Cairo’s Al-Muizz Street showcases ancient glory, modern culture

The kilometre-long street is an open-air museum.

A view of the medieval building of Sabil of Muhammad (R) and Sultan Qalawun Complex (L), two important landmarks of Al-Muizz Street. (Saeed Shahat)

2017/06/11 Issue: 110 Page: 24

The Arab Weekly
Amr Emam

Cairo - Al-Muizz Street, at the centre of Cairo, is a living symbol of the city’s an­cient glory and becomes the heart of Egypt’s cul­tural and religious life in the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.

A walk along the street is enough to take visitors back hundreds of years to the time of the Islamic con­quest of the country, Fatimid and Mamluk rulers and the founders of modern Egypt.

The street was named after Al- Muizz Li-Din Allah al-Fatimi, the fourth caliph of the Fatimid Dy­nasty, who ruled Egypt for 22 years from 953. It was during his reign that Cairo was founded and the centre of Arab Fatimid Dynasty power moved from Tunisia to Egypt.

Nothing left behind by the Fatim­ids is more intact and beautiful than the buildings from that era on this street.

“The buildings that proudly take their places on both sides of the street bear witness to the greatness of their builders as well as their art­istry,” said Hazem Gaber, an Antiqui­ties Ministry inspector whose job is to ensure that Al-Muizz Street build­ings remain in good shape. “Each of these buildings has its distinctive story that tells of the richness of the history of this country.”

This year, Egyptian authorities want to make this street the pulsat­ing heart of Egypt’s cultural life dur­ing Ramadan. As the Islamic fasting month started, scores of cultural activities began, all with the aim of bringing culture to where it belongs: Islamic Cairo’s most notable street.

The activities, Culture Minister Helmy al-Namnam said, bring to­gether musical troupes, handicrafts artists, dancers, singers, painters, poets and readers of the Quran.

“All these people will be present­ing their art to audiences who visit the street every night during Rama­dan,” Namnam said. “They will bring life to a street whose walls speak nothing but historical greatness.”

The kilometre-long street is an open-air museum but one whose contents are in their places by the force of history, politics and the artistry of their makers. The street contains by far the largest number of medieval architectural treasures in Egypt.

Its treasures include centuries-old mosques, homes of Egyptian digni­taries of different historical eras and the residences of the country’s most noted merchants and government of­ficials hundreds of years ago.

The street extends from Bab al- Futuh south to Bab Zuweila, two of three remaining gates in the walls of Old Cairo. The towering gates protected medieval Islamic Cairo against enemy attacks. Made of wood and steel, they need a mighty force to open and close. They reflect the military intelligence and unique­ness of the Fatimids who built them.

The walls are only the outer de­fensive layer of a rich treat of history along the street itself. Each of the great buildings that fill both sides of the street leads to another of more greatness.

One of these buildings is al-Hakim Mosque, which was built 1,004 years ago. The mosque is named af­ter al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, the sixth Fatimid caliph. It consists of a spec­tacular rectangle with four arcades surrounding its courtyard. It has a monumental entrance with a stone porch. The mosque is south of Bab al-Futuh.

Another great building in the street is also the Abu Bakr Mazhar Mosque, which is 537 years old. This mosque was built by noted religious scholar Zain al-Deen Abu Bakr ibn Mazhar al-Ansari. The mosque’s central door is a piece of art. It has geometrically shaped and star-carved bronze ornaments. The pul­pit, the ablution area and the aisles of the mosque are so admirable that a visitor would need to tour these areas several times to appreciate the extent of their beauty.

“Although we talk about a mere street, a one-day tour is never enough for visitors to see everything and enjoy every detail of the build­ings here,” Gaber said. “Every single building is a study in the period in which it was built.”

Al-Muizz Street suffered from ne­glect for years as its historical build­ings were left to decay and tourists deserted it. At the end of the 1990s, however, authorities launched a lav­ish renovation process.

After renovation, entry into Al- Muizz Street was limited to pedes­trians and that revolutionised com­mercial activities in the area. Some of the supermarkets that used to sell cheese, biscuits and fruits turned into bazaars. Shops that used to sell traditional Egyptian food, such as falafel and beans, turned to sell­ing handmade carpets and rugs as residents prepared for the return of tourists.

The renovation brought life back to the street and tourists are return­ing but Egyptians are also rediscov­ering the place.

The street has turned into an un­matched place of rest and contem­plation for Egyptian civil servant Tamer Maghrabi.

“A visit to this place takes you on a tour into the depths of Islamic history,” said Maghrabi, 40. “With no entrance ticket, no costly trans­port to it and very affordable drinks at one of its many cafés, this street gives visitors an eye-opening expe­rience that is better than reading a thousand history books.”

Amr Emam is a Cairo-based journalist. He has contributed to the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and the UN news site IRIN.

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