The Many Wonders of Salah El-Din Citadel
Dripping with history and beauty, the Salah El-Din Citadel (or Cairo Citadel) is not only a critical component of Cairo’s history but one with as much visual splendor as anywhere else in the city. A 12th-century fortress built by Saladin (also sometimes called Salah El-Din), the series of buildings take visitors back to a crucial period of Cairo’s development, simultaneously offering some of the best views in the city thanks to their high pitch on the Mokattam Hill. One of the most popular things to do is to scale to the top for a panoramic glimpse of the region, with clear days offering views all the way to the Giza Pyramids just beyond Cairo’s modern cityscape.
Inside the Citadel is also a treasure trove of different landmarks, including the very famous Mosque of Muhammad Ali. Built in the first half of the 19th century, the Ottoman-styled mosque dazzles both inside and out, complete with its iconic dome, skyscraping Turkish minarets, and vintage clock tower that hovers over an alabaster-covered courtyard. With its apparent beauty and historical importance, the Muhammad Ali Mosque is one of the most popular spots in Cairo for a reason.
Outside of the mosque, there is no shortage of other features worth your time either, like the Al-Gawhara Palace that Ali built for his wife. There are also a series of other smaller mosques, museums, and sites of intrigue bundled within the medieval complex, and it’s large enough to spend an entire day absorbing the many features that have made it a UNESCO World Heritage Site since the 1970s.
The ancient roots of Coptic Cairo
You don’t have to be particularly religious to feel a connection to Coptic Cairo, where longstanding traditions, ancient architecture, and ancient folklore blend into a magnificent gathering spot for visitors. At Amr Ibn al-Aas, you can inspect the oldest mosque in Africa while down the street, within the ancient Babylon Fortress, sites like the Hanging Church and the Church of St. George are emblems of Christianity’s ancient roots. The Babylonian Fortress area of Coptic Cairo has also been a spot of strategic importance for millennia, dating back to its days as a crucial dividing point (and tolling station) between Lower and Middle Egypt. The Ben Ezra Synagogue, meanwhile, is whispered to be built on the spot where the pharaoh’s daughter brought Moses after scooping him out of the Nile, bringing an aura of ancient mystery to one of the newer constructions of Coptic Cairo.
Though knowing the context of Coptic Cairo will help you fully grasp the area’s appeal, it’s also a bustling and interesting experience in itself. The alleys in between the ancient stone buildings are loaded with vendors showcasing unique artwork and artefacts, giving visitors a glimpse of modern Cairo seamlessly blended into the oldest part of the city. You can easily spend a morning – or an entire day – wandering through the eternal network of religious sites and fascinating buildings, which collectively provide a blueprint to how the city itself developed out of the ancient world.
Start or end your journey at the Egyptian Museum
Chances are you’re at least moderately interested in the annals of history if you picked Cairo as a destination, which is why skipping the Egyptian Museum can be an epic mistake. Centrally located near the Sadat metro station, the museum is an ideal companion piece to a journey into the region’s past, complete with a King Tut exhibit that showcases the boy king’s iconic gold mask – one of the most famous artifacts of history. The ancient jewelry exhibit is also one of the most spectacular in the world and the sprawling museum is absolutely loaded with fascinating objects both small and large, transporting visitors to the mysterious world of the ancient Egyptians.
Though the King Tut exhibit is clearly the mainstay, there are some other popular main exhibits as well, including a mummy room that will provide detailed insight into a lost world that is equal measures enchanting and eerie. Although you have to pay a little bit extra to check out the mummy room, it’s a small price to pay for ancient Egypt enthusiasts. While a trip to the museum before heading to the pyramids will set the tone and help you appreciate the land’s most famous sites, the museum is also is an ideal swan song to wrap up an unforgettable journey.
Although the museum is a must-see for pyramid-gazers, a little planning is required to have the best experience. Because there is no air conditioning, it’s highly recommended to arrive close to its 9:00 a.m. opening and visitors should be ready to pay a few extra bucks to be able to take photos inside (it’s completely worth it). The museum is also in its final stages of prominence, as the massive and long-awaited opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum in late-2018 at the edge of the Giza plateau will take over the main exhibits. Whether you make it to the old Egyptian Museum or the new one, however, taking a day to wander through time at one of the region’s state-of-the-art museums is one of the best ways to get in tune with the area’s famous ancestors.
Other archeological sites to consider
A city like Cairo and its neighboring regions have more than enough sightseeing to justify an extended holiday. For those with a little extra time, a trip south of the city to the pyramids of Dahshur can be a terrific day trip, taking visitors to a world often forgotten due to their infinitely more famous cousins in Giza. Although not as visually striking as the Giza pyramids, the Dahshur monuments (e.g. the Black Pyramid, Red Pyramid, and Bent Pyramid) all have a fascinating story of their own and the crowds are dramatically lighter.
Also just south of Cairo, Saqqara is worthy of an excursion as well, as the famous necropolis is where you can find the Step Pyramid of Djoser, ancient healing temples, and a wide range of different Egyptian statues and artifacts. Both Saqqara and Dahshur are very easily accessed from central Cairo via either bus, taxi, or a guided tour.
When traveling to Cairo, however, it’s also critical to take into consideration both the weather and the city’s regular schedule. Between June and September, you can expect intense sun and heat, making it crucially important to get going as early as possible to maximize your comfort at Cairo’s most popular sites. Being a Muslim-dominant city, many of the city’s greatest features (e.g. the Muhammad Ali Mosque) are closed on Fridays and have limited hours during high holidays like Ramadan. But with a little research and a plan, Cairo remains one of the world’s most fascinating cities and a must-see for anyone awed and inspired by the forever-evolving pages of history.