The overpowering maze of Islamic Cairo

The next day I set off to explore “Islamic Cairo”, and area of maze-like twisting streets and dozens of ancient monuments – mostly mosques and madrassas (Islamic schools).

Entering “Islamic” Cairo

I started my walk on the main street, Al Muizz Li Din Allah, which is lined with pretty minarets. Occasionally I ducked into side streets to find them teaming with local life – tiny cafes and restaurants, bakeries, grocers.

A typical scene in one of the side streets

There are hundreds of historic buildings in the area, so I had to be selective as to which ones to visit. First I chose the Madrassa and Mausoleum of Qalaun, dating from 1279.

Inside the Madrassa of Qalaun

I continued south, through the gold and silver market. I had chosen a Friday to visit (the first day of the Arab weekend), so this shopping area was slightly less busy than usual- which was just as well, since I still found the area very busy.

Gold- and Silver-smiths Market

To recharge my batteries, I found a rooftop café with a great view of the minarets of the area.

Space to breathe!

Partially refreshed, I continued further south to Bab Zuweila, one of the ancient gates of the city and dating from the 11th century.

Bab Zuweila from the bottom…

I climbed all the up to the top of one of the minarets, for a spectacular view of the chaotic sprawl below. It was prayer time in the mosques and the different imams’ sermons were relayed to worshipers in the street by deafening loud speakers. The jumble of sound added to the visual sense of disorder and chaos.

…and from the top

I continued south, next through another market.

More markets….

The streets became increasingly narrow and anarchic. I was continually dodging other pedestrians, cyclists and small vans. As before, there were many interesting historic buildings to admire, but the effort of moving forward, combined with the continual noise and the strange smells made my progress increasingly stressful. I was relieved when my narrow road arrived at a big open area, where I got a view of the Citadel, a walled city within Cairo. In front of the citadel was the huge Mosque of Sultan Hassan, built from 1356 to 1563. After my claustrophobic and slow passage through the old town, it was a relief to sit in the huge, quiet courtyard located in the centre of the mosque.

Cairo’s citadel
A moment of peace inside the Sultan Hassan mosque

I could have continued my walk on into the Citadel, and have visited yet more mosques, but I was tired. I headed back to my houseboat to recharge my batteries after an exhausting day. My guidebook advised to visit Islamic Cairo in several small chunks – they were right, but I did not have enough time to allow this.

In the evening, I had a pleasant problem. I was due to leave the next day, but had changed too much money into Egyptian pounds. It was hard to change money back into dollars, so I needed to spend what I left. For my last night I found the most expensive restaurant serving Egyptian food – and booked a table. The food was very good, but the live entertainment – which I had not been expecting – was even better.  First there were two very good Egyptian singers, a man followed by a woman. Then there was a traditional Egyptian band with dancers.

Traditional Egyptian music and dancing

Finally there was a belly dancer. This form of dance was invented in Cairo, and is still popular here. The performer didn’t seem to dance much with her belly, instead she shook various other parts of her body vigorously. It was a complete contrast to the heavily covered women I had seen in Islamic Cairo.

The performance attracted a crowd of mostly local people, who seemed to be enjoying themselves enormously. It was interesting to see how much fun people could have without needing to drink alcohol. I stayed until nearly midnight (the manager proudly told me that they were open until 1.30am) and slept soundly back in my houseboat.

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