Journal: Tuesday 25 November 2003
This morning found Sam and I in the back of a taxi, being driven through streets washed clean by last night’s rain, the few puddles that were still in evidence in shady places, reflecting tall buildings glittering in the morning sun. We got out at al-Azhar, one of Cairo’s largest and oldest mosques at the edge of Khan el-Kalili. Today we were going to do another ‘Islamic walk’.
Walking in a southerly direction we entered a dim and narrow street between the mosque and khangah of al-Ghuri. The mausoleum and madrassa (theological college) and a sabil-kuttab (Quranic school with a public drinking fountain) are known collectively as al-Ghuriya. These buildings were constructed during the early 16th century Mamaluk period by Sultan Qansuh al-Ghuri. Below these imposing sandstone buildings, decorated in stripes of black and white marble, was a market where stalls containing herbs and spices and perfumes and textiles lined the sides of the street. This commercial centre, once a main thoroughfare of Cairo, was until the 19th century, the city’s original silk market and was originally roofed over to protect the brightly coloured bolts of silk and finished garments that I could imagine floating in the breeze like banners.
This is a wonderful area of old Medieval Cairo, but we saw no other tourists today. The street was very quiet because this is the last day of Ramadan and only a handful of children slowed our progress with their customary curiosity. Walking down towards Bab Zuwayla, we were able to stop and look at many old wooden mushrabiya windows and ancient studded wooden doors leading into intriguing dark courtyards. Bab Zuwayla is the most southerly of Cairo’s Medieval gates, built in 1092. The fortified gate with its two tall towers, was named after a Berber tribe who were charged with guarding the royal city. The gate is flanked on the west by the huge mosque of Sultan al-Mu’ayyad, constructed on the site of a notorious prison where the Sultan was once incarcerated and the mosque’s two tall minarets perch on top of the gate’s towers.
Opposite Bab Zuwayla we entered the Qasaba of Radwan Bey, Cairo’s only surviving covered market and I realised that this is what we in the west know as a ‘kasbah’. This area is also known as the ‘Street of the Tentmakers’ and though I saw no tents, there were plenty of embroidered textiles and appliqué work on sale to tourists. The high walls of Radwan Bey’s palace run alongside the market. There were many interesting buildings in Sharia al-Khayamiyya and although many looked fairly derelict there were signs that some were under restoration. Each medieval building has an SCA monument number, and we were able to look up each one on the maps that we had brought with us.
As Sam and I carried on walking down the long street, now called Sharia al-Surughiyya, we passed many medieval Islamic buildings with names like Zawiya, Sabil-kuttab, Hammam, Maq’ad, Takiyya, as well as numerous small mosques, at present only magical-sounding names, but I determined to learn more about the different types of buildings and their purposes. Each one was elaborately decorated in varying styles depending on their period of construction. At the end of the street we turned right and eventually saw the Citadel rising on its steep mound in front of us and this at least I instantly recognised. Below the Citadel, called in Arabic, al-Qal’a, were the two large mosques of al-Rifa’i and Sultan Hasan, but we still had a lot of walking to do and could spare no time to go into the mosques. That will keep for another day.
Skirting the Citadel we turned back into another narrow street called Sharia Bab al-Wazir, where we saw many more ancient dwellings, mausoleums and mosques, built by the early Islamic rulers of Cairo. We were walking parallel to the remains of the city walls of Salah ad-Din, built in the 12th century. About halfway down the road we came to an old arched gateway with a sign that said Biban al-Torah and tried to get to the old walls but the gateway only led as far as a group of private houses haphazardly piled on top of each other. By the time we reached Bab Zuwayla again both Sam and I were pretty tired, but we had covered a lot of ground and had enjoyed the long walk very much. It wasn’t difficult to find a taxi and before long we were both quite glad to flop into the leather armchairs of the hotel lounge for a much-needed cup of coffee.
Tonight was the beginning of the three-day feast, when everyone goes out to celebrate the end of Ramadan. Expecting Cairo to be very busy, we had booked a table for dinner in the Omar Khayyam restaurant in the Mena House Hotel at Giza as a special treat. This was an occasion and a venue to be dressed up for, because it’s a very swish (and very expensive) restaurant, but well worth it for a special occasion. The food was excellent and there was even a floor show of folk dancing to entertain us as we ate. A secondary floor-show happened when an over-enthusiastic waiter set fire to our crepes and had to rush back to the kitchen with his trolley ablaze. As we drove back in a taxi to the Victoria, Cairo was still celebrating. Families dressed in their finest clothes clogged the pavements and the city seemed to be full of light. It’s true what they say, that Cairo never sleeps.