Packed with treasures from Cairo’s medieval past, the historic neighbourhood of Islamic Cairo is great for exploring off the beaten path.
If you’re looking for a Cairo neighbourhood off the beaten path – and a less crowded and more local alternative to Khan el Khalili – then head to Darb al Ahmar.
This bustling working-class neighborhood is filled with Ramadan lantern workshops, mechanics and street food. It swarms with Tok Toks zipping down narrow lanes, hidden gem cafes and masterpieces of Mamluk architecture.
It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site dating back to the 14th century. And it’s packed with medieval Islamic architecture – and some of Egypt’s most beautiful mosques.
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.
Tourists at nearby Khan el-Khalili don’t often stray from the covered market of the Khayamia to explore the remnants of this neighborhood’s past. Many consider the area run down. And it’s tricky to navigate without a guide.
But if you walk down Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Street and look for the monuments of its Ayyubid, Mamluk and Ottoman eras, you’re in for a treat.
Activists say the area’s architectural heritage is in danger. Historic buildings are being demolished to make room for high-rise apartments.
But if you know where to look, this lesser-visited part of Islamic Cairo holds plenty of magic.
And it has an authentic, local atmosphere unspoilt by tourism.
A glorious past
Mamluk sultans once rode in processions from their palace at the Citadel to the older Fatimid city of al-Qahira down Al-Darb Al-Ahmar (the red road). Dignitaries competed for glory and built monuments to embellish the road.
Ottoman ruler Muhammad Ali Pasha later gave his top military officers plots of land in the district. The officers retired and 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 began to decline. It was no longer the choice residence of Cairo elites.
A walking tour
The neighbourhood has some damaged sites boarded up and fenced off with barbed wire.
But a few restorations are also underway to put this district on the tourist map.
If you want to discover Darb al Ahmar for yourself, here’s my ultimate guide to one of my favorite Cairo neighbourhoods.
Islamic Cairo hidden gems:
1. Al-Azhar Mosque
Start at Al-Azhar Mosque. This gorgeous Fatimid masterpiece is now restored – and it’s an easy drop-off point for any Uber.
Established in 972, Al-Azhar Mosque is the highest authority for the study of Sunni theology. It attracts students from Southeast Asia and around the world.
The courtyard has white marble floors with views of the surrounding Mamluk minarets. If you’ve never been inside a mosque, this is a breathtaking introduction with bright masonry, wooden ceilings and mashrabiya windows. It includes five intricate minarets that are remnants of the city’s various dynasties.
Al-Azhar Mosque was the first Fatimid monument in the new Cairo capital. Today, it’s around double its original size with a capacity of 20,000 people.
The Ayyubids once neglected the site because it represented a Shia regime. The Mamluks once again restored the mosque – and built its tallest two-headed minaret.
The mosque is home to Al-Azhar University, the prestigious center of Sunni theology. It’s also the world’s second oldest continuously-run university.
Visiting Al-Azhar Mosque is always a calming experience. It’s quiet with no outside traffic noise as the breeze swirls through the mosque’s columns. Children play in the vast marble expanse while tourists take videos. Students quietly read in the corners.
2. Abd El-Zaher Bookshop
This beautiful gem of a bookshop is tucked away on a sidestreet behind Cairo’s iconic Al Azhar Mosque. It’s just across the street from Khan el Khalili – and not far from the Khayamiya tent maker’s market.
Abd El-Zaher offers personalized leather-bound notebooks, bargain-priced notepads, photo albums with old-fashioned mounting corners, sketchbooks, vintage postcards and a small selection of books.
The workers can stamp your name (in Arabic or English) into any notebook you choose – on the spot while you wait. You can watch the craftsmen at work on the lettering too.
If you have old books that are falling apart, Abd El-Zaher can rebind them for you. Though rebinding means leaving your book there for approximately 10 days.
The Abd El-Zaher Bookstore is more than 80 years old and is home to three generations of craftsmen keeping the rare art of book binding alive.
Shopping at this small and cozy boutique is an experience. And what better way to record your Egyptian vacation than in a personalized travel journal?
Walk a short way down Azhar Street to the majestic Sultan Al-Ghuri Complex, a Mamluk gem completed in 1505. It includes a mausoleum, mosque and madrasa.
These two striking entrances face each other. They’re separated by a bustling street that once housed a silk market. Today it’s packed with vendors selling rolls of fabric, seasonal fruit and kitchen knick-knacks.
Take the stairs up to the mosque entrance. It’s small and intimate compared to the sweeping splendor of Al-Azhar. The interior has rich decorations, soaring ceilings and geometric lamps that hang from thick chains. Rich panels repeat patterns in black and white marble.
The unique square minaret topped by five bulbs is visible from the surrounding alleys of the souq.
Al-Ghuri was 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 his splendid mausoleum.
4. Al-Fakahani Mosque
Walk from Al-Ghuri towards Bab Zuweila, the southern gate of old Fatimid Cairo. And don’t miss the pointed Ottoman minaret of Al-Fakahani Mosque along the way.
Al-Fakahani was built in the 12th century and rebuilt in the 16th and 18th centuries. And it’s known as the fruit seller’s mosque.
Emergency repairs in 2013 were carried out to save a roof from imminent collapse. But the doors are still sealed shut and the site needs more restoration.
Al-Fakahani is an Ottoman mosque built on the site of a Fatimid mosque. It has a roofed courtyard and two pairs of carved doors. You can spot the minaret from the souq, and walk down the sidestreet to see the entrance.
5. Al Azhar Park
Al Azhar Park is a green oasis in the middle of Cairo – and a great resting place from sightseeing and the bustle of the city .
This sprawling 30-hectare public park is right next to Islamic Cairo and Khan el Khalili. It boasts green rolling hills, fountains, restaurants and sweeping views over the old city.
There’s also an observation point with binoculars and views over Islamic Cairo and its historic minarets. A restored Ayyubid wall – built by Saladin some 800 years ago – stretches across one side of the park.
It’s all build atop of what was once a mount of city rubble and ruins. The $30 million-dollar project was a gift to Cairo from Aga Khan IV, a descendant of the city’s Fatimid caliphs.
And it’s now a local favorite for family gatherings and picnics. Lots of features are modern and inspired by historic Islamic gardens.
For a leisurely lunch with a view, head to the Lakeside Restaurant for waterside dining.
Citadel View Restaurant (aka Studio Misr) has classic Egyptian decor and plenty of local favorites on the menu (with lots of vegetarian-friendly options too). It has great views of the Citadel that are especially magical at night when the mosques are illuminated.
Insider tip: Avoid weekends and national holidays, when the park gets packed with noisy crowds and family picnics. The Eid holiday (right after Ramadan) is especially crowded and not recommended.
Need to know:
Tickets: 25 EGP per adult and 30 EGP per adult on weekends (Fridays and Saturdays).
How to get there: Take an Uber to Azhar Park and there’s a large front entrance that’s easy to access.
Nearby: Islamic Cairo, the Citadel and Khan el Khalili are all about a 15-minute taxi trip away. For off the beaten path, the City of the Dead is right across the street.
6. 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 badly from lice and fleas. 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.
His reign was troubled by the Bubonic plague and rebellious bedouins. But al-Muayyad managed to complete one of Cairo’s best examples of Mamluk architecture.
The Sultan died as a humble man and great patron of architecture.
The main entrance 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 built in Cairo with a roof supported by rows of columns. It’s one of the most elaborately decorated mosques of its time. Don’t miss the marble columns and large pavilion with an ablution fountain.
7. Bab Zuweila
Bab Zuweila is the last remaining southern gate from Fatimid Cairo’s city walls.
And you can climb it for some incredible views of the old city and its most famous minarets.
Guards once used the towers to scope out approaching enemy troops. And sultans once watched processions from the platform as they 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 souq. It’s especially magical during the call to prayer.
8. 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.
The artisans sit inside the shops and swiftly hand-stitch cushion covers and elaborate bedspreads. Their needles tackle themes from the Islamic and Pharaonic to Egyptian folklore, nature and texts from the Quran.
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 spot the upper floor apartments built for artisans.
There’s evidence that khayamiya goes back to ancient Egypt. But the artisans today are endangered amid cheaper dupes and mass-printed fabric.
9. Al-Salih Tala’i Mosque
Built in 1160, Al-Salih Tala’i is Cairo’s last Fatimid mosque.
It’s built on a raised platform with a base for street level shops that once contributed to the mosque’s revenue. However, the base sunk over the centuries because of rising street levels. You can still see the vacant shops half-buried along the mosque’s walls.
The courtyard is breezy and features rows of keel-shaped arches. Don’t miss the calligraphy in stucco around the arches, the wooden tie-beams and gorgeous stained-glass windows.
10. Amir Qijmas al-Ishaqi Mosque (aka Abu Heriba)
This mosque is featured on the Egyptian 50-pound note. Though not many people could recognize it on the street. It was completed in 1481.
Though locals call it “Abu Heriba” after the doorman and mosque custodian buried here in 1852.
11. Mosque of Amir al-Maridani
Established in 1340, this mosque is another Mamluk treasure 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 columns around the dome have ancient Egyptian tops brought from Upper Egypt.
12. The Blue Mosque (Aqsunqur 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 a funerary complex for its founder and his children.
Centuries later, the Ottomans added the mosque’s famous blue tiles. They restored the mosque and decorated it with blue and green Iznik tiles from Constantinople.
13. Bayt al-Razzaz Palace
This 190-room mansion dates back to the 15th century. It was abandoned in the 1960s and stood unused for years. But now it’s been lovingly restored and open to the public.
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.
14. Bayt Yakan
The Alaa El Habashi Rare Books Library is tucked inside a restored 17th-century villa in Historic Cairo – and it houses hundreds of art, architecture and history books that you can browse by appointment.
Just steps away from the Khayamiya market, this gorgeous library was created by architect Alaa El Habashi. It includes hundreds of volumes that El Habashi gathered from various book markets and collections across Cairo.
The library is inside Bayt Yakan, a restored 17th-century villa that El Habashi restored with his wife Ola Said, who’s also an architect. It was the couple’s years-long dream to restore a house in Islamic Cairo. And in 2009, they finally signed the deal on Bayt Yakan, which was being used by a nearby butcher at the time.
The library aims to preserve the legacy of Egyptian architecture and to create a space where today’s Egyptian architects can access their own history outside of the Western narrative.
Need to know:
Book an appointment and spend a few hours browsing this gorgeous library. Don’t miss the gorgeous hand-painted late Baroque ceiling inside.
And wander around the gorgeous courtyard and Bayt Yakan itself with its Mamluk-style details, vaulted rooms and mashrabiyas.
There’s also a small cafe right at the Bayt Yakan entrance that’s great for watching the daily life inside this hidden gem district.