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This very special part of Cairo is centered around "El Hussein", that is how it is know to locals - but to tourists it is thought of as "Khan Khallili". It is easy to think of the area as just the old bazaar, but it is so much more, it just needs some investigation and loosing the fear of getting lost.
When you are on a package tour - you normally have very little time - and may use it looking at T-shirts and belly dancing costumes, but - just a short distance away is an area so full of monuments it is amazing. Even with limited time, remember to look up, take note of the amazing buildings, archways etc., it is all too easy to loose yourself in the shop windows.
Recommend getting good guide books - "Lonely Planet" or "DK Eye Witness Guide". From these you can easily find you way and see some really interesting mosques, bath houses, Islamic Houses etc.
Anyone who likes more detail and hand sketches can get "The Living Stones of Cairo" by Jaroslaw Dobrowolski. "Historic Cairo - A walk through the Islamic City" by Jim Antoniou (also gives historical information about the city and all the information required to a walk through the city, with interesting information and hand sketches, highly recommended, with this book you can even read it later and get a real feel of the area. Another excellent publication - and probably the most comprehensive available at this time is "Islamic Monuments in Cairo" by Caroline Williams.
The AUC press (American University in Cairo) produce a range of brief guides (Egypt Pocket Guides) for many areas on Egypt, including Islamic Cairo, well worth getting and the price in Egypt is just 30.00 LE. Easy to carry around and well illustrated and written. Take care when choosing, as they are printed in many languages, easy to get the wrong one. If you are looking for something a little more comprehensive, ask for books written by Doris Behrens-Abouseif. Her "Islamic Architecture in Cairo" is a useful addition to the library of anyone interested in Cairo's Islamic monuments.
There are FOUR main areas to investigate, the first is to the west of El Hussein Mosque "Nahaseen" the copper, gold and silver street, the second is behind Al Azhar Mosque. The second area is much quieter and less touristic and you can easily visit 3 Islamic houses which are in the same area - Bait Zeynab Khatoun (the house of Zeynab Khatoun) is easily found and the others are opposite (there is a small enclosed garden between them) and an interesting handcrafts shop to the right of the garden. Just get behind Al Azhar Mosque and go left (the road slopes downwards).
A must see is Bait El Suhaymi, an excellent example of accretive domestic architecture at Darb El Asfar (The Yellow Alley). It is a haven of peace in a very crowded district, and you can see how the rich merchants lived in style 400 years ago. Darb El Asfar leads off from Moezz Ledeen Allah Street, which is full of gold and silver shops, then copper and aluminium, and scales, and you will find it on your right. Easy to see as there is a sign and the alleyway looks clean and different from all the others. You will need at least an hour to see it and the garden and courtyard are nice places to relax. In the garden there a photographs of the house before and after renovation - but sadly the sun is damaging these pictures, but for now you can still see them. While you are in this area there are several other important monuments to see including the Qalawun complex - which is one of the best examples of monumental architecture from the Bahri Mameluke period. It has been undergoing a major renovation and should be open soon (written in Apr 2008).
Al-Aqmar Mosque, the Sabil Kuttab of Kathkuda and the Qalawun complex
Another is Al Aqmar Mosque, which dates back to the Fatimid period. It is signifiant for many reasons but in particular because it was one of the earliest buildings to have a carved stone facade - and it has recently been full-renovated. In the same area is the Sabil-kuttab of Abdel Rahman Kathkuda (a sabil is a public drinking fountain and a kuttab is a koranic school - these were a popular from of public endowment particularly during the Ottoman period) and if you keep walking north you'll reach the gate known as the Bab al Futuh (Gate of Conquest) which is also from the Fatimid period and dates back to 1087.
The third area is not far away, just across Al-Azhar Street, starting with El Ghuri complex and continuing along a market street, passing many monuments. This street was known as the Qasaba during the Fatimid period and is a very important part of the medieval city. As you head south from the Ghuriya you'll pass the Mosque of Al-Falakhani and another sabil before reaching the splendid Mosque of Al Mo'ayyad. This mosque buts up agains the Bab Zuweila (the southern gate of the old city) and is well worth a visit. For a start you can get a great view of the city from either its roof or by climbing one of the minraets above the Bab Zuweila. Make sure you take a good look at the massive brass doors, which were pinched from the Mosque of Sultan Hasan. Here are two pictures of Al Mo'ayyad and to the right is the Bab Zuweila.
The 4th area is further away but well worth the effort - below (behind) the Citadel you will find the masterpiece "Sultan Hassan Mosque," and beside it, the not so old "Rafai Mosque" (interesting but not old at all, just around 100 years). Also a few minutes away by taxi is the great monument of Ibn Touloun Mosque, a 5 star must see.
It is impossible to briefly describe this great area of Cairo, but reading before you arrive will prepare you and make the whole experience more rewarding and memorable.