A tour of Islamic Cairo, Egypt

Islamic Cairo, Egypt

Cairo is Islamic, though some areas are more so than others. Actually, this area is no more Islamic than Central Cairo, but as though walking through a time machine we are transported back to Cairo's past Islamic heritage, to a world of ancient mosques and 1,500 hundred year old markets; to medieval forts and the city that was Salah ad-Din's.

One should dress appropriately if sightseeing is in order, though it is not necessary when simply shopping in the Khan. Appropriate clothing involves clothing which will be acceptable in the mosques, with little skin showing, and particularly not legs and shoulders. Wear comfortable shoes that can be easily removed.

Almost all of the old Mosques and Islamic Monuments will have Markers

Almost all of the old Mosques and Islamic Monuments will have Markers

To start this journey, we return to Midan Ataba. However, before proceeding into the Islamic district, lets head southwest along Mohammed Ali street to the intersection of Port Said (Bur Said) street and visit the Islamic Museum, which will provide us with some additional knowledge and resources prior to entering Islamic Cairo. We can then proceed northeast on Port Said street until it intersects with Sharia al-Azhar, which we will take to the east (right). We will first pass the carpet market (H) and then the Mosque-Madrassa of al-Ghouri (66) and then his Mausoleum (67) (the black and white buildings, circa 1505 AD), which are both worth a visit. This complex is a beautiful reminder of the Mamluk era of Egypt, when slaves were kings, but it was al-Ghouri who turned the rule over to the Ottomans with his defeat in Syria. Of note is that there are Sufi performances held in the mausoleum. This whirling dance is a must see in the authors opinion. The Wikala of al-Ghouri (68) (the best preserved wikala in Cairo) is just east of the complex, which serves as a theater and concert hall, along with artist's galleries. Skirting the Khan and continuing on al-Azhar street, past the Mosque of Abu Dahab (69) (circa 1774 AD), which currently houses students of the al-Azhar Mosque University, we arrive at the al-Azhar Mosque (70), which was founded in 970 AD. It is one of Cairo's oldest mosques, but perhaps more importantly, it is the world's oldest university and certainly worth a look. The street which runs along the side of the al-Azhar Mosque is Shari Atfa el-Azhari and at the end of this street is Beit Zeinab Khatun (not indicated on map), built in 1468 and refurbished in 1713. The first floor reflects the style of the Mamluks era while the second is Ottoman. Opposite the house is the El-Ayni Mosque, and beyond that are two old houses at the end of Shari Atfa el-Ayni. They are the Beit al-Harrawi, built in the 1700's and close by is Beit Sitt Wassila (circa 1637 AD).

Map One of Islamic Cairo, Egypt

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Al-Hussein Mosque and its Park

Turning back and heading back up to the front of the Al-Azhar Mosque, we can head north a short distance and we will arrive at Midan Hussein (pictured left). This was the center of medieval Cairo and today remains an important area for some Islamic religious festivals, including Ramadan. To the north of this is a relatively new (1870) Mosque of Sayyidna al-Hussein (71). Though new in terms of Egypt, it is a very sacred site to Muslims and those not of that faith should not enter. Across the street is the Ahmed Pasha Sabil (73), while to the south of the Al-Hussein mosque is the new al-Azhar Park, a mega project that has transformed the surrounding neighborhoods as well as adding needed greenery to the City. The al-Azhar Park offers an excellent view of the surrounding area and is a nice place to take a rest at the Hilltop or Lakeside Cafes.

The 'knowing' traveler sometimes dismisses the Khan el-Khalili as a tourist trap, and indeed, all manner of souvenirs may be purchased there, from statues to 'personalized' cartouches to papyrus art. But the Khan (meaning market) predates tourism to the area and was established in the 14th century. Further, most tourists tend to buy souvenirs, and for many items, this is the best and least expensive place to buy them with the most variety. But many things are sold here, and one discovers that the Egyptians are here as well, buying their fabrics and clothes, pots, and other ordinary household needs. Step into this world by heading west Muski street from Midan Hussein. Many of the shops for specific goods are clustered along specific streets, or in specific areas. For example, there is the Coppersmith's street. However, this is less true then most guide books would have one believe. Many shops, particularly those catering specifically to tourists have a variety of different products.

Where Muski street crosses al-Muizz li-Din Allah street, two mosques sit opposite each other on either side of Muski. The southern one is the Mosque of al-Ashraf Barsbey (circa 1425 AD) (also known as the Ashrafiya Medersa) (72), which is a complex consisting of a mosque-medersa, a mausoleum and sabil-kuttab, while the northern one is the Mosque of al-Mutahhar (73) (circa 1744 AD) built by Abd el-Rahman Katkhuda. The Mosque of al-Mutahhar has a wonderful marble covered floor. Al-Muizz li-Din Allah street was named for the Fatimid caliph who conquered Cairo in 969 AD and was the main street of medieval Cairo.

North of the Khan el-Khalili

Up Al-Muizz li-Din Allah past the gold and copper merchants at the northern end of the Khan is the area known as Bein al-Qasreen (between the Palaces) and at one time there were two great palaces here. Today, its minarets, domes and towering buildings leave visitors impressed with the Islamic tradition of the area. We first encounter the Madrassa and Mosoleum of Qala'un (1) to the left (east) side of the street. The Madrassa and Mausoleum of Qala'un is the earliest building in the area (circa 1279 AD) and probably the most interesting to visit. A madrassa was a hospital, and there is still a clinic here, which, remarkably means that this madrassa has been providing medical care for some 700 years. Just behind this building is the Taghri Bardi Mosque. Just north of the Madrassa and Mausoleum of Qala'un is first the Madrassa and Mausoleum of an-Nasir Mohammed (2) (circa 1304 AD, with an ornate arched door seized from a church in Acre), and then the Madrassa and Mausoleum of Barquq (3) (circa 1386 AD) , both on the east (left) side of the street and both of which make for interesting visits. To the north of these, but in the same complex is the Kamiliya Madrassa (4) (Circa 1180-1238 AD) built by Sultan el-Kamil, but little remains of this.

Map two of Islamic Cairo, Egypt

The Madrassa and Mausoleum of as-Salih Ayyub (5) (circa 1242-1250 AD) is the first building on the west side of the street across from the Madrassa and Mosoleum of Qala'un. This is one of the first Ayyubid Madrassas and one of the few that survive, though all that remains is a wall surmounted by a minaret. Next is Baybar's Madrassa (6), followed by the Ismail Pasha Sabil-Kuttab (7) (circa 1535), behind which is the Uthman Katkhuda Palace (8) (circa 1350) which was once a Mumluk residence. Continuing North up Al-Muizz li-Din Allah after the Ismail Pasha Sabil-Kuttab is the Beshtak Palace (9) built in 1334 AD by Emir Beshtak. A small, outer door leads to the 13th century Beshtak or El-Fijl Mosque on the first floor of the palace.

Further up the street one the right (east), we find the Sabil-Kuttab of Abdel Katkhuda (circa 1744 AD) A sabil is a fountain, while a kuttab is a Quranic (religous) school, and there are several of these remaining in Cairo (the school its atop the fountain). While this may sound like a strange combination, they satisfy tow basic recommendations of the Prophet, which are water for the thirsty and spiritual enlightenment for the ignorant. After the Sabil-Kuttab of Abdel Katkhuda, still on the east side of the street is the Mosque of al-Aqmar (11) (meaning Moonlit, and built in 1125 AD. Sometimes called the Gray Mosque). Up the street just a bit further is Darb al-Asfar street. Making a right here and heading east a few steps we come to Beit as-Suhaymi (12) (house of as-Suhaymi and probably the finest example of an Ottoman house in Cairo).

Beit as-Suhaymi

Beit as-Suhaymi

To the east in the area between the Sabil-Kuttab of Abdel Katkhuda and the Beit as-Suhaymi (17th Century) are winding streets with a myriad of Islamic buildings one may wish to wonder through. One finds in the streets just behind the Sabil-Kuttab of Abdel Katkhuda the Sheikh Sinan Mausoleum (13), then the Mithqal Mosque (14), followed by the El-Higaziya Mosque (15) and across Al-Gamaliyya the El-Ahmedi Mosque (16) (17th century) is located on the corner of Darb el-Tabalawi to the south, with the Muharram Mosque (17) (circa 1539 located on the corner of Atfa el-Qaffasin and Shari al Gamaliyya) just north of it, the Oda Bashi Wakala (18) behind that which is in front (west) of the Musafirkhana Palace (19) (circa 1779), which is now destroyed by fire. To the north of Muharram Mosque back on Al-Gamaliyya is the Oda Bashi Sabil-Kuttab (20) (circa 1673), whose front has decroative green and blue tiles and surmounted by a wood canopy, and up Al-Gamaliyya on the left (west) is El-Ustadar Mosque (21) and between that and the El-Aqmar are the Bazaraa Wakala (22) (17th century) to the south and the Said el-Saada Mosque (23) to the north. Behind the Beit as-Suhaymi (on Al-Muizz li-Din Allah) to the east is the Qitasbay Sabil-Kuttab (24) and behind that across Al-Gamaliyya is the Qara Sunqur Medersa (25) and behind that the Suleyman Aga Sabil.(26)

Back on Al-Muizz li-Din Allah, and heading north again, we next come to the Mosque of Suleyman Aga el-Silahdar (27) (circa 1839 AD) which is worth a visit, and finally to the southeast corner of the Mosque of al-Hakim (28) (completed in 1010 AD).

Continuing to the northeast corner of the mosque will bring one to Bab al-Futuh (29) (Gate of Conquest) and the Northern walls, which were built in about 1087 AD to defend the Fatimid city of Al-Qahira. Notably, along the way one may notice the garlic and onion market on the east side of the street. Until about 1850, this was the last slave market in Egypt. Exit the gate and turn right (west) to get a feel for this massive and grand military defense. Walking along the wall, one will next come to the Bab an-Nasr (30) (Gate of Victory) with its square towers. reenter the area through this gate and to ones right sitting along side the al-Hakim Mosque is the Wikala of Qaytbay (31) (a medieval merchants inn circa 1481). One will certainly wish to visit both the al-Hakim and Wikala of Qaytbay, as well as the El-Jashankir Mosque (32) which sits south of the Wikala, but also of interest is the entrance to the top of the Northern Wall from the roof of al-Hakim Mosque. From there, one may walk along the top of the wall and explore the inside of the gates. Just as a note, looking north one sees housing, but this is also what is left of the Bab an-Nasr cemetery.

The Northern Cemetary

Just outside the North Wall is Al-Galal Street, which we now wish to take along the wall to the south and the Bab an-Nasr Cemetery to the North. Heading east (right, as one exits either of the Northern Gates away from al-Hakim) on this street will finally bring us to the Northern Cemetery.

Part of the Northern Cemetary

The Northern Cemetery, also known as the City of the Dead, is a true curiosity. It is a cemetery, but also a city of the living. Originally, Cairo's rulers selected the area for their tombs outside the crowed medieval city in a location that was mostly desert. However, dating back to early pharaonic times, Egyptians have not so much thought of cemeteries as places of the dead, but rather places where life begins. Hence, tombs were often thought of as places to entertain, and guest facilities for visitors were often appended to the tombs. So it came to be that squatters as early as the 14th century took up residence in the tombs, living easily alongside the dead. Today, cenotaphs are used as tables, and clothing lines are strung between headstones and the area is fully recognized by the government as both a cemetery and a residential area. One more mystery in a city that once required kings to first be slaves.

Upon entering the Cemetery along Al-Galal street, past Salah Salem street, we will encounter the 1967 War Cemetery at the intersection of Ahmed Ibn Inal Street. We can take a short jaunt to the right (north) just past the War Cemetery where we will first find the Mosque of Amir Qurqumas (1507) and then the Religious and Funerary Complex of Sultan Inal (1456). These are, are have been restored by a Polish team. Now back down the street retracing our steps to the south and the intersection with Al-Galal where we entered, make a left heading east and we will pass the tomb of Asfur on the right (south) and come to the Khanqah and Mausoleum of Ibn Barquq which was completed in 1411 AD. Ibn means 'son' and this is the mausoleum of Farag, Ibn Barquq's son. From there, head due south on the road and very shortly we come to the Complex of Sultan Ashraf Barsbey (1432). The dome of the complex is carved with a wonderful star pattern. Inside, the floors are fine marble, and the pulpit is inlaid with ivory.

Continuing south, we will come to the Mosque of Qaytbay (circa 1474 AD), who was the last Mamluk ruler in Egypt with much power. The gateway is south of the Mosque. Now heading east again to leave the Northern Cemetery, on Salah Salem, we need to look for Al Azhar street which should be near, and head back to the area of the Khan.

South of the Khan el-Khalili to the Citadel

We must first trace our way back east to Al-Muizz li-Din Allah past the Khan el-Khalili, and take a left heading south between the buildings of the al-Ghouri complex. Just before we pass the Mosque of al-Fakahani (48) (circa 1145 but rebuilt in the 17th century) there is a small street leading east where Beit Gamal ad-Din (47) (1637) is located at 6 Hara Hoch Qadam (circa 1637). The house is typical of Cairo's upper class of the 17th century. The front has two projecting mashrabiya panels overlooking the street, and is entered via an arched doorway. It has an inner courtyard and a second floor harem chamber.

Map Three of Islamic Cairo, Egypt

To the east of Al-Muizz li-Din Allah is Hara el-Rum, the old Christian Quarters, which was built outside the city walls originally. In the 11th century, the walls were moved to encompass this area. It was the seat of the Coptic patriarchate until the 19th century. There are a few old Christian monuments here, including the Church and Monastery of St. Tadros and the 6th century Church of the Virgin (El-Adra), which was rebuilt after being destroyed by fire in the 11th and 14th centuries

Continuing south on Al-Muizz il-Din Allah we find the Tussan Pasha Sabil (49) (circa 1820) to the east (left), which was built by Mohammed Ali in memory of a son who died at the age of twenty. The kuttab are rooms scattered throughout the building. East of this at the end of Atfa el-Tateri is the Beit Shabshiri (50) built during the 17th century. The house is small, but there is an interior courtyard which is overlooked by projecting mashrabiya panels, lattice windows and galleries. The harem chamber encompasses the whole of the east wing and overlooks the street and courtyard through mashrabiyas.

Finally, back on Al-Muizz li-Din Allah we continue south and arrive at another complex of Islamic monuments. Here we find the Bab Zuweila (51), which was built at the same time as the Northern Gates, but which has a much more gruesome history. The Mosque of al-Mu'ayyad (52) is the building to the east (right), completed in 1422 by Al-Mu'ayyad (known as the Red Mosque). The view from the top of the mosques' minarets is said to be about the best in Cairo. Just east of the Bab Zuweila is the Wakala and Sabil-Kuttab of Nafisa al-Beida (53) which is an information center for Islamic Cairo. Built during the 18th century, the rabaa section is still inhabited. The sabil-kuttab is located in the southern section of the building. We can continue south on Al-Muizz li-Din Allah where we will pass the Frag Ibn Barquq Zawia (54) (circa 1408 AD, but all that remains are two reception rooms) Next is the Mahmud el-Kurdi Mosque (55) (circa 1395 AD) on the left (east) which has a mosque-medersa and mausoleum. About 20 more yards to the south is the Inal el-Yusufi Mosque (56) (circa 1392 AD) on the left. It was built in the same style as the Mahmud el-Kurdi Mosque, with the only real difference being the shape of the minarets and decorations. Qaytbay Palace (57) is behind that, but all the remain of this palace built in 1485 is the maqaad, which consist of two ancient columns surmounted by three Gothic arches. However, we want to trace our way back north up Al-Muizz li-Din Allah to Darb al-Ahmar to continue.

Just to the south of this intersection is the Mosque of as-Salih Tala'i (58) (founded in 1160 by the emir As-Salih Talai, vizier to the last of the Fatimid caliphs). We will make a right off Al-Muiz li-Din Allah and heading more or less east on Darb al-Ahmar (Red Road). By the way, behind (south) of as-Salih Tala'i is the tent maker's market, which is in fact Radwan Bey Kasbah (59), the only remaining covered market which was built in the 17th century by emir Radwan Bey. This area of Islamic Cairo is called Darb al-Ahmar after the street name, and the first building of interest we come to will be the Mosque of Qijmas al-Ishaqi (60) (circa 1481 AD). This area was built up in the late Mamluk era and this is one of the finest examples of the era's architecture. Though plain on the outside, inside are wonderful stained glass windows, inlaid marble floors and stucco walls. Next door to this is the el-Mihmandar Mosque (61) (circa 1324-5 AD), which has a central courtyard and four iwan. The mausoleum located in the northeast corner has a fluted stone exterior.

Mosque of Al-Maridani

Mosque of al-Maridani

A little further down Darb al-Ahmar (now actually Sharia at-Tabana) we next come to the Mosque of al-Maridani (62) (circa 1339 AD), known for its confusion of styles and incorporation of pharaonic columns. The mosque is virtually a self contained history of Egypt, with arch designs from the Roman, Christian and Islamic eras. The fountain is Ottoman.

Further down Sharia at-Tabana, we pass the Madrassa of Umm Sultan Sha'ban (63) on the right (east). West and behind this mosque is the Beit er-Razzaz (64). The house was refurbished by Katkhuda er-Razzaz in 1778 from the palace originally built by Sultan Qaytbay in the 15th century. It has two courtyards and a beautiful harem chamber. Note the carved work on the vertical wood bays which extend from floor to ceilling. One of the entrances is reached from inside the shops on the Shari el-Tabbana.

Tarbay as-Sharifi Mosque

Tarbay as-Sharifi Mosque

Next, we arrive at the Mosque of Aqsungur (65) (originally circa 1347 AD, but added to since then), popularly known as the Blue Mosque for the blue-gray marble on the outside of the building. It is considered a major, must see attraction. A little further we will pass (remainder of monuments are not shown on map), all on the left (east) first the Khayrbak Mosque (circa 1502 - 1520 AD), the Alin Aq Palace (circa 1293 AD), the Tarabay as-Sharifi Mosque (circa 1503 AD) and the Aytmishi Mosque (circa 1383 AD). Just a little further south we pass the el-Mu'ayyad Madrassa (circa 1418 AD), and from here, we soon arrive at the medieval fortress called the Citadel, one of Cairo's best known attractions.

Mosque of Khayrbay

Mosque of Khayrbay

Leaving the Citadel

Map Four of Islamic Cairo, Egypt

Umm Abbas Sabil-Kuttab

Umm Abbas Sabil-Kuttab

Just north of the Citadel is Midan Sala ad-Din. The square was built in the 12th century at the same time as the Citadel, and was once a parade ground. To the north is the El-Gawhara el-Lala Mosque (76) (circa 1430 AD) which is very small. East and southeast are the Qanibey Medersa (77) (circa 1503 AD) and the Mahmudiya Medersa (78) (circa 1567-8 AD). Northwest of this is a complex of two mosques, consisting of the Mosque and Madrassa of Sultan Hassan (33) (circa 1356-63 AD), and across from it, the Mosque of ar-Rifai (34) (circa 1869 AD) which is a much newer mosque begun in 1867 with additions as late as 1912. It was built on the site of the Sheikh ar-Rifa'i zawia built in 1122 AD.The Mosque and Madrassa of Sultan Hassan, however, dates from between 1356 and 1363, and is believed to be one of the finest examples of Mamluk architecture in Cairo. Just a little east of this complex on Suyufiya street is the Madrassa of Sungur Sa'adi (35) (circa 1315 AD) and the old Dervish Theater, where the original Dervish monks performed their magnificent whirling dances. However, back at Midan Salah ad-Din we want to head east back towards Central (Modern) Cairo on Saliba (Abdel Meguid) street. Very shortly, we first come to the Sabil-Kuttab of Qaytbay (36) (circa 1479 AD) on the left (south) with its beautiful marble inlays. Next we will pass the Qanibey el-Mohammedi Mosque (circa 1413 AD) on our left, which has a single iwan and a wood ceiling over the courtyard. We will pass between the Mosque of Shaykhu (37) (circa 1349-55 AD) on the right (north) and his Khanqah (38) to the left, then past the Umm Abbas Sabil-Kuttab on the right, which was built in the 19th century, and then the Medersa of Tagri Bardi (circa 1440 AD) (39) on the right and finally arrive at the Sarghatmish Medersa (circa 1356 AD) (40) on the left. North, several blocks from here, are the El-Yusufi Mosque (74) and the Ahmed Efendi Sabil (75).

Mosque of Ibn Tulun

Mosque of Ibn Tulun

However, our interest lies in the large Mosque of Ibn Tulun (41) (circa 876-9 AD) behind this, which is a very early Abbasid structure dating to 876 AD, only around 200 years after the Islamic conquest of Egypt. Behind the Mosque is the Gayer-Anderson Museum (42), where the houses which form the museum are at least as interesting as the exhibits within.

After visiting the Gayer-Anderson Museum, we need to head back to Abdel Meguid street and continue our journey east past the Sangar Salar Mosque and Mausoleum (cira 1304 AD) (43) on the left and the Sayyida Zeinab Cultural Park on the right and on to Midan Sayyida Zeinab where we will be entering Central Cairo once again. However, The Sabil-Kuttab of Sultan Mustafa (44) is on the north side of the Midan, while the Haram Zeinab Fatatri (45) is on the east side of the Midan. The building on the west side is the Mosque of Sayyida Zeinab (46) which is contemporary with the El-Hussein but rebuilt in 1549, 1761 and 1884.

We have not touched upon all the monuments in Islamic Cairo, Exploring can be a fun thing in Egypt, and we hope viewers who visit will take the time to look around, find new sites, and even report them back to us at Tour Egypt.

This concludes our tour of Islamic Cairo. Next, please take our tour of Old Cairo, with some of the oldest churches and mosques in the world.

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A walk down Mui'z Street

Last Updated: June 9th, 2011