A Walk through Cairo’s ‘Greatest Street’
In the center of Cairo lies a city within a city. With its thousand-year-old walls, Islamic or Medieval Cairo, once the seat of power in the region, consists of the oldest parts of the city established under the Fatimids. Among these historic streets, beginning at Bab al-Futuh in the north stretching down to Bab Zuweila in the south is a 10th-century road that boasts the highest concentration of medieval architecture in the Islamic world.
Historically known as al-Sharii al-Aazam, the Greatest Street– Moez Ledin Allah Al Fatimi, or Muizz Street for short, stretches for approximately a kilometer and served as the bustling center of the capital for centuries, across many dynasties. Palaces, mosques, bazaars, mansions, houses, and Sufi lodges are spread all across the street, forming their own vibrant cityscape.
Initially founded by the Fatimids, the street was named after the Fatimid Caliph Abu Tamim Ma’ad al-Muizz li-Din Allah, who moved the dynasty from Tunisia to Egypt. Muizz Street served as the economic hub of the city during the Fatimid dynasty and continued to be a central part of the city through the Ayyubid, Mamluk, and Ottoman dynasties. With each trying to leave their mark on the busy street, and in some cases eclipse those of their predecessors, there is no shortage of influence from each of these dynasties on the 1 km stretch. In a single glimpse down the street, you will see a Mamluk palace, Ayyubid madrasa, Ottoman sebil (fountain), and a Fatimid minaret.
Today the street is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in 2008, it was rededicated as a pedestrian zone for most hours of the day. I visited the street with a tour guide; Rokaya Taha is an Islamic Art History graduate from Cairo University. She spent much of her time at the sites in Muizz Street and elsewhere while she studied.
The Qalawun Complex is one of the most interesting sites to visit on Muizz Street. It is a massive complex built by Sultan Al Mansur Qalawun in 1285. Unlike most palaces, this one did not have a gate or a grand entrance, but rather a large doorway designed to fit in with the rest of the street. Built as a multi-use complex, it served as a mausoleum, madrassa, and bimaristan (Persian for hospital).
According to my guide, it was common for patients at the bimaristan to stay for up to three to five months at no charge for various treatments. They also treated mental health problems.
The Madrasa was one of the few places in the world at the time that taught all four major schools of Islamic law or madhahib. Inside the building, there are four iwans– large halls walled on three sides and open on the fourth. The Hanafi madhab, the state-sponsored madhab at the time, took the main iwan, the largest and most ornate. It was also the main prayer space of the madrassa. The Shafi madhab stood directly across, slightly smaller and less ornate. Lastly, the Maliki and Hanbali madhabs had the two other much smaller spaces on the remaining two sides as they were the least practiced schools in Egypt at the time.
The mausoleum houses the tombs of Sultan Al Mansur Qalawun, his wife, and two children. In front of the tomb, stands a beautifully decorated mihrab. As explained by Rokaya, the traditional practice was to have the less ornate mihrab near the tomb and the more decorative one in the main prayer area. This was to encourage people to pray behind the more decorative of the two and away from the tomb (since praying behind a tomb is considered unacceptable).
However, Sultan Qalawun reversed the practice as he wanted people who visit the complex years later to enter his mausoleum to admire the mihrab and eventually make dua for him and his family. Surely enough (shortly before being told about this), I actually had stopped and made a brief dua for him and his family after admiring the gorgeous mihrab, so clearly his idea worked 🙂
Madrassa and Mausoleum of Al-Saleh Nagm Al-Din Ayyub
Directly across the narrow street from the Qalawun Complex is a smaller mausoleum and school named after the Ayyub Sultan, Al-Saleh Nagm Al-Din Ayyub. The madrassa, constructed in 1243, was the first in Egypt to teach all four madhahib in one place. In 1250, it became a complex, the first of its kind, after the Sultan Ayyub’s mausoleum was constructed on the same site. The Qalawun complex, built later, followed the same approach.
Unfortunately, like many madrassas from that era, it was mostly destroyed with only one iwan remaining. It is overlooked by an old apartment building directly attached to the historic structure.
Al-Saleh Ayyub ruled Egypt from 1240 to 1249. His death came during a battle against the Crusaders, who upon news of his death, decided to bring reinforcements and march to Cairo. Shajar Al Durr, Ayyub’s wife, hid the news of his death from potential successors and took the throne herself. She repelled the invasion and ended the Crusade. Her rule effectively ended the Ayyubid dynasty and ushered in the reign of the Mamluks.
Madrassa of Al-Nasir Muhammad Ibn Qalawun
Immediately next to the Sultan Qalawun complex is another mosque and madrassa, belonging to Sultan Qalawun’s son, the Madrassa of Al-Nasir Muhammad Ibn Qalawun. It was built in 1304 with a Gothic doorway and is a much smaller site compared to his father’s palace next door. Although intended to be the site of Sultan Al-Nasir Muhammed’s burial, he ended up being buried alongside his father in the Qalawun complex.
Sabil of Muhammed Ali Pasha
Just across from the Qalawun complex was something I saw frequently in Turkey- Ottoman-style sebils, public fountains – that were used to provide running water to the city’s residents. There were three of them spread across the busy street; the two best known are the Sebils of Muhammed Ali Pasha and the Sabil-Kuttab of Katkhuda.
The Sabil of Muhammed Ali Pasha is located near the end of the street, just before Bab Zuweila. Built in 1820 it was the first of its style and was adorned with panels written in Ottoman Turkish. Muhammed Ali Pasha commissioned the building of this sebil to honor his son Tosun. With a ticket, you can enter the cistern below which was refilled twice every year. According to Rokaya, the sebil usually ran two shifts per day with up to four people working to run it per shift. Extensive background and health checks were done on potential employees to ensure they could not contaminate the water supply. Dealing with the public, they also had to be personable; references from family and friends were required to attest to a person’s good character before being granted the job.
Sebil is Sabil-Kuttab of Kathuda
The second well-known sebil is Sabil-Kuttab of Kathuda, conveniently located at a fork in Muizz Street. Built in 1744, it was commissioned by the Emir Abdulrahman Katkhuda. Famous for the construction of many mosques and philanthropy work, he built this sebil as a central water supply in the city. Without a cistern, water was brought from other locations and poured into the dispensaries located on all three sides of the sebil for the passerby. On the second level was a kuttab, or small school that was dedicated to teaching orphan children the Quran. Standing directly in front of it on the outside, it has a lovely street view and a beautiful Ottoman-style façade. This sebil is impossible to miss and is worth checking out. If you’ve been to Turkey and miss the gorgeous blue tiling seen in many mosques and palaces, you can get a dose of that beauty here through its Turkish-style tiled interior.
Khanqah of Baybars II
One of the other things that stood out to me on Muizz Street was the reflection of Egypt’s rich Sufi history. Contrary to what we may see on the media or in political discussions, Egypt had and still has a vibrant Sufi community and history. I was particularly interested in checking out some of the khanqahs (a place that hosts spiritual retreats and gatherings).
The first one we visited was the Khanqah of Baybars II. This was located around the midway point of the walk down Muizz Street. Built in 1309 to accommodate hundreds of adherents in the city, it is the oldest standing khanqah in Cairo today. As we walked in, a winding hallway lead us into a courtyard area where gatherings and prayers took place. The winding path deep into the khanqah was designed so that the noise of the busy street would not reach the gathering. Pigeons were flying around, pecking at crumbs on the ground. A few individuals were praying while others admired the beauty of the space. It was indeed quiet and serene, and I could not hear anything from the busy street outside.
Khanqah of Sultan al-Sutal al-Zahir Barquq
The other khanqah we visited, that of Sultan al-Sutal al-Zahir Barquq, is along the same side of the street and only a few doors down from the Qalawun Complex (incidentally it looks a lot like the one in the famous Mosque and Madrasa of Sultan Hassan outside the Salahuddin Citadel).
Here, I took some extra time to sit quietly and appreciate where I was. I sat in the corner of the khanqah, looking at the view you can see in the image above. I imagined the many gatherings of dhikr, the countless times Allah’s name had been mentioned, and the amount of reverence for our most beloved that this place had undoubtedly seen.
The building is yet another that taught all four madhahib and functioned as a mosque and mausoleum in addition to being a khanqah. This, along with the Qalawun Complex and several other sites on Muizz Street mark the largest collection of Mamluk contributions in Egypt.
Al Aqmar Mosque
Next, we headed to one of the oldest sites on Muizz Street, Al Aqmar Mosque. Though the smallest mosque in Fatimid Cairo, it bears great architectural significance on the street. Originally built exclusively for the Shia who lived within the capital, its exterior architecture was one of a kind during its era. It bears inscriptions of notable members of the Prophet’s family, such as Ali, Hussain, Hassan, and Fatima, making it one of the few remaining sites in Cairo with a distinct Shia identity.
We stopped here around midday to pray Dhuhr and Asr prayers.
Al Hakim Mosque
At the end of the street just as you enter into Bab Al Futuh is one of my favorite mosques in all of Cairo. It’s not just beautiful architecturally, but also has a most interesting story related to it.
Built in 1013, it was rarely ever actually used for worship during much of its history. The mosque was commissioned by Sultan Al-Hakim who was the sixth Fatimid ruler and took the throne at age 11. He was notorious for the violence of his reign and some historians considered him to be a madman. While on one of his excursions outside of town, he was last seen going to the mountains in Muqattam where he disappeared, never to be seen again. One of his followers, Al Darizy, considered this to be a sign of Al Hakim’s divinity and with that, founded the sect of the Druze that exists until today.
Beit Al Suhaymi
Beit al Suhaymi was originally built as two separate homes owned by two wealthy individuals, Ismail Shalaby and Sheikh Abdul Wahab Al Tablawy. Both were purchased by Al Suhaymi and combined into one. Al Suhaymi was a professor at the prestigious Al Azhar University and was primarily responsible for the Turkish students who travelled to study at the university.
The house is divided into many sections, such as a salamlik (reception/guest area), a haramlik (harem), a kitchen and well area, and various rooms for living quarters. The building expanded multiple times to accommodate the family as it grew through marriage.
The house was constructed to accommodate winter and summer temperatures, with some rooms designed to keep in cool air for the summer and others to keep out cool air in the winter. One of my favorite rooms was one where guests would be entertained with singers and musicians in a seated gathering. Within these rooms the Qasidah Burdah of Imam Al Busiri was written across the walls (I was particularly excited to see this since I would be visiting Alexandria next where Al Busiri is buried).
Bab Zuweila marked the end of our trek down the famous medieval street. Originally constructed in 1092AD / 485AH, two minarets are built onto the structure itself, rather than on the Muayyad Sheikh Mosque next door. They were built onto the gate due to its stronger foundation. Additionally, they stand higher on the gate than on the mosque, making them more easily visible and better for sound travel when the adhan is called.
We had the opportunity to climb the minarets and see a beautiful view of the city. Once at the top, you can see Muizz Street in its entirety with all its beauty and bustle. Look in the other direction and you can see the rest of Cairo, including the Muhammed Ali Pasha Mosque in the citadel towering above the city.
The Last Fez Maker
This was one of the most interesting places I visited; Mohamed Al Tarbeeshi runs the last remaining shop in Cairo that makes fez by hand, known in Egypt more commonly as the tarboosh. I had to go check it out and get myself a couple. This shop has been running for over a hundred years and has passed down within the same family for generations. Sadly, the current owner is struggling with lowered demand and no one to inherit his business.
I went down to the busy market street where the shop is located, just a few minutes’ walk from the historical Ghouria Complex. I got fitted and placed my order, picking it up a few days later. Seeing the hats being made by hand, a time honoured tradition, was really enjoyable and I highly recommend any tarboosh enthusiasts out there to check out this amazing shop while it is still around 🙂
In just one kilometre, I learned so much more about Cairo and its history than I had anywhere else in the city. The sheer amount of information that can be gleaned on Muizz Street is incredible, and I could not do it justice here.
Though many dynasties have come and gone since the Fatimids laid the foundation for Cairo, it was enlightening to see just how much of a lasting impact each has left on the city. This diversity of history, which is clearly discernible to the eye on Muizz Street, is oddly often overlooked both by Egyptians and visitors alike (the term ‘Islamic Cairo’ perhaps doesn’t help). Alongside the Sunni madhahib and sufi lodges, a rich Shia legacy also exists; it was this reminder of a multilayered past, that left a lasting impression.
A version of this was also published on www.sacredfootsteps.com