One Week in Cairo

Here’s a thing I didn’t know: Cairo is named after the planet Mars.

In Arabic, Mars is called al-Najm al-Qahir, “The Conquering Star.” Mars was rising when the Fatimid dynasty founded the city in 969 CE, so they named it Al-Qahirah (The Conqueror or The Victorious). Neat, right? Naturally, when the Europeans breezed through they couldn’t pronounce it correctly it’s been Cairo ever since. So it goes.

Cairo does not lack for excitement. The day we arrived someone found a giant sculpture of a pharaoh buried under a neighborhood slum, and the day we left they were already putting it on display at the Museum of Egypt. Over the course of the week there were inexplicable five second firework shows and lots of requests for pictures with us tourists and we were reduced to using the locals as human shields in order to cross the street (i.e., we followed people into five lanes of oncoming traffic and hoped for the best).

Cairo is a wild ride.

Here are some of our favorite stops:

Old Cairo
We spent a half day wandering around the old city center. It was both a blessing and a curse that we did so on a Friday. Most of the locals were attending Friday Prayer, which left the streets and the sites mostly empty for us to explore, but it also meant that the restaurants were closed, so finding lunch was a bit of a challenge. (I am prone to getting hangry.)

The view from the top of the Al-Ghouri Mosque. The city is alive with people, but many of the buildings are crumbling. Photo by Ryan.

There is excellent people-watching in this area of Cairo if you can bear the crowds (after prayers were over they were all out it force again). It was our first day in a new country so we were shy about taking pictures of people, but the marketplace teems.

At one point we were stopped by a group of students from the American University of Cairo. More specifically, their teacher stopped us and asked if his students could interview us as they needed practice speaking English. We were delighted to do so. I’m a little sad we didn’t ask to get a picture with them. And looking back on it I think we should have hung out with them a little longer. They needed the practice and we did most of the talking.

For as busy as the area is, the attractions are fairly close together. We would plunge into the bustling fray of people, waving at the ones who shouted, “Welcome to Egypt!” as we passed by, and a few hundred meters later we’d be surrounded by silence and beauty.

Intricate and beautiful artistry of the Mausoleum of An Nasir Mohammad. He and his army are revered for ending the Christian Crusader domination of the city in 1290. But it’s his mother and son who are buried here. Photo by Tricia.
The last man standing at Friday prayers takes advantage of the eastern light. Photo by Ryan.
Not quite in the old Islamic quarter, but an easy-ish walk took us to the Northern Cemetery. This place is better known as the modern City of the Dead. People live in the old abandoned tombs. No kidding. There are power lines and a post office. Photo by Ryan.

Coptic Cairo
The city is also home to the oldest church, mosque, and synagogue in all of Egypt. There’s an extra layer or two of security to get into these sites, since there’s been some, uh, tension between the three religions for the last couple of thousands of years. But once you’ve gone through the metal detector and submitted your bags to a thorough inspection it’s all peace and tranquility.

Pictures were strictly prohibited in the Ben Ezra Synagogue, which sits just outside the old Coptic walls. It was a beautiful place. I grabbed the below from a tourist site just to give a sense for the place. Rumor has it that this is where baby Moses was found. It used to be a Coptic church, but was sold in order to pay for a tax imposed by the Islamic authorities. Apparently non-Islamic faiths were free to practice their religion, but they had to pay an extra tax for the privilege. A group of Jews were able to pull together enough money to prevent its destruction and they turned it into a synagogue.

Interior of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, the oldest in all of Egypt, sits on the ground where some say baby Moses was found. Photo via.

The old Mosque of Amr ibn al-As quite serene and larger than we were expecting. It’s the first mosque built in Egypt, and in fact in all of Africa. Originally built in 641 CE, it’s been restored so many times that nothing remains of the original bricks. There were a few people praying when we arrived so we erred on the side of caution and avoided taking pictures. The below is pulled from the always generous Internet.

Interior of the Amr ibn al-As mosque. Photo via.

The Coptic churches were just as fascinating, especially the Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus, the oldest inside the Coptic walls. This church was built on top of a cave that locals say was where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus hid during their flight to Egypt. There is a staircase to the left and right of the main altar that leads to the cave, and signage that points to where baby Jesus slept as well as the “original stone which Jesus’ holy family walked on.”

Interior of the Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus. Photo by Tricia.

The Coptic Museum was a favorite stop for both of us. Plenty of great textiles and old books, it houses some of the earliest Christian artifacts. We spent a good two hours roaming the halls here. The Nag Hammadi manuscripts are here, as is the oldest book of Psalms in the world. All are behind streaked glass, which made photographing them impossible. The museum is also a favorite for art classes. In a world that seems complicated to the point of absurdity, seeing groups of kids sitting together and learning to draw beautiful things filled me with joy.

Art students at the Coptic Museum in Cairo. Photo by Tricia.

The Egyptian Museum
Finally we make it to the really old stuff. It was worth the two visits we made here. The place is a treasure trove. We’re convinced that eighty percent of the museum’s  100,000+ artifacts haven’t been dusted since the place opened in 1902, but that only adds to the ambiance. It feels like being in the back rooms of an archaeology warehouse.

Interior of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Photo by Ryan.

The museum is located in Tahrir Square so during the 2011 revolution it was an easy target for thieves who tried to take advantage of the disruption. Citizens formed a human chain around the museum to prevent the thieves from escaping. The thieves were caught and only a few items were damaged. A fine ending to what could have been a tragic story.

There are some truly remarkable pieces on display here. Ancient artistry was exquisite.

This miraculous statue is of the scribe Ka-Aper. It is carved from sycamore, which was sacred to the goddess Hathor. The eyes are set in copper lids, with quartz for the whites, and rock crystal used for the corneas. I’ve never seen such a lifelike statue before, and it’s almost 5,000 years old. Photo by Tricia.
This is a small section from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. There are dozens of these scrolls in the museum. Rolled out fully they span the full length of the room (some are 78 feet long). Photo by Ryan.
Partial image of the stella depicting King Akhenaten making an offering to the god Aten. The coloring is still hanging in there. Photo by Ryan.

We both took a ton more pictures, but these were the artifacts that stood out for us. They stood out, that is, until we got into the King Tut rooms. Photos are forbidden in the room that houses the mask, jewelry, and coffins. This means you’ll have to go to see these things for yourself. Take my word for it – it’s worth it. There was a lot of amazing stuff in that kid’s tomb. All the National Geographic specials just keep focusing on the mask (which is STAGGERINGLY BEAUTIFUL), but they’ve also got, well, everything else.

Vase, boat, and cosmetic jar all carved from alabaster. These were found in King Tut’s tomb. Photo by Tricia.
Alabaster canopic jars, aka the elegantly packaged viscera of King Tut. Photo by Ryan.

This post is already too long so I’ll save the pyramids for the next post. This was a deeply eye opening trip. I’m exhausted from all the walking around we did, but so grateful we came here.


  1. I’ve enjoyed the details of all your travels, but none have evoked such feelings of jealousy as your traipse through Cairo. I want, I want, I want so badly to go there – and have for decades! I am going to go someday. Maybe next time I’m planning on a trip to Tunisia I will have to make a stop? Thank you for sharing your travels, Tricia [and Ryan] – I am enjoying them very much. : ]


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