In terms of Egypt’s history, Cairo is a relatively modern capital, founded in AD 969 by the Islamic Fatimid dynasty over the ruins of earlier Roman and Islamic settlements. Much of the Fatimid city remains today: the great mosque and university of Al-Azhar are still important Islamic resource centres, while the gates of Bab an-Nasr, Bab al-Futuh and Bab Zuweila straddle the city’s main thoroughfares.
Despite spilling beyond its walls, Cairo remained a medieval city at heart for 900 years. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that it started to change significantly.
Before the 1860s, Cairo extended west as far as what is today Midan Opera, surrounded by a swampy plain flooded annually by the Nile. In 1863 French-educated Ismail came to power, inviting architects from Europe to design a modern Cairo beside the old Islamic city. The building boom set in place continues today, with the city’s boundaries constantly expanding into the surrounding desert.
Although the pyramids are now almost engulfed by the city, they more properly belong to the capital of ancient Egypt at Memphis, 22km to the south.