The Giza Pyramids typically come to mind as the top tourist attraction in Cairo, Egypt, symbolic of the country’s ancient roots. Did you know that Cairo also is known as the city of one thousand mosque towers, known as minarets? Exploring Egypt during Ramadan offers unique encounters with Egyptian culture, customs, celebrations, and culinary creations.
Beyond the pharaohs, temples, and tombs, Cairo’s fascinating religious history shaped its culture from Egyptian pagan gods to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
Muslims first arrived in Egypt in 640 B.C. after conquering the country from Roman rule. Today Muslims comprise 85% of Egypt’s population, a demographic that defines the country’s cultural identity and way of life. The majority of Egypt’s Muslim population practices the religion of Islam.
As someone searching for meaningful connections and authentic experiences beyond stereotypical sightseeing, a visit to Egypt during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, offers a detour from the guidebooks for a deeper dive into the heart and soul of the country.
Ramadan is a time of festive energy in the streets and stores as the faithful shop for decorations, Eid al-Fitr gifts for loved ones, and unique ingredients to prepare the home and meals.
“At sunset, Egyptians will have their Iftar ( the Breakfast ), so the streets of big cities, especially Cairo and Alexandria, will be jammed with traffic as people rush to get home before Iftar,” says Mustafa Seif, Vice President of Cairo Transport & Touring.
Each morning, I wake up to Muslim chants of call to prayer at 5 am sounding from the nearby mosques. It’s an ideal time to explore Old Cairo, which comes to life as the faithful head to mosques to pray and street vendors begin opening up the markets and shops.
Old Cairo originated as a walled palace city founded in 969 B.C. by the Fatimids, an Arab dynasty that ruled most of North Africa. Today, museums, mosques, churches, and the famous Khan el-Khalili Bazaar populate Old Cairo.
Christianity and Judaism also influenced Egypt’s culture, co-existing in a religious complex atop the ruins of The Fortress of Babylon, built in 30 B.C. in Old Cairo.
Within its walls, I visited a Coptic Christian Church, known as The Hanging Church, because it was built in the 5th century over the remains of the fortress, 45 feet above the ground.
Under the church’s foundation, you can see the fort’s remains. Inside, intricately carved Coptic Christian art and religious icons adorn the walls and ceilings.
Coptic art emerged as folk art, assimilating many artistic elements from various ancient world civilizations. Coptic art typically focuses on religious figures, depicting them with flat faces, round eyes, and thick eyebrows.
The word Coptic comes from the old Egyptian word ‘Agbet,” which means the flood and the inhabitants of its land.
Another church resides inside, the Church of St. Marks, with unique artistic elements, including the inlaid ivory wood templon and religious icon paintings.
The Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus, celebrated as the hiding place for the Holy Family while in Egypt, is a short walk down a pedestrian path from the Hanging Church.
St. Sergius was built in the 4th century on top of a cave where it’s widely believed the Holy Family hid from King Herod of Palestine, who wanted to kill the baby Jesus.
The church holds special religious status among Coptic Christians as a refuge for the Holy Family.
The church invites visitors into a cave below the sanctuary that sheltered the Holy Family. From the chapel, I went downstairs under the sanctuary to see the Holy Family’s purported hiding place.
In 1171 AD, ruler Salah-Al-Din (Saladin) dismantled the Fatimid Caliphate and opened Cairo to all people outside the walled city.
Salah Al-Din built a fortified Citadel south of the walled city on a high hill overlooking Cairo with panoramic views.
The Citadel of Saladin, a medieval Islamic-era defense fortress, housed Egypt’s rulers and state administration. The Muhammed Ali Mosque resides within the fortress walls, known as the “Alabaster Mosque” for marble paneling on its interior and exterior walls.
The Turkish-style mosque has the highest minarets in Egypt, two that each tower 276 feet. Inside, the central dome drinks in light, illuminating the prayer floor below, and walls and ceilings showcase intricate Islamic geometric designs.
My tour guide Amir gathers us in a circle under the mosque dome to chat about his religious beliefs and Ramadan.
“The point of Ramadan is to feel the same feelings as poor people and to appreciate and thank God for what we have. We fast for self-control and abstain from bad behavior and desires. You have to be very spiritual during the fasting hours. Restaurants invite people to eat for free, and people waiting in the streets will throw you food and drink,” says Amir, who was fasting during our long, action-packed days, often in extremely hot temperatures of 100 degrees or more. During the fast, Muslims are prohibited from eating or drinking anything, not even water. If Amir was hungry or thirsty, he never showed his discomfort, inspiring my admiration for his self-discipline and stamina.
“We pray five times daily at 5 am, noon, 3:30 pm, 6:15 pm, and 7:30 pm. Ideally, we pray as a group in a mosque. If you are working or can’t pray during those times, you can make up for the missed prayers at the end of the day. We read the Koran and recite passages during prayer, which lasts about five minutes. Many Muslims bring a small carpet and place the carpet facing mecca to pray,” Amir explains.
I appreciated Amir’s candid conversation with us Western tourists about his faith. It’s moments like these, when we can better understand each other and find common ground, that reminds me why I travel—when you know more, you fear less about people and places different from your world.
Wall and ceilings of the mosque display ornate geometric motifs and intricate designs. “The Muslim influence on Egyptian arts and crafts was mainly the icons they used in their paintings. You can see this in many mosques throughout Egypt,” says Mustafa Seif, Vice President of Cairo Transport & Touring.
Outside the mosque, a large brass clock tower that keeps time was a gift from King Louis Philippe of France to Muhammad Ali Pasha, who, in turn, gifted France one of two obelisks at the entrance Luxor Temple. That obelisk now stands in Place de la Concorde in Paris, the famous traffic circle at the bottom of the Champs Elysées.
Exploring Egypt during Ramadan offers unique cultural insight and experiences. I returned home after ten days of traveling throughout the country, enlightened with an open heart and mind. To learn more, watch The Design Tourist travel show featuring fascinating Cairo.
What to know if you go:
During Ramadan, many establishments keep irregular hours or close, so keep that in mind when planning a visit to Egypt.
A visa is required for Egypt, and you can get one from the Egyptian Consulate Office in your area or upon arrival in Egypt.
In Egypt, tipping comprises a significant part of many people’s wages.
Egyptian tour operators recommend dressing modestly in clothing that covers your back and shoulders outside the hotel area. Women should cover their arms when visiting mosques.
Egypt’s weekly day of rest is Friday, the equivalent of Sunday in the United States.
Islamic holidays including Ramadan, are based on the lunar calendar and change yearly.
Standard business hours are 9 am to 5 pm daily except Friday. Many businesses also remain closed on Saturday.
For a deeper dive into Islamic art, I suggest visiting the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA), which displays, preserves, and interprets Islamic artifacts. The museum houses more than 100000 artifacts covering all branches of Islamic Art from the different periods of Islamic history.