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Walk Through the Gates of Time

World-renowned Egyptologist and historian Ahmed Seddik takes us on a literary tour of Khan El Khalili and Al Muez street, uncovering the secrets of ancient Islamic Cairo...

In 969 a, fine Fatimid commander conquered Egypt. To the north of the first Muslim city, Al-Fustat, a new royal city was in the making. Legend had it that Jawhar had the area of the future city surrounded by cords carrying bells to tell the waiting workmen to play a symphony of building to the tunes of an opportune moment. A moment the astrologers would declare. Before the astrologers had any clue, birds came out of the blue and landed on the cords. That jangling of bells alerted the task force to change course and start building. The astrologers felt that if they are not consulted, they would be insulted. They looked up and Mars was rising. They said let's call it al-Qahirah, Arabic for Mars. The city of Mars marked a new beginning, as a walled palace city for the gated community of the ruling elite.

As we travel to unravel the many marvelous layers the potent political players applied to the City Victorious, we gaze at gates of glory and façades of fame; a door to adore, an entrancing entrance to an edifying edifice. We enter through the gate of Zewaila. As if the gate were not famous enough, Sultan Almu'ayyad added the twin minarets on top. Here the Ottoman Sultan Selim the Grim carried out the most famous public execution of the last Mamluk Sultan Tomanbay in the 16th century.

Our journey north through the glittering street of Al-Muez takes us to Khan al-Khalili, perhaps the oldest market of sort in the world. In 1382, Al-Khalili, Sultan Barquq's master of horses, dug the dead bodies of the Fatimid caliphs to make room for his khan. Al-Khalili comes from Al-Khalil, Arabic for Hebron and a friend.

The heart of Al-Muez is Bayn al-Qasrayn, that is to say, between the two palaces; the eastern palace and the western palace. However, you will not see any Fatimid palaces. Saladin had demolished the Fatimid palaces and opened up the whole city for all Egyptians. Saladin triumphed and the Fatimids had fallen as victims of victory.  

While the family of Saladin did not rule for long, it left an everlasting legacy, the Mamelukes. Dulocracy, or the rule of the slaves, would soon become the rule rather than the exception. Mamluk is Arabic for a slave. The last powerful Aybubid Sultan Najm al-Din had a lot of mamluks in his palace. Those mamluks were bought young. They were trained in Arabic and introduced to Islam. In a nutshell, they received the finest possible education. When they graduated, they were freed and bonded with the professional army. Given the quality of their education, the mamluks were qualified to rise to the highest positions in the government – and they did. In the meantime, Najm al-Din married a beautiful slave and gave her the name Shagar El Dorr; mother-of-pearl. This shrewd calculating pearly lady led her husband to greatness and to the throne of Egypt. When Najm al-Din died while fighting the crusaders, Shagar El Dorr did not break the news of his death lest it break the morale of the Egyptian army – her policy was a triumph. Having defeated the crusaders, she declared herself a sultana in 1250. However, under pressure from neighbouring nations she relinquished the throne. Out of sheer gratitude, Shagar El Dorr raised an edifice to honour Najm who raised her star from slavery to kingship. Facing the mausoleum of Najm is the complex of sultan Qalawun in the middle of Al-Muez street.  

Qalawun means a duck. Yet, he never ducked to his enemies. He took to fighting like a duck takes to water. If you are fighting Sultan duck, tough luck. Proud that his master Sultan Ayoub bought him for the great sum of a thousand dinars, Qalawun added to his titles Al-Alfy, from the Arabic for a thousand. Qalawun brought the Golden Age for the Mamluks, and founded a dynasty that endured on the throne for a whole century, his edifice that consists of a hospital, madrasa, mausoleum and mosque speaks for its peak.

Walking a few centuries ago in the sun-blasted desolate desert would have stimulated your thirst for knowledge and water too.

The Sabil of Mohamed Ali is a way to give away water to the wayfarers in the way of Allah. Muhammed Ali established this Sabil to honour his son. Every sabil is underlain by a huge water storing cistern. This sabil has been turned into the Egyptian Textile Museum that is adorned with exquisite textiles that are ancient Egyptian, Coptic, and Islamic. It is a time capsule woven into the fabric of the Fatimid city.

For an older Ottoman sabil, continue north and you encounter the Sabil-Kuttab of Abdel-Rahman Katkhuda. It is a cosmos composed of a school for children founded on a water fountain. A lucky location where the spine splits into two, a visual clue alluding to naming the street al-Qasaba, Arabic for a windpipe. 

The Fatimids loved colourful names. The name of this mosque, al-Aqmar, means the moonlit, based on gleaming light of limestone. Even though it is a small mosque, it introduces a multitude of new architectural features; it has the oldest completely carved façade of a mosque; the first appearance of the stalactites; the façade is aligned with the street. Top above, to the right and to the left, you see a lamp carved on the wall. This is the source of the lamps in all Fatimid monuments, since the Fatimid lamps have long since vanished, you rely on a relief of belief.

Now we take a detour and turn right into al-Darb al-Asfar to see a bayt, Arabic for a house. Bayt Al-Suhaymi once belonged to an affluent family and is named after the last resident here. The medieval house of Al-Suhaymi displays Mamluk and Ottoman features. Walk through the gate, you see a wall. Turn right, you still see nothing but a wall. This is due to a fascinating fairy-tale feature the teacher of which is in domestic medieval architecture—the bent entrance. In bending the entrance is a chance to enhance at a glance the privacy of the stellar dwellers and diminish the dawsha (Egyptian for noise) in the bustling streets of Cairo. Turn left and a beautiful garden graces your eyes. Walk north and you reach a vast reception area. Behind it is a space for the servants as well as a second water well and a grinding mill. 

Most of the rooms are versatile with a style that takes us back to the Ottomans. The house is awesomely ventilated through orientation to the north and through a wind scoop to catch the cool north wind. Inside, you have your own private bath and steam, a sign of wealth for men of esteem. The mesh of the mashrabiya beautifully decorates and ventilates the house such that women could see whence they cannot be seen behind a screen.

At last, we reach Bab Al-Fotouh, the lavishly decorated Gate of Conquests that owes its ornamentation to its function and location at the northern end of the Fatimid city of Cairo. This is where sultans exited to conquer. 

Photos courtesy of Ahmed Seddik.


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