The 'City Victorious': The story of Islamic Cairo
Dina Ezzat and photographer Sherif Sonbol explore 1,000 years of Al-Qahira's Islamic history
"What is left of the rule of the Fatimid Dynasty that built this city back in the 10th century is essentially the buildings where religion was either observed or taught, such as mosques and madrasas [schools] as they would have been practically impossible for any Muslim leader to demolish whatever their political squabbles," said Youssef Osama, a historian and the creator of a website designed to inform readers about the history of Islamic Cairo.
Osama was stepping through Bab Al-Fotouh, one of eight gates in the city walls that Gawhar Al-Siqilli had built to protect the imperial city he had built and to which Fatimid rule was transferred from North Africa.
"The Fatimid walls also stayed almost intact with their gates, and in fact they were even strengthened some decades later. Unfortunately, however, almost nothing remains of the houses and palaces of the Fatimids even though they were said to have been very impressive with a great deal of the artworks that the Fatimids are known for," Osama said as he walked down Al-Muizz li-Din Allah Street in Islamic Cairo.
What is left of the Fatimid period are just a few parts of wooden windows and some pottery work on display in the Islamic Arts Museum in Cairo. Historians agree that under the Fatimid Dynasty the crafts reached a very high level, woodwork and pottery in particular.
"Throughout the history of the Islamic dynasties, the high level of artisans and crafts was always a sign of flourishing rule. The Fatimids were no exception to this rule," Osama said. He added that since the Fatimid Dynasty was established in Cairo in parallel to the Abbasid Dynasty in Baghdad, the Fatimids tried very hard to excel not just in art but also in the sciences.
"Of course, they also acted to expand their rule within the Muslim countries by annexing parts of the east of the Arab world that had previously been under Abbasid rule," he added.
The Abbasid Dynasty was established in the eighth century CE, with Kufa, now in Iraq, as its capital, in the wake of the ouster of the Ummayid Dynasty because of the latter's economic failures and obvious social bias. Egypt was under the rule of the Abbasids until it was taken over by the Fatimids in the 10th century.
"By that point, and for the first time since it became part of the Islamic Empire, Egypt was the centre of rule and not an annex to a centre elsewhere. I guess this is one of the most significant things that could be attributed to the rule of the Fatimids," Osama said as he walked further along the roads that used to be used by lemon and onion markets and had earlier been a meat market.
With his back to a relatively new Syrian fast-food restaurant, the Syrian Star, Osama stopped before one of the most significant places associated with the Fatimids: the Al-Hakim Mosque. Al-Hakim was the third of the Fatimid rulers, and the mosque that carries his name is at the very far end of Al-Muizz li-Din Allah Street. Al-Aziz, Al-Hakim's father, initiated the construction of the mosque, which was outside the Cairo walls.
"There was no space big enough inside the walls, and Al-Aziz felt that Al-Azhar was becoming too small to serve as an all-inclusive place for prayer and a school to promote Shia thinking. Later, the mosque was brought inside the walls when these were expanded by Badr Al-Jamali," Osama said.
Al-Jamali was a military commander and one of the ministers of the fifth Fatimid ruler Al-Mustansir.
According to Osama, the Al-Hakim Mosque was the first in Egypt to have a façade made of brick. Its minarets, like those of other Fatimid mosques influenced by the North African style of architecture, have square bases. However, very little is left of the original construction today.
According to the historical narratives, the mosque was neglected after the ouster of the Fatimids by Salaheddin Al-Ayoubi (Saladin), who practically turned it into a prison and in some accounts used it partially as stables.
It was damaged by earthquakes, though also renovated by non-Fatimid rulers, and also later by the Bohras, the ancestors of Indian traders who came to Egypt during Fatimid rule and who followed the Shia sect of the Fatimids.
Today, their presence in Egypt, increasing since the rule of late president Anwar Al-Sadat, is in limited clusters of the city away from Islamic Cairo. However, they continue to frequent the mosques of the Fatimids, especially that of Al-Hakim.
The Bohras, based in India, Pakistan and Yemen, would walk in parades, all dressed in white and chanting in praise of members of the family of the Prophet Mohamed, especially his daughter Fatemah and her husband Ali, two of the most sacred figures for the Shias.
"They would smile or nod their heads, but they often do not wish to communicate much. This might be because they see their march towards the mosque as a sort of pilgrimage, or because they do not wish to be seen by the authorities as trying to promote their faith," said Israa, a painter who at times works in this part of the city.
The Bohras are perhaps the most-tolerated Shia presence in Cairo today, as has been the case since Salaheddin orchestrated his coup against the Fatimids in the mediaeval period.
He was a firm defender of the Sunni faith, with Al-Azhar later being at the forefront of the counter-offensive against any possible infiltration by Shiism.
Today's tolerance of the Bohras is based on the fact that they are not Egyptians and their activities do not aim at attracting anyone to their faith.
According to Osama, there is a resemblance between the Bohras pilgrimage towards the Al-Hakim Mosque today and the parades that used to be held by the caliph during religious occasions like the first day of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, the days of the feast, and the days celebrated by Shias like Ashoura, the 10th day of the first month of the Hijra calendar of Moharram, that marks the martyrdom of the grandson of the Prophet Mohamed, Al-Hussein, at the battle of Karbala in Iraq.
"For the most part, the parades were jubilees marked by the considerable festivities that the Fatimids brought to Egypt, some of which are still observed today in the celebration of Ramadan and the birthday of the Prophet Mohamed. But other parades related to the martyrdom of members of the family of the Prophet Mohamed, especially Ali and his son Al-Hussein," he added as he stepped into the large courtyard of the Al-Hakim Mosque.
Upon his ascent to power, Salaheddin did not ban the colourful festivities that were introduced to Egypt by the Fatimids. Instead, he acted to give a Sunni face to these practices and to redefine the love of the members of the family of the Prophet Mohamed in a way remote from the Shia faith.
"I guess this was why he encouraged Sufis to come to Egypt, and at least 300 of them were to find their way to the country, essentially from Iraq. They too would walk to the mosques in their immaculate white clothes, and they would sing songs to the love of God, the prophet, and the members of his family," Osama said.
"They were soon to capture the hearts of all Egyptians, and it was only a matter of time before the Sufi schools established a stronghold in Egypt in parallel to the rule of successive Muslim caliphs," he added.
The Sufis' association with the country's rulers has not diminished over the centuries. "Even today some leading Sufi figures choose to be closely associated with the powers-that-be, the executive branch of government, for example, seeing this as giving them protection. However, this is not to say that all the followers of the many Sufi orders are in line with the state," Amina, a follower of one of the Sufi orders, said.
Osama said that Salaheddin had acted to replace the parades of martyrdom associated with the Fatimids with days of joy.
"One obvious example would be the Ashoura celebrations. Salaheddin decided that this would be a day when a sweet pudding made of grains and pistachio paste would be served," he said.
The historical accounts of the celebrations of Ashoura vary, but for the most part they seem to relate to the belief of Sunni Muslims that it was on that day that God reached out to help his prophets in distress.
Whether it was the heritage of the Fatimids, or of the subsequent Sunni rulers, the art of inshad (singing in the love of God and in praise of the prophet and his family) found its way to Egypt and had been associated with legendary names like Sayed Al-Nakshabandi and Yassine Al-Tohami.
"Whatever is left of the legacy of Al-Hakim, more is associated with the eccentric accounts of this Fatimid ruler than anything about his rule, including the construction of the mosque," Osama said.
The accounts are certainly odd, including a decree to prevent people from cooking one of the most admired dishes of Egyptian cuisine and another to ban the planting of specific crops.
Al-Hakim's rule is also associated with a wide range of anti-Coptic practices, which some Coptic historians have suggested to be either exaggerated or fabricated by subsequent rulers. However, the most eccentric account of all was Al-Hakim's apparent assumption of divinity.
"It is a very confused account, given the complexities of the original assumption of the Fatimid rulers that they were God-selected and ordained. It was debated during the life of the Dynasty, especially as Al-Hakim was said to have suffered from psychological problems and the details of his mysterious death, allegedly at the hands of his own sister, were never confirmed," Osama said.
He moved down the street, passing the many Mameluke monuments that have taken the place of what were once Fatimid houses. The Al-Hakim and Al-Aqmar Mosques are the only two remaining Fatimid monuments on this side of today's Al-Muizz li-Din Allah Street that intersects with Al-Azhar Street.
The most prominent Mameluke monument here is the Qalawan Complex of a hospital, school and mausoleum that has truly impressive architecture. It was built in the 13th century on the site of the Western Palace of the Fatimids.
"The palaces were already neglected under the rule of Salaheddin. He did not wish to live in them, and he divided them into apartments for his aides. Eventually Qalawan, one of the strongest of the Mameluke rulers who took over from the Ayoubids, decided to use the area for his complex, of which the great hospital building is the most significant," Osama said.
He added that of all the monuments that all the Islamic dynasties have left in Cairo, the Mameluke buildings are the unchallenged jewels of Islamic Cairo.
"On this street there were the schools built by the Ayoubids on the ruins of the Fatimid Eastern Palace to teach the Four Schools of Sunni Islam. But the most significant monument that the Ayoubids left is obviously the citadel," Osama said.
The construction of the citadel, away from Al-Muizz li-Din Allah Street, or rather "next to Al-Qahira Al-Mahroussa," (the city of Cairo), as indicated in an inscription on its walls, was a deliberate choice by Salaheddin to disassociate his rule from that of the Fatimids.
Ironically, while Salaheddin ordered the construction of the citadel he died before the fortress was completed, and it was his brother who was the first to rule from there.
According to Osama, Salaheddin did not dislike Cairo because of its association with the followers of the Shia faith. Instead, "he was a puritan with no taste for a lavish lifestyle," he said.
While admitting that Salaheddin made a deliberate effort to destroy the library of the Eastern Palace of the Fatimids, whose books needed an entire decade to sell, Osama said that the founder of the Ayoubid Dynasty also made a deliberate effort to give Cairo its urban character and to connect it to the older capitals of Arab Egypt, including Al-Fustat, Al-Askar and Al-Qataei.
"He renovated and enlarged the first mosque in Egypt that was built by Amr Ibn Al-Aas, the Arab conqueror of Egypt, and that now carries his name, and he led prayers there," he added.
Osama stopped by a plaque carrying the name of the late novelist Gamal Al-Ghitani in a street that had previously carried the name of Al-Dabiba (the lock-makers). "This is the point of intersection of Al-Gammaliya, built by Jamaleddin Mahmoud Al-Istidar, one of the Mameluke emirs," he added. Al-Ghitani spent a good part of his youth in Al-Gammaliya, where he found inspiration for his works of historic fiction, among them the novel Al-Zayni Barakat.
"The works of prominent writers like Al-Ghitani and Naguib Mahfouz are set in the streets and alleys of this very layered city. Their works keep the history of the city alive, just like the many monuments on this street," Osama said as he went towards the café carrying the name of Naguib Mahfouz, one of the most popular in Islamic Cairo, at the entrance to the Khan Al-Khalili Bazaar.
"This part of the city is yet further testimony of its layered history marked by the power of successive dynasties. This was originally the area of the tombs of the Fatimids, the Torbet Al-Zaafran (Saffron Mausoleums). It was in the 14th century that Jaharkis Al-Khalili, one of the emirs serving the Mameluke sultan Barqouk, demolished the tombs to build this bazaar," Osama said.
Al-Khalili did not bother to remove the remains of the founders of Cairo to a decent cemetery. He just assembled them and threw them next to a dump further east. "What we see today is not the original construction of the Khan. It is on the original site, but it is not the original construction," Osama noted, "just like the case of Al-Hakim's Mosque."
Moving through the poorly attended stores of the Khan whose vendors have complained about declining revenues with significantly less tourism than a decade ago, Osama heads towards Midan Al-Hussein, the main square.
"This is where legend says that the head of Al-Hussein was buried shortly after his martyrdom at Karbala. There are many accounts, and many carry a clear mystical imprint. There is no way of knowing whether the head of the grandson of the prophet is buried here or not," Osama said.
The present mosque and square of Al-Hussein, standing opposite the Al-Azhar Mosque, were built in the 19th century by the khedive Ismail. "This is not a Fatimid monument. In fact, the mosque is not registered as a monument at all, and the area is simply a historic intersection of Cairo," Osama said.
It was during the rule of the Fatimids that the head of Al-Hussein was supposedly buried in Cairo after having been brought to the city and placed in a mausoleum outside the gates next to Bab Zuweila. The latter saw many heads hanging from it, of men executed after political fallings out.
"It was then the wish of the ruler Al-Faiz to remove the head for burial inside the walls of the Eastern Fatimid Palace, exactly where the mosque is now," Osama said.
He added that the burial was ordered next to one of the gates of the palace, now the site of the "green door" (al-bab al-akhdar), which is registered as a monument. The Ayoubids then built the minaret standing almost atop of the mausoleum. This too is registered as a monument.
At The Mosque of Al-Hussein
"I am here to ask Al-Hussein for help. I have been leading a very difficult life since my husband died three years ago, and now I have to provide for my four children. I am weak, but with the help and support of Al-Hussein and the will of God I shall be strong," said Aziza, a woman in her early 40s, at the mosque.
The sight of people coming to the Mausoleum of Al-Hussein to ask for benediction from the grandson of the prophet is perfectly customary.
It is also the case with many other mausoleums across the old city that are associated with the members of the Prophet Mohamed's family. These might have been buried where they are said to have been buried or might not at all.
Historians are sure that Al-Sayeda Nafisa, the great granddaughter of Ali and Fatemah, came to live and die in Egypt some 150 years before the rule of the Fatimids.
The current mosque that bears her name south of Al-Muizz li-Din Allah Street where her mausoleum was originally built, is the construction of the khedive Abbas Helmi II who ruled Egypt from the late 19th century to the early decades of the 20th.
Crossing the street from Al-Hussein, Osama walks next to the walls of the Al-Azhar Mosque, where he stops by the Mosque of Mohamed Bek Abul-Dahab, an 18th-century building.
It stands between Al-Azhar, built by the Fatimids but enlarged and renovated over the centuries, and the Complex of Al-Ghouri, another jewel of Mameluke architecture in Egypt.
Mameluke rule started with the fall of the Ayoubid Dynasty in the 13th century only a few years before the Mongol conquest of Baghdad and, as Osama said, "it ultimately saved Egypt from being taken over by the Mongols just like the rule of Salaheddin saved Egypt from falling to the Crusaders."
"Throughout Mameluke rule, there were many challenging time, including plagues, earthquakes and palace intrigues. However, it was stable rule in the sense that the borders of the country were preserved, the army was strong, and above all art and architecture flourished," Osama said.
He added that "after the Ottoman take-over, Egypt was again an annex and not the centre of power as it had been in the days prior to Fatimid rule. The interest in art and architecture receded, and there is even evidence that during the conquest the Citadel and many palaces and madrasas were plundered by the invaders."
The Ottoman sultan Selim I conquered Egypt in 1516, killing anyone who dared to resist him. He is said by historians to have had the opposing Mamelukes' heads cut off and hung on Bab Zuweila.
"This is why there are not many Ottoman monuments in Cairo today and why the Mosque of Mohamed Bek Abul-Dahab is so significant," Osama said.
Abul-Dahab, a brutal ruler who ruled after a coup against Ali Bek Al-Kebir, started the construction of the mosque in the 18th century. It was built to be a madrasa and to assist Al-Azhar in accommodating students.
It eventually evolved into being a madrasa and a mosque with an annexed sabil, or water fountain.
The building has an untraditional square-shaped minaret, an uncommon feature of Ottoman architecture and a reminder of Fatimid architecture and the original minaret of Al-Azhar. Passing behind it, Osama stops next to another impressive manifestation of Mameluke architecture, the Al-Ghouri Complex.
Built in the 16th century on both sides of the street, the complex contains a mosque, a madrasa, a mausoleum, a residence for Sufis and a sabil. It was fully renovated prior to the 25 January Revolution, though there were debates on the quality of the renovation.
To Bab Zuweila
"The quality of the renovation is an issue in most parts of historic Cairo, where work can damage the authenticity of the buildings. However, renovation saves structures from decay," said historian Hossam Ismail.
The road from the Complex of Al-Ghouri leads to Bab Zuweila and then Al-Remila Square, another perfect spot for grand architecture.
"Standing practically at the feet of the citadel, this square has four impressive Mameluke and Ottoman architectural gems overlooking it: the Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan that was built in the 14th century, the Mosque of Qani Bey Al-Rammah built in the 16th century, the Mosque of Mohamed Ali, built in the 19th century, and the Al-Rifaai Mosque that was built in the 20th century," Osama said.
It was the beauty of these mosques that has granted them a place on the Egyptian currency: the Sultan Hassan Mosque appears on the LE100 note; the Mosque of Qani Bey Al-Rammah on the LE200 note; and the mosques of Mohamed Ali and Al-Rifaai on the LE5 and LE10 notes, respectively.
"All the Egyptian notes have an Islamic monument on one side and a Pharaonic monument on the other, but it is not clear how the selection was made," Osama said as he walked into the grandeur of the Sultan Hassan Mosque.
"This mosque could be safely said as one of the most impressive, if not the most impressive, of all the Mameluke architecture in Egypt," Osama said.
"It stands as testimony to the grandeur of the architecture of this era that was never influenced by the fortune or fate of any particular ruler, Sultan Hassan included," he added.
Sultan Hassan came to power as a child, and his rule was interrupted by palace intrigues. He died, or was killed, before the construction of the mosque was completed.
One of his aides continued the construction and left an inscription that testifies that it was built upon the order and waqf (endowment) of the late sultan.
"It was the wish of the sultan to have magnificent architecture associated with his name. He wanted it to be in the most important part of the city, so he bought two palaces and had them demolished to allow for the construction of his mosque. It is breath-taking, even though that its interior decoration is less than other monuments in Islamic Cairo," Osama said.
Historians say that the rule of Mamelukes was marked by a genuine dedication to the construction of madrasas in keeping with a practice that the Ayoubids had introduced. The tradition was originally introduced in the 11th century by the Seljuq Turks from what was then predominantly Sunni Persia.
"There was a leading Sunni presence there at the time, and ulamas [religious scholars] from Persia made significant contributions to the collection and editing of the Prophet Mohamed's sayings and some interpretations of the Quran," Osama said.
According to Ismail, during the rule of the Mamelukes, Cairo had madrasas that attracted students from all over the Muslim world, especially after the fall of Baghdad, their previous destination, at the hands of the Mongols in the 13th century.
Until the practice was suspended in the past few years, the Sultan Hassan Mosque still served as a madrasa, with prominent scholars volunteering evening readings and discussions.
"I used to frequent some of the dorrousse [lectures/seminars] here, especially after the 25 January Revolution. We used to debate the role of religion in politics and the definition of religion in the Islamic sense," said Nada, a student of Arabic literature.
"But as always throughout the history of this city, sometimes debate is allowed, and at other times it comes to a stop. History goes in cycles, at least the history of Cairo," she added.
"History does go in cycles. The rule of Sultan Hassan, who was removed in the middle of his rule only to be re-instituted and then eliminated, is a very telling example," Osama said as he stepped out of the mosque to the opposite Mosque of Al-Rifaai.
"This is one of the monuments whose construction was ordered by a woman, in this case the mother of the khedive Ismail Hoshiar Kadinefendi. She wanted a mosque-mausoleum for the ruling family," Osama said.
She picked this particular spot for the mosque next to a small mausoleum of one of the ancestors associated with the Sufi school of Ahmed Al-Rifaai who established his tariqa (seminary) in the 12th century in Iraq.
This is the reason, Osama explained, that the mosque carries the name of this grand Sufi figure.
The construction of the mosque started in 1869, but it was only completed, after an interruption, in 1911 by the khedive Abbas Helmi II whose name is engraved along with Hoshiar's on the pulpit.
Hoshiar was the first of the family to have been buried there, even before the construction was fully completed.
The Al-Rifaai Mosque is one of the major architectural statements of the rule of the Mohamed Ali Dynasty that started in the 19th century and that gave Egypt a state of semi-independence from the Ottoman sultans.
"With this regained significance, Cairo regained its architectural glamour, at least gradually, but by the rule of the khedive Ismail later in the 19th century this glamour had taken a European curve, and slowly but surely the legend of Islamic Cairo came to an end," Osama concluded as he stepped outside the Al-Rifaai Mosque down to Mohamed Ali Street in the direction of the Islamic Arts Museum.
This was opened in 1903 to bear witness to the art and history of Cairo.
* All photos by Sherif Sonbol
*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 May 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The city victorious — the story of Al-Qahira
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