Ethar El-Katatney

Medieval Cairo

Posted in Uncategorized by Ethar El-Katatney on April 8, 2009

Medieval Cairo
Cover Story: 52 Weekends.

Egypt Today
April 2009


Photo Credit: Mohamed Shady

The Monumnets of El-Muez Street are getting a makeover.

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By: Ethar El-Katatney

Imams, rabbis and priests all frequently crossed paths in Old Cairo back in the day when mosques and churches and synagogues all inhabited the same districts. In a city that has been home to a number of religions and cultures over the centuries, you’d be hard pressed not to find remnants of each era if you look hard enough.

As Egyptians, we’re all proud of our toorath, our heritage, but few of us take the time to really explore the architectural marvels that are literally on every street corner. The Citadel and the Egyptian Museum are as far as some have gone. Others have delved a bit deeper, pursuing the Fatimid, Mamluk and Ottoman monuments, but few remember that Islamic Cairo is only half of the beauty they can see.

Take a day out of your busy schedule and visit some of the most important Jewish, Muslim and Christian monuments in the city. 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 from the northern gate of Bab El-Futuh to Bab El-Zuweila on the southern wall, the two-kilometer street is the most important commercial thoroughfare of the old city. A walk down it can take you as little as 20 minutes or as long as a day.

The Supreme Council of Antiquities is in the middle of a LE 80 million project to restore El-Muez Street and the monuments lining it. Some 34 sites have been restored along the section of street running from the Qalaoun Complex to Beit El-Qadi, and the street itself has been turned into a cobblestone pedestrian zone.

Our walk starts at Bab El-Zuweila. Passing through the gate from El-Kheyemia (Tentmaker’s Alley), you find Sultan Al-Moua’yed Sheikh Mosque on your left. 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 (sabil) at street level and a Qur’anic school (kuttab) for children on the upper floor. El-Bayda began her life as a slave, but became 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 men’s public bath that is still in use.

Further on is the El-Ghoureya area, where the Islamic monuments are a bit scarce for a few blocks. There are no shortage of shops, however, and you’ll have to haggle on the move as you dodge running children and porters pushing laden hand-trolleys.

At the intersection of El-Muez and Al-Azhar streets, you’ll find Al-Ghuri Mosque to your left with 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 still hosts artistic and cultural events.

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.

Just past the spice shops is the El-Moski neighborhood, which boasts the madrasa and mosque of Al-Ashraf Barsbay on the corner. Further down, the mosque and sabil-kuttab of Sheikh Mutahhar is on the opposite corner in another area called El-Nahassen (the coppersmiths district).

Taking a right in front of the Qalaoun Complex, you can admire and walk beneath the hanging minaret of Madraset Al-Saleh Ayyub. Here in El-Moski you’ll also come across the Jewish Quarter, Harat Al-Yahud, and it is definitely worth a stop. It was once one of Cairo’s most famous neighborhoods and the center of a thriving Jewish community, home to a dozen synagogues. Today, it has become a run-down commercial district, and only two synagogues are left in the alley: the Maimonides Synagogue and the Haim Kapucci.

Moses Ben Maimon, the most illustrious figure in Judaism in the post-Talmudic era, was Sultan Salah Al-Din Al-Ayoubi’s personal physician and is the namesake for the Maimonides Synagogue where he used to teach religion. Egyptians would come from all over the country to visit the synagogue, spending the night and praying, hoping Maimonides would appear in their dreams and solve their health problems.

Backtrack to El-Muez street, and passing Madraset Qalaoun on the left, you will find yourself in Bein El-Qassrein (between the palaces), the neighborhood that is the namesake of Naguib Mahfouz’s famous novel, Palace Walk. 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.

On your right, you’ll see the beautiful Fatimid-era mosque of Al-Aqmar, built in 1125, 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, built in 1010 and named for the eccentric third Fatimid caliph. The recently restored mosque is impressive, but the caliph is better remembered as the ruler who banned 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 Salah Al-Din’s stable, a garrison, a prison for the Crusaders, a fortress for Napoleon, and finally a local school.

You’ve earned a break, so pick up the makings of a great meal at the base of Bab El-Futuh, where there are markets, specializing in a particular product including lemons, onions, garlic and olives.

On the Holy Trail: A tour of Christian sites takes you across the country

From monasteries and churches to pilgrimage sites and artifacts, Egypt is home to some of the most visit-worthy Christian sites in the region. Little wonder, considering the Holy Family trekked across the country, hiding from the wrath of King Herod after the birth of Jesus. St. Mark introduced Christianity to the country in the first century AD, marking the beginning of an era that would last until the seventh century and the arrival of Islam.

If you’re not planning on traveling far, then Old Cairo is the place to go, though most of the ancient churches are not to be found there. The first stop should be El-Mu’allaqa, or the Hanging Church, on Mar Girgis Street, to see the beautiful collection of restored ancient icons and an iconostasis inlaid with ebony and ivory.

Nearby is the Coptic Museum (Tel: +2 (02) 2362-8766, open 10am-5pm) with an impressive collection of manuscripts, icons, crosses, mosaics and the remains of excavations.

A short walk away is the Church of Abu Serga, built on the site of a cave in which the Holy Family is thought to have resided at the end of their stay in Egypt. Make sure to stop by the Church of Saint Mercurius, as well as the Convent of Saint George, where you will find a huge, ornamented door inside the building and a series of catacombs where the legendary dragon-slayer is believed to have been tortured.

Straight ahead is the Ben Ezra Synagogue, Egypt’s oldest, dating back to the ninth century.Past it is the Saint Barbara complex, named after a young girl who is said to have been martyred for trying to convert her father to Christianity. At the church you’ll find a gate that leads to the Greek Orthodox cemetery.

Head over to Al-Khurinfish district in the Zuweila area, located in the Fatimid section of Cairo, to see the ruins of an old monastery, a number of churches and several modern monasteries.

There are dozens of similar churches all around Cairo ( is an excellent resource for tracking them all down). But if you want to properly retrace the steps of the Holy Family through Cairo without missing any stops, it’s best to make your way to an agency. South Sinai Egypt (Tel: +2 (02) 2418-7310) specializes in organizing visits to Christian sites within Cairo.

If you have more time, then pack your bags and contact Holy Family Egypt (, a tour agency which organizes trips to Christian sites outside the capital, following in the footsteps of the Holy Family’s three-and-a-half year flight.

You begin in Sinai, before traveling through the Delta, down the Nile to Upper Egypt and back. Along the way you will visit the monastery on Mount Dronka just south of Assiut (which hosts an annual Moulid of the Virgin Mary in August), a church on Gabel El-Teir (Bird Mountain) — also known as Gabal Al-Kaf (Mountain of the Palm) — near Minya, and El-Moharreq Monastery near Assiut, where Jesus and his parents stayed six months until an angel appeared to Joseph telling him it was safe to return to Palestine.

Considered the birthplace of Christian monasticism, the mountains along the Red Sea house some of the oldest monasteries in the world: the fourth- and fifth-century monasteries of Saint Anthony and Saint Paul, near Zaafarana. Saint Paul is known as the first Christian hermit and Saint Anthony is credited with founding and spreading monasticism. Saint Anthony’s houses a collection of crosses, manuscripts and impressive wall paintings, and the nearby cave where Saint Anthony lived and died is worth the hike.

Another exciting hike is the trek up Mount Sinai to watch the sunrise from the spot where it is believed the prophet Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. Below, St. Catherine’s Monastery shelters the Burning Bush from the Old Testament, as well as a diverse collection of icons and jeweled crosses.

Sakha, in Kafr El-Sheikh, was one of the many stops of the Holy Family during their flight from Herod’s soldiers. It is well known for the 1984 ‘discovery’ of a stone with Jesus’ footprint, now preserved in a glass case inside the Church of the Holy Virgin.

The Holy Family then passed through Wadi El-Natroun, 100 kilometers northwest of Cairo. Here you’ll find the Monastery of Saint Macarius, where early Christians fled from persecution, the Monastery of El-Baramous, the Monastery of Saint Mary, Saint Yehni Kama’s Monastery and Saint Bishoi’s Monastery, which is the monastic residence of Pope Shenouda III, the patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church. To this day, the Coptic pope is still chosen from among the monks of Wadi El-Natroun.  et


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