After a week on the Aegean coast, we have spent the last few days in Istanbul. To say that it has been overwhelming would be an understatement, but it has been truly amazing. Later today we head to Bulgaria for the final leg of our trip. The sights, sounds, and food have been incredible, but the people that we have met have made it even more memorable.
One of the things that we truly enjoyed when we visited Egypt was taking time to tour Old Cairo, also known as Coptic Cairo. We actually visited the area on two separate days, one focusing on the historic churches and synagogues and the second focusing on Islamic Cairo. The juxtaposition of the two was really fascinating. As with many locations in the Middle East, the area has historic references that are important to many different religions with a history that goes back thousands of years. We visited with two different Egyptologists during our time there, which was also interesting as they both provided a different perspective on the history and the culture of the area. These are some of our favorite memories of our time in Old Cairo.
Mosque and Madrassa of the Sultan Hasan – We wouldn’t recommend visiting without a guide unless you are familiar Sunni Islam, the history of Cairo , and the influences of the surrounding countries. Also, it is not currently a working mosque, so without someone to provide clarity on the features, it might not be as easily understood. We learned about the four wings of the Madrassa, which are Muslim schools, that were located on the site. We also visited the Mosque of Al_Rifai, which is located right next door and is equally as interesting as the Mosque and Madrassa of the Sultan Hasan.
Abu Serga Church – Also known as the Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church as well as the Cavern Church, the Abu Serga Church is an important historical and religious landmark in Cairo, Egypt. The church is supposed to be built on the spot where Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus rested at the end of their journey into Egypt. The reason it is known as the cave church is because the church is built around the cave where the Holy Family rested and you are able to descend down to see the cave when you tour the church. The church is dedicated to Sergius and Bacchus who were soldiers in the 4th century that were killed by the Roman Emperor Maximian and achieved martyrdom and sainthood. Two other sites that are located nearby are Ben Ezra, the oldest synagogue in Cairo as well as the Hanging Church, which should also be visited when touring the area.
The Babylon Fortress – There are many reasons to visit the section of Cairo known as Coptic Cairo and seeing the ancient Babylon Fortress is certainly one of them. The fortress originally sat on the banks of the Nile, long before the dams in Aswan were built to control the water levels of the river. At the time that it was constructed, some time around 500 BC, it served as the boundary between Lower and Middle Egypt and was the location where boats paid tolls to either ascend or descend the Nile.
Khan el-Khalili Bazaar – Visiting markets wherever you visit is certainly worthwhile, but there is something very special about the bazaars in the middle east. Khan el-Khalili Bazaar in the Old Town Center of Cairo, Egypt, also known as Old Cairo, is certainly one of them. They can be quite busy and you need to be aware of your circumstances to avoid pickpockets or those who might want to take advantage of you. In most bazaars it is usually customary to bargain over the prices and the vendors don’t take offense to it. In fact, to get the best price, you might even start to walk away before the vendor offers a lower price that seems reasonable to you. Haggling, though, does not mean offering a ridiculously low price that might be viewed as an insult.
Bayt Al-Suhaymi – If you are looking for something of a hidden gem while visiting Cairo, then we would suggest putting Bayt Al-Suhaymi on your list of places to visit. On our final day in Cairo, we made a last minute decision to book an “Islamic Cairo” tour through our hotel and we were certainly not disappointed. We saw several ancient mosques, but just as interesting was wandering the narrow streets of the Old City of Cairo. Just wandering the streets is quite exhilarating, but the highlight was taking a tour of an Ottoman era house that was built in 1648 and is in excellent condition as it was refurbished in 1997 as part of restoration project for the entire area.
Church of St. George – The Church of St. George is a Greek Orthodox church that dates back to the 10th century, although the current church buildings were built in 1909 after being destroyed in a fire in 1904. Sitting on top of a hill with a steep set of stairs, the architecture of the church is definitely interesting and impressive. As you approach the church, there is no doubt as to who it is dedicated as there are several murals with images of St. George defeating the dragon, including the large relief on the front of the church itself. The church tower also has a wind-vane that features a dragon that hovers over the church. The church itself is a round building with a large dome over the center, which is quite stunning and dramatic.
If you have any questions about the places we visited above, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us.
There is more to visiting Cairo than just seeing the great pyramids and sailing in a felucca on the Nile River. We took a tour of Islamic Cairo that included the Mosque and Madrassa of the Sultan Hasan, which was truly fascinating not so much for what we saw, but more about what we learned from our guide. We wouldn’t recommend visiting without a guide unless you are familiar Sunni Islam, the history of Cairo , and the influences of the surrounding countries. Also, it is not currently a working mosque, so without someone to provide clarity on the features, it might not be as easily understood.
Construction of the mosque began in 1356 and was completed 3 years later, which was only due to the fact that work continued every single day from the time that construction commenced until its completion. It is one of the largest mosques in the world and also houses schools or madrassas for each of the four Sunni schools, Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali. Our guide took us into the mosque and had us sit near the minbar, which is the pulpit where the imam would deliver the sermon. Today, of course, one can hear the prayers all over the city as they ring from the loud speakers, but before that there was a platform where the words would be repeated for those in the main courtyard of the mosque to hear.
The mosque was built during the rule of the Mamluk’s, which were soldiers that were purchased slaves, rising their station above that of ordinary slaves. As is typical with such a type of rule, it was often cruel and would eventually lead to Egypt welcoming the Ottoman Empire to take control of the country in the late 16th century. The artwork within the mosque is as fascinating as its architecture and size. The floor of the open courtyard is a beautiful patchwork of colorful designs with an ornate dome in the center.
There are many wonderful mosques in Cairo and our tour included several, but the Mosque and Madrassa of Sultan Hasan certainly stood out due to its history and architecture. It is located near the heart of the historic downtown area of Cairo and should definitely be visited while spending time in the area. Obviously going to the shops and bazaars is something that should be experienced, but if you want to understand the culture of the people and understand the evolution of the country that has been under foreign control for much of its history, you should take time to visit the mosques.