Mohammed Ali mosque, seen from the City of the Dead
Islamic Cairo is the name commonly given to the core of medieval Cairo, a part of the city remarkably different from the modern Downtown district and the suburbs to the west.
Islamic Cairo is not more or less Islamic than the rest of the city, but it's the area of the city which holds the most, the greatest and the most famous Islamic monuments. Many of these raised by the Fatimid caliphs who founded the city Cairo (preceded by Fustat or Old Cairo). Unlike Islamic quarters in other cities, people, often quite poor, continue to live by historic monuments and mosques. A huge, bustling center of worship, trade, shopping and commuting - it's a must-see for any visitors and deserves at least a couple of days exploring.
Map of al-Muizz Street, the main thoroughfare in Islamic Cairo
Bayt Al Suhaymi: An Ottoman merchant's house
The attractions listed here are listed from north to south, starting at the Bab al-Futuh (Gate of Conquest) at the northern edge of the Fatimid city walls. The route follows al-Muizz Street (Sharia al-Muizz), which is dedicated to pedestrian traffic between 8 AM and 11 PM.
- Al-Hakim Mosque, (next to Bab al-Futuh). One of the largest Fatimid mosques in Cairo. It was originally decreed in 990 by the famously eccentric caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah ("Ruler by God's Command") who, among other things, prohibited eating grapes or playing chess. Increasingly paranoid towards the end of his reign, he disappeared without a trace at age 36. The mosque has been used as a prison, a warehouse and an elementary school before being restored as a mosque in 1980.
- Bayt al-Sihaymi, 19. Possibly the best-preserved Ottoman merchant house (16-17th C) in Cairo. Little visited and a place of quiet beauty.
- Qalawun Complex. Built by Mamluk Sultan Al-Nasir c. 1304 in honor of his father Qalawun. The complex contains a mosque, a madrasah (Islamic school) and the mausoleum where Sultan Qalawun is buried. The mausoleum in particular is often described as the world's second most beautiful, second only to the Taj Mahal, which it slightly resembles.
The giant Khan el-Khalili market (see Buy) starts after the Qalawun complex, lining the streets and alleyways up to al-Azhar Street.
- Midan Hussein and Sayyidna al-Hussein Mosque. not accessible to non-Muslims. One of the most sacred Islamic sites in the country and the Middle East, the mosque hosts the shrine in which the head of Ibn al-Hussein, the grandson of Muhammed the Prophet, is alleged to have been buried. The present building dates to 1870 and replaces a much earlier 12th century mosque. The Midan (square) before the mosque forms one of the most convenient access points to the Khan el-Khalili.
- Al-Azhar Mosque. Open daily all day. Founded in 970, al-Azhar is one of Cairo's oldest mosques and the world's oldest operating university. Free.
- Al-Azhar Park. The Al-Azhar Park is overlooking Darb al-Ahmar and the Citadel. Built on a garbage dump, it's today a green lung of Cairo and a pleasant area to stroll around and enjoy magnificent views of the city. It hosts a restaurant in a modern castle-style building and several good cafes. The theater has musical events almost every evening.
The following sights are around Midan Sala ad-Din (Saladin Square), just north of the Citadel. To reach this area, continue down al-Muizz up to Bab Zuweila, then turn left onto Darb al-Ahmar (also known as Sharia at-Tabana).
- Sultan Hassan Mosque. Finished in 1363, this mosque was raised by the Mamluk Sultan Hassan and lying below the citadel and next to the much more recent rifaii mosque, it's maybe the primary example of the Islamic mamluk dynasty. One of the largest mosques in Egypt and the Arab world, it was used as a school for different Islamic (sunni) schools of thought and also contains a mausoleum.
- Rifaii Mosque. Built in 1911, this mosque holds the tombs of a great number of Egyptian aristocrat families and also the last Shah of Iran, who retreated to Cairo after being ousted from power in his country.
- Ibn Tulun Mosque, (to the west of Midan Sala ad-Din). Raised in 877 by the Abbasid governor, this mosque has a style reminding of the Samarra mosque in Iraq, quite different from other Egyptian mosques. Built on a six-acre site, the mosque was large enough to accommodate all of the city's males for Friday prayer. The mosque has an open interior, and the minaret, the oldest in Egypt, is accessible for a little baksheesh.
- The Gayer Anderson Museum. The mansion of the British Egyptologist Gayer Anderson has a large and fascinating number of rooms displaying artifacts from the traditional life of the Egyptian elites.
The Citadel was built by Salhadin, the Muslim caliph who defeated the Crusaders, between 1176 and 1183. It was the center of Egyptian government until Khedive Ismail moved his palace to the new Abdeen Palace in 1860. The Citadel is famous for its great views over Cairo (as far as the Pyramids of Giza), and is home to three mosques and three indifferent museums: the National Military Museum, the National Police Museum, and the Al-Gawhara Palace Museum. Music events are sometimes performed in evenings, check out local entertainment guides. LE 50 (20 conc.)
- Mohammed Ali Mosque. Built inside the Citadel by the famous Egyptian regent Mohammed Ali between 1830 and 1848, and site of his tomb.
- National Police Museum, Citadel, ☎ +2 (02) 2512-2549. Open daily 9am–4:30pm.
Apart from shopping and spotting Islamic architecture, popping through the fascinating streets of medieval Cairo is probably the most popular alternative left to do in this part of the city. A recommended walk is to start up by the al-Azhar Mosque. Take in the mosque, visit Bayt al-Suhaymi before making your way to Bab al-Zuwayla. From there, head down Darb al-Ahmar and stop at the Blue Mosque before the Citadel. Leave the castle for another day and head to Sultan Hassan and the Rifaii mosque. If you have more energy left, make Ibn Tulun Mosque your last stop before heading to Sayyidna Zeinab.
Muqattam Hills is located on the outskirts of Cairo, just beyond the Citadel. The Church of Saint Simeon the Tanner is located at the foot of the hills, which Pope Shenuda III has visited several times. On a cliff wall is a depiction of prayers of Saint Simeon the Tanner and Pope Abraham. Muqattam Hills also provides a spectacular view of Cairo.
- Khan el-Khalili. Cairo's giant souq (market). The khan, built in 1382, was originally a hub for traveling traders in the Fatimid era. Today, it's the most visited tourist market in Egypt. Almost any kind of souvenir can be bought here, but also quality produce is still to be found. Venture out of the tourist market and you'll find bustling local trade. Among other things you'll find Islamic clothes, scarves, belly-dancing equipment, furniture, water-pipes and of course gold, silver and jewels. Haggling is the rule of the day, and merchants used to tourists often state very high prices at first.
- Tent Market (سوق الخيمة), (al-Muizz St, south of Darb al-Ahmar). If your dream is to bring a Bedouin tent back from the country, this is the place to go. Dating to the 17th century, this is Cairo's last remaining covered market, and these days the wares on offer range far beyond tents.
Islamic Cairo is not the best place for quality eating, although some restaurants can be found in the Khan al-Khalili area.
- Al-Gahsh (الجحش). This budget restaurant, its name meaning "the mule," is purported to serve the best foul in Cairo. Its location--opposite to one of Cairo's most revered mosques, Seidna Zeinab, and its proximity to Ibn Tulun--makes it an necessary part of any visit to this part of the city.
- Egyptian Pancake House, Khan al-Khalili. This place serves sweet Egyptian pancakes (fateer) and western-style pizzas for between 20-35 EP.
- Naguib Mahfouz Restaurant. This upscale restaurant caters to tourists, but offers decent food in an air-conditioned setting.
- GAD. , near Al-Azhar mosque. 10-30 EGP.
- There is a good kushari shop at the corner of Al Mansouria and Saleh al Gaafari, 5-10 EGP.
- Another good address is a Pizzeria on Al Mansouria, near Arabian nights hotel, 7-15 EGP.
Islamic Cairo is definitely not the place for alcohol. Rather, settle down for some tea and shisha.
- Fishawy, In the street just behind Midan Hussein, Khan al-Khalili. For many years this was the preferred place of Nobel winner Naguib Mafhouz to meet with his friends. It's a great place to stop for tea and shisha and watch the world bustling by. Few places are better for having an easy conversation with people from all continents, as well as with relaxing Egyptians that speak English well.
- Hotel Hussein Restaurant. Stay away from the food at this top-floor restaurant, but sipping a cup of tea above great views of the Midan Hussein by night is an enjoyable way to pass the time.
- Hotel El Hussein, Hussein Square (at the Khan El-Khalili bazaar), ☎ +202 5918089. A basic hotel in an interesting area. Prices from LE 45 for single rooms with shared baths on each floor to LE 75 for doubles with en suite bathroom. AC is extra, but the ceiling fans works well. Ask for a room with a balcony.
- Arabian Nights Hotel, 10 Al Aaded Street, El Gamaliya, Cairo, ☎ +20 25894230 ([email protected], fax: +20 25894230). A good hotel. Typical price about 100 EGP for a single room and shared bathroom with AC, no heater. There is a good roof balcony and free wifi access.
Khan el-Khalili is infamous for its pickpockets. Stay on your guard in crowds, but don't be afraid to venture into the smaller, darker alleys — they're quite safe, and you'll find the more interesting shops here.
Modest clothing is definitely the order of the day in this part of town. Women with bare legs and shoulders will be asked by many custodians of mosques to use smocks to cover these bare parts. Shoes should be removed before entering mosques. Though some mosques do use slippers that are tied on over the shoes as an alternative.
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