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In 1951 the Survey of Egypt produced an index of Cairo’s medieval monuments. There were 651 buildings listed including mosques, madrasas, mausoleums, khanqahs, khans, wikalas and private homes. Today it is estimated that some 450 still remain and it is probable that Cairo has more medieval buildings than just about any other city in the world.
For those wishing to enjoy the riches of medieval Cairo it is best to divide the city into manageable segments. This guide to the Islamic monuments is by no means exhaustive but it attempts to highlight some of the most interesting and most representative buildings.
Four or five days in the old city would be time enough to see the majority of the most important buildings.
Cairo can be divided into several ‘zones’, two of which fall within the medieval walls that surrounded the Fatimid city of Al-Qahira.
Zone 1: From Coptic Cairo to the complex of Sultan Hasan
Zone 2: Sultan Hasan to the Bab Zuweila
Zone 3: Fatimid City: The Bab Zuweila to Al Azhar
Zone 4: Fatimid City: The Khan el Khalili to the Bab al Futuh
Zone 5: The Northern Cemetery
ZONE 1 - Coptic Cairo to the complex of Sultan Hasan
Coptic Cairo is located in an area once known as Al Fustat. Fustat was the site of the first Moslem capital and was established by General Amr Ibn Al-As in 641AD. He built Cairo’s first congregational mosque here, the eponymous Mosque of Amr, and Fustat soon became a busy commercial centre. Prior to this time, Coptic Christians (and Jews) already lived in this area and today it is generally referred to as ‘Coptic Cairo’ or simply ‘Old Cairo’. It is often included on tour group itineraries and is worthy of a half day visit. It includes the excellent Coptic Museum, the Hanging Church, the Church of St. Sergius and Ben Ezra – Cairo’s oldest synagogue. The Coptic Museum contains statuary, icons and textiles from the early Christian period. Nearby is the Mosque of Amr, although virtually nothing remains of the original mosque.
In the middle of the 9th century a second city was established, called Al Qatai, somewhat to the north of Fustat. This was the royal city of Ahmad Ibn Tulun and here he built a royal palace - as well as Cairo’s second congregational mosque. The palace is no longer in existence but the Mosque of Ibn Tulun is one of Cairo’s finest monuments. It is also the largest mosque in medieval Cairo. Next door are two interesting homes, the Bayt Al Kritliya (1631) and the Bayt Amna Bint Salim (1540). Both houses were purchased in the 1930's by an Englishman (Major Robert Gayer-Anderson), who lived here from 1935-1942. Today they comprise the Gayer-Anderson Museum, offering an insight into the life of wealthy Cairenes during the 18th and early 19th centuries.
A short walk to the east brings you to the Madrasa-Mausoleum of Sultan Hasan.
ZONE 2 - Sultan Hasan to the Bab Zuweila
There is a great deal to see in this area of Cairo and the traveler can happily spend a couple of days here.
The monumental Madrasa-Mausoleum of Sultan Hasan is not only one of Cairo’s most celebrated buildings but also one of Islam’s finest. It was constructed from 1356-63, at a time when the Black Death had decimated the local population. The façade is 76 metres long and the massive dome can be seen from afar (although it is not true to the original design, which was wooden and more bulbous). The visitor enters through a monumental portal that leads into a vestibule and then along a bent corridor to an open courtyard, which is surrounded by four enormous vaulted liwans. There are four madrasas (schools of religious jurisprudence) dedicated to the teaching of Sunni Islam and at the far end is the mausoleum. There are many fine architectural details to observe, including a monumental Kufic inscription, which runs right around the interior walls.
Directly opposite the complex of Sultan Hasan is the much later Mosque of El-Rifai, which was built over two periods from 1869-1880 and again from 1905-1912.
To the east of the Sultan Hasan complex is Cairo’s citadel. It was originally established by Salah al-din Al-Ayyubi (more commonly known as Saladin) in the 13th century and was later home to the Mamluk rulers who built their palaces here. There are three sights of note, including the highly visible Mosque of Mohamed Ali (sometimes called the Alabaster Mosque), the Mosque of Al-Nasir Mohamed Qalawun and the Mosque of Suleiman Pasha. There is plenty of parking here and travelers who have booked a tour of ‘Islamic Cairo’ are likely to find the complex of Sultan Hasan and the Mohamed Ali mosque included in their itinerary. There is also an excellent view of the city from the Citadel walls, and on a clear day one can see the pyramids of Giza to the south-west.
To the south of the Sultan Hasan complex, and just a few minutes walk, is the Sabil-Kuttab of Qaitbey. A 'sabil' was a public water fountain. A 'kuttab' was a Koranic school, generally for young boys and often for orphans. There are a number of sabils and sabil-kuttabs dotted through the medieval city and they were a very popular form of endowment during the Ottoman period. The Sabil-Kuttab of Qaitbey is significant not only because it is one of the earliest still in existence (1479) but also because of the quality of the exterior decoration. There is a lovely entrance portal and upstairs the kuttab has been converted into a reference library (Suzanne Mubarak Center for Islamic Civilization) where there are a number of useful books in English, French and Arabic along with other visual resources.
From the Citadel several roads lead towards the gates of the Fatimid city and there are numerous mosques in the area. The Mosque of Aqsunqur (1346) – also known as the Blue Mosque - is worthy of a visit, with a fine display of ceramic tiles in the Iznik style decorating the interior walls; the Mosque of Al-Maridani (1339) has its original wooden lattice screen still in situ, separating the prayer-hall from the open courtyard; the Mosque of Al-Burdayni is an exquisite jewel with superb marble polychrome walls and a highly decorated wooden ceiling; the Mosque of Qijmas Al-Ishaki (1480) and the Mosque of Salih Talai (1160) are both built over shops which were part of the endowment and provided revenue for the upkeep of the mosque.
Before entering the great gate of Bab Zuweila, turn south and walk past the Mosque of Salih Tala’i into Radwan Bey - also called Sharia Khayamiyya - and popularly known as the Street of the Tentmakers. It was originally a shoe-makers market and is the best extant example of a traditional covered market.
To the west of the Bab Zuweila is the Islamic Museum, containing one of the world’s best collections of woodwork, ceramics, glass ware, metal ware, carpets and textiles. It was closed for renovation in 2005 and finally re-opened in 2010 and is well worth a visit. The collection, although excellent, is not particularly large and can be comfortably seen in an hour or so. More information from the Islamic Museum website.
ZONE 3 - Fatimid City: The Bab Zuweila to Al Azhar
This is an area that is easily seen on a morning or afternoon walk. In 969 the Fatimids arrived in Cairo from North Africa. They established a new city, which they initially called Al-Mansuriyya (after a city of the same name in their homeland, Tunisia) and which later became Al-Qahira. Al-Qahir is the Arabic name for the planet Mars, which was in the ascendancy at the time the city was established. Al-Qahira means ‘The Conqueror’ and the modern word ‘Cairo derives from it.
Mud-brick walls initially surrounded the city but in 1087 these were replaced by stone. Today the most impressive section runs from the northern gate, Bab al Futuh, to the Bab al Nasr.
The southernmost gate is called the Bab Zuweila, named after the Zuweila tribe whose soldiers were quartered in this area. Adjacent to the Bab Zuweila is the Mosque of Al Mu’ayyad and the minarets on top of the Bab Zuweila belong to this mosque. It was built in 1415 and is celebrated for it massive brass doors, which were pinched from the complex of Sultan Hassan! The exterior façade is very impressive and leads the eye towards the Bab Zuweila. On the other side of the street, immediately next to the gate, is a small alleyway known as Sugar Street, which is featured in the Cairo Trilogy novels of Egyptian Nobel-prize winning writer, Naguib Mahfouz.
In Fatimid times this street was known as the Qasaba, and it was the main thoroughfare through the city, stretching from the Bab Zuweila to the Bab al Futuh. A little further along is the Sabil-Kuttab of Tusun Pasha, an Ottoman viceroy who lived in Cairo in the early 1800’s. Unusually, here the kuttab (school) rooms are either side of the fountain rather than being built above.
In due course you reach the junction of the Qasaba and Al Azhar Street, where you find the Ghuriya complex (1503-1505) that comprises the Mosque of Al-Ghuri (on the western side of the street) and the Mausoleum of Al Ghuri (on the eastern side). Al Ghuri was one of the last of the Mamluk sultans and these buildings represent the final flowering of Mamluk art and architecture. He died while fighting abroad and is not buried in his mausoleum. Both buildings contain fine marble polychrome interiors, and the minaret above the mosque is also unusual with its five pinnacles. When these buildings were constructed they were part of a much larger complex that also include the Wikala of Al-Ghuri, located just to the east and not far from the Mosque of Al Azhar. The Wikala was a caravanserai – or medieval hotel – where travelers and merchants could rest their animals and bed down for the night. It is Cairo’s best example of this type of building and now doubles as a cultural centre. It is closed on Fridays.
The Mosque of Al Azhar is one of Cairo’s most important religious buildings. It was founded by the Fatimids in 970AD and today it is one of the principal theological universities in the Islamic world. Over the centuries it has been enlarged and embellished by many rulers and it continues to play a central role in Egypt’s religious and political life. The 18th century entrance portal is particularly impressive, with its double archway. Known as the Bab Al Muzayini (Gate of the Barbers), this is where young students traditionally had their heads shaved, and it dates back to the Ottoman period.
ZONE 4: Fatimid City: The Khan el Khalili to the Bab al Futuh
The Khan el Khalili has a magnetic appeal for travelers, with its narrow alleyways, crowded streets and all manner of artisans. Here you will find gold, silver, cotton, glass ware, wooden inlaid boxes, leather ware, perfumes and metal ware – along with a heady cocktail of ground cumin, coriander and other smells that emanate from the historic Spice Bazaar. Most travelers will come here at some stage during their visit to Egypt and the monuments mentioned in this section can be easily combined with a visit to the bazaar to create an interesting and enjoyable day.
The main east-west thoroughfare is known as Mouski Street and this bisects the Fatimid Qasaba. The section of the Qasaba that leads towards the Bab al Futuh was also known - confusingly - as the Bayn Qasrayn (literally 'between the palaces') during the Fatimid period, as it was here that their splendid palaces were located, on both the eastern and western sides of the street. Today this street is called Moezz Ledeen Allah Street in honour of the first Fatimid ruler.
Walking north along Moezz Ledeen Allah Street, towards the Bab al Futuh, brings you into one of the most interesting parts of the old city and many of the buildings here have been restored. There was considerable restoration in the late 18th and early 19th century under the auspices of the Comite de Conservation des Monuments de l'Art Arabe and in the past few years more work has been done. Many shops and houses have been removed - along with much of the traffic - and part of the street is now a pedestrian precinct, which has alleviated some the chaos and reduced some of the atmosphere.
After passing through the gold bazaar and coppersmiths bazaar (Souk Al-Nahasin) you reach the impressive complex of Qalawun, which flanks the western side of the street. It is followed by the Madrasa-Mausoleum of Al-Nasir Mohamed ibn Qalawun and then the Madrasa-Khanqah of Sultan Barquq. The complex of Qalawun (1284), which originally included a very well equipped hospital, a mausoleum and a madrasa, was built in an astonishing thirteen months. It is a jewel of early Mamluk architecture with numerous fine decorative devices and an imposing minaret. Next door, the Madrasa-Mausoleum of his son, Al-Nasir Mohamed, though badly ruined, has a magnificent Gothic doorway, which was taken from a Crusader church in Akko (Acre). Further along the complex of Barquq (1384) includes a Khanqah (sufi monastery) as well as a madrasa and is notable for its massive horizontal façade.
Just beyond the complex of Barquq the street divides and at its intersection is the lovely Sabil-Kuttab of Abdel Rahman Kathkuda. It is quite exquisite, and its three facades are highly decorated. The interior of the sabil is covered with Iznik tiles including a charming ceramic representation of Mecca. Upstairs the wooden kuttab is still in its original form with a fine painted wooden ceiling.
Moving north, you pass the Mosque of Al Aqmar on your right. Built in 1125, towards the end of the Fatimid period, it is a little gem with a delightful frontage and a charming interior. It is the first building in Cairo to have a carved stone façade and is in an excellent state of repair. The right-hand side of the façade has recently been restored through the generosity of the Bohras, an Ismaili sect from India that claims descent from the Fatimids.
A street now leads off to the right, called the Darb Al Ahmar (Yellow Street – because brass traders once lived in the area), where the Suhaymi House (Bayt Al Suhaymi) is located. This is Cairo’s best example of the accretive nature of domestic architecture and dates back to 1648. Over the years it was enlarged several times and the last additions date back to 1796. Among the many rooms are the Salamlik (greeting room), tthe Haramlik (women’s quarters), the Maq’ad (balcony – a pleasant place to sit in the evenings) and an impressive Hamam (bath-house). It and the Gayer-Anderson Museum are Cairo’s best examples of Ottoman domestic architecture.
Before arriving at the Bab al Futuh you pass Al Hakim Mosque, also dating back to the Fatimid period. For many years it was in a very poor state of repair but it has now been totally restored by the Bohras. Little remains of the original structure except the minarets and some internal stucco decoration. Inside the minarets – if you can gain entry – is some of the finest Fatimid wall decoration ever produced.
The Bab al Futuh marks the end of Zone 4 and is a solid masterpiece of engineering. Pharaonic columns were drilled into its base to stabilize the core and you can see this on the external facade about six courses up from the ground. Much of the stone used to build the walls also came from Pharaonic monuments.
ZONE 5 - The Northern Cemetery
The Northern Cemetery is popularly known as the City of the Dead, but today it is a busy residential area. indeed it has been so for many hundreds of years - as much a city of the living as one for departed souls. Half a day will suffice to visit these three monuments, which are well worth the effort.
The area contains a number of mausoleums and at one time there were plans to develop this part of the city into a new mini-metropolis.
The complex of Sultan Faraj Ibn Barquq (1400) was intended to be the centre of this new development. Unlike the medieval city where space was becoming increasingly rare, here the architect had a blank canvas and he drew up plans for a massive building, almost square, that was to be surrounded by – among other things – bakeries, caravanserais and a marketplace. Unfortunately Barquq died before his vision could be consummated but his mausoleum is nonetheless impressive and one of the largest structures from the period. The domes are particularly interesting as they help chart the development of dome decoration. One is ribbed while the other is decorated with horizontal chevrons that give the visitor an inkling of things to come.
Further south, and about 100 metres away, is the Mausoleum of Al-Ashraf Barsbay, an exquisite little building with a beautifully decorated ceiling and a superb original wooden Minbar (pulpit). It also boasts a splendid dome with curving patterns and floral rosettes that are quite different to those at the complex of Barquq.
The last monument in this triumvirate is the complex of Sultan Qaitbey (1472), which is worth visiting for several reasons. First, it boasts one of the finest entrance portals, a magnificent trilobed structure with many fine decorative features. The interior is equally rich, with a superb lantern ceiling above the court. But perhaps the most impressive item is its dome, carved with a lacy pattern of geometric shapes and elegant arabesques that literally dance across its surface. It represents the pinnacle of dome carving during the medieval period and was never surpassed.
The following books provide further information. They are available in Cairo either from the American University Bookshop, or from the Lehnert & Landrock bookshop in Sherif Street. They can also be ordered through Amazon and other booksellers.
Williams, C. Islamic Monuments in Cairo - The Practical Guide. Cairo, 2002.
Behrens-Abouseif, D. Islamic Architecture in Cairo. Cairo 1982.
Antoniou, J. Historic Cairo - A Walk through the Islamic City. Cairo 1998
Prisse-D'Avennes, E. Islamic Art In Cairo. Cairo 1999.
Another useful resource is www.archnet.org which provides detailed information on many of Cairo mosques and secular buildings.
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