Cairo’s sights are spread all over the city, so it makes sense to do things in one area before moving on to the next – but don’t try to cram too much into one day, or you’ll soon be overwhelmed. The awe-inspiring but cluttered Egyptian Museum requires at least half a day, and ideally two or three shorter visits. Khan Al Khalili and most of the medieval monuments are in Islamic Cairo, and you’ll need a full day or several visits at different times of the day. Definitely allow a few hours of aimless wandering in this area (even if it comes at the expense of ‘proper’ sightseeing), as the back lanes give the truest sense of the city.
The Pyramids of Giza can be visited in four or five hours, but with the 10km trip to the edge of the city and back, it’s inevitably a full-day outing. Coptic Cairo can be toured in a morning – made especially easy by metro access – and you’ll likely soak up Downtown’s atmosphere just by going to and from your hotel, or by hanging out there in the evenings.
Though the Egyptian Museum is found here, the part of town between Midan Ramses and Midan Tahrir, which locals call Wust Al Balad, is better known for its practical offerings: budget hotels, plenty of restaurants, cultural venues and a dazzling stream of shop window displays. (Don’t rely on that shoe store/lingerie shop/prosthetic-limbs dealer as a landmark – there’s another one just a block away.) Occasionally try to look away from the traffic and fluorescent-lit shops and up at the dust-caked but elegant Empire-style office and apartment buildings that drip faded glamour (or is that an air-conditioner leaking?). It’s a wonderful part of town to explore – just be prepared for sensory overload and loads of perfume-shop touts.
Cairo’s art scene is more active and diverse than ever, and much of the action is Downtown. In addition to these arts spaces, the city’s cultural centres often mount interesting shows, and Darb 1718 is worth a trip.
Cairo Atelier Off Sharia Mahmoud Bassiouni, as much a clubhouse as an exhibition space.
Contemporary Image Collective Often hosts excellent temporary art and photography exhibitions documenting Egyptian life, plus film and photo workshops.
Mashrabia Gallery A bit cramped but represents the bigger names in painting and sculpture.
Studio Emad Eddin Rehearsal and workshop space for performing artists; sometimes stages events and workshops.
Townhouse Gallery Cairo’s most cutting-edge space, set amid car-repair shops, has launched many Egyptian artists. There's a regular program of temporary exhibitions, along with events, seminars and performances.
Tahrir Square ('tahrir' means liberation) has been the heart of Cairo for more than a century. Laid out in the 1860s, at the same time as the building of the Suez Canal, it was originally known as Ismailia Sq after the khedive (or ruler) of the time. The Egyptian army built a sizeable barracks between the square and the Nile, occupied by British troops after their 1882 invasion; the Egyptian Museum was opened in 1902 and the American University in Cairo (AUC) in 1920. The square had been renamed Tahrir by the time of the 1952 revolution, when the barracks were replaced by the Nile Hilton (now the Ritz-Carlton), ensuring that it remained one of the city’s social hubs. The square took on political significance when it became the focus of massive protests against President Mubarak, famously those that started on 25 January 2011, and against President Morsi in June 2013, both of which ended in regime change.
The 2011 uprising against President Mubarak was referred to as the Facebook revolution, but it was also the graffiti revolution. Street art was known in Egypt, but it had not been used for social protest before. One message painted in Tahrir in 2011 read ‘don’t be afraid – it’s only street art’, but the authorities had reason to be afraid: graffiti became a key medium for expressing dissent, especially from the time of the so-called 'Mad Graffiti Weekend' in May 2011. Among the most potent images was one, on a street blocked by the security forces, which showed the street as it looked before being blocked.
Graffiti is still a popular way to express dissent against the government, but the authorities are now quick to take action and most street art is quickly painted over. Because of the clampdown, only a few vestiges cling on Downtown, mostly along Sharia Mohammed Mahmoud. On a completely different scale, French-Tunisian artist eL Seed created a swirling calligraphy mural spanning 50 buildings in the district of Manshiyet Nasr in 2016.
The northern gateway into central Cairo, Midan Ramses is a byword for bedlam. The city’s main north–south access collides with overpasses and arterial roads to swamp the square with an unchoreographed slew of vehicles. Commuters swarming from the train station add to the melee.
The eponymous Ramses, a multistorey Pharaonic colossus of red granite, stood on Midan Ramses, amid the traffic, until 2006, when he was removed, with much complex machinery, road closures and some emotion. He now stands swaddled in plastic wrap on the edge of the desert north of the city, waiting to stand sentry at the yet-to-be-opened Grand Egyptian Museum, no doubt missing his old view over the action.
Garden City & Roda
Garden City was developed in the early 1900s along the lines of an English garden suburb. Its curving, tree-lined streets were designed for tranquillity, while its proximity to the British embassy was no doubt intended to convey security. Many of the enclave’s elegant villas have fallen prey to quick-buck developers, but enough grand architecture and lush trees survive to make a wander through the streets worthwhile – at sunset, the air of faded romance is palpable.
The island of Roda is quiet, its banks lined with plant nurseries. If you’re very dedicated, you could walk all the way from Downtown to Coptic Cairo (5 km) via Garden City and Roda (2 km). From Midan Talaat Harb to Manial Palace (2.8 km) is about 40 minutes.
A maze of ancient and modern churches and monasteries, set within the walls of the fortress of Babylon founded in 6th century BC and expanded by the Roman Emperor Trajan in AD 98, Coptic Cairo is a fascinating counterpoint to the rest of the city, and holds the beautiful Coptic Museum. You can visit the oldest church, the oldest mosque and the oldest synagogue in Cairo, while nearby is the newly opened (but rather bare of exhibits and still unfinished at the time of research) National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation.
There are four entrances to the Coptic compound. The main gate in the centre of Sharia Mar Girgis (directly opposite the metro exit) is for the Coptic Museum. Just to the south, another doorway leads to the Hanging Church, while to the north is the entrance into the Church of St George. On the street outside, a sunken staircase gives access to a section of narrow cobbled alleyways leading to the other churches and the synagogue. At one time there were more than 20 churches clustered within less than 1 sq km.
Practical Tip: Coptic Cairo Practicalities
- Mar Girgis metro station is directly in front of the compound.
- Visitors must have shoulders and knees covered to enter churches or mosques.
- Churches celebrate Mass on Sunday, and some on Friday as well.
- Bring small change for church donation boxes.
- A few basic cafes, with toilets, are scattered among the churches. There are also toilets at the Coptic Museum and the Hanging Church.
- For cheap street snacks, cross the metro tracks to the west side.
- Check out the website of nearby art centre Darb 1718 for listings of events, and seek out Souq Al Fustat for contemporary local craft shopping.
Despite the number of minarets on the skyline in this part of the city, ‘Islamic’ Cairo is a bit of a misnomer, as this area is not significantly more religious than other districts. But for many centuries it was one of the power centres of an Islamic empire, and its monuments are some of the most significant architecture inspired by Islam. Today it is still a more traditional part of town, the galabeya (men’s full-length robes) still outnumber jeans; buildings and crowds press closer, and the din comes less from car traffic and more from the cries of street vendors and the clang of small workshops. Here the streets are a warren of blind alleys, and it’s easy to lose not just a sense of direction but also a sense of time.
An ambitious restoration program is making over monuments as well as streets and everyday buildings, with fresh paint and turned-wood window screens. Return visitors may be shocked by the extent of change. Although many projects came to a standstill with the downfall of President Mubarak, renovations have revved up again so do expect a smattering of wooden-scaffolding-covered facades. The changes have, for the most part, greatly benefited residents. Vast Al Azhar Park, once an enormous rubbish heap, is hard to argue with as an improvement.
Islamic Cairo: Planning a Walk
The district is quite large and packed with notable buildings, so we’ve subdivided it into several smaller areas:
Midan Al Hussein & Around Includes Khan Al Khalili, the northern section of Sharia Al Muizz Li Din Allah (known as Bein Al Qasreen) and the northern walls and gates.
Al Azhar to the Citadel Monuments on the south side of Sharia Al Azhar, such as the Al Ghouri buildings and Bab Zuweila.
Darb Al Ahmar Between the street of the same name and Al Azhar Park.
Citadel to Ibn Tulun The hillside fortress compound, plus the mosques of Sultan Hassan and Ibn Tulun.
Northern Cemetery East of the ring road, including the best Mamluk dome.
Each area is good for a half-day wander, and ideally you’ll visit several times, perhaps once on a weekday to feel the throb of commerce and again on a Friday morning, or on Sunday when most shops are shut and it’s easier to admire architectural details.
There are many more medieval buildings than we can identify here. For more detail, pick up the guide-maps published by the Society for Preservation of the Architectural Resources of Egypt (SPARE), on sale at the AUC Bookshop.
There are several good approaches. One is to come on foot from Downtown, so you can see the transition from the modern city; from Midan Ataba, bear east on the market street of Sharia Al Muski. (To bypass this and cut straight to Khan Al Khalili, hail a taxi and ask for ‘Al Hussein’ or hop on a microbus at Ataba.) The Bab Al Shaaria metro stop deposits you on the northwest edge of the medieval city – walk due east on Sharia Emir Al Guyush Al Gawani, and you’ll reach the northern stretch of Sharia Al Muizz Li Din Allah.
Another strategy is to start at Al Azhar Park, where you get a good view over the district, then exit through the downhill park gate and head north through Darb Al Ahmar.
Al Azhar to the Citadel
South of Sharia Al Azhar, Sharia Al Muizz Li Din Allah continues as a market street 400m down to the twin-minareted gate of Bab Zuweila. From here, you can carry on south through Sharia Al Khayamiyya another 30 minutes to Midan Salah Ad Din and the Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan. Or turn west on Darb Al Ahmar to head directly to the Museum of Islamic Art.
Darb Al Ahmar
In its heyday in the 14th and 15th centuries, Darb Al Ahmar (‘Red Road’) and neighbouring alleys and cul-de-sacs had a population of about 250,000, and the district is still nearly as dense. It is also dense with historic monuments, most from the late Mamluk era, as the city expanded outside the Fatimid gates. As part of the Al Azhar Park project, this neighbourhood has in parts been beautifully restored, along with various social programs to boost income in this long-poor area. It’s a fascinating jumble and rewarding for an aimless wander. The historic street itself is now known as Ahmad Mahir Pasha on the north end and At Tabana on its southern stretch.
Citadel to Ibn Tulun
South of Darb Al Ahmar, the late-Ottoman-era Citadel complex watches over the city. At its base, on Midan Salah Ad Din and along Sharia Al Saliba, is another important historic quarter, with two of Cairo’s largest mosques, plus several other smaller monuments (many closed) which have interesting facades to admire as you wander through. Although restoration works have started, in contrast with historic quarters further north this area has yet to see much revitalisation.
Worth a Trip: A Walk through Al Khalifa
A short walk south from the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, the district of Al Khalifa (also known as Al Mashahed) retains an authentic if downtrodden atmosphere, packed with markets and workshops. This is where the important descendants of Prophet Mohammed have their shrines and the moulids (religious festivals) of the people buried here are still celebrated some time before Ramadan.
Over the past few years a project, funded by the US and carried out by heritage conservation initiative Athar Lina (www.atharlina.com) has restored several of the sites along the main thoroughfare of Sharia Al Khalifa. Although lacking the regal bling of Islamic Cairo's many Mamluk buildings, these modest monuments are important as surviving architectural examples of the Fatimid era.
The twin-domed Shrines of Sayyida Atika & Mohammed Al Gaafari, the prophet's aunt and one of his descendants respectively, date from the mid-12th century. The fluted dome that tops Sayyida Atika's shrine is thought to be the earliest surviving example of that style in Cairo. Just to the south, is the larger Shrine of Sayyida Ruqayya, the prophet's granddaughter. Inside, the stucco mihrab (niche in mosque indicating direction of Mecca) has been painstakingly restored. Directly across the road is the Mausoleum of Shagaret Al Durr, wife of Sultan Ayyub, and, after his death, Egypt's first Islamic era female ruler. Shagaret Al Durr's body was never interred here though as she was murdered after only 80 days of rule – one story has it that her assassins slapped her to her death using hammam slippers – and her body thrown from the Citadel walls to be eaten by Cairo's wild dogs. The interior of the dome has rare blue-green painted geometric decoration.
The Northern Cemetery is half of a vast necropolis called Al Qarafa or, more common among tourists, the City of the Dead. The titillating name conjures a vision of morbid slums, of tomb structures bursting with living families. But the area is more ‘town’ than ‘shanty’, complete with power lines, a post office and multistorey buildings. Thanks to a near complete absence of cars, it’s also a fairly peaceful part of the city, with a friendly neighbourhood feel and some flawless Mamluk monuments.
The easiest way to the Northern Cemetery is walking east from Midan Al Hussein along Sharia Al Azhar. At Sharia Salah Salem, cross via the overpass. In addition to the three main monuments, several others have been well restored, but are not reliably open.
The City of the Dead
Some estimates put the number of living Cairenes in the Northern and Southern Cemeteries at half a million; others, perhaps more realistic, guess only 50,000. As Max Rodenbeck notes in Cairo: The City Victorious, some of the tomb dwellers, especially the paid guardians and their families, have lived here for generations. Others have moved in more recently – there was a spike in 1992, following the earthquake that flattened cheaply built high-rises, and others may have opted for a more central Qarafa home over forced relocation to a bleak low-income suburb. On Fridays and public holidays, visitors flock here to picnic and pay their respects to the dead – a lively time to visit.
The cemetery first appealed to Mamluk sultans and emirs because it afforded ample building space. The vast mausoleums they built were more than just tombs; they were also meant as places for entertaining – a continuation of the Pharaonic tradition of picnicking among the graves. Even the humblest family tombs included a room for overnight visitors. The dead hoped they would be remembered; the city’s homeless thanked them for free accommodation. This coexistence of the living and the dead was happening as far back as the 14th century, though these days in some tomb-houses, cenotaphs serve as tables and washing is strung between headstones.
Practical Tip: Visiting Islamic Cairo
- Appropriate dress is not just polite but necessary if you want to enter mosques; legs and shoulders must be covered. Wear sturdy shoes that can be easily slipped off.
- Caretakers are usually around from 9am until early evening. Mosques are often closed to visitors during prayer times.
- Bring small change to tip caretakers at mosques – a bit of baksheesh for looking after shoes, pointing out details or climbing a minaret is typical. But be firm and don’t pay more than you wish.
- With the exception of Sultan Hassan and Ar Rifai, all mosques are free to enter, but some caretakers will claim an admission fee. If you’re not sure, ask if there is a ticket (‘fee taz-kar-a?’) and politely refuse payment if there is none.
- In ticketed monuments, some guards will attempt to resell a previous visitor’s ticket (cadged by another guard inside, assuring the visitor it’s ‘normal’ to hand it over). If it is not torn out of the book in front of you, it’s reused.
- Some caretakers have even claimed guidebooks aren’t permitted in mosques, to prevent you from reading these very warnings.
Practical Tip: To & From the Citadel
Walking to the Citadel from Midan Ataba is feasible, but long: to the Citadel’s entrance gate, it’s almost 4km through the furniture and musical-instruments districts along Sharia Al Qala’a and its continuation, Sharia Mohammed Ali. At Midan Salah Ad Din, walk along Sharia Sayyida Aisha to Sharia Salah Salem, where you turn left to reach the main gate. Alternatively, minibus 150, LE2, runs from Midan Ataba to Midan Salah Ad Din and then along Sharia Sayyida Aisha, although it's still a 15-minute walk to the entrance. Taking a taxi is only marginally quicker due to the complicated traffic flow on Salah Salem.
Leaving the Citadel, if you want to take a taxi, walk downhill and away from the main entrance to hail a cab, where you’re less likely to encounter a driver who refuses to use his meter.
Gezira & Zamalek
Uninhabited until the mid-19th century, Gezira (Arabic for ‘island’) was a narrow strip of alluvial land rising up out of the Nile. After he built modern-day Downtown, Khedive Ismail dedicated his energy to a great palace on the island, with the rest of the land as a royal garden. During the development boom of the early 20th century, the palace grounds were sold off, while the palace was made into a hotel. Much of the island is occupied by sports clubs and parks, while the northern third is stylish Zamalek, a leafy neighbourhood of old embassy mansions and 1920s apartment blocks. It has few tourist sites, but it’s a pleasant place to wander around and an even better place to eat, drink and shop.
Mohandiseen, Agouza & Doqqi
A map of Cairo in Baedecker’s 1929 guide to Egypt shows nothing on the Nile’s west bank other than a hospital and the road to the Pyramids. The hospital is still there, set back from the corniche, but it’s now hemmed in on all sides by mid-rise buildings. This is the sprawl of Giza governorate – in administrative terms, not even part of Cairo at all – and it reaches all the way out to the foot of the Pyramids (they’re not isolated in the desert, as you might have imagined). In the 1960s and 1970s, the neighbourhoods of Mohandiseen, Agouza and Doqqi, the closest areas to the Nile, were created to house Egypt’s emerging professional classes. They remain middle-class bastions, home to families who made good under Sadat’s open-door policy – though some pockets of Mohandiseen are Cairo’s ritziest.
Unless you happen to find concrete and traffic stimulating, the main reason to come here are some good restaurants, a few embassies and upscale shopping on Sharia Suleiman Abaza and Sharia Libnan.
What little history there is since the pharaohs floats on the river in the form of houseboats moored off Sharia El Nil, just north of Zamalek Bridge in Agouza. These floating two-storey structures once lined the Nile all the way from Giza to Imbaba. During the 1930s some boats became casinos, music halls and bordellos. Many of the surviving residences still have a bohemian air, as chronicled in Naguib Mahfouz’ novel Adrift on the Nile.
This pretty suburb shows a different, more relaxed side of the city and is a nice antidote to central Cairo’s tourist pressure. With all its trees and outdoor cafes, it’s a pleasant place for an evening’s wander. Many Egyptians think so too, as Heliopolis has become ‘Downtown’ for people living in dull satellite cities further east. It’s also reasonably close to the airport, so you can get a taste of Cairo even if you’re just on a pit stop in an airport-area hotel before an early flight.
Belgian industrialist and baron Édouard Empain laid out Heliopolis in the early 20th century as a ‘garden city’ for the colonial officials who ruled Egypt. Its whitewashed Moorish-style buildings with dark wood balconies, grand arcades and terraces are the European vision of the ‘Orient’ set in stone. Since the 1950s, overcrowding has filled in the green spaces between the villas with apartment buildings festooned with satellite dishes, and those ornate arcades have become rather dilapidated and grubby but the area still has a relaxed, vaguely Mediterranean air.
Walking through Heliopolis
Sharia Al Ahram runs through Korba, ‘downtown’ Heliopolis. At the south end, Uruba Palace was once the grand Heliopolis Palace hotel, opened in 1910 and graced by the likes of King Albert I of Belgium. During the world wars the British appropriated it for use as a military hospital. In the 1960s the hotel closed and during the 1980s then-President Mubarak revamped this plush pad to use as the official presidential palace. Today, it continues this role under President Sisi and – alas – only visiting dignitaries get to gawk at its regal interiors.
From the palace, at the first intersection with Sharia Ibrahim Laqqany (detour left for some pretty arcades), is the open-air cafeteria L'Amphitrion, as old as Heliopolis itself and a popular watering hole for Allied soldiers during the world wars. Towards the northern end of Sharia Al Ahram, turn right into Sharia Ibrahim to view the once glorious, now shabby, ornate arcades lining the street. The northern end of Sharia Al Ahram comes to a stop at the Basilica; a miniature version of Istanbul’s famous Aya Sofya. Baron Empain is buried here.
Empain himself lived in a fantastical Hindu temple–inspired mansion, bedecked with elephants and serpents. The so-called Baron’s Palace is due east from the basilica on the main road to the airport; turn right at the Basilica and walk straight down Sharia Nizah Khalifa. Unfortunately it has been closed since 1997, when ‘Satanists’ were allegedly holding rituals here – turned out they were a bunch of upper-class teenage metalheads – so it's not worth a dedicated trip but keep an eye out for it on your way to or from the airport. Good news is on the horizon though. Restoration work began on the much-dilapidated building in mid-2017 and plans are afoot to open it up as a cultural centre.
To & From Heliopolis
The easiest way to get here is using metro line 3, which runs from Attaba station. Alight at Al Ahram station (currently the end of the line, though this line will eventually run all the way to Cairo Airport), which is conveniently placed on Sharia Nazih Khalifa, two blocks down from Heliopolis Basilica.
The End of The Line
In March 2014, a bomb exploded on one of Heliopolis' long-suffering, dilapidated trams, near the Presidential Palace. The old tram line was closed down, and for awhile it looked like the clatter of trams was finished for good in Cairo. In 2016 though, an ambitious project to resurrect the tram line from Ramses Station, with a complete modern overhaul, was announced with an estimated cost of US$500 million; although no start date was confirmed. Fingers crossed that at some stage in the future, riding the tram line first conceived and created by Baron Empain, once more becomes a reality.
The Heliopolis Colossus Discovery
In early March 2017, archaeologists working on the site of ancient Heliopolis (in the working-class district of Matareya, to the north of modern Heliopolis) discovered a mammoth 8m bust and head of a statue submerged in the mud. First thought to be a statue of Ramses II, the discovery made headlines around the world. Later on, after the colossus had been excavated, archaeologists corrected their initial assumptions and thought the statue more probable to depict 26th-dynasty ruler Psammetich I (664–610 BC). If so, it will be the largest Late Period statue ever found. The colossus is currently undergoing restoration work and when finished will be exhibited at the Egyptian Museum.
One of the world’s most important collections of ancient artefacts, the Egyptian Museum takes pride of place in Downtown Cairo, on the north side of Midan Tahrir. Inside the vast domed powder-pink building, the glittering treasures of Tutankhamun and other great pharaohs lie alongside the grave goods, mummies, jewellery, eating bowls and toys of Egyptians whose names are lost to history. To walk around the museum is to embark on an adventure through time.
This is in part due to the museum structure itself. There’s nary an interactive touch-screen to be found; in fact, many of the smaller items are in the same vitrines in which they were first placed when the museum opened in 1902. The lighting is so poor in some halls that by late afternoon you have to squint to make out details and read the words on the cryptic typed display cards placed on a few key items.
In this way, the Egyptian Museum documents not just the time of the pharaohs, but also the history of Egyptology. Some display cards have turned obsolete as new discoveries have busted old theories. And the collection rapidly outgrew its sensible layout, as, for instance, Tutankhamun’s enormous trove and the tomb contents of Tanis were both unearthed after the museum opened, and then had to be shoehorned into the space. Now more than 100,000 objects are wedged into about 15,000 sq m.
Like the country itself, the museum is in flux. Most objects are still on display, although some are being moved to the yet-to-be-opened Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM; www.gem.gov.eg). While some rooms are being refurbished the objects are deposited elsewhere in the museum, usually in the room next door. Even when the much delayed GEM opens, this museum will remain a major sight, very much the same as it is now with many of the master pieces but less clutter. However it is not clear just how much will stay the same, and when the GEM will open.
All this makes the Egyptian Museum somewhat challenging to visit. One of the most rewarding strategies is simply to walk around and see what catches your eye. But it’s hard to shake the sense that something even more stunning is waiting in the next room. We recommend some highlights, but be sure to stop and see some of the lesser items, as they often do just as well if not better in bringing the world of the pharaohs back to life.
Practical Tip: Museum Practicalities
Entrance & Tickets
Getting into the Egyptian Museum is an exercise in queuing: at peak times, you’ll wait to have your bag X-rayed, to buy tickets, and then to pass through the turnstiles and to have your bag checked again. Last tickets are sold one hour before closing time.
Additional tickets for the Royal Mummies Halls are purchased upstairs near Room 56.
Photography tickets can be bought when you buy your main entry ticket. If you don't have a photography ticket you have to will check your camera in at the front gate – in the kiosk adjacent to the first X-ray machine. A small tip (LE1 or LE2) is nice when you claim your items. Return promptly at closing time, or you may find the room locked up.
Tour buses usually hit the museum between 10.30am and 2pm. It's a good idea to either go early or visit late afternoon. Friday mornings are also quieter, as are the evenings on Sunday and Thursday when the museum closes at 9pm. It can be quite dim during the evening; you may want to bring a small torch (flashlight).
Quite a few official guides troll for business in the garden area. No doubt they will approach you if you are not in a group, and will suggest to take you around for upwards of LE100 per hour. Some are better than others, but many have a fairly standard knowledge of what's on show at the museum. For those with more than a passing interest in Egyptology, wanting to go a bit deeper into the history, a visit in the company of a guide such as Manal Helmy is highly recommended.
Facilities & Food
Toilets are on the mezzanine of each southern staircase. A sign says tips are not accepted but, well, they are – LE5 is good.
The plaza on the west side of the building holds a basic cafe, with cold drinks, ice cream and basic sandwiches, but it was shut during our last visit. Make sure to bring water with you.
You can only re-enter the museum at the front, and with much sweet-talking of the guards.
The current museum has its origins in several earlier efforts at managing Egypt’s ancient heritage, beginning in 1835, when Egyptian ruler Mohammed Ali banned the export of antiquities. Not that anyone heeded this – French archaeologist Auguste Mariette was busy shipping his finds from Saqqara to the Louvre when he was empowered to create the Egyptian Antiquities Service in 1858.
Mariette’s growing collection, from some 35 dig sites, bounced around various homes in Cairo until 1902, when the current building was erected in a suitably prominent position in the city. There it has stood, in its original layout, a gem of early museum design. But the lack of upkeep, and the ever-expanding field of Egyptology, has strained the place. For decades, the museum’s basement store was a notorious morass, as neglected sculptures sank into the soft flooring and needed to be excavated all over again.
Until 1996, museum security involved locking the door at night. When an enterprising thief stowed away overnight and helped himself to treasures, the museum authorities installed alarms and detectors, at the same time improving the lighting on many exhibits. During the 2011 revolution, the museum was broken into and a few artefacts went missing. To prevent further looting, activists formed a human chain around the building to guard its contents. By most reports, they were successful.
Museum Tour: Ground Floor
Before entering the museum, wander through the garden. To your left lies the tomb of Auguste Mariette (1821–81), with a statue of the archaeologist, arms folded, shaded under a spreading tree. Mariette’s tomb is overlooked by an arc of busts of two dozen Egyptological luminaries including Jean-François Champollion, who cracked the code of the hieroglyphs; Gaston Maspero, Mariette’s successor as director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service; and Karl Lepsius, the pre-eminent 19th-century German Egyptologist.
The ground floor of the museum is laid out roughly chronologically in a clockwise fashion starting at the entrance hall.
Room 43 – Atrium
The central atrium is filled with a miscellany of large and small Egyptological finds. In the area before the steps lie some of the collection’s oldest items. In the central cabinet No 8, the double-sided Narmer Palette, found at the Temple of Horus in Kom Al Ahmar near Edfu, is of great significance. Dating from around the 1st dynasty, it depicts Pharaoh Narmer (also known as Menes, c 3100 BC) wearing, on one side, the crown of Upper Egypt and, on the other side, the crown of Lower Egypt, suggesting the first union of Upper and Lower Egypt under one ruler. Egyptologists take this as the birth of ancient Egyptian civilisation and Narmer’s reign as the first of the 1st dynasty. This, then, is the starting point of more than 3000 years of Pharaonic history in which more than 170 rulers presided over 30 dynasties and produced almost everything in this building. In this sense, the Narmer Palette is the foundation stone of the Egyptian Museum. In the sexagonal cabinet to the right is a small clay head from the 4th millennium BC, one of the earliest human representations found in Egypt. There are several other exquisite objects from the pre-Pharaonic period.
Room 48 – Early Dynastic Period
In glass cabinet No 16 is the limestone statue of Zoser (Djoser; 2667–2648 BC), the 3rd-dynasty pharaoh whose chief architect Imhotep designed the revolutionary Step Pyramid at Saqqara. The statue, discovered in 1924 in its serdab (cellar) in the northeastern corner of the pyramid, is the oldest statue of its kind in the museum. The seated, near-life-size figure has lost its original inlaid eyes but is still impressive in a tight robe and striped head cloth over a huge wig.
Rooms 47 & 46 – Old Kingdom
Look for the three exquisite black schist triads that depict the pharaoh Menkaure (Mycerinus; 2532–2503 BC), builder of the smallest of the three Pyramids of Giza, flanked either side by a female figure. The hardness of the stone makes the sculptor’s skill all the greater and has helped ensure the triads’ survival through the ages. The figure to the pharaoh’s right is the goddess Hathor, while each of the figures on his left represents a nome (administrative division) of Egypt, the name of which is given by the symbol above their head. These triads (plus one other that is not held by this museum) were discovered at the pharaoh’s valley temple, just east of his pyramid at Giza.
Rooms 42, 37 & 32 – Masterpieces of the Old Kingdom
In the centre of Room 42 is one of the museum’s masterpieces, a smooth, black statue of Khafre (Chephren; 2558–2532 BC). The builder of the second pyramid at Giza sits on a lion throne, and is protected by the wings of the falcon god Horus. The use of the stone diorite, which is harder than marble or granite, suggests the pharaoh’s power. In fact, Khafre had 23 identical pieces carved for his valley temple at the Giza Plateau, though this is the only survivor.
Slightly to the left in front of Khafre, the core of the stunning wooden statue of Ka-Aper (No 40) was carved out of a single piece of sycamore (the arms were ancient additions; the legs, modern restorations). The sycamore was sacred to the goddess Hathor, while Ka-Aper’s belly suggests his prosperity. His eyes are amazingly lifelike, set in copper lids with whites of opaque quartz and corneas of rock crystal, drilled and filled with black paste to form the pupils. When this statue was excavated at Saqqara in 1870, local workmen named him Sheikh Al Balad (Headman), for his resemblance to their own local leader. Behind you, to the left of the door, sits the Seated Scribe (No 44), a wonderful painted limestone figure, hand poised as if waiting to take dictation, his inlaid eyes set in an asymmetrical face giving him a very vivid appearance.
Room 32 is dominated by the beautiful statues of Rahotep and Nofret (No 27), a noble couple from the 4th-dynasty reign of Sneferu, builder of the Bent and the Red Pyramids at Dahshur. Almost life-size with well-preserved painted surfaces, the limestone sculptures have simple lines making them seem almost contemporary, despite having been around for a staggering 4600 years.
In a cabinet off to the left, a limestone group shows Seneb, ‘chief of the royal wardrobe’, and his family (No 39). Seneb is notable for being a dwarf: he sits cross-legged, his two children strategically placed to cover his short legs. His full-size wife Senetites places her arms protectively and affectionately around his shoulders. Rediscovered in their tomb in Giza in 1926, the happy couple and their two kids were more recently used in Egyptian family-planning campaigns.
Also here is a panel of Meidum geese (No 138), part of an extraordinarily beautiful wall painting from a mudbrick mastaba (bench above a tomb) at Meidum, near the oasis of Al Fayoum. Though painted around 2500 BC, the pigments remain vivid and the degree of realism, even within the distinct Pharaonic style, is astonishing – ornithologists have had no trouble identifying the species.
Room 37, entered via Room 32, contains furniture from the Giza Plateau tomb of Queen Hetepheres, wife of Sneferu and mother of Khufu (Cheops), including a carrying chair, bed, bed canopy and a jewellery box. Her mummy has not been found but her shrivelled internal organs remain inside her Canopic chest. A glass cabinet holds a miniature ivory statue of her son Khufu, found at Abydos. Ironically, at under 8cm, this tiny figure is the only surviving representation of the builder of Egypt’s Great Pyramid.
Room 26 – Montuhotep II
The seated statue in the corridor on your right, after leaving Room 32, represents Theban-born Montuhotep II (2055–2004 BC; No 136), first ruler of the Middle Kingdom period. He is shown with black skin (representing fertility and rebirth) and the red crown of Lower Egypt. This statue was discovered by Howard Carter under the forecourt of the pharaoh’s temple at Deir Al Bahri in Thebes in 1900, when the ground gave way under his horse – a surprisingly common means of discovery in the annals of Egyptology.
Rooms 21 & 16 – Sphinxes
These grey-granite sphinxes are very different from the great enigmatic Sphinx at Giza – they look more like the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz, each with a fleshy human face surrounded by a great shaggy mane and big ears. Sculpted for Pharaoh Amenemhat III (1855–1808 BC) during the 12th dynasty, they were moved to Avaris by the Hyksos and then to the Delta city of Tanis by Ramses II. Also here, in Room 16, is an extraordinary wood figure of the ka (spirit double) of the 13th-dynasty ruler Hor Auibre.
Room 12 – Hathor Shrine
The centrepiece of this room is a remarkably well-preserved, vaulted sandstone chapel, found near the Theban temple of Deir Al Bahri. Its walls are painted with reliefs of Tuthmosis III (1479–1425 BC), his wife Meritre and two princesses, making offerings to Hathor, who suckles the pharaoh. The life-size cow statue suckles Tuthmosis III’s son and successor Amenhotep II (1427–1400 BC), who also stands beneath her chin.
Hatshepsut (1473–1458 BC), who was co-regent for part of Tuthmosis III’s reign, eventually had herself crowned as pharaoh. Her life-size pink granite statue stands to the right of the chapel. Although she wears a pharaoh’s headdress and a false beard, the statue has definite feminine characteristics. In the corridor outside this room, the large reddish-painted limestone head is also of Hatshepsut, taken from one of the huge Osiris-type statues that adorned the pillared facade of her great temple at Deir Al Bahri. Also in Room 12, on the north wall, are decorations from the same temple showing the famed expedition to Punt, which scholars posit may be current-day Somalia or perhaps the Arabian Peninsula.
Room 3 – Amarna Room
Akhenaten (1352–1336 BC), the ‘heretic pharaoh’, did more than build a new capital at Tell Al Amarna, close the temples of the traditional state god Amun and promote the sun god Aten in his place. He also ushered in a period of great artistic freedom, as a glance around this room will show. Compare these great torsos and their strangely bulbous bellies, hips and thighs, their elongated faces and thick lips, with the sleek, hard-edged Middle Kingdom sculptures of previous rooms.
Perhaps most striking of all is the unfinished head of Nefertiti (No 161, in the left alcove), wife of Akhenaten. Worked in brown quartzite, it’s an incredibly delicate and sensitive portrait and shows the queen to have been extremely beautiful – unlike some of the relief figures of her elsewhere in the room, in which she appears with exactly the same strange features as her husband. The masterpiece of this period, the finished bust of Nefertiti, can be seen in the Neues Museum in Berlin.
Room 10 – Ramses II
At the foot of the northeast stairs is a fabulous large grey-granite representation of Ramses II (1279–1213 BC), builder of the Ramesseum and Abu Simbel. But here in this statue he is tenderly depicted as a child with his finger in his mouth nestled against the breast of a great falcon, in this case the Canaanite god Horus.
Room 34 – Graeco-Roman Room
It is best to visit these last rooms after seeing the first floor, because this is the end of the ancient Egyptian story. By the 4th century BC, Egypt had been invaded by many nations, most recently by the Macedonian Alexander the Great. Egypt’s famously resistant culture had become porous, as will be obvious from the statue situated immediately to the left as you enter this room: a typically Greek face with curly beard and locks, but wearing a Pharaonic-style headdress.
Nearby on the right-hand wall, you’ll see a large sandstone panel inscribed in three languages: official Egyptian hieroglyphic; the more popularly used demotic; and Greek, the language of the new rulers. This trilingual stone is similar in nature to the more famous Rosetta Stone that is housed in London’s British Museum. A cast of the Rosetta Stone stands near the museum entrance (Room 48).
Museum Tour: First Floor
Exhibits here are grouped thematically and can be viewed in any order, but if you come up the southeast stairs, you’ll enter the Tutankhamun Galleries at Room 45 and experience the pieces in roughly the same order that they were laid out in the tomb (a poster on the wall outside Room 45 illustrates the tomb and treasures as they were found). But first, directly above the stairs, are the Royal Mummies Halls.
Rooms 56 & 46 – Royal Mummies Halls
These rooms house the remains of some of Egypt’s most illustrious pharaohs and queens from the 17th to the 21st dynasties, 1650 to 945 BC. They lie in individual glass showcases (kept at a constant 22°C) in two rooms at either corner of the museum. The mood is suitably sombre, and talking above a hushed whisper is forbidden (though, somewhat counterproductively, the guards are often chatting loudly on their mobile phones). Tour guides are not allowed to enter, although some do.
Displaying dead royalty has proved controversial. Late President Anwar Sadat took the royal mummies off display in 1979 for political reasons, but the subsequent reappearance of 11 of the better-looking mummies in 1994 did wonders for tourism figures, inspiring the opening of a second mummy room with second-tier but no less interesting personages. The ticket price is steep, but you certainly won’t see so many mummies in any other single museum, nor get to peer at them so closely. Parents should be aware that the mummies can be a frightening sight for young children.
The treasures of the young New Kingdom pharaoh Tutankhamun, who ruled for only nine years during the 14th century BC (1336–1327 BC), are among the world’s most famous antiquities. English archaeologist Howard Carter unearthed the tomb in 1922. Its well-hidden location in the Valley of the Kings, below the much grander but ransacked tomb of Ramses VI, had long prevented its discovery. Many archaeologists now believe that up to 80% of these extraordinary treasures were made for Tutankhamun’s predecessors, Akhenaten and Smenkhkare – some still carry the names of the original owners. Perhaps with Tutankhamun’s death everything connected with the Amarna Period was simply chucked in with him to be buried away and forgotten.
About 1700 items are spread throughout a series of rooms on the museum’s 1st floor, and although the gold shines brightest, sometimes the less grand objects give more insight into the pharaoh’s life. Some rooms are being refurbished.
Room 4 – Ancient Egyptian Jewellery
Even after Tutankhamun’s treasures, this stunning collection of royal jewellery takes the breath away. The collection covers the period from early dynasties to the Romans and includes belts, inlaid beadwork, necklaces, semiprecious stones and bracelets. Among the most beautiful is a piece from the Pyramid of Al Lahun: the diadem of Queen Sit-Hathor-Yunet, a golden headband with a rearing cobra inset with semiprecious stones. Also of note is Pharaoh Ahmose’s gold dagger and Seti II’s considerable gold earrings.
Room 2 – Royal Tombs of Tanis
This glittering collection of gold- and silver-encrusted objects came from six intact 21st- and 22nd-dynasty tombs unearthed at the Delta site of Tanis by the French in 1939. The tombs rivalled Tutankhamun’s in riches, but news of the find was overshadowed by the outbreak of WWII. The gold death mask of Psusennes I (1039–991 BC), with thick black eyeliner, is shown alongside his silver inner coffin and another silver coffin with the head of a falcon belonging to the pharaoh Shoshenq II (c 890 BC).
Room 14 – Graeco-Roman Mummy Portraits
This room contains a small sample of the stunning portraits found on Graeco-Roman mummies, popularly known as the Fayoum Portraits. Painted on wooden panels, often during the subject’s life, and placed over the mummies’ embalmed faces, these portraits express the personalities of their subjects better than the stylised elegance of most other ancient Egyptian art, and are recognised as the link between ancient art and the Western portrait tradition.
Room 34 – Pharaonic Technology
Interesting for gadget buffs, this room contains a great number of everyday objects that helped support ancient Egypt’s great leap out of prehistory. Some, such as the hand tools for farming, are still in use in parts of Egypt today, and others – needles and thread, combs, dice – look remarkably like our own. Pharaonic boomerangs were apparently used for hunting birds.
Room 43 – Yuya & Thuyu Rooms
Before Tutankhamun’s tomb was uncovered, the tomb of Yuya and Thuyu (the parents of Queen Tiye, and Tutankhamun’s great-grandparents) had yielded the most spectacular find in Egyptian archaeology. Found virtually intact in the Valley of the Kings in 1905, the tomb contained a vast number of treasures, including five ornate sarcophagi and the remarkably well-preserved mummies of the two commoners who became royal in-laws. Among many other items on display is the fabulous gilded and bead-trimmed death mask of Thuyu, at the front of the room.
Room 53 – Animal Mummies
Animal cults grew in strength throughout ancient Egypt, as the mummified cats, dogs, crocodiles, birds, monkeys and jackals in Room 53 suggest. Tucked in a dim, dusty wing of the museum, their rigid forms are a bit creepier than their human counterparts. Some edible beasts became ‘victual mummies’, preserved as food and ‘browned’ with resin, to offer the pharaoh an eternal picnic.
Room 37 – Model Armies
Discovered in the Asyut tomb of governor Mesheti and dating from about 2000 BC (11th dynasty), these are two sets of 40 wooden warriors marching in phalanxes. The darker soldiers (No 72) are Nubian archers from the south of the kingdom, each wearing brightly coloured kilts of varying design, while the lighter-skinned soldiers (No 73) are Egyptian pikemen.
Rooms 32 & 27 – Middle Kingdom Models
These lifelike models were mostly found in the tomb of Meketre, an 11th-dynasty chancellor in Thebes, and, like some of the best Egyptian tomb paintings, they provide a fascinating portrait of daily life almost 4000 years ago. They include finely modelled servants (especially in Room 32), fishing boats, kitchens, and carpentry and weaving workshops. In Room 27, a model of Meketre’s house includes fig trees in the garden, and a 1.5m-wide scene shows Meketre sitting with his sons, four scribes and others, counting cattle.
Feature: King Tut Goes to the Lab
Though we have much concrete evidence of the pharaoh Tutankhamun, in the form of his tomb contents, the boy king still remains elusive in some ways. How did he die? Who were his parents? Who was his wife? Advances in DNA analysis finally inspired a test of Tut and other mummies thought to be his relatives, and the results were revealed in 2010.
The DNA tests confirmed the predominant theory that Tut’s grandparents were Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye. This in turn showed that Tut’s father was almost certainly the ‘heretic’ pharaoh Akhenaten. Finally, the team was able to confirm that another unidentified mummy was Tut’s mother – as well as Akhenaten’s sister.
The researchers also looked for congenital disease markers. Had Tut and his forebears suffered from an ailment that caused the distorted face shape and androgynous look depicted so famously in Akhenaten’s portraiture? In fact, the DNA showed no such abnormality – so Akhenaten’s odd appearance may have been just a stylistic choice.
But Tutankhamun was likely affected by inbreeding all the same. Two mummified foetuses buried with him are almost certainly his unborn daughters. And a separate theory posits that his wife was Ankhesamun, his half-sister. This all suggests the foetuses were too deformed to live.
Finally, while preparing Tutankhamun’s mummy for the DNA analysis, a CT scan revealed a club foot and necrosis in one toe – which accounts for the numerous canes found in his tomb, despite his death at age 19. The samples also tested positive for parasites associated with malaria, which may have killed him.
So not every mystery is yet solved – but researchers are still at work on other mummies, which may untangle more of Tutankhamun’s complex family history.
Feature: The (Not-So-) Grand Egyptian Museum
In 2002, amidst much pomp and circumstance, then-President Hosni Mubarak laid the ceremonial foundation for the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM; www.gem.gov.eg), the cornerstone of an ambitious project aimed at redefining the Giza Plateau. Fifteen years on, and the project looks like one of the more blatant boondoggles of the dictator’s reign. Plenty of cash has been thrown at it, yet progress has been been grindingly slow and beset with financial difficulties. In 2015 Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities announced that another US$300 million would need to be found to finish it, bringing the estimated total cost of building the museum to US$1.1 billion.
Located 2km from the Great Pyramids, the GEM is meant to be a state-of-the-art showcase for the country’s finest antiquities. But since the 2011 Revolution, the fate of the project, so linked with Mubarak and his ousted antiquities chief Zahi Hawass, has been uncertain. Today the statue of Ramses, removed from Midan Ramses in 2006, stands alone guarding the vast construction site while slowly, certain pieces are being moved from the old to the Grand museum, and from various other sites, but no one knows exactly what will eventually be shown where. The latest official statements hope for the GEM to partially open in mid-2018, with a full opening in either 2020 or 2022. In the meantime, enjoy the fresh paint job here in the Downtown Egyptian Museum – that’s likely the only real improvement in antiquities exhibits that tourists will see for a while.
Feature: Highlights of the Egyptian Museum
The following are our favourite must-see exhibits, for which you need at least half a day but preferably a little more.
Tutankhamun Galleries (1st fl) Top on everyone’s list, King Tut’s treasures occupy a large chunk of the museum’s upper floor. Go first to Room 3 to see his sarcophagi while the crowds are light.
Old Kingdom Rooms (Ground fl, Rooms 42, 37 & 32) After peeking at Tutankhamun, return to the ground floor for a chronological tour. Look out for the statue of well-muscled Khafre – you may also recognise him from the Sphinx.
Amarna Room (Ground fl, Room 3) Stepping into this room feels like visiting another museum entirely – the artwork commissioned by Akhenaten for his new capital at Tell Al Amarna is dramatically different in style from his predecessors. Say hi to his wife, Nefertiti, while you’re here.
Royal Tombs of Tanis (1st fl, Room 2) While everyone else is gawking at Tutankhamun’s treasure down the hall, this room of gem-encrusted gold jewellery, found at the largest ruined city in the Nile Delta, is often empty.
Graeco-Roman Mummy Portraits (1st fl, Room 14) An odd interlude in mummy traditions, from very late in the ancient Egypt game, these wood-panel portraits were placed over the faces of embalmed dead, staring up in vividly realistic style.
Animal Mummies (1st fl, Rooms 53 & 54) Tucked in an odd corner of the museum, this long, dim room contains the bundled remains of the ancients’ beloved pets, honoured gods and even their last meals.
Middle Kingdom Models (1st fl, Rooms 32 & 27) When you’ve had your fill of gold and other royal trappings, stop in these rooms to get a picture of common life in ancient Egypt, depicted in miniature dioramas made to accompany the pharaoh to the other world.
Royal Mummies Halls (1st fl, Rooms 56 & 46) Visit these around lunch or near closing time to avoid the crowds – they don’t require more than half an hour, but they do put a human face on all the stunning objects you’ve seen.
Practical Tip: Extra Guidance
To make the most of an Egyptian Museum visit, stop by the AUC Bookshop and pick up The Illustrated Guide to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, edited by Alessandro Bongioanni and Maria Croce Sole. It’s packed with colour photographs and varied itineraries.
Manshiyet Nasr: Cairo's ‘Garbage City’
Looking around some parts of Cairo, you might think garbage is never collected – but it certainly is, by some 65,000 people of the Coptic Christian Zaraeeb community. Known (derogatorily) to most Cairenes as the Zabbaleen ('garbage people'), this community make a living by collecting rubbish from Cairene homes, sorting and recycling the salvaged materials while feeding the organic waste to their pigs. Managing to recycle approximately 80% of the waste they collect, their recycling methods have been recognised as among most efficient in the world. Despite this, in 2004 under Mubarak, Cairo's waste collection was handed out to multinationals seriously threatening the Zaraeeb's livelihood. In 2014, because of the failure of the official waste collection system, the government partially reversed the policy, officially reinstating the community's role, registering around 60 Zaraeeb companies to take charge of waste disposal in part of the city.
The Zaraeeb live in the district of Manshiyet Nasr (known also as 'Garbage City') at the base of the Muqattam Hills. This densely populated area is also where the rubbish gets sorted with apartment block roofs piled high with plastic waste in various states of sorting for recycling and huge bags of salvaged waste being sifted through in the narrow alleys.
The area is home to two rather extraordinary sights:
Church of St Simeon the Tanner Above Manshiyet Nasr on a ridge of the Muqattam Hills is one of the most surprising churches in the country. Built in the 1970s into a vast cave on the ridge, the Church of St Simeon the Tanner is thought to be the largest church in the Middle East, seating 17,000 worshippers. It's part of a complex of churches here, all built into caves on the escarpment. The church is named in honour of St Simeon, a 10th-century ascetic who prayed to make Muqattam move at the behest of Fatimid caliph Al Muizz Li Din Allah. Today it's a major site of Coptic pilgrimage. Crowds throng here on Fridays and Sundays, when mass is held. For a quieter visiting experience, avoid these days.
Perception In 2016, French-Tunisian street artist eL Seed created one of the most astonishing pieces of street art in the Middle East here in Manshiyet Nasr. Perception covers 50 buildings in a mammoth, exuberant swirl of Arabic calligraphy that quotes St Athanasius: 'Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly, needs to wipe his eyes first'. It is, eL Seed has said, both a tribute to the community of Manshiyet Nasr and a reminder to those who perceive the district, and people themselves, as dirty, of the vital work this community do clearing the Cairo streets of rubbish.
The mural can only be seen in full from one viewpoint (behind a block of buildings, up a staircase and an easy scramble over a wall onto a ledge) just a short walk from the Church of St Simeon the Tanner. It is though, difficult to find by yourself. Local Manshiyet Nasr guide Maged (012-2464-1223) speaks excellent English and can guide you around all the churches here as well as lead you to the viewpoint (ask for the 'graffiti'). He's often found around the entry to the Church of St Simeon the Tanner, but phoning before your visit is recommended so you can confirm he'll be there.