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Cairo: The City and Its Famous Places
Cairo is the capital and largest city of Egypt. It is also by far the largest population center in Africa and the Middle East. The Arabic name of the city is Al-Qāhirah, meaning "the victorious."
Located near the head of the Nile delta, where the river branches into several northward-flowing distributaries, Cairo is a focus of land, river, and air transportation. The main city is on the east bank of the Nile, while extensive suburbs lie on the west bank. Rail lines and motor roads connect Cairo with Alexandria to the northwest, with the Suez Canal cities of Port Said and Suez to the northeast and east respectively, and with Aswan and other cities to the south. River transport, from the Nile to the south and from the delta streams to the north, centers on Cairo. Many air routes that connect Europe to Asia and Australia or to southern Africa use Cairo as an intermediate stop, making it the greatest air terminal in the Middle East.
The modern portion of Cairo is located along the east bank of the Nile. Here a number of squares and gardens form open places in the overall pattern of irregular small streets, which are crossed at intervals by wider thoroughfares. The Nile Corniche runs right along the river. Farther east and roughly parallel to some of the major streets are Sharia (street) Kasr el-Nil, Sharia Mansour, Sharia Mohammed Farid, and Sharia el-Gumhuria.
Sharia el-Tahrir is a major thoroughfare that winds in a westerly direction through the modern city, across the el-Tahrir bridge to Gezira Island and across el-Gala bridge to the west bank. Farther north, Sharia July 26 (formerly Sharia Fouad el-Awal) runs in a northwesterly direction through the modern city and also crosses Gezira Island to the western suburbs. Many places in the city have been renamed for modern heroes or events.
The older part of Cairo, to the east of the modern section, has a traditional Near Eastern atmosphere with winding narrow, alleylike streets, small workshops, marketplaces and curio shops, and many historic buildings. Much of this section was built between the 11th and 16th century. Sharia el-Muski and Sharia al-Azhar are wider streets that run eastward from Opera Square in the modern quarter through the old section to famous al-Azhar mosque. The Citadel, with the mosque of Mehmet Ali, lies on a spur of the Mokattam Hills in the southeast. Several wide streets cut through the old section and connect the Citadel with modern Cairo.
To the south of modern Cairo is Old Cairo, with a port on the Nile and a number of ancient buildings. Nearby, to the east, are the ruins of a Roman fortress. Farther south are the attractive residential suburb of al-Maadi and the industrial district of Helwan.
The Nile River has two islands that form part of the city. Gezira Island, almost a mile wide, has its southern end opposite modern Cairo and extends northward for almost 4 miles (6 km). It has gardens, an exhibition ground, facilities for horse racing, golf, tennis, polo, and other sports and, in the north, clubs, schools, villas, and residences. Roda Island, farther south, opposite Old Cairo, is not quite so large as Gezira. A large government hospital, the former palace and gardens of Prince Mehmet Ali, el-Maniel Museum, and apartment houses take up most of the area. At the southern tip of Roda is the Nilometer, dating from 716 A.D., which measures the annual rise and fall of the river.
On the west bank, opposite Roda Island, is the suburb of Giza with the ancient Sphinx and pyramids, as well as modern Cairo University. Farther north along the western shore are the Zoological Gardens, embassies, residences, and, opposite Gezira Island, the Museum of Agriculture. The modern residential suburb of Heliopolis, the ruins of ancient Heliopolis, and the airport lie northeast of the city.
Points of Interest
Cairo has about 400 mosques, mausoleums, museums, palaces, and other buildings that are of interest to the historian and tourist. The old section of Cairo contains a greater collection of Arab architectural treasures than can be found in any other city in the world. The mosque of Sultan Hasan, built about 1361, has graceful proportions typical of classical Islamic architecture.
The university-mosque of al-Azhar was founded in the 970s. A center for the study of Islamic law as well as Arabic language, philosophy, and history, it attracts students from as far as Morocco and Indonesia. The mosque of Ahmad ibn Tulun, built between 876 and 879, has the oldest mosque plan, consisting of an open courtyard enclosed by arcades. The large mosque of Mehmet Ali overlooks the old section from the heights of the Citadel and has the dome, tall minarets, and other features of Ottoman architectural style.
In the northern part of modern Cairo is Rameses Square, which faces the railroad station. The great ancient statue of Rameses II that stood in this square for more than 32 years was moved to a location near the pyramids outside the city in 2006. Opera Square, about a mile (1.6 km) to the south, has the opera house (a copy of the one in Paris) on one side and the Continental-Savoy hotel on the other. In the middle of the square is an equestrian statue of Ibrahim Pasha, the son of Mehmet Ali Pasha. Nearby are sidewalk cafés and restaurants and the Ezbekieh public gardens. A short distance to the southwest is Mustafa Kemal square, named for the Egyptian nationalist whose statue dominates the center.
The largest open place in the city is el-Tahrir ("Liberation") Square near the Nile at El-Tahrir bridge. Ten streets converge on the square, which is criss-crossed by sidewalks with lawn and flower beds between them. On the southern side of the square are large, modern government office buildings, and opposite stands the great Egyptian museum, which contains priceless works of ancient Egyptian art and the treasures from the tomb of Tutankhamen. A short distance away is the Museum of Modern Art, which was founded in 1928. The massive Nile Hilton hotel stands on the western side of the square, between it and the river.
Farther south, facing the river, are the Semiramis and the new Shepheard's Hotel. (The old Shepheard's Hotel, a landmark and tourist center for decades, was located about a mile farther east. It was destroyed by fire during the riots of January 1952.) Near el-Tahrir Square there are numerous airline offices, hotels, curio shops, the American University of Cairo, the British and American embassies, and the Parliament building.
Cairo has many secondary and professional schools in addition to the Cairo University, al-Azhar University, Aim Shams University, and the American University. Museums at some distance from el-Tahrir Square include the Museum of Islamic Art, the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo, the Babylonian Museum, the Abdine Museum, and others with collections pertaining to agriculture, hygiene, geology, geography and ethnology, ornithology and entomology, and transport and communications.
The greatest attractions of all are the Sphinx and pyramids at Giza. Nearby is a famous luxury hotel, the Mena House. It was built in 1869 to enable Empress Eugénie of France to visit the pyramids in comfort while she was in Egypt for the celebration of the opening of the Suez Canal.