Cairo,(Arabic: El Qahira), Egypt, the nation's capital and the largest city in Africa. It is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Cairo is on the Nile River near the head of the delta, about 100 miles (160 km) south of the Mediterranean Sea. East of Cairo stretches the Eastern Desert, west of the city the Western Desert; both are part of the Sahara. The Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza are just southwest, beyond the Nile.
The Cairo area is Egypt's chief industrial and commercial center. Manufacturing plants, producing a great variety of industrial and consumer goods, are located mainly in the suburbs and other nearby cities, especially Helwan and Shubra el Kheima. In higher education, publishing, and filmmaking Cairo is the leading center in the Middle East. Tourism is an increasingly important part of the city's economy. Serving Cairo are an international airport, several railways, a subway, numerous roads and highways, and river craft on the Nile.
Most of Cairo lies on the eastern bank of the Nile; the rest occupies the western bank and several sizable islands in the river. Downtown Cairo is centrally located and extends eastward from the Nile. Found here in the modern, section of the city are European-style buildings, broad boulevards, major government offices and public buildings, foreign embassies, and several large squares and gardens. Liberation Square and Ezbekiya Garden are among the more impressive places in the city. Nearby Gezira and Roda islands and part of the west bank are an integral part of the modern section of Cairo. The better residential areas, large parks, sports facilities, and cultural institutions are here.
The old Muslim quarter, sometimes called Old Town, occupies much of eastern Cairo and centers on the walled area developed by the Fatimids and Mamelukes, beginning in the 10th century A.D. Streets are often narrow and winding; many are cobbled or unpaved. Congestion and overcrowding are common throughout the quarter. Along the eastern fringe are some of Cairo's worst slums. Landmarks in the Muslim quarter include the Citadel, a stronghold begun by Saladin in the 1170's; many historic mosques; and the bustling Bazaar, where diverse handicraft items and other goods have been sold for centuries.
Old Cairo, in the southernmost part of the city, is an ancient section with ruins of a Roman fort and settlement called Babylon. Many Copts live in this part of Cairo, making it the chief Christian quarter. The Al Muaallagah Church, the oldest place of Christian worship in Cairo, is here. Nearby are the remains of Cairo's first Arab settlement, Al Fustat.
Cairo's Egyptian Museum houses the world's finest collection of Egyptian antiquities, including the treasures of Tutankhamen. In the Museum of Islamic Art are masterpieces from throughout the Islamic world. Notable too are the Coptic Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. The 19th-century Abdin Palace, part of which is preserved as a museum, is the residence of the president of Egypt.
The National Cultural Center, inaugurated in 1988, houses a museum, a library, and several theaters. On Gezira Island, overlooking the Nile and the downtown area, is the Cairo Tower, which rises 614 feet (187 m) and is topped by an observatory.
The old Muslim quarter has many Islamic architectural treasures, particularly its mosques. Among these are Al Azhar Mosque (971), Mohammed Ali Mosque (early 1800's), Ibn Tulun Mosque (870's), and Sultan Hassan Mosque (mid-1300's). Two necropolises—the Tombs of the Caliphs and the Tombs of the Mamelukes—contain splendid tombs and monuments amid widespread ruins. Thousands of people live in the necropolises because of scarcity of housing in the city.
Al Azhar University, founded in the 10th century as an integral part of Al Azhar Mosque, is the oldest Muslim university in the world and one of Islam's chief theological schools. Cairo University (1908), American University (1919), and Ain Shams University (1950) are some of the largest universities in Egypt.