There is no doubt that Cairo’s architectural gems celebrate its cultural diversity. But however awe-inspiring, the essence of Cairo is not to be found in these monuments but in the labyrinth of alleys of the Fatimid city that seem to have changed little since the middle ages.
We wandered this warren of narrow streets and crowded souks that formed the core of Islamic Cairo, stopping for coffee at atmospheric old coffee houses,
and snacking on delicious Fiteers (Egyptian Pancakes)
Never……..not once did we feel unsafe in this friendly and hospitable city. In fact when we asked an official at the Al Azhar park whether it was safe to walk around the Khan area at night, he proudly replied “All of Egypt is safe”. We wondered if we could say that about our cities back home.
The Khan el Khalili is the largest of the souks, originally built around a Caravanserai by Emir Garkas al-Khalili. Historically, Cairo was an important stop on the Silk Route and the Khan was the trading hub of the region. The main market is full of the usual souvenir tat, but there are a few stores worth seeking out. Like Gouzlan, for example, for beautiful gold and silver jewellery.
Further North of the touristy areas the souk begins to feel more authentic and the smells and sounds hark back to another era.
Especially near the Wikala el Gauri complex and further up at the old silk bazaar. It was exciting to find scenes, near identical to those that I had seen in old picture books. Like my photograph below….
…..and this lithograph titled ‘Silk Mercers Bazaar’ by David Roberts (below) – nearly unchanged except for the way people dressed.
Past the gold and copper merchants at the northern end of the Khan is the area known as Bein al-Qasreen – ‘Between the Palaces” – named after two great palaces that once stood here. This name has survived over 800 years although the palaces have long vanished. In fact it is said that the history of Cairo can be read from the names of its streets.
The monuments on Bein al-Qasreen (and on Al-Muizz li-Din Allah street) have been restored and the streets cleared of motor repair shops and pedestrianised. The area is lit up in the evenings giving it a special ambience. The Madrasa, Mausoleum and Maristan of Qalawun is the earliest building in the area. A Maristan is a hospital, and there is still a clinic here.
Just north of this is the Madrassa and Mausoleum of Barquq and the Sabil-Kuttab (Water fountain & School!) of Abdel Katkhuda. Retracing our steps back to the Khan we continued further south onto Al-Muizz li-Din Allah street. This was the main street of medieval Cairo, named after the Fatimid caliph who conquered Cairo in 969 AD.
Further along are the Mosque of Al-Mu’ayyad and the ornate Sabil-Kuttab of Nafisa al-Beida and beyond, the southern gate, the Bab Zuweila.
In the Mamluk period, Bab Zuweila was the site of public executions and victims were crucified or beheaded. The view from the minarets, belonging to the mosque of al-Muayyad next door, is apparently one of the best in Cairo, but we were unfortunately, not up to climbing all those steps.
Beyond Bab Zuweila is an intersection, across which is the Tent Makers Bazaar. The only remaining covered market, with rows of shops selling beautiful appliquéd fabric. Around this are more atmospheric streets where people and donkeys have equal right of way and locals haggle for merchandise just as they have been doing for centuries.
The ministry of culture’s, rather controversial, Historic Cairo Restoration Project (HCRP) plans “to transform the whole area into an open-air museum” . Turning back we begin to wonder how much of all this is going to change as Cairo grapples with its myriad problems to build a free and prosperous future while still preserving what once was.