Al Hussein Square and Ramadan
by Seif Kamel
One of the busiest places in Cairo, particularly during Ramadan, is the Al Hussein area which includes the Khan el-Khalili market. The Hussein Mosque is considered one of the most important mosques in Cairo and a beautiful Islamic monument. It was built in the Fatimid period in the year 1154 and modified in the year 1236. The mosque is named after Al Hussein, the son of Aly Ibn Aby Taleb, the forth Khalifa (Deputy of Mohamed), May God bless him. The mosque is decorated fascinatingly with gold and Eastern decorations. It was totally renewed during the reign of Khedive Ismail in the beginning of the 20th century and the remains of the cemetery were discovered while some work was being done near the mosque foundation. The mosque is a unique piece of art and so many people visit Al Hussein mosque in Ramadan and in the holidays afterwards.
Around this area, which was named after the mosque, lies one of the most famous and popular tourist spots in Egypt, the Khan el-Khalili. In this place everything seems old and Egyptian. There are a huge number of shops in the area that sell all kinds of gifts and souvenirs. This is besides the many oriental cafes spread all over the place.
I decided to visit Hussein an hour after Iftar (the meal that breaks the daily fast during Ramadan, served after sunset). This is because Hussein has a different atmosphere in Ramadan and because I wanted to go as early as possible to avoid the crowds of people expected to be there.
My trip started when I met my friend Eman, whom I asked to escort me, and she was kind enough to come along. We met in Tahrir square downtown in Cairo. I thought I would never find a cab to take us to Hussein because it is usually very crowded. However, the first taxi I waved down agreed to go to Hussein.
We arrived there at 7:30 on the other side of the street. I gave the cab driver five pounds and we were off. We had to pass through the tunnel to go to the other side of the road. The last time I went through these tunnels was when I was in high school, and some ten years later the tunnels are quite the same. However, they are much cleaner than in the past.
When we reached the other side of the street, we found that many people were already there. Apparently, many of them broke fast here in order to have the place to themselves after Iftar.There are many shops that sell silver. They sell modern bracelets and rings and they also sell the pharaonic style items. Some also sell huge bowls that are only silver plated.
Other shops sell souvenirs such as little statues of the sphinx and Ramesses. Many of these statues seem to look exactly as if they were made by the ancients. This is because they were created accurately with great talent. Many tourists from different parts of the world were anxious to buy these gifts.
The other most popular items sold here, at least during Ramadan, is the Fanoos, the Ramadan lamps. Children in the past used to hold them in their hands and go around and play while singing the popular Ramadan songs that never changed. Fanoos are sold everywhere because they add a lot to the Ramadan mood, like Christmas trees in the west during Christmas.
Papyrus art is sold in Hussein as well and there wasnt a single tourist that wasnt interested in checking them out. We all know that papyrus was used by the pharaohs but now there are some small factories that specialize in Papyrus. Some of them are even painted using gold, but these are quite expensive. The other papyrus cost between 80 and 120 LE (Egyptian Pounds). This is off course according to the size and the quality of the paper.
The shops that attracted me, and Eman even more than me, were the costumes and cloth shops. Some of these shops specialize in selling cloth of special kinds like kettan, that the pharaohs used to wear. Many shops were selling the Galabeya, the traditional female robe in Egypt. These outfits had attractive colors and like everything there one can buy a robe that has modern ornaments or one with pharaonic designs and they all are sold at very good prices. Of course, one must bargain a little. Some shops even sell hats and other headdresses that were worn in Egypt during various periods of time. The red Tarboosh is the main item in this collection. These are no longer really popular among Egyptians, but they were once very popular. You can also find the Arabian cloth (turbans) Egyptians put on to protect their heads in the desert regions. Some shops even sell old pharaonic crowns, if you want to feel like a king, but but of course these are all reproductions. Then there are the stores that sell belly dancing costumes, and all of the accessories used for belly dancing. Many women, even the Egyptians, dream of wearing this outfit. It is said that every Egyptian girl knows how to belly dance, even though they may not do so in front of an audience. Many cute women dream of wearing this outfit and dancing for their husbands at home or in small family parties. These customs are really exciting as they have the hottest colors.
Other shops sell oriental musical instruments like the Oud and Tabla. These are oriental instruments similar to the guitar and drums in Europe. The Tabla comes in many different shapes and sizes. One can buy one and start performing immediately, though it takes an Egyptian artist years to become a professional on the Tabla. The Oud is even harder to learn. This is because it doesnt have frets like the guitar. They say that the heart moves the fingers to play the Oud.
Eating is another big adventure in Hussein. After more than two hours of walking to check out most of the shops, Eman and I had to find a place to rest. There are many cafes in the Khan el-Khalili but the most popular and one of the most famous is the Fishawy Caf inside the shopping area of the Khan el-Khalili. The caf was full of people at 9 o'clock at night. It seemed as if we were in the Cairo international airport, as there were many people from all regions of the world. The cafe offers all kinds of Oriental drinks, cold and hot. The thing I love to drink most there is Sahlab, which is a white drink that tastes very sweet and heavenly, and Homos El Sham which makes the body warm on cold winter nights. Qasab, molasses juice, is also available in many cafes and shops. Another caf with the same mood is the Khan el-Khalili restaurant, that was full of tourists. The place offers all kinds of Oriental food and drinks with very good prices.
Another great shop is the Fatatry El Hussein (Hussein pastry). It is located at the beginning of the shopping area and just beside the mosque. They sell all kinds of Oriental pastries. A very good meal can consist of an Oriental sausage ( Fateera) pastry, a drink of Qasab, and a sugar covered pastry as a dessert. This meal costs about 20 to 25 pounds. This is one of my favorite meals when I visit this shop. They also offer pastries with cheese, vegetables, eggs, beef, or seafood. Dessert pastries can have nuts, cream, honey, or a mix of everything. This small area of Cairo, so popular with tourists, is a magnitude more exciting during Ramadan, with the festivities surrounding the adjacent mosque. Ramadan tends to make Egyptian night life more entertaining then usual, and certainly more festive, and no where else is this more evident than in Hussein square.
Last Updated: 10/24/2005