For the Intrepid Visitor: Plunge Right In
An amble through this overwhelming medieval microcosm, with what must be the greatest population density in the Middle East, is a remarkable passage through the Cairo of six or seven centuries ago. This ancient quarter of Cairo assails the senses, confounds, and confuses.
Amid barely contained pandemonium, oddly coupled with both intense poverty and one of the world’s lowest crime rates, lies the legendary hospitality of the Egyptian people. Meanwhile, chickens, horses, and sheep walk the narrow, potholed streets, further congested with men on donkey carts collecting garbage, itinerant street vendors, and people going about life as they always have.
The dust and rubble offset the faded architectural grandeur of a city that was once the intellectual and cultural center of the Arab world.
Given a daunting number of sites, start at the spectacular 12th-century Citadel of Salah al-Din; its founder was known throughout Christendom as Saladin, the Crusaders’ chivalrous foe. Perched on a steep spur, this heavily fortified bastion offers a matchless panorama of Cairo’s minaret-punctuated skyline and endless sprawl.
The holiest and most awe-inspiring of the city’s places of worship is the 9th-century Mosque of Ibn Tulun, notable for both its grand scale and extreme simplicity. The Islamic Art Museum’s collection, the most extensive of its kind in Egypt, spans the 7th to 19th centuries.
The Khan el-Khalili’s maze of bazaars is another mind-boggler for its sheer size alone. The richly ornamented Qualawun el-Nasir complex includes a madrasa, or theological school, and mausoleums. Built by three of the most important Mamluk sultans, it is considered a large-scale masterwork of their lavish architectural style.
The list of Islamic Cairo’s highlights goes on, but culture shock may have caught up with even the most intrepid visitor, who by this point has likely had his or her fill of noise, belching bus fumes, and ornery livestock demanding the right of way.