al-Azhar is today the most important religious university in the Muslim world, with as much as 90,000 students. It is perhaps the oldest university in the whole world (challenged only by the Koutoubiyya mosque in Marrakech).
al-Azhar has preserved its old system of education: Free boarding is offered and education is done with students gathering around a teacher, honorably referred to as shaykh, while sitting in circles. It is the students who choose which teacher's lesson they want to attend it is not organized as structured courses. Graduates receive a 'ijaaza, which contrary to a leaving certificate indicates that they have memorized a teacher's curriculum.
al-Azhar has always been of great political importance, but today most of the teachers are on the governmental side in the ongoing conflict with the Islamists. Yet many of the students have chosen the extreme version of Islam, making al-Azhar an area under constant governmental control.
The hear of al-Azhar is the mosque quarters. Unlike so many mosques around the Muslim world, it is fully open for visitors. The architecture is stunning, the size of the roofed hall is quite impressive. In short, this is not an attraction to lose.
Hotels in the nearby quarter are few but with character. The area is known as one of the ones with most noise in Cairo. Restaurants are abundant, if not always easy to spot from a distance.
Getting to this area is easy enough, take a taxi, which is cheap, bus, or walk the few and very interesting kilometres from Cairo centre.