse of a far more elegant Paris-on-the-Nile-era Cairo. Imagine wide, tree-lined boulevards, tearooms, grand hotels and open-air cafes with dance bands.

Further out, the Manial Palace Museum, built in the early 20th century for an uncle of King Farouk's, has some wonderfully overblown interiors; a thoroughly overstocked Hunting Museum - animal lovers beware; and a private Throne Hall complete with red carpet, gilt furniture and ranked portraits of illustrious forebears. The magnificent garden, with its diverse variety of trees and plants, is the largest private garden in Cairo and well worth a visit.

Egyptian Museum

More than 100,000 antiquities from almost every period of ancient Egyptian history are housed in the Egyptian Museum. With so much to see, trying to get around everything in one go is liable to induce Pharaonic phatigue. The best strategy is to make a couple of visits. Without doubt, the exhibit that outshines everything else is the treasure of the young and comparatively insignificant New Kingdom pharaoh Tutankhamun - don't miss the astonishing solid-gold death mask.

Other highlights include the Royal Mummy Room; the Amarna Room, devoted to Akhenaten, the 'heretic king' portrayed with Mick Jagger-like lips; the Graeco-Roman Mummies; the glittering galleries in Room 2 that display an astounding array of finery extracted from New Kingdom tombs found at the Delta site of Tanis; and the larger-than-life-size statue of Khafre (Chephren), which many consider to be the museum's masterpiece.

Giza Pyramids

The Pyramids at Giza are the best known of the ancient pyramids. They are the sole survivors of the Seven Wonders of the World and the planet's oldest tourist attraction. Built by successive generations of pharaohs, they were already more than 2500 years old at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ. The wonder of the Pyramids lies in their age and in the twin mysteries of how they were built and what they were used for. Despite all the evidence, there are still those who refuse to accept that the ancient Egyptians were capable of such an astonishing achievement.

These amazing architectural accomplishments are part of a massive necropolis, or burial site, attached to the ancient capital of Memphis, 24km (15mi) south of Cairo, a city that predated the founding of Cairo by more than 3500 years. While there is nothing much left to see of Memphis itself, the monuments in which its dead kings and nobles were buried remain hugely impressive. The key sites to visit are Giza, closest to Cairo, and the day-trip sites of Abu Sir, Memphis, Saqqara and Dahshur.

The oldest pyramid at Giza and the largest in Egypt, the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) stood 146m (478ft) high when it was completed around 2600 BC. About 2.3 million limestone blocks, weighing around 2.5 tonnes each, were used in the construction of this giant. Although there is not much to see inside the pyramid, the experience of climbing through such an ancient structure is unforgettable. Along the eastern and southern sides of the pyramid are five long pits that once contained the pharaoh's boats. You can see one of the boats in the Solar Boat Museum.

Southwest of Khufu is the Pyramid of Khafre (Chephren). At first it seems larger than Khufu because it stands on higher ground and its peak still has part of the original limestone casing that once covered the entire structure. Check out the substantial remains of Khafre's mortuary temple outside to the east. At a height of 62m (203ft), the Pyramid of Menkaure (Mycerinus) is the smallest of the three pyramids. A deep gash in the north face is the result of an unsuccessful attempt by a caliph to dismantle the pyramid in 1186.

Known in Arabic as Abu al-Hol (Father of Terror), the Sphinx is carved from the natural bedrock at the bottom of the causeway to Khafre's pyramid. Recent geological and archaelogical survey has shown that the Sphinx most likely dates from Khafre's reign, and probably portrays his features, framed by the striped nemes headcloth worn only by royal personages. Unfortunately the monument is suffering the stone equivalent of cancer, and recent restoration attempts have sped up, rather than halted, the decay. The cheesy sound and light show held near the Sphinx is a painless, albeit pricey, way to see the Pyramids by starlight.

The most comfy way of getting to the Pyramids is the air-con bus that runs from Heliopolis via Midan Tahrir, where it picks up passengers from beside the Egyptian Museum.

Heliopolis

This suburb of Cairo was conceived as an exclusive 'garden city' in the desert, intended to house the European officials who ruled Egypt, although it also attracted the Egyptian upper classes. Construction on a desert site northeast of Cairo began in 1906, using an odd European-Moorish architectural style - a European fantasy of the Orient set in stone. In the 1950s, however, overcrowding in Cairo caught up with this not-so-distant neighbour and the former desert barrier was breached by a creeping tide of middle-income high-rises. Ranks of apartment buildings festooned with satellite TV dishes now greatly outnumber the graceful old villas, but Heliopolis remains an upmarket address: the president resides here, as do most of his ministers and the odd deposed head of an African state.

While there are few must-see sights in this elegantly faded suburb, the area is a great place to stroll free from the crowds of Downtown. It's at its best around dusk, when pinkening skies add atmosphere and bats start to flit between the trees. The suburb's most extraordinary sight is the Baron's Palace (Qasr al-Baron). The personal residence of Baron Empain, it was modelled - for no known reason - on the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

Other highlights include the Basilica, a miniature version of Istanbul's famous Aya Sofia, and Sharia Ibrahim Laqqany, lined with fantastical architecture. The best way to get to Heliopolis is the airport bus (No 356), which can be caught behind the Egyptian Museum in Midan Abdel Moniem Riad.

Islamic Cairo

World Heritage-listed Islamic Cairo is the old medieval metropolis, stretching from the northern walls and gates of Al-Qahira down to Fustat in the south. Unchanged over the centuries, the neighbourhood is a maze of narrow, twisting alleyways lined with splendid mosques and medieval facades. Vans compete for right of way with donkeys and carts, and boys with impossibly laden barrows. Remember to dress appropriately if you're planning to take in some mosques, and take your shoes off before entering prayer halls. Most mosques are closed to visitors during prayer times.

By far the best place to enter Islamic Cairo is the great bazar, Khan al-Khalili. Jaundiced travellers glibly dismiss this as a tourist trap, but Cairenes have plied their trades here since the 14th century and it's possible to find almost anything for sale. From the bazar, head north up the side of the Mosque of Sayyidna al-Hussein, one of the most sacred Islamic sites in Egypt, toward the old northern gates. The square-towered Bab an-Nasr (Gate of Victory) and the rounded Bab al-Futuh (Gate of Conquests) were built in 1087 as the two main northern entrances to the new, walled Fatimid city.

South of Khan al-Khalili, a busy market street runs down to the twin-minareted gate of Bab Zuweila, the sole surviving gate from the old city's southern wall. The view from the minarets is one of Cairo's best - access is through the Mosque of Al-Muayyad. Continuing south from Bab Zuweila, you pass through the Street of the Tentmakers, Cairo's only remaining medieval covered bazar, filled with artisans specialising in applique work and ceremonial tents. You emerge in a large square dominated by the 1356 Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan and the more modern Mosque of Ar-Rifai.

Other highlights of Islamic Cairo within easy walking distance include the Citadel, home to Egypt's rulers for 700 years, whose impressive fortifications offer superb panoramas of the city. The nearby Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan is the finest piece of Mamluk architecture in Cairo, while the Madrassa and Mausoleum of Qalaun is one of the most lavishly decorated Mamluk interiors. The Northern Cemetery, where the city's homeless squat cheek to jowl with the city's dead in mausoleums, is home to the Mosque of Qaitbey, whose exquisitely carved dome is a must-see. The Southern Cemetery hosts the rococo Haush al-Basha tomb complex, a riot of decidedly non-funerary color. There's also the Museum of Islamic Art, which has one of the world's finest collections of Islamic applied art. James Bond fans may recognise the Orientalist fantasy Gayer-Anderson Museum, the only fully furnished medieval house in the city, from The Spy Who Loved Me.

Old Cairo

Once known as Babylon, this ancient part of Cairo predates the coming of Islam and is the seat of the Coptic Christian community. The area's heartland is a small, tightly walled compound known as Coptic Cairo. Once hosting more than 20 churches within less than a square kilometer, this number is now down to five. It remains a haven of tranquility, although there won't be much peace until reconstruction work to halt damage from rising groundwater ends in 2002; currently many monuments are in disarray. Pick of the crop is the Coptic Museum, which houses Coptic art from Graeco-Roman times to the Islamic era. Also worth a visit are the Al-Muallaqa (Hanging Church) and St Sergius church, on whose site the Holy Family are reputed to have sought shelter in a cave during their Flight into Egypt.

Old Cairo is also home to the city's remaining Jewish population. The area's Ben Ezra Synagogue, Egypt's oldest, is said to be where the prophet Jeremiah gathered the Jews after they fled from Nebuchadnezzar, destroyer of their Jerusalem temple. There is also a spring which is supposed to mark the place where the pharaoh's daughter found Moses in the reeds, and where Mary drew water to wash the baby Jesus. The easiest way to get to Old Cairo from Midan Tahrir is via the Mar Girgis metro station.



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