Cairo Observer’s Guide to Cairo (Selections)

19 Jan

al mardani mosque

Earlier this month Cairo Observer launched its second print edition. For those who don’t know the Cairo Observer is a blog and magazine set up by Mohammed Elshahed focused on Egypt’s architecture, urbanism and culture. Their fantastic blog can be found here

In their most recent magazine they included a tourist guide to Cairo’s lesser known attractions. Many of which I (and I assume many others) did not know about an am now intending to visit. I have translated some of them into English. Unfortunately I haven’t had to time to include the introductions to the areas of Cairo featured in the guide. I have also missed out some of the sites for times reasons. I have therefore tried to pick the least known ones, and ones that feature least in guidebooks. Mohammed Elshahed also included: The Coptic Museum, Ben Ezra Synagogue, The Islamic Art Museum, The Samaakhana, and Gayer-Anderson House. Having been to all of these sites I can also highly recommend them.

Anyway, here is a selection of interesting and lesser known sites across Cairo which I am going to try to visit myself as soon as possible.

Roda Island

Um Kalthoum Museum: Malik al-Salah Street

On the road coming south from Roda Island is a beautiful, small palace (that was always closed for renovations): al-Manasterly palace. It was built for an Ottoman Pasha, whose family was from Monastir in North Greece. The Selamlik, which the Pasha built for public functions is now an elegant venue which has been restored for concerts. The Haramlik has been turned into the “Um Kalthoum Museum” after the Kawkib al-Sharq’s house in Zamalek was destroyed (it was close to the statue of Um Kalthoum which you can see in front of the ‘Coffee Bean’) and a high-rise tower was built in its place. The museum was designed to hold The Lady’s remaining belongings and it is well designed and easy to visit. The objects displayed include dresses, prizes, her passport, records and other possessions. There is also a library containing all her music and newspaper articles about her.

Around al-Mu’izz Street

Mosque of “Al-Hakim bi’umr Allah”: Off al-Mu’izz Street next to Bab al-Futuh

The construction of this mosque, also known as “Masjid al-Anwar” [The Mosque of Lights], began in 990 in the reign of the Caliph Aziz Billah but it was not finished until 12 years later in the reign of the Caliph al-Hakim bi-Umr Allah. Al-Hakim bi-Umr Allah ruled for 24 years and his ruled was marked by violence and cruel behaviour, which led some historians to believe that he might have been mentally ill. When the mosque was built it lay outside the city walls but the vizier Badreddin al-Jamali extended the walls outside it about a century later.

In its general design, it resembles the mosques of Ibn Tulun and al-Azhar. It has a rectangular courtyard surrounded by cloisters with intricate arches standing on brick columns. There is a walkway raised slightly from the floor that goes from the court yard to the mihrabs. There are three domes beside the qibla, one in front of the mihrabs and two in the corners. The façade is a prominent gate flanked by two circular minarets adorned with writing and bands of engraved stone. In 1010 the minarets were enclosed inside large, brick boxes because they went against the Fatimid idea that the call to prayer should not come from a place higher than the roof of the mosque.

The two current minarets, which stand on top of two stone boxes, go back to the Mamluk period. Some of the original decorations still remain including floral ornamentation. In 1020, or shortly afterwards, the Caliph al-Zahir made an addition to the southern side of the mosque. In the Ayyubid period it was the only mosque where a Friday sermon was given as the Ayyubids did not want more than one mosque in the city to give a Friday sermon.

The mosque has only been used for prayer for short periods in its long history. It has also been used as a prison for captured crusaders, as a stable, as a bakery, as a mental institution and until recently was a boys’ school. In the 1980s the mosque was renovated by the Ismaili sect, originally from India. After the renovation the mosque looked modern, was empty of its ornamentation and courtyard was paved with white marble. So the most important things that survives from in the mosque architecturally are the two minarets, the oldest ones in Cairo.

The Aqmar Mosque (Moonlit Mosque or Grey Mosque): al-Mu’izz Street

Mamoun al-Bata’ihi, vizier of the Fatimid Caliph al-Amir bi-Ahkamallah, built this mosque in 1125. It is constructed with a small courtyard, ten metres across with porticoes on every side, the largest of which is on the qibla side. Most of the buildings are made of brick except the one by the main street which is clad in stone.

The most important feature of the building from an architectural point of view is the way that the façade had been placed at a different angle from the rest of the mosque to face the street instead of following the line of the mosque, which is orientated towards Mecca. This is the first mosque in Cairo to follow this system, which became common in later mosques. Emphasis was placed on the façade through design and decoration. The prominent gate includes the main entrance which had two small windows on both sides with the muqarnas above them. The ribbed arches and circular ornamentation on the façade became specific markers of Cairene architecture in the following time.

The Aqmar mosque gets its importance for being the first mosque to incorporate shops into its construction. The mosque, in the beginning, was raised off the ground and the shops were built under it.

Over the passing of time, the mosque was exposed to a lot of damage but it was the subject of an rebuilding operation by “The Committee for the Preservation of Arabic Art” in the 1880s and so became the first building to be restored by the organisation which specialised in restoring and preserving culture. A copy of the façade was made and attached to the Coptic Museum (for more on this see)

Sabil of Mohammed Ali: al-Mu’izz Street

In the southern part of al-Mu’izz Street and across the busy al-Azhar street stands this beautiful Sabil [a building to provide the community with water] which was built in 1820. It was the first public building in Cairo to have gilded bars on its windows and to have painted designs done in the Ottoman style. It was recently restored and there is an exhibition on the top floor about the history of the building and a collection of documents about its restoration. On the top level there is also a school, of the kind they call “Kuttab”[a school for education of young children], which was in use until the earthquake of 1992. This buildings which bring together a Sabil and a Kuttab spread across Egypt were a kind of charitable project, which were maintained by setting up ‘waqf’ (religious endowment).

After visiting the Sabil you can go south to Bab Zuweila and the Tentmakers Market. You might want to buy something from this market, which has been a part of Cairo’s history for centuries and is going through hard times because of the tourists, who are their only livelihood, have almost completely disappeared.

Darb al-Ahmar, Citadel and Ibn Tulun Area

The Blue Mosque: Bab al-Wazir

The building of the Blue Mosque goes back to 1347. It got its name from the blue Ottoman tiles which cover the wall of the qibla and were put in 300 years after it was built. The rest of the building goes back to the Mamluk period. It is well worth seeing after the renovation, done by the Aga Khan. It is an example for the rest of the Mamluk buildings in the area, showing what could be done if the same interest was taken in them.

Al-Mardani Mosque: Ahmed Maher Pasha Street (Minaret pictured above)

Al-Mardani is one of the most beautiful historic mosques in Cairo, not just because of its outstanding architecture but also because of its unique atmosphere. Over time, the building has deteriorated but this does not diminish its magnificence. It is worth a visit and needs the protection of more than the government for its upkeep. Unlike many of the historic mosques in the area which have come to be regarded as just monuments, this mosque is a part of the daily life of the area. This is what makes it necessary for the authorities, if they do maintain and restore it, not to cut the ties between the building and the community and to preserve the attractive parts which have developed over time, such as the courtyard full of trees.

This building includes 8 granite columns taken from pharaonic temples and around the columns there are cloisters decorated with Roman, Christian and Islamic designs, beside an ottoman fountain. Ornamentation covers the place, especially the decoration painted on the wooden ceiling. There is an eclectic mix of styles which reflect the rich history of the building. A large part of Egypt’s history is delicately and flexibly mixed in this building which both Egyptian and foreign tourists have ignored.

The Palace of al-Amir Taz: 17 Siouffiyya Street

Al-Amir Taz, who build this palace, was a close companion of the Sultan Nasir Mohammed and his continued to play a crucial role in the government of his son, Sultan Hassan. The building is used now as a cultural centre where there is a musical programme as well as events and exhibitions. The building has been renovated beautifully and it reflects the nature of domestic life in Cairo amongst the ruling class of the time. There are not many places in Cairo where you can get a sense of the daily life, and these places are normally the houses, palaces, or villas of the upper class. Although the domestic architecture of Cairo has a great degree of variety, depending on the time and the area, its history is not much studied nor is it made available to the public or students of architecture. This is what makes this house and Bayt al-Sohaimy rare and important examples because they were residential buildings.


The Mahmoud Mukhtar Museum: Tahrir Street

The Mahmoud Mukhtar Museum was renovated in a way the included changing the original 1960s building so it could house a group of the works of the pioneer modern Egyptian sculptor Mahmoud Mukhtar. The Museum was designed by Ramses Wissa Wassef and the original design idea was to let natural light in to the building so it could reflect of the sculptures that were placed in carefully chosen locations. Unfortunately, this idea was lost in the renovation and the natural light was replaced by spotlights. Despite this the museum is a lovely place and is worth visiting. If it wasn’t for art students there would be hardly any visitors at all.

Mukhtar (1891-1934) is the man who made the statue of Sa’ad Zaghloul which is next to the “Freedom Garden”, where the museum is, and is faced by the Opera House, pointing his finger towards Tahrir Square. He also did the statue of Sa’ad Zaghloul at al-Raml Station in Alexandria. Perhaps his most famous work is the State of “Egypt Awakening” [Nahdat Misr] which was unveiled in a celebration attended by King Fouad and used to be outside the train station. However, it was moved in the 1950s to its spot outside the Giza Zoo. The museum includes many of Mukhtar’s well-known works. Mukhtar himself is buried in the building.

Al-Andalus Gardens

A lot of films, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, we filmed here. Shadia and Abdel Halim [Hafiz] walked hand in hand singing in this garden in the centre of the city. People often forget about al-Andalus Gardens because the main entrance near Qasr al-Nil Bridge is seemingly always closed. However, you can get in at the gate next to the Novotel Hotel. The gardens were designed in 1930 with Andalusian motifs and sloping grounds that lead towards a central fountain around which is a walkway containing a statue of the poet Ahmed Shawqi. Al-Andalus Gardens is one of a number of gardens on this part of the island of Zamalek which the areas residents usually ignore. The gardens are clean, cheap and good to visit.

Relics of a Forgotten World

The Agricultural Museum

In the past, Egypt’s wealth was based primarily on agricultural resources. This museum was established in the 1930s to display Egypt’s agricultural heritage, its agricultural industy, and different international magazines dedicated to agriculture. The museum is in Doqqi and contains a series of buildings around gardens and the exhibitions are very diverse. This museum has been forgotten but deserves to be remembered. The museum and gardens are open to visitors.

Sa’ad Zaghloul’s Mausoleum

Sa’ad Zaghloul’s mausoleum lies in the centre of the area Mounira, across the road from Sa’ad Zaghloul’s house, known as the ‘Bayt al-Umma’, which is also a rarely visited museum. The Mausoleum resembles a pharaonic temple and was designed by the architect Mustafa Fahmy in the 1920s and finished in 1936. Then the remains of Sa’ad Zaghloul were moved from Qarafa in a funeral procession attended by thousands of people, who came to escort their leader 10 years after his death. The building is large, which a modern character. There are aesthetic details on the doors which are worth looking at. The Museum is open to the public every day until 4.

Mohammed Ali’s Palace in Shubra

This palace was supposed to be the biggest tourist site in Shubra but it was closed for years. Six years ago the renovations were finished, but finished badly, which led to the collapse of part of it. This palace was the place where Mohammed Ali used to go to recuperate outside the city. It is planned around a large pool with spacious porticoes around it. It has appeared in a number of films including “Cairo 30”. The authorities should open this palace again to be used by the public as it is our right to enjoy our history and the right of the residents of Shubra to learn about their local heritage.


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