Historic Cairo

Great centre of the Islamic World since the 10th century

Country: Egypt | Type: Cultural | Theme: ArabicIslamUrban Landscape 

Introduction to Historic Cairo

Historic Cairo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the heart of Egypt’s capital city. It is home to a rich collection of Islamic architecture, including the famous Al-Azhar Mosque, the Citadel of Saladin, and the Bahariya Oasis, which showcase the history and cultural significance of the Islamic Golden Age. The area also includes many well-preserved medieval streets and markets, as well as Coptic Christian landmarks such as the Hanging Church and the Church of St. George. Visitors can explore the history and culture of Egypt through a visit to this unique and fascinating area.

One of the easiest ways to become familiar with Historic Cairo is to take a guided tour, which covers many of the highlights of the historic center.  Many tours are offered throughout the city, including one of Old Cairo.  This tour begins opposite Rhoda Island, just at its southern tip.  It is important to note on this tour, however, that to enter Coptic and Islamic monuments, dress covering the body including the shoulders and the legs is required.

After beginning at Rhoda Island, the tour will travel south along the Nile River, first passing the Mosque of Abdin Bey.  Visitors will then enter the area of the city, sometimes called Coptic Cairo.  The entrance here consists of two towers that were once the western gate of the Roman fortress of Babylon; these two towers are some of the oldest structures in Cairo.

The first stop on the tour after this is the Coptic Museum, which was founded in 1908 and contains the largest collection of Coptic Christian artifacts in the world.  The museum is home to approximately 16,000 pieces of artwork in the form of stonework, ivory and bone carvings, metalwork, glass, terracotta and manuscripts.  There is much for visitors to see and learn from this museum.

If you continue along the guided tour, you will come to several churches including the Hanging Church.  This church was first build in the third or fourth century.  Its name comes from its location atop the south gate of the Babylon fortress.  During the 14th and 15th centuries, it was known as the “staircase church,” due to the more than two dozen stairs that lead to the entrance.

There are also many other churches and religious buildings that visitors may wish to see, including the Church of St. George and the Church of St. Sergius.  Visitors may also wish to see the Ben Ezra Synagogue, which some accounts say was constructed as early as the 9th century A.D.  The Mosque of Amr Ibn El-Aas, the oldest mosque ever to be constructed in the African continent, is a worth a visit as well.  It is not only of historical and religious significance, but also has an intriguing architectural structure.  It incorporates elements of both Greek and Roman buildings.

The origins of Cairo can be traced back to settlements that were established in the first millennium A.D.  During the 4th century, a fortress town, Babylon, was established along the Nile River.  The remnants of this fortress can still be found in Cairo today.  Later, the town of al-Fustat was founded in 641 by the commander of the Arabs who were responsible for bringing Islam to Egypt.  Subsequent leaders added to the prosperous port city.

It was not until 969 that Cairo was officially founded; however the settlements of Babylon and al-Fustat led up to that point.  By about 1340, about 500,000 people lived in the city and Cairo had become one of the greatest cities in Africa.  The university in the city, al-Azhar University, was the center of Islamic learning.

However, the city soon began to decline due to decrease in the spice trade and the coming of the Black Death.  By 1798, there were fewer than 300,000 people in the city.  Urban growth began to appear in the 1830s, with the city beginning to flourish again in the 20th century as suburbs were built and new attempts to improve transportation were underway.   Today, the population of the city is well over 6.5 million.

By train:

If visitors take the train into Cairo, they should disembark at Cairo’s main terminal, Ramses Train Station.

By air:

Cairo International Airport is located 20km northeast of the city, servicing international and domestic flights.  From the airport, visitors can a taxi to central Cairo or a bus to the Egyptian Museum in central Cairo.

Key Facts

Nearest City:Cairo
Coordinates: Lat: 30.05, Long: 31.2611


  • One of the oldest Islamic cities in the world
  • In its golden age, the city was the center of Islamic learning
  • Remains of the Babylon fortress can be seen within the city
  • Coptic Museum displays many Coptic Christian artifacts
  • Many historic churches in the historic center
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