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Cairo: History
Islamic Cairo

Fatimid Cairo: al-Qahira

The Fatimids (descendants of the Prophet's daughter Fatima and her husband Ali) founded al-Qahira shortly after the taking of Fustat in 969. Al-Qahira was designed to house only the governing elite; the population of Fustat was not initially allowed to settle here. As Shia Muslims, the ruling dynasty held different religious views to the Sunni Egyptian population. Al-Qahira, the area of modern Cairo now called 'Islamic', formed the centre of the city up until the mid-nineteenth century.

Islamic Cairo, perhaps more properly thought of as medieval Cairo, is an area of narrow streets, covered markets and crumbling old buildings. Of all Cairo, this quarter most evokes its past, and in many ways has changed little. It has inspired many writings, from Arabian Nights to the works of the modern Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. Getting lost amongst the winding alleys is almost inevitable and even enjoyable. Visitors are strongly advised to dress modestly in this part of the city; many mosques will not allow entry to people in shorts or vest tops and attentions from the locals (although again inevitable) will be reduced and more respectful.

The early Fatimid town (based on the layout of the town of al-Mansuriyya, Tunisia) was walled with many gates. Three of these still stand: Bab Zuweila in the south, and Bab al-Nasr (Victory Gate) and Bab Futuh (Conquests Gate) in the north. The northern gates, built in 1087 by the Armenian general Badr al-Gamali, display much foreign influence in their architecture. Entrance to the towers and walls is through the next door Mosque of al-Hakim, and re-used Pharaonic blocks and Napoleonic inscriptions can been seen inside. Bab Futuh and Bab Zuweila were connected by a main street, al-Qasaba; Sharia ('street') al-Muizz li-Din follows the same route.

In the Mamluk period, Bab Zuweila was the site of public executions; victims were crucified or sawn in half. The last Mamluk Sultan, Tumanbey, was hanged from Bab Zuweila in April 1517. The minarets, which belong to the next door Mosque of al-Muayyad, date from 1422.

One other institution dates from the original Fatimid town, and that is the renowned Mosque and University of al-Azhar, founded in 970 and thus the oldest university in the world. Today, the Sheikh of al-Azhar is Egypt's equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The mosque has been much enlarged; the courtyard is the earliest part of the structure. The minarets, from south to north, were built in the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Only a handful of Fatimid structures remain. The Mosque of al-Hakim, completed in 1010, has been re-used as a prisoner-of-war camp, stables, a warehouse and more recently as a boys' school. It was also briefly used as a lunatic asylum, appropriately for a building of the Caliph al-Hakim. This madman disemboweled his page-boys and executed his officers and citizens as well as passing laws against dogs and women's shoes. He eventually proclaimed himself divine, razed Fustat to the ground and disappeared during a nocturnal mule ride in the Muqattam hills to the east of Cairo. His mosque was acquired by the Bohras (an Indian Shia sect) in the 1980s and has been renovated in an unsympathetic way. The area around this building was until after 1900 a slave market; now garlic and onions are sold here in huge quantities.

Also worth visiting are the al-Aqmar Mosque, built in 1125 and the Mosque of Salih Talai, built in 1160. The former, called 'the Moonlit', is the earliest stone-fašaded mosque in Egypt and is architecturally innovative in other ways. The latter, just outside Bab Zuweila, was funded by the rents from shops which stood beneath it. Both structures were originally at ground level; the streets have risen considerably since the Fatimid period.

The Southern Cemetery, south of the Citadel, also belongs to Fatimid Cairo, but it is well off the beaten track and not easy to reach. Attractions include the Mausoleum of Imam al-Shafi (founded by Salah al-Din, known to the west as 'Saladin', in the twelfth century, but little of the original survives), the Mausoleum of the Ottoman ruler Mohammed Ali's family and a giant bric-a-brac and animal market (not for the squeamish).
(Alison Gascoigne)


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