Erica & Matt Chua: Climbing Above Old Cairo

How do you distinguish “old” in a city that was founded over 1100 years ago?  When some of the “newer” areas are older than the United States of America, it’s all old to me, but to the Egyptians there is an old and new Cairo.  The old part is called “Islamic Cairo”, which seems like another redundant name in Cairo, one of the largest Islamic cities in the world.  To learn more we set off to explore this “old” Islamic Cairo…here’s what we found.

Signs such as this begin to get old, I mean really old, as almost every building was constructed before “Columbus sailed the ocean blue” which marks old for me.

Old Cairo isn’t a dead city or closed off to be a museum, rather it’s as alive today as it ever was, full of homes, stores, restaurants and mosques.

As with the entire Islamic world, Old Cairo is filled with religious contridictions.  Surrounded by ancient mosques that are still in operation are the modern stores selling women’s clothing for every occasion.

Within the winding alleys of vendors are quaint tea shops that exist as time has left them behind.  We stopped in at Fishawy’s to enjoy tea and coffee while locals indulged in smoking hookas of flavored tabacco.

While one can be excused for losing a day browsing the stores for anything from tourist crap to antique gems, the real beauty of Old Cairo are the ancient mosques.  These mosques have given Cairo the well-deserved title of  “city of 1000 minarets”.  In every direction they pierce the sky and during call to prayer pierce the hectic urban noises as they call the faithful to prayer.  As the icon of Islamic architecture I’ve always been amazed by the skinny minarets, openly wanting to climb one.

Wandering the streets we met a man who said he was responsible for call to prayer at one of the mosques.  Immediately I realized my opportunity and asked, “have you ever climbed to the top of the minaret?”  He quickly responded, “yes, several times.”  Knowing this was not only a chance to climb a minaret, but a chance to climb an age-old minaret in Old Cairo, I asked, “can I go up?”  He smiled and said, “yes.”

Hello top of Cairo!  Here I am, crossing one of my odder bucket list items off, almost 100 meters above Old Cairo.  Old Cairo is surprising in that way, steeped in history, one would expect it to be a place where rules are well established, but to thrive as long as it has requires flexibility and a sense of humor…like why not let someone climb the minaret?

Old Cairo proved not only to be an amazing place, ripened through a thousand years of experience, but an adventure as well.  It is definitely a sight to see in Cairo as the noise, crowds and religion will excite any traveler.



-Plan for a day.  Give yourself time to explore, even get lost, the whole area is full of life, stores and secrets that the more time you have, the better.

-Be wary of pickpockets. Carry only what you need.  We had no problem carrying our dSLR around all day, but I’d be careful with things in pockets or bags, there are a lot of crowded, tight places where people could help themselves to your things.

-Bargain. Egyptian vendors will work hard to get the most out of you.  For scarves they started 10 times what we paid in other parts, but quickly came down to less than we had paid.  It will be worth your time to drive a hard bargain as there are 100 vendors offering each thing.


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