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Jasmine Dispatch

Islamic Cairo: Has It Always Been Like This?
It sure has!
November 17, 1999

With over 50 centuries of history under her belt, Egypt has given birth to some of the world's finest civilizations. That's over 5,000 years of different cultures, lifestyles and nationalities, not to mention the string of events that weave the story of their histories together (and not all of those stories are fairytales, either!).

As you can imagine, control of Egypt changed hands many times through the years. After Egypt was successfully united into one state under King Menes (and ruled by the host of great pharaohs that followed), it's been like a soap opera with great victories, tragedies and drama all wrapped into one. After the pharaohs came the Greeks, with talented administrators like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. Under the Romans, who next took over under Emperor Augustus, Egypt was stable and peaceful for about 30 years. It was during this time that the Coptic Church flourished, and St. Mark (author of the Book of Mark in the Bible) preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ through the land.

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Sharia al-Muizz li-Din Allah - Busy, 1200 year old, main street of Islamic Cairo
In 640 A.D., the Arabs arrived. There's a saying that goes "No guts, no glory," and the Arabs were no exception to this rule. As a matter of fact, ancient Arab and Mamluk rulers took this saying literally, sparing no one who got in the way of their progress. As Kavitha, our friend Gidon and I wandered through the streets of Islamic Cairo, the stories of this turbulent history began to unfold before our very eyes.

It's one thing to imagine what it was like all those thousands of years ago, but in an instant we were transported back in time. Literally! We stepped off a small bus onto Sharia al-Muizz li-Din Allah, this area's main street going back to the days of the Fatimids and the Mamluks. That's over 1,200 years ago! Trying to keep up with the crowd, we pulled out our map and were washed down the street in a wave of people. We landed in the madness of Islamic, or medieval, Cairo.

Vocabulary Box:

medieval - related to the Middle Ages, roughly 700-1500 A.D.
strife - conflict
mausoleum - a magnificent, above-ground tomb
citadel - a fortress in, near or around a city

Our senses were attacked from every angle! The streets were packed with people, cars, donkeys, bicycles and pushcarts piled high with goods-each going in a different direction! Cars destined for injury were speeding off the overpass into a complete standstill of traffic, when-call me psychic-three of them crashed right into each other! Upset drivers yelled amid a horn blowing frenzy, as the mussien began singing the Muslim call to prayer over loudspeakers rigged up throughout the city.

Everyone zoomed around us (and the accident), oblivious to the confusion. To my amazement, nobody seemed to notice the dizzying flurry, the seeming chaos that swirled all around (no one except the tourists that is). Just another day in Islamic Cairo-no one missed a beat! I felt as if I had two left feet: I was completely out of sync with the rhythm of the crowds, while what seemed like millions of people just danced around me, disappearing into the madness. I couldn't believe my eyes...or my ears…or my nose for that matter! The stench of raw meat hanging on hooks at the butcher shop, the odors of street vendors' boiling pig intestines and ("watch your step!") horse manure all blended nicely with the worst air pollution Cairo's ever seen. And we hadn't even left the sidewalk yet!

It seemed like the crowds all disappeared at the end of the corner ahead. "If we could make it there, we could get a grip!" yelled Gidon over the noise. And sure enough, at the bend, everyone disappeared into an underground passageway that came out on the other side of the street. We knew floods of people would soon come charging out from the other side of the street, and had to decide which way to go, fast!! Kavitha motioned for us to follow her (smart cookie, that Kavitha)-and just in the nick of time. We had barely escaped the stampede of people coming up from the tunnel when suddenly there was...silence.

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Kavitha veiled in the haven of Al-Azhar Mosque & University
We found ourselves almost whispering inside Al-Azar Mosque. Most mosques are closed to tourists, especially non-Muslim visitors, but Al-Azar Mosque is also a university-the oldest university in the world-and visitors come from all over to see it. There are more than 80,000 Islamic manuscripts in its libraries, and, like almost everything else in Islamic Cairo, the basic curriculum has changed very little since it was established during the time of the Mamluks, years ago.

And so the story begins.

The Omayyads, an Arab dynasty based in Damascus, ruled Egypt for 92 years. Internal strife led to the downfall and decapitation of Marwan, the last Omayyad caliph, or ruler. Persian troops marched his head around the burned remains of their capital in Fustat, leaving the Abbassids to rule for the next 108 years. In an effort to protect their interests throughout the empire, the Abbassids brought in Turkish-speaking soldier-slaves called Mamluks. Before long the Mamluks gained enough power to become a threat to the caliph, who, in a failed attempt to protect his position, had the Mamluk leader, Bayikbey, killed. Now the soap opera really begins!

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Jazzy and Gidon admiring splendid architecture and design of the huge Mosque of Ibn Tulun
Bayikbey's stepson, Ibn Tulun, was sent to replace his stepfather, and pretended to befriend the Abbassid sultan. But, once in position, he turned against his superior, fought and defeated the Abbassids and established a dynasty of his own. That's when we found ourselves staring up in amazement at one of the largest Mosques in the Middle East: the Mosque of Ibn Tulun.

After viewing the mosque it was back to the main street, only this time, somehow, the hectic scene had grown on us, and we jumped right into the flow. After spending so much time quietly touring Al-Azar and the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, it was a welcome change, believe it or not. But, like my mother always says, "Be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it." And boy did we get it!

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Jazzy with school boys in front of Madrassa and Mausoleum of Al-Ghouri
Just as we made it to the Al Madrassa and Mausoleum of Al-Ghouri, I was besieged by-yes, you guessed it-school children! The entire day had passed us by, and children of all sizes were just getting out of school. Instantly they flocked around, practicing their English in a shouting match for our attention, and trying to touch my hair. (My braids are pretty fascinating for both children and adults here in Egypt: most have never seen anything like them.) They gladly posed for pictures and ran off giggling after we showed them their own little faces on our digital camera screens.

We got a bright introduction to a pretty dreary place: The Al Madrassa and Mausoleum of Al-Ghouri. In the last of the Mamluk Dynasties, before Turkish rule took over, the Mamluk sultan Al-Ghouri went out to make sure he left his architectural mark on the city. During a 16-year reign he did quite well, and his madrassa, the theological college in which we stood, was elegant and peaceful. So far so good, right? Just keep reading...

Al-Ghouri was killed in a battle against the Turks, but it is the remains of his successor that are inside the adjacent mausoleum. Creepy! The almost-lucky Sultan Tumanbay was hanged three times before the rope held together long enough to kill him. The bright side to all of this is that, at night, people crowd inside this madrassa, standing for hours in line, to see the Sufi dancers perform. But you'll have to check out Kavitha's dispatch to hear about that story!

Not much has changed here in Islamic Cairo, but that was just Day One. We're going back tomorrow to see the old citadel and all the other cool things we missed. Stay tuned!!!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Abeja - Insha'allah: An Egyptian Love Story?
Abeja - Who's behind that Veil?
Kavitha - What Goes Around Comes Around: Those Whirling,
Praying Dervishes!

Monica - Dr. Zeinab Safar and Egypt's Working Women

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