Historic Cairo
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Old Cairo, view of Roman gate under the Hanging Church
CriteriaCultural: i, ii, iv, v
Inscription1979 (3rd Session)
Area52,366 ha

Old Cairo (Arabic: مصر القديمة, romanizedMiṣr al-Qadīma, Egyptian pronunciation: Maṣr El-ʾAdīma) is a historic area in Cairo, Egypt, which includes the site of a Roman-era fortress, the Christian settlement of Coptic Cairo, and the Muslim-era settlements pre-dating the founding of Cairo proper in 969 AD. It is part of what is referred to as Historic Cairo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.[1]

Miṣr al-Qadīma is also a modern administrative district in the Southern Area of Cairo, encompassing the area from the Cairo Aqueduct to the north, to the Ring Road in the south, and from the Khalifa cemetery to the east, to the Nile Corniche in the west, as well as Roda Island, or Manial al-Roda.[2][3] It had 250,313 residents according to the 2017 census.[4]


Further information: Cairo § History

Roman fort and Coptic Cairo

The area around present-day Cairo had long been a focal point of Ancient Egypt due to its strategic location at the junction of the Nile Valley and the Nile Delta regions, which also placed it at the crossing of major routes between North Africa and the Levant.[5][6] Memphis, the capital of Egypt during the Old Kingdom and a major city up until the Ptolemaic period, was located a short distance south west of present-day Cairo.[7]

Around the turn of the 4th century,[8] as Memphis was declining in importance,[9] the Romans established a large fortress along the east bank of the Nile. The fortress, called Babylon,[a] was built by the Roman emperor Diocletian (r. 285–305) at the entrance of a canal connecting the Nile to the Red Sea that was created earlier by emperor Trajan (r. 98–115).[b][10] While no structures older than the 7th century have been preserved in the area aside from the Roman fortifications, historical evidence suggests that a sizeable city existed. The city was important enough that its bishop, Cyrus, participated in the Second Council of Ephesus in 449.[11]

The Byzantine-Sassanian War between 602 and 628 caused great hardship and likely caused much of the urban population to leave for the countryside, leaving the settlement partly deserted.[12] The site nonetheless remained at the heart of the Coptic Orthodox community, composed of Egyptian Christians who separated from the Roman and Byzantine churches in the late 4th century.[13]

Fustat in the early Muslim period

Excavated ruins of Fustat (2017 photo)

After the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 641 during the period of the Rashidun Caliphate, the Arab commander Amr ibn al-As established Fustat (Arabic: الفُسطاط, romanizedal-Fusṭāṭ) just north of the Roman fortress, on the eastern side of the Nile. At Caliph Umar's request, the Egyptian capital was moved from Alexandria to this new city.

Foundation of Al-Askar (Abbasid period)

The reach of the subsequent Umayyads Caliphs was extensive, stretching from modern-day Spain all the way to western China. However, they were overthrown by the Abbasids, who moved the capital of the Islamic empire to Baghdad. In Egypt, this shift in power involved moving control from the city of Fustat slightly north to a new Abbasid city called al-'Askar (Arabic: مدينة العسكري, romanized: Madinatu l-‘Askari, lit.'City of Cantonments or City of Sections').[14] Intended primarily as a city large enough to house an army, it was laid out in a grid pattern that could be easily subdivided into separate sections for various groups, such as merchants and officers.[citation needed]

Foundation of Al-Qata'i (Tulunid period)

Local Egyptian governors gained increasing autonomy, and in 870, governor Ahmad ibn Tulun made Egypt into a de facto independent state, though still nominally under the rule of the Abbasid Caliph. As a symbol of this independence, in 868 ibn Tulun founded yet another capital, al-Qata'i, slightly further north of al-'Askar. The capital remained there until 905, when the city was destroyed.[15]

Later history of Fustat

Detailed map of Old Cairo, circa 1800, opposite Roda Island and Giza
Map showing Medieval Cairo (Le Kaire, left) and Old Cairo (Vieux Kaire, right), circa 1800

After the destruction of al-Qatta'i, the administrative capital of Egypt returned to Fustat.[15] In the 10th century, under the Fatimids, the capital moved to nearby al-Qāhirah (Cairo), founded in 969. Cairo's boundaries grew to eventually encompass the three earlier capitals of al-Fusṭāṭ, al-Qatta'i and al-‘Askar. Fustat itself was then partly destroyed by a vizier-ordered fire that burned from 1168 to 1169, as a defensive measure against the attacking Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem.

By the end of the 15th century, the newer port of Bulaq was able to take over the role as the major commercial port from Old Cairo.[citation needed]

Modern district and population

Masr al-Qadima (Old Cairo) is a Cairo district in the Southern Area made up of one qism (police ward).[2]

Masr al-Qadima district map showing its shiakhas.

The district had 250,313 residents in 2017 spread over 12 shiakhas as follows:[4]

Shiakha Code 2017 Population
`Ayn al-Ṣîra 010910 30593
Abû al-Sa`ûd and al-Madâbigh 010901 21636
Anwar and `Ishash al-Bârûd, al- 010903 11731
Athar al-Nabî 010902 27941
Duyûra, al- 010905 27950
Fumm al-Khalîj and Dayr al-Nuḥâs 010911 6671
Khawkha and al-Qanâya 010904 8299
Kufûr et Sâ`î al-Baḥr, al- 010907 8593
Kûm Ghurâb 010912 60553
Manyal al-gharbî, al- 010909 15297
Manyal al-sharqî, al- 010908 19669
Rawḍa et al-Miqyâs, al- 010906

Historical sites and attractions

Coptic Cairo and the Babylon Fortress

The narrow streets of Coptic Cairo, inside the former Babylon Fortress

The area includes Coptic Cairo, a walled enclave on the site of the partly-preserved Babylon Fortress. Parts of the ancient fortress's walls, towers, and its gate are still visible.[16] The enclave holds a high concentration of historic Christian churches such as the Hanging Church, the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George, the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, the Church of Santa Barbara, and other Christian buildings.[16] From the 11th century to the 13th century, the Hanging Church (also known as the Church of the Virgin) and the Church of Saint Mercurius (located a short distance north of the enclave), served as the seats of the Coptic Patriarchate and the residences of the Coptic Pope.[17][18] The Church of Saint Barbara and the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus are also notable for being among Cairo's oldest preserved churches, dating from the late 7th or early 8th century.[13]

Interior of the Hanging Church in Coptic Cairo

The area also contains the Coptic Museum, which showcases the history of Coptic art from Greco-Roman to Islamic times, and the Ben Ezra Synagogue, the oldest and best-known synagogue in Cairo, where the important collection of historic documents known as the Cairo Geniza were discovered in the 19th century.[16]

Count Gabriel Habib Sakakini Pasha (1841–1923), who had become a household name in his time,[c] established the Roman Catholic Cemetery in Old Cairo.[20][better source needed]

Historical sites near the fortress

Courtyard of the Amr ibn al-As Mosque

To the north of the Babylon Fortress is the Amr ibn al-'As Mosque, the first mosque in Egypt and the most important religious centre of what was formerly Fustat, but rebuilt many times since.[21] A part of the former city of Fustat has also been excavated to the east of the mosque and of the Coptic enclave.[22][23][24]

Nearby and to the northwest of Babylon Fortress and the mosque is the Monastery of Saint Mercurius (or Dayr Abu Sayfayn), an important and historic Coptic religious complex consisting of the Church of Saint Mercurius (mentioned above), the Church of Saint Shenute, and the Church of the Virgin (also known as al-Damshiriya).[25] Several other historic churches are also situated to the south of Babylon Fortress.[26]

Other nearby attractions

Further north is the Cairo Citadel Aqueduct, built during the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods (from the 12th to 16th centuries) to supply water to the Cairo Citadel to the east. Long sections of the elevated aqueduct, as well as its intake tower near the river, are still standing today.[27]

River and footbridge between Roda Island and Old Cairo

Located on the Nile River close to Coptic Cairo is Roda Island, which is connected by a nearby footbridge. Several historic monuments are located in the island, including the Nilometer, built in 861 on the orders of the Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil. Although it was repaired and given a new roof in later centuries, its basic structure is still preserved, making it the oldest preserved Islamic-era structure in Cairo today.[28][29]

In 2021, the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization was opened to visitors in a new building in Old Cairo, near ancient Fustat. The museum provides an overview of Egyptian history with artefacts drawn from the existing collections of other museums around the country.[30] The 22 ancient royal mummies formerly housed in the Egyptian Museum at Tahrir Square were moved here in 2021.[31]

Conservation and restoration

The effort to conserve Egypt's monuments has existed since the 19th century. In 1881, Khedive Tawfiq founded the Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l'Art Arabe.

In 1979, UNESCO designated Old Cairo, as part of wider Historic Cairo, as a World Heritage Site, calling it "one of the world's oldest Islamic cities, with its famous mosques, madrasas, hammams and fountains" and "the new centre of the Islamic world, reaching its golden age in the 14th century."[32][33]

The archeological site of Fustat, which include excavations to the east of the main historical enclave, has been threatened by encroaching construction and modern development.[23][34]



  1. ^ Unrelated to ancient Babylon in Mesopotomia.
  2. ^ The historical chronicler John of Nikiou attributed the construction of the fortress to Trajan, but more recent excavations date the fortress to the time of Diocletian. A succession of canals connecting the Nile Valley with the Red Sea were also previously dug around this region in different periods prior to Trajan. Trajan's canal fell out of use some time between the reign of Diocletian and the 7th century.
  3. ^ He also built a notable palace in the El-Sakakini area in 1897.[19]


  1. ^ "Historic Cairo". UNESCO World Heritage Centre. United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Retrieved 7 September 2021.
  2. ^ a b "Southern Area". www.cairo.gov.eg. Retrieved 2023-02-19.
  3. ^ مجدي, أحمد (2009-02-09). "خرائط "أحياء القاهرة" من موقع الادارة العامة للمعلومات والتوثيق". خطوات في الجغرافيا (in Arabic). Retrieved 2023-02-19.
  4. ^ a b Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) (2017). "2017 Census for Population and Housing Conditions". CEDEJ-CAPMAS. Retrieved 2023-02-21.
  5. ^ Gabra et al. 2013, p. 18.
  6. ^ Bloom, Jonathan M.; Blair, Sheila S., eds. (2009). "Cairo". The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195309911.
  7. ^ Snape, Steven (2014). The Complete Cities of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson. pp. 170–177. ISBN 9780500051795.
  8. ^ Hawass & Brock 2003, p. 456.
  9. ^ "Memphis (Egypt)". Encarta. Microsoft. 2009. Archived from the original on 6 October 2009. Retrieved 24 July 2009.
  10. ^ Gabra et al. 2013, pp. 20–22.
  11. ^ Gabra et al. 2013, p. 33.
  12. ^ Abu-Lughod 1971, p. 6.
  13. ^ a b Gabra et al. 2013, p. 75.
  14. ^ "Al-Qatta'i". menic.utexas.edu. Archived from the original on 2012-07-11. Retrieved 2009-08-15.
  15. ^ a b "Cairo History: The City of Tents". Archived from the original on 2007-08-24. Retrieved 2009-08-15.
  16. ^ a b c Williams 2018, pp. 48–51.
  17. ^ Den Heijer, Johannes; Immerzeel, Mat; Boutros, Naglaa Hamdi D.; Makhoul, Manhal; Pilette, Perrine; Rooijakkers, Tineke (2018). "Christian Art and Culture". In Melikian-Chirvani, Assadullah Souren (ed.). The World of the Fatimids. Toronto; Munich: Aga Khan Museum; The Institute of Ismaili Studies; Hirmer. p. 202. ISBN 978-1926473123.
  18. ^ Gabra et al. 2013, pp. 80, 178, 182–183.
  19. ^ Egy.com Archived 2008-02-25 at the Wayback Machine
  20. ^ "Asma el Bakri, AlexCinema". www.bibalex.org. Retrieved 2023-06-06.
  21. ^ Williams 2008, p. 39.
  22. ^ Gabra et al. 2013, pp. 275–279.
  23. ^ a b Williams 2018, pp. 47–48.
  24. ^ Toler, Pamela D. (2016). "In Fragments from Fustat, Glimpses of a Cosmopolitan Old Cairo". AramcoWorld. Retrieved 2023-06-06.
  25. ^ Gabra et al. 2013, p. 178.
  26. ^ Gabra et al. 2013, p. 230.
  27. ^ Williams 2018, pp. 51–52.
  28. ^ Williams 2018, p. 42.
  29. ^ Behrens-Abouseif 1992, p. 50.
  30. ^ Reguly, Eric (30 October 2021). "Egypt's long-overdue museum revolution will thrill cultural tourists. Pity about the pandemic". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 2023-06-06.
  31. ^ Ebrahim, Nadeen (2021-04-03). "Egyptian mummies paraded through Cairo on way to new museum". Reuters. Retrieved 2023-06-06.
  32. ^ Centre, UNESCO World Heritage. "Historic Cairo". whc.unesco.org. Retrieved 2018-03-22.
  33. ^ Antoniou, Jim. "The Conversation of the old City of Cairo" (PDF).
  34. ^ "Islamic Egypt's first capital under threat". Yahoo News. 2014-04-17. Retrieved 2023-06-06.


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