The road between Bab Zuweila and Bab El-Fotouh, two of the entrances to medieval Cairo, is considered by UNESCO to be among the richest caches of Muslim architecture in the world. Known as the qasaba, it stretches up to the citadel of Saladin and Mohamed Ali Mosque, but within the city walls, the horde of monarchs and nobles who competed to build there displayed their piety and wealth on the metaphorical shoulders and literal foundations of past monuments. The strata of successive epochs create palimpsests as layered as the patina of stories coating each structure.
Egyptology researcher and guide Ahmed Seddik titles his tour of the area “Gates of Glory and Facades of Fame for the pivotal role the area played in Cairo’s history and the egos that rose and fell in its shadow.
Guidebooks refer to the area as Fatimid Cairo for its possession of some of the best examples of Fatimid architecture in the city. Yet any given edifice is as likely to show fingerprints of the Ummayids, Abbasids, Fatimids, Ayyubids, Mamluks, Ottomans, as well as the marks of modern restoration. However, as Seddik explains, “there was no Cairo before the Fatimids, which they named after the Arabic word for Mars, or victory, Al-Qahir.
After the Fatimids established Cairo as the seat of the caliphate and the focal point of the Muslim umma, or nation, in 969 AD, the southern gate of Bab Zuweila served as the vantage point from which the caliph would watch the departure of the procession to Mecca, annually bearing the sacred Kiswa to cover and adorn the Kaaba.
Although once synonymous with execution – Seddik highlights the Ottoman Sultan Selim I, or Sultan Selim the Grim, as carrying out the most famous execution of the last Mamluk Sultan Tomanbay in the 16th century – Bab Zuweila later came to be known as Bab Mitwali. The spirit of a beneficent saint, Al Mitwali, was believed to reside behind the right door. His presence is marked by an incongruous model of a sailing ship suspended in the gate’s lintel; asked why a boat should have become the talisman of the learned saint, Seddik laughingly suggested, “The oceanic feeling one receives from knowledge? Or perhaps the mighty sea of Baraka from which this holy man derives divine blessings.
The first mosque on the left testifies to unusual life of Al Mu’ayyad Sheikh. Imprisoned in the dungeon that once occupied the property, Mu’ayyad swore he would turn the area into a mosque upon his release. Eventually becoming a Mamluk sultan – Seddik pointed out that many Mamluk rulers rose from low backgrounds as slaves and prisoners – Mu’ayyad constructed the mosque in 1421. Although the reason Mu’ayyad initially found himself in prison was likely suppressed by the Sultan himself, he proved himself a willing thief, stealing one of the doors from the mosque of Sultan Hassan to grace the entrance of his own.
Seddik led me inside to see the minbar, or pulpit, now found in most mosques, a Coptic Christian innovation initially rejected for elevating the imam over the rest of the faithful, yet swelling attendance soon necessitated their widespread adoption.
We approached the complex of Sultan Qansou’el’ Ghoury, which he described as possessing a “successful sabil kuttab, in addition to a lavish home, garden, mosque, madrasa and wikala, a resting place for traveling merchants also known as a caravan saray.
Seddik explains that sabil kuttabs distributed free water in order to attract people to the centers of Quranic teaching, in his words, “a way to give away water to the wayfarer in the way of Allah . He stressed the symbolic link between sating the thirst of both the body and the mind, as “both water and Quran descend from the sky .
Leaving our path briefly, we visited Al-Azhar mosque, which Seddik describes as an “Ottoman façade on a Fatimid mosque. Although the original Fatimid minarets have succumbed to time, luckily the minarets maintain their Mamluk crenellations. In Seddik’s words, “the Mamlukes allowed stone to set the tone from 1461 through the 15th century.
In contrast, rocket ships appear to sprout from the nearby mosque of Hussein. Seddik laughs that the Ottomans “needed the needle-shaped minaret to delineate their rule and leave their fingerprint. In 1154, the Fatimids built the original Al-Hussein mosque to hold the alleged head of Al-Hussein, grandson of the prophet Mohamed killed at Karbala, Iraq, but the Ottoman’s re-did the minarets with their distinctively space-age shape.
The presence of Al-Azhar and Al-Hussein make this Cairo’s most sacred neighborhood. Cairo’s role as the burial place of many powerful saints and holy figures, not least of whom is Al-Hussein, Seddik explains, was considered the reason for its imperviousness to attack.
We return to the road, skirting the crowds of tourists at Khan El-Khalili or “Horse Market, and reach the mosque of Sultan al-Ashraf Barsbay. The sultan was familiar with the tendency of government monies to inexplicably disappear, and so to avoid embezzlement carved the endowment deed on the wall of the monument, chuckled Seddik.
Seddik informs me we are in Bayn Al-Qasreen, “between the two palaces and the title of the first installment of Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo trilogy; enormous mosques and monuments jut around us, rising like the walls of a canyon. The area has been recently renovated, and feels unnaturally open and clean after the press of vendors, carts and people that still teem around Bab Zuweila and near the Khan.
We take another detour when Seddik turns right on Haret Darb Al-Asfar Street, leading us past a guard and through a heavy wooden door. After a brief but dark corridor, we enter a secluded garden. Beit El-Sehaimy belonged to an affluent family and still carries their name, Seddik explains. He leads me to the “salamlik, or reception area to which visitors were brought. The master of the house would observe them from a balcony and decide whether to descend or invite them into the “haramlik or family area of the house.
We press on towards Bab El-Fotouh. After passing the mosque of Sultan Al-Hakim, (a pathologically tyrannical ruler, laughs Seddik), we finally reach the medieval city’s northern boundary. Seddik clarifies that armies would exit the city from this, the “gate of conquest, and return via Bab an Nassr, the “gate of victory.
We survey the vast walls that once guarded Cairo from potential invaders, but now simply delineate the cobblestones within from the asphalt of the busy street outside.
Seddik finished his tour with a characteristic flourish, intoning, “behind the gates of glory and facades of fame lie unique stories of rise and fall that teach us to never give in, in nothing great or small, in the march of history against the juggernaut of time. When domes dominate a relief of belief reveals the architecture of history in the history of architecture through abodes beyond the boundaries of death.
“The minarets dot the I’s and cross the T’s of architecture, furnishing a Rosetta Stone to untangle the web of history. The palaces of startling elegance provide visual biographies highlighting the salience of sailing in the sea of history and granting us a passport to the past.
Look for Ahmed Seddik on Facebook for contact information regarding tours and lectures.