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Cairo: History
Islamic Cairo

Circassian Mamluk Cairo

Back inside the Fatimid center, an absolute must for all visitors is the sprawling market known as Khan al-Khalili. The original caravanserai from which the market has grown was built in 1382 by an official of the first Circassian Sultan, Barquq, called Garkas al-Khalili.


The area is now a labyrinth of twisting alleys full of shops and stalls. There is almost nothing that cannot be bought in Khan al-Khalili; apart from a fair amount of tourist kitsch, there are spices, glassware, jewellery, woodwork, textiles and metalwork as well as fruit and household objects. With a bit of patience and a lot of chatting and tea-drinking one can find some great bargains.

Beside the complexes of Qalawun and al-Nasir Mohammed in the Bayn al-Qasrayn area is the Madrasa and Mausoleum of Barquq, constructed in 1386. Sultan Barquq ruled Egypt from 1382 to 1399, although at one point he abdicated and was briefly imprisoned in Syria. It was at this time that the stability of the Middle East was threatened by the invasion ofTamurlane, who had reached the River Euphrates by 1394. Barquq's daughter is actually buried in his mausoleum; Barquq himself is buried in his son's mausoleum. Barquq's son, Farag ibn Barquq, was only eleven when his father died, but hemanaged to hold power until 1412; he was subsequently murdered.

Ibn Barquq built a great complex in the Northern Cemetery as well as the Zawya of Ibn Barquq (1408), a small school and shrine dedicated to himself next to Bab Zuweila. Also next to Bab Zuweila is the Mosque of al-Muayyad, the minarets of which actually sit on top of the gate (the view from here is phenomenal). This mosque was built in 1422 on the site of a prison in which al-Muayyad had been incarcerated before his rise

to power and provides a home for several hundred of Cairo's stray cats. Just opposite the door is a small street branching off eastwards: this is the Sharia Sukkariyya, or 'Sugar Street', featured in the Cairo Trilogy of Naguib Mahfouz.

The Northern Cemetery, or City of the Dead as it is popularly known, is the location of many Mamluk burials. As the city center became more crowded, so the Sultans looked for new ground on which to construct their huge mausolea. The Mausoleum of Farag ibn Barquq, built in 1411, has striking carved stone domes, the earliest use of this type of decoration. Nearby are the ruinous Complex of Ashraf Barsbey (1432) and the stunning Mosque of Qaitbey (1474), which appears on the Egyptian 1 note and features a beautiful carved dome in a flower and star pattern. The structures of Ibn Barquq and Qaitbey are undoubtedly among the finest buildings Islamic Cairo has to offer, but the location may put off the less adventurous visitor. The City of the Dead has housed many of Cairo's poor since the medieval period and is to this day full of people living among the tombs. The Sultan Qaitbey also built a Wikala (a hostel for merchants and their animals) between the Mosque of al-Hakim and Bab Futuh. Built in 1481, this is still used for shops and housing.

The second-last Mamluk Sultan, Qansuh al-Ghouri, held the collapsing Mamluk state together despite unrest, plague and attacks by both Europeans and Ottomans, securing some ten years of uneasy peace. His building works, all completed in 1505, cluster on Sharia al-Muizz li-Din to the west of the al-Azhar Mosque. The Wikala of al-Ghouri, now a center for arts and crafts, contains some fine mashrabiyya windows (made from turned-wood lattice work). The courtyard was for housing pack animals, while the rooms were for merchants and their families; the mashrabiyya windows were designed to protect women from lustful eyes.

This building is up an alley towards al-Azhar; further up the road one can see some fine, if tumbledown, Ottoman houses. The Mausoleum and Mosque and Madrasa of al-Ghouri are on opposite sides of Sharia al-Muizz li-Din.

The mausoleum, to the east, is now a cultural center in which Sufi dancers (Whirling Dervishes) often perform; the dome collapsed in the mid-nineteenth century. In al-Ghouri's time, this area was a silk market where cloth and carpets were sold. The Sultan was killed in battle at the age of 78; his body was never recovered. His successor, Tumanbey, was subsequently hanged by the Turks at Bab Zuweila and Egypt became a province of the Ottoman Empire.
(Alison Gascoigne)



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