Sunday, April 03, 2016

Historic Cairo

Citadel of Saladin, Al -Azhar Park, Khan el-Khalili souk
10 Feb 2016

Today we would be covering the Historic part of Cairo which is listed under Unesco's Heritage Site # 89 encompassing the Islamic city of the 10th to 14th century. Here is a map for a view of Historic Cairo.

We started with the Citadel of Saladin, a medieval Islamic fort built on Mokattam hill during the reign of Salah al Din El Ayouby (or Saladin) from 1176 to 1183 from where the Sultan ruled over his subjects and as fortification  from various attacks. To get to the Citadel, we hailed a taxi from in front of our hotel. We agreed on a fare of EGP 25.

The entrance fee to the Citadel is 60 EGP per person and 20 EGP for our tripod. We arrived there quite early before the flock tourists start to trickle in. Today, the Saladin Citadel complex comprises of mosques and museums, i.e. the Mosque of Mohamed Ali which is deeply rooted in Ottoman architecture, the Mamluk Mosque of El Nasser Mohamed and the Mosque of Suleiman Pasha El Khadim; the Military Museum, the Police Museum, the Royal Carriages Museum, and the Qaser El Gawhara Museum. During our visit, the El Gawhara museum, or the Palace of the Jewel was closed for restoration works.

Saladin Citadel at the entrance

Saladin citadel walls

walls of Saladin citadel near the Military Museum

The Mohamed Ali mosque was built between 1830 to 1848 during the rule of Mohamed Ali from1805 until 1849. The architect,Yousf Boushnaq, a Turkish man, designed the mosque based on the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul.

ablution place for Mohamed Ali mosque

chandelier inside Mohamed Ali mosque

the inside dome decor
the mimbar inside Mohamed Ali mosque

Mohamed Ali mosque facade

The El Nasser Mohamed mosque was built by the Mamluk sultan Al-Nasr Muhammad in 1318 as the royal mosque of the Citadel. The striped arch is reminiscent of the Mesquita of Cordoba

striped arch, reminiscent of Mesquita at Cordoba, inside Nassr Mohamed mosque

mimbar inside Nassr Mohamed mosque

Nassr Mohamed mosque

The Police National museum and Military museum was later added in 1937 to the Citadel complex.

Facts excerpted from here and here.

Our next destination was Al Azhar Park which is not too far away from the Saladin citadel, so we decided to walk. We were glad we took that option, as we discovered the mosques, madrasahs and gates of the Islamic golden era of the 14th century. We passed through the Sultan Hassan Mosque (1359, Mamluk reign); Madrasa Umm Al-Sultan Sha'ban (1369, Mamluk reign); Amir Aqsunqur or Blue Mosque (1347, Mamluk reign); Bab Al Wazir (the Minister's Gate, opened in 1341); Aslam al-Selehdar mosque (1344, Mamluk reign) and Siti Fatimah mosque (unable to find). There are in fact over 60 historical monuments around the Historic Cairo area which are now under rehabilitation program of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

Sultan Hassan mosque, 1359

Bab Al Wazir, 1341

Amir Aqsunqur mosque, 1347

Madrasa Umm Al-Sultan Sha'ban 1369

Madrasa Umm Al-Sultan Sha'ban 1369

Aslam al-Selehdar mosque, 1344

Siti Fatimah mosque

the narrow lanes at Darb Al Amar neighbourhood

the narrow lanes at Darb Al Amar neighbourhood

We entered Al Azhar park via the Bab Al-Mahrouq (Old City Gate) at the Darb Al Amar Quarter. The Al Azhar Park is bordered from the Historic Islamic city of Cairo by the 12th century Ayyubid wall, built between 1176 to 1183 by Saladin. The wall extends about 1.5km from Bab Al Wazir near the Citadel walls to the northeast part of the city at Al Azhar street. The entrance fee is EGP 7 per person.

Ayyubid wall on the right, Al Azhar park on the left

The 74 acre Al Azhar park opened in March 2005, funded by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture after Aga Khan IV (a royalty of Persian descent who is also a business magnate. The Aga Khan title is a name used by the Imam of the Nizari Ismailis since 1818) donated USD 30 million for the development of the park. The mounts of rubbish at Al-Darassa hill during 500 years were transformed into a beautiful garden which also uncovered the Ayyubid wall during excavation works. From the top of the hill, we could view the Saladin Citadel and city of Cairo.

view of the Saladin citadel at the background from atop Al Azhar park

garden of Al Azhar Park

the lake at Al Azhar park

Facts excerpted from here and here

We continued our tour today towards the Khan el Khalili bazaar. We exited Al Azhar park via the Bab Al-Mahrouq again, back to Darb Al Amar towards Bab Zuweila. The Bab Zuweila gate is the last remaining southern gate from the walls of Fatimid Cairo in the 11th and 12th century. It has two minarets which were used to look out for enemy troops. Next to the Bab Zuweila is the Sultan Al Muayyad mosque, completed in 1421. The complex included a Friday mosque and a madrasa for four madhhabs. Facts taken from here.

Bab Zuweila, 11-12th century

Bab Zuweila, 11-12th century

minaret at Bab Zuweila, 11-12th century

Sultan Al Muayyad mosque, 1421

Sultan Al Muayyad mosque, 1421

We passed through the Tent Market or Souq Al-Khaymiya. Khaymiya is a hand-stitched cotton material for protection from the hot, dry, and dusty climate.

Tent market. A tent is seen at the shop on the right

Walking on further, we arrived at the Sultan Al-Ghuri Complex which was built between 1503-1505. The complex consists of a Khanqah, Mausoleum, Sabil-Kuttab, Mosque and Madrasa and is located at the Fahhamin Quarter, al Mu'izz li-Din Allah street. Facts taken from here.

Sultan Al-Ghuri Complex, 1505

the roof at Sultan Al-Ghuri Complex, 1505

From there, we crossed Al Azhar street to the perfume market and spice market, before finally reaching the Khan El Khalili bazaar where we shopped for souvenirs. The site of Khan el-Khalili was originally the site of the mausoleum known as the Saffron Tomb which was the burial site of the Fatimid caliphs. Today, the site is a souq selling souvenirs, antiques and jewellery. We hadn't have lunch yet, so we tucked in on a local delicious pizza on the go for EGP 3. Facts taken from here

Khan El Khalili bazaar

Khan El Khalili bazaar - souvenirs

perfume shop on the right

Next to Khan El Khalili is the Qalawun Complex. It was built by the Sultan Al-Nasir Muhammad Ibn Qalawun in the 1280s over the ruins of the Fatimid Palace of Cairo. Facts taken from here

Qalawun Complex, 1280s

Qalawun Complex, 1280s

It was then time to go back to the hotel. We walked back covering about 2.7 km from Khan El Khalili which was quite a feat navigating through the crowds of people and crossing the busy road.

For our final night in Cairo, we wanted to try the hamam mahshi or stuffed pigeon, as recommended by a cousin of ours. We asked Walid, our hotel manager if he knew any restaurants nearby. We were in luck as the Mat'am Al Jumairiah is just around the corner. We were locked out when we arrived, it was a full house! So we waited outside for a bit until the waiter called us in. It was worth the wait, as the dish was tasty, only not enough! Another diner opposite us ordered 2 birds for himself! The dish came with a spiced soup in a glass (we thought it was tea) and salad. The dish cost us EGP 40 per person.

hammam mahshi or stuffed pigeon

the soup that comes together with the hammam mahshi (it's not tea!)

hammam mahshi with salad, soup and bread

Mat'am Al Jumairiah restaurant

The next day we travelled back to Malaysia via Kuwait Airways. We hailed a taxi from in front of our hotel, amazingly the driver said he would be using the meter! We weren't too sure if this was a good idea, but we still agreed. He made a detour to fill up his tank. We thought it would be smooth sailing, but alas, the taxi had to breakdown just about a km from the entrance of the airport! It was too far and hot to walk with our backpacks, so we had to take another taxi. The metered taxi charged us EGP 60. The second taxi charged us exorbitantly for a short distance at EGP 25! We had no choice but to agree as we were by the roadside towards the airport entrance and it could be hard to get another taxi.

More confusion ensued at the airport as there was no signage indicating which queue for which airline, so we had to ask around. Finally getting into the right queue, the staff  at the check in counter refused to accept our e-ticket printout as he said it was for the inbound sector. Luckily another officer came and handed us our boarding passes. We were probably already checked in for the routbound sector by the staff at Kuala Lumpur airport as he asked us whether ours were a return ticket. At Kuwait airport, we were pleasantly surprised by the issuance of dinner vouchers for transit passengers at the airport canteen. We were glad for the complementary dinner as the Kuwait currency is so expensive at 1 dinar to 13 MYR!

flying over the Red Sea

Kuwait air dinner voucher

our complimentary dinner at the Kuwait airport canteen

I would have to admit, the trip to Cairo was shocking with many unpleasant incidences but we did also discover some hidden gems such as the historical monuments of Islamic Cairo, away from the tourist traps. Although we were in a supposedly 'ghetto' area of the Darl Al Amar, we were never disturbed there, nobody bat an eyelid to us.

Go if you must go, but do not put too high an expectation especially at the tourist places of attractions. Perhaps it would be a different experience at the other historical cities such as Luxor and Aswan, we would not discount the possibility of setting foot there in the future.



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