Exploring the Cairo of the Fatimids
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
“You must walk Cairo’s Mu’izz li’Din Allah Street! It’s full of history. I’m still in awe at what I’ve seen.” Husn Abboud, a budding Arab Canadian writer seemed to be in a trance as she related to me the high point of her trip to Egypt.
Now, a year later, I stood with Ahmad, the muezzin of Al-Hakim bi Amr Allah Mosque, atop Bab Al-Futuh, one of the three remaining of the 60 gates of the city’s once all-encompassing 10th century Fatimid walls. As I surveyed Mu’izz Street below me, I thought of Husn’s words that had given me the urge to explore this venerable city.
Over 1,000 years have passed since the foundation of this ancient town was laid yet still Fatimid Cairo abounds with domes and minarets. Even though from my vantage point, the town appeared rundown, it still had the majesty of history.
Long noted for the Giza Pyramids with their Sphinx and its Museum of Antiquities, Cairo has other equally appealing tourist attributes. It is saturated with Islamic monuments, virtually unknown to the vast majority of visitors from the West. The city’s magnificent historic mosques with their appealing domes and minarets are a world of history and exoticism, waiting to be discovered.
More than the pharaohs’ monuments colourful oriental bazaars and plush hotels, these mosques will, no doubt, one day draw streams of visitors. Still hidden from view to western travellers, they are like underground gems waiting to be mined. Unlike in the neighbouring countries, there still remain a good number of historic churches and mosques in Egypt since the country never suffered the same fate as the Arab lands of the Fertile Crescent where Crusaders and Mongols destroyed most of the old mosques.
For visitors not acquainted with the Islamic face of Cairo, a guide well versed with its mosques and Islamic history is a must. To get an overview of the hundreds of these Muslim houses of worship, the itinerary should include four historic mosques: Ibn Tulun, Al-Azhar, Sultan Hassan and Muhammad Ali, representing the handiwork of the main Islamic dynasties in Egypt. All of these mosques are open to tourists and are worth lingering visits.
However if one is to to get real feel of historic Cairo, visiting the well preserved Fatimed section is a must, It was established on the 5th of August in 969 A.D. With the planet Mars in the ascendant, the first stone of Cairo was laid by General Gawhar who had conquered Egypt for the North African Dynasty, the Fatimids ( a Shiite Islamic sect). He named it Al-Qahira (the Conqueror), the Arab name for Mars, from which the name Cairo is derived. Subsequently, the city became the capital of the Fatimid Empire, which once included all of North Africa and parts of the Arabian Peninsula. In the centuries that followed, the city flourished and became one of the most prosperous urban centres in the world.
The town Gawhar established, remnants of which were spread below us, has remained the heart of Cairo until our times. Of course, the rulers that followed added their own touches. Ayyubids, Mamluks, and later, Ottomans, all embellished Mu’izz Street, the main avenue of the Fatimid city, with their structures – the highest and most varied concentration of medieval monuments in the city.
In these centuries, medieval Cairo became one of the towns of the Arabian Nights. Ibn Buttuta, the famous 14th century Arab traveller, after visiting the city, wrote:
“I arrived at length at the city of Cairo, mother of cities, mistress of broad provinces and fruitful lands, boundless in the multitude of buildings, peerless in beauty and splendour…”
As I gazed on these historic monuments, I thought of the emirs and sultans who had vied with each other in erecting a more magnificent mosque or madrasa (school). The forest of minarets of these structures today help to give Cairo its Arab/Muslim atmosphere and make this area of the city a picture of oriental splendour.
As we walked down from Bab Al-Futuh to the door of Al-Hakim’s Mosque (990-1013), Ahmad turned to me, “Did you say that you were of Syrian origin? Are you a Druze?” I was somewhat astonished, “No! Why do you ask?” He said that money was needed to complete the renovation of the mosque and he thought that if I was a Druze I would consider donating some money.
The Fatimid ruler, Al-Hakim bi Amr Allah, who built the mosque, is important in the Druze (a Muslim sect) religion. However, in Islamic history, Al-Hakim is famous for his eccentricities and arbitrary edicts. He declared himself divine and gave birth to the Druze sect – found today in the greater Syria area.
His mosque, noted for its unique minarets, was allowed to fall into ruins until it was recently renovated by funds from the Bohras, an Ismaili Shi’i sect, found in India.
From this controversial mosque, walking down Mu’izz Street was like travelling back centuries. A traveller will never find so much history concentrated in one spot. There are at least forty interesting historic structures in the area – for those interested in Islamic history, all worth exploring. Crowning these monuments are those structures that go back to the Fatimid age.
After a few minutes walk, I stopped to examine the Al-Aqmar Mosque (built between 1121-1125), a true seminal monument, important in Cairo’s architectural history. One of the few Fatimid buildings still almost intact, it contains among its decorations an unique stone facade, fine examples of Fatimid wood-carving and many historical inscriptions.
Outside the mosque, a young well-dressed youth, noting that I was trying to read an inscription commented, “I see you are interested in our old mosques! Don’t you think that we should be moving into the future, not always thinking of the past? We need technical colleges, not religious monuments.” I did not have a chance to answer before he disappeared in the crowd. Like many students throughout the Arab world, he believed that emphasizing the historic past was preventing the country from moving into the modern age.
Past a series of other venerable monuments, I reached Al-Azhar Mosque – the greatest gift the Fatimids gave to the Muslim world. Founded in 970 by Gawhar, it soon began to play an important role in the religious life of the Muslim world, and this has continued until our times. Also, at a very early stage, it became a centre of high learning. Today, it competes with the Qarawiyin Mosque in Fez, Morocco, as being the oldest university in the world.
In recent years, the subjects taught there have been modernized. In addition to the traditional studies, commerce, medicine and science have been added. Today, Al-Azhar and the nine other campuses it administers, cater to over 100 thousand students.
Through the centuries ruler after ruler expanded the mosque until in our times it has become a great combination of styles – all blending well together. Only the Central Court and a few other minor parts of the mosque go back to the Fatimid era.
After exploring this world-renowned mosque-university, I roamed through the edging Khan al-Khalil, one of the greatest oriental bazaars in the world, ending my day by purchasing a few souvenirs, of course, after much bargaining. Tired, I sat down in the very crowded Fishawi’s Teahouse, much frequented by entertainers, intellectuals and tourists.
Here, over a cup of tea, I contemplated the passing scene. The 250-year old cafe, still operated by the same family, consisted of two long parts divided by a much-used alleyway. Between the bumps of passers-by, I thought of the Fatimids and their interesting remains – well worth exploring by travellers interested in the history of Islam and its civilization.