Cairo is a dynamic, ever-evolving city, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the reason most travelers visit Cairo: the iconic pyramids of Giza. While much is made of the capital’s proximity to these ancient tombs, few tourists take advantage of the Islamic structures that have come to define the cityscape of modern Cairo — the so-called City of a Thousand Minarets.
The best way to explore Cairo’s Muslim heritage is with a tour of its most impressive mosques, many of which are conveniently situated in the heart of the Old City.
Hiring a Guide
While you don’t need to hire a tour guide in order to see Cairo’s best mosques (the residents of Old Cairo are exceedingly friendly, and many will be happy to show you around their neighborhood for free), doing so will provide you with priceless historical insights. As far as how to find that best Cairo guide, that can be a more complex matter.
Book a tour through a trusted outfitter or do some digging online, where you’ll find some guides come highly recommended by internet users, such as a man named Samer “Sem Sem” Saied (named the “World’s Best Tour Guide” by The Telegraph in 2016) and Ayman Ahmed, who not only specializes in Cairo’s mosques, but also in the city’s Christian Coptic Quarter.
If you feel uncomfortable traveling with someone not personally recommended to you, your Cairo hotel (The Nile Ritz-Carlton sits near many Cairo mosques on this list) will have a group of guides they work closely with.
Mosque of Ibn Tulun
The oldest mosque in Cairo, dating back to the ninth century, Ibn Tulun sits in the heart of Old Cairo and is the ideal place to start your Cairo mosque tour.
Among the highlights of a visit to this mosque, which is also the largest in Cairo in addition to being the oldest, is its towering minaret, whose current incarnation took shape at the turn of the 14th century under Sultan Lajin.
Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan
The Mosque-Madrassa is newer than Ibn Tulun — and technically smaller, as well — though it’s still rather huge and old, having been completed in the year 1359.
The main draw of a visit here is the sheer extravagance of this mosque, from its towering, egg-shaped “Great Dome” to the ornate chandeliers and light fixtures that hang throughout and the luxurious carpets on which its worshippers pray.
Al Hussein Mosque
Al Hussein mosque sits between the previous two Cairo mosques on this list in terms of age and is not particularly massive in size. However, its history makes it perhaps the most important one in all of Cairo, having been named after one of the grandsons of the prophet Muhammad.
While it’s unclear whether the most popular rumor about the mosque (that Hussein’s head is buried here) is actually true, one cherished artifact you can see with your own eyes when you visit the mosque is the oldest intact version of the Holy Quran.
Other Notable Cairo Mosques
The city’s nickname notwithstanding, it’s unclear how many mosques are actually in Cairo, though it’s not inconceivable that a city of 20 million people could be home to 1,000 mosques.
Regardless of how many mosques there are in Cairo, notable ones besides those listed above are the Mosque of Muhammad Ali and Al-Hakim Mosque, which is remarkable, among other reasons, for its irregular shape.
See Cairo’s Minarets at Sunset
Cairo is home to many viewpoints, but a few stand out when it comes to getting nice minaret views at sunset. If you’re not staying at the aforementioned The Nile Ritz-Carlton, whose rooftop provides one of Cairo’s most impressive panoramas, you could visit Al-Azhar Park, which is elevated and offers a 360-degree view of the city.
Alternatively, and perhaps somewhat ironically, the minarets of many mosques themselves make great vantage points for spotting other Cairo mosque minarets, including the one at 13th-century Qalawun Complex and the al-Muayyad minaret atop the Bab Zuwayla city gate.