Islamic Cairo. Walking from El Rafaai Mosque to Bab el Zwyela

When I told my husband the walk I wanted to do he said ‘wouldn’t you prefer to go to a shopping mall!’

Despite protests of, ‘its not a good area, we may be kidnapped ‘ etc, we got out of the taxi at Al Rafaai Mosque, resplendent in the morning sun.

We were at the foot of the Citadel of Salah-el-Din walls, at Bab el Azab.

It was here that Mohamed Ali famously massacred the Mameluks following a great banquet killing all but one, who leapt from the walls on his horse.

Sultan Hassan Mosque built in 1356 is one of the largest in the world. El Rafaai a relative newcomer built in 1819 to honour Shaykh Ali al Rifaai who was buried on the site before the Mosque was built, and Shaykh Abd Allah Al Ansari a companion of the prophet. King Fuad, his mother and King Farouk the last king of Egypt are buried here along with the last Shah of Iran.

Having visited both El Rafaai and Sultan Hassan mosques previously we skipped them today as we had new sights to see.

Passing the mosques of Mahmoud Pasha (built in 1568 he was Governor of Cairo for only two years, taking his executioner with him wherever he went he carried out death sentences on anyone who displeased him, finally succumbing to a snipers bullet because of his cruel methods), and mosques of Amir Akhur built 1503

we followed the walls of the Citadel, passing the Mausoleum of Qansh Abu Said.

We now turned off left along Sharia al Manghar,

at which point I was asked again, ‘do you really want to walk along this street?’!

We were now in what was once the main street of Islamic Cairo, Bab al Wazir, although it is certainly not today.

It’s a quiet street, occasional small groups sat outside buildings, the streets clean and devoid of the rubbish one sees even in ‘upmarket’ areas like Heliopolis.

All were welcoming, and more so when we responded to their greetings in arabic, ahlan wa sahlan ringing around the empty streets. No shouts of ‘ya khawaga’ (you foreigner) as experienced in the streets of Heliopolis! One small boy shyly crossed our paths and said hello, we responded cheerfully with arabic and his face was a picture!

The building were fascinating, old and often crumbling but with remarkable features, many with original mashrabia windows where the women would have looked out on the street from away from the gaze of men.

Knowing Amr’s patience would be limited I resisted the urge to investigate the mosques and buildings off the main street (can always drag him back another time!)

There were plenty to see along the way anyhow. Such beautiful ornate buildings, but so sadly lacking in maintenance they are looking neglected and forlorn, such a pity when the pharaonic history of Egypt is so well preserved and controlled, that the Islamic heritage is all but forgotten. Interestingly I was given an insight into Egyptian attitudes to this when I was pointing out a beautiful minaret, the response was ‘whats so special? I’ve been surrounded by them all my life’. I guess we never see the beauty of what surrounds us when we see it every day.

We ventured into the mosque of Ibrahim Agha Mustahfizan built in 1346 by Amir Shams al Din Aqsunqur.

It was restored by an Ottoman officer Agha Mustahfizan in 1692

who had the walls covered in blue tiles from Istanbul and Damascus

since which time it has been known as the Blue Mosque. The garden in the centre gave a lovely calming effect as well as a delightful setting.

The guardian who was showing us round tried telling us it was the first mosque in Cairo, and was a bit put out when I asked if it was before Amr Ibn el Aas (who brought Islam to Egypt in 696 and built his mosque in Fustat). This may have been why we didn’t get the opportunity to climb the minaret for the views!

Further along we visited Bayt al Razzaz,

the house of Ahmad Katkhuda al Razzaz built by Sultan Qaytbay the doorway dates the building to 1497,

a huge building with grand reception rooms and Harem rooms around a central courtyard and garden. The place was deserted but seemed to have a few offices in the upper rooms so I didn’t venture further!

Proceeding along, the street name seems to change to Sharia el Tabbanah.

Here there was large mosque of Altinbugha al Maradani built in 1340, which was being renovated

but seemed to house a hospital of some sort as there were lots of white coated doctors around the place.

We now were in Darb el Ahmar,

passing the Sabil Kuttab of Yusuf Agha (1677) (Sabil was a place where water was made available for the poor and above it would be a school) and mosque of Qijmas al Ishaqi (1481).

Turning round the bend in the road we were now in sight of Bab Zwyela

and Amr heaved a sigh of relief!!

Passing the mosque of Salih Talai (1160)

and Zawiya Sabil of Farag ibn Barquq (1408)

we made our way

through the ancient gates of the city.

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