A tour of Islamic Cairo
By Seif Kamel
A tour of Islamic Cairo usually starts at the historical market of Khan El Khalili, The commercial center of this area. The market is mainly located between Al Mui'z Street, the oldest street in Cairo, and Al Hussein Square. This section of Cairo is usually full of tourists spending their Egypt Tours.
Many shops line in the way leading to the ancient gates of Cairo. However, the narrow lanes of the market area are most condensed with shops selling everything from gifts, souvenirs, and even spices. Khan El Khalili is one of the most remarkable places to be visited in Cairo and it is included almost in any tour to Egypt.
The area of Islamic Cairo is truly an Islamic Open air museum. Cairo in the beginning of the Islamic rule consisted only of this section, the Mui'z Street and the area all around it. Today this section is full of historical mosques, Madras; Islamic teaching schools, Sabils, and all sorts of Moslem structures dating from the Fatimids till the Ottoman period.
Khan Al Khalili
The market was actually established by Garkas El Khalili, master of the horses of Sultan Barquq, in the year 1382. It is one of the largest and most famous markets in the Middle East and the world and one of the most important touristic destinations added to all group tours to Egypt.
This is the most famous touristic bazaar in Egypt selling gold, silver, brass, copper, papyrus, statues replica, pearls, alabaster, and a huge selection of many other products.
The market also hosts the Egyptian traditional handcrafts such as dyeing, carving, and sewing. The craftsmen have been practicing these crafts for centuries in the same location since the days of the Mamluk rule of Egypt.
The market is one of the most popular touristic sections in Cairo. Many buses arrive with large numbers of travelers to buy souvenirs and gifts that are on display almost in every shop of the Khan. Travelers who spend their Egypt Vacations usually pay a visit to the market a number of times.
Historically, all this huge market we see today grew around some small shops, or Khans, that served as warehouses and lodgings for traveling merchants caravans. The tradesmen used to stay in the rooms of upper floors while their horses and animals used to stay in their specified section in the ground floor.
A good example of these khans is the Wikala of Al Ghoury. Finely preserved, the Wikala hosts amazing Tanoora dancing shows nowadays. These shows attract a large number of travelers spending their tours in Egypt to come and enjoy the traditional arts of the country.
Away from shopping, Khan El Khalili hosts a number of marvelous Egyptian oriental cafes where tourists rest after some walking. These cafes offer the famous Shisha, many oriental drinks from Coffee, tea, to the traditional Sahlab of Egypt.
The most famous among these cafes is the Al Fishawy Cafe that is located in the middle of the narrow near Al Hussein Square. This cafe has been operating day and night 24 hours for more than 200 years now and it is considered to be the oldest coffeehouse in Cairo. At anytime of the day or night, many tourists who travel to Egypt can be found in the cafes of Khan El Khalili
The Mosque of Al Hussein
The mosque of Al Hussein is one of the most important mosques for Moslems in Egypt. It is so sacred that it is among the few mosques of the country that non Muslims are not allowed to enter it.
Hundreds come to the mosque everyday to pray and the number reaches more than 10,000 in the Friday assembly prayer. Although non Moslem travelers are not permitted entrance inside the mosque, many travel Egypt packages include an outside view of the Al Hussein Mosque
This mosque, built in 1860, replaced an older one that was constructed in the 12th century. It is reputed to host one of the holiest relics of Islam, the head of grandson of the Prophet Mohamed.
After the death of the prophet in 632 AD, the control of the Caliphate was assumed by the Umayyads. Ali, the prophet’s son in law, claimed himself to be the natural inheritor and he took up arms and was killed. His son, Al Hussein, led a rebellion but he was murdered as well in the battle of Karbala in Iraq in 680 AD.
The Hussein Mosque is a wonderful example of the Islamic architecture in the 19th century, featured with the Ottoman pencil shaped tall minaret.
The Mosque of Al Azhar
Just to the North of Al Hussein Square, lies one of the most important mosques and Islamic teaching institution in the world. Al Azhar was established in 970 AD as the most important achievement of the Fatimids. At the time, Al Azhar acted as the heart of the city
Although the Fatimids were defeated and had to leave Egypt 200 years after conquering the country, many of their mosques and other establishments still survived until today. Al Azhar still plays a vital political and religious role in the lives of the Egyptians. The Sheikh of Al Azhar, or the grand Imam, is the highest religious authority in Egypt.
Al Azhar is the most important Islamic teaching university in the world. Although, the university is now housed in many modern structures all over Egypt, Al Azhar still provides free education and board for many Moslem students from all over the world.
These students, coming from different regions of the globe, come to study Quran, Islamic law, along with many other subjects like Arabic grammar, logic, and rhetoric.
After the international recognition of Al Azhar in 1960, in the reign of the former Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the university has started adding other branches of sciences like medicine, agriculture, and engineering.
So little remains of the original mosque built by the Fatimids as it now hosts a mixture of styles from different periods of time. As the Pharaonic kings wanted to have their additions in the Karnak Complex in Luxor, many Moslem leaders wanted to have their marks and establishments in the Al Azhar mosque that has become one of the most important Islamic monuments visited by large number of travelers as part of their affordable tours in Egypt.
The double arched gate of the Berbers date back to the 18th century and this was where the students had their hair shaved.
Visitors enter from this marvelously decorated gate nowadays and it leads to an enclosure flanked by two Madrasa dating back to the 14th century. The Madrasa to the left is usually open for public visits and it is always worth entering to view the remarkable Mihrab.
The main Sahn, or open courtyard of the mosque is as usual located in the heart of the mosque in the middle between the four Iwans, or halls of the mosque. This section of the mosque dates back to the times of the Fatimids.
Beit Zeinab Khatoon and Beit Al Harawy
The small garden located at the back of Al Azhar mosque hosts a number of historical houses. This includes Beit Zeinab Khatoon, an Ottoman residence built originally in the 15th century and restored in 1990s.
There is also Beit Al Harawy, a wealthy tradesman that lived in the Ottoman era, and his house was constructed in 1731 and has been recently restored.
These two houses are marvelous examples of sophisticated architecture of house that once filled the city of Cairo. Beit Al Harawy in particular has some of the finest Mashrabeya screens, the carved wooden screens in Cairo.
Another amazing architectural feature of the two houses is that they were designed in a way to keep them as cool as possible during the hottest summer days. This is why a visit to one of these houses is usually recommended for tourists who walk around a lot in Islamic Cairo. Many custom tours to Egypt may include a visit to these wonderful historical houses.
The historical houses are open for visitors in the morning and in the evenings, after being restored they act as cultural centers where many arts exhibition and musical performances take place.
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