Cairo, the city of 1,000 minarets

Cairo, the city of 1,000 minarets Last updated on Friday 16th April 2010

The first mosque ever to be built in Egypt was simple in design. It was built by Ibn El-A'as in 642 AD on a site north of Fort Babylon, and its original pillars were the trunks of palm trees with a roof covered with palm leaves.

Over the years, various repairs, renovations and additions were made and the mosque's present design consists of an open court surrounded by four halls or Riwaqs. The largest of these is the Qibla Riwaq, whose marble pillars are still decorated on their wooden flanks with Byzantine designs.

The visitor to Cairo should perhaps begin exploration at the Citadel of Salaheddin (Saladin), which is built on a spur of the Muqattam Hills, a superb vantage point dominating the city. It was once Cairo's seat of power for succeeding caliphs, sultans, wazirs and pashas until the time of Mohammed Ali in the 19th century. The citadel's three main sections are the main fortress and eastern walls, which were built by the great Salaheddin Al-Ayoubi in 1176; the southern enclosure, which has 19th century walls; and the lower enclosure extending down the western face of the hill, with its main gate opposite the Sultan Hassan Mosque.

The Marble Mosque of Mohammed Ali is the highest point within the complex. It consists of a square prayer hall, roofed by a large dome supported by four columns. There are also four semi-domes at the sides and other small domes above each of the four corners of the mosque. The amplification provided by these domes ensures that modern microphones are not needed by the Khateeb (preacher) and the imam during prayers. Above the northern wall of the mosque rise two slim, elegant minarets in the Ottoman style.

West of the Marble Mosque is a court with a central fountain for ablutions. Arches flank the court on all four sides, and its walls are separated by a corridor with a low-domed roof. On the western wall stands a clock tower. This beautiful Mosque is also known as the Alabaster Mosque because of the shining marble used to cover its inner and outer walls.

The Mosque and Mausoleum of Sultan Hassan is one of the finest examples of Islamic architecture in the world. Located below the Citadel on the western edge of the spacious Mohammed Ali Square, this spectacular building provides sustenance for mind and soul. Four theological schools were sheltered by the elbows of each cruciform monument.

Intricately carved stucco friezes and marble ornamentation are the main features of the Sultan Hassan Mosque. Hundreds of chains, suspended from its soaring arches, once held glass oil lamps -- some beautiful examples of which can be seen in the Islamic Museum. At night, when these lamps were lit, they must have presented a most exquisite sight. The eastern projection (liwan) is surrounded by a band of Kufic inscriptions, and an ornate Qibla niche (Mihrab) indicates the direction of prayer. A white marble pulpit (Minbar) stands on the right side of the Mihrab. Two doors lead to the dome which has two minarets, the more southerly of which rises to a height of 269 feet/82m. The walls of the domes are inlaid with marble and decorated with carved and gilded woodwork. The many sculptures, the attractive cornice and impressive entrance with its large steps make this mosque a true masterpiece of Islamic architecture, unparalleled in the Middle East.

For the visitor wishing to explore the heart of Islamic Cairo, the Ibn Touloun Mosque should not be missed. Situated in the Sayida Zainab district (nowadays attainable by the new Metro), this mosque was built by Emir Ahmed Ibn Touloun in 879. The classic grandeur of its scale makes it one of the most imposing of all Cairo's great mosques. Its structure is an open court with a central ablution fountain, surrounded by four walls.

The red-bricked mosque building is constructed in the same style as the Samm'ara Mosque in northern Iraq. The hall archways rest on bases with rounded corners, and the pillars and arches are crowned with decorations using plant designs. The Mihrab inside the mosque is covered with marble and gold mosaic, while the wooden pulpit (Minbar) dates back to the Mamluk era and represents another masterpiece of Islamic fine art.

Built by the Mamluk Sultan Hassan Al-Mansouri to replace the ruined original, this fine mosque has a minaret dating back to 1296. The square-based minaret is built of stone, and has an external spiral staircase unrivalled by any other mosque. Despite the mosque's true age, the 'horseshoe' arches on the base suggest an Andalusian influence.

Bab Zuwayla is the gate of the old Fatimid city of Al-Qahira. The other two gates of the old city are called ::I and ::I and all three gates are still in a good state of repair. On passing through ::I, the visitor will spot Al-Muayyad mosque, which lies to the left. This is by no means an outstanding piece of architecture but it has a pleasant interior surrounded by a garden. One of the mosque's unusual features is a high, Persian-style doorway that extends above the facade.

Another interesting complex is the Madrassah (Quranic school), mausoleum and caravansary of Wekalet Sultan Al-Ghor, which was built by the 13th century Sultan Kalawoon. The strong, square lines of the Wekalet Al-Ghori typify a Mamluk building. It is now a cultural centre with workrooms for artists, a handicraft school for boys, and houses a display of handicrafts from Egyptian desert tribes.

The Al-Azhar Mosque lies to the east of Wekalet Al-Ghori, and is the earliest mosque of Cairo's Fatimid era. Built by Gawhar Al-Saqqalli on the orders of Caliph Al-Muizz in 970, it served as the congregation mosque of the new city of Al-Qahira. The mosque has three minarets, the first of which was built in the days of Sultan Kunsuwa El-Ghori (1510). Sultan Qait Bey built an earlier minaret in the 15th century. This is easily recognized by the beauty of its Egyptian-style dimensions and proportions.

Emir Abdel Rahman Katkhoda, one of the 18th century rulers of Cairo, built the third minaret. The Azhar Mosque is also one of the world's most ancient Islamic universities -- the first lecture to be delivered there was in 975.

A large modern mosque with Turkish style minarets lies on the northern side of the Al-Azhar Mosque. This is the Mosque of Sayyidna Al-Hussein, and is the principal congregational mosque of modern day Cairo. The President of Egypt and his ministers come here to offer prayers on principal feast days.

The Khan El-Khalili is a large bazaar bounded on the south by Al-Mouski Street and on the east by Sayyidna Al-Hussein Square. The original khan, or caravansary, was built in 1382 by Amir Garkas Al-Khalili and consists of a network of narrow alleyways with hundreds of tiny shops on every side. This is a true shoppers' paradise. It is a wonderful place in which to find bargains for an astonishing range of Egyptian craft products: jewelry, leatherwork, brass, copper, alabaster, inlaid work, Sakkara carpets, and numerous small gifts including the beautiful, recently revived art of painting on papyrus.

But shopping is not the only option at Khan El-Khalili. The visitor can also relax in a teahouse with its old tables and chairs spilling out onto the pavement. Here is a relaxing way of watching the incessant stream of passers-by, while refreshing oneself with a delicious glass of mint tea or Red Kerkade juice, or perhaps savouring the fine tobacco from a Turkish nargila pipe.

Moving north from Sayyidna Al-Hussen Square via the ::I (House of the Judge), exploracan be continued by crossing to Al-Nahaseen Street, the copper souk. A walk of 500 yards brings the visitor to the ::I on the right hand side of the street. This is the most charming example of an old Cairo house. Its distinctive fretworked mashrabiyah (balcony) was especially designed to permit secluded Muslim ladies to peer through the holes into the street, while screened from the gaze of passers-by.

Past the 19th century Mosque of Sulayman Agha Alsilahdar, you will find on the right the Mosque of Al Hakim. This was built by the Fatimid Caliph Al Hakim (996-1021) and is situated outside the original northern wall of the Fatimid city. The mosque's most impressive features are its minarets, with their massive, trapezoidal bases. Beyond the northern side of the Al Hakim Mosque stand two monumental gates -- ::I and ::I. These gates, with an intervening stretch of wall, are the most imposing relics of Fatimid Cairo. From a vantagepoint at the top of the wall one can look down into the main street, which is lined with shops all the way to the ::I. Here rises a forest of slender spires which lends Cairo its uniquely Muslim atmosphere and its most appropriate name: "City of a Thousand Minarets".

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