A Walk Along Mui'z Street in Islamic Cairo
by Seif Kamel
There are many important streets and districts around Cairo. The Kornish El Nile Street, for example, is one of the major traffic streams in the city. It goes from Shubra and Shubra El Khiema in the north, all the way to Helwan, the last neighborhood of greater Cairo in the south. There is also the famous Street of Salah Salem, which begins in Heliopolis in the east and ends in Islamic Cairo, near downtown.
El Mui'z Li Din Allah was once the principal street in Cairo. It is named after the Fatimid Caliph who conquered Cairo in 969 AD and who was responsible for much of Cairo's building programs at that time. El Mui'z Street was the main route of this period. Back then, people would access the road through Bab Zuweila in the south and exit through Bab El Futuh in the north. Over the centuries many buildings have been constructed on this street. Of course, it is no longer a central street in Cairo. It is very narrow these days in comparison with more modern avenues, but it is nevertheless one of the most historical, representing Cairo's largest open-air museum of Islamic and medieval monuments.
El Mui'z Street still starts out at Bab Zuweila, the only remaining gate of the southern walls of Fatimid, Cairo. The gate itself was not constructed until the Mamluk Period, during the 11th century. The Caliph used to watch the annual pilgrimage caravan going to Mecca from here, and this gate was also notorious as the site for public execution. The criminals were hung from the gate's walls. This gate is named for the tribe that was garrisoned nearby.
Bab Zuweila was also called Bab Al Mutawali, which can be translated as the "gate of the responsible" because the individual responsible for communicating the problems of the people to the Caliph sat beside this gate. Next to Bab Zuweila there is the Mosque of Sultan Mu'ayyad, which was built in 1415. One can climb the minaret of the mosque through a door in the prayer hall and have an excellent view of Islamic Cairo from above.
After Bab Zuweila, one must go straight along Mui'z Street and through the Wakala of Ghuri, which is a large market that mainly specializes in products made of cloth.
There are many shops that sell colorful pieces of cloth of different materials. This is in addition to the traditional souvenir and gift shops. This part of the street is very interesting. You feel that you are really a part of the Old Islamic Cairo as you walk between the shops and hear the loud voices of buyers and sellers.
At the end of Al Ghuria, there is Wikala of Al Ghuri. The word wikala means a hostel built for merchants who came from Africa in caravans full of goods. They used to rest in these hostels, and they used to have a place for trading as well. Usually, the wikala is rectangular shaped building consisting of three to five floors. The only remaining wikala in Cairo is the Ghuri Wikala which was built in the 17th century. It has three floors and provides good examples of the art of the period. It is now used as a center for arts and crafts like wood, portraits and Bedouin crafts.
Across the Mui'z Street and on the other side of Wikala of Ghuri lies the Ghuri complex, which are black and white buildings facing each other. It was constructed by Qansuh El Ghuri, the last powerful ruler of the Mamluks in Egypt. Qansuh died at the hands of the Ottomans and his body was buried in this complex. This complex is now used as a cultural center and theater. Whirling dervishes perform there two times a week.
To continue walking in the interesting Mui'z Street now, one must pass through Azhar Street. Azhar Street is one of the important streets in Cairo as it connects Salah Salem Street to Opera Square, downtown. This street is usually very crowded, although the Egyptian police exert a lot of effort to make it easier to pass through it. But you dont have to worry, because there is this small walking bridge that makes passing the Azhar Street very easy and enjoyable at the same time.
You can see much from this small bridge, including the famous Mosque of Al Azhar founded in 970 AD and the Azhar Islamic University. On the other side of the street, there is the Saydena El Hussein Mosque. It was built in 1870 and it replaced another mosque of the 12th century. Beside the Hussein Mosque lies the most famous tourist market in the whole world I believe, Khan El Khalili with its famous cafes and many souvenirs shops.
Just beside the Khan El Khalili is the entrance to the other part of El Mui'z Street. It starts with Al Sagha, which means 'the gold sellers'. There are many gold and silver shops at the beginning of this part of the street. You can buy wonderful gifts there at the best prices. There are also many spice and perfume dealers, as well as the traditional gift shops that sell papyrus, gifts, shishas and other kinds of souvenirs.
A few steps after these shops, you will enter the area of Bein El Qasrein. The word means "between the two palaces". These two palaces used to exist 600 years ago, facing each other and opening on a public square that was the center of Fatimid, Cairo, founded in 969 AD. Other dynasties replaced the buildings of the street with buildings of their own but the street remained reserved for grand buildings.
The western side of Bein El Qasrein has the spectacular facades belonging primarily to three early Mamluk complexes. The most southerly is the Madrasa and Mausoleum of Sultan Qalawun and it is the oldest of the three, being completed in 1279. Three hundred prisoners worked in the construction of the complex, which was completed in 13 months. There is a dark corridor that goes from the Madrasa to the Mausoleum, which is one of the most stunning interiors in Cairo.
The Qalawun complex is undergoing restorations and it will be ready for visits in a few months. However, its view from outside is amazing with all the Islamic decorations on the walls and the minarets of the complex. There are verses of the Quran carved on its walls. They are still in good enough shape to read them.
Continuing north and adjoining the Qalawun complex, is the less expansive faade of the Madrasa and Mausoleum of Sultan Al Nasser Mohamed. It was built between 1299 and 1304 by a sultan who was forced to leave his throne twice. He was able to regain power in both cases and he ruled for a total of 42 years. During this time he built around 200 buildings, all over Cairo. The most famous among them is his mosque in the Citadel. However, his monument in the Mui'z Street is in ill repair and is in the process of being restored. However, the North African style minaret is a wonderful sight to see.
Going north you will find the Madrasa of Sultan Barquq, which was built around the year 1384 to 1386. The Madrasa looks similar to a mosque from the outside. It was a school for teaching Islamic law. The most interesting thing in this complex are the four doors which are covered with bronze. There is also the fascinating mausoleum building that looks like an ornate jewelry box. Sultan Barquq wasnt buried there, but his daughter was. He was buried in the north cemetery.
The Bein El Qasrein area is very famous worldwide. Naghuib Mahfouz, the famous Egyptian author who won the noble literature prize in 1988, used to live in this area. Most of his writings were inspired by the place. The first novel of the Cairo Trilogy, the most famous Egyptian novels, was even called Bein El Qasrein after this area.
Continue walking to the north, and on your right you will find the Beshtak Palace of Qaser Beshtak. It can easily be missed from the outside because it is only a two story building with some mashrabeya windows. However, there is a narrow lane right to the house that enters a beautiful Islamic reception. Beshtak was a powerful prince who married the daughter of the Caliph and had great wealth and influence. His palace, which was built in 1334, was the host for many great parties and ceremonies. The house contained five stories but only two remain. The second floor is a roof now and it has a wonderful panoramic view of Islamic Cairo with all its minarets and buildings. The Beshtak palace is in a period of restoration now, just as many of the monuments of the Mui'z Street.
Moving along, in the middle of the street there is the Sabil and Kuttab of Abdel Katkhuda. Islamic Cairo has many dotted odd shaped buildings that look like huge windows. These buildings are 'sabils', or fountains of fresh water. Copper cups were placed next to these fountains so that the people would come and take their supply of water. Wealthy people used to build sabils to make the people love them, and they believed they would become closer to God by helping others. The second floor of the sabil was usually used as a kuttab, a place to teach Quran and Islamic subjects. This sabil was built in the year 1744 and it is being restored along with Qaser Beshtak, which is usually associated with it.
Going north again, you will find the Mosque of Al Aqmar on the right. This mosque is also called the 'grey mosque' because of the color of its walls. The mosque was built in 1125 by one of the last Fatimid caliphs. It is well known and famous as the oldest stone built mosque in Egypt. The decorations of the mosque are remarkable. Different geometric shapes and verses from the Quran are carved into the stone.
Walking along the street, you will find Darb Al Asfar Lane. This lane is famous for two reasons. First, it will take you to the Khan El Khalili market very fast and easily. Second, it hosts the amazing house of Suhaymi, a very good example of how a wealthy family used to live in Old Islamic Cairo. The house is a two store building full of beautiful decorations in the Islamic style.
To the left of Darb Al Asfar, there are the remarkable mosque and sabil of Soliman Al Selhdar which was built in 1839. It also contains a madrasa. This mosque is remarkable because it is unlike any other mosque in the area. It was designed in the Turkish style, apparent by the pencil shaped minaret of the Mosque. It doesnt have a lot of decorations, which is unlike many of the other mosques of the area.
If you continue walking on Al Mui'z Street, you will find yourself in the middle of the garlic and onion market. There are many garlic shops in the area and it is famous for this kind of trade. At the end of this market, there is the Mosque of Al Hakim Be'amr Allah, the third Fatimid Caliph. He ruled when he was only eleven years old and had his tutor murdered when he was fifteen. He is famous for his strange actions and violence. He even ordered shoemakers to stop manufacturing shoes for women to prohibit them from leaving their homes or walking in the street. This mosque was actually built by his father by Al Hakim, completed in 1013, and was used as a prison for crusaders in the period of Mohamed Ali. It was restored in the 1980's and is now a good example of the Islamic art of the period.
The exciting walk in Al Mui'z Le Din Allah Street ends with the northern walls and gates, including Bab El Naser, Gate of Victory, and Bab El Futuah, Gate of Conquests. They were both built in 1087 and were enlarged by Salah El Din Al Ayouby. It is possible to walk on the walls and near these gates by jumping from the roof of Mosque of Al Hakim and then to the walls. These gates demonstrate a great example of how Cairo was protected in the Fatimid period.
Walking in the Mui'z Street is like walking through the history of Islamic Egypt. The street is full of Islamic monuments. You can pass through the streets, view the monuments from outside, and enter the ones you feel attracted to. People in this area are quick to help you with anything. After this appealing walk in Mui'z Street, it is great to freshen up in the Fishawy Caf, the most famous caf in Khan El Khalili. This area of Cairo is unique and always enjoyable. You won't find any place like it in all of Egypt.
Last Updated: August 21st, 2011
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