Journal: Wednesday 26 November 2003
I’ve loved our walks through old Medieval Cairo and today Sam and I decided to walk another route, this time from al-Azhar to the northern gates of Bab al-Fetou and Bab al-Nasr.
This route led us through the Khan al-Khalili, past blocks of colourful shops selling spices and tourist souvenirs, then many perfume sellers and eventually onto Nahazin, the street of the gold workers. Here we saw one jewellery store after another, some selling gold and some selling silver or semi-precious stones. As this was a feast day there were lots of Egyptian women out browsing, looking for gold jewellery, which many buy and wear as an investment and a sign of good fortune. A few tourists were bargain-hunting or just window shopping. It was a slow progress as Sam is fond of window-shopping in the jewellery stores too.
From Nahasin it’s a straight walk to the northern gates. We passed the large mosque of al-Salih Ayyub, built during the Ayyubid Period in the 13th century – the Dynasty of Saladin, opponent of the Crusaders, who took back the city of Jerusalem and saved Cairo from invasion. The builder of this complex was the wife of the last descendent of Saladin and this structure was the first to combine a madrassa (theological college) and a mausoleum. The building is now very damaged, but the impressive facade still survives as well as the pepper-pot shaped minaret and the dome of the mausoleum.
The next building to be represented on this street belongs to the Bahri Mamaluk period, the complex of Qalaoun. Qalaoun, whose name means ‘The Duck’, began a dynasty which lasted for three generations and this complex of buildings represents some of the finest architecture I have seen in Cairo. There are the remains of a maristan (hospital) which was reputedly very well-equipped and although the original is now in ruins there is still a hospital on the site. A madrassa is also still in use, not as a college but as a place for homeless people. Qalaoun’s mausoleum boasts a large dome and the mosque’s beautiful minaret shows an oriental style with Syrian influence. The building today was closed and under restoration, so we passed on. Almost hidden behind the hospital is a tiny mosque of al-Nasr Mohammed, whose large mosque I had seen in the Citadel. The next structure in the complex belonged to Sultan Barquq (The Plum). Another fabulous dome and minaret marks his mosque and rises high, sending its intricately carved decoration to the heavens in praise of Allah.
A few yards further on, in the middle of a little island, is one of my favourite buildings on this street, the Sabil-Kuttab of Khatkuda. A tall square building, once a religious school for young boys, this had also recently been cleaned and restored and we could see the beautiful decorated wooden ceiling through the open sides of the upper floor. This structure was built during the Turkish Ottoman period by Abd al-Rahman Khatkhuda, whose prolific building work can be seen all over Cairo. The sabil (public drinking fountain can still be seen behind an iron grill below the classroom.
Carrying on up the long street towards Bab al-Fetou, we next stopped to admire the mosque and sabil-kuttab of Sulayman Agha al-Silahdar, a more recent building constructed in the 19th century which has a very tall pencil-shaped minaret. The street here is narrow and on either side the bakeries, greengrocers and coffee shops are populated exclusively by local people. Every few minutes we had to stand aside while donkeys pulling carts laden with unidentified sacks of goods or fodder, slowly plodded by.
Eventually we came to the huge mosque of al-Hakim. The original building here was constructed during the 11th century Fatimid period. The Caliph al-Hakim inaugurated some very strange laws, including forbidding the manufacture of shoes for women to keep them indoors. The mosque has had a chequered history after falling in an earthquake during the 14th century. It was eventually rebuilt to become among other things a stable and barracks for Napoleonic troops and a school for boys. Although we didn’t go inside today as the mosque is now once again used for its original purpose as a place of prayer, we stopped to admire the entrance and the two unusual stumpy minarets on each corner of its facade.
Al-Hakim’s mosque adjoins the northern city walls at the gate of al-Fetou, where two massive fortified crenellated towers still survive. The busy road goes right through the gate and inside its archway we saw a sheikh’s tomb with steps down into it. He must have been an important man to be buried inside the gate. We continued along the wall to come back into the old city limits at the nearby Bab al-Nasr, a less decorative gate but equally fortified. Two very solid-looking square stone towers guard the entrance.
Walking back toward the Khan al-Khalili we saw many more old and impressive structures, the biggest of which is the complex of Baybars al-Gashankhir, a Sufi monastery and mausoleum, whose fine architecture is a tribute to his short reign during the Mamaluk period. As we neared the end of our walk we came to a wikala and Sam and I were lured inside through the intriguing archway that led into a large courtyard. This is another recently restored monument now open to the public. This wikala, built in 1695 by Dulfiquar Oda Bashi, was once an inn for the merchants who travelled to Cairo to sell their wares. It consists of a large courtyard which once had stabling and warehouses on the ground floor with accommodation above. There are many wikalas in Cairo, now mostly run-down yards used for storage but this one I thought was beautifully restored and the colourful potted plants and bright flowers added to the feeling of harmony of the place. I imagine it would have been very different when used for its original purpose, bustling with commercial activity.
Sam and I passed a few more small mosques and other unidentified structures then we were suddenly back in the part of the Khan al-Khalili we knew well, near the tourist coach park and we stopped for a late lunch at the famous Egyptian Pancakes. These pancakes are not as I know them, they are quite heavy and filling and more like an omelette that can contain a wide variety of sweet or savoury fillings. It is also a great place to sit and watch the world go by, which we did for a couple of hours before making our way back to the hotel in a taxi.