Cairo’s Islamic quarter provides glimpse into Fatimid Egypt

Stepping into the bazaar and its intricate alleyways and old shops is like stepping into the past.

Tourists looking at wares displayed outside a shop at the Khan al-Khalili bazaar. (Saeed Shahat)


2017/06/25 Issue: 112 Page: 24


The Arab Weekly
Amr Emam



Cairo - A visit to Cairo is not com­plete without a tour of the city’s historic Islam­ic quarter.

Located at the centre of the Egyptian capital, the Islam­ic quarter functioned for years as Egypt’s centre of culture and reli­gion and the focal point of its rule and politics.

“Egypt’s Islamic history was first made in this area but this area is not only important for Islam. It is important for every main economic and political activity that has tak­en place in Egypt for hundreds of years,” said Islamic antiquities ex­pert Ahmed al-Sawy.

Al-Hussein Mosque takes centre stage in Islamic Cairo. The mosque, built 863 years ago, was named for a grandson of Prophet Mohammad — Al-Hussein ibn Ali ibn Abi Talib. The surrounding area took its name for the mosque.

The mosque has been the epicen­tre of religious activities in Cairo for hundreds of years. It is also a sym­bol of religious coherence between Egypt’s majority Sunni population and its Shia minority, whose mem­bers revere Al-Hussein as the third Imam.

Al-Hussein’s head is believed by many to have been buried inside the mosque, making it a site of holy pilgrimage for Shias from across the world. The mosque also contains the oldest complete manuscript of the Quran.

Egypt’s famous al-Azhar Mosque is opposite al-Hussein Mosque, sep­arated only by a highway leading to Cairo’s southern neighbourhoods on one side and the downtown area on the other.

Built in 970, al-Azhar, a mosque and a school that has morphed over time into one of the Islamic world’s most important universi­ties, is a symbol of the rule of the Fatimids — a Shia Islamic caliphate that ruled Egypt from 969-1171 and founded Cairo.

Founded as a Shia institution, al-Azhar is a symbol of how Islam’s two main sects intertwined and co­operated to build Egypt’s Islamic character. The mosque is the cen­tre of religion in Egypt, a gathering point for the country’s top religious scholars.

“This mosque has been at the centre of Egyptians’ religious and political life for hundreds of years now, being the centre of learning and the one institution to which Egypt looks when it needs guid­ance,” said Sabri Saeed, a Culture Ministry official who oversees cul­tural programmes to suit the Islam­ic parts of Cairo.

“Strangely enough, this mosque still matters and, I think, it will con­tinue to be important for hundreds of years to come,” Saeed said.

Between both mosques, there is a whole world of fascinating attrac­tion, centred on shopping and tour­ist activities. The Khan al-Khalili bazaar has been at the heart of this world for decades, offering tourists a wealth of memorable souvenirs to take home with them.

Stepping into the bazaar and its intricate alleyways and old shops is like stepping into the past, as shopkeepers hawk their goods to curious tourists in a cacophony of different languages.

The scent of oriental perfumes mixes with the irresistible smell of Egyptian herbs and street food, providing a feast for the senses.

The Khan al-Khalili bazaar, once overflowing with tourists, is an ac­curate barometer of Egypt’s tour­ism sector. Although tourism has picked up in Egypt — particularly Cairo — it has not reached pre-rev­olution levels. Today, Western tour­ists are outnumbered by Egyptians and Arabs who find in the market and its ubiquitous coffee shops the incomparable spirit of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.

Thousands of people visit the historic cafés in Islamic Cairo every day, staying up until the early hours of the morning. They chat, laugh and sip black tea and Turkish cof­fee, smoking shisha and playing dominoes and backgammon — an authentic Khan al-Khalili experi­ence.

This is where schoolteacher Ahmed Yunis, 42, spends most of his leisure time, even though he lives miles away in eastern Cairo.

“You never feel lonely here, even if you visit it alone,” Yunis said. “Al­though the journey from any part of Cairo to the bazaar area costs noth­ing, it gives visitors a super-rich experience and memorable times among the most friendly people you can meet.”


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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