It sure has!
November 17, 1999
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!!!
Abeja - Who's behind that Veil?
Kavitha - What Goes Around Comes Around: Those Whirling,
Monica - Dr. Zeinab Safar and Egypt's Working Women
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