Old Cairo, known in Egyptian as Masr al-Qadima, is technically the area of Cairo south of Sayyida Zeinab and Garden City. Locals sometimes call the area Fustat, in reference to the first Muslim city established in the area. Tourists will talk about Coptic Cairo, which is the Christian quarter of Cairo, containing numerous churches and other religious buildings in the Religion Compound.
The area of Old Cairo known as Coptic Cairo, pretty much opposite the southern tip of Rhoda Island, has been inhabited since perhaps as early as the 6th Century BC, and was known as Babylon in Egypt. In the 2nd Century AD, Emperor Trajan built the Roman Fortress of Babylon on the Nile, to guard the Nile trade routes. (It is possible there had already been a fort here, around which the original, pre-Roman settlement had grown.)
Many inhabitants in the area converted at one time or another to Christianity, and some of the churches still standing today, such as the Hanging Church and the Church of St Sergius, might date back to as late as the 4th and 5th Centuries AD.
When the Muslim army of Amr Ibn al-Aas took the town in 641 AD, he built a camp there and headed off to Alexandria to complete his conquest of Egypt. On his triumphant return from Alex, al-Aas found a dove nesting in his tent. He declared this a sign from Allah, and commissioned the first mosque ever built in Egypt, the Mosque of Amr Ibn al-Aas. Although altered and rebuilt several times, this mosque still stands. A new city was built around the mosque, and known as al-Fustat, "the Camp." This was effectively Egypt's capital city until the 10th Century Fatimid conquest.
Nowadays, the area of Old Cairo of most interest to tourists is Coptic Cairo. This charming area of narrow, cobbled streets has a serene atmosphere that befits its incredible concentration of religious monuments. As well as the Religion Compound, which contains a number of churches, plus Egypt's oldest synagogue, you can also see the remains of the Roman fortress, and visit the Coptic Museum. The museum in particular is fascinating, acting as a sort of cultural bridge between the Pharaonic, Greek, Roman and Christian periods.
Coptic Cairo is very easy to get to: Mar Girgis Metro station (four stops south of Sadat station in Downtown) is directly opposite the Coptic Museum.
Just north and east of Coptic Cairo is the site of ancient Fustat. Nothing but the Amr Ibn al-Aas Mosque remains, which – as the oldest mosque in Egypt – is well worth a visit. Fustat used to stretch away to the north-east from the mosque: what started out as merely a camp developed into a series of sophisticated cities built by successive Muslim conquerors. This conglomeration of cities, known as Fustat-Masr, began to decline under the Fatimids, and was finally destroyed in the 12th Century lest it fall into Crusader hands.
These days, much of the former area of Fustat is a shanty town occupied by Cairo's rubbish collectors, the Zabaleen – who collect, sift, re-use and recycle most of Cairo's enormous quantities of trash. It's a dirty but in many ways inspiring work, and it's possible to visit the Zabaleen community as part of the Solar Cities Urban Eco Tour. © NileGuide