Cairo Islamique - Egypt

ISLAMIC CAIRO

For centuries, Cairo has been the biggest city of the African continent. Islamised early on at the end of the VIIth century, it has then kown a remarkable expansion. You will find at its heart monuments which are telling the history of the Islamic conquest in Egypt: the mosque of Ibn Tūlūn and Al-Azhar, the citadel of Saladdin… Our reporter in Cairo brought us some images of these marvels, that have been registered since 1979 on the list of the World Heritage of the UNESCO.
During the VIIth century, the Arab troops of Amr ibn al-As conquered Egypt, which was then under Byzantine domination before taking over the fortress of Babylon in 639. The day after the conquest, they founded the military camp of Furtãt, along the legendary Nile river. This city is the base that will become, centuries later, Cairo. General Amr al-As built there around 942 the first mosque on African land, which will be named after him. It will undergo refurbishing during the XVth century.

Between 868 and 905, Ahmad ibn Tūlūn, the founder of the dynasty of the Tulunids, will turn Egypt into an independent territory of the caliph : and he will become the first governor of it. In 870, he will build his residence on the hill of Yachkar. It will become the starting point of the building of a new city called al-Qata’iya (« the fief » in Arabic). Towards the end of the IXth century, ibn Tūlūn built a mosque in his name, which is one of the most well known monuments in Cairo; it has no been touched and has kept its original aspect.

Its high fortified walls still have the guard path which evokes the glorious times of Islam conquering all. The mosque of Ibn Tulun can be seen from far away with its spiral minaret that is inspired by the mosque of Samârrâ, in Irak. Above the vegetal frieze a long line of inscription containing 1/17th of the Koran. The Tulunid domination ended in 905, when the caliphate based in Bagdad reconquered Egypt.

The dynasty of the Fatimids (969-1171) and the very first Muslim university

973. The Fatimids, an Arab dynasty which declares belonging to the line of the Prophet through his daughter Fatima, settled in al’ Qāhira. They founded there the mosque university of al-Azhar (970-978), named « La resplendissante » (the resplendishing one) also named the « Sorbonne arabe ». It was the very first Islamic university in the world, and through its splendour the city reached the highest rank in culture. Many intellectuals from the Muslim world were formed there.


Towards the end of the Xth century, the building of the city is almost completed. Under the Fatimid caliphate al-Mu’izz, the general Jawhar founded al’Qāhira, a city that regrouped at its heart al-‘Aksar and al-Qata’iya. This new name meant « la dominatrice » ( the domineering one in Arabic). It evokes the importance it has occupied on the North African land. The 6th Fatimid caliph, Al-Hakim is a tyran and a dogmatic man. He created the school of Dâr Al-Hikmah in order to spread the thinking ways of the Shiite but was stopped by the rebellion of a population up in arms against his intolerance and severity.

In 1171, Egypt will participate to the major current of Islam, Sunnisme. Saladin, one of the main Kurd figure in Sunnite orthodoxy, chased away the Franc Crusaders off Egyptian land. In 1176, he built the citadel Salah al-Din, in Cairo, to replace the old walls in bricks. Many medersas (public schools teaching the Koran and its sciences) were also built under his reign.

Mameluks, the golden age of Cairo

The greatest splendour of all is still awaiting Cairo : from 1250 on, the Mameluks, A milicia of white slaves (Turks, Slaves, Berberes…) at the service of the dynasty of the Ayyoubid, took over the control of Cairo after killing the last sultan. Several dynasties of mameluks will then come after in the city until 1517. During Mameluks's domination, Cairo will undergo a true cultural flourishing: several craftsmen come to settle there, and they opened many medersas.

The population will reach a record in population number of 500 000 inhabitants, yet the black pleague will end the domination of the Mameluks. One of the most beautiful religious building that this dynasty has left us is the mosque of the sultan Hassan. Its main entrance doors is in bronze and decorated with gold and silver. The mosque was then a place of pomp and luxury, and from its fountain they say, some sweet soft liquid came out during the feasts that were celebrated there …

The Mameluks have left many mausoleums hosted in what was called « cities of the deads» the Mameluks fell in 1517, when the famous Ottoman sultan Sélim 1st took over the control of Cairo. Egypt has now become a Turkish province. Turks have always been very present in Egypt, for they were in great demand by the Arabs for they use them in the army of the caliphs. They will not bring any major changes in the city. Egypt will then be colonised by French, then English during the XIXth century, and will be taken into the infernal whirlwind of modernisation.


Caption

XXIst century: Historical Cairo in danger?

Today Cairo is weighed down by the 16 millions inhabitants. It is a city that is totally exhausted and which suffers many pains. The patrimony of Cairo coming from the 14 centuries of Islam is in secod place behind the issue of pollution and poor health. The monuments telling the glorious past of the city must now face the downfalls of bad weather and time. One of the monuments that has best resisted is the mosque of ibn Tūlūn, an architectural model of Islamic arts. It has been undergoing many refurbishings and is today undergoing more.

The mosque of Al-Azhar, a major Islamic cultural center, has had some major problems lately during its restauration. Since 1979, it has been taken off the list of the World Heritage of UNESCO for today it has nothing to do with what it was once. The arches of the very first African mosque, the one of Amr ibn al-As (built during the VIIth century on the ashes of Babylone), have been cemented. And what is even more of an issue is that some Islamic groups tend to finance most of the restauration, like the one of al-Hakim.

The High Council of Antiquities of Cairo has launched a project of restauration of these monuments, be it jewish, Christian (Copts) or Muslim. Their oponents are fighting the use of cement, of the denaturation in fact of these historical places. A thing that is altogether an aberation, The gorgeous Mameluk mausoleums, alos called the « cities of the deads» are today the place were Cairo families are living for lack of low renting space inside the city! Sad consequence of overpopulation and overpriced rents. A part of the historical patrimony of the most brilliant era from medieval Egypt is in danger.


Photo Legends



Photo 1 : Along Muez street
A trip into the past, at the time of the One thousand and One tales. Muez street evokes these Arabic tales with its fountains, sales people and its café were tie seems to have stopped.

Photo 2 : The mosque of al-Hakim
This mosque bares the name of the chiite Caliph Jami al-Hakim, and was achieved towards 1002 near Bab al Futuh, its main entrance door dates ack to the Middle Ages. This imam had a bad reputation: excentric, crual and intolerant, he was the cayuse of the popular revolution that took place in Cairo. A Islamic Pakistanese sect financed its renovation in the eighties.

Photo 3 : The minaret of el-Rifaï
Cairo is nicknamed « the city of the 10 000 minarets ». this very minaret belongs to the mosque of the sultan Hassan el-Rifaï. From its height, we can see at the bottom the croweded street of Muez, alos called « the street of the 80 monuments » from Islamic Cairo.

Photo 4 : The mosque of al-Azhar
Another day of prayers, the believers are all crouding the front of al-Azhar. Since 969, it has been considered as one of the intellectual centers of the Muslim world. It was first a mosque called Jâmic Al-Qâhirah and financed by the fatimide caliphs, before it became a Shiite university, that teached a great deal of gramar scientist, theososphists, Arabic, Persian, Turksih, and Berber wise men …

Photo 5 : El-Qala’a, Cairo citadell
A must see in Cairo. Its building started under Saladin, the great defender of the Suniite orthodoxy, in 1176 using the bases of the older brick walls. The Mameluks sultans used it as their headquarters during the 14th century. In the distance the mosque of al-Azhar is watching over the city.

Photo 6 : The Arches of Ibn Tūlūn
A man in prayer is wandering in peace under the arches of the mosque of Ibn Tūlūn, A monument that goes back to the 9th century which was built by the first independent Egyptian Caliph of Bagdad.

Photo 7 : An Islamic fountain
Dead in the middle of the mythical street of Muez, we can admire the Mameluk fountain that goes back to the 15th century.

Photo 8 : To see without being seen
This splendid mucharabieh also called see through balcony that was used to look through without being seen, belongs to Beshtaq palace. It was built during the 14th century and used to hide the harem of the sultans.

Photo 9 : Sultan Muaiyad's mosque
The believers have a beautiful setting for their five prayers a day, inside Sultan Muaiyad's mosque. A good place for meditation and spirituality.

Photo 10 : The college and the mosque
The college of the Sultan Hassan was built during the 14th century during a period of fight against the Crusaders. It is set right in front of the mosque that bears the same name.

Photo 11 : Muez Street, a true Arabic tale
The daily market place of Farmers living in the countryside. When walking along the popular street we feel like travelling in time, at the time of the One Thousand and One tales. Muez street evokes an Arabic tale with its sales people its cafés and its fountains.

Photo 12 : Cotton trading in Muez street
These cotton traders are working in the street of Muez. They keep their cotton in bags that are as high as a man. They all are shouting that their price is lower than the one next to them...

Photo 13 : Onion trading
Imposing setting of garlic and onion. The traders smoke the chicha they buy in bulk.

Photos 14 and 15 : Muez, a historical street
When walking along the popular street we feel like travelling in time, at the time of the One Thousand and One tales. Muez street evokes an Arabic tale with its sales people its cafés and its fountains. This street leads to at least 80 monuments from the medieval era: It is in this street that the heart of the city beats, and where most of the crafts and arts of Cairo come from.

Photo 16 : A Mameluk fountain
In Arabic, Mameluk means «white slave». From Turkish, Slavic, Cyprus or Berber origins, these slaves used to be sold at high price and served in the armies of the caliphs. This fountain from the XVth century is full of arabesc.

Photo 17 : The mosque of ibn Tūlūn
Ahmed ibn Tūlūn, A Turkish visionary and officer, became during the 9th century the first independent governor of Egypt. His mosque, of a total surface of 17 000m², is made of raw bricks covered with chalk. Built on a hill to avoid any weather troubles, it has an air of serenity and splendour.

Photo 18, 19, 20 : The mosque of ibn Tūlūn
Ahmed ibn Tūlūn, A Turkish visionary and officer, became during the 9th century the first independent governor of Egypt. His mosque, of a total surface of 17 000m², is made of raw bricks covered with chalk. Built on a hill to avoid any weather troubles, it has an air of serenity and splendour.

Photo 21 : A somptuous window
Medieval window of the mosque of ibn Tūlūn. The light that enters is soft and light and gives a feeling that leads to meditation and spirituality, away from the agitation of the 16 million inhabitants of Cairo.

Photo 22 : La mosquée ibn Tūlūn
Ahmed ibn Tūlūn, A Turkish visionary and officer, became during the 9th century the first independent governor of Egypt. His mosque, of a total surface of 17 000m², is made of raw bricks covered with chalk. Built on a hill to avoid any weather troubles, it has an air of serenity and splendour.

Photos 23, 24, 25 : al-Azhar, the resplendishing one
Since 969, al-Azhar has been the intellectual center of the Muslim world. It was first called Jâmic Al-Qâhirah and was financed by Fatimid caliphs, before it became a Shiite university, that teached many grammar scientists, theosophists, as well as Arab, Persian, Turkish, and Berber wise men …

Photo 26 : Khan el Khalili, the souk
This bazaar, which covers a full street is attracting many tourists with its mechandises at a very low price. The charm coming from the incessant croud that comes through this street. In its centre the famous café Fishawi, immortalised by the writer Albert Cossery in his novels. A cultural visit with such a derisory charm.

Photo 27 : Muez, A historical site
When walking along the popular street we feel like travelling in time, at the time of the One Thousand and One tales. Muez street evokes an Arabic tale with its sales people its cafés and its fountains.

Photo 28 : Khan el Khalili, the souk
This bazaar, which covers a full street is attracting many tourists with its mechandises at a very low price. The charm coming from the incessant croud that comes through this street. In its centre the famous café Fishawi, immortalised by the writer Albert Cossery in his novels. A cultural visit with such a derisory charm.

Photo 29 : what a mess!
Dive righ into the heart of the souk of Muez street, the main artery of the Qasaba. Here, a paradise for tourists, came to buy souvenirs at very low prices… bargaining is a rule of art.

Photos 30 and 31 : Muez, A historical site
When walking along the popular street we feel like travelling in time, at the time of the One Thousand and One tales. Muez street evokes an Arabic tale with its sales people its cafés and its fountains. A chair maker and a sales person for second hand clothes, evoking the novels of André Chedid and the books of Tintin.

Photo 32 : A merchant
This merchant in the borrow of Qasaba was photographed in the darkness of its small store, on Muez street .

Photo 33 : Bab al-Futuh, a medieval door
Bab al-Futuh is one of the sumptuous doors of the fortified walls, which leads to the heart of the city of Cairo. In Occident, it is called « the doors of the exploits». These workmen are working on its restauration to preserves the beauty of what has been called: the pride of Islamic Cairo.

Photo 34 : Women believers
These Muslim women are watching the sabil of the mosque of al-Hakim, located dead in the center of the interior courtyard.

Photo 35 : The madrasa of sultan Hassan
In the Arabic world, a madrasa (or medersa) is a Koranic school. Their presence on the Egyptian land goes back to the 10th century. This madrasa, which we can see the entrance of, was opened during the 14th century under the domination of the Mameluk sultan Hassan, dead in the middle of the golden age of Cairo. Festivities used to be held there and some say that they used to have some sweet liquid coming out of the fountains.

Photo 36 : One of the many minarets of Cairo
A view of the ornated minaret of Qala-Wun, which measures 65 m high. It belongs to a complex that was built around 1284 under the reign of the Mameluk sultan Qala-Wun. Some influences from Byzantine and Gothic origin can be seen all coming from Crusaders and Christian churches.

Photo 37 : Koranic school
A view of the madrasa, or Koranic school of the sultan Barquq, which was built in 1384. Many of the great minds of the Arabic Muslim world were taught here. Mameluk sultan Barquq (« prune ») in Arabic was born a slave, was released in 1363 and came to power in 1382.

Photo 38 : A more contemporanean mosque
The ceiling of the mosque belonging to the Pasha Méhémet Ali is shinning of thousands of lights. Built in the heart of the citadel Salah Ed Din, it was finished in 1857 and inspired by the Turkish architectural style as well as the one of the Church Sainte-Sophie of Istanbul. The body of the sultan is laying in its heart.

Photos 39 and 40 : Sunsetting
A breathtaking view: at sunset, the minarets of the thousand year old mosques of Al Azhar and El Rifaï are standing out in a sky tainted with gold purple and dark velvet.