The History and Wonders of Old Cairo: A Journey through Time

When you think of Cairo, Egypt, images of the Great Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx may be the first to spring to mind.

However, the city, particularly Old Cairo, or Masr al Qadima, holds a plethora of historical treasures that span multiple eras and civilizations.

From the earliest days of Christianity to the golden age of Islam, from the grandeur of the Roman Empire to the splendor of the Ottoman era, Old Cairo is a testament to the city’s rich history and cultural heritage.

The Beginnings: Babylon Fortress and the Roman Era

Old Cairo’s history dates back to the 6th century BC when the Persians established the Babylon Fortress on the east bank of the Nile. This fortress, the oldest structure in the city, served as a strategic location to protect the city from invasions. Later, the Romans built upon this fortification, transforming it into a Roman fortress under the rule of the Roman Emperor Trajan.

The Roman fort, now known as the Babylon Fort, was a cornerstone of the Roman’s administrative capital in Egypt. It was a square mile of fortified walls and towers, a testament to the might and architectural prowess of the Roman Empire. Notably, the southern gate of the fort, which once guarded the city, is still standing today.

The Emergence of Christianity: Coptic Cairo

The period following the Roman era saw the rise of Christianity in Egypt, leading to the establishment of several churches within the city. This area, known as Coptic Cairo, is home to some of the world’s oldest Christian churches. The Hanging Church, or Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church, is perhaps the most famous. Built on the southern gate of the Roman fortress, it is renowned for its beautiful architecture, particularly the wooden roof designed in the style of Noah’s Ark.

Another significant site in Coptic Cairo is the Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church, also known as Abu Serga. This church is believed to have been a resting place for the Holy Family during their flight into Egypt. The church is built over a cave where the Holy Family is said to have stayed, and visitors can descend to this sacred spot.

Moreover, the Ben Ezra Synagogue, the oldest Jewish synagogue in Egypt, is situated here. This synagogue is said to be located on the site where baby Moses was found.

The Coptic Museum, another significant landmark, houses the world’s largest collection of Coptic Christian artwork and artifacts. It provides a rich insight into Egypt’s Christian history, spanning the era from the arrival of Christianity in Egypt to the present day.

The Advent of Islam: Islamic Cairo

The arrival of Islam in Egypt in the 7th century AD marked a new chapter in the city’s history. Amr ibn al Aas, the Muslim commander, established the first mosque in Egypt, known as the Mosque of Amr ibn al Aas. This mosque marked the beginning of Islamic Cairo, which would become one of the world’s oldest Islamic cities.

The Abbasid Caliphate later moved the capital to Al Askar, where the Al Aqmar Mosque was built. This mosque is notable for its unique style, incorporating elements of the local architecture into its design.

The city further expanded under the Fatimid Caliphate, with the establishment of Al Muizz Street. This street, one of the oldest in Cairo, is home to a vast array of Islamic monuments, reflecting the city’s rich Islamic history. The street is lined with historic mosques, madrasas, and mausoleums, showcasing beautiful Islamic architectural styles.

One of the most significant mosques in Islamic Cairo is the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, the oldest mosque in Egypt in its original form and the largest mosque in terms of land area. The mosque’s grand minaret and expansive courtyard are testaments to the architectural prowess of the Islamic world.

The Sultan Hassan Mosque, another famous mosque, was built during the Mamluk era. This mosque, with its impressive size and beautiful architecture, is considered one of the masterpieces of Islamic art and architecture.

The Ottoman Era and Beyond

The Ottoman era saw the construction of several new mosques, including the Al-Rifa’i Mosque and the Mosque of Muhammad Ali at the Cairo Citadel. The latter, built in the Ottoman style, offers a panoramic view of Cairo.

Old Cairo’s history extends beyond the Islamic era. Abdeen Palace, built by Khedive Ismail, served as the royal residence for the Egyptian monarchy. The palace, with its luxurious halls and large collection of artwork and artifacts, provides a glimpse into the life of the Egyptian royals.

In the heart of downtown Cairo, the Khan El Khalili market, one of the oldest markets in the world, offers a unique shopping experience. From traditional Egyptian crafts to spices and jewelry, the market is a treasure trove of Egyptian culture.

The Modern Era: A Blend of Old and New

As Cairo moved into the modern era, the city continued to expand and develop, with Old Cairo remaining as a testament to its rich past. The city’s expansion didn’t overshadow the historic core; instead, it served to highlight the contrast between the old and the new, creating a unique blend of history and modernity that defines present-day Cairo.

The 19th century brought significant changes to Cairo under the rule of Khedive Ismail, who was determined to modernize the city following the model of European capitals. He initiated wide-ranging urban reforms and construction projects, including the establishment of new city districts and the construction of the Abdeen Palace. This palace, with its luxurious halls and vast collection of artwork, offered a glimpse into the life of the Egyptian royals and the opulence of the period.

Another notable addition to the city during this period was the construction of the Suez Canal. This massive project not only transformed Egypt’s economy by providing a direct trading route between Europe and Asia, but it also marked Cairo’s emergence as a major global city.

The Heart of Egypt: The Nile River

No discussion of Cairo would be complete without mentioning the Nile River, Egypt’s life-giving artery. The Nile has played a crucial role in Cairo’s history, providing the city with a fertile land and a means of transportation. The river has been a constant presence in the city’s development, from the days of the ancient Egyptians to the present day.

The Nile River also offers a unique perspective on Cairo. A boat ride on the Nile offers a panoramic view of the city’s skyline, with the minarets of the mosques, the domes of the churches, and the modern skyscrapers forming a unique architectural mosaic that reflects Cairo’s diverse history and culture.

The Legacy of Old Cairo: A Cultural Hub

Today, Old Cairo serves as a cultural hub, home to numerous museums, art galleries, and cultural institutions that preserve and promote Egypt’s rich cultural heritage. The Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square houses the world’s largest collection of Pharaonic antiquities, while the Coptic Museum in Coptic Cairo showcases the largest collection of Coptic Christian artwork and artifacts.

Old Cairo is also a center for arts and crafts, with numerous workshops and markets selling traditional Egyptian crafts. The Khan El Khalili market, one of the oldest markets in the world, offers a unique shopping experience, with its narrow alleyways filled with shops selling everything from traditional Egyptian crafts to spices and jewelry.


Cairo, with its blend of ancient and modern, is a city that never ceases to amaze. It’s a city where the call to prayer from a medieval mosque can be heard alongside the hustle and bustle of a modern metropolis. It’s a city where the grandeur of Pharaonic temples coexists with the splendor of Islamic architecture. It’s a city where every corner tells a story, where every street is a testament to its rich history and cultural heritage.

From the Roman fort to the Coptic churches, from the Islamic mosques to the Ottoman palaces, every corner of Old Cairo tells a story of a time gone by. Whether you’re a history enthusiast, an architecture lover, or a spiritual seeker, Old Cairo has something to offer. It’s a journey through time, a journey through the world’s history, and a journey through the heart of one of the oldest and most historic cities in the world.

Old Cairo, or Masr al Qadima, is more than just a city; it’s a living museum, a testament to the centuries of civilizations that have left their mark on its landscape. It’s a journey through time, a journey through the world’s history, and a journey through the heart of one of the oldest and most historic cities in the world.

FAQ about Old Cairo

What constitutes the historic part of Cairo?

The historic part of Cairo, known as Old Cairo or Masr al Qadima, is a treasure trove of ancient landmarks. It encompasses the site of a Roman-era fortress, the Christian community of Coptic Cairo, and Muslim settlements that existed before Cairo was officially founded in 969 AD.

What is the local term for Cairo in Egypt?

Cairo is locally referred to as “Maṣr” by Egyptians.

Where is Egypt situated in Africa?

Egypt occupies the northeast corner of the African continent, sharing borders with Libya to the west, Sudan to the south, and the Red Sea to the east. It’s also bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the north.

Is it advisable to travel to Egypt?

While Egypt is a fascinating destination, it’s recommended to reconsider travel due to potential terrorism threats. It’s particularly crucial to exercise caution and stay informed about the current situation.

Does Cairo have a historic district?

Yes, Cairo’s historic district, often referred to as Coptic Cairo, is rich in history and boasts stunning architecture. It’s believed to be the location where the Holy Family resided.

Is a trip to Cairo worthwhile?

Absolutely! Cairo offers a unique blend of ancient history and modern culture, making it a memorable destination. From the iconic pyramids to the bustling city life, Cairo is worth exploring.

What was Cairo’s original name?

Cairo was originally known as Al-Mansuriyyah.

Is it safe for tourists to explore Cairo on foot?

Tourists can safely explore Cairo on foot, keeping their valuables secure and being mindful of their surroundings. However, due to heavy traffic, walking might not always be the most comfortable mode of transportation.

What was Cairo’s initial name?

The initial name for Cairo was Al-Mansuriyyah.

Is it recommended to visit Coptic Cairo?

Indeed, Coptic Cairo, with its significant Jewish and Islamic sites, including the Mosque of Amr Ibn al-Aas and Ben Ezra Synagogue, is a must-visit, regardless of religious inclination.

Is a trip to Coptic Cairo worth it?

Absolutely! Coptic Cairo, with its rich history and significant religious sites, is a must-visit for anyone exploring Cairo, irrespective of their religious beliefs.

Is Cairo situated in Egypt or Africa?

Cairo, the capital of Egypt, is one of the largest cities in Africa. It’s located on the eastern shore of the Nile River.

Are Old Cairo and Coptic Cairo the same?

Coptic Cairo is a part of Old Cairo, encompassing numerous historical sites such as the Babylon Fortress, the Coptic Museum, the Hanging Church, and several other Coptic churches.

What is an alternate name for Cairo?

Apart from Al-Mansuriyyah, Cairo is also known as “Al-Qahira,” which translates to “The Victorious.” It’s often referred to as the “City of a thousand minarets” due to the numerous mosques dotting its skyline.

What does the Coptic section of Cairo comprise?

The Coptic section of Cairo, part of Old Cairo, includes numerous Christian churches and other sites dating back to the period between the decline of the pharaonic religion and the arrival of Islam.

Where is historic Cairo located?

Historic Cairo is located in Egypt, standing as a testament to the myriad of civilizations that have left their mark on its landscape over centuries.