Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 September 2008
Issue No. 913
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Labyrinthine magic

Taher El-Barbary invites you to take a stroll in a place full of beginnings and no end

Click to view caption
Al-Hussein, Gammaliya and Al-Muiz are but a few attractions in Islamic Cairo. Whether to sit at Al-Fishawy Café or shop for souvenirs there's simply something for everyone in this monumental area

Cairo visitors, either natives or foreigners, may have the same feelings of bewilderment every time they try to go through the streets of Islamic Cairo on foot. You can just let your instincts lead you, particularly if you are deciding to have a package tour on one of Ramadan days. Or you can follow the path that we outline in this article. Of course, the choices are many; however, the authority of the occasion directs you wholeheartedly to Islamic Cairo. Your religious beliefs are entirely of no real significance, since you are now willing to be a victim of an accumulation of histories; the heritage of the human race during different eras. Muslim or not or how to start won't be the problem. The real problem is how to absorb the places, the buildings, the historic complexes and the variability of visions and the sights your eyes catch.

It's impossible to resist the idea of going round the area; even if you might have visited it several times before. There is always something new. I don't mean some new building or some new shop. The very thing I mean is that, the distinctive features of the place are always new to your eyes though they are deeply rooted in time.

THE STARTING POINT: You can enter Islamic Cairo from Ataba Square proceeding east on Gawhar Al-Qaed Street. On both sides of the street you will find several traces that indicate your advance towards an area of unprecedented feelings of history. Turn north on Al-Muiz Street. This street in the historic Gammaliya district in central Cairo seems to be the most appropriate starting point because you are going to find yourself directly in the din of the story. It's not fair to notice the narrowness of this street if compared to the more modern avenues, though it includes Cairo's greatest live museums of Islamic and mediaeval monuments. You can call it an open-air museum. The street is named after the Fatimid caliph le-Din Allah who conquered Cairo in 969 AD.

Enter Al-Muiz Street through Bab Zuweila to the south. Bab Zuweila's archway served as the southern gate of the fortress wall that encircled Islamic or Fatimid Cairo. The caliph used to watch the annual pilgrimage caravan going to Mecca from his palace that adjoined the gate. The same gate was notorious as a site of public executions. Criminals were hung in cupolas in the gate's walls. It was named after the Zuweila tribe that lived nearby. Bab Zuweila was also called Babet Al-Mutawali (the Responsible) and Al-Mutawali was responsible for conveying the problems of the people to the caliph.

The Mosque of Sultan Al-Muayyad Sheikh is on the east side of Bab Zuweila. You can climb the minaret of the mosque through a door in the prayer hall and enjoy a spectacular view of Islamic Cairo from above.

It's an area full of beginnings and no end, that's to say one cannot catch everything in the first sight of the place. In case you are visiting for the first time and unfamiliar with the dress code of such an area, be sure you are decently covered before contemplating a tour in the mosque. The religious traditions, though not so rigid, ought to be taken into consideration. On any Ramadan day, all the mosques of the area are crowded with people from all the Egyptian regions and Arab countries. Ramadan as a religious occasion is full of rituals and ceremonies. It's the month of fasting. Muslims all over the world consider it a sacred month ( Al-Shahr Al-Haram).

If you continue walking north on Al-Muiz Street, you will find yourself in the middle of a garlic and onion market. There are many garlic shops in this area which is famous for this kind of trade. At the end of this market, there is the Mosque of Al-Hakim Be'amr Allah, the third Fatimid caliph. He ruled when he was only 11 years old and had his tutor murdered when he was 15. He is famous for his strange actions and violence. He even ordered shoemakers to stop manufacturing shoes for women to prohibit them from leaving their houses or walking in the street. This mosque was actually built by his father Al-Hakim, completed in 1013, and was used as a prison for crusaders in the period of Mohamed Ali. It was restored in the 1980s and is now a good example of the Islamic art of the period.

Al-Muiz Street continues through Islamic Cairo's northern walls and gates, including Bab Al-Nasr, Gate of Victory, and Bab Al-Fotouh, Gate of Conquests. They were both built in 1087 and were enlarged by Salaheddin Al-Ayoubi. It is possible to walk on the walls and near these gates by jumping from the roof of Al-Hakim Mosque and then to the walls. These gates demonstrate a great example of how Cairo was protected in the Fatimid period.

SOUVENIR STOP: Retrace your steps about 200 metres, turn east and you will find yourself in arguably the most famous tourist market in the world, Khan Al-Khalili with its famous cafés and many souvenir shops. During this appealing walk on Al-Muiz Street, it is great to freshen up in the Khan's most famous café, Al-Fishawy. Just beside the Khan Al-Khalili is the entrance to the other part of Al-Muiz Street. It starts with Al-Sagha, which means the gold sellers. There are many gold and silver shops at the beginning of this part of the street. You can buy wonderful gifts there at the best prices. There are also many spice and perfume dealers, as well as the traditional gift shops that sell papyrus, gifts, shisha waterpipes and other kinds of souvenirs. Just east of the Khan you will find Midan Hussein (Hussein Square). This was the centre of mediaeval Cairo and today remains an important area for some Islamic religious festivals, including Ramadan. To the north of this is a relatively new Mosque of Sayedna Al-Hussein. Though new in terms of Egypt, it is a very sacred site to Muslims and those not of that faith should not enter.

PLACES TO EAT: After the short quietude of the fast- breaking period (Iftar) at sunset on a Ramadan day, the square will be full of life. Taking Iftar there in any of the diverse restaurants beside Sayedna Al-Hussein Mosque brings the added element of a feeling of vibrant life. Of course, there are so many restaurants. Your budget doesn't matter there; for you can spend much if you are going to devour the posh Egyptian cuisine and have a gourmet Iftar or Sohour (the pre-dawn meal eaten before a new day of fasting) at five-star restaurants such as the Oberoi. There, you can choose between their three set Iftar menus that offer all you can imagine of Egyptian cuisine delights for LE70-125 along with two menus for Sohour moderately priced at LE30-40. Otherwise you can try the locals' most popular fuul and falafel from Gad or Mahmoud restaurants and reach a double satisfaction of taste and budget for LE20. You will pay nothing in case of having your Iftar on one of God's Mercy Banquets (Mawa'ed Al-Rahman -- meals which the rich offer to the visitors of the area whether rich or poor), which are plentiful in Islamic Cairo especially around Hussein Square and in and around Al-Azhar Mosque.

BETWEEN THE PALACES: A few steps east of Al-Hussein Mosque, you will enter the area of Bein Al-Qasrein. The word means "between the two palaces". These two palaces used to exist 600 years ago, facing each other and opening on a public square that was the centre of Fatimid Cairo, founded in 969 AD. Other dynasties replaced the buildings of the street with ones of their own but the street remained reserved for grand buildings.

The western side of Bein Al-Qasrein has the spectacular façades belonging primarily to three early Mameluke complexes. The most southerly is the Madrasa and Mausoleum of Sultan Qalawoun and it is the oldest of the three, having been completed in 1279. Three hundred prisoners worked in the construction of the complex, which was completed in 13 months. There is a dark corridor that goes from the madrasa to the mausoleum, which is one of the most stunning interiors in Cairo.

Continuing north and adjoining the Qalawoun complex is the less expansive façade of the Madrasa and Mausoleum of Sultan Al-Nasser Mohamed. It was built between 1299 and 1304 by a sultan who was forced to leave his throne twice. He was able to regain power in both cases and ruled for a total of 42 years. During this time he built around 200 buildings, all over Cairo. The most famous among them is his mosque in the Citadel complex. However, his monument in Al-Muiz Street is in disrepair and is in the process of being restored. However, the North African style minaret is a wonderful sight to see.

Going north you will find the Madrasa of Sultan Barquq, which was built circa 1385. The madrasa looks similar to a mosque from the outside. It was a school for teaching Islamic law. The most interesting thing in this complex is the four doors which are covered with bronze. There is also the fascinating mausoleum building that looks like an ornate jewellery box. Sultan Barquq wasn't buried there, but his daughter was. He was buried in the north cemetery.

The Bein Al-Qasrein area is very famous worldwide. Naguib Mahfouz, the famous Egyptian author who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, used to live in this area. Most of his writings were inspired by the place. The first novel of the Cairo Trilogy, the most famous Egyptian novels, was even called Bein Al-Qasrein, after this area.

Continue walking to the north and on your right you will find the Beshtak Palace, or Qasr Beshtak. It can easily be missed from the outside because it is only a two-storey building with some mashrabiya windows. However, there is a narrow lane right to the house that enters a beautiful Islamic reception. Beshtak was a powerful prince who married the daughter of the caliph and had great wealth and influence. His palace, which was built in 1334, was the host for many great parties and ceremonies. The house contained five stories; only two remain. The roof has a wonderful panoramic view of Islamic Cairo with all its minarets and buildings.

Moving along, in the middle of the street are the Sabil- Kuttab of Abdel-Rahman Katkhuda. Islamic Cairo has many dotted odd-shaped buildings that look like huge windows. These buildings are sabils, or fountains of fresh water. Copper cups were placed next to these fountains so that people would come and take their supply of water. Wealthy people used to build sabils to make the people love them, and they believed they would become closer to God by helping others. The second floor of the sabil building was usually used as a kuttab, a place to teach the Quran and Islamic subjects.

Heading further north, you will find the Mosque of Al-Aqmar on the right. This mosque is also called the "grey mosque" because of the colour of its walls. The mosque was built in 1125 by one of the last Fatimid caliphs. It is well known and famous as the oldest stone mosque in Egypt. The decorations of the mosque are remarkable. Different geometric shapes and verses from the Quran are carved into the stone.

Walking along the street, you will find Darb Al-Asfar Lane. A quick thoroughfare to the Khan Al-Khalili market, the lane also hosts the amazing house of Suhaymi, a very good example of how a wealthy family used to live in old Islamic Cairo.

CAFÉ ZEBDYA: As I explained earlier, the problem is not where to start, or to which religious beliefs you belong, the problem is how to absorb the fragrance of history that flows everywhere and all the time. Café Zebdya (Misr Al-Mahroosa Café) is now a suitable place for some rest and a pot of tea with mint. There you will be received by the pious smile of the owner Haj Farag Zebdya. Just say hello and you will find him coming directly towards you: "You seem to be a journalist, sir, or a man of letters." Then the tales of the area will pour smoothly. In 1952, his late father distributed free sherbet (sweetened syrup) to celebrate the outbreak of the 1952 Revolution.

"I've never left this café. Life changed, friends passed away, but Sayedna Al-Hussein Square will last forever. This space seems to be standing against the horrible changes of time," Haj Farag says while his devoted eyes seem to be straying away as though he was replying some unknown plea to remember something or someone. "Naguib Mahfouz sat here once in this café. I don't lie to you, really he sat here once but his favorite café was Al-Fishawy."

AL-AZHAR AREA: To the south is the new Al-Azhar Park, a mega-project that has transformed the surrounding neighbourhoods as well as adding needed greenery to the city. Al-Azhar Park offers an excellent view of the surrounding area and is a nice place to take a rest at the Hilltop or Lakeside cafés.

South of the park, Al-Azhar Mosque was founded in 972, shortly after the founding of Cairo itself. It was built on the orders of Caliph Muiz le-Din Allah. It was called Al-Azhar after Fatema Al-Zahraa, daughter of Prophet Mohamed. It imitated both the Amr Ibn Al-Aas and Ibn Toloun mosques. Today the university built around the mosque is the most prestigious of Muslim schools, and its students are highly esteemed for their traditional training. While 10,000 students once studied here, today the university classes are conducted in adjacent buildings and the mosque is reserved for prayer. In addition to the religious studies, modern schools of medicine, science and foreign languages have also been added.

ENTER THE HOUSES: Walk east on Port Said Street until it intersects with Al-Azhar Street. Continue west on Al-Azhar Street, past the Mosque of Abu Dahab, which currently houses students of Al-Azhar University. This mosque is one of Cairo's oldest mosques, but perhaps more importantly; it's the world's oldest university. The street which runs along the side of the Al-Azhar Mosque is Atfa Al-Azhari and at the end of this street is Beit Zeinab Khatun, built in 1468 and refurbished in 1713. The first floor reflects the style of the Mameluke era while the second is Ottoman. Opposite the house is the Al-Ayni Mosque, and beyond that are two old houses at the end of Atfa el-Ayni Street. They are the Beit Al-Harrawi, built in the 1700s, and close by is Beit Sitt Wassila.

East of Al-Azhar Mosque, in the Darb Al-Ahmar neighbourhood, you will pass by Beit Al-Harrawi which is situated between two narrow alleys, Harett Al-Madrasa and Zuqaq Al-Ayini. Several other Islamic houses and monuments are found in the Darb Al-Ahmar surroundings. It is adjacent to the house of Zeinab Khatoun, and to the Ghannamiah Hall. Also at a near distance is Al-Ayini Mosque. In spite of its importance, the house has a relatively small street façade. The southern façade is especially remarkable because of its height and an impressive large wooden mashrabiya indicating the presence of a large hall (qa'a) on the first floor. The entrance used nowadays was a later addition that dates to the 19th century; it is located directly adjacent to Sitt Wassila House.

As you enter Sitt Wassila House through the southern door, a long corridor leads you into the courtyard which is an open-air area controlling the entrance to all parts of the house. What is noticeable is the absence of a secondary space or porch called "Maguaz", which was one of the important Islamic design concepts used in order to conceal the interior of the house and mainly the women living in it. This tradition became less strict in the late 18th century. One of the main attractions of Al-Harrawi is the "Mandara", a spacious sitting hall on the ground floor that occupies all the east wing of the house. The Mandara served as a reception area for male guests, a space that is quite common in Islamic houses. A French architect, Bernard Maurey, under the supervision of the French Institute of Oriental Archeology has lately restored it. At the moment, it is being reused as a cultural centre for lectures, concerts, art exhibitions and other events.

Walking in the Al-Muiz Street is like walking through the history of Islamic Egypt. The street is full of Islamic monuments. You can pass through the streets, view the monuments from outside, and enter the ones you feel attracted to. People in this area are quick to help you with anything.

South of Al-Azhar Mosque you pass a narrow alley called Al Kahkeen Street. The inhabitants of this alley were kahk makers (this is a local pastry that is made to mark the coming of Eid Al-Fitr after Ramadan). Their main profession was to bake, garnish, and decorate the kahk with folkloric drawings. These habits and ceremonies spread during the Fatimid regime. It's funny to remember what Al-Gabarti said concerning the kahkeen who were arrested because they decorated and garnished the kahk with erotic drawings. With the benefit of modernist hindsight, we can see that they were not merely kahk makers, but creative mentalities trying to pave the way for their liberal and free fantasies.

LAST STOP: AL-GHOURI SITES: At the end of our walking tour, southwest of kahkeen alley, lie the Mosque, Madrasa and Mausoleum of Qansuwah Al-Ghouri, one of the most famous Mameluke sultans. The sites represent a beautiful complex and reminder of the Mameluke era of Egypt. Al-Ghouri was a great builder who loved flowers and music, wrote poetry, and associated with Sufis and other pious men of his time. Energetic, he played polo into his 70s. But it was Al-Ghouri, who turned the rule over to the Ottomans with his defeat in Syria.

Further south is the Wekalet Al-Ghouri, which the Sultan built in 1504 AD. Wekalet Al-Ghouri was originally designed as an inn for accommodating traders coming from all parts of the world as well as a marketplace for trading goods and a venue for making trade deals. Egypt was then the hub of overland trade caravans from east and west. The external stone façade is impressive with its array of windows. There are a few small windows on the first floor, but the upper storeys of the building have three rows of groupings of three windows of varying design. The top row is covered by mashrabiya panels, each panel being three windows wide. The entrance to the courtyard is via a great door mounted in the lowest of three stacked arches. Inside, the building is very regular, with the exception of the first floor, which has wide arcades intersected by a gallery. The building is made up of four floors, each comprising 28 rooms with domed ceilings, overlooking a rectangular-shaped courtyard with a mosaic fountain in the middle. As such, Wekalet Al-Ghouri still stands out as one of the loftiest and most enduring Islamic monuments remaining. It rightly reflects an apex of harmony and symmetry in terms of both Islamic architecture and practical functionality.

It's really a journey that mixes joy with history. You can't help stopping every few steps to fix your eyes in astonishment on one of the buildings and feel eager to read the whole episode concerning this edifice or the other. And every now and then, you will stop in front of one of the many bazaars selling souvenirs redolent of the details of the places you see.


The Ramadan atmosphere in Islamic Cairo may attract you to stay a night or more in Al-Hussein area. Absolutely you will find so many cheap hotels at hand. One of them is Al-Hussein Hotel. It's located in Al-Hussein Square directly. A night there costs LE140 on a half-board basis. Radwan Hotel too is equally comfortable and inexpensive.

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