Cairo, Egypt, Africa

Founded: a.d. 969
Location: Near the head of the Nile River delta, Egypt; northeastern Africa
Time Zone: 2 pm Cairo time = noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT)
Elevation: 194 m (636 ft)
Latitude and Longitude: 43°40'N, 79°22'W
Coastline: (Greater Cairo) approximately 27 km (17 mi)
Climate: Desert climate, with hot summers and mild winters; rain is rare, and hamsin dust storms can occur in the spring.
Annual Mean Temperature: January -4°C (24°F); July 21.7°C (71°F)
Seasonal Average Snowfall: 141 cm (55.5 in)
Average Annual Precipitation (total of rainfall and melted snow): 81.3 cm (32 in)
Government: governor-council
Weights and Measures: Metric
Monetary Units: Egyptian pounds
Telephone Area Codes: 20 (Egypt), 02 (Cairo)

1. Introduction

Located on the banks of the Nile River, Cairo is Africa's largest city, as well as the largest city in the Arab world. In the course of its thousand-year history it has been the capital of the great Egyptian dynasties of the Middle Ages, a British colonial enclave, and a modern industrialized city. Today it is a teeming, vibrant national capital with one of the world's highest population densities per square mile. Even as the city struggles with the social and environmental effects of overcrowding, it dominates Egypt politically, economically, and culturally and remains a prime tourist destination in spite of a campaign of terrorist activity by Islamic extremists seeking to destabilize the country's government.

2. Getting There

Cairo, the largest city in Africa, is located on the Nile River, 160 kilometers (100 miles) inland from the Mediterranean Sea and 135 kilometers (80 miles) west of the Red Sea.


Cairo is connected by highway with all other major cities in Egypt. The Desert Road links Cairo and Alexandria; there are main roads connecting Cairo with Ismailiyyah and Luxor. In addition, there is the Red Sea Highway, completed in the early 1990s. Roads connect Cairo with Libya to the west and Israel to the east (however, special permission must be obtained to enter Egypt from Israel in a private vehicle).

Bus and Railroad Service

Rail service is available between Cairo and all areas of the Nile River Valley. An air-conditioned nonstop express train, the turbino, makes three trips daily between Cairo and Alexandria. Cairo's main railway station is located at Maydan Ramsis. Several bus companies offer inter-city bus service between Cairo and Alexandria, the Nile Valley, the Red Sea, Sinai Peninsula, the Suez Canal, and other destinations. There is nonstop bus service between Cairo and Alexandria, and buses run between Cairo and all major towns.


Cairo International Airport, an important connecting point between Europe, Asia, and Africa, offers regular service by most major airlines. EgyptAir offers both domestic flights to Luxor, Aswan, and Hurghada and international service.


Although it is located on the Nile River, Cairo is not one of Egypt's major shipping cities, all of which have ports on the Mediterranean (Alexandria, Suez, and Port Said).

3. Getting Around

Greater Cairo is spread out over both banks of the Nile River, which runs north-south through the center of the city. The neighborhoods of Gizah, Aguza, Mohandisin are on the west bank, the districts of Gazirah and Geziret Al-Rawdah on islands in the river, and the major urban center on the east bank, together with a number of suburbs. Downtown Cairo's streets and avenues are laid out around a series of traffic circlesMaydan Talaat Harb, Maydan Orabi, Maydan Mustafa Kamel, and, at the heart of the city, Maydan Tahrir.

Cairo Population Profile

City Proper

Population: 9,690,000
Area: 20 sq km (7.7 sq mi)
Nicknames: Mother of the World, The Well-Guarded

Metropolitan Area

Population: 12,000,000
Description: Central Cairo, Giza, Shubra al-Khaymah, and parts of Giza and Qalyubiyah provinces
Area: 215 sq km (83 sq mi)
World population rank 1: 17
Percentage of national population 2: 16%
Average yearly growth rate: 2.1%

  1. The Cairo metropolitan area's rank among the world's urban areas.
  2. The percent of Egypt's total population living in the Cairo metropolitan area.

Bus and Commuter Rail Service

Packed buses offer local service in Cairo, stopping at the Maydan Tahrir, the Maydan Ataba and Opera Square, the Pyramids Road, Ramses Station, and the Citadel. Minibuses offer more reliable and somewhat more expensive service. Also available are privately owned and operated 12-seat taxis. Cairo's commuter rail service, the Metro, runs both above-and underground. The trains are clean; service is efficient; and fares are reasonable.


Organized tours to Cairo's major tourist attractions, such as the Giza and Saqqara pyramids and the Sphinx, are offered by hotels, private guides, and travel agencies.

4. People

More than one-quarter of all Egyptians live in Cairo. The population of the city proper stood at 9,690,000 in 1998 while the population of the greater metropolitan area has been variously estimated between 12 and 18 million. The city's population is more homogenous today than during the colonial period when large numbers of Europeans lived in Cairo. Today about 95 percent of the city's residents were born in Egypt, and 90 percent are Muslims. Cairo's population also includes significant numbers of people from other African countries, especially Sudan (Sudanese are thought to number about 400,000). About 20,000 African Muslims from other countries are students at Al-Azhar University. Even more are refugees who fled their home-lands.

5. Neighborhoods

Downtown Cairo, whose center is the plaza of Maydan Tahrir, is a bustling district of shops, restaurants, hotels, and other commercial establishments, as well as museums, gardens, and art galleries. It also affords a scenic view of the Nile River.

To the east of central Cairo is the walled medieval section of the city known as Islamic Cairo, which includes poorer residential districts, historic architecture dating back over a thousand years, and the bustling Khan Khalili marketplace. Its main street, Shar'a Mu'iz, is lined with buildings from several eras of Egyptian history, including those of the early dynasties before the Ottoman Era.

Garden City, south of Maydan Tahrir, is an upscale district with expensive homes and numerous embassies. To the east is the area dominated by the Citadel, a medieval fortress that was home to Egypt's rulers for some 700 years. In the vicinity are three mosques and several museums.

Northeast of Cairo's central and historic districts is the wealthy residential suburb of Heliopolis, home to Egypt's former president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Although named for an ancient Egyptian city, Heliopolis was actually planned and laid out with reference to European models and is more spacious than other parts of Cairo. (Egyptians generally call the suburb Masr al-Gedida, or New Cairo). Many members of the professional classes live in the neighborhood, which has a large Christian minority.

The exclusive residential suburb of ZamalekCairo's wealthiest neighborhoodis located on the island of Gazirah, occupying the northern two-thirds of the island; the remainder is the site of private sports clubs and parks.

The newer suburbs of Duqqi, Mohandisin, Aguza, Gizah, and Imbabah are located on the west bank of the Nile, opposite the older part of the city.

6. History

The first settlement in the region of present-day Cairo was al-Fustat, founded in A. D. 641 as a military encampment by the Arabic commander 'Amr ibn al-'As. Under the dynasties that ruled Egypt over the following centuries, the town grew into a major port city. In A. D. 969 Jawhar, the leader of an Islamic sect called the Fatimids, founded a new city near al-Fustat, initially naming it al-Mansuriyah (its name was later changed to al-Qahirah, or Cairo). When the Fatimids became the rulers of Egypt, founding a dynasty that lasted for two centuries, Cairo became their capital.

When Saladin, a Sunni Muslim, defeated the Crusaders and founded the Ayyubid dynasty in the twelfth century, he retained Cairo as his capital, and it became the center of a vast empire. (Al-Fustat, however, was burned down as part of the "scorched earth" strategy that defeated the Crusaders.) In the thirteenth century, the Ayyubids were eclipsed by Turkish military conquerors known as the Mamluks, who ruled Egypt from A. D. 1260 to 1516. During the first hundred years of Mamluk rule, Cairo experienced its most illustrious period. Al-Azhar University, which had been founded in the tenth century, became the foremost center of learning in the Islamic world, and Cairo played a key role in the east-west spice trade. Most of its greatest buildings were constructed during this period.

City Fact Comparison
Indicator Cairo New York Rome Beijing
  (Egypt) (United States) (Italy) (China)
Population of urban area1 10,772,000 16,626,000 2,688,000 12,033,000
Date the city was founded AD 969 1613 753 BC 723 BC
Daily costs to visit the city2        
Hotel (single occupancy) $193 $198 $172 $129
Meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner) $56 $44 $59 $62
Incidentals (laundry, dry cleaning, etc.) $14 $26 $15 $16
Total daily costs (hotel, meals, incidentals) $173 $244 $246 $207
Major Newspapers3        
Number of newspapers serving the city 13 10 20 11
Largest newspaper Akhbar El Yom/Al Akhbar The Wall Street Journal La Repubblica Renmin Ribao
Circulation of largest newspaper 1,159,339 1,740,450 754,930 3,000,000
Date largest newspaper was established 1944 1889 1976 1948
1United Nations population estimates for the year 2000.
2The maximum amount the U.S. Government reimburses its employees for business travel. The lodging portion of the allowance is based on the cost for a single room at a moderately-priced hotel. The meal portion is based on the costs of an average breakfast, lunch, and dinner including taxes, service charges, and customary tips. Incidental travel expenses include such things as laundry and dry cleaning.
3David Maddux, ed. Editor&Publisher International Year Book. New York: The Editor&Publisher Company, 1999.

Starting in the second half of the fourteenth century, Cairo experienced a decline, beginning with the scourge of the Black Death (1348) and other epidemics. By the end of the fifteenth century, new trade routes had broken the city's monopoly on the spice trade, and in 1517 the Ottoman sultan Selim I (r. 151220) conquered Egypt, defeating the Mamluk forces at Ar Raydaniyah, outside Cairo, and the city came under Turkish rule. Under the Ottomans, Cairo was reduced to a provincial capital, and by the end of the eighteenth century, its population had declined to under 300,000. The city was occupied by Napoleon's troops between 1798 and 1801 but then returned to Turkish rule.

The modernization of Egypt and its capital began under Mehemet 'Ali (c. 17691849), often called the "father of modern Egypt," who ruled the country for nearly half a century beginning in 1805, modernizing and strengthening it, and expanding its borders. Modernization of Cairo began in 1830, but the period of greatest progress occurred during the reign of Ismail Pasha (r. 1863-79). Pasha undertook a major modernization of the city modeled on the renovation of Paris under Napoleon III (18081873). To the west of the older, medieval part of Cairo (now called Islamic Cairo), a newer section of the city boasted wide avenues laid out around circular plazas in the style of a European city. The development of this area was also influenced by the growth of French and British colonial power in Egypt.

The advent of the twentieth century saw advances in bridge building and flood control, which encouraged riverfront development. By 1927, Cairo's population had reached one million. In the first half of the century, Cairo was dominated by foreign influences. During World War I (191418), it became the center for British military operations in the region, and British troops were headquartered in the city. The British military presence in Egypt was curtailed in the 1920s, but the country was reoccupied by British forces during World War II (19391945).

With the Egyptian Revolution in 1952, the colonial presence in Cairoand throughout the countrycame to an end. Since then, large numbers of Egyptians from other parts of the country have migrated to the capital, and the government has worked to accommodate a rapidly growing urban population by creating new, planned suburbs, including Nasr City, Muqattam City, and Engineers' City.

In recent decades, Cairo has become the nation's industrial, commercial, and cultural center, as well as the seat of its government.

7. Government

Cairo has only had a municipal government since 1950, and Egypt's central government plays a large role in administering the capital, controlling its budget and spending programs. The city's municipal government consists of a governor, who is appointed by the president of Egypt, and a council called the Popular Assembly, which includes both appointed and elected members. Only the elected members can vote.

8. Public Safety

Although Cairo is notorious for government corruption, it is known as a safe city with a much lower incidence of violent crime than most major Western cities. Petty theftespecially pick-pocketingis known to occur, and in recent years there have been some reports of armed robbery and sales of hard drugs.

However, the major form of violence to which Cairo has been subjected is terrorism. In 1992 Islamic extremists began a campaign of terrorism aimed at overthrowing the secular government of President Hosni Mubarak. Within the first four years, 920 people had died, including 25 foreign visitors.

Terrorism persisted in the latter part of the 1990s in spite of a government crackdown on extremist groups.

9. Economy

Cairo is the economic center of Egypt, with two-thirds of the country's gross national product generated in the greater metropolitan area. Industrialization, which began in the nineteenth century, grew rapidly following the 1952 revolution and revolved primarily around textiles (based on Egypt's traditional economic mainstay, long-staple cotton) and food processing. Other industries include iron and steel production and consumer goods. Today the majority of Cairo's work force is employed in service sector jobs, especially in government, financial services, and commerce. The tourism industry is a major source of revenue for the country, along with weapons sales, petroleum, and Suez Canal tariffs (following nationalization of the canal on July 26, 1956). Foreign aid from other countries is also an important source of income.

Although government agricultural subsidies, cheap public transportation, and low-cost medical care help keep Cairo's cost of living relatively low, the average Cairene still struggle to make ends meet, often holding down two or more jobs, or going overseas to find work and send money home. The poorest are forced to send their children to work as early as eight or nine years of age, often in "sweatshops" producing manufactured goods.

10. Environment

Industrial and vehicular emissions combine to give Cairo a serious air pollution problem. Thousands of old vehicles crowd the city streets without government regulation of emission levels, and the city's factories create additional environmental hazards. Levels of both lead and particulate emissions far exceed internationally acceptable standards. In the 1990s the Egyptian government began a serious effort to improve the city's air quality, with legislation requiring air filters in factories as well as an air-quality-improvement project, the Cairo Air Improvement Project (CAIP), designed to reduce pollution from lead and particulates. CAIP's goals included development of a vehicle emission testing and certification program; increasing the use of compressed natural gas a fuel in municipal buses; the upgrading and relocation of secondary lead smelters; and air quality monitoring and analysis.

11. Shopping

Cairo's most famous shopping venue is the Khan al-Khalili Bazaar, a large open-air market located amid medieval ruins. Featured among its wares is the handiwork of local craftsmen working in gold, silver, copper, brass, ivory, and leather, as well as such items as carpets and perfumes. The Tentmakers' Bazaar (Khiyamiyyah) in the old part of the city is known for its appliqué. In both the Khan al-Khalili and the myriad of other bazaars in the city, bargaining is a universal practice, for both tourists and locals alike. Other items available in the city's bazaars and boutiques include handwoven rugs, ceramics, glassware, inlaid boxes, hand-woven goods made from rattan and palm fiber, antiques, and a variety of clothing. A number of artisans sell high-quality crafts at their own shops or galleries.

12. Education

Primary education is free and compulsory in Cairo, as elsewhere in Egypt, and university tuition has been free since 1962. In the 1990s, Egypt's first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, spearheaded a program to improve literacy that included the creation of new public libraries; the "Reading for All" program to make inexpensive juvenile books available to children throughout the country; and a series of international book fairs. The Children's Cultural Center was officially opened by Mrs. Mubarak in Heliopolis in 1997.

Founded in the tenth century, Al-Azhar University, the premier center of religious instruction in the Islamic world, is said to be the oldest continuously operating university in the world. Cairo University, founded in 1908, produces the country's largest number of college graduates and college-educated professionals. It has about 155,000 students and 3,158 faculty members, operates some 100 research institutes and offers programs in agriculture, medicine, nursing, economics, political science, the arts, and other fields. Most facilities of the university's main campus are located to the southeast of downtown Cairo, and it operates branches in Al Fayyum and Bani Suwayf, as well as Khartoum (Sudan).

Cairo's third major institution of higher learning is Ain Shams University. Located in the heart of the city, it enrolls approximately 100,000 undergraduates and 30,000 graduate students and has a faculty of 3,700.

13. Health Care

Cairo is Egypt's major center for health care. It has the greatest concentration of medical facilities in the country, including government hospitals, such as Qasr al-Ayni and Dimardash; smaller private hospitals, such as the Anglo-American Hospital; and facilities affiliated with university medical programs. There are also hospitals and clinics for the treatment of specific types of problems, including several that specialize in eye disorders.

14. Media

Cairo is the only city in Egypt with daily newspapers, of which it has four (all distributed nationally). The oldest and best known is Al-Ahram, founded in 1876 in Alexandria. Others include Al-Alam al-Yom, a newer and livelier paper with a strong business focus, and a local edition of the Arabic world daily, Al-Hayat. Daily newspapers are also published in English (The Egyptian Gazette ) and French (Le Progrès Egyptien and Le Journal d'Égypte ). Two English-language weeklies also appear: Al-Ahram Weekly and Middle East Times. A monthly magazine,Egypt Today, features general-interest articles and events listings and is affiliated with two other monthlies, Sports & Fitness and Business Today.

Three government-operated television stations broadcast in Arabic and are supplemented by at least a half-dozen private stations, and satellite and cable TV are also available at some locations. Both AM and FM radio stations are in operation throughout the week.

15. Sports

Soccer is Cairo's (and Egypt's) most popular sport, boasting players of international stature. Matches are played every weekend to sell-out crowds, and the city's residents eagerly follow games by its two leading teams, Zamalek and Ahli. The soccer season runs from September to May, and matches are held in Cairo Stadium. Horse racing can be seen at the Heliopolis Hippodrome. Every year the city hosts the Cairo Classic, a running and cycling event.

16. Parks and Recreation

The Zoological Garden (Hadiiqat al-Hayawaan), located in the southern suburb of Giza, is over 100 years old. When it was founded in 1891, it contained the private menagerie of Egyptian ruler Khedive Ismail, and for years it was one of the world's premier zoos. Although the zoological garden no longer serves as a noteworthy botanical or zoological attraction, it remains a popular recreation area for local residents, who use it for sports, picnics, and other activities. There are several parks, as well as sporting clubs, located in the southern part of the island of Gazirah, whose northern section is occupied by the suburb of Zamalek.

With their warm climate, Cairo residents enjoy spending their leisure time in outdoor activities, from strolling and window shopping to swimming and picnicking in open areas surrounding the city.

The best venues for participant sports are the city's exclusive sports clubs, made up of middle-and upper-class Cairenes. The most prestigious is the Gazirah Sporting club, which offers facilities for basketball, squash, and tennis, as well as a golf course, two swimming pools, a running track, and a croquet lawn. Skeet shooting is offered at the neighboring Shooting Club in Dokki. Cairo also has a rugby club, yacht clubs, and a diving club.

17. Performing Arts

The new Cairo Opera House (National Cultural Centre), rebuilt in the 1980s after the nineteenth-century original was destroyed by fire in 1971, is the city's principal performing-arts venue. The Cairo Opera House presents touring theater and ballet troupes and musical groups, as well as local performers, including the Cairo Opera Ballet Company and the Cairo Orchestra. Located in the parklike setting of the Gazirah Exhibition Grounds on the island of Gazirah, the opera house complex includes an open-air theater and amphitheater, as well as two indoor halls (a main one and a smaller one). A newer facility, the 2,500-seat Cairo International Conference Centre in the suburb of Madinat Nasr, was a gift from the Chinese in 1991. It opened the following year with a performance by the Grigorovich Ballet of Russia's Bolshoi Theatre.

Popular performance sites in Islamic Cairo, especially during the holiday period of Ramadan, are the House of Zeinab Khatoun and the Al-Ghouri complex. Plays and recitals are also presented at the Ewart Hall and Wallace Theater on the campus of American University in Cairo.

Cairo is a center of legitimate Arabic theater, although performances are subject to government censorship. Both ballet and modern dance are exceptionally popular in Cairo, whose ballet company (the Cairo Ballet) was founded in 1960 with help from the Soviet Union, which sent its own dance teachers to help train the members of the company. However with the expulsion of Soviet advisers from Egypt in 1972, the Russian presence at the ballet ended. The quality of the troupe is subsequently said to have declined, and in 1991 it was bolstered by the addition of dancers from Russia and Italy.

Cairo is the film capital of the Arabic world, although its film industry has declined since its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, thanks to strict censorship and economic factors. However, Cairo's residents are avid filmgoers and flock to both Egyptian and foreign movies.

The Cairo Puppet Theater performs at the Ezbekiyya Gardens north of Ataba from October through May.

18. Libraries and Museums

The Greater Cairo Library, housed in a restored villa in Zamalek, is over 100 years old. Its holdings include books in Arabic, German, French, and English. A research library, its collection contains only non-circulating items, but its operating hours are extensive. It has good collections in the areas of art and science, as well as international periodicals. Included in its map collection are hand-drawn maps of Cairo dating back to 1480.

The Mubarak Library is located in Giza. Opened in 1995, it provides a popular library of circulating materials, with a large collection of books, magazines, newspapers, CDs, cassettes, and videos. Special services include story hours and puppet shows for preschoolers. There are also two libraries in the suburb of Heliopolis. The older Heliopolis Public Library offers organized programs for children and has a high-tech multimedia auditorium. The newer El Mustaqbal Library has only non-circulating materials. English-language books are available in libraries at the British Council and the American Cultural Centre. Cairo University has a central library, additional libraries for various disciplines, and some 100 scientific research centers.

Cairo's cultural legacy is evident in its rich and varied museum collections. The Egyptian Museum at Maydan Tahrir houses the city's premier collection of over 100,000 artifacts from nearly every period of Egyptian history. The museum's neoclassical building, which dates from 1902, has received updated security and lighting following a daring 1996 robbery attempt, and there has long been talk of building a new facility that can more adequately house the museum's voluminous holdings. Among these holdings are the treasures of Tutankhamun (d. c. 1340 B. C. ), a royal mummy room, artifacts from the Old and Middle kingdoms, jewelry rooms, and animal mummies.

The Coptic Museum, located in Misr al-Qadimah, displays items from the pre-Islamic period, including textiles, stones, and religious icons. A church on the museum grounds, popularly known as the Hanging Church, is said to date back to the fourth century A. D. and is thought to be the earliest place of Christian worship in Cairo. The renovated Museum of Islamic Art, in Bab Zuweyla, houses brass, wood, glass, inlaid items, textiles, carpets, and fountains from the Mamluk and Ottoman eras, as well as Mamluk Korans and illuminated manuscripts.

Other museums in Cairo include the War Museum, the Egyptian National Railways Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and National Military Museum, as well as a post office Museum, an agricultural museum, and a carriage museum.

19. Tourism

Popular for its warm climate and famous as the home of King Tutankhamun's treasures, Cairo is Egypt's most popular tourist city, and tourism is central to the local economy. Roughly one-third of Egypt's hotels (including three Hilton hotels) are located in the city, and souvenir shops and restaurants cater to travelers and locals alike.

In the 1990s, Egypt's $4.1 billion dollar per year tourist industry was threatened by terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists seeking to overthrow the secular government of Hosni Mubarak. In 1996 terrorists killed 18 members of a Greek tour group as they left a hotel on the outskirts of the city, bound for the Pyramids. The following year, nine German tourists were killed in an assault on a tour bus in front of the Egyptian Museum.