Cairo: Places to Explore

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Islamic Cairo North

If the Mamluks hadn't stopped the Mongols' furious advance at Ain Djalout (Palestine) in AD 1260, Cairo, like Baghdad and scores of other towns, might have been left in rubble. As it is, Misr al Mahrousa—a popular appellation that translates as "Egypt the Protected"—offers one of the richest troves of Islamic architecture in the world. This is also because Cairo has been the capital of Islamic Egypt since its founding. Today the areas between Bab al-Futuh and Bab al-Nasr in the north and the Mosque of Amr in the south are still home to a rare concentration of buildings that represents a continuous, evolving architectural tradition.

Unfortunately, Islamic monuments don't attract as many visitors as pharaonic ones, and government funds for restoration haven't been so generous. A great many buildings were seriously damaged in the 1992 earthquake (some areas still lie in ruins), but much of the al-Azhar area has undergone a facelift since the start of the new millennium, and a visit to these historic neighborhoods should figure prominently on your agenda. A walk along these time-warped streets studded with monuments from different eras offers a rare taste of the extravagant beauty that once characterized the heart of the city. It is a visit to the past, light years away from the behemoth that modern Cairo has become.

You can get a very good feel for this area in a half day, depending on how long you spend at each of the attractions. Leave enough time for a break and shopping afterward, if you wish. You can spend hours in the Khan al-Khalili, depending on how much browsing and haggling interests you. Keep in mind that most of the shops are closed on Sunday. Friday before noon is also a quieter time in the neighborhood.

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