Packed with treasures from Cairo’s medieval past, the historic neighbourhood of Islamic Cairo is great for exploring off the beaten path.
Mamluk sultans once rode in elaborate processions from their palace at the Citadel to the older Fatimid city of al-Qahira down Al-Darb Al-Ahmar (Red Road). Dignitaries competed by building monuments to embellish the road.
Ottoman ruler Muhammad Ali Pasha later gave his top military officers plots of land in the district, where they built splendid mansions and palaces.
But when Khedive Ismail moved the seat of power in the 1860s from the Citadel to Abdeen Palace, Islamic Cairo’s 700-year-old history finally began to decline. It was no longer the choice residence of Cairo elites.
The modern day Islamic Cairo
Yet today Islamic Cairo is a bustling working-class neighborhood known for workshops that make elaborate Ramadan lanters.
And there’s Khan Khayamia, where the Abbasids once commissioned house-sized tents. Today’s artisans sell quilted pillow cases and colorful applique wall hangings.
The neighborhood teems with life. Fruit stands and chicken coops line the narrow alleys. Minarets soar out from the skyline and hints of Ottoman or Fatimid treasures peak out from modern buildings.
Tourists to nearby Khan el-Khalili don’t often stray from the covered street of the Khayamia to explore the remnants of the neighborhood’s glorious past. Many consider the area impoverished and rundown. And it’s tricky to navigate without a local guide.
But if you want to walk down Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Street looking for the monuments of its Ayyubid, Mamluk and Ottoman eras, you’d best do it now.
Activists and restoration officials say the area’s architectural heritage is in danger from thefts at historic mosques and from illegal buildings that tower over the monuments. In some cases, historic buildings are demolished to make room for high-rises.
Walking tour of Islamic Cairo
I take a walking tour through this neighbourhood with Raed Galal, founder of the Facebook page Monuments of Al Darb Al Ahmer. We see plenty of damaged sites boarded up. But there are also several restorations underway that will put this district on the tourist map.
This part of the city is called Islamic Cairo. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site that dates back to the 14th century. And it’s packed with masterpieces of medieval Islamic architecture – and some of the most beautiful mosques in the country.
1. Al-Azhar Mosque
We start at Al-Azhar Mosque. It’s both a gorgeous masterpiece that’s been recently restored and an easy drop-off point for Uber.
Established in 972, Al-Azhar Mosque is now regarded as the highest authority in the Islamic world for the study of Sunni theology. It attracts students from around the world.
Inside the mosque, the courtyard is paved in white marble and surrounded by Mamluk-era minarets. If you’ve never been inside a mosque, this is a breathtaking introduction with its bright masonry, wooden ceilings, mashrabiya windows and ornaments. It includes five intricate minarets – remnants of the city’s various dynasties and their influence.
Built under a Fatimid caliph, Al-Azhar Mosque was the first Fatimid monument in a newly established capital. Today, it’s around double its original size with a capacity of 20,000 people.
Al-Azhar Mosque was expanded during the Fatimid era, but then neglected under the Ayyubids because it represented a Shia regime. It was again restored by the Mamluks who built the mosque’s tallest two-headed minaret.
It’s also the home to Al-Azhar University, the prestigious center of Sunni theology and the world’s second oldest continuously-run university.
Visiting Al-Azhar Mosque is always a calming experience. The noise of the traffic and vendors outside is muted, and the breeze winds around the mosque’s rows of columns. Children play between prayers in the vast marble expanse while tourists take Instagram videos. There are plenty of quiet corners for studying.
2. Sultan Al-Ghuri Complex
We walk a short way down Azhar Street to the majestic Sultan Al-Ghuri Complex, a Mamluk gem completed in 1505 that includes a mausoleum, mosque and madrasa.
These two striking entrances face each other, separated by a bustling street that once housed a silk market. Today it’s packed with vendors selling rolls of fabric, the season’s latest fruit and arrays of kitchen knick-knacks.
We take the stairs up to the mosque. It feels intimate after the sweeping splendor of Al-Azhar. The richly decorated interior has soaring ceilings and geometric lamps suspended from long chains. Rich panels repeat patterns in black and white marble.
Al-Ghuri, the second last of the Mamluk sultans, was described as a cruel and superstitious despot with a soft spot for music and poetry. He was a great patron of architecture and a lover of royal pomp despite the miserable economy of his age. But Al-Ghuri died in battle of a heart attack and was never buried in the splendid mausoleum he erected.
The interior is packed with the lavish patters typical of Mamluk style. Outside, you can see its unique square minaret topped by five bulbs.
3. Al-Fakahani Mosque
Walking from Al-Ghuri towards Bab Zuweila, the southern gate of old Fatimid Cairo, we spot the pointed Ottoman minaret of Al-Fakahani Mosque.
Known as the fruit seller’s mosque, Al-Fakahani was built in the twelfth century and rebuilt in the sixteen and eighteenth centuries.
I haven’t actually been inside in years, though. The doors are sealed shut and the entire structure needs restoration. Emergency repairs in 2013 were carried out to save a roof from imminent collapse.
Al-Fakahani Mosque is an Ottoman structure built on the site of a Fatimid mosque. It has a roofed courtyard and two pairs of carved doors, marble columns and the twisting leaves characteristic of Fatimid woodwork.
4. Mosque of Sultan al-Muayyad
The Mosque of Sultan al-Muayyad, right next to Bab Zuweila, has a fascinating story behind it.
It was once a terrifying prison where al-Muayyad suffered so badly from lice and fleas that he vowed to turn it into a “saintly place for the education of scholars” if he ever rose to power. When he became sultan, al-Muayyad kept his word and commissioned the mosque in 1415. Construction took some 100 workers about 7 years to complete.
And although his reign was troubled, with the Bubonic plague and rebellious bedouins to deal with, al-Muayyad managed to complete what’s one of Cairo’s most splendid examples of Mamluk architecture. The Sultan died with a reputation as a humble man and one of the city’s greatest patrons of architecture.
The main entrance to the mosque is decorated with carved marble and calligraphy. The door is a intricate bronze work, although it was actually taken from the Mosque of Sultan Hassan.
Inside, the al-Muayyad Mosque is the last great hypostyle mosque to be built in Cairo, with a roof supported by rows of columns. One of the most elaborately decorated mosques of its time, it boasts marble columns and a large pavilion with a fountain for ablutions.
5. Bab Zuweila
Bab Zuweila is the last remaining southern gate from Fatimid Cairo’s city walls. The two minarets were added when the adjacent al-Muayyad Mosque was built.
And you can climb it too for some great views of the old city.
The towers were once used to scope out approaching enemy troops. While the platform was used by the sultan to watch processions headed on the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.
But this gate also has a grisly history. The platform was used for executions. Severed heads were displayed on the tops of the walls as recently as 1811 after the Citadel massacre of the Mamluks by the Ottomans.
Climbing to the top is a workout. But it’s worth it for the sweeping views of the old city and the surrounding minarets. It’s especially magical during the call to prayer.
6. Qasaba of Radwan Bey
Better known as the street of the tentmakers (Sharia al-Khayamiya), this covered market sells a colorful type of decorative applique textile known as khayamiya.
It’s one of my favorite spots to shop away from the louder vendors of Khan el Khalili. There are rugs, quilted pillow cases and wall hangings that make great souvenirs.
You can often watch the artisans swiftly at work hand-stitching cushion covers or bedspreads. Their needles and threads tackle themes from the Islamic and Pharaonic to Egyptian folklore and fish, birds and texts from the Quran.
There’s evidence this craft goes back to ancient Egypt. However, today the artisans are endangered because of cheaper dupes and mass-printed fabric.
The Qasaba itself is worth a look. Built during Mamluk rule in 1650, it’s the only historic covered market in the city. Look up past the shop facades and you’ll see the upper floor apartments built for artisans.
7. Al-Salih Tala’i Mosque
Built in 1160, Al-Salih Tala’i is Cairo’s last Fatimid mosque. It was meant as the resting place for the head of Husayn, the son of Caliph Ali.
It was originally built on a raised platform with a base for street level shops that contributed to the mosque’s revenue. However, the base is mostly sunk now because of rising street levels over the centuries. The old spaces for the shops can still be seen half-buried along the mosque’s walls.
It’s breezy inside the courtyard surrounded by rows of keel-shaped arches. There’s calligraphy in stucco around the arches, wooden tie-beams and gorgeous stained-glass windows.
8. Amir Qijmas al-Ishaqi Mosque (aka Abu Heriba)
This mosque, featured on the Egyptian 50-pound note, was completed in 1481. Though locally it’s known as Abu Heriba named after the mosque’s custodian buried there in 1852.
9. Mosque of Amir al-Maridani
Established in 1340, this mosque is another treasure from Islamic Cairo’s Mamluk past with a hypostyle plan and a richly decorated facade.
It was lavish for its time thanks to the wealth of its patron al-Maridani and his father-in-law Sultan Muhammad.
The mosque boasts the first fully octagonal minaret topped with a bulb and a large dome. Interestingly, eight of the columns that support its dome have ancient Egyptian tops brought from Upper Egypt.
The brightly-colored entrance was behind scaffolding when we visited. So we didn’t go in because of the ongoing restorations.
We saw workers outside filling in the facade walls with new bricks. The work aims to restore the prayer hall and integrate the mosque into the neighbourhood’s tourist route.
10. Hammam Bishtak
Constructed during the Mamluk era by prince Bishtak Al Nasiri in 1341, this hammam is also undergoing restoration. And I’m looking forward to seeing the finished site.
11. Sabil Ruqayya Dudu
This 18th century sabil is an ornate example of Ottoman architecture influenced by Rococo.
Built in 1761, the sabil once served as a public water fountain. The exterior has Turkish tiles, a wooden canopy, segmented arches and floral engravings.
Yet I’ve never been inside.
There’s been little conservation work throughout this sabil’s history. And today it’s boarded up with barbed wire in a sad state of decay.
12. Aqsunqur Mosque (aka the Blue Mosque)
Aqsunqur is one of several blue mosques in the world. The Mamluks built it in 1347 with a leafy courtyard and walls of intricate blue tiles.
It’s also a funerary complex for its founder and his children.
The Ottomans added the mosque’s famous blue tiles centuries later. They restored the mosque and decorated it with blue and green Iznik tiles from Constantinople painted in floral motifs.
13. Bayt al-Razzaz Palace
This 190-room mansion dates back to the 15th century. It was abandoned in the 1960s but later rehabilitated.
It contains two houses, courtyards, stables, baths, storerooms for an impressive 190 rooms.
It’s a blend of Mamluk and Ottoman architecture. Sultan Quaytbay built the first house in 1480 of stone and brick and mashrabiya. A wealthy rice merchant in the 18th century built the second house as an addition for his growing family.
Islamic Cairo is perfect for exploring the city off the beaten path with its hidden gems and exciting restorations.