Cairo Part 3: Islamic and Coptic Cairo

April 3, 2021: Islamic Cairo

Islamic Cairo is neither more or less Islamic than the rest of Cairo. It is, however, the location of a number of famous medieval era mosques. 

While Cairo is located near the ancient capital of Memphis and the early Islamic capital of Fustat, the city of Cairo was actually only founded in 969 AD. By this point, Egypt was ruled by the Fatimid empire. The city grew and by the 1100´s, Cairo was the largest and most important city in Egypt, a status it has kept ever since. Today, Cairo has more mosques than any other city in the world and is known as the “City of a Thousand Minarets”. It is also the largest city in both the Muslim world and Africa.

We started our day by getting a COVID test. Most of the private clinics were charging 2,000-2500 pounds (130-170 USD for a test). Luckily, I searched the Every Passport Stamp Facebook group and found a thread mentioning a testing center at the local Children´s Cancer Hospital that charged just 800 pounds. The test was easy and we were out in 45 minutes. 

From there, our first real stop was the Cairo Citadel. Our driver took an extremely circuitous route which took 20 minutes longer than it should have. Cairo has the worst Uber and taxi drivers of any city I have visited with the possible exception of Bangkok. 

The Citadel was built by the famed Kurdish conqueror Saladin (also known as Salah Al-Din) in the 1100´s. Saladin is best known for capturing Mesopotamia and expelling the Crusaders from the “Holy Land” (modern day Israel and Palestine). He is revered by both the Islamic world and Europe as military genius and kind person (as he offered the Crusaders generous terms upon their defeat). Saladin used the citadel to run his massive empire. For the next 700 years, the citadel would be the seat of Egypt´s government. Today, it contains a number of mosques and museums. 

View of Cairo from the Citadel

Our first stop was the Al-Nasir Muhammad mosque from the 1300´s. This is an outdoor mosque, meaning that the main prayer area is an outdoor courtyard. I have never seen an outdoor mosque before. The authorities were pretty chill. Women did not have to be covered and they let people carry their shoes around without much fuss. 

The Al-Nasir Muhammad Mosque

There, I saw Ibrahim our guide from the pyramids leading a large group of IESE people around! So funny. 

Next Maisie and I headed to the Mosque of Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali (not the boxer) was the leader of Egypt for nearly 50 years in the early 1800´s. He is considered the founder of modern Egypt and helped the Ottoman Empire reclaim Egypt from the French. The mosque was built by Muhammad Ali in honor of his son who died in 1816. The mosque reminded me of a Baroque church except with a green color scheme and carpets. 

Inside the mosque of Muhammad Ali. Look at that ceiling!!!

Our final Citadel stop was the Egyptian Military Museum. Unfortunately, it is closed for restoration. There are a few tanks and missiles outside in the pretty square. There is also a statue of a soldier celebrating. Something I noticed that is celebrated a lot in Egypt is the day October 6th. This is the day when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel. Because the attack was a surprise, they were able to march across the Suez Canal and take part of the Sinai Peninsula. Unfortunately for them, just a few days later they were crushed by the Israeli army who not only took back all the gains initially won but also nearly reached the city of Suez. The war was an absolute humiliation for Egypt. I find it really interesting how Egypt has managed to spin a terrible defeat into a major symbol of national pride. This is very similar to the Mexican celebration of Cinco de Mayo which celebrates a victory in a war in which they ultimately lost. What is different with the 6th of October is that many Egyptians are old enough to actually remember the war.

Outside the Egyptian Military Museum

As luck would have it, my friend Dalia and her friend were also at the Citadel and wanted to explore Islamic Cairo with us. We then took a taxi down the hill to the Sultan Hassan Mosque complex. The complex contains two mosques. One is the Sultan Hassan Mosque and madrassa (Islamic school), built in the 1300´s. 

With Dalia at the Sultan Hassan Mosque

Next to it is the Al-Rifaí mosque completed in 1912. While modern, it was built in an ancient style and feels old. The mosque contains tombs of many members of the Egyptian Royal Family from the British Protectorate era as well as the last Shah of Iran (who fled to Egypt in exile after the Revolution). To visit the tombs, an attendant took out an enormous metal key to open the back room. 

Inside the Al-Rifai mosque

From there, we wandered around the neighborhood for a bit before catching a taxi through the worst imaginable traffic to the center of Islamic Cairo: the Khan el-Khalili market. This 700-year old suq (Arabic market and killer Scrabble word) is THE place to buy souvenirs in Cairo. The suq is divided into two sections. One half of the market is dedicated to tourists, which happens to be next to Cairo´s most important mosque. The Al- Hussain Mosque contains the tomb of Hussein, who is the grandson of Muhammad and was a key figure in early Islam. The mosque is off-limits to tourists (and locals outside of prayer time) but there always seems to be a crowd hanging outside. 

The touristy sector of the Khan el-Khalili

The suq has narrow alleys full of shops selling touristy goods such as t shirts, jewelry, carpets, belly dancing outfits, and other trinkets. Maisie bought a unique necklace. The merchants here all tried to call us into their stores. They were generally okay except for one merchant who was selling belly dancing costumes. We briefly looked at his store before deciding to move on. This guy followed us around the market trying to get us to come back to the store. Too bad for him, Maisie is extremely picky and decisive when shopping so there was a 0% chance we were going to buy something from him. Besides the vendors here, there were very few Egyptians. Smartly, there were also plenty of ATMs since most vendors are cash only.  

Once we had sufficiently shopped, we walked across the street to visit our final mosque of the day: Al Azhar. Built in 970, this was the very first mosque built in the newly established city of Cairo. In 982, the mosque hired its first scholars who created Al Azhar University, the second oldest university in the world (the oldest is in Fez, Morocco). Al Azhar University and Mosque are considered to be the top spiritual authority in Egypt and one of the most important theological voices in all of Sunni Islam. 

Interior courtyard of the Al Azhar mosque with the cleanest floor on earth

Entry to the Al Azhar Mosque was free, but we had to jump through a few hoops. First, we had to knock on the gate and tell the security we wanted to visit the mosque. Next, the ladies in our group had to wear hooded robes provided by the mosque. Finally, we had to be escorted by a “security guard” who was a goofy teenage boy. It is clear that, unlike the ancient mosques of the Citadel which are now essentially just tourist attractions, the authorities in Cairo care deeply about this mosque. Rules were enforced, the central courtyard had a perfectly polished white tile floor and the carpet in the prayer room was in impeccable shape despite being over 400 years old. 

The prayer room of the Al Azhar mosque

I have very limited understanding of Muslim theology, but when walking around the mosque, I got the vibe that we were in the presence of a very strict and demanding god. The constant prayer, the modesty, the dietary restrictions all seemed to me like measures to not tick off Allah and that at any moment, I could be smitten down with a bolt of lightning. I was very on edge. 

When leaving the mosque, Dalia, Maisie, Ana and I  chatted a bit with our “security guard” and his other 15-20 year old security guard friends. It was clear that they were all goofy awkward teens and it was honestly really funny to see them blush when chatting with my female friends. As a usually solo male traveler, I usually do not get to see how female travelers are treated. It is clear that being a female traveler (or woman in general) in Egypt is a very different experience than being a man. In this case, the exchange was funny but I can easily see cases where women are harassed and not treated well. 

We then took a stroll through the locals section of the Khan el-Khalili. This area was PACKED with locals. Most of the shops sold women´s clothing and household goods such as bedsheets, pillows, and appliances. Interestingly NOBODY tried to get us to come into their store. Considering we walked past at least 500 stores, this was probably the most shocking thing of the entire trip. Are the touts purely a tourist thing or do the vendors know that tourists don´t buy their goods? I was shocked. 

The locals shopping street

Because we weren´t constantly hawked by merchants, the walk felt peaceful despite the crowds. I wish that the rest of Egypt could have been like this. 

April 4, 2021: Coptic Cairo

For our last day in Egypt, we picked up our COVID tests and headed to Coptic Cairo. Coptic Cairo is now part of Cairo, but was originally part of the city of Fustat, an older capital of Egypt. The walled compound contains the most important Coptic Christian sights in the country. Maisie and I visited 4 sights in Coptic Cairo. As I mentioned earlier in Aswan, the Copts are an ancient branch of Christianity that operates in Egypt, Sudan and Libya. Between 5-15% of Egyptian are Coptic, which is a lot considering Egypt has over 100 million citizens. Copts have historically been persecuted by Muslim governments but are currently experiencing a pretty good relationship with the current ruler of Egypt, Sisi. Copts are also wealthier than the average Egyptian. 

Every couple years, I hear about bombings of Coptic Churches, especially around Good Friday/Easter. I therefore timed my visit to be on the day in between Good Friday and Easter. This all turned out to be in vain because the Coptic Church celebrates the Orthodox Easter which is May. 

The Coptic Compound is heavily guarded by armed police and metal detectors. 

Our first stop was the St. Sergius Church. This church contains a cave which was reportedly inhabited by the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary, and Joseph) during their “flight to Egypt”. According to the Gospel of Matthew, King Herod was paranoid that a newborn “king of the Jews” would dethrone him and decided to kill all the male babies in Bethlehem. Joseph had a dream where an angel told him to flee to Egypt, so they fled. Egypt was also part of the Roman Empire at this time so the trip was pretty easy. 

Inside the church of St. Sergius

During their stay in Egypt, they visited a number of places, but one spot was this cave. 

The cave where the Holy Family stayed

The cave went through a major renovation because it now looks like a church.

Our next stop was the Ben Ezra Synagogue. This is one of two Jewish synagogues in all of Egypt and one of the oldest in the world. The synagogue was founded in the 800´s but the current building is from 1890. Local folklore states that this was the spot where the Baby Moses was taken from the Nile. 

Egypt used to have a sizable Jewish population, but due to a combination of persecution and the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel, nearly all the Egyptian Jews fled. Today, there are 6 Jews left in the entire country. Because Jewish men cannot legally marry Muslim women according to Egyptian law (but the reverse is allowed), it is unlikely that the Jewish population will live on in Egypt for much longer.

The Ben Ezra synagogue of Cairo. Photos are not allowed inside, but the inside is very nice.

Our next stop was the Hanging Church. The church is named this because was built above a big pit containing a Roman fortress. The Hanging Church is the most important Coptic church in the world and is the seat of the head of the Coptic Pope. The church dates back to the 600´s, although the current building is from the 900´s. 

The interior of the church was very beautiful and contains numerous icons. When leaving the church, we got a sneak peak into the Pope´s office and saw him working at his desk!!

The Hanging Church

Our final stop was the Coptic Museum, which contains numerous artifacts from the early Christian period. While the museum was extensive, the artifacts here were far less interesting than anything from ancient Egypt. 

The Coptic Museum

To get back to the city center, we took Cairo´s little-discussed Metro. The train ride was smooth and the train was clean. It was so so much nicer than taking a hectic Uber ride through the traffic. I hope that Cairo can expand this train system around the city. 

With that, it was time for Maisie to head to the airport. I had a few more hours before my flight so I took a nap in a friend´s hotel room. 

Final Thoughts:

I really enjoyed Islamic Cairo. The mosques were all beautiful and the street life was exciting. It was also nice to have a break from all the ancient Egyptian temples. In general, the modern Egyptians feel little connection to the ancients. Rather than consider it their history, most of the Egyptians I encountered consider the civilization that once inhabited their country to be more of a part of global history. That is not the case with the mosques of Islamic Cairo, which Egyptians consider key to their identity. 

Coptic Cairo was also really interesting and a perfect half-day adventure. Because the compound is walled, it is very pleasant to walk around in the car-free space. 

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