Journal: Thursday 27 November 2003
Today’s medieval walk was a different route for Sam and I, beginning at the back of the Mosque of Sultan Hasan, below the Citadel and down a street called Sharia Suyufiya. We had a little trouble in the taxi to the Citadel area because the driver spoke no English and neither Sam nor I could remember the Egyptian name, al-Qala and it would seem that he’d never heard of Sultan Hasan Mosque or al-Rifa’i either. Perhaps he doesn’t take tourists very often.
The first monument we saw on the corner of the long street was the mausoleum of Muzaffar ‘Alam ad-Din Sangar. Once attached to a mosque, this tiny forlorn mausoleum with one of the earliest stone domes in Cairo (14th century), is now overshadowed by the modern high-rise apartment block immediately behind it. Sometimes I am more impressed by the smaller monuments than the great and famous. Nearby was another interesting little structure, built in the 18th century this sabil-waaf of Yussuf Bey was a water dispensary once attached to a rab (lower class accommodation) and a kuttab (elementary school for young boys). Along the street another larger sabil-kuttab and rab, constructed in the 17th century by al-Qizar which is still used as accommodation and though still impressive, its facade is now very run-down. Opposite, though we could see little of the building except a high wall covered in scaffolding and polythene sheeting, is the Dervish Theatre of Mawlawi, built during the reign of Mohammed Ali. Mawlana (master) Jalal ad-Din Rumi was a Turkish mystic and poet who founded the Sufi order we know as the ‘whirling dervishes’, who perform a spinning dance as a meditative ritual. The theatre is unique and is under restoration as a joint Egyptian-Italian project. Most of the theatre and Sufi living quarters are hidden behind the remains of a related monument, the madrassa of Sunqur al-Sa’di.
The Sharia Suyufiya contains many old buildings, the largest of which is the 14th century palace of Amir Taz, who married the daughter of Sultan al-Nasr Mohammed. The palace was not only a grand house but also a barracks where the Amir’s private army was housed. A century ago the palace was used as a school for girls, but unfortunately the building was badly damaged during the 1992 earthquake. At the corner of the street is a very elaborate, though obviously more modern sabil-kuttab of Umm ‘Abbas. Emine, mother of the ruler Abbas II, was a much loved member of the community who donated to many charitable institutions. The ornate facade is decorated with floral motifs and garlands and colourful Quranic and poetic inscriptions on smooth white marble and is a delight.
Here Sam and I turned left into Sharia Saliba, where the road passes between two long and high matching facades of the 14th century mosque and qanqah of Amir Shaykhu. On the northern side of the street Shakhu’s mosque, the first of his monuments and one of Cairo’s largest religious foundations, was severely damaged during the Ottoman period.
On the south side the qanqah, built five years later was home to 70 Sufis who lived in cells surrounding a central court. Shaykhu’s tomb was also built in the prayer hall of this building. The cornice over the entrance bears a close resemblance to pharaonic architecture. High on the plain outer walls there is a beautiful restored mushrabiya window and a little open wooden balcony. On the corner of Amir Shaykhu’s qanqah are the remains of another qanqah and sabil of Amir ‘Abdallah, built in 1719. These monolithic grey structures are not very interesting from the outside and I decided that one day I will come back and visit those that are open, as their history is fascinating.
A little further along Sharia Saliba we saw the compact mosque of Qani Bay Mohammadi, another 15th century monument with a chevron-covered dome and tall minaret. Probably the most prominent building on the street is the large sabil-kuttab of Qa’it Bay, which is currently undergoing a lot of restoration. Built in 1479, it is situated on a little island in the road, making it the first free-standing sabil-kuttab in Cairo and not attached to another institution. It is also noted as the first public water dispensary in Cairo. The facade of Qa’it Bay’s monument is richly and colourfully decorated with lovely examples of wooden upper balconies and mushrabiya windows. The striped red and white entrance doorway is especially fine.
I was not feeling at my best today and the dusty streets and the muggy heat were taking their toll, so Sam and I decided to look for a coffee shop and headed back towards the Ibn Tulun mosque. We sat on tiny rickety wooden stools outside the little cafe and provided much amusement to passers-by and local children, who abandoned the little fairground just around the corner to come and stare at us. After half an hour and two cups of strong Egyptian coffee, I was feeling much better. As we were so close to Ibn Tulun’s mosque we couldn’t resist going inside.
Although Ahmad ibn Tulun was born the son of a Turkish slave belonging to the Caliph al-Ma’mun, he was educated in the Caliph’s court and was sent to Egypt to govern the town of al-Fustat in 868. He soon became governor of the whole country, establishing his independence of the Abbasid caliphs of Iraq as ruler of the province. Ibn Tulun’s mosque was constructed in the centre of his old administrative district of Cairo, among the earliest palaces and gardens and It still remains the masterpiece of all Cairo’s mosques and one of the most well preserved even though it is the oldest surviving religious building in Cairo in its original form. The beauty of ibn Tulun’s mosque lies in its simplicity, which is said to be a rare example of classical Islamic architecture, hidden behind its high crenellated walls. After donning scarves and removing our shoes to enter the mosque, I was immediately struck by the vast open space of the courtyard which even made the huge ablution fountain in its centre look insignificant.
All around the sides of the courtyard there are high dark arcades with stone arches supported by pillars and roofed with wooden panels, walls with decorative stone lattice-work windows and beautiful mouldings. The deep prayer hall to one side is also beautifully simple where the plain and elegant mihrab, a niche which faces Mecca, frames the main pulpit, or minbar. The square ablution fountain in the centre of the courtyard was covered by scaffolding and being cleaned or restored, but we could see the shape of the high domed roof, an addition during a restoration in 1296. The very distinctive minaret is on the northern side of the courtyard, originally built as a spiral with a staircase on the outside, looking like a ziggurat of ancient Babylon. Although the minaret has been damaged and restored several times it still retains its outer spiral staircase. I would have loved to go up to the top to look at the view, but it was closed today.
By the time we came out of the ibn Tulun mosque it was mid-afternoon. A group of children insited we take their pictures. One of the things Sam had wanted to do was to visit the Northern Cemetery. We are running out of time with only one more day in Cairo, so we decided to carry on and we took a taxi to the multi-lane highway, Sharia Salah Salem, getting out at the Complex of Amir Qurqumas. I remembered the ‘City of the Dead’ from an early coach tour of Cairo I made a few years ago. More properly known as the Northern Cemetery, the area is inhabited by hundreds of thousands of Cairenes, both living and dead. In the Northern Cemetery, among the grand marble tombs and mausoleums of Mamaluk rulers, some of Cairo’s poorest families live in small shanty-like huts and even in the courtyards of family tombs. Navigating our way around the large tombs, we came to one of the biggest, a complex which includes the tomb of Anas, father of Sultan Barquq, built in 1382 and the qanqar of Sultan Farag ibn Barquq, dated 1481. The structure looks like a fortress, though its facade includes two domes and two minarets of a mosque and the living quarters of the qanqar or Sufi monastery. The whole area is surrounded by military graves.
Picking our way between unidentified buildings and elaborate tombs, I have to say I felt uncomfortable here, even though a lady with a large basket of shopping balanced on her head asked if she could show us around. Further on an old toothless man in ragged dirty galabeya and brandishing a large iron key wanted to let us in to see one of the tombs. Again, a family sitting in the street at a three-legged table offered us a cup of tea. They could not have been more welcoming, but I still felt I should not be there.
Were the sultans, beys and and pashas of a bygone age pleased that we were gawping at their last resting places or outraged that only infidels remembered them? Sam and I explored a number of ‘streets’ – the cemetery is set out in blocks just like a city. Some of the structures are huge and some tiny but all very interesting. I think my discomfort was due to the fact that all the live inhabitants of the cemetery were obviously very poor and needy and to them we were lucrative ‘rich’ tourists. I was quite relieved when it was time to leave and make our way back to our hotel, another Cairo and another world.