Wow! How to put into words today’s adventure to Cairo’s old Islamic center? Otherworldly? Steps into the past? Alien? We were the ones visiting another world. We were the ones stepping into the past. We were the aliens. It was incredible.
Cairo has roots in Islam dating back to the 7th century AD. In AD 640 an Islamic army rode into Babylon (Coptic Cairo) and forced the Roman military out of the area. Instead of taking over Babylon, these Muslim settlers set up a tent city to the north in what is now Islamic Cairo.
Getting a little more adjusted to Cairo time, we haled a taxi around 9:30 am and wove our way through traffic into the heart of Islamic Cairo. Think of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and you will have a pretty good idea of what it was like.
As soon as we got out of the taxi we were lost. Not knowing where to go or where exactly we were, we headed straight for the largest building in sight, straight across the square to the Mosque of Sayyidna al-Hussein. Megan, our friend Grace, and the girls were shooed away; it turns out women are not allowed in this mosque. Sam and I were invited inside so we shed our shoes, gave them to the cleric inside the door, and wandered around. It was absolutely HUGE inside, plenty of room for the 2000 plus men who pray here every day. We were there between prayer times so the few men inside were, praying, reading the Koran, chatting quietly, or snoring on the floor. We took a few pictures and left. Turns out that officially, not only are women not permitted inside, but neither are non-Muslims. Cool…
Next we entered into the Khan al-Kahlili bazaar. It started out as a small caravan of shops in 1382 and now covers two square kilometers of swap meet shopping mania. Most merchants live upstairs of their shops and represent generations of family Kahn al-Kahili vendors. You can buy anything here from truly hideous tourist junk to groceries, pots, and pans. Glass bobbles, hammered tin, powdered spices, tacky tee shirts, fly covered veggies, and stuffed animal camels all share the same marketplace. It is sensory overload. Top it off with a cup of Turkish coffee from Fishawi’s (Open 24 hours a day for the last 200 years!) and you have experienced the Khan.
After wandering the Kahn for a couple of hours we found ourselves faced with the al-Azhar mosque and university. It was founded in AD 970 and is the oldest university in the world. All of us were allowed into this mosque and after taking off our shoes we reverently walked about the inner courtyard and inside the house of prayer. All but Emma that is. She ran around in this massive tiled courtyard with her hands outstretched like she was singing “The Sound of Music.” At least she was quiet. As we were leaving we noticed a small group coming out from what appeared to be the locked door at the base of the mosque’s tallest minaret. We were all filled with a lust to climb the steps to the top, and the cleric at the door was ever so willing to grant our wish (for 40EGP) so up we all went. Dark, steep, gravelly, and dangerously high, and yeah, Emma climbed it too. Amazing views of all of Cairo even through the smoggy, smoky haze of a late afternoon.
The visit was topped off with a wild taxi ride home. Hopefully our YouTube link will work.
It is difficult to process this journey so far. Yesterday and today were so different. Tranquil Coptic Cairo and busy Islamic Cairo. Deep, history, life changing roots in both places.