Islamic Cairo

Tailor-made Travel

Few foreigners enter Islamic Cairo without equal measures of excitement and trepidation. Streets are narrow and congested, overhung with latticed balconies. Mosques, bazaars and medieval lanes abound; the smell of sheeshas and frying offal wafts through alleys where muezzins wail “Allahu akbar!” (God is most great) and beggars entreat “Ya mohannin, ya rabb” (O awakener of pity, O master) – as integral to street life as the artisans and hawkers. The sights, sounds, smells and surprises draw you back time after time, and getting lost or dispensing a little baksheesh is a small price to pay for the experience. You can have a fascinating time exploring this quarter of the city without knowing anything about its history or architecture, but a little knowledge of both will bring it more to life. In 1992 an earthquake caused a lot of damage in Islamic Cairo, which ironically led to many mosques and monuments being repaired and restored to their original glory after years of neglect (some of them already having been given a knocking by an earlier earthquake in 1884). Most are now open once again, but one or two are still undergoing restoration and thus closed to the public.

Brief history

New cities in Cairo have invariably been constructed to the north of the old, an east–west spread being prevented by the Muqattam Hills and the Nile, while the prevailing northerly wind blew the smoke and smell of earlier settlements away from newer areas. Thus when Amr’s Muslim troops took Egypt for Islam in 641 AD, they sited their city, Fustat, north of Coptic Babylon (see “Old Cairo”). Similarly, when the last Umayyad caliph, Marwan II, burned down Fustat while retreating from the Abbasids in 750, they ordered the city rebuilt further north. In 870, the Abbasids’ viceroy, Ahmed Ibn Tulun, asserting his independence, founded a new city further north again. Inspired by the imperial capital of Samarra, it consisted of a gigantic congregational mosque, palace and hippodrome, surrounded by military quarters. In 905, however, the Abbasids invaded Egypt and razed it, sparing only the great Mosque of Ibn Tulun. After this, people lived wherever they could amid the remains of these earlier cities, together known as Masr.

Foundation of Al-Qahira

The Fatimids, who took Egypt in 969, distanced themselves from Masr by building a new city further north again, which they called Al-Qahira (The Triumphant), and key features of their city still remain. It was at the Al-Azhar Mosque that Al-Muizz, Egypt’s first Fatimid ruler, delivered a sermon before vanishing into his palaces (which survive only in name); the Mosque of Al-Hakim commemorates the caliph who ordered Masr’s destruction after residents objected to proclamations of his divinity. The great Northern Walls and the Bab Zwayla gate date from 1092, when the Armenian-born army commander Al-Gyushi, having reconquered Al-Qahira for the Fatimids following its 1068 fall to the Seljuk Turks, expanded the city’s defences northwards and southwards.

The Ayyubids and Mamlukes

The disparate areas of Masr and Al-Qahira only assumed a kind of unity after Saladin (Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi), having booted out the Fatimids in 1171, built the Citadel on a rocky spur between Al-Qahira and Masr, and walls which linked up with the aqueduct between the Nile and the Citadel, so as to surround the whole. His successors, the Ayyubids, erected pepperpot-shaped minarets and the magnificent tombs of the Abbasid caliphs and Imam al-Shafi’i in the Southern Cemetery, but when the sultan died heirless and his widow needed help to stay in power, the Mamlukes who ran the army took control.

The Mamluke era is divided into periods named after the garrisons of troops from which the sultans intrigued their way to power: the Qipchak or Tartar Bahri Mamlukes (1250–1382), originally stationed by the river (bahr in Arabic); and their Circassian successors, the Burgi Mamlukes (1382–1517), quartered in a tower (burg) of the Citadel. Despite their brutal politics of assassinations and poisonings, the Mamlukes were also aesthetes, commissioning mosques, mansions and sabil-kuttabs (koranic schools with fountains) that are still the glory of today’s Islamic Cairo. Although urban life was interrupted by their bloody conflicts, the city nevertheless maintained public hospitals, libraries and schools. Caravanserais overflowed with the spices of the East, and with Baghdad laid waste by the Mongols, Cairo had no peer in the Islamic world, its wonders inspiring many of the tales in the Thousand and One Nights.

The Ottoman period

In 1517 the Ottoman Turks reduced Egypt from an independent state to a vassal province in their empire, and the Mamlukes from masters to mere overseers. When the French and British extended the Napoleonic War to Egypt they found a city living on bygone glories, introspective and archaic, its population dwindling as civil disorder increased.

The city’s renaissance – and the ultimate shift from Islamic to modern Cairo – is owed to Mohammed Ali (1805–48) and his descendants. An Ottoman servant who turned against his masters, Mohammed Ali effortlessly decapitated the vestiges of Mamluke power and raised a huge mosque and palaces upon the Citadel. Foreigners were hired to advise on urban development, and Khedive Ismail’s Minister of Public Works ordered Boulevard Mohammed Ali (now Sharia Qalaa) to be ploughed through the old city (asking rhetorically: “Do we need so many monuments? Isn’t it enough to preserve a sample?”). As Bulaq, Ezbekiya and other hitherto swampy tracts were developed into a modern, quasi-Western city, Islamic Cairo ceased to be the cockpit of power and the magnet for aspirations. But as visitors soon discover, its contrasts, monuments and vitality remain as compelling as ever.

The Citadel

The Citadel presents the most dramatic feature of Cairo’s skyline: a centuries-old bastion crowned by the needle-like minarets of the great Mosque of Mohammed Ali. The complex was begun by Saladin, the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, the Crusaders’ chivalrous foe. Saladin’s reign (1171–93) saw much fortification of the city, though it was his nephew, Al-Kamil (ruled 1218–38), who developed the Citadel as a royal residence.

The main features of the Citadel as it is today, however, are associated with Mohammed Ali, a worthy successor to the Mamlukes and Turks. In 1811 he feasted with 470 leading Mamlukes in the Citadel palace, bade them farewell with honours, then had them ambushed in the sloping lane behind the Bab al-Azab, the locked gate (now closed to the public) opposite the Akhur Mosque. An oil painting in the Manial Palace on Roda Island depicts the apocryphal tale of a Mamluke who escaped by leaping the walls on his horse; in reality he survived by not attending the feast.

The Citadel remained the residence of Egypt’s rulers for nearly seven hundred years. Mohammed Ali prophesied that his descendants would rule supreme as long as they resided here, and his grandson Ismail’s move to the Abdin Palace did indeed foreshadow an inexorable decline in their power.

On entering the Citadel, keep the wall to your right and follow it round into the southern courtyard of the southern enclosure, whose buildings include the former Mint (currently closed). A passage from the courtyard’s north side leads through to the central courtyard; to the left of this passage, stairs lead up to the back of the Citadel’s most dominant structure, the Mohammed Ali Mosque.

Mohammed Ali Mosque

The Turkish-style Mohammed Ali Mosque, which so ennobles Cairo’s skyline, disappoints at close quarters: its domes are sheathed in tin, its alabaster surfaces grubby. Nonetheless, it exudes folie de grandeur, starting with the ornate clock given by the French king Louis Philippe (in exchange for the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde, Paris), which has never worked; and the Turkish Baroque ablutions fountain, resembling a giant Easter egg. Inside the mosque, whose lofty dome and semi-domes are decorated like a Fabergé egg, the use of space is classically Ottoman, reminiscent of the great mosques of Istanbul. A constellation of chandeliers and globe lamps illuminates Thuluth inscriptions, a gold-scalloped mihrab and two minbars, one faced in alabaster, the other strangely Art Nouveau. Mohammed Ali is buried beneath a white marble cenotaph, behind a bronze grille on the right of the entrance. The mosque itself was erected between 1824 and 1848, but the domes had to be demolished and rebuilt in the 1930s.

Cities of the Dead

It’s thought that at least five hundred thousand Cairenes live amid the Cities of the Dead, two vast cemeteries that stretch away from the Citadel to merge with newer shantytowns below the Muqattam. The Southern Cemetery, sprawling to the southeast of Ibn Tulun’s Mosque, is only visible from the Muqattam, or at close quarters. The Northern Cemetery, by contrast, is an unforgettably eerie sight, with dozens of mausoleums rising from a sea of dwellings along the road from Cairo Airport.

Although tourists generally – and understandably – feel uneasy about viewing the cemeteries’ splendid funerary architecture with squatters living all around or in the tombs, few natives regard the Cities of the Dead as forbidding places. Egyptians have a long tradition of building “houses” near their ancestral graves and picnicking or even staying there overnight; other families have simply occupied them. By Cairene standards these are poor but decent neighbourhoods, with shops, schools and electricity, maybe even piped water and sewers. The saints buried here provide a moral touchstone and baraka for their communities, who honour them with moulids.

Though these are generally not dangerous quarters, it’s best to exercise some caution when visiting. Don’t flaunt money or costly possessions, and be sure to dress modestly; women should have a male escort, and will seem more respectable if wearing a headscarf. You’ll be marginally less conspicuous on Fridays, when many Cairenes visit their family plots; but remember that mosques can’t be entered during midday prayers. At all events, leave the cemeteries before dark, if only to avoid getting lost in their labyrinthine alleys – and don’t stray to the east into the inchoate (and far riskier) slums around the foothills of the Muqattam.

Haret al-Yahud

Behind the palace that once stood on the western side of Bayn al-Qasrayn, there was a garden called Bustan al-Kafuri, which was known in Ayyubid times for the fine hashish that was grown there. After the garden was destroyed (which the historian al-Maqrizi reckoned a fitting punishment for such sinfulness), the area became Cairo’s Jewish quarter, and still bears the name Haret al-Yahud. Most of Cairo’s Jews left after the triple blows of Israeli independence, the Suez Crisis and the Six-Day War made their position increasingly difficult, and though a few still live in the downtown area, none now live in the Haret al-Yahud. Two synagogues still survive among the quarter’s labyrinthine lanes, but are not open to the public. From Sharia al-Muizz, you can enter the quarter at its southern end along Sharia al-Makassisse (second left heading north from al-Muski; see map), or at its northern end along Sharia al-Khurunfush, by the Sabil-Kuttab of Abd al-Rahman Katkhuda (see map). You’ll probably get lost in the maze of alleys and covered passageways, crammed with workshops and dwellings, but local residents are generally very helpful, and will often go out of their way to guide you through the labyrinth.

Parts of a mosque

All mosques are aligned towards Mecca, which from Cairo means towards the southeast. Larger mosques will have a courtyard (sahn) in the centre of which there may be a fountain for pre-prayer ablutions, with the covered prayer hall at the Mecca-facing end. In mosques with a courtyard, the prayer hall is also sometimes called the liwan, which more generally means a covered area off an open yard.

Inside the prayer hall, the qibla (Mecca-facing) wall is marked by a niche called the mihrab, usually beautifully decorated. The mihrab is not religiously significant in itself: it merely marks the direction of prayer. Usually placed next to it is a wooden pulpit called the minbar, from which the imam (not a priest, but the person who leads the service and looks after the mosque, like a Protestant pastor) reads the Friday sermon.

The most striking feature of most mosques is the minaret, from which the call to prayer is issued. Nowadays, loudspeakers are used, but at one time the muezzin (the man who makes the call, sometimes the mosque’s imam) would have climbed the minaret five times a day and bellowed it out without any artificial aid.

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updated 4/26/2021
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