Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1442, (9 - 15 May 2019)
Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Issue 1442, (9 - 15 May 2019)

Ahram Weekly

Walking through Islamic history

Historian and guide Youssef Osama talks to Dina Ezzat about his passion for sharing Islamic history


Qalawoun Mosque photo: Sherif Sonbol

On Monday, the first day of Ramadan, Youssef Osama, a historian specialising in Islamic history and a guide who has taken huge numbers of people around Egypt’s Islamic monuments, started a new series on his Facebook page.

The series is called Al-Mamalik (Mamelukes), and it aims to help the curious and interested alike to learn more about the stories and the people behind the country’s Islamic monuments, some well-known and some much less so.

“I am making 30 15-minute episodes to walk followers of the page through Egypt’s Islamic history. The starting point is the era of Amr Ibn Al-Aas, not the mosque of that name because people sometimes tend to reduce Amr Ibn Al-Aas to his mosque, to the end of the rule of the Mohamed Ali family in 1952,” Osama said.

He added that the focus of the episodes was far from “re-introducing the well-known monuments, although these will inevitably be prominent”.

“The objective is to help people learn about monuments they might not have heard of or have heard of but have not visited,” he said. “Then there is the objective of putting these monuments in their place in the sense of explaining why they matter, whether or not they have been on the traditional itinerary of tourists or fans of Islamic history,” he added.

For over three years, Osama has been dedicated to the mission of linking the monuments to their historical significance and telling the sometimes otherwise untold stories of the people whose names are on the monuments or who are significantly related to them even if their names might not appear on plaques or in guidebooks.

He began in 2016 following his graduation from the Islamic History Department at Mansoura University. “I used to come to Cairo to learn firsthand about the monuments I was reading about. I would spend hours walking through the city and its alleyways, getting to see things that had not been included in my reading material or simply connecting one building to another or one historic figure to another,” Osama recalled.

Having shared some of his notes with friends, Osama started to do guided-walks for friends who were not only students of history. Later, he started a Facebook page where he would post pictures and information about places that had not received attention even by connoisseurs of Islamic history.

With the page gaining much attention, Osama then started to do scheduled walks in the well-trodden and not so well-trodden parts of Islamic Cairo.

“The Islamic history of Egypt is far from being just about Cairo, but the fact is that Cairo is one of the few Islamic capitals that has never been destroyed. Baghdad, for example, was destroyed in the 13th century by the Mongols, but Cairo lived on almost intact despite times of destruction and plagues,” he said.

Having said that, Osama adds that there is still “much that has not been said about the Islamic history of Cairo and its monuments”.

“I am confident that as we keep walking through the history of the city and even re-visiting places we have been to before, we will be able to learn more about the stories of the monuments and not just the details of their architecture,” Osama said.

For his first walk, Osama chose the Nilometer built in the ninth century on Roda Island in the Nile. “This is one of the oldest Islamic monuments in Egypt, and it does not receive due attention,” Osama said.

He added that often people get to learn about the structure, but “what is particularly significant is the impact of the flooding of the Nile on the fate of the dynasties that ruled Egypt, not just through the Islamic era but also before and after. Egypt’s civilisation has always been somehow connected to the Nile, and in fact all the rulers of Egypt were well aware of the significance of the Nile for the prosperity of the country and the stability of their rule.”

When Osama visits the Nilometer for his walks today, he always tries to look at the history of Egypt’s rulers through their relationship to the Nile.

The Nilometer photo: Sherif Sonbol


MULTI-LAYERED: “History is multi-layered, and I always find it interesting to look at things that have drawn the attention of Egyptians over many centuries,” he said.

Osama has not just taken his audience to the forgotten pages of the history books, but also to forgotten places on the map too.

The Al-Hattabah (wood cutting) area behind the Citadel has captured his attention, for example. “There is so much to be seen there -- buildings dating from the Mameluke era through the successive centuries leading to Mohamed Ali’s rule,” Osama said.

The Younis Dome is one building that Osama takes his groups to when they visit Al-Hattabah. “This place carries the name of Younis Al-Dwidar, an emir of the Mameluke era who on his way to perform the pilgrimage stopped in Palestine and built the place known today as Khan Younis, originally a rest house on the pilgrimage road,” he explained.

Osama is always keen to share the history of the pilgrimage in Egypt, and for that matter also North Africa, during the Islamic Caliphates, not just because he finds it revealing about the balance of power among the nations at the time, but also because he finds it interesting to learn about the habits of Muslim pilgrims throughout the centuries.

The National Archives, not very far from Al-Hattabah, are another stop. “The first archives were built by Mohamed Ali in 1828. Then king Fouad in 1935 added another building to serve the same purpose, and his buildings are still in use today,” Osama said.

He stressed that talking about archives and the access or lack thereof is an interesting debate as it comes down to how we read our history. “The more access we have to these documents, the better we will be able to read our history with all its layers rather than just be limited to the dates of the construction of buildings and the names of the rulers or others who built them.”

“In order to truly understand the significance of any building, we need to learn about the lives of people at the time, not just the history of those who ordered the construction,” Osama argued.

“When we learn that Sabil Shaykhou, a water fountain, was built on the road connecting the city to the cemetery area we realise why Seifeddin Shaykhou, originally a water carrier for the Mameluke Sultan Al-Nasser Mohamed bin Qalawan, would understand the rationale behind its construction without any other building, like a school or a mosque, annexed to it.”

“The function was to provide water for those walking to the cemeteries, as simple as that. It was a building put up to serve a purpose,” Osama said. He added that it is “arguably the oldest sabil in all of Islamic Cairo”.


SUFISM: Osama adds that the introduction of khanqwat (rooms for prayers) came about with the expansion of Sufism, a mystical strand of Islam, in Egypt with the ascent of Salaheddin Al-Ayoubi (Saladin) to power in the 13th century.

As he stops over the khanqwat during his walks, Osama tells his groups about the history of Sufism in Egypt and how it was used by Salaheddin to combat the Shia faith that had spread in Cairo during the previous rule of the Fatimid Dynasty. The history of North Africa was connected to Egypt through the travels of Sufi figures, he said.

His offer of alternative narratives and adding of context is something that those who join Osama’s walks always praise.

“This is what I am there for. I would not want to walk through Al-Muizz li-Din Allah Street in Islamic Cairo without mentioning that this is the only surviving main street of a Muslim capital from the mediaeval period and that it carries the history of 1,000 years along it, together with all the political feuds and palace intrigues of a millennium,” Osama said.

He added that he also would not walk by the Qalawoun Complex on the same Street that brings together a madrassa (school), hospital and mausoleum without telling his group that it was the major Mameluke sultan of the 13th century after which the complex is named who was the first to carry the titles of “custodian of the two holy shrines” and “king of the two lands and the two seas” in reference to Egypt and the Levant and the Mediterranean and the Red Seas.

Osama asks his groups “to rethink historical stereotypes. Many people might tend to think that the Mamelukes were the worst rulers of Egypt because they were not essentially Egyptians and because what is known about their palace feuds is much more than what is known about the disputes within the palaces of other dynasties,” Osama said.

“This narrative overlooks two important factors that are not so well-known,” which are that while the Mamelukes were of diverse origins they wished to be buried in Egypt “and built massive mausoleums” and that much of the enormous architectural wealth of Islamic Egypt comes from the rule of the Mamelukes.

Meanwhile, Osama said, while history tends to credit them with the construction of the Al-Azhar Mosque it overlooks the fact that it was the Fatimid rulers of Egypt who lost Jerusalem to the Crusaders.

“The Fatimid rulers were so engrossed with palace feuds that they put military leaders in charge of everything rather than attending to the external threat as they should have done,” he said.

Because Egyptian cinema star Ahmed Mazhar played the role of Al-Zaher Baybars in a 1960s film (Wa Islamah) that tells the story of the defence of Egypt against the Mongols, people tend to think that Baybars was good looking.

Osama during one of his guided walks in Islamic Cairo photos courtesy of Youssef Osama

In fact, he had “a facial scar next to his right eye”.

Osama concluded that he would like to see “schools and universities in Egypt adopt a whole new approach to learning and teaching history.”

“We really need to get away from the limitations of the history books and encourage research methodology. Nobody can claim to have the ultimate truth about history, but the least we can do is to allow students and interested researchers to read alternative narratives,” he concluded.

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