It was a momentous day for tens of thousands of policemen in Cairo. After weeks of suffering temperatures exceeding 30˚C in their heavy black uniforms, they were given permission to change into their white cotton summer kits. It is this moment, more than any other, that marks the passing of the seasons for the Cairenes, and the city’s mood changes visibly.
The policemen, finally comfortable, smile and are unusually cooperative. The taxi drivers comment incessantly about the weather, as if only now has some bureaucrat made the heat official. And Egyptians walk to work with a lighter step, ready to embrace the high temperatures in which Cairo thrives.
One policeman in his fresh new whites was so excited by all this that he spontaneously burst into song for me and the last Shah of Iran. The Shah was dead, of course, and covered by a massive slab of marble, so he might not have heard much of it.
We were in the Al-Rifa’i Mosque, where all of Egypt’s last kings are buried in massive, ornate tombs. Though not born in Egypt, the Shah died there in exile, and the Egyptians gave him the honour of being buried with their royalty. He has his own room, decorated according to the strict instructions of his wife, with a green onyx floor that cost US$10,000 per square metre, and an incredibly intricate Persian carpet that set her back US$250,000. The carpet alone is worth seeing. Less than a half-centimetre thick, yet covered on both sides with the most elaborate hand-woven designs, it is a masterpiece.
I was standing on this precious material when suddenly came the sound of singing. It was more like a melodious chanting, which I soon recognised as the Muslim call to prayer. I’ve heard it from a hundred different muezzins in all sorts of countries, and each one has a different accent and inflection. This cop seemed born to do it, his voice strong, clear, and haunting. He smiled toward me upon finishing the prayer, and I gave him some baksheesh – a form of charitable tipping common in these parts.
The Al-Rifa’i Mosque was the fourth stop on a tour of Islamic Cairo organised by a friend and student of Islamic Architecture and History at the American University of Cairo. The purpose was to get away from the city’s traditional tourist traps: the pyramids, the Egyptian Museum, the Citadel and the Nile. Cairo’s blessing and curse is that its many magnificent attractions leave travellers with insufficient time or energy to do them all justice. Unfortunately, the wonderful mosques, shops and alleys of Islamic Cairo don’t make the cut, although they would be a highlight in almost any other city.
We started the day at the mosque of Ibn Tulun, Cairo’s largest mosque when measured by land mass, and its oldest, dating from AD 879. The mosque was built as an act of defiance by the Abbasid governor Ibn Tulun, who was keen to assert his authority over that of his Baghdad rulers, and embraces a mixture of architectural styles. It’s worth visiting purely for the view from the minaret, overlooking the Citadel, the City of the Dead and old Islamic Cairo.
Next door to Ibn Tulun Mosque is the fantastic Gayer-Anderson Museum, an immaculately preserved pasha’s house, complete with original furniture and decorations. Be sure to open all the wardrobes you come across. One of them leads into a secret passageway, disguised from the outside by intricate woodwork called mashrabeya, which is designed with tiny holes that allow light in mostly one direction. This type of panelling gave privacy for the women of the harem to hide and eavesdrop on the conversations of the men on the divan below. The house provides a look into life in 17th-century Cairo, and is remarkable for its opulence and style.
From here, we continued by taxi to the Al-Rifa’i mosque, final resting place of the Shah and Egypt’s deposed King Farouk. Opposite here is the mosque and madrassa (or school) of Sultan Hassan, dating from the 14th century. This is an important place to visit to ruminate on some of the stereotypes of Islam that prevail in the post-9/11 world. The madrassa consists of a large square courtyard. Each side of the courtyard belongs to one of the four main schools of Sunni Islamic thought. The idea was that all ideas and differing beliefs should be welcomed, and that pupils should have the freedom to listen and learn from each of the schools. This was a remarkably progressive concept for its time, considering that Catholics in Europe were burning heretics at the stake.
The final mosque of the day was Al-Azhar, which also claims, with reason, to be the oldest university in the world – established in AD 975. Remarkably, it continues to function as a university, attracting students from the world over to study everything from Islamic law to engineering. It is also magnificently appointed. The guides outside cost only about S$5-10, and it’s worth hiring one to take you into the amazing hidden nooks and crannies and explain the meaning of the designs and decorations.
Finally, though exhausted, we walked through the Khan-el-Khalili Bazaar. This is Cairo’s oldest market, and has unfortunately become a tourist hotspot, as reflected in the prices. Don’t let the crush of people detract from the experience, because half the fun is in coping with the heaving crowds and fighting off the persistent salesmen. Try to find your way to the Fez Café, where Cairo’s most famous author, Naguib Mahfouz, is said to have written his books. But don’t sit until you see the Fez sign; every café waiter will tell you that you’re already at the Fez.
Khan-el-Khalili is a great place to buy kitsch souvenirs of ancient Egyptian and shisha (water or hookah) pipes. For a more authentic experience, cross the main road and ask to be directed to Baab Zuweila, the massive gate into the old city. Getting there will take you through an Egyptian market that caters to locals and has an eclectic collection of goods, ranging from cheap lingerie to pink sheets. A few gems stand out amid the standard fare. My favourite was an old man who makes tarbouches (or fezzes) on an old machine. His family has been making the famous red hats on this machine for the past two centuries.
A little past Baab Zuweila is the Avenue of the Tent-Makers, where sultans and armies would commission the massive tents they required for setting up camp in the desert. Most of the tent-makers also craft beautiful hand-woven tapestries and sell them for much less than in Khan-el-Khalili.
The trip through Islamic Cairo opened my eyes to the fact that the history of Egypt does not begin and end with the Pharaohs. The history of
Islamic Cairo is more relevant because it continues to directly influence today’s Egyptians. Moreover, the sites themselves are much more fascinating in that they are still in use and serving their original purpose.
Islamic Cairo should not be missed on any excursion to Egypt.
How to avoid being hassled
Egypt is famous for aggressive touts and hustlers looking to make a quick buck off foreigners.
If you’ve had enough, here’s some advice:
• Don’t show an interest in anything you don’t intend to buy.
• Don’t be afraid to ignore those unsolicited yet seemingly polite questions like “Where are you from?”
And remember, he doesn’t really have a brother studying in a city coincidentally near yours.
• Don’t be fooled by touts who speak the basics of your language. Their job is to learn the greetings in
all the major languages, and they are often surprisingly thorough. They have spoken to me in Afrikaans.
• Sometimes, you just have to be insensitive, along the lines of “I don’t want to talk or buy anything,
please go away.”
• If you don’t need help, be explicit in rejecting any unwanted offers. If you do accept assistance, remember
that baksheesh – tipping – is standard practice. Five Egyptian pounds will cover most situations.
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