Cairo’s Islamic quarter provides glimpse into Fatimid Egypt
Cairo - A visit to Cairo is not complete without a tour of the city’s historic Islamic quarter.
Located at the centre of the Egyptian capital, the Islamic quarter functioned for years as Egypt’s centre of culture and religion and the focal point of its rule and politics.
“Egypt’s Islamic history was first made in this area but this area is not only important for Islam. It is important for every main economic and political activity that has taken place in Egypt for hundreds of years,” said Islamic antiquities expert Ahmed al-Sawy.
Al-Hussein Mosque takes centre stage in Islamic Cairo. The mosque, built 863 years ago, was named for a grandson of Prophet Mohammad — Al-Hussein ibn Ali ibn Abi Talib. The surrounding area took its name for the mosque.
The mosque has been the epicentre of religious activities in Cairo for hundreds of years. It is also a symbol of religious coherence between Egypt’s majority Sunni population and its Shia minority, whose members revere Al-Hussein as the third Imam.
Al-Hussein’s head is believed by many to have been buried inside the mosque, making it a site of holy pilgrimage for Shias from across the world. The mosque also contains the oldest complete manuscript of the Quran.
Egypt’s famous al-Azhar Mosque is opposite al-Hussein Mosque, separated only by a highway leading to Cairo’s southern neighbourhoods on one side and the downtown area on the other.
Built in 970, al-Azhar, a mosque and a school that has morphed over time into one of the Islamic world’s most important universities, is a symbol of the rule of the Fatimids — a Shia Islamic caliphate that ruled Egypt from 969-1171 and founded Cairo.
Founded as a Shia institution, al-Azhar is a symbol of how Islam’s two main sects intertwined and cooperated to build Egypt’s Islamic character. The mosque is the centre of religion in Egypt, a gathering point for the country’s top religious scholars.
“This mosque has been at the centre of Egyptians’ religious and political life for hundreds of years now, being the centre of learning and the one institution to which Egypt looks when it needs guidance,” said Sabri Saeed, a Culture Ministry official who oversees cultural programmes to suit the Islamic parts of Cairo.
“Strangely enough, this mosque still matters and, I think, it will continue to be important for hundreds of years to come,” Saeed said.
Between both mosques, there is a whole world of fascinating attraction, centred on shopping and tourist activities. The Khan al-Khalili bazaar has been at the heart of this world for decades, offering tourists a wealth of memorable souvenirs to take home with them.
Stepping into the bazaar and its intricate alleyways and old shops is like stepping into the past, as shopkeepers hawk their goods to curious tourists in a cacophony of different languages.
The scent of oriental perfumes mixes with the irresistible smell of Egyptian herbs and street food, providing a feast for the senses.
The Khan al-Khalili bazaar, once overflowing with tourists, is an accurate barometer of Egypt’s tourism sector. Although tourism has picked up in Egypt — particularly Cairo — it has not reached pre-revolution levels. Today, Western tourists are outnumbered by Egyptians and Arabs who find in the market and its ubiquitous coffee shops the incomparable spirit of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.
Thousands of people visit the historic cafés in Islamic Cairo every day, staying up until the early hours of the morning. They chat, laugh and sip black tea and Turkish coffee, smoking shisha and playing dominoes and backgammon — an authentic Khan al-Khalili experience.
This is where schoolteacher Ahmed Yunis, 42, spends most of his leisure time, even though he lives miles away in eastern Cairo.
“You never feel lonely here, even if you visit it alone,” Yunis said. “Although the journey from any part of Cairo to the bazaar area costs nothing, it gives visitors a super-rich experience and memorable times among the most friendly people you can meet.”