Islamic Cairo is also known as medieval Cairo. It is the historic area of the city that existed before Cairo’s modern expansion during the 19th and 20th centuries. Although the name has a religious note in it, Islamic Cairo actually refers to the rich architectural and cultural heritage of those areas. It helps distinguish them from the ancient Egyptian sites of Giza and Memphis. Most of the buildings and monuments that are seen in Islamic Cairo depict the time of the early period of Islam in Egypt. This area holds one of the largest and densest concentrations of historic architecture in the Islamic world. There are hundreds of mosques, tombs, madrasas, mansions, caravanserais, and fortifications dating from throughout the Islamic era of Egypt in this section. These can be particularly found in the central parts around the old walled city and around the Citadel of Cairo. In 1979, UNESCO proclaimed Islamic Cairo to be a World Cultural Heritage Site, and ever since it has become a part of the tourist trail.
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Islamic Cairo, the city of thousand minarets
Although this historic core is nowhere close to the Nile, the river played a major role in this district’s coming into existence. Thousands of years ago, the fertile land along the river attracted the pharaohs into building the first capital city of Memphis. Later, the Byzantines built their Babylon fortress along the same river. Some centuries later, Amr ibn al-Aas established the city of al-Fustat close by and it was also here, that the Fatimid dynasty finally founded the medieval city of Cairo. They named their beautiful new capital Al Qahira, after the rising star, Mars – al-Najm al-Qahir, and filled it with gorgeous mosques, markets, caravanserais, and palaces. With the downfall of the Fatimids, the slave dynasty of Mamluks took over Al Qahira and Cairo became a city of a thousand minarets. Its fame as a cultural seat for art and education spread far and wide and doctors, astronomers, mathematicians, historians, and scholars of the religious sciences came here for patronage. It was here – Islamic Cairo – that they all came and the city flourished in its golden age in the 14th century. Such was its glory that contemporary scribe Ibn Khaldun described Islamic Cairo as, “[in Cairo] khanqaahs, madrasas, and youth bloomed in every horizon; and the people of knowledge illuminated it like Moons and Planets.”
The different areas of Islamic Cairo
Centuries later, remnants of the Fatimids’ and Mamluks’ patronage can still be seen and the Old City has a mosque around every corner, a sabil (public fountain) at every turn, and a madrasa on every street. Since Islamic Cairo technically spreads over several areas and you will need more than a day to explore it to the fullest, the best way to go about it is to split the tour into separate sections. The first section can be the obvious Citadel of Cairo, the Al-Azhar Park, and the Bab Zuweila Gate. . The second section can consist of the area around Khan al Khalili market. The third option includes the historic Muizz Street. Although many people try doing all of them in one day, I suggest stretching the three itineraries over two days. You can start with option 1 and continue to option 2 or 3. Simply explore the remaining section on the second day. There is also a fourth option and that includes the mosques Al-Rifai and Sultan Hassan, Ibn Tulun Mosque, and Gayer Anderson Museum. It can also be clubbed with option 1 especially since it’s closer to the Citadel. The last option is the City of the Dead. I have not been there but you can read all about it here.
Option 1 of the Islamic Cairo tour
- Citadel – Start at the famous Saladin Citadel located on top of Mokattam Hill. It is a city landmark and the views from the top are breathtaking. The Cairo Citadel dates back to the medieval Islamic era and it was first fortified by Saladin. To ensure safety and avoid the two threats the citadel faced: the crusaders and the shortage of water, a wall was built around the citadel. A complex system of waterways was also created to transport water from the Nile to the citadel. Some of the aqueducts from that time still exist and can be seen in the Old City. One has to walk uphill to explore the peak of the Citadel.
- Muhammed Ali mosque – The beautiful Muhammed Ali mosque is on the way. Do stop there to have a look at the most beautiful mosque inside the Citadel. A beautiful example of an Ottoman-style mosque, it was built in the first half of the 19th century. The interiors are absolutely stunning. Exit through the back entrance to reach the beautiful fortification walls. The parking lot is a short walk from here
- Police Museum – There is also a Police Museum that houses some old military airplanes. It is completely avoidable unless you have small kids who love airplanes.
- Al Azhar Park – From the Citadel, walk or drive over to Al Azhar Park. It lies bang opposite the Citadel and from the restaurant at the park one has a magnificent view of the Saladin Citadel. The park itself is like an oasis in the middle of chaotic Cairo. Crowned as one of the best urban parks in the world, Al-Azhar Park is a relatively new addition. It was built just over a decade ago in the place of a former garbage belt at Al-Darassa hill. The cost of the construction was financed by one of the descendants of the Fatimid Imam-Caliphs, Aga Khan IV a rich businessman and imam. Exit from the back gate of Al-Azhar Park to walk toward the Bab Zuweila Gate. However, note that this is a gritty, residential area and it is very easy to get lost in the maze of streets. It is completely safe and you can either ask for directions toward the gate or take a tuk-tuk. Make sure to agree on the fare before setting off. Do not pay more than 30 pounds. Alternatively, get an Uber or a car with a driver to be driven over.
- Bab Zuweila Gate – This was the magnificent southern gate of the second wall around Cairo. It was built at the end of the 11th century and consists of two towers, a gate, and a platform. The beautiful Sultan al-Muayyad Mosque is nearby and is open to the public.
- Sultan al-Muayyad Mosque – The red-and-white-striped Mosque of Al Mu’ayyad Shaykh was built between 1415 and 1421 on the site of a prison where its patron Mamluk sultan had earlier languished. Its entrance portal and the enormous bronze door are magnificent.
- Street of Tentmakers – Sharia Al Khayamiya lies directly south of Bab Zuweila. In fact, the Bab Zuweila separates the covered Street of Tentmakers on one side and the Sultan al-Muayyad Mosque on the other. It is one of the remaining medieval specialty quarters and is named after the artisans who produce the bright fabrics used for the ceremonial tents at wakes, weddings, and feasts. They also hand-make intricate appliqué wall hangings, cushion covers, and bedspreads, and print original patterns for tablecloths. It is a great place for photography and buying authentic khayamiya straight from the artisans.
- Al Ghuriya Mosque Madrassa complex – Walk along the road past Sultan al-Muayyad Mosque and follow it until you reach the magnificent twin buildings of Al Ghuriya Mosque Madrassa complex. You will pass through a busy local market and can ask the shop owners for directions. They are a friendly bunch who apart from ‘Where are you from’ will not ask you to buy anything from their shop. Al Ghuriya Mosque Madrassa complex lies on the historic Sharia Al Muizz or Muizz Street. the highlight of this complex is the way the two buildings straddle the main thoroughfare in the heart of medieval Cairo. A covered wooden roof connects both the buildings and shops radiate thickly along their sides. It has a mosque, a madrassa, and a funerary complex for the patron sultan. One of the most beautiful parts of this massive complex is the richly decorated mosque-madrassa. Its interiors are embellished with gilt-painted wood paneling, black and white marble arabesque designs, decorated high vaulted ceilings, and intricate geometric pavings. Four iwans (vaulted halls) surround the inner courtyard which is always beautifully illuminated by softly diffused natural light. Climb up and for a small tip (baksheesh) you can experience astounding views of modern-day Cairo from the four-storey minaret.
Option 2 of the Islamic Cairo Tour
- Al-Azhar Mosque – f you are arriving by taxi or Uber, you will most probably be dropped off in front of the Mosque of Al-Azhar Mosque. Founded in 970 AD, Al-Azhar is one of Cairo’s oldest mosques. It is also the world’s oldest university and is very impressive.
- Mosque of Abu Dahab – It is located opposite the Khan el Khalili market and has been long overshadowed by its more famous neighbour, the Al-Azhar Mosque. However, it is a beautiful mosque to explore especially if you can go up to see its circle of domes. Currently, it houses the Naguib Mahfouz museum. Go down the underground passage and cross over to the Midaan Al Hussein.
- Midaan Al Hussein – Midaan is a square in Arabic. Midaan Al Hussein is a grassy square patch that lies between the two venerated mosques of Al Azhar and Sayyidna Al Hussein. It was one of the focal points of Mamluk Cairo and remains an important space for religious celebrations, particularly Ramadan evening feasts and during the moulids (religious festivals) of Hussein and the Prophet Mohammed. The square is a popular tourist place and is lined with restaurants with outdoor seating on the western side.
- Sayyidna Al Hussein – Right opposite the Al Azhar Mosque and on one side of the Midan Al Hussein, lies Sayyidna Al Hussein. It is one of the most sacred Islamic sites in Egypt and is reputed to be the burial place of the head of Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Mohammed. Most of the building dates from about 1870, except for the beautiful 14th-century stucco panels on the minaret. This is one of the few mosques that non-Muslims can’t enter.
- Khan el Khalili market – This is the highlight of most Cairo visitors, at least the first-timers. One can enter the Khan el Khalili market from any lane near the Midan Al Hussein and there are plenty of lanes to choose from. This market is like a fairy tale maze of exotic sights, smells, and absolutely beautiful architecture. You can shop for souvenirs – everything from rugs, semi-precious stones, hand-made lamps, and tacky alabaster ashtrays; look; bargain; take pictures. Visit in the evening for better effects.
- The Saffron Tomb – When you are at Khan el Khalili market, make sure to look up and you will see beautiful remnants of Islamic architecture dating from 970 AD to 1500. There are signs of calligraphy, gates, arches, domes, and mysterious alleys. What very few people know is that Khan el Khalili market was built inside a Fatimid Mausoleum and hence the remnants of visible Islamic architecture. It was called the Saffron Tomb and was the burial ground for Fatimid caliphs. In 1382 Jaharkas al-Khalili demolished major parts of the mausoleum to build a souk for traders. He did this to encourage foreign trade and was so successful that in 1511, he rebuilt the whole area as a better-organized and larger souk.
- El Fishawi’s Cafe – Established in 1773, Qahwet Fishawi (El Fishawi’s Café) is one of Cairo’s oldest coffeehouses. It is the perfect spot for taking a break at Khan el Khalili market, sipping mint tea, gurgling shisha, and people-watching. It is also a beautiful place to take photos: old-world atmosphere and charm with dark wood furnishings, ochre-coloured walls, and middle-of-the-market buzz. However, it is nearly always filled to the gills.
- Khan El Khalili Restaurant et Naguib Mahfouz Coffee Shop – For a quieter and more expensive spot, head over to the Khan El Khalili Restaurant et Naguib Mahfouz Coffee Shop. Run by the Oberoi Group of Hotels, it is absolutely beautiful and atmospheric. The only downside is that like most restaurants in Egypt, it allows smoking inside. Sometimes they have live music in the evenings. The location os 5, El Badistan Lane in Khan el Khalili.
Option 3 of the Islamic Cairo Tour
Running the length of the central core of Islamic Cairo, from Bab Al-Futuh in the north to Bab Zuweila in the south, Muizz Street, or Sharia Al Muizz is one of the most important places in Egypt’s Islamic history. Apart from the impressive monuments, it also hosts a bustling neighborhood and is home to thousands of Egyptian craftsmen creating wares to be sold in Khan Al-Khalili, which marks the midpoint of the two sections. A walk down this street is like exploring the greatest density of significant Islamic monuments in today’s world. When coupled with a Khan al Khalili tour, a Muizz Street walk is an essential experience when visiting Cairo. Enter Muizz Street either by crossing over from Al Ghuriya Mosque Madrassa complex or from Khan el Khalili market. Just ask for directions to Qalawun Mosque which is the highlight of this historic lane.
- Al Aqmar Mosque – It is one of the oldest and most impressive monuments in Islamic Cairo. This is a small-sized monument in comparison to the other buildings on Muizz Street and features several unique architectural elements. It was the first mosque in Cairo to use an offset façade, an architectural style that allows the facade to remain square to the street front, while the rest of the building sits at an angle, aligning with the qibla, the direction of prayer toward Mecca. ·
- Bayt Al Suhaymi – The Darb Al-Asfar (the Yellow Way) on which the Bayt Al-Suhaymi is located very close to Muizz Street. It was one of Al Qahira’s wealthiest streets, as well-heeled citizens of that time competed to buy property close to “the Palace Walk” or Muizz Street. Bayt Al-Suhaymi was built in the 17th century and it was one of the grandest homes in Cairo at that time.
- Qalawun Mosque – This is the most impressive complex on Muizz Street. The complex houses a mosque, a madrassa, a mausoleum, and a hospital within its walls. The exterior windows of the entire complex are inspired by the Gothic style, which Sultan Qalawun was familiar with from the Crusader church style of architecture. It is built at a place known as Bayn Al-Qasreen, or ‘Between the Two Palaces, thus named as two erstwhile Fatimid Palaces originally stood here. Like most of the Fatimid buildings in the city, these palaces were razed and built over by subsequent rulers who tried to erase the Shia dynasty influences. Qalawun complex is actually built on the foundation of one of these palaces.
- Al-Hakim Mosque – One of the largest and oldest mosques in Cairo, Al-Hakim mosque is located in the northern section just before Bab EL-Futuh. The mosque was built by the 6th Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim Bi-Amr Allah, in 990 AD and features examples of early Islamic architecture. It consists of a central open courtyard that has a maroon-coloured ablution fountain. The courtyard is surrounded by arches with a prayer hall. The northern wall of the mosque has three domes, the central one being marked as the qibla prayer hall. The mosque has two minarets standing at the outer walls of the mosque and is considered the oldest surviving minarets of all Cairo.
- Al Ghuriya Mosque Madrassa complex – Wikala of Sultan al-Ghuri or the Al Ghuriya Mosque Madrassa complex is one of the best-preserved and most impressive wikalas to be ever built in Egypt. A wikala was a commercial agency and was technically a building that housed merchants and their goods. It also served as a center for trade, storage, transactions, and other commercial activities. The Wikala of al-Ghuri was built by Sultan Qanuh al-Ghuri in 1504-1505 AD. It was a part of a larger complex that was built by Sultan al-Ghuri. The complex consisted of his own mausoleum, a Khanqah, a sabil-Kuttab, and a mosque-Madrasa. The wikala of Al-Ghuri has a courtyard surrounded by a five-storied building. The first two stories are built in stone and distinguished by a portico of tall arches around the courtyard. The three upper floors are made of brick and marked by regular rows of windows and mashrabiyas.
- Mosque and Sabil of Soliman Agha EL-Silhedar -A landmark in Muizz Street, the mosque of Soliman Agha El-Silehdar was built in 1839 by the Soliman Agha El-Silehdar, who was a lieutenant in the court of Mohammed Ali. Featuring a mix of Ottoman and the prevailing local style, this mosque is divided into two large squares. The western corner contains the mosque’s courtyard. The courtyard is concealed by four corridors covered with beautiful small domes based on marble pillars. Each dome is adorned with multi-coloured carvings, architectural drawings, and Quranic inscriptions. This mosque is distinguished by its tall and thin pencil-like minaret. A Kuttab is located next to the entrance of the mosque. It is a balustrade for reciting the Holy Quran. Next to the Kuttab lies a sabil. A Sabil is a place that offers water to the public.
- Option 1 in reverse: Sultan al-Muayyad Mosque, Bab Zuweila Gate, and Sharia Al Khayamiya.
Option 3 of the Islamic Cairo Tour
This section of Islamic Cairo includes the old Fatimid city as well as the districts reaching south to Saladin’s Citadel, Sultan Hassan Mosque, the Al-Rifai Mosque, and Ibn Tulun Mosque. It can be combined with option 1. Both the Sultan Hassan Mosque Madrassa and the Al-Rifai Mosque are located next to the Saladin Citadel.
- Sultan Hassan Mosque Madrassa – Considered the finest example of Mamluk architecture in Cairo, the Sultan Hassan Mosque Madrassa is extremely elegant for its massive size. Built between 1356 and 1363, it was built by the Mamluk ruler Sultan Hassan, who had a very volatile personal history. The facade of this mosque is lovelier than its interiors and the tall portal is a work of art. Location – Midan Salah Ad Din. The entrance is at The Citadel side of the enclosure, facing the traffic circle.
- Al-Rifai Mosque – The most intriguing and interesting part of the Mosque-of-Al-Refaie is its location. Nobody knows why its patron, Khoshiar chose to build it bang opposite the massive Sultan Hassan Mosque Madrassa. A narrow open passageway separates the two gigantic mosques and they look joined at the hip, in harmony with each other. It was built as a place for Sufism and as a mausoleum for the tombs of the royal family of Egypt. Important tombs are those of the last king of Egypt and the last Shah of Iran.
- Ibn Tulun Mosque – This Mosque is located in the Sayeda Zeinab district near Sultan Hassan Mosque and Saladin’s Citadel. It is also the oldest mosque in Egypt and one of the largest in the world. Its founder was also one of the most enigmatic and powerful rulers of Egypt and he built this mosque from 870 to 879 AD in order to accommodate all of his troops. It was the third congregational mosque to be built in Cairo at that time. and the oldest mosque in Egypt that has survived mostly in its original form. Ibn Tulun Mosque is as lovely as it is mystical and recently National Geographic listed it as one of the most beautiful mosques in the world.
- Gayer Anderson Museum – Located in the Sayyida Zeinab neighbourhood, the museum gets its name from Major R.G. Gayer-Anderson Pasha, an English doctor who resided in the house between 1935 and 1942. It is noted for being one of the best-preserved examples of 17th-century domestic architecture and houses Gayer-Anderson’s vast collection of furniture, carpets, curio, and other objects.
P.S – This blog post is part of the weekly series called the Cairo Chronicles. Every week, Maverickbird will try to focus on a new theme, emotion, and beauty of expat life in the exciting, maddening city of Cairo.
Follow the rest of the Egypt series here
- THE MOSQUE OF ABU DAHAB
- AL GHURIYA MOSQUE-MAUSOLEUM
- IBN TULUN MOSQUE IN CAIRO
- MOSQUE-OF-AL-REFAIE IN CAIRO
- BEAUTY OF SULTAN HASSAN MOSQUE MADRASSA
- KHAN EL KHALILI MARKET IN CAIRO
- SOUQ AL GOMA IN PHOTOS
- TANOURA DANCE OF EGYPT
- THE BLUE MOSQUE IN CAIRO
- CAIRO FOOD TOUR
- SULTAN AL-MU’AYYAD MOSQUE
- STREET OF TENTMAKERS IN CAIRO
- COPTIC QUARTER OF CAIRO
- COPTIC MUSEUM IN CAIRO
- AL MANIAL, THE OFFBEAT GEM OF CAIRO
- THE GAYER ANDERSON MUSEUM IN CAIRO
- MAGNIFICENT QALAWUN COMPLEX
- AMAZING SAQQARA PYRAMIDS
- THE PYRAMIDS OF GIZA
- CAIRO’S HISTORIC MUIZZ STREET
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