The world knows Cairo for its pyramids. But in my opinion Cairo’s biggest jewels are its Islamic buildings. Historic, or Islamic Cairo, contains one of the most important collections of Medieval Islamic architecture in the world and is on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. In a way it makes Cairo the Rome of the Middle East. Most of the monuments are mosques, palaces, mausolea, madrasas and private houses.
Since this neighborhood can be trick to navigate, with its winding and un-marked streets we decided to go with a guide—Ahmed Seddik—who would become our friend by the end of our stay in Cairo. His tour would take us from the Al Azhar mosque in the south to the Bab al-Futuh or northern gate of the original Fatimid walls.
The Al Azhar mosque is a quiet refuge from the traffic and horns of the busy neighborhood it sits in. We enter Al Azhar mosque through the Bab al-Muzzayin (Gate of the Barbers) where students came to have their heads shaved, between the truly giant minarets. Built in 970 at the height of the Fatimid period, it has been added on to over the years. The mosque the site of Al Azhar University, probably one of the oldest in the world, which is still in operation today. The inner courtyard is a quiet refuge from the traffic and noise outside. I find visiting mosques in the Middle East to be relaxing and enjoyable. Unlike Western churches which I can find to be sterile and austere—mosques I find to be a place for quiet reflection as well as a gathering place for the community.
We tuck into the Khan al-Khalili market, which sells all kinds of things, from tourist trinket to antiques. “How can we take your money?” ask the rather aggressive merchants. With tourism down in Egypt generally, the already pushy vendors are even keener on making a sale. We ignore them and move right to tea Fishawi’s—a coffee shop/shisha (water pipe) establishment that was frequented Cairo’s literati, most notable Naguib Mafouz, Egypt’s late Nobel Laureate. This was Mafouz’s neighborhood which he immortalized in his books. It is still a local hangout, only there are more tourists these days.
We are lucky because it was a stormy day in Cairo. This doesn’t mean it was rainy, only that the wind was gusty and blew the dust around. Cairo, despite being on the Nile is a desert city, lest we forget. This meant that what would ordinarily be a neighborhood packed with shoppers was relatively quiet. Many shops were closed. We make our way to Sharia Muiz, or the Palace Walk (also a Mafouz novel), which will take us between some of the great mosques and palaces of the Fatimid period, eventually delivering us to our final destination—Bab al-Futuh.
Sharia Muiz is kind of magical street. Neighborhood life bubbles all around us. Monuments rise and fall on either side of us. If you use your imagination you can picture yourself in a Mafouz novel. Ahmed tells us about the buildings, architecture and history that we are seeing on either side, but it all begins to blend together into a wonderful tapestry of sights and sounds. The evening call to prayer begins and Ahmed sits us down to listen and experience the moment. I have always found the call to prayer to be beautiful musically—Allah Akbar (god is great) called out from the muezzin—trying to convince believers to drop what they are doing and come to the mosque to pray. In Cairo I experienced some of the most beautiful calls to prayer as any other Muslim city I’ve been, and this call was particularly beautiful.
Our walk comes to an end all to soon as we approach the Bab al-Futuh and we a expelled out into the noise and confusion of modern Cairo, feeling a bit wistful that our stroll is over.