CAIRO — Islamic Cairo

The medieval quarter of Islamic Cairo lies east of downtown and contains Islamic monuments from many different periods.

The sights found here are:
Al-Azhar Mosque
Midan Hussein
Sayyidna al-Hussein Mosque
Khan el-Khalili
Northern Walls and Gates
Al-Hakim Mosque
Sharia al-Muizz li-Din Allah
Beit as-Suhaymi
Sabil-Kuttab of Abdel Katkhuda
Bein al-Qasreen
Ottoman Houses
Al-Ghouri Complex
Bab Zuwayla
Darb al-Ahmar
Museum of Islamic Art
Citadel
Mosque of Sultan Hassan
Mosque of Ibn Tulun
Gayer Anderson Museum
Northern Cemetery
Mosque of Qaitbey and Other Monuments

Al-Azhar Mosque

Al-Azhar Mosque
This grand structure finished in 972 by Gohar was the first mosque to be built in Cairo and is the most significant building from the Fatmid period. It claims to be one of the world’s oldest surviving universities. The mosque has been rebuilt and added to over the centuries and as a result the building you see today is a wonderful blend of architectural styles. The main entrance is the Bab el-Musaiyini (the gate of barbers). You then enter a small courtyard then you go through the inner portal to the main courtyard. This courtyard, overlooked by five minarets and surrounded by an arcade is the oldest part and dates from the 10th century. Tourists are allowed to enter the prayer hall, which is warmly carpeted and supported by alabaster pillars and admission is free.

Traveller's Tip

When visiting this mosque make sure you see the tomb chamber near the entrance on the left with its beautiful mihrab (a niche in the wall to show the direction of Mecca).

Midan Hussein
Midan Hussein is one of the main squares in this part of Cairo and it is located between Al-Azhar Mosque and the Mosque of Sayyidna al-Hussein and is also near the entrance to the Khan al-Khalili bazaar. It is a very busy area especially during the holidays and is a popular meeting place both day and night. During religious festivals it is crowded and there will be bright lights and music.

Sayyidna al-Hussein Mosque
This mosque is not accessible to non-Muslims and it is one of the most sacred Islamic sites in the country and in the whole Middle East. The building that you see today was was built in 1870 and it is said that the head of Ibn al-Hussein, Mohammed the Prophet’s grandson, is buried here. There are forty-four white marble columns that support the wood ceiling and on one side of the mosque is the mausoleum which is the oldest part of the complex which was built in 1154 and then modified in 1236. There are two minarets at the complex and the one on the southwest side is from the same period as the mosque.

Khan-el Khalili

Khan el-Khalili
This market has been around since the 14th century and is not just a tourist market. It is a fascinating mix of souvenirs, handmade craft, jewellery, exotic clothing and contains many restaurants and cafes where you can sit and watch an interesting mix of cultures. The narrow alleyways of shops twisting this way and that give visitors an insight into what medieval markets must have looked like.

Traveller's Tip

If you are coming to shop in the bazaar for jewellery and anything else expensive it would be a good idea to find out beforehand what the usual prices are and practise your negotiating skills.
Northern Walls

Northern Walls and Gates
In this area found to the north of Khan al-Khalili you will find the Wikala al-Bazara which was a hostel for merchants who slept in the upper rooms and the ground floor rooms were used for the animals and as storage. The building which dates back to the 17th century is enclosed by a massive wall with small windows and wooden screens on the outside. The entrance is through a high and wide carved portal that leads to a vaulted opening then onto a large open courtyard that was built that way to attract customers. This building has been restored and is now open to the public. Also in this area are the square-towered gates of Bab an-Nasr (Gate of Victory) and Bab al-Futuh (Gate of Conquest). These gates were built in 1087 as the main entrances to the walled city of Al-Qahira. Attached to these gates are part of the city walls which show quite clearly the Roman occupation in Cairo.

Al-Hakim Mosque
This mosque was built between 990 and 1012 and is one of Cairo’s older mosques and the second largest Fatmid mosque in Cairo. It was not often used as a place of worship but has been used as a prison for captive Crusaders, Napoleon’s warehouse, Salah al-Din’s stable, a lamp factory, and a boys’ elementary school under Nasser. Al-Hakim was the sixth Fatmid ruler of Egypt and by all accounts was rather eccentric and at one point he declared himself a god. One day Al-Hakim rode off to al-Muqattam hills and never returned.

Sharia al-Muizz li-Din Allah
Cairo’s main street which recently became pedestrian only is filled with historic sites which includes the Madrasa and Mausoleum of Sultan Nasser Mohamed, Qaser Beshtak, and the Madrasa of Sultan Barquq. It is often shortened to Al-Muizz li-Din and takes its name from the Fatmid ruler who conquered Cairo in AD 969. Going further south along the street you will come to the Suleiman Aga El-Silahdar Mosque dating from 1839 which has a pencil-like minaret that is quite eye-catching.

Beit as-Suhaymi

Beit as-Suhaymi
This building is Islamic Cairo’s finest example of the traditional family mansion that was built in the city up to the 19th century. It was restored in 1997 so it is in very good condition. Once you walk through the rather plain entrance you come to a beautiful inner courtyard with its reception room off to the side for visitors. Upstairs were the family’s roomsvwith wooden lattice windows or mashrabiyya from which the women could see what was going on downstairs without them being seen. On the second floor are balconies that were used on hot days as living areas, while in the cool of the night, the family would move indoors. The balcony here is a good place to view the mashrabiyya windows of the house from outside.

Traveller's Tip

Despite the expensive entrance ticket of around 20LE this is really worth visiting as it is beautiful and a great example of its kind.

Sabil-Kuttab of Abdel Katkhuda
This is one of the most interesting monuments on Sharia al-Muizz li-Din Allah. It was built by Katkhuda of Egypt who was patron of the architecture of his time. This monument is a public drinking fountain(Sabil) and a Quranic school(Kuttab) and by building this it was a way for the emir who built it to atone for his sins as it provided the two things praised by the Prophet — water for the thirsty and enlightenment for the ignorant. The two-storey building is open on three sides consisting of grey and white stone inlaid with marble reliefs and the tiles are quite beautiful.

Bein al-Qasreen

Bein al-Qasreen
The area south of Sabil-Kuttab of Abdel Katkhuda is known as Bein al-Qasreen (between the Palaces) and at one time there were two great palaces here. This is quite an impressive area with its minarets, domes and towering facades. The first buildings you see are Madrassa and Mausoleum of Qala'un on the left side of Sharia al-Muizz li-Din Allah. The Madrassa and Mausoleum of Qala'un is the earliest building in the area, built around 1279 AD and probably the most interesting to visit. The mausoleum which has been called the most beautiful building in Cairo is especially worth visiting. Inside, the magnificent dome is lit by the colour of the glass set in plaster and carved with arabesque designs. The lavishly decorated prayer niche and the wonderful mosaics in marble and mother of pearl make this building stunning. Just north of the Madrassa and Mausoleum of Qala'un is the Madrassa and Mausoleum of an-Nasir Mohammed built around 1304 AD. The entrance to this mosque is an ornate arched door seized from a church in Acre in Syria. Further along on the same side of the street is the Madrassa and Mausoleum of Barquq built around 1386 AD. Of interest in this mosque is the east wall of the prayer room which is magnificent.

Ottoman Houses
South of Bein al-Qasreen is Sharia an-Nahaseen (Street of the Coppersmiths) where there are shops filled with pots and pans and so on. You are now back in the city centre near Khan al-Khalili and Mosque al-Azhar. If you leave here and turn left then left again you will reach an alley between the southern wall of the mosque and a row of shops and if you go to the top of this street you will find Beit Zeinab al-Khatoun and Beit al-Harrawi. Both of these are houses restored from the Ottoman era. The best one to visit is the Beit Zeinab al-Khatoun which is now a cultural centre. Between the two houses is the Al-Khatoun Gallery which is a wonderful place to visit for contemporary crafts.
For more information on Al-Khatoun Gallery visit the website at: http://www.alkhatoun.net/

Al-Ghouri

Al-Ghouri Complex
This impressive collection of buildings are found on Sharia al-Azhar. Sultan Qansuh al-Ghuri built the madressa mosque and mausoleum which is open to the public but his body was never buried here as it was never found after he fell in battle against the Turks. The mausoleum is used today as a cultural centre. The area between the mosque and the mausoleum used to be known as Cairo’s ‘Silk Market’ where carpets were sold and you can still find carpet sellers in passages behind the mosque. Also a part of this complex is the Wikala of Al-Ghouri which is the best preserved example of a merchant’s hostel in Cairo. It has now been turned into an arts and craft centre with galleries.

Traveller's Tip

It is worth visiting the Wikala of Al-Ghouri Arts Centre on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 8:30pm where there is the Al Tannoura dance performance. The performance is similar to the more commonly known whirling dervishes but this version of the dance incorporates instruments and other elements. Everyone is welcome and its free.
Bab Zuwayla

Bab Zuwayla
This medieval gate which is also known as Bab Zuweila is one of the landmarks of Cairo and is the last standing southern gate from the walls of Cairo from the Fatmid rule of Cairo in the 11th and 12th centuries. It has twin towers that you can climb to get a great view over Old Cairo. The two minarets that are seen from the towers belong to the Mosque of al-Mu'ayyad, which is located just inside the gate. There is a platform between the two towers that was used by sultans to watch processions. The gate was the venue of dancers and snake charmers in the past but by the early 15th century it was the site of executions and dishonest merchants were hung from hooks or ropes, while common criminals were beheaded, impaled or garrotted at the gate.
Facing the gate is one of the oldest thoroughfares in Cairo, Shari Khayamiyya. Khayma means ‘tent’ in Arabic and so this is known as the Street of the Tentmakers. The ancient craft of making huge tent pavilions out of beautiful cloth patterns has been carried on for hundreds of years. The Khayamiyya bazaar built by Ridwan Bey in 1650 is one of the best-preserved examples of a covered market left in Cairo. The building is now undergoing restoration work but trade is still going on here and you will find shops selling brightly coloured appliqued cloth in pharaonic and Islamic patterns on both sides of the street. The goods sold here these days are mostly pillow cases, wall coverings and duvet covers.

Traveller's Tip

The best way to get to Bab Zuwayla is by taxi but make sure you negotiate a return price and waiting time included before setting off.
Darb al-Ahmar

Darb al-Ahmar
Darb al-Ahmar means Red Road and this area hasn’t changed over the centuries and is still a maze of narrow, twisting alleyways lined with splendid mosques and medieval facades. This quarter became a fashionable residential area in the 14th century when the Citadel area was developed. You can find several interesting mosques and monuments here such as Mosque of Qijmas al-Ishaqi built in 1481 which has beautiful stained glass windows and marble floors. Just a short distance away on the right is the Mosque of Al-Maridani which was built in 1339 with its quiet courtyard and mashrabiyya. Also in this area is the Mosque of Aqsunqur or Blue Mosque built in 1347 which gets its name from the blue-grey marble of its facade and the tiling inside. Also in this area you will find several interesting trades and crafts such as the Saddlemakers Market called Suq al-Surugiyyiah which produces all kinds of leatherware in Suq al-Silah Street. If you go further up the street you will find shops with drums, belly dancer costumes, wooden tables and chairs, embroidered cloth and old oriental tea pots and cups. One of the main things sold on in the area are the water-pipes, ‘Sheeha’s‘ in all shapes and sizes and all made of beautifully decorated and coloured glass. Basketry is also one of the trades of the area and is used to make palm leaf and grass containers, stools, tables and mats.

Traveller's Tip

Make sure you visit the Souk al Attarin which is south of Sharia al Muski where you will find an endless assortment of colourful spices, herbs and strange mixes used for a wide range of things such as cooking, hair dyes and healing herbs.

Museum of Islamic Art
This museum is found on the north side of Midan Ahmed Maher and contains one of the world’s largest and finest collections of Islamic art. It was founded in 1869 by combining several libraries to include more than 750,000 volumes, half in oriental languages and the rest in European. There are 23 rooms but some of the more interesting ones are Room 10 which contains a reconstructed Arab living room, Room 13 with its beautiful pottery, glass and a door from the Sayyida Zeinab Mosque, Room 19 with its illuminated manuscripts. The centrepiece of the museum is in Room 4B and contains an Ottoman fountain, mashrabiyya and a carved wooden ceiling.
For more information visit the website at: http://www.mia.org.qa/english/index.html

Citadel

Citadel
This highly visible landmark on Cairo’s skyline is a monument to medieval warfare. It was built in the 12th century by Saladin and his successors using the most advanced construction techniques of the age. For the next 700 years Egypt was ruled from this hill. The only parts of the original fortress that can be seen today are part of the walls and Bir Yusuf, the well that supplied the Citadel with water. You will also find here three mosques: Mosque of Mohammed Ali, Mosque of An-Nasir Mohammed and Mosque of Suleiman Pasha. Mosque of Mohammed Ali is the largest and it is this mosque which dominates the skyline rather than the Citadel. The Mosque of Suleiman Pashaout is topped by a cluster of domes and is beautiful both outside and inside with its restored painted woodwork.

Traveller's Tip

The terrace near the entrance of the Mosque of An-Nasir Mohammed has a magnificent view of downtown Cairo and on a clear day the Pyramids at Giza can be seen — best seen at sunset.

Mosque of Sultan Hassan
The Mosque of Sultan Hassan is one of the largest mosques in the world, measuring 150m in length and covering an area of 7,906 square metres. Its walls rise to 36m and its tallest minaret to 68m. You enter the mosque through a magnificent gate then a dark passageway leads to the brightly lit sahn or open courtyard. In the centre of the courtyard is a domed fountain used for washing. On four sides of the courtyard are recesses called ‘liwans’ used as prayer rooms and behind each liwan is a madrasa used for religious teaching. The founder of this mosque was Sultan Hassan who ruled twice, the first time in 1347, when he was 13 years old and the second time was in 1356AD. Construction on the building began in 1361AD, and it took 4 years to finish. The Mosque was almost complete when Sultan Hassan disappeared or was killed.
Opposite the Sultan Hassan Mosque is the Ar-Rifai Mosque which was built in 1912 as a tomb for the khedive Ismail. Inside are the tombs of King Farouk and the last shah of Iran.

Ibn Tulun Mosque

Mosque of Ibn Tulun
This mosque is found on Sharia Ibn Tulun. It was built between 876 and 879 by Ahmed Ibn Tulun, the governor of Egypt from 868 to 884 and was based on the Kaaba at Mecca. The mosque covers two and a half hectares and this makes it the third largest mosque in the world. It is the oldest mosque in Egypt that has survived in much of its original form. The mosque is constructed of mud-brick and timber and is designed around a huge courtyard with a covered hall on each of the four sides, the largest being on the side of the qibla (direction to Mecca). There is a beautiful 40metre high minaret that you reach from the outer courtyard.

Traveller's Tip

You can climb the 173 steps of the Mosque for a glorious view over Cairo and on a clear day you can see the pyramids.

Gayer-Anderson Museum
This museum is opposite the Ibn Tulun Mosque and can be reached by going through a gateway south of the main entrance. The museum was named after a British army doctor who restored and furnished two adjoining Ottoman houses that make up the museum. He furnished the houses with antiques and artworks he found on his travels in the region. The rooms are lovely and well worth a visit especially the reception room, where a mosaic fountain is at the centre of an ornate marble floor.

Qaitbey Mosque

Northern Cemetery
The Northern Cemetery, also known as the City of the Dead is found along Sharia al-Azhar. This is still part of the city and is partly occupied because of the growing need for space in the city by the poor. The area began as a place for the sultans and emirs to build huge mausoleums that were not only tombs but places for entertainment. They were designed with an extra room to house overnight visitors but as time went on the city’s homeless saw these tombs as a permanent home for themselves. This has been happening from the 14th century and continues today. Inside some of the tombs cenotaphs are used as tables and clothing lines are strung between headstones and the area is fully recognised by the government as both a cemetery and a residential area and has installed water, gas and electricity and there is a police station and post office as well. On Fridays and public holidays visitors come to the cemeteries to picnic and honour the dead.

Mosque of Qaitbey and Other Monuments
The Mosque of Qaitbey is part of the southern group of mausoleums and is one of the most beautiful. It was built in 1474 by Sultan Qaitbey who was the last Mamluk leader with any real power in Egypt and was a prolific builder. Inside there are beautiful decorations on the walls and the dome in the tomb chamber is stunning with its star and flower designs.
From the mosque cross the square and head north and as you travel it may seem quite strange because it is not quite like your usual cemetery because you will find shops and cafes along the way. When the street widens you will find a stone wall on the right with a large area of rubble — this was the Mosque of Sultan Barquq. It isn’t as grand as the Mosque of Qaibey but you will find inside lovely marble flooring, a star patterned dome and a beautiful stone pulpit.
Travelling further north and you come to the Khanqah-Mausoleum of Ibn Barquq. this is an imposing building with high walls and two minarets and domes and is considered to be one of the major monuments of Cairo as well as one of the three outstanding structures of the Northern Cemetery. This complex was begun in 1400 and completed in 1411 AD and it is the tomb of Farrag who was the son of Barquq.
Northwest of the Khanqah-Mausoleum are the two huge complexes of Mosue of Amir Qurumas built in 1507 and Khanqah of Sultan Inal built in 1456. These have been extensively renovated but aren’t open to the public.

Traveller's Tip

The central courtyard in the Mosque of Qaitbey is a lovely quiet place to sit and relax and you can climb the 40m high minaret for a great view.