Wondering Egypt

Islamic Cairo
By Ethan Gelber & the BikeAbout team
  |  Gorp.com

Islamic Cairo (sometimes called Medieval Cairo) lies East of central Cairo and is a dizzying maze of streets filled with sights and smells that overwhelm your senses. It is not surprising that it is yet another UNESCO World Heritage site. With the highest density of people in Cairo (and perhaps the Middle East), Islamic Cairo hums with activity. Walking along its streets, trying to find our way from one site to another, it was not difficult to lose ourselves and pretend that we were living in another time. Vendors line both sides of the streets, selling spices, fruit, fish, bread, clothes, shoes, tools and any number of handy (and not so handy) household items. Everyone seemed to be talking at once, shouting greetings, prices and the latest sales and news.

As these sights and smells swirled around us, we walked along and were passed by donkey-led carts and people carrying impossibly huge bundles of goods. Kids raced around us headed for school (every single one of them saying,"Hello! How are you? What is your name? Welcome to Egypt!"), dogs, cats, and chickens seemed perfectly at home dodging between the feet of passing donkeys and horses. Every tea store and juice stand seemed to be filled to capacity. If it had not been for the occasional Michael Jordan T-shirt and exhaust-spewing truck or car we could have easily been walking around in the Cairo of hundreds of years ago.

Perhaps the most spectacular part of Islamic Cairo is the Citadel, a medieval fortress perched on a hill overlooking the entire Nile valley and Cairo. The Citadel looks west towards Cairo and the pyramids at Giza and dominates the entire area.

Islamic Cairo is characterized by a large number of medieval mosques that seem to tower over the area. We set out for Islamic Cairo with our guidebook under our arm, a bag of fig cookies in our hand, and a general plan. While there are 150 sites of historical interest in Islamic Cairo, we attempted to limit ourselves to several mosques and the Citadel.

While previously, when visiting mosques, we have been limited to visiting only a small section of them, today we were able actually to enter the mosques and walk around. All of us agreed that this was an amazing experience. Actually being able to stroll around and examine the interior from every angle, allowing us to appreciate the beauty and power of the mosques. Many of those that we visited were not the typical North African defensive buildings that we were used to seeing in Tunisia. Instead, many of them were more open and accessible.

We began the day at the base of the Citadel, on the Midan Salah ad-Din ("midan" means"square," as in "town square," not the shape) with the Mosque of Sultan Hassan (constructed by the most famous Muslim general, remember?). Built between 1356 and 1363 AD with stones believed to have been taken from the Great Pyramids at Giza, this mosque was originally a madrassa (theology school) and is a classic example of Mamluk architecture. Each of the four iwans (vaulted halls) served as classrooms for each main school of Sunni Islam. To make it easier for worshipers to concentrate on their prayers, the interior does not have any decoration. The only remotely ostentatious elements in the mosque were the immensely long chains hanging from the ceiling that held oil lamps. The minarets (towers) connected to this mosque were some of the largest we had ever seen (they are the second tallest in all of Cairo!).

We then crossed the street and toured the Ar-Rifa'i Mosque, which was built much later (in 1869) by Khushyar, mother of khedive Ismail (khedive is a Mamluk ruler), to serve as a tomb for her family and future khedives. Here we visited the tombs of King Farouk (former king of Egypt during the British occupation) as well as of the Shah of Iran.

Next we were off to visit one of the largest mosques in the world: the Ibn Tulun Mosque. It was so big that as we wandered around we had to shout to hear each other across the enormous inner courtyard. One exciting thing we did was to climb a minaret and look out over Islamic Cairo and the rest of Cairo — at least as far as we could see given the pollution in the air.

Next we headed in the direction of the Citadel through the surrounding and twisty streets. It is difficult to describe what it is like walking through the streets of Islamic Cairo. As we walked and looked and smelled, our senses seemed to approach the point of overloading. There just seemed to be too many colors, sights and smells for our minds to even attempt to process.

As we marched around the walls of the Citadel, looking for the entrance, it was not hard to imagine the Crusaders gazing upward at the same walls and wondering how in the world they were going to attack. Once we entered the Citadel we headed towards the Mohammed Ali Mosque. In the courtyard we looked up at the clock that was given to Mohammed Ali by King Louis-Philippe of France in exchange for the Pharaonic obelisk from Luxor (in southern Egypt) that still stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. The French seem to have gotten the better part of the deal — the clock has apparently never worked! The interior of the mosque was quite large and ornately decorated. Back outside, the minarets seemed to reach up into the clouds they were so tall.

As the sun started to set, we headed to the walls of the Citadel and once again looked out over Cairo. We were able to see across the valley of the Nile and we thought again about how so many of Egypt's people live on so little land. As the sun dipped lower towards the horizon we were even able to see the Pyramids of Giza on the horizon, on the far side of the valley.


Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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