A month or so ago a friend and I took a tour of the “Walls of Cairo.” I had no idea what to expect, but with the change in weather and temperatures being really pleasant (days are sunny and in the 70s), we figured we couldn’t go wrong with a guided outing.
I was pleased that we had the same guide I did for the Citadel tour, and I had no plans to poop out on her this time. We started out at the Khan around 10am. This time of day is a great chance to explore the Khan for things other than gallibayas, jewelry, scarves, and an inflatable King Tut, as most of the vendors are not even open. So for the first time I actually walked through the Khan and looked up to find some amazing architectural sights.
We walked through the Khan to the back area known as the coppersmith’s bazaar. It’s not as common today, but the Khan used to be divided into sections, so you would go to the gold section or the perfumes, or spices, or copper section, etc. to get your goods. From here, we walked along essentially behind the Khan, which is an area I’ve never explored. (Cairo is a city that is truly best explored by those without intention. Walking down an unknown alley or turning an unexplored corner usually reveals amazing sights that otherwise we might not have seen (and, at times, sometimes wish we hadn’t).)
We came to the complex of Sultan Qalaun, which was built in the 1280s, and right next to it the Madrasa and Mausoleum of Sultan Barquq, built in 1380s. It’s a huge complex, made up of mosques, schools (for boys to learn the Qur’an), mausoleums and a hospital that today specializes in eye diseases and injuries (which can explain the rather high number of people walking around in eye patches – not a pirate convention). The architecture is typical Mameluke and really stunning.
We also passed several sabil-kuttabs, which were public water fountains (some from the 1700s) with small Qur’anic schools above them. These public fountains were architectural marvels, with intricate tilework and woodwork. They were designed so that the public didn’t actually enter them, but rather reached through the ironwork from outside to basins inside that would be kept filled with fresh water. I’m not sure why such detail was put into the inside, but I can certainly appreciate its beauty. We were shown into one such sabil, and even taken upstairs to the very small classroom.
Through some windy streets, we were brought to the house of Uthman Khadkhuda, which represented a very wealthy house from the 1700s (I believe). It was beautifully restored with several houses in a row, each slightly different. The interiors and exteriors were all fixed up thanks to a generous grant from Jordan, apparently. And to complete the picture, they do have a resident cat, as all good Egyptian houses should (though he’s a little grubby, but nonetheless seemed content).
From here our guide took us through some back alleys to a 17th century caravanserai called Wekalat Bazaar. This was designed for traveling merchants to be able to come to Cairo, stay in one of the rooms above, even with their families, and arrange business meetings. Essentially it was the precursor for the modern-day conference center (with a lot more character, no offense Holiday Inn). Some rooms even had an “en-suite” bathroom… uh, yeah, no thanks.
From here we walked back out past shisha pipe stores and women selling olives and lemons, all the way to the north wall of Cairo and the Bab Al Futuh gate. This was built in 1087 by Fatimid vizier Badr al-Jamali, who ruled Cairo until 1094. You just don’t realize sometimes the history that surrounds you here, even amongst all the trappings of modern life, a casual stroll (or a four-hour guided one) will reveal some amazing finds – especially if you have the courage to look up, once in a while.