Journal: Saturday 20 November 2004
My friend Sam and I had thought of going out to Abu Rawash pyramids today but we both decided against it because there are still several sections of medieval Cairo we want to see. We got a taxi to the Bab al-Nasr and walked down to the Bab al-Fetou. These are two of the enormous gates in the city walls. The first mosque is Sultan al-Hakim, which is open to visitors, so we decided to don headscarves, take off shoes and venture inside. Our SCA permissions give us free entry to the Islamic monuments as well as Pharaonic, so we may as well make use of them.
The Fatimid mosque of Sultan al-Hakim is very beautiful – with its marble walls and floors it is light and airy compared to some of the others we have seen and has a wonderful air of serenity about it. Even though it is a tourist attraction it is also still used for prayers. History tells that, built in the 10th century it is one of the oldest remaining mosques in Cairo, built by the imam al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, who enforced the confinement of women by forbidding cobblers to make shoes for them. He also forbade the eating of Mulukhiya and had all the honey in Cairo tipped into the Nile – pleasant chap! Since that time it has been variously used as a place of torture and prison for Crusader captives, a stables, a billet for Napoleon’s troops and a repository for Islamic art. During the Nasser period it was a boys school. From time to time it has also been used as a mosque and it must have been thoroughly cleansed to feel as good as it does today.
We followed the road further on, down the Sharia al-Mu’izz li-Din as far as Harat al-Darb, where we found a beautiful medieval street which reminded me a little of the Shambles in York. Here there were some restored merchants houses open to the public. Although we were supposed to be concentrating on mosques etc we decided to investigate.
Inside the doorway of Beyt al-Suhaymi, built in 1648, we came into the most beautiful house I have ever seen and we both fell in love with it instantly. It is a huge warren of rooms and passageways on three floors surrounding two shady courtyards with fountains. I could happily live within its walls for the rest of my life, and wouldn’t even mind being confined to the Harem quarters because it’s amazing how much the women could see and hear from behind their mushrabiya-screened windows. The air is thick with a feeling of medieval intrigue and we spent a happy couple of hours getting frequently lost in the dark interconnecting staircases and passages, which would sometimes end in a bedroom, bathroom or big audience hall.
It’s little gems and surprises like this which makes the ‘Cairo Experience’ so enjoyable. By now it was getting late. We had arranged to meet Abdul in Fishawi’s coffee shop in the Khan el-Kalili and were already an hour past the arranged time, so wandered down in that direction along my favourite street with its Complex of Qalamun, Sabil-Khutab of Katkhuda and the lovely little al-Ahmar mosque, only stopping briefly to take pictures. I think the Beyt Suhaymi had blown both our minds and finished us for domes and minarets for today. Taking a shortcut through the back of the Khan el-Khalili, and getting only slightly lost, we found a wonderful stone shop on the way. Sam bought some amethyst prayer beads and I bought a lovely lapis bead necklace for LE100, because my last one broke and I lost some of the beads. I love lapis.
We eventually arrived at Fishawi’s. This is one of Cairo’s most famous coffee shops, though I had never been here during the day before. It’s in a narrow alleyway with people walking through all the time selling things, and we know many of the vendors quite well. Abdul had gone off somewhere so we sat for an hour and a half watching the world go by until it got dark.