At the heart of this chaotic capital lie the social and cultural assets of the Islamic quarter. In this ancient Fatimid city, Sylvia Smith unearths gems aplenty amid a millennium of history
1. Bab Zuweila
The Islamic quarter is a narrow tangle of untidy streets with tooting horns, cars backfiring and street sellers touting their wonderful wares. Here you will find everything from the last surviving glass-blowers to traditional perfume-makers who, on request, will combine scents to produce a smooth and totally original fragrance. Start at the 1,000-year-old Bab Zuweila gate, which has been restored at considerable expense so that its four-ton doors have reopened for the first time in centuries. Identifiable by its famous twin minarets, the landmark gate dates from when Cairo was first built, between the 10th and 12th centuries. Take time to appreciate the faÃ§ade of the gate, ornamented with Fatimid daggers, swords and Koranic verses. Bab Zuweila, built in 1092, as well as Bab al-Nasr (the gate of victory) and Bab al-Futuh (the gate of conquests), both built in 1087, represented the gateways from east, north and south into Cairo. The area became a centre of commerce, religious devotion, processions, celebration and justice, and together, the gates provide a fascinating account of social and political life of the time.
2. The Tentmakers’ Bazaar
Take a detour to the Qasaba, the tentmakers’ district, via the mosque of Al Salih Tala’i, the last of Cairo’s Fatimid mosques, built in 1160. The shops it sits above pay rent to the mosque, as they did in the past, which contributes towards its upkeep. This same combination of commerce and beauty underpins the vibrant covered market of the Tentmakers’ Bazaar. Here, colourful leatherwork and startlingly bright fabrics will tempt you to order a made-to-measure wall hanging, or set of appliqué cushions. Piled high inside the market is a bewildering choice of inexpensive printed fabric, or more expensive appliqué, that are sold by the metre. Imaginatively, vast swathes of these bright fabrics are used instead of tarpaulin to cover building works. The skill of fine hand-stitching is passed down from one generation to the next, and nothing is too much trouble for the traders here, so don’t hold back.
3. The Ayyubid Wall
This 12th-century former city wall has undergone comprehensive restoration, funded by the Aga Khan Development Network. It was the Fatimid ancestors of the Aga Khan who gave the city the name Al-Qahira, meaning “the victorious”. Extricating the wall, which had been buried up to its crenellated battlements, was no easy task: it had to be excavated to a depth of 15 metres. Now, a 1.5km section, with several towers and battlements almost intact, is visible in all its splendour. The wall, at the foothills of the Darassa mountains, was originally part of the old city’s fortifications, marking its eastern border, but was buried over the next three centuries during the Mameluk period. Its huge towers and interior galleries today house exhibitions on the renovation work. The area around the wall has the highest concentration of Islamic monuments in the world. You won’t be able to visit them all, but you will hear the call to prayer. The people in Darb El Ahmar, outside the wall, are very conservative and don’t see many tourists, so if you pass through here, dress accordingly. Shorts, halter tops and miniskirts are a definite no-no.
4. The Mosque Umm Sultan Sha’aban
This is a destination well off the tourist trail. For every 1,000 visitors who throng to the pyramids and the tomb of Tutankhamen, perhaps just one comes here. To appreciate the beauty of the individual call to prayer, stand next to this beautiful 14th-century mosque at prayer time. The mosque has a romantic and poignant history, and architecture to match. Built by the son of one of the sultan’s concubines to honour his mother, the young man himself was buried here, as his own final resting place was incomplete. It reflects the love felt for a mother, and the restoration work, which has taken 15 years, is remarkable. Make your way up the winding stairs to the top of the highest minaret for a spectacular, panoramic view of the whole area. You’ll spot cows, goats and sheep kept on the roofs of the houses and, in the distance, the green rolling hills of the city’s newest and largest green open space, the Al Azhar park. This is not a climb for anyone with a fear of heights. The mosque is open Mon-Fri 9am-5pm.
5. Al Azhar Complex
This open-air park shares its name with the most famous mosque in the country. Al Azhar, “the radiant”, or “the shining”, is a massive historical building that is both a place to worship and a teaching facility. It claims to be the oldest Islamic university (although this is disputed) and has grown in stature over the centuries. The courtyard is huge and needs to be, since Al Azhar has provided free accommodation and education to countless Muslim scholars for more than 1,000 years. Even today, groups of young Islamic scholars from around the world come to enrol at the university, to study rhetoric and grammar, as well as every facet of Koranic law. It is particularly important to dress conservatively if you wish to enter this complex. Women are given shawls at the entrance and shoes must be removed before entering. Open daily 9am to sunset. Entrance free, though the shoe attendant will expect a tip.
6. El-Fishawy Cafe
After submerging yourself in the highly spiritual atmosphere of the mosque, head for more worldly pleasures to the Café El-Fishawy in the heart of the bazaar. This 19th-century bistro, decorated in the Ottoman style, is where Cairenes gather to see and be seen, especially the city’s intellectuals, writers and artists. Pick a table with a good view of people passing by, order some traditional mint tea, and nibble on locally grown pistachios. All the while you can puff on a famous chicha or nargileh, the waterpipe, wafting heavenward clouds of aromatic smoke scented with apple or rose. The café is open every day, 5 Sikkit Khan al-Khalili, tel +20 2 590 6755.