Ethar El-Katatney

Historic Haunts

Posted in Egypt Today by Ethar El-Katatney on April 9, 2008

Historic Haunts
Egypt Today
Cover Story: 52 Weekends
April 2008

Available at:
Photo Credit: Mohsen Allam

El-Muez Lideen Allah Street offers a stroll down memory lane.

By: Ethar El-Katatney

In a city that’s been home to a number of religions and cultures over the centuries, it’s not unusual to see a McDonalds jostling for space with a centuries-old mashrabeya, or a minaret leaning over a small alleyway.

We all fawn over the beautiful architectural marvels that have been left to us, but how many of us have actually taken the time to traverse even one of the old Cairo quarters and enjoy some quality culture time? In that vein, we ask you to put on your walking shoes, ditch the car for a day, take a deep breath, and go on our walking tour.

For the uninitiated, there’s no better place to start than El-Muez Lideen Allah Street, the historic axis of Fatimid Cairo and a maze of over 30 mosques and monuments that span some 800 years. Stretching across the northern gate of Bab El-Futuh to Bab El-Zewayla on the southern wall, the two-kilometer street is the most important commercial thoroughfare of the old city, and a walk down can take you as little as 20 minutes or as long as a day. A whole population of craftsmen, shopkeepers, tradesmen and the owners of restaurants and cafés inhabit El-Muez and its adjoining alleys; many are born, live, work and even die on the same neighborhood.

If you must take your car, park it in the lot at El-Hussein, then walk down Al-Azhar Street. Take a left on the pedestrian bridge and walk straight to Bab El-Zewayla, located at the junction of El-Muez Street and the recently restored Darb El-Ahmar. Built in 1092, Bab El-Zuwayla, one of the last three remaining of Egypt’s twelve gates, was named after the Berber tribe Bani Zuwayla.

A five-year renovation of the gate was completed in 2003, making it at last accessible to visitors. But before you go inside the fortress wall up to the twin minarets, each around 30 meters tall, take a stroll around Darb El-Ahmar, which acts as a liaise between Bab El-Wazir, Tahrir Square and Ramsis Street. Visit the recently opened Kheyrebek Complex and the Umm al Sultan Shabaan Mosque. The area surrounding the gate is known as Suq El-Silah (The Weapons Market) Street. A little further along, you can buy drums, belly dancing costumes, embroidered cloth, wooden tables, shishas, and beautifully woven baskets of palm leaf and grass.

Now turn back, go up the gate’s minaret, and then start walking down El-Muez. You will come across Sultan Al-Moua’yed Sheikh’s mosque on your left as soon as you cross the gate. A prison once stood on this site and an incarcerated Al-Moua’yed vowed that if he ever came to power he would tear down the prison and build a mosque in its place. True to his word, he built the mosque in 1420, and today it is one of the city’s biggest, with a minaret that provides a panoramic view of Medieval Cairo (LE 2 to climb).

On your right, opposite the mosque, you’ll find the Sabil-Kuttab of Nafisa El-Bayda. Built in 1796, the building houses a public water fountain (the sabil) at street level and a Qur’anic school (the kuttab) for children on the upper floor. Nafisa El-Bayda began her life as a slave, but ended up an intermediary between Napoleon and Ibrahim Bey during the latter’s resistance of the French occupation.

Continue around the corner and next to a small jeweler’s shop you’ll find Hammam El-Sukkareya, a rare eighteenth-century public bath for men still in operation

Further on is the El-Ghoureya area, where the Islamic monuments are a bit scarce for a few blocks. But you can still enjoy walking through the bazaars, haggling with the vendors, trying not to trip over the running children and dodging the porters with their laden hand trolleys.

At the intersection of El-Muez and Al-Azhar streets, you’ll find Al-Ghuri mosque to your left with the Al-Ghuri madrasa (school) and khanqa (mausoleum) to the right. Built by Sultan Qansuh Al-Ghuri in 1505, the square between the two buildings was the site of Cairo’s silk market until the late 1800s; the madrasa-khanqa hosts artistic and cultural events to this day.

Cross Al-Azhar Street via the pedestrian bridge to explore the area’s spice shops. Here you’ll find an endless array of colorful spices and herbs used for everything from cooking and hair dyes to healing and aroma. This area is also known as a venue for social events, including weddings and funerals, so you just might be treated to a street musician willing to perform for you.

A short while later you’ll be in the El-Muski neighborhood, which boasts the madrasa and mosque of Al-Ashraf Barsbay, while the mosque and sabil-kuttab of Sheikh Mutahhar is on the opposite side of the street in another area called El-Nahassen. You can also take a right to check out the hanging minaret of Madraset Al-Saleh Ayyub, and walk right underneath it.

Passing Madraset Qalaoun on the left, you find yourself in Bein El-Qassrein (between the palaces), the neighborhood Naguib Mahfouz’s famous novel was named after. Take a left here to see the great Mosque of Sultan Barquq, built in 1386. Open for public visits, this is one mosque that is a must-see both inside and out.

Backtrack to the main street, and walk on. We know you’re tired, but forge ahead! On your right, you’ll see the beautiful Fatimid mosque, Al-Aqmar, built in 1125 and the first mosque in Cairo to have a stone façade. Right outside is a market area for metal products and coffee-shop equipment, as well as the mosque and sabil-kuttab of Sulayman Agha Al-Silahdar, built in 1837 and featuring a curious mix of Ottoman and Cairene styles.

The last stop before finally reaching Bab El-Futuh is Al-Hakim bi Amr Allah’s Mosque, which in 1010 was built and named for the eccentric third Fatmid caliph, who prohibited the making of women’s shoes during his reign because he believed it was haram, or divinely prohibited. In its long history, the mosque has been used as a stable for Salah El-Din, a garrison, a prison for the Crusaders, a fortress for Napoleon, and finally a local school. At the base of the gate you’ll encounter a series of markets, each specializing in a particular product, including lemons, onions, garlic and olives.

If you’re still up for it, take a stroll to the corner of Bab El-Nasr, where Darb El-Asfar Street begins with the delightful house of coffee merchant Mustafa Ga’far. Built in 1713, it is now the local office of the Egyptian Antiquities Authority. Further along, in the alleyway, you will come across the completely restored Beit El-Suheimi; this complex actually consists of two houses, one built in 1648 and the other in 1796. The complex hosts concerts and cultural events in the evenings; it’s also a good place to call it a day after your big walkabout. et


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