Travel to Islamic Cairo – Minarets, Mosques and Souqs
Look down from the impressive ramparts of the Citadel and Islamic Cairo spills out below you, a network of narrow streets lined with great examples of Islamic architecture, from mosques and medressahs to hamams and traditional mashrabiya-screened houses, from where women once discretely observed the street below. Explore here to discover the unchanging face of Cairo.
The area called Islamic Cairo dates largely from the 10th century onwards when the Fatimids, a north-African Shi’ite dynasty made a new walled city north of the Arab centre of Fustat. They called it al Qahira, the Victorious, from where we get Cairo. Over the following centuries the Mameluke and Ottoman dynasties added to the wealth of buildings that can be found here. This is a great place to appreciate Islamic architecture with a vast array of contrasting styles coming together in a fusion of subtly different styles, or to just wander.
The Citadel sits to the south and east of Islamic Cairo and, with the Mohammed Ali Mosque, provides a great place to start an exploration from. Highlights are many but a walk down to the Bab Zuweila area where the Sharia al-Khayamiya, the Street of the Tentmakers’ can be found is a good next stop. Here bright cloths are stitched together to create the colourful screens used at weddings, in street parties and feasts.
Next comes the al-Azhar mosque complex with its 1000-year old university and nearby is the 14th century Khan al Khalili souq where tourists tat sits next to household goods. Pause a while at Fishawi’s Coffee House, enjoy a sheesha and glass of tea or coffee in this ahwa that claims it has been open for 24hrs a day for 200 years!
There are Ottoman houses to discover such as Beit Zeinab al-Khatoun and Beit el-Suhami, and the occasional caravanserai – a warehouse for camel caravans – such as the Wikala al-Bazara, now open to the public. The Gayer Anderson Museum is a must being an amazing hotchpotch of Islamic styles and artefacts packed into a wonderful old house.
Exploring Islamic Cairo could take days, but most people allow a full day which will be sufficient to get a flavour of what it’s all about. As ever in Egypt, with so much history to appreciate, a local guide might well be a wise investment – they will be able to not only plan an efficient walking tour for you – important if you have limited time – but will also explain what it is you are looking at together with its significance.
A must do activity is a glass of shay and a sheesha in Fishawi’s – you’ll be amongst locals as well as visitors as this is a popular hangout for Cairenes of the area. Alternatively many of the mosques have quiet corners for a sit down out of the sun and visitors are usually very welcome if dressed appropriately.
Explore Islamic Cairo on foot using taxis to get to your chosen starting point.
- The Citadel and impressive Muhammed Ali Mosque make a great starting point for an exploration
- Don’t miss the Khan el-Khalili souq and a drink in Fishawi’s Coffee House
- Explore the narrow streets around the Bab Zuweila and climb the minarets for a view over the city