By Islam El Shazly
The Grand Street of Historic Islamic Cairo, the heart of the once capital of the Fatimid Empire; as old as Cairo, it saw its fair share of kings and vagabonds. Walking through it amidst the ancient villas and the architectural marvels left behind by four dynasties, is like being transported into the world of the Prince of Persia – without all the of the sand demons.
Taking a turn into one of the little alleys that spring out throughout the length of the street on a quiet day, stop for a moment and close your eyes, you can almost feel the ghosts of all the people who walked through here over the ages. There are shadows here. The time of the Fatimid also gave rise to their cousins, the Assassins. They lurked in the shadows.
But there is light here too, the whole length of the street is full of Masajid (Mosques), Madrasas (Schools), Bimaristans (Hospitals), Baths, and Sabeel/Kuttabs. Knowledge was available for all, and trade flourished here. It still does. Going inside one of the Kuttabs you can almost hear the walls still echoing the thousands of children who came to learn Quran.
Called the Grand Street in by historians, Al-Mu’izz Street (Shariʻa al-Muizz li-Deen Illah) in Historic Islamic Cairo, Egypt, is probably the oldest street in Cairo, approximately one kilometer long, has the greatest concentration of medieval architectural treasures in the Islamic world according to a UN study. It is named for Al-Muʿizz li-Deen Illah, the fourth caliph of the Fatimid dynasty. It stretches from Bab Al-Futuh (The Gate of Conquests) in the north to Bab Zuwayla (The Gate of Zuwayla – A Moroccan tribe) in the south.
In the beginning it was restricted to the elite of society and members of the Fatimid royal family, whose villas and mansions lined the street on both sides. Slowly, it started transforming into a cultural and learning hub with a massive library. As time went by, wealthy merchants started replacing the original inhabitants.
Here is where Sultans paraded when they took over the regency, whether by inheritance or a coup, it didn’t matter. Sultans were made here.
Going through the full history of the street requires volumes; however, the Ministry of Culture published a very colourful detailed coffee table book about the street, its history, and its restoration, in 228 pages, complete with illustrations and pictures.
North and South
Al-Mu’izz Street is commonly considered to consist of two sections, with the dividing line being Al-Azhar Street. The northern part extends from the Al-Hakim Mosque in the north to the Spice Market at Al-Azhar Street and includes Khan Al-Khalili market section, Al-Aqmar Mosque (one of the few extant Fatimid mosques), and the Qalawun complex, and several well preserved medieval mansions and palaces.
The southern part extends from the Ghuriya complex to the Bab Zuwayla and includes the magnificent Tent Market in the Gamaliya district. The restoration of Al-Ghuriya section of the Grand Street is yet to be completed, and some sites are still off limits, however, there’s enough finished and semi finished ones to keep you happy.
There are several ways to start exploring Al-Mu’izz Street: a) From the north end at Bab Al-Futuh all the way to Bab Zuwayla in the South, b) Starting at Bab Zuwayla in the South through to Bab Al-Futuh, c) Starting in the middle, at Khan Al khalili.
If you have time, the best way to do it is the third option, starting at Khan Al-Khalili, the midway point on the street, and split the itinerary over two days. That way you can enjoy a full day exploring the northern half and another day for exploring the southern half. The street is too rich to try and cram it all in a one day excursion.
Follow the link for Part I of the walk; Khan al-Khalili to Bab Al-Fotouh.
Khan Al-Khalili to Bab Zuwayla
As with the first half of the tour, start at Khan Al-Khalili, where you can stop for a quick pot of tea with mint at Al-Fishawi, or any of the other numerous coffee shops around it. As you head down past Al-Fishawi, the pathway is called Sikket Al-Badistan, keep walking, it twists and turns a little but you walk until you get to a T-intersection, this would be Al-Mu’izz Street. Turn left (south) towards Bab Zuwayla.
And as with the first 500 metres, the second half does not disappoint. On both sides of the street there are mansions, hospitals, schools, water fountains, mosques, and a bath or two.
Please be aware that if you are a Muslim and you are taking this tour it is not permissible to pray in any mosque housing a mausoleum, as per Islamic law. So if it’s prayer time while on the walk, ask whether the mosque has a mausoleum first.
The entire stretch of the street is full of vendors and stores, that shouldn’t be a deterrent though, they might not be as exotic as the Khan Al-Khalili section, but they still add to the flavour. On the west side of the street (the right side) stands The Masjid/Sabeel/Kuttab of Sheikh Ali Al-Mutahhar, another of the monuments built by Prince ‘Abd Al-Rahman Katkhuda in 1744 CE / 1157 AH, A Sufi master cherished by the prince. There are two mausoleums inside, one belonging to Katkhuda’s father, while the other belongs to Sheikh Ali himself.
The Madrasa of Al-Ashraf Barsbay, Al-Ashrafiya, built by the ninth Mameluke Sultan Al-Ashraf Sayf-ad-Din Barsbay between 1423-1424 CE / 826-827 AH, about three years into coming to power. It’s located in Al-Nahasseen (coppersmiths), and built in the Circassian style of architecture, with big open air court flanked by four iwans, the largest of which being the one housing the Qibla, and as with most schools of the time, it has mausoleum, a sabeel, dorms for the students, and housing for the head Sheikh of the Masjid.
A few meters further down the road gets you to Al-Azhar Street, take the pedestrian bridge and cross over to the other side; there you can continue your journey down history lane. The first thing you will see is Al-Ghuri Complex.
Al-Ghuri Complex is probably the largest in the area, built by Sultan Qansuh Al-Ghuri; the 24th Circassian Mameluke, between 1503 and 1505 CE (908-910 AH), and it straddles both sides of Al-Mu’izz Street, with the Masjid/Madrasa on the west side, and on the eastern side the rest of the complex consists of a Khanqah, Mausoleum, Sabeel, Kuttab, Wikalah and House. No one is buried in the mausoleum, however, since Sultan Al-Ghuri died fighting against the Ottomans in Syria and his body was never found.
The Sultan had a passion for architecture and regal pomp, and as such no expense was spared, and a fortune was spent on the lavish design, intricate detail and ornamentation of the complex, most of it coming from raised taxes and confiscation of property. More about the architectural details can be found here and here. The Wikalah (Caravanserai) section of the complex consisted of a courtyard and shops flanking the courtyard where merchants displayed their wares, while the first floor made up the offices rented out to travelling merchants, and the top floors were the apartments for the merchants, their household and entourage. The way the apartments were designed offered maximum privacy for the merchants’ household while retaining its functionality. The Wikalah section is now used as a cultural and folklore centre, with the upper floor apartments and offices being rented to up and coming artists of most disciplines. The Dome section is used as an Arab Music heritage centre with several halls used for concerts.
Further down on the east side is Site No. 109. Masjid Al-Fakahani, formerly known as Al-Afkhar (the Proudest); its history can be traced to the 11th century CE. The old Mosque was built by the 12th Fatimid Caliph, Al-Zafir B’deeni-llah Abul-Mansur ibn Al-Hafiz L’deeni-llah (1149-1154 CE). Later, in the 9th century AH (15th century CE) the mosque was restored by Prince Yashbak ibn Mahdi, and then in the 12th century AH (18th century CE) it was torn down and rebuilt by Prince Ahmad Katkhuda Al-Kharboutly, only the massive western and the northern doors remain from the original Fatimid construction.
Standing at the head of Al-Room Alley, less than a block later in Al-‘Aqqadeen there’s another Sabeel built by Mohamed Ali Pasha, this one is dedicated to his son, Tosson Pasha. Sabeel Mohamed Ali – ‘Aqqadeen was built in 1820 CE/1236 AH and its architecture is greatly influenced by European design. Tosson Pasha had died 5 years earlier in 1815 CE/1231 AH of fever shy of 20 years. The Sabeel consists of two levels above ground, and the massive deep tank below ground. The top floor was dedicated to a Kuttab.
As you approach the end of the walk you are faced with a massive Masjid, smaller than its counterpart Masjid Al-Hakim at Bab Al-Fotouh, but impressive in its architecture nonetheless, Masjid Al-Mu’ayyad Sheikh. Built by Sultan Al-Mua’yyad Abu An-Nasir Sheikh Al-Muhammudi, its construction took five years, from 1415 to 1420 CE (818-823 AH). The mosque’s two minarets straddle Bab Zuwayla, and its layout follows the same plan as most great mosques from the Fatimid and Mameluke eras. It also has one of the most beautiful Minbars (Pulpits) in the Muslim world. This Masjid has a mausoleum for its founder and for his son.
Opposite Masjid Al-Mu’ayyad Sheikh there are two more sites; one is the debilitated Site No. 596. Hammam Al-Sukareya, still in the process of restoration, the only remaining Fatimid era hammam (bath house). The second is Site No. 358, 395. Sabeel/Wikalah Nafissa Al-Baydaa’, built by Lady Nafisa Al-Bydaa’ in 1796 CE / 1211 AH, once a slave girl, then freed and married to the infamous Murad Bey. She was very influential politically, commercially, and socially.
Bab Zuwayla “The Gate of Zuwayla”, named after the Morrocan tribe Zuwayla that arrived with Jawhar Al-Siqalley “The Sicillian” during the Fatimid conquest of Egypt. The original walls and gates were built by Jawhar, however, the gates and the wall were rebuilt in 1092 CE / 485 AH by Badr Al-Deen Al-Jamali, one of the most powerful Viziers in Fatimid history, as part of his rebuilding campaign and refortification of the walls of Cairo. He moved the gates about 150 metres from the original walls.
The gate is also known as Bawabat Al-Mutawali “The Gate of Al-Mutawali” by the residents of the area.
Once here, you have concluded your walking tour of this very old part of Cairo. However, the wonders of Egypt, Islamic or otherwise, do not end here. There’s always more to discover.Tags: Al-Mu'izz, Al-Sukareya, Aqqadeen, Barsbay, Bimaristan, Cairo, Caravanserai, Fakahani, Fatimid, Featured, Ghuri, Ghuriya, Hammam, Islamic, Khanqah, Kuttab, Madrasa, Mameluke, Mamluk, Mansion, Nafisa, Ottoman, Sabeel, Sultan, Tosson, Vizier, Vizir, Zuwayla