Would you like to go on a journey in the past that could slide hundreds of years back in one trip? See buildings jump from an era to era, observe them and even live in them? History makers and Owners of those buildings from every era invite you to examine their homes & business and giving you chance to whiteness their glory days and taste their way of living charm as a bonus.
You’re free to get friends with you to share the smell of the original spirit of old Cairo through all its different times. All you need is a comfortable pair of shoes and photographing is allowed in this trip, so don’t forget to bring your camera!
In one blink we’ll be there…Ready?
See that huge wall? That’s a part of the great Fatimid Walls (Arabic: الأسوار الفاطمية) once outlined our city.
But let us begin our journey with one of it’s gates Bab El Nasr (Gate of Victory) (Arabic: باب النصر) and Bab El Fetouh (Gate of conquests) (Arabic: باب الفتوح), the two main Gates that lead to Al-Muizulidinillah Street (Arabic: شارع المعز لدين الله) or Al Muizz Street (Arabic: شارع المعز), the main street of our city today, which is extending 1.5 km from those Gates to Bab Zuweila at it’s end.
Bab El Nasr (Gate of Victory) (Arabic: باب النصر) with its rectangular stone towers was replaced by Wazir Badr Al–Gamali, who renamed it to Bab Al’Izz (Gate of Glory) (Arabic: باب العز), when he enlarged the city.Yet the inhabitants of old Cairo preferred the name of the old original one, Bab El Nasr, which was built by General Gawhar Al Siqilli when the city was first planned.
After walking through Bab El Nasr to be in Gamaleya Street (Arabic: شارع الجمالية), almost parallel with Al Muizz Street, lies Wekalet Qaytbay (Qaytbay Trade Center) (Arabic: وكالة قايتباى), which is one of the few remaining Wekalas from the Mamluk period. Sultan Al–Ashraf Qaytbay (Arabic: السلطان الأشرف قايتباى) donated its profit, after his return from pilgrimage in 1480 A.D., to support the poor in Medina, Saudi Arabia.
This building is made up of three stories with identical bay’s series above the façade of the Wekala. Shops and store rooms were placed on the ground floor, while living rooms and merchants there above. Also large rectangular courtyard offered space for receiving goods from pack animals.
Imagine groups of buyers and sellers from different countries in this place, busy negotiating seeking a great deal, brokers, Turgumans for translating, currency exchangers, Quabbans for weighing goods, Attals loading and unloading goods, food and drink servers and above all entertainment programs and not to forget the Bawab, whose job is to secure this massive gathering and their goods and money.
What a huge Cultural Meeting Point … news and new ideas and information to be exchanged among different cultures; while nowadays we use other tools to satisfy those human interactions.
Leaving the crowd of the market and back through Bab El Nasr turning left to walk along the Fatimid Walls, the most monumental group of structures built before the Crusades. Those impressive examples of the Islamic military architecture were commissioned by Badr Al Gamali (Arabic: بدر الجمالى) in 1087 A.D. to protect the city from possible attack by the Seljuk Turks. However they were never used in a siege, the stone survivng till present time is little larger than the original brick walls of the city that founded in 969 A.D.
Before turning left to enter the old city through Bab El Fetouh (Gate of conquests), notice its common curves and arched motives that make its design less cruel than Bab El Nasr. Bab El Fetouh by Gawhar’s was replaced too by the present one, which Badr El Gamali built and renamed it Bab Al Iqbal (Gate of prosperity) (Arabic: باب الإقبال). However, the inhabitants again kept the original name of Bab El Fetouh. Its name tells us that it was used as an exit for the armies going to their battles while Bab El Nasr for armies to pass through when they are back carrying victory.
Once passing through Bab El Fetouh, which its top offers a fine view of Al Muizz Street, the Qasaba (Arabic: القصبة), or the main road, a chain of markets each is specializing in a specific product to be found on both sides of Al Muizz, that continues through the Fatimid city till al Fustat.
Walking down Al Muizz and along the alleyway on the left (Al Darb Al Asfar)(Arabic: الدرب الأصفر)placed Bayt Al Sihaymi (The House of Sihaymi)(Arabic: بيت السحيمي), which is one of the best examples of the private architecture in the Seventeenth Century that history left for us.
The first southern part of it was built in 1648 A.D. (1058 HJ) by Sheikh Abdelwahab Al Tablawy (Arabic: شيخ عبدالوهاب الطبلاوي ). Later the northern part was built in 1796 A.D. (1211 A.H.) and was connected with the Southern part together by Haj Ismail Ibn Shalaby (Arabic: حج اسماعيل بن شلبي). Its name in fact refers to the last family lived in it, Sheikh Mohamed Amin El Sehaimi – Sheikh Rewaq Al Atrak in Al Azhar (Teacher of the Turkish Division in Al Aazhar)(Arabic: شيخ محمد أمين السحيمي - شيخ رواق الأتراك بالأزهر), who passed away in 1928 A.D.
The clever architecture enriches the building with the outer environment and weather condition solutions. Sunlight and cool wind is filtered through mashrabiyeas that provided privacy for women as well, dome-lit baths and deep recesses around each room provide seating and storage space. It’s simple but indirect entrance that leads to a landscape courtyard, creates privacy to the tenants of al Sihaymi House. The sound of running water from a fountain could once be heard in this fine space.
Again supporting the privacy, the Islamic architecture in the house provided separate areas, the Salamlik on the ground floor where men greeted their guests and the Haramlik above for women’s and family’s comfort. Relaxing in the summer breeze offered the maq’ad (loggia, usually an arched open sitting area on the courtyard facing the north to catch the breeze), or the malqaf, (a device to scoop the breeze and channel it through the house), that was used also for cooling. In winter guests were entertained in the grand Qa’a (Large Reception Area).
Greeting the Al Sihaymi Family and stopping by the next mosque down in El Muizz Street for a spiritual brake, Al Aqmar (Arabic: جامع الأقمر) standing to show us the great unique architecture design among few Fatimid buildings that have survived.
Its name Al Aqmar meaning “the moonlit” goes back to the color of the gray stone that was used to build it for Al Amir (Arabic: الأمير), the seventh Caliph in 1125 A.D.
The “moonlit” is counted the first mosque in Cairo that its façade built to follow the north to be parallel to the Street alignment while the interior plan and Quibla remained acquainted to Mecca in the south east. It’s also the first building in Cairo to display applied decoration on stone (Stucco: wet plaster stamped with carved wooden molds). Al Aqmar is located in the southeast corner of the once great Fatimid Palace and some tell us that It is a hanging mosque too as it was built over a chain of shops, which were Wakf (charity buildings). Those shops must be buried under the ground level now as the ground level has risen dramatically over centuries and hence there are few steps that lead us down to the mosque’s entrance.
If you’re thirsty by now, walk to the south along al-Mu'izz Street, you’ll find Sabeel Kottab Abdel Rahman Katokhda (Arabic: سبيل كتاب عبدالرحمن كتخدا) lies elegantly on the left. In its ground level an attendant who sat behind the framework was hired to distribute water in cups and handed the water out to passers-by.
The Sabeel (water charity) consists of an underground tank and a hall with three facades and three windows covered with grilles facing the street at ground level, from which thirsty passersby and travelers were handed water in cups. In addition to the Sabeel, the building has a covered first-floor gallery, which served as Kuttab (children’s Quran school) ,with a balcony overlooking three sides through mashrabeya screens, where a good view of Al Muizz street and the place where the old “Bein el Qasrein” area used to be, to be clearly seen. The Mamluk and Ottoman styles blend harmoniously in the construction of that building while its location, splitting the Qasaba access into two branches by creating a joint, makes the most attraction of it.
The Sabeel - Kuttab, with its marble mosaics, muqarnas corbelling, visors of alternating colours, and polychrome marble revetment, is characteristic of Abd al Rahman Katkhuda's extensive architectural patronage in Cairo, which blended Mamluk and Ottoman architecture and decoration harmoniously.
Built by the Mamluk Amir and leader of the Egyptian Janissaries in 1744 A.D., this monument has special artistic importance as a freestanding establishment in the heart of al-Muizz.
By continue walking and leaving few blocks stands that massive complex on the right, one can’t miss when stretching the sight forward in Al Muizz Street.
In fact they are two buildings, one next to the other; the closer one is for Al Nasir Mohamed Ibn Qalawun (Arabic: الناصر محمد بن قلاوون), one of Sultan Qalawun’s five sons, who was famous of merciless courage and great intellect. This complex started in 1295 by the Mongol Sultan Kitbugha (Arabic: السلطان كتبغا المغولي), who ruled only briefly, and was completed by Al Nasir in 1304 A.D.
Al Nasir (the victorious) is the longest ruler of Mamluks in Egypt; he ruled cir. thirty years on three different periods. Some thirty surviving mosques were built during his time.
His building complex minaret is very unique with its moudekhar style, influenced by North African Architecture in Al-Andaluss (Andalusia).
The Gothic white marble doorway of his complex came from the Crusader Church of St. George in Acre, that was actually captured and shipped by his elder brother Sultan Al Ashraf Khalil (Arabic: ساطان الأشرف خليل) , on his victory way back from Acre putting down the last Crusades existence in the Middle East in March 1291 A.D. Notice that at the apex of the pointed arch of the door the word “Allah” has been added.
The elder hero brother, Sultan Al Ashraf Khalil, who was one of the boldest and most skilled among fighters in history, surrounded Acre for forty four days. Aid from Cyprus, Malta & England was requested to face his surrounding, while aid of ninety two Ballistas from Syria arrived to our Sultan to be able to defeat the Crusades and obtain victory.
By entering the complex through the doorway one finds himself in a long passage separating the mausoleum on the right, where Al Nassir’s mother and son are buried, from the madrassa (school) on the left, which was the first in Cairo to use the cruciform plan. The four Iwans (halls) of the madrasa once contained the four different law schools. On the east side a fine stucco mehrab to be likely seen too.
The next complex attached, is the earliest and most outstanding examples of the monumental complexes of the Mamluks, Madrassa, Mausoleum, and Maristan of Sultan Al Mansur Qalawun (Arabic: مدرسة و مشهد و مارستان السلطان المنصور قلاوون).
The Father Sultan Qalawun, whose name means “duck” in the Qarqand language, was proud that Sultan Nagm El Din Ayyub (Arabic: السلطان نجم الدين أيوب)paid 1000 Dinars to have him as a fighter, when soon he became Sultan in 1279 A.D. Sultan Al Mansour Qalawun (Arabic: سلطان المنصور قلاوون) was the first Sultan of Mamluks, who founded a dynasty that lasted almost one hundred years, while the reign was for he who wins in his time.
The mausoleum screened by mashrabeyas, in which the Sultan and a number of his sons are buried including Al Nasir Mohammed Ibn Qalawun, is counted as the most beautiful mausoleum in the Islamic world, not only for it’s beautiful decoration and elements that attract the eye, but also for the beauty of the acoustics that rest the listeners soul, as its acoustic Architecture was put into attention at it’s design to be a complete art of work. In addition the mausoleum is considered by some as the world’s second, most beautiful tomb after the Taj Mahal in India. It could have been one of the reasons that the tomb became the site for special ceremonies and celebrations over the centuries.
The Sultans original Dome was pulled down by Abdel Rahman Katokhda when he restored the complex and maintained it in 1175 AH/ 1776 AD, and was replaced by a new one in 1903 A.D.
The building complex was built in thirteen month from 1284-85 A.D., however the Sultan included a maristan (Persian ‘place of illness’) in his building, after being treated at Nur Al Din hospital in Damascus.
The maristan, which is found on the left of the entrance, functioned as a charity hospital and a center, madrassa (school), for the study of medicine. This maristan, or hospital, was remarkable for its time and beside o that it was open to all. Could you believe that musicians and storytellers were provided to soothe the patients? For the last seven hundred years there has been some kind of hospital in this site, while today it’s a modern eye hospital.
The impressive minaret which is decorated with stucco is a replacement built by Al Nasir after its damage from the earthquake of 1302 A.D. The Sabeel to be seen on the north end of the complexes façade was added in 1346 A.D. by Al Amir Arghun Al –Ala’i (Arabic: الأمير أرغون العلائي).
Qalawun, who is Sultan Hassan’s (Arabic: السلطان حسن) Grandfather, died of a fever in 1290 A.D., on his way to Acre to fight the Crusaders.
God rest the Sultan’s soul in peace and long live Al-Muizulidinillah Street … long live Islamic Cairo.
Do you hear that sound from far? It's like voices through time layers ... Listen .... It's our ancestors! They are calling us for spreading their history secrets and morals to the new world. Longing to their grandchildren they keep sending and offering invitations for us to accept... promising us to see, know and smell different spirit of history each visit.
They ask, if you'll obey and bring your friends for a next visit?
Historic Cairo by Jim Antoniou
Walks with Mohamed El Razzaz (Camel)
Bab El Fetouh:
Bayt Al Suhaymi:
Sbeel Abdel Rahman Katukhda:
Sultan Al Nasir Mohammad Ibn Qalawun:
Sultan Mansour Qalawun: