– SEPTEMBER 16, 2015
Our last day of touring through Egypt has us going through multiple Cairo locations in a packed day. Starting off very early in the morning, we drove past the City of the Dead area of Cairo. This is an area used as a cemetery, but the large numbers of poor people have taken up residency here among the graves. Its occupied by the poorest people of Cairo, so its putting it gently to state this is not a safe area for two Canadians to go walking around in. However, our driver for the day was willing to let us stop on an adjacent bridge to take some distance pics. Unfortunately, its hard to tell this area is any different than the rest of the city from this viewpoint.
From here we continued to see the section of Cairo named “Old Cairo“. Old Cairo contains the remnants of those cities which were capitals before al-Qahira, such as Fustat, al-Askar, and al-Qatta’i. These are the location of the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, though little else remains today. This area also encompasses Coptic Cairo and its many old churches and ruins of Roman fortifications. Modern tourists visit locations such as the Coptic Museum, the Babylon Fortress, the Hanging Church and other Coptic churches, the Ben Ezra Synagogue and the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As. Fort Babylon is a Roman Fortress around which many of the Egyptian Christians’ oldest churches were built.
The Hanging Church is also referred to as the Suspended Church or Al-Moallaqa. It is called the Hanging Church because it was built on the southern gate of the Roman Fortress. Logs of palm trees and layers of stones were constructed above the ruins of the Roman fortress to be used as the foundation. The Hanging Church is a unique church and has a wooden roof in the shape of Noah’s ark. From the 7th century to the 13th century, the Hanging Church served as the residence of the Coptic Patriarch. Al-Moallaqa has witnessed important elections and religious ceremonies.
The famous miracle of moving the Moqattam Mountain is closely related to al-Moallaqa. Al-Mu’izz, a Fatimid khaliph, asked Patriarch Abraham to move the Moqattam Mountain in order to prove the words of the gospel “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain: Remove from hence to yonder place, and it shall remove“ (Matthew 17-20). After three days of praying and fasting in front of the painting of the Virgin Mary depicted on a column in al-Moallaqa, the Virgin Mary appeared to Patriarch Abraham in a vision and told him what to do. The painting of the Virgin Mary exists in the church to this day. Al-Mu’izz was convinced of the truth of the Christian belief and allowed the Coptic Church certain privileges.
There are three sanctuaries at the eastern side of the church, the one in the middle is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the one to the left is named after St. George and the one to the right is named after John the Baptist. Inside the sanctuaries painted baldachins are placed above the altars.
The wooden screen is a unique piece of art and richly decorated with geometric patterns and crosses in ebony and ivory. The wooden screen is crowned by precious icons, in the center the enthroned Jesus, on the left side the Virgin Mary, Archangel Gabriel and St. Peter, on the right side John the Baptist, Archangel Michael and St. Paul. Fifteen icons describe the life and torture of St. George, 7 icons give an insight into the life of John the Baptist.
The impressive pulpit of the Hanging Church is from the 5th century and rests on 15 gracile columns. On each side of the pulpit a cross is depicted above three steps symbolizing the three days during which Jesus Christ was in his tomb and his resurrection.
There is an icon of St Mark on the southern wall of the main church (St. Mark is the first Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church).
A total of 110 icons are kept in the Hanging Church, the oldest of which is the “Coptic Mona Lisa” dating back to the 8th century A.D. and representing Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ and John the Baptist. Numerous altar icons date back to the 18th century A.D. Just like the actual Mona Lisa painting, this one appears top have her eyes follow you wherever you move.
There is a door at the south-eastern corner of the church leading to the oldest part of the building. This part has three sanctuaries at the eastern side. The one in the middle is called after St. Dimiana, the one to the left is named after St. Takla Hymanot (an Ethiopian saint), and the one to the right is named after St. Andrew.
There is also a fresco on the eastern wall of the chapel showing the Nativity (the birth of Christ) and the mid wife Salome, next to it a second frescoe of 24 men of the apocalypse. Furthermore, on the first floor a church dedicated to St. Mark.
The Mosque of Ibn Tulun is arguably the oldest mosque in the city surviving in its original form, and is the largest mosque in Cairo in terms of land area. Historians in Cairo list the mosque’s construction start date as 876 AD, and the mosque’s original inscription slab identifies the date of completion as 879 AD.
The mosque was constructed on a small hill called Gebel Yashkur, “The Hill of Thanksgiving“. One local legend says that it is here that Noah’s Ark came to rest after the deluge, instead of at Mount Ararat.
Ibn Tulun’s capital, Al-Qata’i was razed in the early 10th century, AD, and the mosque is the only surviving structure. The mosque was constructed in the Samarran style common with Abbasid constructions. The mosque is constructed around a courtyard, with one covered hall on each of the four sides, the largest being on the side of the qibla, or direction to Mecca. The original mosque had its ablution fountain in the area between the inner and outer walls. A distinctive sabil with a high drum dome was added in the central courtyard at the end of the thirteenth century by the Sultan Lajin.
There is significant controversy over the date of construction of the minaret, which features a helical outer staircase similar to that of the famous minaret in Samarra. It is also told that using these stairs one can climb up on a horse. Legend has it that Ibn Tulun himself was accidentally responsible for the design of the structure: supposedly while sitting with his officials, he absentmindedly wound a piece of parchment around his finger. When someone asked him what he was doing, he responded, embarrassed, that he was designing his minaret. Many of the architectural features, however, point to a later construction, in particular the way in which the minaret does not connect well with the main mosque structure, something that would have been averted had the minaret and mosque been built at the same time.
The mosque has been restored several times. The mosque was most recently restored by the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities in 2004.
During the medieval period, several houses were built up against the outside walls of the mosque. Most were demolished in 1928 by the Committee for the Conservation of Arab Monuments, however, two of the oldest and best-preserved homes were left intact. The “house of the Cretan woman” and the Beit Amna bint Salim, were originally two separate structures, but a bridge at the third floor level was added at some point, combining them into a single structure. The house, accessible through the outer walls of the mosque, is open to the public as the Gayer-Anderson Museum, named after the British general R.G. ‘John’ Gayer-Anderson, who lived there until 1942.
Parts of the James Bond film “The Spy Who Loved Me” were filmed at the Mosque of Ibn Tulun and in the Gayer-Anderson Museum.
The Mosque Madrassa of Sultan Hassan, described as one of the world’s greatest edifices, was built in 1357 by the young Sultan Hassan (who was only 20 at the time). Sultan Hassan came from a family that had already ruled Egypt for half a century before his birth. His father, Sultan al-Nasir Muhammed, was one of the greatest patrons of the arts, and his grandfather, Sultan Qalawun, had built an extensive complex on Cairo’s main thoroughfare. Bayn al-Qasrayn. Yet, it was Sultan Hassan’s mosque that was to be the most monumental and perhaps the most impressive building ever to be built in medieval Cairo.
He is said to have summoned architects from all around the world and ordered them to construct a mosque greater than any building that had ever been constructed on the face of the earth. Unfortunately, the Sultan’s assassination in 1361 AD meant that the mosque was never completed. As was typical of large-scale Mamluk religious foundations, this complex also included a hospital, located in the western portion of the building.
Not surprisingly, the building costs were enormous: twenty thousand gold dirhams a day, every day for three years – a huge sum, even by today’s standards. It is thought that Sultan Hassan financed the construction of the building using money and property taken from victims of the black death who had died leaving no heirs.
The mosque portal, the largest in Egypt, was constructed at an angle so that it could be seen from Cairo’s main square and the then seat of power: the citadel. It was originally intended to be flanked by two minarets, one of which was actually constructed but collapsed soon after. The main door, one of the finest examples of Mamluk art, was stolen in the 15th century by Sultan Muayyad Shaykh, who placed it at the entrance of his own mosque near Bab Zuwayla.
Had Sultan Hassan’s mosque been completed, elaborate carved decoration would have filled the empty rectangular panels on its façade. Nevertheless, the few semi-finished decorative elements found near the portal are indicative of the attention paid to the ornamentation of the building.
The building’s interior, comprised of four vaulted iwans surrounding a courtyard, was ideal since the mosque also served as a place where the four branches of Sunni Islam were taught. Each school, known as a madrasa, had a separate wing off the main courtyard where students would reside.
The courtyard is notable for its elaborate marble flooring, a trademark of Mamluk art. The small cupola surmounting the fountain in the center of the court was added just after the Sultan’s death by one of his attendants.
Most of the decoration is concentrated in the main iwan, facing Mecca, where an elegant stucco inscription band runs above marble paneling. Quite atypically, the mausoleum is placed behind the Mecca. This huge square chamber, roofed by a huge dome, is the largest mausoleum in Egypt.
Given the mosque’s strategic location, it was used repeatedly as a place for rebellious Mamluks to launch attacks against the citadel. Due to this, the 14th century ruler, Sultan Barquq, ordered the demolition of the stairs leading to the mosque as well as those of the minarets, however these were rebuilt in the 15th century. Incidentally, only the southern minaret is original, the small northern minaret was rebuilt 11 years after it collapsed in 1660 AD.
The Al Rifa’i Mosque is located adjacent to the Cairo Citadel. The building is located opposite the Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan, which dates from around 1361, and was architecturally conceived as a complement to the older structure. This was part of a vast campaign by the 19th century rulers of Egypt to both associate themselves with the perceived glory of earlier periods in Egypt’s Islamic history and modernize the city. The mosque was constructed next to two large public squares and off of several European style boulevards constructed around the same time.
The Al-Rifa’i Mosque was constructed in two phases over the period between 1869 and 1912 when it was finally completed. It was originally commissioned to expand and replace the pre-existing shrine of the medieval era Islamic saint Ahmad al-Rifa’i. The shrine was a pilgrimage site for locals who believed that the tomb had mystical healing properties. The designers envisioned a dual purpose for the new structure as a house for sufi relics and a mausoleum for the royal family of Egypt. Over the course of its construction the architect, design, and purpose were changed.
The building itself is a melange of styles taken primarily from the Mamluk period of Egyptian history, including its dome and minaret. The building contains a large prayer hall as well as the shrines of al-Rifa’i and two other local saints, Ali Abi-Shubbak and Yahya al-Ansari.
The mosque is the resting place of Khushyar Hanim and her son Isma’il Pasha, as well as numerous other members of Egypt’s royal family, including King Farouk, Egypt’s last reigning king, whose body was interred here after his death in Rome in 1965. The mosque served briefly as the resting place of Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran, who died in exile in South Africa in 1944, and was returned to Iran after World War II. Part of the burial chamber is currently occupied by Reza Shah’s son Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who died in Cairo in July 1980.
The Citadel of Cairo is a medieval Islamic fortification. The location, on Mokattam hill near the center of Cairo, was once famous for its fresh breeze and grand views of the city. It is now a preserved historic site, with mosques and museums.
The Citadel was fortified by the Ayyubid ruler Salah al-Din (Saladin) between 1176 and 1183 CE, to protect it from the Crusaders. Only a few years after defeating the Fatimid Caliphate, Saladin set out to build a wall that would surround both Cairo and Fustat. Saladin is recorded as saying, “With a wall I will make the two [cities of Cairo and Fustat] into a unique whole, so that one army may defend them both; and I believe it is good to encircle them with a single wall from the bank of the Nile to the bank of the Nile.” The Citadel would be the centerpiece of the wall. Built on a promontory beneath the Muqattam Hills, a setting that made it difficult to attack, the efficacy of the Citadel’s location is further demonstrated by the fact that it remained the heart of Egyptian government until the 19th century. The citadel stopped being the seat of government when Egypt’s ruler, Khedive Ismail, moved to his newly built Abdin Palace in the Ismailiya neighborhood in the 1860s. While the Citadel was completed in 1183–1184, the wall Saladin had envisioned was still under construction in 1238, long after his death.
To supply water to the Citadel, Saladin built the 85m deep Well of Joseph (so-called because Saladin’s birth name, Yūsif, is the Arabic equivalent of Joseph), which can still be seen today. This well is also known as the Well of the Spiral because its entrance consisted of 300 stairs that wound around the inside of the well. Once water was raised from the well to the surface, it traveled to the Citadel on a series of aqueducts. During the reign of al-Nasir Mohammad, the Well of Joseph failed to produce enough water for the numerous animals and humans then living in the Citadel. To increase the volume of water, Nasir built a well system that consisted of a number of water wheels on the Nile, the water from which was then transported to the wall and subsequently to the Citadel, via the aqueducts Saladin had constructed.
The improvements to the Citadel’s water supply were not Nasir’s only additions to the Citadel, which was subject to a number of different additions during the Mamluk period. Nasir’s most notable contribution was the Mosque of Nasir. In 1318 Nasir rebuilt the Ayyubid structure, turning it into a mosque in his name. The structure underwent further additions in 1335. Other contributions to the Citadel during Nasir’s reign include the structure’s southern enclosure (the northern enclosure was completed by Saladin) and the residential area, which included space for the harem and the courtyard. Prior to Nasir’s work on the Citadel, the Baybars constructed the Hall of Justice and the “House of Gold“.
The Citadel is sometimes referred to as “Mohamed Ali Citadel” because it contains the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, which was built between 1828 and 1848, perched on the summit of the citadel.
This Ottoman mosque was built in memory of Tusun Pasha, Muhammad Ali’s second son who died in 1816. However, it also represents Muhammad Ali’s efforts to erase symbols of the Mamluk dynasty that he replaced. When Ottoman ruler Muhammad Ali Pasha took control from the Mamluks in 1805 he altered many of the additions to the Citadel that reflected Cairo’s previous leaders. One obvious change that Muhammad Ali enacted pertained to the uses of the Citadel’s northern and southern enclosures. During the Mamluk period the southern enclosure was the residential area, but Muhammad Ali claimed the northern enclosure as the royal residence when he took power. He then opened the southern enclosure to the public and effectively established his position as the new leader.
The mosque is the other feature of the Citadel that reflects the reign of Muhammad Ali. This feature, with its large dome and overtly Ottoman influenced architecture, looms over the Citadel to this day. Recently destroyed Mamluk palaces within the Citadel provided space for the formidable mosque, which was the largest structure to be established in the early 19th century. Placing the mosque where the Mamluks had once reigned was an obvious effort to erase the memory of the older rulers and establish the importance of the new leader. The mosque also replaced the mosque of al-Nasir as the official state mosque.
The Citadel also contains a National Police Museum with various artifacts. The citadel is an important place dating to the beginning of the Mamluk era until the Modern era. This place was devoted as a site of police museum for many Architectural reasons such as: towers, palaces, mosques, castles and other buildings. A working prison was mostly destroyed, with the remaining structure being converted as a part of the Police Museum.
The National Military Museum is located at the north western area of the three Haram Palaces, inside the Cairo Citadel. It overlooks the Mukattam Hills and the entrance to the Citadel. The Haram Palaces were originally constructed by Mohammed Ali Pasha in 1872.
The museum was established in 1937 at the old building of the Egyptian Ministry of War in downtown Cairo. It was later moved to a temporary location in the Garden City district of Cairo. In November 1949 the museum was moved to the Haram Palace at the Cairo citadel. It has been renovated several times since, in 1982 and 1993.
The Mosque of Al Nasir Mohammad Ibn Qalaun was established by Sultan Al nasir Mohammed Ibn Qalaun who was one of the Bahri Mameluke Sultans. It is a small, but rich example of artistic elements of this era.
This was a busy, but exciting day of rich cultural heritage experiences. These type of sites can really open up a part of a country that doesn’t usually make it to the tourist experiences when venturing to a place like Egypt. These are the type of deeper-level experiences that we are aiming for on this year-long adventure. Thank you Egypt.
For more photos of our adventure go to our flickr account here.