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Monday, November 7, 2016

10/21 & 22: Wonderful Interactions in Islamic Cairo

10/21: After having our fill of the world class Egyptian Museum by 2 pm, we returned to the metro station at Tahrir Square as we wanted to visit more of Coptic Cairo than we had seen late yesterday afternoon and early evening. Navigating our way through the Cairo Metro and having to switch stations proved to be more challenging than we anticipated. Luckily, this man noticed our confusion and offered to help guide us up and down flights of stairs and escalators to get to the right platform – he was a godsend. As had been the case in Giza, the people we interacted with were so welcoming and said they hoped we would have a nice time visiting their country.
I saw a train waiting and we jumped in the first open car without realizing right away that it was for women only! 

We got off the metro in Bahel Shaariya area, the heart of Islamic Cairo which was outside the city's central area on the east bank, spanning from the northeast to the southeast. Despite the number of minarets that dotted the skyline in this part of the city, the term ‘Islamic Cairo’ was a bit of a misnomer. The area is not significantly more religious than other districts. For many centuries, however, it was one of the power centers of an Islamic empire and the monuments in the area are some of the most significant architecture as inspired by Islam. The neighborhoods are known for their narrow streets, crowded markets and hundreds of mosques, many dating back to the medieval period.

We entered the Cairo bazaar known as Khan Al-Khalili where Cairenes have plied their trade her since the khan was built in the 14th century. The shopkeepers were very friendly and were not aggressive in contrast with the salesmen at the Istanbul bazaar. 

Photos strolling through Khan Al-Khalili:
We walked through the tin makers’ area. There were also more of the local markets that sell anything and everything (sewing machines, meat, car parts, etc.) that we didn't need, but gave us a small look at Cairo through commerce.

We also saw shops of gold, silver, copper, brass close to shops that sold exotic spices, silks, water pipes and handicrafts. What we especially liked was that there were very few tourists.

Some parts of the area reminded us very much of the architecture we saw last December while visiting Kathmandu, Nepal.
I was impressed at this woman's balance as she carried a heavy weight atop her head.
Men carrying massive loads of boxes had been a common sight in Cairo. I kept waiting for someone to drop the boxes as I couldn't imagine how they could possibly see where they were going but no one ever did drop anything. 
I noticed a young local girl taking a picture of these two other girls so I thought I would also take one. The girl on the left was laughing so hard the basket fell off her head!
We saw fezes galore, the hats many Egyptian men used to wear. I always associate them with the Shriners at shows! The ones we saw were all cheap, imported knockoffs but somewhere in the bazaar was supposed to have been the last remaing fez factory in Cairo.

Look at the maze of overhead wires:
Women the world over stop to admire jewelry in a shop window.

If we had been hungry, we could have munched on roasted yams that were cooked right on the street on a cart. 
What fun we had walking through Khan al Khalil. Strolling through this great bazaar was a fascinating way to spend some time seeing another part of Cairo away from the pyramids and temples. Although it is not as busy as it was before tourism dropped, there were still hundreds of sellers only too happy to take our money!
The market led us to the Al Hussein Mosque. I don’t think we have ever been to an area immediately around a mosque where so much has been happening all at once.
I felt like we were at a big festival as there were masses of people just sitting on curbs eating and chatting with one another, people enjoying drinking coffee in the cafes that surrounded the mosque. Everyone appeared to be in jolly spirits without a care in the world. 

The mosque is one of the most sacred Islamic sites in Egypt and also the reputed burial place of Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Mohammed. Most of the building dated from around 1870 except for the beautiful 14th century stucco panels on the minaret. The modern metal sculptures in front were elegant Teflon canopies that expand to cover worshippers during Friday prayers. 
The death of Hussein in Karbala, Iraq, cemented the rift between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria, also claims to have his head, a Shia relic, even though both mosques were established by Sunnis.
I saw a number of women all sitting on the curb right outside the mosque entrance waiting for their menfolk as women were not allowed inside the mosque. Soon I became one of those women, too, as I waited for Steven to visit the mosque. 
He was very fortunate that he was allowed to enter as my travel notes indicated the mosque was closed to non-Muslims. He took these photos so you and I would know what the interior was like. 

Scenes while waiting outside the mosque:

I think I had just as much fun as he did though. A number of locals came up to me wanting a photo of me with them or for me to take their photos. As I've written previously. I always have a snack size bag of Sunkist raisins with me as we’ve lugged about 10 pounds of them all the way from Denver. They were a big hit with many of my newfound acquaintances. People even thrust babies in my arms to hold while they took photos. It had been such a long, long time since I had held a wee one too!

We had seen a lot of women wearing henna tattoes on their hands. Since this woman and I had chatted for a bit, I felt comfortable asking her if it were OK if I took a photo. You can see by the smile on her face that she didn't mind at all. 

I am pretty sure that I would not have been approached by so many people of all ages if I had not been by myself. I am sure I stuck out like a sore thumb in the middle of all the locals just milling about outside the mosque.
I almost hated to leave that mosque square when Steven finally returned from being inside the mosque as I had so enjoyed interacting with the locals even if it had been on a very limited basis.
There were more neighborhoods in the Islamic part of Cairo to discover so off we went in search of new sights and sounds. Spice markets and stalls are always one of my favorite places to stop and enjoy the varied scents and colors. Guess I need a sign on my backpack that says I stop at spice markets, huh!

The group of buildings known as the Al-Ghouri Complex on al-Muizz St. was the last large-scale religious complex built before the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517. The complex on the most important street in medieval Cairo included a mosque and madrasa - a religious school for boys - as well as the mausoleum for Sultan Al-Ghouri.

There was also a thriving market outside the complex but not the same sort of almost festival atmosphere I had experienced earlier at the Hussein mosque.

The not so pretty side of Cairo but an omnipresent sight, sad to say.
We stumbled across Wikala of al-Ghouri and were able to poke our heads in for a minute or two even though we declined to pay the admission fee as we didn’t feel like lingering. Built by the Mamluk Sultan al-Ghouri in 1504 AD, it was designed as an inn for traders following the caravan routes from the east and west. 
The stone face was beautifully restored. The upper rooms were artists’ workshops and the former stables have been converted into craft shops. The courtyard was set up as a theater for dance performances.

These two men were selling drinks right on the street from their massive urns - I don't know what sort of beverage it was though.
We figured since we were in the area more or less, we’d return to the Tentmakers’ Market and check out some more beautiful embroidered hangings because we had not purchased enough last night!
Shots of the Tentmakers' Market:

This fellow should have had a nice smile on his face as I bought a number of his beautiful hangings. The problem was trying to decide which designs and sizes to purchase as I really liked so many of them - what a first world problem to have, I know.
The previous evening, we didn't make it down to the end of the alley and hadn't noticed this woman and her shop of just scarves. Darlene: I know you're probably laughing at me now as you're reading this, wondering why on earth I would go even near any shop selling scarves considering all the ones I bought last year in Asia! You are absolutely right, there wasn't one I 'needed' at all but there was a salmon-colored one that caught my eye!
Shoe-making was a going concern also in the same alley as all the appliqued items.

Again like last night, we walked back to the hostel. This time, though, our bags of purchases were even heavier on the 45 minute trip. Our room was lovely but getting to it was not - the sorry state of the elevator up to our hostel!

10/22: This morning we received another email from the State Department about the worsening political situation in Ethiopia. Essentially it said that all non-essential travel there should be suspended immediately because of a six month state of emergency that had been imposed by the Ethiopian government. We figured that it was no longer safe to travel there so we began looking at a map of the world trying to figure where to go to instead for the 10 days we were supposed to be in Ethiopia. 

Ironically enough, just a few days ago, we had made a list of countries we'd like to visit in the future at some point if at all possible. Since Sri Lanka was on the list and not that far away relatively speaking, Steven began looking into flights from Muscat, Oman, our last stop before our planned trip to Ethiopia, to Sri Lanka. To say all this threw a monkey wrench into our trip would be an understatement certainly after I, particularly, had done months and months of planning every possible detail of our trip. Oh well, things invariably come up with a trip of this length and with the huge number of places we had hoped to see. 

After a while, we put future plans aside and decided to head back to another area of the Islamic part of Cairo to see the Citadel. We got a taxi from near the hostel for 25 Egyptian pounds – about $4 – which was a great deal considering it was over 40 minutes away. The Saladin Citadel is a medieval Islamic fortification on Mokattam Hill near the center of Cairo that was once famous for its grand views of the city. 
It is now a preserved historic site, with mosques and four museums. The Citadel was fortified by the Ayyubid ruler Saladin between 1176 and 1183 AD, to protect it from the Crusaders. As it was built on such a high spot, that made it difficult to attack. The Citadel's location was considered to be so important that it remained the heart of Egyptian government until the 19th century.

These had to be the youngest tourism police/security guards ever! I may be wrong but they looked lie they were both in their teens still.

The Sultan Mosque of al-Nasr Mohammed ibn Qalaun, also called the Mosque of the Citadel, was an early 14th-century mosque. Built by the Mamluk Sultan Al-Nasr Muhammad in 1318 as the royal mosque of the Citadel, it was where the sultans of Cairo performed their Friday prayers. 

The walls of the mosque were constructed using limestone pillaged by the pyramids. The ten red granite pillars in the mosque were also stolen goods. Learning this made me wonder all the more how spectacular the pyramids and temples must have been prior to being ransacked.
Unlike most other mosques of Cairo, its outer walls weren’t paneled and it had little decoration. The result was a rather austere appearance which was probably accounted for by the military nature of its setting. 
There have almost always been free religious books on Islam available in all of the bigger mosques we’ve visited and this one was no exception.
Girls wanting to take my photo:

There were a good number of these rah rah signs depticting a soldier from the Egyptian army in a non-militaristic pose.

Zachary: You would have been interested in seeing the extensive collection showcasing Egyptian's miltary might. These pictures are therefore for you. This was a coastal gun that dated back to Mohammed Ali's reign.
A monumental statue of Ibrahim Pasha who lived from 1789-1848 who, according to the sign, 'led the Egyptian army from victory to victory.'

British flood night energizer used in WW II and also in the 1948 war with Israel:
Captured tanks during the 1973 war with Israel:

The Citadel's military museum was closed because it was undergoing renovation. I thought it interesting that there was money available for it but none for the city's Egyptian Museum that contained prized antiquities and which was really in a deplorable condition and antiquated state. 
The sign said ‘The Best Soldiers on Earth (are Egyptian).’
This rather grandiose building was the National Police Museum.
The Citadel is sometimes referred to as Mohamed Ali Citadel because it also contains the Mosque of Muhammad Ali aka Mohamed Ali Pasha. It was built between 1828 and 1848, and was perched on the summit of the citadel. This Ottoman mosque was built in memory of Tusun Pasha, Muhammad Ali's second son, who died in 1816. When Ottoman ruler Muhammad Ali Pasha took control from the Mamluks in 1805, he altered many of the additions to the Citadel that reflected Cairo's previous leaders.
The large dome and overtly Ottoman-influenced architecture loom over the Citadel to this day. Recently destroyed Mamluk palaces within the Citadel provided space for the formidable mosque, which was the largest structure to be established in the early 19th century. Placing the mosque where the Mamluks had once reigned was an obvious effort to erase the memory of the older rulers and establish the importance of the new leader. The mosque also replaced the Mosque of al-Nasir as the official state mosque. 

Inside, it seemed to be more of a community center or huge gathering space than a place of worship with people talking very loudly, kids running around and playing and lots of teenage girls taking photos with their selfie sticks. It would have been near impossible to try and find a quiet place to pray.

There was a spot for panoramic views of the city but the haze or pollution was so bad we couldn’t see a thing. I wonder how often people are able to see much of the city from this vantage point?
Touring the Citadel was important to get another sense of all that is Islamic Cairo today but I had found our time meandering through the many neighborhood markets and being able to have at least superficial interactions with the locals so much more rewarding.

I started this post referring to believing we would have to change our travel plans to go to Ethiopia. However, in the intervening two and a half weeks since our visit to Islamic Cairo and finally writing about it, we think the political situation has stabilized sufficiently in Ethiopia that we feel comfortable in sticking with our original itinerary. We leave the Middle East in a few hours and will fly on to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. Please wish us safe travels as we spend the next ten days traveling around the country. There will likely be extremely limited internet there but I will update the blog when I can. Until then, I wish each of you peace and good health.

Posted from Muscat, Oman on November 7th, 2016. 


  1. I'll pray for your safe travels. Lil Red

  2. Loved this post .. the colours, the people, the spices :) Stay safe in Ethiopia, Lina in Scottsdale xo

  3. Mum, thanks for the post for me!!😗😗😗 The Military museum was funded probably because of the state of leadership IN Egypt recently and how it has been under the control role of the military. That's my guess


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