There is no shortage of places to visit in Cairo, a city that is very rich in religious history. Throughout the centuries, Judaism, Islam and Christianity have each made their mark on the city’s stunning architecture. You can easily spend at least one day exploring these sites as a tourist in Egypt.
Cairo has been labelled the city of 1000 minarets because of the many remarkable mosques throughout the city. Some are located just a few feet from each other. One of the most calming experiences I’ve ever had was hearing the call to prayer ring out over the city from the many mosques.
Citadel of Cairo
Salah Al-Deen the first Sultan of Egypt in 1171 AD began construction of a wall around the city to protect against invaders. The location of the citadel was chosen for its vantage point and housed the government for 700 years after its construction. Over the years the Citadel has had additions and been remodelled by subsequent rulers.
The Sultan Al-Nasir Muhammad in the 14th century commissioned a beautifully decorated mosque within the Citadel’s walls. When it was completed it was used by the sultan and his armed forces for daily prayer.
Muhammed Ali also built a mosque in the citadel that bears his name and is one of Cairo’s most famous landmarks. The alabaster mosque was constructed using some stones from the Pyramids of Giza.
The Citadel also houses the National Military Museum, the Police Museum, and several more museums dedicated to the palace of Muhammed Ali.
Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan
A gem from the Mamluk era, it is a mosque that near emptied Egypt’s great treasury. Located right near the citadel, it was built by the ruler Sultan Hassan and completed in 1363 AD. This grand mosque contains four iwans dedicated to teaching the four main beliefs of Sunni Islam. It is a very tranquil spot in the middle of the bustling city of Cairo. Our guide described this place as her personal quiet space, where she finds peace and clarity during trying moments of her life.
El Rifai Mosque
This mosque was constructed in two phases; phase one being 1869 AD to 1880 AD and phase two beginning in 1905 AD till 1911 AD. It lies opposite the Mosque of Sultan Hassan and contains the tombs of members of the Muhammed Ali family. Even if you visit this mosque solely for the purpose of viewing, it definitely won’t disappoint.
El Moez Street (a.k.a. Al Muizz Street)
El Moez Street stretches about 1 km and is also known as an “open air museum” for its long list of historical buildings and beautiful Islamic architecture. Stroll along this street and visit some oldest and largest mosques in Old Cairo such as El Hakem Mosque. Visit this street at night to witness the beauty of the illuminated buildings.
Though Egypt is primarily Muslim country, it has a Coptic Christian population of 10%. There are several monuments of biblical importance located in Old Cairo that are dedicated to the Christian faith. These monuments are nothing short of spectacular and educational.
Hanging Church (Al-Moallaqa)
This is the most famous and one of the oldest of all the Coptic Christian churches in Cairo. It gets its name because it was built over the southern gate of an ancient tower in the Fort of Babylon. It also has a wooden roof in the shape of Noah’s Ark. This church has 110 icons, the oldest being the Coptic Mona Lisa (a representation of The Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ and John the Baptist) from the 8th century.
Saint Sergius and Bacchus Church
This is a pretty interesting church for historical purposes. It is built over a cave where the Holy family of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus rested during their journey to Egypt. The holy family fled persecution from King Herod of Judea and his campaign of killing the firstborn child. Today, preserved artifacts such as a water well and foot stones used by the holy family can be seen in this church.
Jewish Synagogue of Ben Ezra
The Synagogue, initially a Coptic Christian church was sold to the Jews in 882 AD to get the necessary money to pay tax dues to Muslim rulers. The church was sold for 20,000 Dinars to Abraham Ben Ezra. This church, would come to be the source of a rich collection of abandoned Hebrew manuscripts that were discovered from the synagogue’s store room, during the 19th century . These documents are now studied and housed at the Cambridge University in England.
There’s a local folklore that this Synagogue is the site where pharaoh’s daughter found Baby Moses.
The Cave Church the Monastery of St. Simon the Tanner
The Monastery of St. Simon the Tanner (the Cave Church) is A Coptic Church established in 1975 and located in the Mokattam hills. Getting there requires passing through the “Garbage City” of Zabbaleen village. The people (the unofficial sanitation crew) living in this village, earn their keep by collecting, sorting and recycling the waste from the city of Cairo. The Church is carved in the rocks of the mountain and is a place of miracles.
It has a seating capacity for over 20,000 persons for its weekly Sunday worship. It’s the largest church in the Middle East… AMAZING!
After checking out all the religious history, there’s still more things to do in Cairo…
For 500 years the site of this park was a garbage dump. A project to convert it into the beautifully landscaped park it is today began in 1984 and it opened in 2005. Al-Azhar park offers spectacular views of the city, gardens, fountains, a playground, food carts and restaurants.
We had lunch at the Citadel View Studio Misr. The food was great but it was one of the more expensive meals I had in Cairo. The desserts were good with large portion sizes, that we were unable to finish.
This park is a very popular spot for locals and tourists to enjoy the scenery and atmosphere.
Khan El Khalili Bazaar
On our Cairo days we stayed at the Australian hostel, before taking a taxi we would always ask how much should it cost to our destination. So we got into non an English-speaking taxi driver’s car after some help from an English-speaking gentleman on the street. We agreed (the translator included) on a price of 15 EGP which was in range of what we were told by the hostel. On arrival Khan El Khalili the driver changed the price on to 50 EGP. He also started yelling and shouting words which we didn’t understand. Though, we did manage to decipher, “Harem”, which means “forbidden”. We still refused his price, but we did pay 30EGP.
This souq runs alongside El Moez Street and it dates back to the 14th century. Even if you have no interest in shopping, walking through the Khan El Khalili Bazaar is a wonderful experience. It’s something that you should do as long as you’re in Cairo. Some vendors can be quite aggressive (like the taxi driver) when you try to leave their store; one guy actually followed for a while trying to convince us to come back to his store. There isn’t anything to worry about, it’s all harmless. If you are not interested, a very firm “No” will do the job. The souq is quite large; it has many corridors filled with spices (I love the aroma of a spice market), perfume, sweets, foods, trinkets, clothes, rugs, lamps, souvenirs, jewelry, coffee shops, papyrus scrolls shisha and many other fine Egyptian crafts.
I did a bit of shopping at this souq. I tried to buy useful souvenirs for friends and family, however most people seemed to be interested in the purely decorative things, like miniature pyramids and genie lamps. There was also an impressive selection of perfume oils. I picked up a few bottles and to be quite honest, I don’t think that I’ll ever buy a commercial brand again. Be sure to shop around and negotiate your butt off to ensure you get the best deal. Don’t worry, they expect it!
Hope you enjoyed all the details on my trip to Egypt. Check out the Travel and Treatz Facebook page for more photos from religious Cairo.
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