Cairo is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, centred on the river Nile and its fertile basin surrounded by desert. It is an intense palimpsest of overlapping cultures and civilizations, each of which has lefts its mark on the city’s built heritage. The population totals 7.8 million, with almost 15 million in the greater metropolitan area; non-official figures approach 18 million. Cairo’s population grew by about 890% in the past century, fuelled partly by an influx from rural areas. Current growth is calmer: 15% in the past decade. Cairo is the fifteenth fastest-growing city in the world and the third fastest in Africa, after Lagos and Kinshasa.

Sixty per cent of the city’s residents live in unlicensed housing, some up to 14 storeys high, but many have access to modern facilities – water, gas and electricity. 100,000 people inhabit Cairo’s City of the Dead, whose small courtyard buildings, mosques and tombs provide makeshift shelter for new immigrants. The site has been occupied by the poor for several hundred years.

To redirect urban growth, Cairo’s government has fostered the development of several satellite cities in desert areas poorly served by public transport. But despite heavy promotion over three decades, by 1996 the total population of these new towns was less than Greater Cairo’s growth in just six months.