Islamic Cairo is the city at its most exotic, chaotic and exhilarating; home to many of its most impressive monuments and beguiling markets.
The name is a bit of a misnomer, not least because all of Cairo is Islamic! It's a name used, by tourists rather than locals, to describe the areas of the city built and settled by successive ruling powers between about the 8th Century AD, and the start of the 19th Century.
For the most part, Islamic Cairo is the city built by the 10th Century Fatimid rulers, which they called al-Qahira. This is the Arabic name for Cairo today, and can variously be translated as "the Conqueror", "the Victorious", or even "the Oppressive"! The north and south gates of the city still survive: Bab al-Futuh and Bab an-Nasr to the north, and Bab Zwayla to the south.
Salah ad-Din consolidated disparate parts of the city and built the Citadel in the 12th Century, and the Mamluks extended the city in all directions, until they were ousted by the Ottomans in the 16th Century.
Wandering the cramped, winding lanes of Islamic Cairo is like stepping back in time. Mosques and other Islamic monuments peer down on bustling street markets, where shoppers and vendors dance around each other in a ritual of haggling that has not changed in hundreds of years.
Some of the monuments and streets have been lovingly restored; others are decrepit, run-down and strewn with rubbish. Stooped old women shuffle along clad in black, whilst hip kids on motorbikes sound their horns, and swerve around young boys delivering tea to the traders.
The sweet smell of shisha pipe smoke mingles with the pungent aroma of spices and rotting garbage, and the clack of backgammon pieces rings staccato against walls of blaring Arabic pop. And above it all, five times a day, the magnificent, haunting Call to Prayer sounds out, a summons to the faithful.
The nominal centre of Islamic Cairo is the area known locally as Azhar, which includes Midan al-Hussein, Khan al-Khalili bazaar (often known just as the Khan), and al-Azhar Mosque. North from the Khan towards Bab al-Futuh is an area known as al-Gamaliya. This stretch of al-Muizz li-Din-Allah street has been beautifully restored, and contains numerous Islamic monuments, such as Beit al-Souhaymi, and al-Hakim Mosque.
West from Khan al-Khalili, down the hurly-burly market of al-Muski street, leads to Ataba – a crazy market area that begins to shade in to Downtown Cairo.
South of the Khan, al-Muizz li-Din-Allah leads past monuments such as the Mosque-Madrassa of al-Ghouri, to the south gate, Bab Zwayla. West of here, past the Islamic Art Museum, is an area known as Abdeen, containing the Abdeen Palace Museum. (To the south and south-west are the neighbourhoods of Mounira and Sayeda Zeinab.)
South of Bab Zwayla is the Street of the Tentmakers. To the south-east, Darb al-Ahmar leads towards the Citadel, and mosques such as Sultan Hassan and (a little further away) Ibn Tulun. This area is known as al-Qalaa.
A little way south-east of Khan al-Khalili, on the huge Salah Salem road, is al-Azhar Park (backing on to Darb al-Ahmar). On the other side of the road are the Mamluk Cities of the Dead.
In other words, the area known rather loosely as Islamic Cairo is huge! There is enough to see and do here to keep you busy for a lifetime. The best way to visit is just to walk around, and get deliciously lost. Once you've had enough, a taxi is never far away!
Note that since Islamic Cairo is generally more conservative than other parts of the city, visitors should dress appropriately. As a bare minimum, women should cover their shoulders and knees, and men are best off not wearing shorts.