Islamic Cairo Highlights
- Soak up the atmosphere in the Al-Azhar Mosque ( opposite ), the center of Sunni Islamic education for more than a millennium.
- Take in the view from the south end of Bein al-Qasreen – with a few camels, you could be in a 19th-century etching.
- Compare the Mosque of Ibn Tulun to its image on your E£5 bill, and pop into the adjacent Gayer-Anderson Museum ( p138 ), a private home furnished with quirky art and collectibles.
- Sip tea at the Platonic ideal of the Ahwa (coffeehouse), Fishawi’s Coffeehouse – a great place to rest before or after trawling Khan al-Khalili for deals.
- Climb the minarets at Bab Zuweila to survey the view over the whole medieval district.
The History of Islamic Cairo:
Islamic Cairo is the historic heart of the city, dating back to before the architectural complex of Downtown, which occupies the center of the modern part of the city, the current extension that stretches north, south, and west towards the pyramids of Giza. When the Fatimid dynasty conquered Egypt in 969 BC, it built a new capital to the north of the existing city as a center for the administrative functions of the caliphate.
This new city, called Al Qahira (the Subjugator), gave the modern part its name. Later Fustat, the original Islamic city in Egypt, was destroyed by fire in 1168, caused to prevent the conquest of Cairo by the Crusader armies.
Although no longer the physical center of the city, Islamic Cairo remains a living memory of its past. Most of the ancient walls have collapsed, but there are still hundreds of monuments and magnificent mosques along the city’s historic arteries.
The uniqueness of Islamic Cairo as a historic district is also given by its great vitality. Although Al Qahira was quickly urbanized with palaces and administrative buildings in the early days of its planning, the population of the city moved within the walls during the 12th century and has not been abandoned since.
Despite its crumbling style and rather outdated buildings, Islamic Cairo remains one of the most populated areas of Cairo, and its monumental backdrop is intertwined with the traffic of the daily life of millions of Egyptians.
A visit to Islamic Cairo can be daunting. It is a fairly large area, including the ancient city of Fatimids and the southern neighborhoods near the Citadel of Saladin and the mosque of Ibn Tulun. In these narrow streets, you can find literally hundreds of nooks and crannies and sites of varying size and importance. Furthermore, the fact that it is still a busy commercial area is another aspect of this challenge.
Main Sights of Islamic Cairo:
The largest concentration of monumental sites in Islamic Cairo is in Sharia el Muizz Al-Deen, which runs the stretch between Bab Al-Futuh and Bab Zuweila, the entrance to the original Fatimid city. This street was the main street of the city and many of the Fatimid and Mamluk buildings were built here. This street also gave its name to Naguib Mahfouz’s novel “Palace Walk”. The northern part (between Bab el Futuh and Khan el Khalili) was recently restored. This is one of the most picturesque areas of the city. The Qala’un complex is by far one of the most spectacular buildings in the city. It would be easy to spend a day there and spend the evening at the famous 14th-century souk, Khan el Khalili.
Restoration work on the northern side of the street (from the Al Ghouria complex to Bab Zuweila) began in 2011. Near Khan el Khalili there is also the famous Al Azhar mosque, built by the Fatimids in 972 B.C.; its structure is included in the area of one of the oldest universities in the world, which still represents an influential institution in Islamic thought.
The southern part of Islamic Cairo offers some of the most impressive and impressive monuments of the city. The construction of the Citadel of Cairo began under the auspices of Ayyubid General Saladin (Salah Al-Deen) in the 12th century as the local government headquarters and remained so until the 19th century when it was moved to the Abdeen Palace in Downtown.
Today the Citadel offers breathtaking views of the city and houses several museums dedicated to the Egyptian police and army. There are also three important mosques inside. The oldest, the Al Nasir Muhammed Mosque, was built in Mamluk style in 1335; the Suleyman Pasha Mosque, built-in 1528, after Egypt came under the control of the Ottoman Empire; the Ali Alabaster Mosque, an important addition that bears the name of the man considered the father of modern Egypt.
Below the Citadel is the majestic Sultan Hassan Mosque, built in the 14th century by the Sultan of the same name. This imposing structure was built as a madrasa (religious school) and bears some of the most striking architectural decorations ever seen in a mosque.
It has suffered some damage over time also because its proximity to the Citadel led it to perform the function of a military fortress during periods of political unrest. The mosque of Ibn Tulun is located at an equivalent distance between the Citadel and the mosque of Sultan Hassan. Built-in 872 A.D., this is one of the oldest mosques as well as the most important in size.
Its imposing structure exposes the characteristic architectural style of Samarra due to its construction in the Abbasid era when the rulers of Egypt came from Iraq. Although not one of the most popular tourist destinations, the unique style of its inner courtyard is well worth a visit.
In addition, within the walls is the Gayer Anderson Museum, a 12th-century mansion skillfully restored by a British colonial officer during the 1930s. Its proximity to the Citadel, the Sultan Hassan Mosque, and the Ibn Tulun Mosque make it easy to combine a tour of all these sites in a day.
The park of Al Azhar is a recent element of Islamic Cairo. For centuries the Cairoites threw their rubbish beyond the walls and the result was a substantial mountain of rubbish towering over the city. In the 1990s the Egyptian government launched a plan to reclaim the area and convert it into a beautiful green space. Today, Al Azhar is a 74-acre park in a city sadly lacking in green spaces.
This beautiful area offers a spectacular view of the city from its lawns, gardens, and ponds.
There are also cafes and beautiful restaurants. The view of the sunset from this park listening to the echo of prayer from thousands of minarets is a memorable experience.